Thursday 31 January 2019

Alyaz - Portrait (2019)

Country: Kuwait
Style: Instrumental Progressive Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 12 Jan 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook

Mohammad Alyaz is a multi-instrumentalist from Kuwait and he provides all the bass and synths on this album, along with some of the guitar. I have no idea how much of the guitar, though, as there's a second guitarist in his band, Olly Steele, and five of the seven tracks feature guest guitar solos. I guess that cuts it down, huh?

I had to look up the backgrounds of the guests, as only two of them are members of regular bands: Per Nilsson is a founding member of Swedish melodic death metallers Scar Symmetry and Dan Sugarman had a seven year stint as lead guitarist for the deathcore band As Blood Runs Black. The others are professional musicians known for virtuoso guitarwork without delivering that within a regular band environment. Some of them guest a lot.

Beyond being fascinated by instrumental metal albums generally, I took a particular look at this one because Alyaz is donating all the profits to charity, in this case to Autism Partnership Kuwait, so I'm more than happy to help get the word out there. And hey, it's only $3 on Bandcamp.

It's also good stuff, with the variation in guests translating into a neat variation in the tracks, though they do follow a relatively consistent approach. All are instrumental and all carry a hard edge, making this progressive metal rather than rock. All are up-beat, positive in tone and guitar-centric, but most also drop into delicate sections partway. When you put the album on repeat and it starts to fade into the background after three or four times through, it's those quiet parts that stand out for attention.

The opening track, with Dave Dunsire guesting, has a couple of fantastic examples, because its delicate section midway is delightful and it's even better when reprised as the track fades out. That it's followed by the dissonant guitar in Corroded Vein, Nilsson's track, merely emphasises how sweet that was.

My problem here is the drums. Anup Sastry is good at what he does but a lot of what he does here is staccato drums that work on a jazz or funk basis rather than rock. They're high in the mix too and so mostly served as a distraction for me. When they're more traditional backing, whether slowly on Aberration, fast on Out of My Reach or at hyperspeed on Miasma, I found I enjoyed the tracks as a whole more.

The two tracks that don't feature guest solos, so we're more likely to be hearing the man for whom the band are named, are Aurora and Miasma, two related episodes if we go by the track listing. Aurora is a lot more of the guitar/drum interplay that came in late in Corroded Vein, but with a more prominent synth backdrop that takes over entirely halfway through. Miasma starts off quietly but really ratchets things up to almost black metal levels with some blistering drums.

In between those two episodes are a couple more tracks with guests. Adam Rafowitz is first up on Aberration and it really is that because it gives the impression that he provided the solo first for Alyaz and his cohorts to build a backing for, rather than the other way round. There are points where he's left mostly alone too and the quiet section late in Aberration is a delight.

Keven Eknes is the able guest on Out of My Reach and both Al Joseph and Dan Sugarman chime in with solos on the title track, the longest on the album, which wraps it up in style, because it's the most interesting and experimental piece anywhere to be found on it.

It's a good thing that this is such a guitar-focused album, because I liked the guitarwork throughout. It's easy to actively listen to and it's easy to let it slide into the background to enjoy it passively as well. The synths add texture to that, most obviously in the quieter sections but sometimes behind the guitars too. If the drums had been less interesting and a little lower in the mix, that effect would probably have been even more apparent.

All in all, this is decent stuff, even if it's heavy background music. At $3 on Bandcamp, it's a bargain. At $3 with profits going to charity, it's a gimme.

Eternal Candle - The Carved Karma (2018)

Country: Iran
Style: Progressive Doom/Death Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 27 Apr 2018
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

I kicked off Apocalypse Later Music Reviews with my favourite album from last December and I've reviewed an album from each of 2018 and 2019 every weekday since. It seems appropriate that I wrap up 2018 on the last day of January with another personal favourite from last year that doesn't seem to have found a lot of coverage.

The band are Eternal Candle and they play doom/death out of Tehran, Iran, hardly a particularly well known metal capital. They have a progressive edge too, not too surprising given that two key members also play for the prog metal band Heterochrome, who released their debut album in 2017.

This is Eternal Candle's debut album, following a string of singles, one of them a Novembers Doom cover and only one of which is represented here, 2017's A Dismal Inhabitant. Everything else is new but there's plenty of it. This is a lengthy album, almost hitting the hour mark, but it never gets old.

The Ripped Soul is a great way to start the album, after a neat atmospheric intro called In the Absence of Us (there's another one later on called The Void which is even better). The Ripped Soul kicks off with almost tribal drumming, which leads into an intriguing mixture of harsh growls, clean vocals and spoken word sections. I liked the interplay immediately but it gets even better as the album runs on.

Throughout the album, the harsh vocals mostly sit over the denser musical sections, while the clean voice floats over softer backing, suggesting a sort of conversation between different characters. I don't know if there's an overriding story here but this approach suggests that there could well be, even though there are no suggestions that this is a concept album.

Sick Romance plays consistently with The Ripped Soul, merely adding some whispers and more overt melodies, but then Eternal Candle up their game even further with a couple of achingly heavy tracks. A Path to Infinity starts softly with quiet echoing guitar but gets heavier as it runs on. The heaviness is right there at the beginning of A Dismal Inhabitant, though, which is gloriously crushing from the outset.

These two tracks play out like a journey that starts simply with a quiet decision full of hope for success, but soon becomes dangerous, and, as A Dismal Inhabitant kicks in, clearly deadly. Even the contemplative moment four minutes in is endowed with danger courtesy of a darkly playful bass from Armin Afzali.

After I don't know how many times through, I think Afzali is the unsung hero of this album. He's not the most obvious participant, as the vocals lead it, courtesy of Babak Torkzadeh and Mahdi Sorrow. Josef Habibi is a fantastic drummer, not only keeping the beat but muscling in to take the lead at a number of points. The guitars come courtesy of Sorrow and Amir Taghavi and they're a joy, not only in heavier sections or the melancholy ones but in the quiet ones too. However, the more I listen, the more I catch little things that Afzali is doing that elevate a number of tracks.

If A Dismal Inhabitant was the darkest moment in the journey unfolding here, The Void marks the point where that starts to turn. Hear My Cry has a confidence in the guitar line that soars over the threats and My Turn, almost inevitably given its title, returns hope to the equation, even as the lyrics and the title of the next song, Prayer of the Hopeless, suggest otherwise. Maybe it's a fresh start. Eternal Candle sing in English but My Turn is the song in which I caught most words.

Without the lyrics, though, I have to feel this album and it's a notably emotional creation. I found it an easy one to lose myself inside. While not every track is as interesting as the last, there's something in each of them to explore. Prayer of the Hopeless may be the least interesting for four minutes, for instance, but then some of the best melodies and guitarwork of the album show up to elevate its end.

I've found myself coming back to this album a lot and I keep finding new things in it. It's not the greatest album of 2018, but I'd argue that it's one of the most underrated.

Wednesday 30 January 2019

Antarticus - Antarticus (2019)

Country: Canada
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 4 Jan 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook

This progressive stoner rock band (and yes, it's Antarticus rather than Antarcticus for no reason I can provide) from the 'Great White North' of the Yukon territory of Canada has an intriguing set of influences but they aren't always the ones we might expect for a Canadian prog rock power trio.

Sure, Loc-Nar I (Den of Earth) demonstrates the Rush influences that had to be in here somewhere, but mostly in the transitions between sections. Elsewhere, it's more traditional seventies rock with some oddly modern vocals at points. There's a vocal escalation late in the song that sounds a little Rage Against the Machine and the responses in the chorus almost sound like nu metal shoutbacks. Remember when Evanescence stole Lacuna Coil's sound and added trendy shoutbacks in the chorus of Bring Me to Life? Well, imagine if that wasn't annoying.

Wöld War is a more overtly stoner rock track with the inevitable Black Sabbath influence apparent. However, it's less directly taken from Sabbath here and more filtered through Cathedral, not only because of the vocals, which are unrefined but delivered with real enthusiasm. The choruses and faster sections sound very Cathedral.

Lord of the Change has similarities but the delightfully active bass of Mack Smith betrays how much Budgie enter into the equation. At points, I was trying to figure out if he was more trying to be Burke Shelley or Hawkwind era Lemmy. As the title suggests, Cosmic Exile tries to answer that question and it ramps up the Hawkwind space rock vibe that came in on Lord of the Change.

The keyboards evident in the intro that is Crystal Cavern return for Curse of Kings and here's where the album becomes most interesting. Thus far, it and the songs in it have felt very short. The first five do take up eighteen minutes between them but they race past as if they were only ten. Here is the point where Antarticus decide that it's time for a track that runs ten minutes on its own. Well, two of them, because Stoneburner does the same.

Once past the keyboards, Curse of Kings sounds retro-futuristic, in that it feels like they're a band from 1978 who are trying to imagine what 1982 might sound like. There's some Iron Maiden and Diamond Head in here too, though it ends up firmly in an early Sabbath jam. Stoneburner remains very NWOBHM, but it also surprises with what sounds like a talk box, the sort that Peter Frampton made famous on Frampton Comes Alive.

The greater song length works well here, giving the band room to really breathe. Suddenly the earlier four tracks (I'll ignore the intro) start to feel like ideas that will later be developed into longer songs.

This is so unrelentingly unfashionable that I simply have to stand up and applaud. This is Antarticus's debut album and there's a real rawness to the production that suggests that they recorded this in one take and on primitive equipment. I don't mean that it's bad production (though I have to point out that Stoneburner is oddly quieter than the rest of the album), because it's admirably clear, but it has a vibrancy that usually comes from albums that were recorded live in a studio on four track or eight track desks. Think the first two Sabbath albums but clearer. This sounded less like an album to me and more like a live set the band delivered on my desk for an audience of one.

This is the best unfashionable album from 1978 that I've ever heard which wasn't recorded in 1978. As far as I know.

Seven More Days - Little Dark Pleasures (2018)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 21 Feb 2018
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website

Thus far, what's impressed me most about the New Wave of Classic Rock is that the bands are so varied. Massive Wagons aren't remotely Inglorious and neither of them are Doomsday Outlaw. Well, none of them are Seven More Days either, but there's a quality that runs through all of those bands.

Seven More Days are heavier, more like a New Wave of Classic Power Metal, but they're still melodic and soulful. The most obvious influence I felt was Metal Church, but there's a lot of Accept and Toranaga here as well, plus some Savatage and UFO and Demon. There's plenty of Dio too, whether solo or going back to Rainbow and especially Black Sabbath. At points there's even a folk influence, but I don't mean folk metal as we think of it today; I mean sixties folk like Steeleye Span at the beginning of Castles in the Sky or some of the San Francisco psych bands in the first half of Ode to Innocence.

And I really do mean heavier, by the way. This band have a real punch. Little Dark Pleasures opens up with a seven minute song, which is a little ballsy to begin with, but it follows some delicate guitarwork with soft vocals and then wham! It hits and it hits hard, with an unmistakable modern bass-driven mix but traditional power metal feels.

It's steady stuff, never speeding up even when we think it's surely about to, like it's a band who leapt into that modern studio directly from 1982 so metal hasn't really sped up for them yet. It's built on solid riffs from Chris Porter and patient, astoundingly reliable drumming from Baz Lowe that does precisely what it needs to and not a single note more. It was very reminiscent to me of Accept's Princess of the Dawn on that front.

And wow, that's an outrageously confident vocal from Daz Valentine! He's a lot of Dio and a lot of David Wayne, with some Mark Duffy from Toranaga and maybe a little Lou Gramm as a chaser, and this is precisely why it's important for bands to pick their album openers carefully. Salanders Tale utterly defines who Seven More Days are and it couldn't have done it better. If they can't sway you with those seven minutes, this band aren't going to be for you; on the flipside, if you're going to become a fan, that one song is going to do it for you right then and there.

The rest of the album follows very much in Salanders Tale's footprints. It does slow down further at points, in songs like Not Too Long and One Mind and parts of others too, but the underlying key points are always the same. It's heavy stuff. Lowe and bassist James Kirkby are unrelentingly reliable. There are neat solos from Porter. And Valentine's voice remains clean and powerful and prevents this from ever moving into doom territory.

Back from the Dead is achingly slow, for instance, but it's never doom because of Valentine. It feels more like a glam rock 45 played at 33. If it was sped up, would he start to sound like Vince Neil? This steadfast refusal to speed up does feel a little odd but it also feels good. While I can hear all sorts of influences, I don't know anyone else who sounds quite like this and the tempo is the biggest part of that.

I should also shout out for Not Too Long, which really isn't too long in the slightest. It's a softer song with a Dio feel, some Spanish guitar and strings that actually work as part of the song instead of just as a trendy extra credit. They underline a real sense of menace that builds partway through; that menace is reprised on One Mind and is never better than halfway into Ode to Innocence with a killer riff and bells that can't fail to bring old Black Sabbath or even Pantera to mind.

I liked this on a first listen and I liked it more on a second and third run through. but it's something that deserves more than that. I have a feeling that this is an album that's going to seep into the soul and stake a claim. It's definitely dark. It's definitely a pleasure. The only thing it isn't, at an hour in length, is little. Let's hope it becomes a very big thing indeed.

Tuesday 29 January 2019

Arch Enemy - Covered in Blood (2019)

Country: Sweden
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 19 Jan 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Wikipedia

I have a love/hate affair with cover versions and what determines which half of that dichotomy I side with generally boils down to the answers to a few questions. Is the band bringing something new to the song? Are they introducing us to a band or a song that isn't generally known, at least within the target audience? Are they translating something from one genre to another? If all those answers come back yes, then I'm interested. If not, well, I'm less likely to be impressed.

Given that Arch Enemy play melodic death metal and this collection of all their many covers includes everything from Mike Oldfield to Carcass, via Manowar and Discharge, with even an Iron Maiden instrumental thrown in for good measure, I couldn't help but pay attention.

Certainly, some of the material here fits what I'm looking for in a cover version down to a tee, but not all of it and the end result, so often the case with compilations, is a real mixed bag. Where do I start? Well, let's run through the phases because pretty much all the expected phases are here.

First up, there's predictability. Shout, the Tears for Fears song, is one of those that everyone and their dog have already covered. Arch Enemy's version is OK, I guess, but it doesn't add anything new at all. The good news here is that the rest of the album isn't remotely as predictable. In fact, Shout is followed by Back to Black, but that's not the AC/DC song we might expect; it's a Pretty Maids track and that was an interesting and enjoyable choice for a band like Arch Enemy.

There are some classic tracks that work surprisingly well too. I adored their take on Europe's Wings of Tomorrow. It's utterly transformed here, nothing remotely like the original, and it sounds fantastic. The same goes for The Oath, a surprising choice of Kiss cover, taken from the Music from the Elder album, but it's a really good one that gains some real power in Arch Enemy's hands.

Not all the classics work and the ones that don't are just awful, because they should never have been attempted with death growls. The most obvious is The Zoo, a Scorpions favourite, which is musically glorious here but with vocals that just don't fit in the slightest. That goes just as much for Judas Priest's Breaking the Law and Iron Maiden's Aces High; they're both substantially lessened by the death growls. Oddly, Starbreaker, an earlier Priest cover, fares better.

In between is Kill with Power, originally from my favourite Manowar LP, Hail to England. The growls fit the song well and it's sped up and given more power, if not more immediacy. The reason it's in between is Angela Gossow's awkwardness with English phrasing. I think I'd put Symphony of Destruction here too, because Dave Mustaine's snarling vocal on that track translates well to Gossow's growl, but it's less memorable than the original.

The real joys are the obscurities, which come mostly from the punk genre. I'm reasonably familiar with British bands like GBH and Discharge and I have listened to the Swedish crust band Anti Cimex before, but the other Swedish punks represented here, Moderat Likvidation and the Shitlickers, were so new to me that I hadn't even heard of them. The eight punk tracks only take up eleven minutes, but they're glorious and I'll follow up on these bands because of this.

What's odd is that the vocals are often the makers or breakers here but the most successful songs here span Arch Enemy's three singers. Wings of Tomorrow may be the best track here and it reminded me that they used to have a male vocalist, Johan Liiva. He does well on Starbreaker too. The Oath and Kill with Power showcase Angela Gossow, who broke a surprising glass ceiling back in 2000. Meanwhile all the punk covers but one come from Alyssa White-Gluz's era, extras from the Will to Power album.

So, Covered in Blood is a mixed bag with the highs high and the lows low. What's perhaps most important is that the die hard fans will have all this material already, rendering this less than essential. It doesn't function as an album on its own the way that Garage, Inc. mostly did for Metallica.

Bucovina - Septentrion (2018)

Country: Romania
Style: Heavy Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 Dec 2018
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

I've been a fan of Bucovina ever since I stumbled upon Ceasul aducerii-aminte, their 2006 debut album, a few years ago. I've lost track of how many times I've listened to that. I happily sing along to songs like Strașnic neamul meu, even though I don't know a single word of Romanian and have absolutely no idea what they're singing about. I often wake up with the intro instrumental that is Valea plângerii playing in my head. It's one of my go to albums from the last couple of decades.

Well, I'm notably out of date. While it did take them seven years to get around to recording a second album, they did get there and to a third and, last year, to this, their fourth full length effort. Clearly I have some catching up to do, but I can start in on that here.

I can't say I like this as much as their debut but then I don't like many albums as much as their debut. I do like it though and I'll be playing it a lot to see if it grows more on me. For right now, it may be telling that my favourite track is a rework of Vinterdøden, their interpretation of the Helheim song that originally showed up on that first album. Maybe I just know it so well by this point that it has an unfair head start because everything else is new.

The good news is that everything I adore about Bucovina is still here, on occasion in the sort of magic moments that I know and love from Ceasul aducerii-aminte. While the only new band member is Jorge Augusto Coan on bass, the balance clearly shifted at some point from clean vocals to harsh and, while they do fit well here, I'm not convinced that they constitute an improvement.

A good part of the joy is the Balkan melodies that are inherent to what they do. They don't simply overlay them with ethnic instruments the way that many folk metal bands do; they incorporate them instead into their riffs and their solos. That means that there's something Romanian under everything they do, whether they're playing fast or slow, loud or soft, death or folk. Does a track like Aşteaptă-mă dincolo (De moarte) kick off with a traditional folk melody? I have no idea, but I could believe it.

Another part of it is the way that I never know whether a song will have vocals until they show up because every single track they record is worthy of being an instrumental. It's just that some merely aren't. Shrug. They work with or without vocals. A third part is the layers; Noapţea nimanui ends with acoustic guitars over a sort of electric drone that's simply gorgeous. I find new joy with each listen because of layering.

The best part of it all, though, is the transitions, because this band is just so tight and effortless. There's a point late on in Din negru (In mai negru) where the escalation to the underlying riff we've become used to under the plodding death/doom turns into a transition and suddenly we're in a slow part with a solo that feels like we just burst out of a forest with some wild creature on our heels and found ourselves wading into a gorgeous hidden lake. This is the sort of thing that I get from Bucovina that I don't get from anybody else, wherever they happen to be from.

My biggest problem here may be that there don't seem to be quite as many of those transitions as there were on Ceasul aducerii-aminte and more of the Balkan melodies are flattened into the standard genre sound. However, there's still plenty here for me to enjoy, even as I ached for more clean vocals alongside the harsh like those on Aşteaptă-mă dincolo (De moarte) or Stele călăuză.

I dug the bombast at the beginning of Stele călăuză and the folk melodies later on. Whatever the song, the instrumental passages are memorable and they're already seeping into my brain, whether they're delicate acoustic pieces, melodic solos or crunchy bedrock. Even if it isn't going to reach the levels of Ceasul aducerii-aminte for me, it's certainly trying to do so and it's getting better with each listen. It's also a lot longer, with almost fifty minutes of music instead of just over half an hour.

For now, I'm blissfully happy that Bucovina are still around and still recording. Now I have two other albums to catch up on.

Monday 28 January 2019

Xul ov Kvlten - Entropic Increase from the Omega Aeon (2019)

Country: Chile
Style: Black Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 2 Jan 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

This album caught my attention for a number of reasons. For a start, Xul ov Kvlten are a black metal band from Chile, where they really like their thrash. They're also called Xul ov Kvlten. How do we even pronounce that and what does it mean? And, even realising that black metal album titles are traditionally overblown, what the heck are they going to be singing about on Entropic Increase from the Omega Aeon?

And then I pressed play and, shortly into the opening track, Ascend Pathos Signis Dómini, with its black metal guitars, surprisingly slow drums and keyboards floating above everything like a choral cloud, it starts to feel familiar. Is that Tchaikovsky's Slavonic March? I do believe it is and it provides structural bookends to the song, which ends with wild laughter.

Yeah, this band has my attention. I know that black metal has always had an affinity with classical music, but this is overt and it elevates this album, especially through the use of keyboards. The other surprising bit comes much later towards the end of The Primordial Chaos Synthesis, when the band pause their blitzkrieg for a moment to churn in a sort of ritual.

It seems that Xul ov Kvlten, who hail from Santiago, were formed in 2014 and this is their first full length album, coming after only a 2016 EP called Nitimur in Vetitum. They're a trio, with Amon on guitar, Xul on bass and Funebre on drums. Xul also handles the vocals, which were what stood out for me for special notice.

Musically, they're clearly capable but, the classical nods aside, there's nothing in the music that will surprise anyone who's listened to black metal for more than about five minutes. Once past the opener, they're at speed pretty much throughout and this blisters along for fifty frantic minutes with nothing else particularly notable except that ritual piece. It's just good at what it does and simply doesn't feel much of a need to be groundbreaking or experimental.

Xul's vocals, however, are fascinating. He growls more than he shrieks, but not in a death metal style. He howls and he laughs and he rages. He punctuates and he accompanies. At points he even seems to converse with himself in a Xul duet, like he's the little angel and devil on his own shoulders advising him how the next ritual should be performed. In short, he feels less like a singer and more like a magician or, hey, a twelve foot demon. Why not? This is a lot more Satanic than it is pagan.

His voice is delivered with notable, even flamboyant, confidence all the way through this album, as if he's ordering us more than he's singing to us. While the lyrics are primarily in English and Xul is more intelligible than most black metal singers, I couldn't quite discern what he wants. On The Primordial Chaos Synthesis, he clearly wants us to give him something but I couldn't tell what. Maybe it doesn't matter.

On Iconoclastic Nihilismus, which pauses at one point for him to go a cappella, it feels theatrical and that leads me to an odd takeaway. I often wonder how bands would sound live, but I wonder what Xul ov Kvlten look like on a stage. There's no way these guys are just going to stand there and play. There has to be a show too and it has to be interactive.

Doomsday Outlaw - Hard Times (2018)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 11 May 2018
Sites: Facebook | Official Website

I'm enjoying my journey into the New Wave of Classic Rock. Massive Wagons blew my socks off with Full Nelson and the new Inglorious album, Ride to Nowhere, sounded pretty damn fine too. Next up in this quest for me is Doomsday Outlaw, another new British band with an acclaimed vocalist who merely keep the blues a little closer to their rock sound than those two other bands.

I'm a little less sold on these Derby boys, based on this, their third album, mostly because it isn't as consistent. There's a variety of good stuff here but it never seems to gel together quite as well as an album.

For instance, there's an overt ballad called Into the Light that pops up four tracks in for no apparent reason and interrupts the flow. It's not a bad song but it's so driven by its vocals that it feels like a workout for singer Phil Poole or something to impress on a reality show rather than an integral part of an album. At least Inglorious placed their equivalent at the very end of their album, so it's less of an opportunity for the band to wander off and grab a pint. I liked the acoustic version of Days Since I Saw the Sun much more than Into the Light, but you'll only find that on the Japanese release.

That said, Hard Times is still a solid album that I enjoyed on a first listen and enjoyed more once I dived in a little deeper. Inglorious may well tailor their songs to be immediately accessible but they also stay more on the surface. What you hear is what you get. Doomsday Outlaw have more depth to them and songs like Come My Way, Were You Ever Mine and Too Far Left to Fall are subtle pieces that reward the listener who explores their brooding nature.

What's odd is that Hard Times doesn't put its most accessible material at the beginning and I have to admit I wondered a little about their acclaim for a few tracks, especially when the obstacle of Into the Light showed up. I should emphasise that it isn't bad to begin with; it just takes a few listens. The title track has an agreeable Led Zeppelin vibe with a David Coverdale vocal and Over and Over betrays a Bad Company influence. Both these songs do their jobs decently enough but they take time to grow; they don't leap out at us.

I was halfway through the album when Doomsday Outlaw suddenly decided to impress me. Days Since I Saw the Sun has a real emphasis to it with vocals that deliver melodic power and a gorgeous heavy bass driven backing. Will You Wait does the same but ratchets that power up another notch, washing it over us with some glorious guitarwork that I'm happy to say reminded me of prime UFO. An album full of tracks like this would be amazing.

Strangely, for a band rooted in the British style, the most overt winner is Break You, which switches that style up for an overtly American feel. It's a particularly cheeky little radio friendly number that kicks off like Aerosmith, and I mean old school Aerosmith when they were on top of their game the first time around. Then it adds a southern flavour, some Lynyrd Skynyrd and some Blackfoot. The pièce de résistance is a funky organ and horn backing which really elevates it. It's gorgeous stuff.

Right now, I'm thinking that this is the least of the three 2018 albums from acclaimed New Wave of Classic Rock bands, but I'm also thinking that it's the most worthy of exploration. I'm sure I'm going to come back to this a lot more than I will Inglorious. My rating may well rise.

Friday 25 January 2019

Flotsam and Jetsam - The End of Chaos (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 18 Jan 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Wikipedia

As an old school thrash fan, I saw many of my favourites live back in the day, but a few slipped through my grasp and I've been gradually catching up with them in recent years. Now I did miss out on seeing a number of what are now local bands because I didn't live in Phoenix when it was the next big second wave thrash town in the mid to late eighties. However, I moved here in 2004 and yet still haven't seen either Sacred Reich or Flotsam and Jetsam on stage. Yeah, I know.

Well, I'll need to remedy that sad state of affairs soon because this new Flotsam and Jetsam album is very impressive indeed and they'll be at Club Red in Mesa in mid-June on their Tour of Chaos, with a bunch of local bands that I haven't heard of but need to look up. I can't wait to hear some of this from the edge of the pit.

If there's a problem here, it's that the whole album is so consistent in quality that it blurs together on first listen into a single fifty minute track. With each succeeding time through, the tracks start to distinguish themselves and exert their own identities.

The problem is that it's difficult to choose a highlight because every frickin' track is a highlight. The only reason a number of killer tracks like Prepare for Chaos or Control have trouble shining out brighter is because Prisoner of Time sets the bar too high for that at the outset and even the lesser tracks, like Slowly Insane and Unwelcome Surprise, are still damn good. In isolation, they're solid, enjoyable tracks. In this company, they're just not quite as good as everything else.

The highlights here aren't really tracks but parts of them: the melodic lines in Prepare for Chaos and Survive, the riffs in Architects of Hate and Snake Eye, the sheer power of Control and the blitzkrieg of The End. New highlights pop out at me on every listen.

I remember Flotsam and Jetsam being at the progressive edge of thrash in the eighties and they're still there, even though only one of these songs edges slightly over the five minute mark. A good part of that here is the contribution of Eric 'A.K.' Knutson, because his voice has certainly lowered and matured over the years. Here the timbre and melodies remind just as much of Geoff Tate as they do Eric A.K., but this album is a lot heavier than Queensrÿche ever got. Check out Control and The End, which both blister.

In fact, some tracks are as fast as I remember Flotsam and Jetsam ever being and I came in at the beginning with Doomsday for the Deceiver. I'm not quite buying the 'going back to their roots' line that I've heard of late, but there's some truth there. This isn't Doomsday and it isn't No Place for Disgrace either, because the band are not simply revisiting old glories.

However, they do seem happier with their roots than they were on the odd mid-period material I've heard (which did get odd and divided fans). This is an unrepentant thrash album, played at pace and with power, but with more melodies than ever and with every single track condensed down to its essence. There's no fat on these bones, just lean and mean muscle. If The End of Chaos had been recorded in 1990 with the very same twelve tracks, it would have been a lot longer than fifty minutes.

Part of this, I think, is due to the presence of new drummer Ken Mary, as he's just seamless. The man's credentials are insanely good but he lives up to them here and it feels like he energized the rest of the band, who have generally been there much longer. Eric A.K. has been there since the beginning. So has Michael Gilbert on guitar, though he took a break for a decade. Michael Spencer may have only joined in 2014 but he was in the lineup back in 1987 too.

The point is that this really doesn't sound like an album from a band who have been doing this for three and a half decades. It feels like a bunch of talented eighteen year olds heard that band and decided to show them how it's done. This deserves to be talked about alongside the Firepower album that Judas Priest pulled out of nowhere last year and for precisely the same reasons.

Status Quo - Down Down & Dirty at Wacken (2018)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 17 Aug 2018
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Wikipedia

Francis Rossi and Alan Lancaster formed the Scorpions while they were at school in Catford in 1962. When Rick Parfitt joined in 1967, they renamed the band to Status Quo and they've been that for over half a century with a surprisingly consistent lineup. Rossi is still there. Rhino Edwards replaced Lancaster in 1985 and Andy Bown officially joined in 1982. Richie Malone is the new guy in the band, having replaced the late Parfitt on guitar in 2016. Even Leon Cave is only the sixth Quo drummer, having joined in 2013.

I haven't seen Quo live since 1991 but they still sound pretty good to me on this live album recorded at the Wacken Open Air festival in Germany in 2017. Then again, how many bands have racked up over 6,000 shows on the road? Yeah, I'm coming up dry too.

This is one of two live albums released simultaneously that highlight just how versatile the Quo appeal is. Wacken is a metal festival, so Quo would have been one of the quieter bands on a line up that also included Napalm Death, Mayhem and Candlemass, among many others. They came on after Ross the Boss but before Volbeat. Before Softer Ride, Rossi jokes about how he wonders why they're on the roster too, but the audience responds enthusiastically.

That other album though? Well, it's Down Down & Dignified at the Royal Albert Hall, which, as I write, is preparing to present the London Community Gospel Choir. Not too many bands could get away with playing those two venues! Who else could get away with singing, "I never knew there were honky tonk angels" at Wacken? Who else on the Wacken bill is going to be invited to play a command performance for the Queen?

While the no nonsense set does venture forward as far as Beginning of the End, originally released on their In Search of the Fourth Chord album in 2007, most of it is culled from the heavier earlier albums that I go back to reasonably often; I ran through Piledriver, Quo and Hello twice in 2018 and I almost did that again after listening to this.

If I'm not mistaken, the second most recent song represented is 1986's In the Army Now, which is over thirty years old now, even though I still think of that as "new Quo". I'd say I'm really dating myself but a couple of tracks included in the What You're Proposin' medley go way back. I was only eight months old when Railroad came out on Dog of Two Head and I wasn't even a glint in my dad's eye when Down the Dustpipe saw its first release as a single in March 1970.

It's good to hear this old material revisited recently by a new band and they got an agreeably good response from the Wacken audience. They even sing along loudly to In the Army Now, even though it sounds a lot softer than the rest of the set. The highlights are the up tempo tracks like Roll Over Lay Down, Down Down and What You're Proposin'. Those songs were good old fashioned heads down rock 'n' roll boogie back in the seventies and my head's still banging to them in 2018.

Thursday 24 January 2019

Inglorious - Ride to Nowhere (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 25 Jan 2019
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Wikipedia

Next up on my ongoing exploration of the New Wave of Classic Rock that's becoming a major movement, especially in the UK, is the third album from the rising stars known as Inglorious, even though it's a record made by a group that mostly doesn't exist any more.

Reports online vary, so I can't be sure exactly what the line up was during recording but, at some point, perhaps right afterwards, bassist Colin Parkinson and guitarists Andreas Eriksson and Drew Lowe all left the band. Given that Parkinson and Lowe were founding members and Eriksson has been there for both their prior albums and all of their success, that seems like a big deal indeed. So, your guess as to what they'll sound like on tour over the next couple of weeks is as good as mine.

All that said, the good news is that this is a solid album, a good sendoff for those gone and a promising sign for those still there. If anything, the biggest problem is that the variety on offer is mostly on the instrumental side. Without ever cloning, Queen has an Aerosmith vibe; Liar has clear Led Zeppelin influences and Time to Go unfolds with a Lynyrd Skynyrd accent. While She Sleeps could almost be a Danzig song, of all things, albeit one performed by Whitesnake because vocalist Nathan James has trouble not sounding like David Coverdale, whatever he's singing.

Now, if you have to sound like someone else, Coverdale is hardly a bad choice and James does that really well, especially on bluesy rockers like I Don't Know You or While She Sleeps, two of the real standout tracks here. It isn't just the tone, it's the way his voice can soar with the birds when things need to escalate. And check out Glory Days, a real vocal workout of an acoustic ballad that showcases just how good he is. If you pick up the Japanese release, you'll get another track with a similar effect, a piano version of I Don't Know You sung as a duet.

The problem is that he isn't singing covers on reality shows here, he's leading a band, especially now most of it has been replaced, and he needs to keep searching for his own voice. There are points here where he manages to escape the Coverdale sound. Some of the phrasing in Ride to Nowhere is more like what Ozzy might do and there are points in Where are You Now? and I Don't Know You that remind of Geoff Tate. This is great to hear and I'm eager to hear what he's going to sound like in a few years.

With the line up substantially switched up, it's hard to see where the band are going here. This is a good third album and it should be able to stand on its own merits. I hope that it doesn't just become a solid placeholder to keep us happy until the new incarnation of Inglorious puts together something new or, if that doesn't happen, it ends up as simply an enjoyable last ride to nowhere.

My Darkest Time - Dawn (2018)

Country: Macedonia
Style: Gothic Doom/Death Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 30 Nov 2018
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website

Wow, this caught me by surprise in the very first few seconds. I do like it when an album does that! This track, Two Angels, promptly surprised me again when the vocals hit two minutes in because that sounded like three completely different styles all at once. And I mean all at once, not interacting but battling it out. Hey, add a third surprise. I looked them up and found out that they're a Christian band. Playing gothic doom/death. Well, why not.

Two Angels is an interesting song. The metronome drum got really old for me, but that mix of styles fascinated me. I dug the chiming guitars that almost sound like a sitar and the drums when they got interesting at the end. The female gothic vocals are an enticing siren song and the raucous male vocals shift it even further into originality. The song needed an end though, rather than a fade.

In short, it's not entirely successful but it is fascinating. The worst thing about the album is that the next couple of songs are fascinating in pretty much an identical way, merely with better rhythms. In isolation, they would have garnered the exact same sort of wide eyed response from me. Together, the effect is lessened somewhat until Dawn slows down late on and we realise that My Darkest Time aren't a one trick pony.

The best thing about the album is that it refuses to be one thing, though this might be an offputting approach to many. My Darkest Time have five albums on Bandcamp but haven't described themselves yet. On Facebook, they go for gothic/doom/death metal, but that's less what they are and more an attempt to cover the bases. The only death here is in the male vocals of Martin Atanasov, who may be going for hardcore shouts but whose accent is so extreme that it ends up morphing it into a sort of death growl.

To me, they sounded rather like a heavy Dead Can Dance. Marina Atanasova sings very much in the gothic operatic tradition but with a world edge, meaning that there's as much of Lisa Gerrard here as whichever symphonic metal vocalist comes to mind first. The music, which with the exception of Zoran Petrovski's lead guitar all comes courtesy of Zarko Atanasov, who founded the band back in 2005, and it's all over the map, both musically and ethnically. I'm not too knowledgeable about the folk sounds of Skopje, but I caught a lot of Indian sounds here.

Dawn is certainly an interesting album and one to dive deep into to figure out what Zarko Atanasov is doing at any random point in time. However, it often felt oddly disembodied and Open, O Doors is a great example of that. Each of the component parts is capable and the end result is interesting, but I never bought into this being a band playing together.

It feels like it was constructed rather than grown, with Zarko combining what everyone else was doing in isolation and layering on other sounds until it all got to where he wanted. That's especially weird when two voices are singing harmony to each other but without ever feeling like the singers had met each other. The only time I felt like they were singing together was in the final track, Lord Have Mercy.

I do love bands, seriously, who make it difficult for critics like me to attempt to convey whether you're likely to dig their work or not. I've listened through a few times now and I'm still not quite sure if I do.

The best way to attempt Dawn is to suggest that there's a relatively consistent ethnic groove across the board, with duetting vocals floating over it: pleasant but unsurprising gothic female and uniquely harsh male. Oh, and when you figure out what they're doing, they'll mix it up just enough to make you wonder. Does that help? Probably not!

Wednesday 23 January 2019

Walter Trout - Survivor Blues (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Blues Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 25 Jan 2019
Sites: Facebook | Official Website

Walter Trout has, in blues parlance, paid his dues. He joined Canned Heat in 1981 then moved on to John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. He formed his own Walter Trout Band in 1989 and a succession of albums and tours have followed, under evolving names. Nowadays he's recording as simply Walter Trout but he's as good as he ever was, if not better.

Yet he chose to release a covers album anyway, albeit one that doesn't feature any tracks that most people would recognise as covers. The artists covered here are folk like Sunnyland Slim, Luther Johnson and J. B. Lenoir, not to forget Jimmy Dawkins, who's a particular focus.

Me, My Guitar and the Blues kicks this blues rock album off how he means to go on, with some soaring guitar work that feels somehow like liquid fire. He's not playing notes, he's forging sound shapes out of elements that float around him. It's stunning stuff and we can't help but sit back and let it all wash over us.

The downside, as with much blues music, is the lyrics, which, of course, Trout didn't write. The best of them here are clichéd and the worst of them are cringeworthy. Then again words are hardly the point here, except for a few message songs like John Mayall's Nature's Disappearing.

What Trout sells is energy and the energy level here is way up. His backing band are a force of nature and they underpin tracks as incessantly driving as any I've heard since the Mick Clarke Band made No Compromise and that album came back to mind more than once while listening to this one.

Even when he slows things down somewhat, like with Sadie or the harmonica fuelled Nature's Disappearing, the energy level stays high and we're always ready for Trout's guitar to erupt into another blistering solo, like he does late in Red Sun. Songs like these may be breathers but we're still paying attention. It's hard not to and it's hard for our feet not to follow suit.

While Trout's guitar is the focal point throughout (he's a capable if not noteworthy vocalist), he does bring in a couple of guests. Woman Don't Lie features the vocal talents of Sugaray Rayford who notched up four nods at the Blues Music Awards last year. Mississippi Fred McDowell's Goin' Down to the River features some tasty slide work from Robby Krieger of the Doors.

All in all, this is yet another solid and reliable album from Trout that maintains a high level of energy and quality but could have done with a few more standouts.

Speed Kills - Speed Kills (2018)

Country: Italy
Style: Speed Metal
Rating: 5/10
Release Date: 14 Dec 2018
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website

There's nothing like a good thrash to clean you out, as Tommy Vance used to say. Speed Kills are from Florence in Italy and they've been around since 2011 but this is their full length debut. At a rough guess, not one of them was alive in 1985 when Music for Nations issued my favourite compilation album of all time, which carried the same name. Puns are rarely new.

It seems to be mostly culled from older songs. The five tracks on the cassette they circulated at gigs in 2017 are all here, as are at least two from the EP they released in 2014, including the title track. If Mater morbi is the same as Land of the Dead, then make that three. One track, Bombs Over Dresda, dates all the way back to their original 2012 demo, Badass Death, but nothing else from that made it this far.

Whether old or new, there's a consistency here that I appreciated, in both tempo and quality, with only a few solos to show off. Mostly this is done at pace and they only slow down long enough to give the pit a moment to breathe every now and then before revving back up again. Angor Animi in particular plays like that a lot. The slowest track is the last one, Gates of Ishtar, but that only shows up after forty minutes of fast paced thrash. If you're still in the pit by that point, you're not going to care.

I couldn't catch too many of the lyrics, which seem to be entirely in English, but I caught enough to see that there's a real sense of humour underpinning this band, as mostly evidenced in the self-deprecating We Suck and also in Beerserker and the charmingly titled LA Fuckers.

The primary influences appear to be Slayer and Motörhead, neither of which is too surprising, especially given the clean vocals that flirt just a little with death growls, but there are hints of other styles here as different as those of Destruction, Venom and Tankard. The point is that Speed Kills do a pretty decent job of cleaning our clock for three quarters of an hour but they don't seem to have found their own recognisable way of doing that.

That may help to explain why, while the standard is pretty high here throughout, there's little that's memorable enough to stand out from the crowd. Oddly, it's the more humour based tracks that come closest, like We Suck, LA Fuckers and We Brake for Nobody.

On the basis of this album, I'd suggest that Speed Kills would make for a solid support band to any big thrash bands touring through Tuscany, but they're not going to be moving up the bill any time soon. They'd certainly warm me up for the big pit.

Tuesday 22 January 2019

Ahl Sina - Troops of Pain (2019)

Country: Egypt
Style: Experimental Folk Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 15 Jan 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook

If you've been following my reviews thus far, you'll have noticed that I like my metal interesting. Don't sound like the other guys and I'm going to pay attention. Blur the boundaries between subgenres and you've got my interest. Bring in far flung ethnic sounds and I'm going to be eager to listen. Well, here's a folk/progessive metal band from Egypt who kick off their album with a ten minute song. This is so far up my alley I can feel it tickling my taste buds.

And it does indeed turn out to be an interesting album. After listening through a few times in entirety, what it really sounds like to me is a prog metal opera that at times gets very folky, as classical music often tends to do.

That ten minute opener, The Gift, begins with chanting then shifts to flute and percussion, diverts into electronic territory and then an intricate guitar intro. When the singing shows up, it's clean vocals over flute, then violin. The melodies quaver and the flutes trill. Only when an electric guitar solo suddenly arrives almost four minutes in does this really assert itself as metal but, a minute further in, we suddenly find ourselves in flight with death metal growls that are later replaced by shrieks halfway between black metal and Bobby Blitzer of Overkill. Even then the ethnic instruments keep on accompanying, even leading and, on occasion, running entirely solo. By eight minutes, we find a spoken word section, marking the fifth vocal style used in one song. And, if I'm not mistaken, all of them except the chanting at the beginning are courtesy of a single man, Moustafa Troll, who founded Ahl Sina in 2009.

So that's ten minutes of an album that runs over an hour, with one track, Enlightenment Discarded that's even longer than The Gift.

There's so much more to say but it would be redundant. Frankly, I could end my review there and you're either going to move right along or raise your eyebrows at the potential.

Well, I should add that I'm still exploring this on my fourth or fifth time through because there's that much going on, both musically and with regard to the storyline.

I'd like to pick up a lyric sheet for this to figure out what's unfolding because it's clearly aimed at being a coherent story and I haven't got a clue what that is, other than something contemporary that speaks to the human condition and its tendency towards conflict. The title track wraps up with a sample from a poem by Jane Elliott called Racism Destroyed in One Minute.

Musically, it's exquisite, all the way up to the tortured shriek halfway through Vowed. It's emphatically an Egyptian band at heart and you'd be forgiven for expecting them to all be Egyptians deeply in touch with the musical heritage of the country. Just listen to the intro to Knowledge and Pain and tell me that that isn't an Egyptian playing frame drums behind an Egyptian string section?

Well, what surprises me most is that Ahl Sina are actually international in scope and this album was recorded in three different nations without a single joint rehearsal of all the members. The strings are courtesy of Stefanie Pfaffenzeller from Germany and the tribal drummer, Shaadie Khoury, is in the US. I presume Amr el Zanaty on the traditional percussion and Ahmed el Eskndarany on flutes are in Egypt, as are Troll on vocals and Shung on keyboards and guitar, but bassist Marcel Hauptmann is also German.

They perform together gloriously, whether they actually perform together or not. This doesn't sound piecemeal at all, even if the international members did record their bits separately and someone glued them together later. I'd very much like to hear this band live, especially supporting Orphaned Land. While one band is Egyptian and the other Israeli, the two would seem to be utterly compatible musically and thematically. I could see the same Lebanese bellydancers performing with both bands.

Now, let me listen through again and see if I can choose some highlights. I'm almost scared to post any because I'm pretty sure that my favourites will be changing every time I listen. It's not remotely as catchy as the Egyptian influenced Sechem album I reviewed recently, Disputes with My Ba, though some of the flute and percussion sections will have you bellydancing in your office chair and scaring whoever's in the next cube, but it's much deeper and more worthy of exploration.

Captain Caravan - Shun the Sun (2018)

Country: Norway
Style: Stoner Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 23 Nov 2018
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website

One of my biggest surprises when I started paying more detailed attention to the broad spectrum of new music is that stoner rock seems to have spread across the globe like a disease. It's only a couple of decades old but it's everywhere now and here's a stoner rock band from Egersund, Norway to prove it with an LP that grew out of plans for an EP.

I'm still learning about this subgenre but Captain Caravan are a bit more lively than most of what I've heard thus far, if just as fuzzy in tone. There's a lot of energy here, mostly conjured up by BK Sæstad's bouncy guitar riffs. Crown, the album's opener and the single that preceded it, never lets up for a moment and it's an absolute joy.

Monster Magnet and Kyuss and the other stoner pioneers are obvious influences throughout but there's a lot more than one idea in Crown and there's a strong Black Sabbath influence on Illusion of Meaning. Godkiller changes things up entirely, ditching the amplification and going for a brutal acoustic approach with subdued if snarly vocals. Illusion of Meaning does slow down towards the end too but it's for some sort of low chanted vocal that's almost buried under the bass.

It's clear that main man Sæstad, formerly of Pawnshop, has a rhythm section behind him that's almost seamless. The band moves as one motion and they could easily have issued this album without vocals, as many seem to do nowadays, and it would still be magnetic.

The recent addition of vocalist Johnny Olsen does take them to another level though. I'm just trying to figure out his influences. At times he sounds like Jim Morrison trying to sing like Glenn Danzig, which is not something I ever thought I'd hear. On the title track, though, he sounds much more like Angry Anderson of Rose Tattoo and that's an enticing layer to find on top of those hypnotic riffs and that swirling psychedelic guitar.

Olsen's finest moment may be the album's final track, Book of Oblivion, which tones the guitar down a great deal for three minutes so it can duel with his voice which soars like a bird above everything. It's a smooth performance that escalates back to bombastic level when everything cuts loose again at the three minute mark and we're back in psychedelic Danzig territory.

I'm digging a lot of these new stoner bands, whether vocal or instrumental, and I'm eager to learn more about the subgenre. From what little I know, this would seem to be far from a bad place to join me on that trip.

Monday 21 January 2019

Mistveil - Amnesia (2019)

Country: Greece
Style: Melodic Doom/Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 2 Jan 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives

An unusual organ intro leads to an unusually yowling guitar and a pretty decent album, the first from Mistveil, a one man melodic doom/death outfit from Athens, Greece. That man is Stavros Stavrou and he performs all the instruments here as well as providing all the notably abrasive vocals (except for a guest appearance on one track). It's quite the achievement for one man and it's worthy of exploration.

The Lake of Fire and Sulfur is a fascinating opener, partly on its own merits but partly because it refuses to define a sound for the album to follow. It's the longest song on the album and its lengthy intro leads into an achingly slow piece that eventually picks up a wild tempo and an oddly upbeat haunting melody. Stavrou is clearly telling us not to expect any one thing from this album but to keep our minds open as to where he can take doom/death.

By comparison, Spiegel Graus is far less varied but a lot more catchy, with its relatively consistent sound driven by a hurdy-gurdy sounding looping guitar and an enticingly tinkling piano. A lot of the songs here would play a lot more conventionally if they didn't have little edges like that to elevate them, like the plaintive guitar in Thorns, the duetting voices in A Rose from Heaven or the earworm riff in The Gambler's Heart.

There is a downside and it's an odd one. Underworld has a fast (for doom/death) and driving feel, but cuts the speed halfway through to wrap up with plodding drums and surprisingly prominent cymbals over a deceptively simple riff and the sibilance at the top end is rather distracting. The overt cymbals combine with Stavrou's enunciation to add a high hiss that's especially noticeable late in Underworld and on other slowburn tracks like The Liar. I ended up doing something that I honestly don't ever recall doing in the last couple of decades, namely tweaking the equaliser to stop me thinking that my speakers were dying or my ears had exploded.

That's sad because I was really enjoying the music; there's a old school feel here that I dug a lot. There are hints of early Paradise Lost dotted throughout, but mostly it's their Halifax compatriots My Dying Bride who are clearly the key influence. This is a very different beast from the other doom/death albums that I've reviewed recently, from bands such as Phlebotomized or Unmasked, and I'm enjoying that variance.

Mistveil have a more gothic edge than either of those bands but nowhere near enough to push it into the gothic/doom territory of Oblivions Kiss, even with the instrumental title track closing out the album like a duet between a violin and a carillon. It's an agreeably haunting way to finish things off and that's very gothic.

Where Stavrou really finds his own sound, though, is in his vocal style. Stefan Nordström from Soliloquium and The Ashen Tree guests on Defeated But Victorious and he's a better vocalist but his able contribution also highlights just how different Stavrou's voice is. As good as Nordström is, he sounds like a lot of other death metal growlers and I'd be hard pressed to tell him apart from any of them. Stavrou's voice is his own, an unholy mixture of black and death styles and it's agreeably raw.

I thought I was going to hate his abrasive vocals but, after fixing the sibilance issue and running through the album a few more times, I found that they had become a highlight for me, especially given that he layers in backing vocals in wildly different styles, from clean to whispering, that add a whole new element to this material.

Like a lot of quality doom/death, this is an album to explore. One listen isn't going to do it, but a little investment of time will pay dividends as each track emerges to make its pitch for favourite status.

Venom - Storm the Gates (2018)

Country: UK
Style: Black/Thrash Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 14 Dec 2018
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website

I often say that when I discovered the Friday Rock Show on BBC Radio 1 back in mid-1984, DJ Tommy Vance introduced me to everything from Steely Dan to Venom all at once.

Venom were truly dangerous back then because the mainstream had absolutely no idea how to deal with them. A Welcome to Hell shirt wasn't a fashion statement; it was a way to isolate yourself entirely from the mundane world, whose occupants would carefully watch you walking down the street like you had a severed hand in each hand. The musical landscape we explore today is unrecognisable from 1984 in large part because of Venom's influence on it. If time has rendered them a lot less scary, it hasn't forgotten them. They remain relevant and they still rock.

It's been three years since the last Venom album and the lineup nowadays is the perennial Cronos, along with Rage on guitar and Danté on drums, as it was on Fallen Angels and From the Very Depths. Maybe I need to go back to those two albums for a fresh listen because, to me, this sounds off. Now, Venom are hardly renowned for their state of the art production values, but there are points here where it sounds even worse than usual. Did the entire band cram into a shower stall to record Suffering Dictates? Cronos's unmistakable vocal sneer is more than a little deeper, almost lost, within the mix than I've come to expect. I'm used to that being up front and in my face, where the forces of darkness damn well intended it to be.

That said, the songs here generally don't disappoint. Bring Out Your Dead is a weak opener, but Notorious carries that old school Venom vibe, even as it updates that sound a little for the new millennium. I Dark Lord chugs along agreeably too, even if doesn't sound quite evil enough because of that subdued production, especially at the end, which ought to be far more raw and visceral than it comes across. I'm sure it will be live with Cronos at the front of the stage three feet away from the audience.

Oddly, the album seems to get heavier as it runs on. 100 Miles to Hell is great stuff and enough reason to buy this album on its own and, by the time we get to Dark Night (Of the Soul) five tracks in, the guitars feel more brutal, the bass broader and the drums more relentless. Cronos's sneer is more apparent too and that's a welcome return. So is the upping of the pace for The Mighty Have Fallen, which would have been a better album opener if the title didn't suggest a message that thankfully isn't true.

The mighty may need a real producer and fans of the mighty may quickly forget a few of the lesser tracks, but the mighty have definitely not fallen. I look forward to seeing them live again and hearing some of this material in the set. In the meantime, this is another Venom album that sounds like another Venom album and that's never a bad thing.

Friday 18 January 2019

The Mound Builders - The Mound Builders (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Sludge Metal
Release Date: 18 Jan 2019
Rating: 6/10
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website

The Mound Builders have been around for a while. They released their debut album back in 2011, but it's taken seven years to get round to this one and it's easy to see that these Indiana sludge monsters have been listening to a lot of different music in that time.

Musically they're tight. Torchbearer opens this album in glorious fashion, with a slow but neatly powerful riff from Brian Boszor for the rest of the band to gradually heat up around. A minute in, he speeds up to join them and the tempo continues to grow as the track runs on. By the time Boszor gets to wail halfway through, they're speeding along at a rate of knots, ready to start slowing down again. Plot the speed of this track on a graph and it would look rather like, well, a mound. I wonder if that was a deliberate choice.

The weak side of Torchbearer for me are the vocals of Jim Voelz, who betrays the punk influence of this band most obviously. He's a hardcore shouter with a capable rasp to his voice and he does it well, but it's not my thing. The limited backing vocals are quintessentially punk harmonies too and I can't say that this vocal approach doesn't fit the material. I just know that the music here is clearly not being generated by a set of amateurs who only know three chords and I wanted to pay more attention to it than the vocals allowed me to do. I'd have loved this album if it was shorn of vocal work entirely.

In addition to Boszor on guitar, the power trio that underpin the Mound Builders is completed by Ryan Strawsma on bass and Jason Brookhart on drums. This trio obviously have punk in their blood too but, however much they're happy to speed up to thrash levels at points and almost become a crossover band, the delightfully weighty riffs betray a Black Sabbath fixation that I really can't complain about and they do seem happy to spend the majority of their time in slow doom than fast thrash, reserving speed for where it'll have the most effect.

What I think I appreciated most were the points where slow became fast or vice versa. The tempo of Acid Slugs is all over the place but the transitions are glorious. The first one took me totally by surprise but I adored it. I'm not sure what acid slugs are, though apparently they "did this to us, killing the human spirit". At least they didn't kill the spirit of this band, because the invention going on in this track is wonderful stuff.

Only one track later they do the same thing again with Star City Massacre, carefully building a sludge tempo only to ratchet up to thrash speed with a single perfectly executed transition. Fans of both Sabbath and Pantera will appreciate these songs and others in the same vein like Regolith.

Otherwise this is mostly for sludge metal fans of Crowbar and their ilk. The Mound Builders are less fuzzy in guitar tone and more shrieky in vocal style, as if the musicians want to play metal but the singer wants to stay punk. That they merge the two styles well means that, after a few more albums, maybe we'll be comparing other bands to them rather than their predecessors.

Ars Nova - Sombra y Luz (2018)

Country: Spain
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 14 Dec 2018
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website

If my Spanish holds up, Sombra y Luz means Shadow and Light, which suggests that this second album from Barcelona prog rockers Ars Nova will be full of contrast, given that it begins with a track called Luz and ends with one called Sombra.

It starts out that way too, following the gentle piano intro track that is Luz with a real belter of a song in Diáspora, which carries on at a frantic pace, racking up notes like confetti and shredding through the lot. Vocals show up a minute in and add another layer, but it's the guitarwork that drives this one, as it does so many other tracks on this album.

From there, it settles into a consistently more comfortable vibe. Blanco slows things down considerably, but it's still bouncy. The melody and orchestration sound like they could have come from a ballad-oriented eighties hair band but it's faster and cleaner. Ars Nova aren't going for sleaze but for catchy prog rock, even when they don't sound like it.

Most of the tracks do have a little of the experimentation that you might expect from prog rock, with Alter Ego perhaps the most obvious example, playing as it does with tempos and rhythms and mixing things up completely, but all involved seems to be relatively content with playing in this style without feeling too much need to innovate around it. There's nothing new to the genre here.

Instrumentally, Ars Nova are clearly top notch, both individually and together as a band, but I'm not hearing much of the contrast that the title promised. Maybe it's a lyrical thing and I'm not getting it because Ars Nova perform in Spanish. There are certainly hints at shading here and there, in early parts of Imágenes and late parts of Aqueronte, as well as in some of the interplay between voice and instrument in Corre libre, but then those hints vanish again as if they were never there to begin with.

Oddly, Diáspora excepted, the better songs show up towards the end. Aqueronte may be the best track on the album and Volar may be the catchiest. Sombra, not too surprisingly given that it's just over fourteen minutes long, has the most substance and it plays with that idea of contrast more than anything else. It's fast, it's slow; it's loud, it's quiet. Some parts are easily more successful than others but it's an agreeable experiment, which is what prog rock is about, as far as I'm concerned.

An album with four experiments on the lines of Sombra would have been a better album. Sadly, that isn't what we get. Fortunately, what we do get is still pretty decent.

Thursday 17 January 2019

Curare - Portales de los Andes (2019)

Country: Ecuador
Style: Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 4 Jan 2019
Sites: Facebook | Reverb Nation

Now this is an interesting sound! Curare tend to be labelled as a folk metal band from Ecuador, and that's kind of true but not how you might expect.

For a start, the band veer from rock to metal and back and there's as much here that stems from Primus or the Red Hot Chili Peppers as the likes of Finntroll or Skyclad. The closest metal band for comparison might be Sepultura because of the rhythms used but I should emphasise that Curare don't sound at all like Sepultura, even in heavier moments like on Guambrita or Kayawé.

For another, folk metal bands tend to be labelled as such because of instrumentation with a lot less variation apparent in the vocals, but Curare's singers don't sound folk metal in the slightest. The band could be called heavy folk funk as easily as folk metal, but there's a hardcore influence too and ethnic sounds that aren't rooted in the Andes, like a section in Machalí reminiscent of a Jacques Tati soundtrack.

By the time this album reached Machalí, a fascinating track halfway that includes the Andean flute as a lead instrument, it became clear that Curare should not be defined by their many varied influences and can only be described by what sort of bill they'd fit best on. Even though there's metal underpinning a lot of their sound, I wouldn't see them as out of place on a bill with gypsy punks Gogol Bordello and the similarly patchwork Spanish musician Manu Chao. I listen to Super Taranta and Próxima Estación: Esperanza often and could easily see adding Portales de los Andes to that habit.

It's an interesting album from the outset and every track delivers, but once you've heard just how interesting it gets, the first four tracks start to feel conventional. Given that Tihuanaco begins with flute and maracas over playful bass and guitar and continues in heavier style with chanting hardcore vocals, it's only by contrast to what's still to come that it's conventional.

Inga o Mandinga starts out funky but turns into prog rock. Caranqui - Conchasquí is the most consistently metal song on the album, at least for four minutes until the flute starts to float over the rhythmic pounding that closes out the track. Les Tambours du Bronx could have guested here without seeming at all out of place. Viaje Astral adds more of that flute/drum combo in the middle of what is much more of a progressive track, but the ethnic feel comes as much from the vocals as the flute; at points it almost enters ritual territory.

It's Machalí that first highlights what this band can really do, though. Kicking off with Jew's harp and a guitar that sounds like a carillon and intricate drum patterns, it adds that reedy flute before venturing into progressive territory that starts out metal but becomes jazz. Then we get accordion in the French style and we suddenly find ourselves listening to this folk prog jazz metal world group in a Parisian café. This is fascinating stuff and it ends with flute, hardcore lead vocal and a sort of choral backing. Wow.

Nothing else touches Machalí for sheer uniqueness, though Guambrita comes close. The rest of the album doesn't fade away though, as there's much more to discover and each track is completely different. If anything, the second half is more imaginative than the first and more rooted in Andean melodies. The third standout track is the final one, Puntiatzil, which is an oddly laid back way to wrap up but a good one.

I'm not finding much about Curare in English, but Google Translate tells me that this is their fifth album since their founding in 2001. I'm highly interested in finding the others.

Phaeton - Phaeton (2018)

Country: Canada
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 21 Dec 2018
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook

I vividly remember Sid at Groové Records in Halifax giving me a promo copy of Dark Tranquillity's Skydancer with the comment that it contained fantastic instrumental work but was spoiled by vocals. Today, that's still one of my favourite albums, so I have to beg to disagree with the venerable Sid, but he comes back to mind every time I hear a new instrumental metal album.

Phaeton are a progressive metal band from Canada and I kind of have the same problem with prog metal that Sid had with early melodic death metal; while prog metal tends towards clean vocals, they often distract from the musicianship for me. However, that won't be a problem with Phaeton because they're entirely instrumental. Sadly, I'm not finding instrumental prog rock albums of the quality I'm finding instrumental stoner rock albums. Such a tangled web.

I initially wondered if Phaeton was going to be another example of that because the first two tracks, Siege Engine and Voyage Eternal, didn't do it for me, being decent but undistinguished efforts on a first listen, but it kicked in nicely with March of the Synthetics.

It's a longer track, never a problem for prog bands—though longer here does mean six minutes rather than sixty—and it mixes things up far more than twice the previous two. It may not entirely find its groove but it comes pretty close, especially late on, and I dug its layers. It was impressive on a first listen and it grew with further plays too.

Phantasm is even better and I wondered how many instruments were actually being played because it flits back and forth between combinations of slow chugging electric guitar, electric soloing and noodling on both an acoustic guitar and a piano. It's interesting interplay and it leads nicely to the rocking second half which definitely succeeds in finding its groove. Its ending was well constructed too.

And, to me, that's what prog is all about: capable but interesting constructions, the merging of different sounds and instruments (and lyrics, if we're going that way) into something new that often layers up. I found those layers more as the album ran on, all the way to Vortex with its almost industrial vibe at points. It's Vortex that finally demonstrates that Phaeton can indeed create a catchy riff that doesn't prevent them from dancing around with the other instruments. This album definitely needed more of that. Crossing the Divide and Labyrinth come close but Vortex got there.

What it benefits most from, though, is a second visit. Every one of these seven tracks sounds better the second time through and familiarity often improves them from average to good or from good to better. It needs you to invest some time into it. If you do that, it'll reward you for the effort.

Wednesday 16 January 2019

Rifftera - Across the Acheron (2019)

Country: Finland
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 18 Jan 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Wikipedia

No, Rifftera are not the Pantera tribute band their name might suggest. They're yet another interesting band from Finland, this particular bunch hailing from Vaasa on the west coast, facing Sweden across the Gulf of Bothnia, and the base of their sound is melodic death metal of the Swedish variety. However, there's a thrash influence here too to add an interesting alternative edge that makes them particularly interesting. It's like they're pulling themselves in two different directions but without that seeming like a problem.

Eye of the Storm and especially Cutthroat Game ably highlight that by being singalong songs with vocal and guitar lines that seep into the soul but that merely happen to have a crunch behind them. This is catchy stuff when the vocals are clean. They're pretty catchy when they're harsh too, growling over the heavier material on offer. I'd sing along with the thrashy Cry Wolf too if it wouldn't kill my throat.

None of these songs are short, only Deep Waters clocking in at under five minutes. The six minutes of Burning Paradise is followed by eight minutes of Two Sides of the Story but neither outstay their welcome, because they're not just doing one thing. There are crunchy fast bits and soulful slower bits with vocals that sometimes sound like Ozzy trying to audition for Depeche Mode (and I don't mean that in a bad way, honest). The two styles interweave surprisingly well and never lose their power.

This sort of thing is so mature that it really doesn't sound like second album stuff. Rifftera have been around since 2010 with a notably consistent lineup. Janne Hietala, Jupe Karhu and Antti Pöntinen have been there from the beginning and they were the entire band when they released their first demo. All three also played together in an earlier melodic death metal band called Chain Reaktion. Second guitarist and clean vocalist Mikko Kuoppamaa joined in 2012, easily in time for their first album, Pitch Black in 2015. Ville Härkönen is the new guy, having only taken the seat behind the drumkit since 2016. They've played together for quite a while and it feels like it.

Warmonger and Deep Waters are good examples of this. They're less catchy than earlier tracks but there's a depth to them, pun not intended for the latter, that makes them just as viable for favourite status. Deep Waters, in particular, does a great job at cramming a lot of different sounds into a brief, for this album, running time.

And, after the shortest song comes the longest. The title track is something of an epic, though, to be fair, over a minute of its eleven is spent fading out and another minute is spent getting ready for power to take over from atmospheric keyboards and subdued guitarwork. When that power hits, the drums go fast but the rest stay slow before the song finds the groove it'll spend time building. It's a patient song but a good one.

The Acheron, in Dante's Inferno, was the border of Hell, over which Charon ferries souls. If Rifftera are going to lead us across the Acheron, at least that'll be some justification for Hell Ain't a Bad Place to Be.

Herteitr - Battleblood (2018)

Country: Colombia
Style: Viking/Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 16 Dec 2018
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

I just couldn't resist taking a look at this EP, not only because it's an indie release from a pagan/folk/Viking metal band and I have a particular fondness for folk metal, but Heiteitr are a Viking metal band from that best known of all Scandinavian countries, Colombia. Yeah, that caught my eye too.

Now, I have no interest in being elitist in the slightest but it's difficult to imagine people close to the equator in South America drinking out the endless winter night with their battle compatriots and the Thor's hammer in the Herteitr logo emphasises that this is Viking metal in the Scandinavian vein, even with the presence of folk elements like a charango, an Andean lute traditionally made from the shell of an armadillo. How frickin' metal is that?

The charanguista is Yilmer León, one of two guitarists in Herteitr; the other is German Gomez who also plays mandolin and handles vocal duties. In addition to bass and drums, there's also Diego Gómez on accordion and Leo Zauriel playing a variety of wind instruments, which float enticingly above this material. They've been around for a decade but this is their first recording.

I liked Battleblood a lot, even if I ache for more overtly Colombian elements in their sound. Even if it's odd to see Viking metal from outside of Scandinavia (though this isn't unprecedented, given Ymyrgar's exploration of the Norse eddas from Tunisia), folk metal escaped the north long ago and we now have enticing material incorporating folk instruments from cultures as far adrift as Mongolia, Israel and Japan. Now I want to hear Colombian folk metal without the Viking influence (I'll be reviewing some Ecuadorian folk metal tomorrow, which fits that bill wonderfully).

Leaving aside my global folk metal wishlist entirely, this is good stuff, even though we only have four tracks to enjoy. The Pride of War starts off on the right foot with a rousing effort that should have our mugs of mead swaying in appreciation. Battle Cry and By Death Comes Glory ably keep that spirit alive because there isn't a poor track on this album, let alone a bad one. Everyone and everything does its job well.

The real highlight, though, is the seven minute closer, Flames of Fury / Steel Burning. It starts slower, giving us the calm before the storm with traditional instruments, then launches into motion with the guitar down low and the wind up high. Gomez adds his growl and the melody weaves around him. Guitars swirl and chug, then bounce halfway through when things quieten down, presumably as one half of this track makes way for the other. There's a lot going on in this song and I dig all of it.

Now, given that it took Herteitr ten years to get round to an EP, can we have a full length album a little sooner than 2028?