Thursday 28 February 2019

Overkill - The Wings of War (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 22 Feb 2019
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OK, I had to wonder for moment just what the heck I was hearing as this album started. Did bees get into my speakers? Are Overkill going techno? Did I wake up in The Twilight Zone?

Well, don't worry about any of that! It's all just a fancy way to set up the opening track, Last Man Standing, which is the sort of blistering neck workout that we expect from the mighty Overkill, capably introduced by the impressive drums of new fish Jason Bittner. It's not as catchy as some Overkill openers (how many opening tracks are as catchy as Deny the Cross, for instance?) but it's a good song and I dug the power metal in the soloing.

Believe in the Fight has some power metal too but in a different way, with an Accept-style backing vocal line for Bobby "Blitz" Ellsworth to snarl back at. It's the catchiest thing here thus far and it stays that way for a while, even with a song called Batshitcrazy showing up relatively soon.

Naming a song Batshitcrazy suggests that Overkill really want it to become a crowd favourite. Like much of this album, it's good but it's not great, even with an oddly palatable cooing transition in the middle that should work well for a very brief breather in the pit. Frankly, Welcome to the Garden State is a more likely crowd favourite and not just in New Jersey. It's the Ramones on speed and it's easily the best thing on offer here, the band relishing their punk influences with speed, aggression and a singalong chorus. I love it!

And then there's everything else. If my maths isn't betraying me, this is the nineteenth studio album from Overkill and it's not a bad one. It's old school thrash the way we like it from this band and everything from Blitz's snarl to the underpinning bass of D. D. Verni, the other founding member, is where it ought to be. Verni shines on Where Few Dare to Walk but he's there throughout, a little more obvious than most metal bassists.

While The Wings of War is a good album, it's not a great one. I don't think there's a bad track here and it's all agreeably in our face, so whichever songs make the live set will all play well, but few of them stand out amidst a stellar career that's given us a whole host of great tracks. I found this album fading away into the background and that's a dangerous thing for a thrash album.

A few of the tracks found themselves late, like Head of a Pin, which I didn't grok until about a minute from the end, when it finally grabbed me. Some of them worked the other way around. I adored how Hole in My Soul began, for one, with a slow and heavy riff and the dancing fingers of Verni; this could have been another great one but it isn't as catchy as it wants to be. In between are a heck of a lot of other songs that don't disappoint but don't thrill too much either.

I thought about a six rating, but that didn't seem right. Even if The Wings of War did fade into the background a lot, it sounded good whenever it grabbed my attention came back. I must have played it half a dozen times in entirety and heard it about three or four and it never stopped being enjoyable, even when it could have been more. So a seven it is. Any Overkill album is welcome, after all, and this is no exception.

Tora Tora - Bastards of Beale (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 22 Feb 2019
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I vaguely remember Tora Tora from that glorious time known as back in the day, if mostly from their contribution to the soundtrack for Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Dancing with the Gypsy. Revisiting that in 2019, it feels like they were another rock 'n' roll band like Jetboy who weren't ever really glam metal but got lumped into that scene anyway and at exactly the wrong time. Their two initial albums came one on either side of Nirvana's epoch-changing Nevermind and that was it for Tora Tora.

Well, they reformed in 2008 and released a bunch of albums that look like old stuff, including their third album that was recorded in 1994 but not released until 2011. This one's entirely new, courtesy of Frontiers, an Italian record label that's almost keeping classic rock alive on its own nowadays, and it's a pretty damn good album. It makes me want to see the band live.

Tora Tora hail from Memphis and those who know their music history will know that the Beale of the title is Beale St., often described as the official home of the blues (if you don't know the history, they'll let you know about some of it on the title track), so it shouldn't be too surprising to find that the band have an overt foundation in that genre. This is good old blues-based hard rock and it would be perfect material for a Friday night out at a good bar that hosts live music. The instrumental, Vertigo, is reminiscent of the Mick Clarke Band, who aim at rock from the blues rather than the other way around.

While it sounds good from the outset, with a tight band playing deceptively loose material behind the smooth and confident vocals of Anthony Corder, it didn't grab me until Son of a Prodigal Son five tracks in. This is a gorgeous song, bluesy and soulful, but very southern and rooted in country, like a mid eighties hard rock quartet wondered at what Lynyrd Skynyrd would sound like a decade into the future.

Son of a Prodigal Son leads in to the soft but engrossing Lights Up the River and an agreeably rumbling Let Us Be One, which has an interesting guitar vibe to it, like the Devil taking a Chris Isaak tune and making it rock. With those three notably different but somehow consistent songs in a row, I was hooked and the earlier material made more sense on a second time through.

Part of the problem may have been that Giants Fall has a chorus that felt so familiar that I found myself singing along to Midnight Rider instead. Silence of Sirens comes early too and it's an odd phrase to throw into a chorus like that. It's a good song that builds well, with some neat and subtle guitarwork from Keith Douglas, but it's not the beautiful refrain that the lyrics state.

Silence of Sirens was the first single off the album and it's been followed already by Rose of Jericho, which has a more traditional lyric, exploring the history of rock 'n' roll in a set of descriptions we should be able to work out easily enough (like the "King of Tupelo" and the "Queen of Nutbush", for instance).

I may not remember Tora Tora well but I'm glad they're back and, on the basis of this material, I wish they'd have come back sooner. To quote from the title track, "All hail rock 'n' roll! Long live the Bastards of Beale!" That chorus has been stuck in my head for a week now and I'm not unhappy about it. I bet Tora Tora aren't either.

Wednesday 27 February 2019

Candlemass - The Door to Doom (2019)

Country: Sweden
Style: Doom Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 22 Feb 2019
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Well, here's an interesting state of affairs! The Door to Doom is Candlemass's twelfth studio album but it's the first with their original vocalist, the man who helped them define a new genre back in 1986, as a full member. He's Johan Längquist and its his voice that you heard on Epicus Doomicus Metallicus when he was merely a session singer. Now he's the band's official vocalist and he sounds pretty good to me.

With most bands, it's the drummer who's most likely to change with the rest of the line-up remaining more consistent. With Candlemass, it's the vocalist and there have been five singers now who have spent enough years with the band to have recorded at least one album. Four have them have recorded two and that's more than recorded two albums for their most overt influence, Black Sabbath.

And talking of Sabbath, the return of Längquist does bring them a lot closer to Sabbath here than I remember Candlemass ever getting, but it's their Dio era that seems especially obvious on more up tempo tracks like Death's Wheel; in quiet emotional intros like the one on Under the Ocean; and when the riffs are most overtly Sabbath influenced, such as on Astorolus (courtesy of the one and only Tony Iommi, so it's hardly surprising).

I like Längquist's voice here. While I thoroughly enjoyed Epicus Doomicus Metallicus back in the day, his voice has matured over the last (holy crap) thirty-three years and the modern production helps him too. My favourite era, as it might be for perhaps most Candlemass fans, was the next one, though it's Nightfall that does it for me rather than Tales of Creation. The obvious question is to ask how anyone can follow a voice like Messiah Marcolin's?

Well, as Längquist shows here, the trick is to not try. While I'm bringing it up here, I didn't listen to this album and wonder how it would have sounded had it all been sung by a different voice, as I've done on some prior albums. I just listened to it as an album and that's surely telling in itself. There are points where the phrasing echoes Marcolin but there's far more that has a Dio feel. Mostly it sounds like Längquist. The Omega Circle, for instance, is a great example of him stamping his authority on the material.

With no other musician involved having been with Candlemass for less than a quarter of a century, it's no surprise that the backing is quintessential stuff. While they clearly owe their existence to Sabbath, it didn't take them long to forge their own identity and there are reasons why they're the originators of epic doom. They've continued to evolve their particular style and, regardless of vocalist, this couldn't be mistaken for any other band. A hundred bands may have formed when they first heard Candlemass but it's not too difficult to recognise the originals.

The only other influence I heard here that surprised me was an epic Manowar feel to the ballad, Bridge of the Blind. I may have missed the last couple of albums, but I don't recall that sort of sound on a Candlemass release before. It fits quite well, to be honest, though it might not have done with another vocalist, which is another telling statement.

Let's hope that by going full circle and actually hiring the singer on their first, legendary album, Candlemass can settle down to doing what they do best, namely to dish out dangerous slices of doom and tell us that they're doing it. There are a whole bunch of lines on this album that are gimmes for wrapping up a review, starting with the very title.

Yes, if you enter The Door of Doom, under the sign reading "Welcome to the House of Doom", you'll find "the Ambassadors of Doom". How cheesy does that sound? Pretty damn cheesy. However, it does help to highlight how Candlemass are still around and they're still pretty good. This isn't remotely Nightfall and it isn't Epicus Doomicus Metallicus either, but it's still a decent album that will hopefully lead the way to another great one.

Mythopoeic Mind - Mythopoetry (2019)

Country: Norway
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Feb 2019
Sites: Facebook

Apparently there's been something of a renaissance of prog rock in Norway and one of the bands taking advantage of that is Mythopoeic Mind, the brainchild of a Tolkien-loving saxophonist called Steinar Børve, who's best known for his work with an avant-rock band called Panzerpappa, every one of whose members is here too in some form. The point of the different name is that Mythopoeic Mind play very different prog rock to Panzerpappa and that there are others playing here too.

I haven't heard either band before and I'm hardly an expert in Norwegian prog rock, but this is the album that I've ended up listening to of late at four o'clock in the morning on headphones. Why it leapt out at me from a stack of potentials, I have no idea. Why I didn't skip past it, like I do so many others, I really don't know. There's just something here I connected to and I'm still trying to figure out what. My initial response was just that I liked it.

Disclaimer: my older tastes in prog rock are more on the lines of early King Crimson, Genesis and Van der Graaf Generator, with Pink Floyd a gimme, rather than the bands of the Canterbury scene, which have so influenced Børve. Think names like Gong, Caravan and Soft Machine. I took a run at Gong's Camembert Electrique again recently and I still don't get it.

To me, this plays somewhat like Jethro Tull on a laid back acid trip but with those Canterbury transitions and timings. The result is an immersive thing for me. It's soft and easy to listen to, but the eccentric progressions and vocal line of Kjetil Laumann prevent it from ever descending into the background. It isn't music to listen to as much as it is music to dive into. Two speakers do not seem enough to do this band justice; speakers should surround the listener in a circle so that the music washes over them from all angles.

Another aspect I couldn't get out of my mind is that the music seems to have grown rather than been composed. Maybe it's the psychedelic approach, shown by the short bookends, in which the vocals seem to blur and flow over odd chirps and warbles that make us think the album was recorded in a park. I visualise recording sessions less like a delivery and more like a reaction, as if the band set up their instruments outside during the night and started to play as the sun came up, improvising to a shared experience.

In between those two bookends, appropriately named Prologue Song and Epilogue Song, there are only four tracks, two running just shy of seven minutes and a couple over ten. None of them feel long. Oddly, given that one of them carries the name of Mount Doom, none of them feel aggressive either. Mount Doom flows in such a way that it feels more like a musical interpretation of the journey to Mount Doom on the back of the eagles, dancing in the air currents, with a brief ominous section as they arrive at the end.

I get so caught up in Mount Doom that I can't remember if it even has vocals at any point. It certainly doesn't for most of it, unlike Sailors Disgrace, a story song in which the vocals dance around so much that we quickly forget to listen to what they're saying and enjoy them instead as another instrument.

This is the first album for Mythopoeic Mind, so there's nowhere direct to go from here, but Panzerpappa have at least half a dozen albums out. The other prog rock (as against prog metal) band that I know is from Norway is White Willow, who have an even longer discography. Their founder mastered this, so "scene" seems appropriate. Apparently it's time I should explore these bands. Maybe you should too.

Tuesday 26 February 2019

Sweven - Red Giant to White Dwarf (2019)

Country: France
Style: Stoner/Desert Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date:
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Given that Red Giant to White Dwarf runs over an hour but features only five tracks, to suggest that this is patient stuff may be a tad redundant.

It takes three minutes to even start heating up, but those three minutes are enough to keep our attention. Peio Cachenaut's vocals are deep and resonant and clearly aim for a Nick Cave tone to them. Simply suggesting that Nicolas Armendariz plays keyboards doesn't come close to quantifying his contribution here. He conjures up a number of textures, one of them a drone that backs up most of the first song and another an agreeable old school Jon Lord organ sound. At points it goes for a hurdy gurdy sort of sound, which is really neat; by that point it had already combined with the guitars, to remind of Iron Butterfly.

Somehow, this opening song, which is called (Shades of) The Changing Man and which runs almost twelve and a half minutes, never seems excessive. It's not there to be an earworm but it's hardly a post-rock exercise in texture either and that middle ground is wide indeed.

One influence on this album that keeps getting cited is old school goth from the eighties and I can hear that. While it becomes more overt later on, the patience here isn't too far removed from the patience of the track that began that whole genre, Bauhaus's Bela Lugosi's Dead. However, I must emphasise that this does not remotely sound like that; it merely comes from the same roots.

Carrion Crows Skydiving, on the other hand, starts out like Tangerine Dream, ironic given that it's the shortest track on offer at a skimpy seven minutes. That's Armendariz's keyboards again, but they're soon joined this time by an agreeable riff from the appropriately named Joël Riffard and we quickly find ourselves in traditional seventies territory. Cachenaut's introspective vocal approach means that we don't stay there though, because he keeps bringing that goth feel back. He's more Jim Morrison here but clearly draped in black. I don't remotely have the background in eighties goth to suggest who he's echoing.

It's vocals and keyboards that leap out again on Whatever Knows Fear Burns at My Touch. I can't recall a rock album where the other instruments, especially the guitar, avoided the spotlight so efficiently! Riffard shows up with style, though, because the guitars crash onto this minimalist piece with effective dissonance, only to rush away again. It's clearly aiming for a heartbreaking effect and it does a pretty good, achingly slow job of it.

There's poetry here, but I didn't catch enough of it to suggest that it meets the challenge of the song titles. There's a fantastic line in A Funeral Pyre by Night though: "Wandering in the wastelands with a Bible and a gun." That's good stuff but the track fails to stand out as well as the others. It's easily the weakest song on offer here, though its presence is the sole reason for the last track to not be fully half the album.

That's Lift High the Veil of Maya and it runs over twenty-seven minutes. Holy crap! If the other tracks were patient, this one's a Buddhist monk who's been meditating so long and effectively that he's become mummified. It starts out softly to set the stage but there's some real heaviness on offer soon enough, which this album is surprisingly free of. It's emphatically stoner rock rather than stoner metal, because Sweven are clearly not interested in crunch.

Like much of the album, it's the keyboards of Nicolas Armendariz that lead the way. Nobody lets the side down here, though, and every member of the band gets a solid opportunity to make themselves notable. For quite a while, it's the rumbling bass of Quentin Aberne and the patient drums of Boris Senon underneath a wall of guitar that I'd call jangling if only that didn't conjure up inappropriate thoughts of U2. Cachenaut reprises his "Save me!" line often enough that we're almost at the point of wanting to help and, as always, Armendariz is never far from the action, in a variety of styles.

Like a few albums I've heard lately, from Ogmasun to Saor, I'm looking forward to enjoying this album, and especially its epochal final track, on headphones in the dark with no distractions.

Coventry - The Arrival (2019)

Country: Mexico
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 13 Feb 2019
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I couldn't resist checking out what this sounded like, given that I've never seen anyone like the young lady on the cover of this album on any of my trips to Coventry. Well, this band come from Ciudad Juárez on the other side of the Mexican border from El Paso, so I'm wondering where the band name came from. Googling doesn't help. It just points out that there are enough Mariachi bands in the city of Lady Godiva to warrant a top ten, which is pretty weird to me.

I don't recall Coventry being a hotbed of heavy metal, unlike Birmingham, only twenty miles away, which birthed the whole thing, courtesy of bands like Black Sabbath and Judas Priest. As a city, Coventry is probably better known for its ska revolution, courtesy of the Two Tone record label, rather than its metal bands like Bolt Thrower and Cathedral.

And hey, the influences of the Mexican band called Coventry seem to predate that, given that they're primarily a traditional heavy metal group, a lot of their sound sourced from the eighties, at the point when bands started to add some serious speed. The long notes that Luis Satyr hurls out are straight out of the NWOBHM era and there are plenty of Iron Maiden influences to be found, most obviously on the title track where Satyr really echoes Bruce Dickinson and the band follow suit with recognisably melodic Maiden guitar lines and crowd friendly backing vocals.

While The Arrival could easily have come out of the reject song pile for The Number of the Beast, Coventry aren't Maiden clones. Satyr emphasises that on tracks like You Die if You Try and Cordis Die where he goes for death growls instead, perhaps because both songs have the word "die" in their titles. He does mix it up on a wider basis, with tracks like Forget 'n' Forgive sounding more like a heavy ballad Metallica could have put onto the Black Album, right down to the James Hetfield inflections; or Mary Queen, which he introduces with a scream more akin to King Diamond, before moving into hardcore shouts.

I applaud the band for trying to avoid pigeonholes, but it's odd to hear the different vocal styles on similarly built tracks. I'm intrigued to hear that shouted hardcore chorus on Mary Queen suddenly turn into old school keyboards at the end. Using multiple vocal styles works as a contrast on You Die if You Try, where the clean and harsh vocals converse in interesting fashion. Given that we often hear both at once, I wonder if there's a guest on the album or one of the musicians is stepping up to share duties at the mike.

It works less when one track is in a completely different style to the next. To get away with that, you've got to go hog wild like Queen did on Sheer Heart Attack or Saigon Kick did on Water. When you're defining your sound as heavy metal in the traditional style, shifting from clean vocals to death growls on successive tracks makes me wonder if I'm listening to a compilation album not a single band's release.

For instance, going from the Metallica-esque Forget 'n' Forgive to an anthem like Something is Behind, which sounds much more like an arena rock band like Journey, is a little weird. The same goes from the shift from an Iron Maiden sound on The Arrival to the melodic death of Cordis Die.

I did like this album and Coventry are clearly able musicians, but I do feel that they need to figure out exactly what they want to sound like before the next album.

Monday 25 February 2019

Electric Mary - Mother (2019)

Country: Australia
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 15 Feb 2019
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Like Razzmattazz, Electric Mary have an overt fondness for old AC/DC and the vocal style of Rusty Brown has quite a few similarities to that of Bon Scott. Just listen to the phrasing on Gimme Love and Hold Onto What You Got! Unlike Razzmattazz, however, they're nowhere near being clones and there's heck of a lot more to their sound than just those ever-influential early AC/DC albums.

In fact, it evolves throughout the album, though that bluesy rock base in the Bon Scott era AC/DC style never really goes away, even on the tracks that move the furthest into other sounds like It's Alright and Long Long Day, though it gets a lot easier to forget on the latter. There's a hypnotic repetitive riff on the opener, Gimme Love, that marks the differences from the very beginning, but it does get much more overt.

It's the vocals that are different on It's Alright. Brown goes for a modern approach in the verses that's all about the rhythm of the words, somewhat akin to rapping but laid back and still kept firmly in a rock style (and here I'm thinking the approach of say, Billy Joel, in We Didn't Start the Fire, rather than someone like Kid Rock). When the chorus shows up, though it's firmly in the singalong Slade style, which is an odd transition but a good one.

On Long Long Day, it's the music that's most different. This starts out as a slow and doomy song, more metal than hard rock for the first time on Mother. Brown aims for a laid back Robert Plant vocal style (solo-era not Zeppelin) that evolves into more of an Axl Rose as the track heats up and becomes more overt courtesy of the psychedelic echo.

Before we get to that pair, Electric Mary really mix up how they're choosing to interpret that AC/DC influence. Hold Onto What You Got has a Black Crowes kick to it, but that's a very Angus Young solo in the middle. How Do You Do It digs deeper into the blues textbook but there's that Noddy Holder feel to the chorus again. The Way You Make Me Feel reminds of fellow Australians, Jet. I heard some Guess Who in the short album ender, Woman.

Sorry Baby starts out very much like an AC/DC song in structure but with some completely different tones, so it has a nineties feel even before the vocals show up to emphasise it. From there, it sounds a little like Lynyrd Skynyrd attempting Pearl Jam, which is a bizarre concept but a surprisingly palatable one.

In fact, the whole album plays with quite a lot of different influences. The AC/DC nods merely leap out early and stay in mind, but there's a lot of other stuff here. What makes me pay attention here is that every song on the album sounds different to every other song on the album, but only Long Long Day has the feel of a departure from their core sound.

That Electric Mary manage this without sacrificing quality is a huge deal and it speaks not only to the musicianship, which is incredibly deceptively tight, but to the songwriting too. No wonder they've landed a supporting slot on a lot of big tours!

If there's a downside, it's its length. There are only eight tracks on offer here and, between them, they only just nudge over half an hour. A couple more would have been very welcome indeed, but I'm not going to complain about eight strong tracks just because I'd have liked ten.

This is Electric Mary's fourth studio album and their first in eight years. I haven't heard the first three, so I can't comment on how they've evolved, but clearly I need to pick up the others.

Dream Theater - Distance Over Time (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 22 Feb 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

I've never been the world's biggest Dream Theater fan, though I have a great deal of respect and appreciation for what they've managed to achieve. On the other hand, my youngest son is a big fan. What's weird is that I liked this, their fourteenth studio album, more than he did, and I wonder why.

Some of it might be the different approach that the band took here. This runs under an hour, if you ignore the bonus track, and that hasn't happened since Images and Words in 1992. There are nine tracks, plus that bonus, and none of them reach lengths of double digits, At Wit's End coming closest at 9:20. The majority of these songs run from four to seven minutes, with only a couple of longer length.

Given that Dream Theater are as widely known and renowned today for long and intricate instrumental passages as Yes were back in the seventies, that's so odd as to be almost a change in musical direction. But fear not, die hards, this isn't a rap album or a country album or whatever else rock star midlife crises might generate to everyone's horror. This is still emphatically the Dream Theater you know and love, merely in smaller chunks.

If there's another difference, it's that this plays softer than I recall from previous albums. James LaBrie's voice has always had a softness to it but the band seems to be playing along more than usual this time. There are hard edges to be found, especially during instrumental sections, but they're sanded down for verses and choruses. With the shorter average song length, that affects a lot more material than it would usually, just through the laws of mathematics.

The problem with the softer material isn't that it's soft, it's that it often fades into the background. That's a songwriting flaw, especially with shorter, more condensed songs needing to be catchier. Untethered Angel, the initial single, is mildly catchy after a few listens but it's no earworm. S2N does a little better, but the keyboard runs are catchier than the vocals; that song has some kick in its Voivod-esque verses but loses it with its softer chorus in the style of Rush. However, there's a solid Pink Floyd feel to the second half of At Wit's End that shows that softer doesn't have to be worse.

The point is that I'm used to Dream Theater being in my face. Just because they were much more aggressive as Liquid Tension Experiment doesn't mean that they didn't have a "listen to this" attitude on a regular basis. Any band that strings tough instrumental sections out for twenty minutes at a time has to have that or they'll vanish and Dream Theater have emphatically never vanished.

The best material here still does that, but it doesn't do it too often. Most obvious is the second single, Fall into the Light, which opens rather like old school Metallica but evolves into all sorts of other styles. Room 137, which was written by drummer Mike Mangini for a change, has some brutality to it. At Wit's End is the most obvious track to feature twin runs from keyboards and drums that blister off into the distance.

There is an odd song here, but it isn't a cover even though it seems like it ought to be. That's probably why Viper King is the bonus track here, and the oddness is in its style. It feels like it's an old blues song originally made famous by early Black Sabbath but later translated into prog metal for this album. I dug this a lot, even though it isn't remotely representative of the rest of the album.

It's redundant to suggest that this band are incredible musicians more than willing to demonstrate that they're incredible musicians. While it's always easy to get blissfully lost in their instrumental sections, that's less easy here with the shorter songs. The problem is that the songwriting didn't step up to the plate to compensate. Distance Over Time is an enjoyable album but it's sadly mostly also a forgettable one.

Friday 22 February 2019

Tobias Sammet's Avantasia - Moonglow (2019)

Country: Germany
Style: Symphonic Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 15 Feb 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

It's almost two decades since Edguy vocalist Tobias Sammet unleashed his side project, Avantasia, onto the world with The Metal Opera and a sequel, inevitably titled The Metal Opera Pt. II. Well, for a side project, it's doing rather well, thank you very much, and this is their eighth album which apparently begins the fourth period of activity for the band.

Avantasia are rather like a Broadway musical, with all the theatrics and overblown melodies that might suggest, but performed by a European power metal band with a dozen different vocalists to meet any need that might arise. It's overblown stuff from first moment to last, which is why the guests feel like cast members rather than band members, but Avantasia are very aware of it and frankly revel in it. There are reasons why some of this has the bombastic arrogance of a Jim Steinman.

It has to be said that the core band are outrageously good at this to the point that the extremes, both soft and hard, are visited without seams, and I actually went back to a couple of moments to see how they did that.

For instance, the hard end comes three minutes into Book of Shallows. It's only a five minute song but there are four guest vocalists: Hansi Kürsch from Blind Guardian, Ronnie Atkins of Pretty Maids, Jørn Lande of Jørn and Masterplan and Mille Petrozza from Kreator. Yeah, you can see the odd man out there but the point where the track shifts into Petrozza's section is like a magic trick. It's power metal until we suddenly realise it isn't and we blink in shock and grin in admiration. And then it's all gone like a dream and we're back to where we were. This is surely the heaviest thing Avantasia have ever done but it feels utterly natural and we can't help but wonder if they've been doing it all along and we just didn't notice.

The soft end ought to be the presence of Candice Night on the title track and the soft acoustic guitarwork on The Raven Child does feel rather like it wouldn't have been out of place on a Blackmore's Night album. However, there are moments all over the album that dip tentatively into softness like a strawberry gaining a chocolate edge. Ronnie Atkins has a few such moments on Starlight, which somehow retains its power throughout.

Geoff Tate delivers a glorious vocal on Invincible, which is easily the best thing I've heard from him in years. It's a ballad in the Meat Loaf style with the inherent power of the chorus underlined by a bass that has ambitions of being a thunderstorm. He's on top form here but so is Bob Catley and listening to the both of them, plus Atkins and Lande and Eric Martin for good measure, on the same track, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, is fantastic. Hey, Three Tremors, this is how vocal duties can be viably shared on a song!

Given that I've mentioned almost all the vocalists thus far, I should add that Michael Kiske also returns, of course, given that he hasn't missed a full length Avantasia album thus far. The new fish this time out are Hansi Kürsch, Candice Night and Mille Petrozza, each of whom made their presence count. Kürsch in particular shines here, like he was there for the last seven albums and had it all down before starting here.

I haven't heard everything that Avantasia have done, but I've heard some of it, including the album that kicked things off for them, and I haven't enjoyed any of it to this degree before, right down to Sammet's bass runs on Requiem for a Dream.

The only real downside is the inclusion of an odd cover version, Michael Sembello's disco hit, Maniac, best known for its inclusion in Flashdance. It's not as embarrassing as it ought to be, but it feels notably out of place here, especially when a weird electronic backing kicks in halfway through. It's interesting B-side material but it should never have been included on the album. It lessens the rest.

The Ghost Next Door - A Feast for the Sixth Sense (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Doom/Stoner Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 8 Feb 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

I listen to a lot of music that doesn't make it to a review and this one came close to being passed over but there's something here that kept me listening. This is The Ghost Next Door's second album and it's primarily stoner metal with a heavy dose of doom but there are points when it veers off into completely different styles and somehow it all works.

For instance, it begins exactly as you might expect a stoner/doom album to begin, with Sabbath-inspired riffs and Ozzy-esque vocals, but the guitar is more melodic in nature, the sort of thing that brings Gregor Mackintosh from Paradise Lost to mind.

One track later, Fodder for the Meat Grinder, a title which ought to mean goregrind but completely doesn't, finds a couple of completely different sounds to mix on top of that doom/stoner base. It gets a lot quicker for a while and, at times, it's frantic stuff with some powerful vocal sustain from singer and The Ghost Next Door's main man, Gary Wendt. Then it shifts gears into a sort of modern alternative rock sound.

Doubt demonstrates how Wendt's vocals aren't always remotely as strong as his guitarwork. This is a weaker song because it aims for sheer power but fails to reach it, mostly because of those vocals. However, there's some real experimentation going on in the music that backs them because that's hardly a standard doom metal drum pattern. There are hints of Voivod here and Tool too, which is an enticing combination for something progressive and new.

I should add here that Doubt also shifts into an oddly soft interlude of noodling guitar. While most of this album is slow, it's not soft. There's a heaviness throughout that only dissipates on very deliberate occasions so that we can feel the contrast, kind of like feeling a deeper affinity for rain after the sun finally comes out.

The rest of the first half of the album continues on in this sort of vein, in the sense that it mixes the band's core stoner/doom sound with whatever seems to come to mind. Is that a slide guitar as American Nightmare kicks in? I do believe it is, and there are some recognisable Motörhead riffs in there later to keep things interesting.

Event Horizon shows how a Black Sabbath feel doesn't have to be there for a song to be heavy. This is oddly like a Pearl Jam 45 played at 33rpm. I get the downtuned rhythm sections in metal bands but this sounds like it features downtuned vocals. "We make the rules," sings Wendt. "We pull the strings." There are more traditional doom sections later in this song but the rhythms go back to Tool again and I guess Wendt is making up his own rules, which I think is the main reason this is staying in my head.

The vocals are a problem, because they're neither consistent enough nor original enough to work with a band that's agreeably all over the musical map. He has two go to voices, that Ozzy impression that slips on occasion to become a lot more nineties alternative and a shoutier style that never quite makes hardcore but certainly feels like trying.

The biggest problem, though, is the second half of the album. It would be easier if it just sucked, but it doesn't; it's just underwhelming after the diversity of the first half. None of the songs are bad, per se; they're merely not particularly good either, once American Nightmare gives way to Behind the Mask. The only aspect of note in the entire second half is the odd chantalong that The Sacrifice Person goes for and I'm hardly keen on that approach.

Gary Wendt is clearly an interesting character. I remember him from the thrash band Sacrilege B.C., a gig of whose I reviewed on a handwritten note and mailed off to Kerrang! magazine. I was only seventeen or so at the time and still wasn't shocked that they didn't print it. He was also part of Skinlab, who went from groove metal to nu metal, and Release, an alternative thrash band. Apparently he also studied with Joe Satriani, so it isn't surprising that his tastes are highly varied.

I like The Ghost Next Door and I love that frickin' cover, but Wendt has to either figure out a vocal style of his own or hire a singer if they're going to move on up. Also, diversity is great except when it's applied to quality. A Feast for the Sixth Sense is half of a feast and it's a tasty feast at that but, sadly, the other half is takeout.

Thursday 21 February 2019

Saor - Forgotten Paths (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Atmospheric Folk/Black Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 15 Feb 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | YouTube

Now, this is interesting stuff. Yeah, it's atmospheric black metal with a pervasive folk influence, but it's much more than that suggests, rather in keeping with the band's name, as Saor is apparently Gaelic for "free" or "unconstrained". Their sound is very much their own and I'm not hearing constraints of any sort.

I say "band" but Saor is really a solo project of Andy Marshall, who has other solo projects to his credit too, such as Fuath and Askival, both of which have albums out. Each is still primarily the work of the one man, though there are guests on this album and the final track apparently has nothing to do with him, being written by two other people and performed by one of them.

I wonder what he was trying to do with this album. Both the title and the cover art from Atterigner suggest a number of different ways of thinking. Are the forgotten paths he aims to highlight physical paths, through the forests of Scotland, as depicted so well in the evocative artwork? Are we talking about spiritual paths, as suggested by the prominence of the big horned skull in the foreground right next to the title? Perhaps the point is cultural paths, given the growing acknowledgement that Scotland is not England and frankly never was, even if they're both important parts of the UK. I have no idea and can only guess.

I've mentioned Scotland twice and, had I not known that Marshall is based in Glasgow, I'd have assumed that this was Scottish music anyway from the because of the folk melodies woven throughout. The bagpipes don't appear until the second track and they're not there for the usual reasons, being used as texture rather than as an overwhelming solo instrument. There's a flute that floats over a good deal of the title track and it couldn't have come from anywhere else.

Forgotten Paths, like the other two long tracks here, invites us to sit back and interpret what Marshall is trying to tell us. There are sections performed at pace, with rapid black metal drums and an urgency that can't be denied, whether accompanied by vocals or not, though they tend to also feature overt melodies soaring above them; there are contemplative parts, which often drop down to solo piano or soft guitar over drums; and there are sections that fall anywhere in between, each with its own flavour.

The primary two tones here are pastoral and aggressive, which is a pretty good way to describe Scotland. Marshall conjures up a selection of vistas which remind of a rural landscape that's beautiful and unspoilt but also often bleak and windswept. It's an environment that looks inviting and frankly is but it's also an environment full of dangers and which will happily fight you.

And there's that undertone too. The vocals tend to be gruff and are half buried in the mix, making them sound rather like the massed war cries of an approaching army tantalisingly on the other side of a hill or valley, just out of our sight. Even when we hear voices, the instruments are on top of them driving the music forward.

Battle often seems imminent here, even when all is calm. It feels like the calm before or, more frequently, after the storm, as the participants take stock of what went down and think about where to go next.

For all the folk sounds, I didn't get a sense of community here. There's no dancing and feasting and singing along together; this is nowhere near the more personal Viking metal style. The folk element is countryside and heritage and tradition, even when it's the clean guest vocals of Sophie Rogers on Bròn. This isn't music to listen to by the fire with a glass of whisky. It's music to listen to on the slopes of the Highlands with the wind and the trees joining in.

The Three Tremors - The Three Tremors (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy/Power Metal
Rating: 5/10
Release Date: 18 Jan 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website

Apparently, back in the early years of this millennium, Bruce Dickinson, Rob Halford and Geoff Tate, three of the most famous air raid sirens in the history of heavy metal, planned to put together a project called The Three Tremors, as an obviously metal take on the Three Tenors. It never really happened, beyond live renditions of Halford's 2000 track The One You Love to Hate, but, last year, a different trio took up that idea and ran with it, creating a project that has now resulted in a full length album.

That these particular three singers sound like those three singers is not accidental. Tim 'Ripper' Owens started out in a Judas Priest tribute band called British Steel before actually becoming Rob Halford's replacement in Judas Priest. Harry 'The Tyrant' Conklin may be a founding member of Jag Panzer, for whom he's sung since 1981, but he also sings in an Iron Maiden tribute band called Powerslave 2000. That leaves Sean 'The Hell Destroyer' Peck, of Cage and Death Dealer fame, who even looks like Rob Halford.

The problem that this project has is that each of these singers is easily capable enough to carry songs and albums on their own. None of them needs help from anyone else so, generally speaking, when one of them is doing his thing, the other two aren't, or, if they are, we're not hearing it. Occasionally, they do provide texture, like when they layer their voices in The Pit Shows No Mercy, but that happens too rarely.

Mostly, when they're singing together, they sound similar enough to each other that it takes a lot of attention to distinguish them. Mostly, when we hear a Bruce Dickinson voice in a lower register, we expect that it's Conklin, while the higher Rob Halford voice is surely Owens and Peck must be the rest, except that, when watching the video for Wrath of Asgard, it seems that Peck is the primary Halford voice. So who knows? Maybe we shouldn't listen to this album but watch it so that we can see who's singing.

Comparing the differences of Domingo, Carreras and Pavarotti was much of the point of the Three Tenors, but, far too often, this descends into a sort of competition as to who can scream the highest. There are points where this is Painkiller as the opposite of a limbo dance and that's stupid. "We have to go higher," they sing on When the Last Scream Fades. No. No, you don't.

The question on every song here is whether it benefits from having three singers rather than one and the answer is generally a no. There are a few moments when it really works, such as at the end of When the Last Scream Fades, but mostly they could have taken turns on different tracks or even each recorded the entire album separately to pretty much the same effect.

And I do wonder how that would have sounded! The musicians playing up a storm behind the three leads are the same musicians who back Peck in his regular band, so this could easily be seen as a Cage album with a couple of prominent guest vocalists. Arguably, the band have less opportunity to shine individually in this framework, but they do a fine job nonetheless.

Much of this is up tempo power metal that occasionally reaches the levels of speed metal bands like Exciter or Razor and not only on the songs with titles as overtly transparent as Speed to Burn. That sounds uncannily like Agent Steel covering Judas Priest once it gets going. When they slow down, like on Wrath of Asgard, they don't lose power at all, though it's cheesy as all get out.

"We're here to make you feel alive," they sing on the title track and I'm buying into that energy. This isn't the overblown vanity project that some people are suggesting and it's not that bad a power metal album on its own merits, though it does end better than it begins. As an album it's decent, hardly groundbreaking but enjoyable nonetheless.

However, as a concept, it's a failure. The whole point is to bring three singers with powerful voices together and this album highlights how that doesn't work. There's almost nothing here that wouldn't have sounded just as good with only One Tremor.

Wednesday 20 February 2019

Oomph! - Ritual (2019)

Country: Germany
Style: Industrial Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 18 Jan 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Rammstein are certainly more famous and more successful, but their fellow countrymen known as Oomph! established the Neue Deutsche Härte style back in 1994 with their second album, Sperm, a year before Rammstein released their debut, Herzeleid. What's more, Oomph! are still recording together and this, perhaps their lucky thirteenth studio album, is out on Napalm Records.

I'm sure they're getting fed up of Rammstein comparisons, but it's hard not to go there and not just because they play the same sort of driving militaristic dance metal with crunch. Like Rammstein, they sing primarily in German, the English album title not being extended to the tracks on it. Like Rammstein, they have never changed their line-up, with the core trio of Dero Goi, Andreas Crap and Robert Flux remaining in place since 1989, though they do add extra personnel when playing live.

Like many, I'm relatively new to Oomph! and I found this a solid effort. I found it little less immediate than what I'm used to from NDH music, which frankly has been pretty much restricted to the first half dozen Rammstein albums. I wasn't sold on a first listen and felt that it ran long, though my copy has a couple of bonus tracks and a remix. I appreciated it much more on a second listen.

That lack of immediacy may tie to the fact that, while tracks do try to distinguish themselves from each other in little ways, from the airplane noises on opener and second single Tausend Mann und ein Befehl, the cow at the beginning of Lass' die Beute frei or the sharpening knives on Seine Seele, all the songs tend to end up in similar places. It takes effort on the part of the listener to find their different grooves.

Only if we persevere can we really start to find the different tones. The album kicks off with a powerful militaristic song in Tausend Mann und ein Befehl (or A Thousand Men and One Order) but ends with a softer lament in Seine Seele (or His Soul). In between it sometimes leans towards a radio-friendly commercial edge, on Europa or the first single Kein Liebesleid (No Love Song), but sometimes to a harder and more brutal sound, like on Das Schweigen der Lämmer, which has a lead vocal in the Nick Holmes style, clean but with a steady and sustained rasp.

Oddly, one of the catchiest songs on the album is the least likely to be heard on the radio because it's entitled TRRR - FCKN - HTLR and, as it's the closest to the English language you'll find on this album, it's about precisely what you think it is. And there's a big difference between the band and Rammstein; I believe that Oomph! have managed to avoid a whole slew of controversies, political and otherwise. Writing a song as blatant as this can't hurt that track record.

There are a lot of NDH bands out there nowadays and Oomph! are about to tour with a couple of them, Nervenbeisser and Heldmaschine. I can't see Ritual becoming a favourite like Rammstein's Mutter but it's a good album and it may finally prompt me to look backwards into Oomph!'s considerable back catalogue and sideways to some of the other NDH bands. Hopefully it will do same for you.

Mooner - O.M. (2019)

Country: Indonesia
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 8 Feb 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram

The term 'supergroup' is one of the most overused in rock music. It's got to the point where any band who can claim that every member used to play in a different band is a supergroup and that's nonsense. However, it's always been a relative thing, not just speaking to the importance of the musicians to the world at large but to a particular scene too.

Case in point: Mooner. I hadn't heard of them until now but they have at least one prior album out, called Tabiat. Apparently they're a supergroup, because they number members of The Slave, The SIGIT, Signum and Sarasvati amongst their line up. Now, I haven't heard of any of those bands either and I can't help noticing that every one of their names begins with an S—hey, just like supergroup!—so it all seems a little fishy. The underlying point, though, is that my knowledge about psychedelia in Indonesia is so shallow that I'd struggle to even name another band, so I have absolutely no reason to deny that this is a supergroup.

I should add that The SIGIT, a band co-founded by Mooner's bass player, Rekti Yoewono, is apparently an acronym standing for The Super Insurgent Group of Intemperance Talent, so this isn't the first supergroup for some of them. That's such a supergroup that it says it in its very name!

Mooner, supergroup or not, almost lost me at the very beginning because the brief opening track, Indo, sounds rather like a sitar being tuned up and little more. When Kelana threatened to start in a similar way, I was about to give up on O.M. and try another album in the hopes of finding something interesting, but then they shifted into gear and hooked me just like that. Ten songs later and I felt happy and weird and energised. I can't claim to know much here, but I do know that I like it a lot.

What leaps out first with Mooner is the sweetness of Marshella Safira's vocals. They're soft and cuddly, almost at the level of twee pop but with odd little reminders of other genres. I couldn't be sure halfway through Umara whether her voice was transported in from an Ennio Morricone soundtrack or a Martin Denny album. There's some glorious use of sustain in her voice here whatever influences guided her.

However, the softness of Safara's voice never takes the band down a road like the Cardigans, because the musicians behind her play a lot heavier music. That sweet to heavy bounce is most evident in Ilat, with a return for the sitar, which is wonderful texture in front of a wall of fuzz. It reaches Black Sabbath riffing towards the end, but the interplay between sweet vocals and harsh guitar is almost a conversation.

I'm sure there are Indonesian sounds all over the place here, but I don't have any depth in the local scene to identify them. It's easier for me to groove with the vibrant vocals on Menenggala, soar with the flute and then join in on the joyous scramble towards the end, not knowing whether that's entirely original or a nod to a local style.

I can speak to more general variance. The guitar gets fuzzy on Gasang and ends up duelling with another towards the end above a staccato backing. How does that work with only one guitarist? Maybe they have two now or a guest showed up. Aram gets funky while Renjana is slower and more bluesy. Everything is psychedelic but that trawls in everything from the Beatles to Iron Butterfly and there's definitely range here.

What's odd is that the songs are all short until we get to the last two, which are much longer. Lamun Ombak is almost twice as long as any of the previous nine tracks and it's a peach. M. Absar Lebeh's guitar ventures into the honeyed territory of Safira's voice and it's laid back bliss for a while. Halfway, Safira gets adamant and the track becomes a ritualistic piece, as if commanding us to do something or other. Umara is almost as long and, again there's a lot of depth in there to explore.

This is happy stuff, folks, even when it takes a journey into the sandbox of the blues. It's a frolic into exotic psychedelic territory, presumably best taken after a tab of acid. I highly recommend it and I'm now eager to track down their first album, Tabiat.

Tuesday 19 February 2019

Prophets of Yahweh - Oronodromozro (2019)

Country: India
Style: Progressive Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date:
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | YouTube

India isn't a country most of us would generally associate with extreme metal, but apparently there's a growing scene there, led by established bands like Eccentric Pendulum, Undying Inc. and especially the blackened death of Demonic Resurrection, who have five albums out and have played Wacken and Inferno. Metal Archives lists 69 active death metal bands in India and they haven't even added Prophets of Yahweh yet.

Googling the band's name doesn't help much. Apparently they were formed back in 2012 and this album took them six years to record. ReverbNation lists a few band members but I could only find one of them mentioned on their Facebook page, so that may or may not be out of date. Regardless, there's no vocalist mentioned and there are clearly vocals here. All we really have to go on is this album, which is fortunately a strong debut.

I'm not even sure why they call themselves Prophets of Yahweh, again not the sort of band name you might expect in a country where 94% are either Hindus or Muslims. Maybe it's because the stories of Obadiah and Jezebel in the Bible are notably metal. Obadiah was a majordomo in the palace of Ahab, the King of Israel, whose Queen, Jezebel, wanted him to shift the worship of Yahweh, the Iron Age god of Samaria, to a fertility god named Baal. When she ordered the prophets of Yahweh to be massacred, Obadiah chose to hide a hundred of them in a couple of caves. Jezebel was later thrown out of a window where her corpse was eaten by stray dogs, while Baal faded away into extreme band names such as Baal Zebub or Intestine Baalism. I'd listen to the Obadiah/Jezebel concept album!

I have no idea if this is that concept album, though there's clearly a mystic aspect to the affair and the apparently invented title (with the suffix of "The Holy Spell") works well in the endless mandala on the cover. The title track, which kicks things off, has a droning ritual vocal but I don't know if this is meant to represent the worship of Yahweh, Baal or just the crushing metal riffs to come. The sound is dense, whether the band play fast or slow and the vocals are low in the mix, all making this sound as influenced by black metal as death. Oronodromozro evolves into a guitar chugfest with almost bell like melodies, so there's a lot going on in under six minutes.

There's a lot going on in the remaining half an hour too. What seems wild to me is that the melodies, presumably courtesy of lead guitarist Jithin Peter, remain relatively consistently patient throughout, even though the rest of the band change pace constantly, from ploddingly slow to brutal hyperspeed. Exodus, for instance, starts slow but keeps on speeding up until the drums become so fast that I'm wondering if the unknown drummer invented the triple or quadruple bass technique. Either that, or it's a drum machine.

I found the album as a whole to be an exercise in texture. There's a real array of styles on show here, from the brutal approach on No More to the thrashy early parts of WW3 and the black metal wall of sound in play on Exodus. Each of these has a different texture because of that, though the tracks still play consistently together.

To my mind, the most interesting track here is the last one because it has the most texture. That's Lucid Dream which is appropriately named. It has the most exotic feel, not merely because of the fascinating and often minimal drums but because the vocals become an instrument and the guitar takes the lead role, repeating motifs almost hypnotically. It's spiritual and meditative even though it's utterly in your face, which I think is a neat trick to be able to pull off.

This is an interesting album. I think it would have benefitted from more variety in the vocals, such as the addition of a clean or even a female voice, but I'm not complaining about the end result.

Voidnaut - Nadir (2019)

Country: Greece
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 Feb 2019
Sites: Facebook | YouTube

I love exploring the many subgenres of metal to see how bands are merging atmospheric black with brutal death and adding in elements of symphonic power and Middle Eastern folk or whatever heady mixture they've figured out this week. Sometimes, though, it's good to settle down with some good old fashioned heavy metal.

Voidnaut, who hail from Athens in Greece, are a relatively straightforward heavy metal band with clean vocals, clean guitar and a clean sound. The closest they get to extreme is some occasional double bass drumming. The shouty hardcore vocals that pop up now and again are there for effect and are hardly an underground texture nowadays. This is commercial through and through and it ought to find airplay on American metal radio stations.

I should add that it's commercial in a very American sense rather than a traditional British one. Unlike most European metal bands, they obviously worship at the altar of Disturbed rather than Iron Maiden and they're far more fundamentally American in sound than, say, Avenged Sevenfold, who somehow got away with combining those usually mutually exclusive influences into something radio friendly.

What I should emphasise here that I wouldn't lump Voidnaut in too closely with nu metal, which any conversation about commercial American metal of this millennium will inevitably raise, because this isn't just loud pop music and they don't fall prey too often to the technique of quietening the music every time they get to a verse so that we can listen to the singer instead. It does happen but not very often and oddly mostly on the heavier tracks on offer.

Instead, there are strong riffs on tracks like This Pain is Mine and good solos on tracks like Damage Done. Songs like Control and Savage World betray an overt Pantera influence, maybe some Sepultura too. It's heavy stuff and the fact that it remains commercial without a hint of Black Sabbath to be found anywhere on the album really shouldn't be a problem. Maybe the suggestion that Road to Nowhere kicks off like Judas Priest or Accept is enough.

I don't know much about the band, other than that they were formed in 2013 and three of the four members are called Kostas. I have no idea what they each do except for Kostas Alexakis being the drummer, but that's probably fine because nobody really outshines anyone else. The singer doesn't steal the show and neither does the guitarist. Everyone just does their job and plays the part in the band. That's just one reason why Nadir doesn't feel like a nadir, even if it isn't a zenith yet.

I wonder how long Voidnaut will stay in Athens. They're clearly good at what they do but their audience is just as clearly on the other side of the pond, especially as they sing in English without any overt accent to make it difficult to follow the lyrics. I'd expect them to pull up their roots at some point and relocate to the US, where they deserve to find a good deal of success.

Maybe, in twenty years, high school kids will be talking about Voidnaut without having a clue that they're Greek, even if three of the band members are still called Kostas.

Monday 18 February 2019

Ogmasun - Into the Void (2019)

Country: Switzerland
Style: Post-Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 25 Jan 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Here's an interesting album that doesn't sound remotely like anything I've reviewed thus far at Apocalypse Later, which works well with my primary mission of discovery. Maybe this will open a door for you.

Ogmasun are Swiss and they're a post-rock band, which means that they're interested less in riffs and hooks (and all the other component parts that you might see as crucial to rock music) and more in conjuring interesting soundscapes out of traditional rock instruments like guitars and drums.

I've found this post-rock approach fascinating because I've long enjoyed it from electronica bands, like Tangerine Dream, who started out within the Krautrock scene. The evolving soundscapes here initially reminded me of Tangerine Dream, just with more drums and fewer synths. Like Phaedra and Rubycon and Ricochet, the "songs" on Into the Void run notably long. This album lasts over thirty-six minutes but it only contains two tracks. We can ascertain movements within them, but they're not defined.

Also, neither feature vocals in the traditional sense of a singer, though there is a periodic use of vocals as instrument and the whole thing kicks off with what I presume is a sample of a young lady recounting what might be a dream or a vision or an acid trip, some sort of wild exploration of inner space that doesn't follow regular logic. Then the cymbals layer in and some sort of echoing electronica and we're off and running.

This isn't heavy stuff for a while but it finds a groove and settles down to hypnotise us with the rhythm of it. Gradually it evolves, bringing in other instruments and moods. There's some fantastic bass work a quarter of the way into Space Bears Chilling in a Hot Spring, the opening track. It all cheers up halfway through after the space bears repair the misshapen hands of our tripping heroine or whatever's going in the sample.

At points, though, it gets notably faster than Tangerine Dream and their ilk ever got, maintaining their mindset but bringing it up to date with driving textures like those I've getting used to from the more inventive black metal bands like Wolves in the Throne Room. Frankly, if anyone had given me "Tangerine Dream meets Wolves in the Throne Room" as an elevator pitch for a band, I'd have initially thought them completely nuts then promptly passed over the cash for the album.

It also has moments that are gloriously heavy. A third of the way into a gentle and relaxing Cote 304, the second and final track, there's a heavy use of bass and organ that's absolutely glorious. When it all speeds up halfway through, there's a somthering fuzziness to one guitar that plays wonderfully off the simple chiming of the other. It progresses into some fascinating use of feedback.

Perhaps most notably, there are some slow power chords during its finalé that's a sheer delight, even if the entire end section feels extended. The frantic fuzzy part starts to slow down six minutes before the track ends, it gets doomy and minimalistic with three minutes left on the clock and the last couple are primarily taken up by a single dissipating drone and those periodic echoing power chords.

It's moments like these that highlight just how long Cote 304 is because we're caught up so much by the build that we lose track of just how long that build is, but the slowdown, which actually takes less time, feels a lot longer because so little is actually happening.

I liked this a lot, listening through on repeat in my office, and I look forward to popping it on again through headphones in a dark room. It's a journey and I wonder where it'll take me when I get rid of everything in my surrounding area that's distracting me from the experience.

Pallas Athena - The Awakening (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Symphonic Metal
Rating: 5/10
Release Date: 1 Feb 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook

Oh wow, I almost didn't finish this debut EP from Manchester progressive symphonic metal band Pallas Athena, not to be remotely confused with the Scottish progressive rock band Pallas, because its production is beyond awful. That's a major part of why I only rated this 5/10. The music deserves another point at least and very possibly more.

By awful, I mean truly outrageously awful. I felt like I was listening to it through a tin can full of mud, while the high end of talented vocalist Vickie Harley is sadly lost in a mess of hiss. Sibilance! Sibilance! I honestly bought demos on cassette back in the eighties that were probably recorded in basements but still sound better.

However, I figure that most people who might lean towards reviewing this may discard it for that reason and there's good stuff here that deserves to not be ignored just because of painful production. Like some of those demos, there's promise here that I hope the band follow up on. While I'd usually say that for a young band who have good ideas and just need time to build them towards a full length album, here I just want to hear what the band actually sound like.

Before the Dawn is easily the standout track for me here, but I'd suggest that there's interesting material to be found in all of these songs. This is the longest on the EP, running over seven minutes, and it's a suitably symphonic performance, led by Harley's resonant soprano. The backing is mostly catchy prog rock, which reminded me often of the underrated prog rockers Nova Mala Strana, but it ventures at points into doom, NWOBHM and even occult rock territory too, given that the section she sings in Latin (I think) plays out like a ritual.

Pallas Athena's page on Bandcamp suggests that their goal is to merge the operatic style of symphonic metal with more extreme metal sounds and an "atmospheric stage performance" which is obvious from the photos on their Facebook page. Maybe it's the production, but I didn't hear much extreme material behind Harley's voice at all.

Most of what I did hear was vocals. Gloria opens up the album with a neat choral feel, there are dreamy backing vocals on The Curse of Arachne and an eastern European choral flavour to the vocal interplay that wraps up The Summoning. When I could hear other things behind the static, pops and mud that constantly annoyed me, like the neat bass line that kicks off Lilith and the simple piano that does likewise for The Curse of Arachne, it wasn't extreme. Interesting, sure, but hardly a template for extreme symphonic metal.

The Awakening runs long for an EP—I've reviewed a full album that was two minutes shorter than this—but it features only five tracks. Pallas Athena are clearly happy with longer, more exploratory prog songs and they seem to be very able to mix the songwriting skills of James Horn with the vocal talents of Vickie Harley.

In short, there's a good band in here somewhere. I just wish I could hear what the heck they're doing. If I was still living in Yorkshire, I'd pop over to hear them live because they seem to be a busy stage act. Now I'm five thousand miles away, I'll have to settle for a wish that this gets a prompt remix and re-release or they hire a different producer for a full length album.

Friday 15 February 2019

Bloodmores - The Seeds of Seasons (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Death/Thrash Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 1 Feb 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | YouTube

So there I was at four o'clock in the morning, in bed with headphones on, sampling a bunch of albums to see if any leapt out as obvious candidates for review and Bloodmores kicked me in the frickin' teeth. The bastards. So much for sleep.

This is a peach of an album, the sort of death-infused progressive thrash that I was digging so much in the UK as the late eighties became the early nineties, a scene which I miss dearly. The Seeds of Seasons may well run a tad too long—and I'm talking about the album here as well as the fourteen minute title track—but there's no doubt that I'll be playing this a heck of a lot.

For some reason, thrash never reached the levels of success in the UK back then that it did in the US and Germany, but the scene was a healthy one with vibrant and talented bands like Slammer, Virus and Onslaught leading the way for a whole slew of lesser known names. I loved Catharsis, Fallacy and Darkened live and on demos just as I loved Metal Messiah, Hydra Vein and Deathwish, who made it to the point of releasing actual albums.

Bloodmores play thrash the way I love it most, like an old school heavy metal band with a taste for melodic power were tight enough musically to be able to ramp all the way up to serious speeds without losing either their tasty riffs or the driving oomph to generate a serious pit. Listen to a song like Save Your Prayers to hear the epitome of this.

It kicks in hard and heavy, with the sheer power of a Toranaga, but faster drums from Chris Mansell make us want to create a pit wherever we happen to be. Then they generate a glorious riff from which they can construct the next five minutes. They know how to slow down and they emphatically know how to speed back up. The vocals of Alex Cunliffe are harsh but not so far down that road that we can't keep up with what he's singing. He also plays guitar, as does Richard Jodrell, and while I don't know which one is soloing while the other is underpinning with that riff, I do know that both of them do glorious work. And the track also knows how to end, leaving us bright eyed and satisfied but still wanting more.

Seriously, this album is worth buying just for Save Your Prayers alone, but that's just one track of nine included here and it's not the fastest, the longest or the most worthy of exploration. It's just a track that a lot of other bands would kill to be able to write, let alone be able to pull off with this apparent ease. Bands with million sellers behind them ought to be drooling at the effortless power and style that Bloodmores demonstrate as they kick off tracks like A Monument to Illusions or Blind to the Fore.

While there's a consistent sound throughout, they do mix it up. There are frantic songs and more patient ones. Many move from one to the other. The title track that closes out the album is a notably progressive piece with sections that gallop and sections that blister but also sections that are calmly introspective. Everyone gets their moment in the spotlight on this track and Bloodmores are so tight musically that I could listen to their instrumental sections all day.

So, what's wrong here? Well, Bloodmores hail from the wrong side of the Pennines but I can't hold that too much against them. The bass of Connor Heelis has little intention of doing anything flash; it does come out for special attention a few times but it's mostly content with playing its part in the ruthless wall of sound that propels the band forward. Alex Cunliffe is also a much more notable guitarist than he is a vocalist; he does nothing wrong on the mike but he hasn't found a unique delivery and may not have looked for one. So yeah, there are flaws but not one of them has any real negative effect.

This is great stuff period but it's especially great stuff for a debut album. Bloodmores combine the power and majesty of Toranaga, the heavy back end of Onslaught and the catchiness of commercial Satyricon, often done at the speed of a Xentrix. Now why am I still on the other side of the pond? I need to see this band live!

Razzmattazz - Hallelujah (2019)

Country: Germany
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 6 Feb 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website

If you haven't figured out Razzmattazz's chief inspiration after about two seconds of opening track A Gun for Hire, then you just haven't been paying attention. If these Stuttgart rockers hadn't released four award-winning albums (the new one was winning more before it even came out), I'd wonder if they were an AC/DC tribute band performing lost Bon Scott songs from an alternate universe. Someone tell me that this and Drive-By Shooter aren't unrecorded songs scavenged from the Powerage sessions!

Razzmattazz claim three influences on their Bandcamp page, AC/DC being an unsurprising first. The second is ZZ Top and that's obvious on Cold Rain, which ditches AC/DC for a moment in favour of the Texan trio. ZZ Top are also overt on Lawbreaker, which also betrays a third unacknowledged source of musical inspiration, namely fellow Germans Accept, and here's where the band get a little more interesting.

Drive-By Shooter isn't just AC/DC influenced, it sounds just like AC/DC. It's the most obvious AC/DC song not recorded by AC/DC since Dirty Looks recorded Oh Ruby. Cold Rain sounds just like ZZ Top with the differences in vocals explained away by modern production. And Going Down sounds just like Balls to the Wall era Accept, right down to its chugging guitar and its audience participation singalong section.

And, frankly, that's pretty much all you need to know. If you're digging on the idea of new music that sounds like Accept, AC/DC and ZZ Top, this will be right up your alley.

By comparison, Lawbreaker doesn't sound like any of them individually and that's an important difference for a band who don't want to become known as a clone. Lawbreaker sounds like Accept were happily recording a ZZ Top song when Bon Scott wandered over from a neighbouring studio to jam with them and they liked it so much that it made it onto the album. It's a wild combination in my book. Wolle Heleck adds some extra rasp to evoke Udo Dirkschneider and Peter Ucik's bass echoes Dusty Hill gloriously. Sure, it's parallel universe weirdness but it's good parallel universe weirdness.

The third influence the band does cite is NWOBHM generally and I can, erm, accept that, but I'm not hearing anyone specific. For instance, there's no Diamond Head, Iron Maiden or Def Leppard to be found on any of these ten tracks. There's no Saxon, no Girlschool and certainly no Venom. Frankly, I caught a lot more glam rock instead, because the title track has a notable Hanoi Rocks vibe to it, as if it's LA-style hair metal recorded by a band who aren't remotely from LA but know the style even better than the bands who were born and bred there.

That Hanoi Rocks sound helps to avoid a crack like Razzmattazz being '80s rock not from A to Z but from A and Z because that's unfair. These are all original songs and they're upbeat and worthy, even if their inspirations are completely transparent. I enjoyed the whole album and I bet they kick serious ass on stage. And hey, could that cover image be more gloriously eighties if it tried? I just wish they could find a way to combine their influences into something new.

Thursday 14 February 2019

Deever - You Need This (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 1 Feb 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

I'm loving the feedback I'm getting from readers and one suggestion that came out of my Inglorious review was to seek out the forthcoming Deever album. That's not a random suggestion, by the way, as Deever was founded and is led by Billy Taylor, who was the rhythm guitarist on the first two Inglorious albums, though he left a couple of years before everyone else.

Beyond Nathan James's ego, it's clear from this album that he had other reasons to leave Inglorious, not least that the sound he was looking for is very different.

Without casting aspersions on the various able musicians who have worked Inglorious, that's very much a band led by its singer, from whose vocals everything else is built. Deezer are a band led by its musicians, with the guitars of Taylor and Stevie Stoker front and center on almost everything and the bass of Phil Appleton occasionally taking over too.

That means that songs are songs rather than showcases and the singer here is Taylor himself, who stepped up to the microphone when forming Deezer. He's a decent singer, albeit one whose voice isn't ever going to lead him onto a TV talent show. I'd suggest that Foo Fighters didn't just influence Deezer's music but their approach too. Nobody listens to the Foo Fighters primarily for Dave Grohl's voice but it does the precise job it needs to do and it helps the songs, just as Taylor's does here.

Oddly, my favourites generally aren't the singles, which began with the opener, Fire at Will, then progressed through All Come Running to Alright and now include Only Enemy too. They're all good songs, but they're not the catchiest here. All Come Running is the pick of those four for me, with its patient melody and a catchy and driving bass riff that leads the track not just the intro, something that we don't hear too often nowadays.

To my thinking, Waves is the standout of the album. It's a punchy track that immediately takes a hold of the inside of your skull and progresses with a punk pop pace that'll have fans bouncing throughout. It's also a great example of the teamwork the band has. The drums and backing vocals are most obvious here but the bass makes itself heard too and the guitars blister through the faster parts like they're salmon whipping down a run. I adore the guitars on this song!

Technically Waves is the shortest track on the album and I am the Cavalry, my other favourite, is the longest, but there's less than half a minute between them. I can't remember the last album I heard where that was the case! This is another bouncy pop punk song with some neat pauses that should be all over the airwaves. None of the songs here run over four minutes and everything is commercially viable and radio friendly without ever losing its punch. Well, OK, Only Enemy isn't radio friendly but there's a radio edit of it here too that is.

The worst thing about the album is easily the cover, which is simple and elegant but really doesn't say anything. I tend to dig minimalist but the band needed something more substantial for their debut.

The best thing is that the songs are so consistent that I have a feeling my favourites may change next week or next month. I've had it on repeat for most of a day and the lesser songs are getting stronger and stronger, while the more immediate ones keep showing me new depths.

I really hope that Deever find substantial radio play because every song on offer is an earworm and every one of them deserves a shot at infecting the collective country's brain. So, do you need this? Yeah, I'd say so and more than the Inglorious album too.

Hecate Enthroned - Embrace of the Godless Aeon (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Melodic Black/Death Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 25 Jan 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

Welsh black metallers Hecate Enthroned have had something of a tumultuous career since they were founded in Wrexham way back in 1995. Band members have come and gone, their musical identity has proved rather fluid and a steady release schedule has evaded them, even though they've never actually split up.

At least this album comes only six years after the last one, compared to the nine between that and its predecessor. With only three albums since 1999's Kings of Chaos, Hecate Enthroned appear to be working to a Guns n' Roses type release schedule and they aren't close to being established enough to get away with that.

The good news is that this is pretty good stuff and if they can knock out another couple of albums of this quality over the next few years, maybe their fandom can coalesce and reviewers can quit treating them like the lesser man's Cradle of Filth. Sure, Sarah Jessica Deva features on a few tracks here, some heavily, but those comparisons were never fair way back and they're less fair now. Cradle of Filth's genre of choice has evolved quite considerably over time and this album sees their old friends and rivals moving notably back towards their old school black metal roots.

The blistering sustained pace of Revelations in Autumn Flame, for instance, is a statement and a half, with symphonic keyboards soaring far above a bleak black metal landscape. Temples That Breathe, the only other track here to clock in at under five minutes, follows suit.

The rest of the album moves into other territory but, especially through the efforts of new vocalist Joe Stamps, who shrieks more than he growls, the band rarely leave the black far behind them. Whispers of the Mountain Ossuary, for instance, is often slower but it's just as shrieky. Deva adds a gothic edge, as her soaring soprano tends to do, but she contributes a layer of texture far more than any change of musical direction. Even her theatrical contribution to Goddess of Dark Misfits with its playful piano never really comes off as gothic, merely gothic flavoured.

There are a few tracks with piano and the band are very fond of wrapping up tracks with it, an approach that may be a little overdone here. None of those tracks work so well as Enthrallment, for instance, where the piano is integral throughout. This is the real highlight for me, a song able to evoke My Dying Bride as much as Emperor and which also knows exactly when to end.

Too many songs here don't, including Erebus and Terror, the nine minute epic that wraps up the album in odd fashion. There's a lot of imaginative stuff going on within it, not least Deva's contribution, but it forgets what it's doing and can't figure out where to go to finish up properly. A black metal album should leave us battered and very aware of the silence that follows it. Embrace of the Godless Aeon, for all the good it does, leaves us wondering what we missed.

Perhaps it's just too long. It marks a welcome return to a sort of form for Hecate Enthroned, but some judicious editing and a little cleanup here and there would have made it a lot more than it ended up being.