Friday 29 March 2019

Imperia - Flames of Eternity (2019)

Country: The Netherlands
Style: Symphonic Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 22 Feb 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Given that I'm virtually wandering through the Netherlands today, I thought I should wrap up with the new Imperia album, given that they're major enough to have a Wikipedia page (even if it's skimpy), four prior albums over a decade and a half with a pretty stable line up (the only changes have been the loss of a guitarist and keyboard player in 2010) and connections to Epica (singer Helena Iren Michael and drummer Steve Wolz used to be in Sahara Dust before it renamed to Epica in 2003).

Of course, while the band is based in the Netherlands, the individual members are from everywhere else, so I'm kind of cheating. Michael is Norwegian and Wolz is German. Guitarist Jan "Örkki" Yrlund is a Finn and bass player Gerry Verstreken hails from Belgium. So, nobody here is Dutch but hey.

I found that I want to like this a lot more than I did, given that it checks off most of my wants list.

It slams right into action from the outset with serious bombast on The Scarred Soul. Every single instrument wants to be big and they manage it, with orchestration behind them to make them even bigger still. None of this is remotely subtle (by the time the Spanish guitar shows up, the band have thrown everything but the kitchen sink at the song), but it's effective. I like it.

And there are another eleven songs to go, because this is a long album, just under an hour's running time. They keep mixing it up too, not least through an array of styles that Michael is able to perform. The reason that Fear is an Illusion is notably heavier is partly due to her harsh death growls, but just two songs later, she's lifting her voice to operatic levels on Book of Love. She's versatile and talented.

So are the musicians behind her. They bulk up to crunch Fear is an Illusion, speed up to blister through Blinded and soften up for ballads like Beauty Within or the piano version of Mother that closes the album. Many songs are able to move from one style to another, Invisible Tears starting out as like a ballad as could be comfortably imagined, with airy orchestration, Spanish guitar and swelling keyboards, but getting progressively heavier and more emotional until the midpoint, after which it starts to soften back up again.

Imperia call themselves a symphonic gothic metal band, but there's certainly a lot more symphonic than there is gothic here. In fact, many tracks, especially during the second half, move into folk territory. Otherside kicks off with jaunty flutes and there's a solid violin solo in the middle. Beauty Within gets so folky that I wonder if a Renaissance Festival band was in the next door studio and popped in to jam. The Ocean's flutes aim at middle eastern flavours and that's emphasised when the belly dancing music kicks in.

While I do want a lot more gothic from my gothic metal bands, symphonic or otherwise, I'm fond of folk metal too. That's fine. So what went wrong? I think the problem is that a lot of these songs, while they're different in details and instruments and melodies, somehow feel very similar, especially in tone. These aren't bad songs, though the vocal rhythms on Beauty Within are oddly awkward; they're just doing the same sort of thing and that blurs.

There's nothing wrong with a song like Unspoken Words, for instance, and I liked its brief piano ending, but it feels better as it happens three songs into the album than it does in hindsight once we've got past twelve. I can't say I didn't like Flames of Eternity but I didn't miss it when it was done and that's telling for me. Usually there's a song or a texture or a melody I want to immediately return to. Here, I was fine with the silence, even if I wasn't upset at anything that came before it.

I don't think this is going to generate flames of eternity as much as it'll be consumed by them.

Into the Arcane - Sleepless We Lie, Thoughtless We Cry (2019)

Country: The Netherlands
Style: Doom/Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 23 Mar 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

OK, given that I've been spending a day in different European countries this week, you just knew I was going to end up in Sweden, right? Wrong! That's far too easy because there's far too much good stuff coming out of Sweden of late and I'm liking this concept so much that I'll surely come back to it shortly. Today, I'm listening to Dutch bands and first up are Into the Arcane, a doom/death band from Zeeland, whose debut album is interesting to say the least!

It's a concept album, with each track a chapter in the story, all introduced in the opening narration, Dr. Philips and the Arcane Disorder. We're in 1867 and he's found a global connection behind his investigations into "a string of weird and unexplainable accounts of madness and despair". It's the Arcane Disorder and this is a musical interpretation of those imaginary stories.

As a long term steampunk and co-founder of an adult Victorian oddities group, I was very happy to see this concept. The lyrics are relatively simple, but trawl in an agreeably broad range of fears, from relatively routine ones like night terrors and phantom limbs to truly outré ones like seeing everyone else as reptilian or not being able to breathe unless it's a conscious decision. I recognise a few, like Cotard's Syndrome and schizophrenia, but kudos to Erik Noten, vocalist and lyricist on getting the word "prosopometamorphosia" into the lyrics of a metal song.

Given that this is doom/death, of course, you'll have to read those lyrics as they're not always intelligible, even when they're sung in English (one song and part of another are performed in Dutch). I caught most of them and it has to be said that there aren't too many, even eight minute songs like the title track featuring a few short verses and a chorus of a single line. That's not an unusual occurrence here.

The music is relatively minimalist too, but that's not a bad thing. The band is small, three musicians on the usual instruments plus Noten on vocals, and they generally play slow but with feeling. There's a comfortable tone to the music, dark and deep but warm and often bouncy in a slow, aching way, so it's easy to snuggle up close to the material so that Noten can relate his tales of madness to us in theatrical snarls and growls. He's a beloved demon.

Like many concept albums, there are extras laid over the music. There are a few examples of spoken word during songs, including an excerpt from a study by David Rosenhan, On Being Sane in Insane Places, which I really ought to read. Eight people including himself were committed to psychiatric hospitals due to hallucinations that they'd made up for the study. Once inside, they behaved normally but were all diagnosed with disorders, forced to admit to them and blocked from release until they'd taken antipsychotic drugs.

Much of the effect here doesn't come from such excerpts but from relatively simple tricks that immerse us in the concept, things like audible breathing at the right moments. I also liked the way that some songs feature prominent guitarwork, if not solos then melodic leads, simultaneously with vocals. It added depth and texture and made the band feel larger. Also, Tijl Jacobs's bass is prominent and gets a number of memorable runs, especially on My Sane Asylum and Lijdensdruk.

The album is so consistent, in tone and idea and quality, that it's hard to pick out individual favourites from the tracks. I'm particularly fond of the sustained vocal growl in Lijdensdruk, but I also liked the slow burn of My Other Self and the texture of Thoughts on Breathing, among a whole slew of other moments on this album. Is any one of those three songs a standout over the others though? Not really. They're all just worthy parts of an enjoyable fifty minute piece of music.

Thursday 28 March 2019

Salduie - Viros Veramos (2019)

Country: Spain
Style: Folk Metal
Release Date: 25 Feb 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Five hours north of Alicante, where Mind Driller play their industrial metal, you'll find the city of Zarogoza which is home to the lively folk metal band Salduie, whose line-up also features multiple dedicated vocalists, albeit in a more usual combination of harsh and clean.

The most obvious difference, beyond subgenres, is that there are a heck of a lot more musicians in Salduie, perhaps partly because they're keen to explore the Celtic side of Iberian history and culture. That means that, in addition to the expected couple of guitarists, bass player and drummer, the band also feature band members playing an array of other instruments and not just at odd moments either.

The title track, which is just a two minute intro reminiscent of Therion and Tristania, includes bagpipes as a lead instrument. They're played by David Serrano, who's also responsible for whistles and dulzaina, a sort of Spanish oboe. Guitarist Victor Felipe also plays the Irish bouzouki and mandolin. Nem Sebastián has wind instruments to play in addition to singing and, whenever a song goes acoustic, Sergio shifts from drums to bodhran.

What impresses isn't that these instruments are in the line up, because this is a folk metal band, but that they're kept so close to the fore. A song like Oestrimnios, for example, spends a minute with folk instruments before metal ones take over. However, there's a flute solo to come and plenty of bagpipes and the whole thing pauses for an acoustic jig in the middle.

As I did with the Mind Driller album, I like the sheer range on display here and, also like that band, it's often a result of the vocals. I have no idea which melodic voice is which here, as there are three singers singing clean, but one of them is of high enough pitch to take the place of a female singer (or do we have a guest here throughout?). Diego Bernia is one of those three but I'm guessing that his isn't the high voice because he also provides the harsh vocals, which are often death metal growls.

It's interesting to hear this band travel seamlessly from the lively Celtic folk of the first half to lands of emphatic death in the second (speaking generally; songs like Diana, la cierva blanca, the last but one, are as folk as the band gets), but it's even more interesting to hear Salduie play both at the same time.

is a great example of that. For the first minute, it features airy flutes dancing over dark bass and urgent drums. Bernia's harsh voice changes this to emphatic death before it goes clean again with backing from winds. This to and fro is delightful and very capably handled, even when it goes to extremes: there's another very heavy section at the four minute mark, but it only prompts Salduie to go acoustic again for another energetic dance with flute and drum. Then both approaches play out together as if it's the most natural combination in the world. It's wild and intoxicating stuff.

It's not all folk and/or death though. R.T.N.P. is surrounded by a couple of songs that forgo death for power metal. Viriato does well but Kalakorikos is even better, complete with a spoken word section building to a wild roar of voices. If it wasn't so overtly Celtic, this would be a Viking metal song. I guess it still could be, as the Vikings harried the Celts a lot, but I'm not sure they extended this far south.

This was a fascinating album for me. I recently reviewed a Tuatha de Danann EP from Brazil, which taught me that Celtic isn't just an ethnicity nowadays; it's also a musical sandpit that anyone can play in. Salduie, however, aren't just chiming in with a Spanish take on Celtic; there's actually Celtic blood in the area of Spain known as Celtiberia, even if they stopped speaking their Celtiberian language in the sixth century. I have some reading to do.

I presume this means that there's less of a living tradition here than there is in Galicia, where Mileth explore Galician traditions in Galician. Kudos to Salduie for investigating their heritage and mythology in music and doing it so damn well.

Mind Driller - Involution (2019)

Country: Spain
Style: Industrial Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 22 Mar 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

As I traipse virtually around Europe, enjoying the wild diversity that's on offer in the worlds of rock and metal in 2019, I realise that I haven't had as many stops in Spain as I perhaps should have, so let's remedy that today with a couple of very different bands.

First up are Mind Driller, from Alicante, who play industrial metal with an overt NDH flavour, not least because some of the vocals are sung in German. I'm a big fan of the versatility of the English language but there are some things that can only be done in German and NDH is one. This album underlines that because the rest of the album is sung in English, as well as in different styles, and it definitely pulls that abrasive NDH punch.

Now, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Just listen to a song like The Last Drop to see how that style can blend and battle with other styles, weaving in and out of them in a fascinating way. Half of it is hard punching NDH, sung in German, but the other half veers into groove, gothic, nu, even prog. It's a heady mix but I have to say that I really dig it. It's like a stage duel between Rammstein and a wild variety of competitors, each darting in when they see an opportunity.

These different styles often come from the fact that Mind Driller have three dedicated vocalists in a band that only numbers six. That's an odd band line up. I believe that Dani N.Q. is responsible for the harsh vocals, including those in German, while V handles the clean male vocals. Certainly Estefania Aledo produces the female vocals, which are also clean but often powerful as she isn't there just to provide a sweet contrast to harsh.

With Pharaoh on bass and Reimon on drums, that leaves Javix to control a lot of the band's sound, not just through his guitar work but all the electronic components too, because he handles the programming, which is deceptive as to its importance. Songs like Zero impressed me with how much electronica there was but how little there seemed to be. In other words, he's able to do a lot without it seeming like he's taking over everything.

This is Mind Driller's third album and it feels accomplished, aided by some very crisp production. However, I have a feeling that this band's element is the stage, not least because they have a very distinctive image. To be part of the album's concepts about duality, as emphasised by the utopia/dystopia album cover and the intriguing video for Rotten, they've adopted a sort of post-apocalyptic new wave look with make-up that cuts each of them in twain.

Industrial is often seen in love it or hate it terms, but I sometimes think that's less to do with its pounding approach to music and more to do with a lack of variety in each band's sound. If you like one song, you're going to like the rest. If you don't, you're gone and you won't be back. Here, I was impressed by just how much Mind Driller manage to put into their industrial core sound. Kianda may be the best example of that, not merely contrasting hard and soft or English and German but also pop, rap and alternative with that industrial punch.

Listen to this once and you'll hear a lot. Listen to it again and more will emerge. Did I really blink and miss the carnival barker in Ritual the first time through or did it just not stand out for notice until I'd listened to everything else first? It really doesn't matter, but it helps to highlight just how much there is worthy of note here.

Wednesday 27 March 2019

Mostly Autumn - White Rainbow (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Mar 2019
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Wikipedia

Following Green Lung's debut album, here's one from an established band, the progressive rock outfit Mostly Autumn, who formed in 1995 in York, one of my favourite places in the world. They've issued at least a dozen studio albums before this, with even more live ones, and they've built something of a cult following in that near quarter century.

The first thing to note is that White Rainbow is a very long album. It would run a full hour even without the 19:11 title track and 79:12 is pretty close to limits. The reason there's so much is that this is often patient stuff. It kicks off with a quiet instrumental and that mode keeps on well into the ten minute Viking Funeral. Vocals don't kick in until five minutes in.

When they do, courtesy of founding member Bryan Josh, it's obvious that the band's sound is rooted in British prog rock of the seventies, but at the more commercial end of that genre. I heard Barclay James Harvest in his voice and in the progression of the song, but his guitarwork is much more reminscent of Dave Gilmour from Pink Floyd. For all that it's patient stuff, the ten minutes of Viking Funeral whisk on by like they're half that. Once it's done, Olivia Sparnenn takes over as the lead vocalist for most of the rest of the album (Josh returns for Up and the title track) and her voice eats up the minutes as well.

Now, the repeated "Let it go" in Burn is unfortunate for a song with such a powerful female lead vocal, especially given the wintry cover art. I haven't even seen Frozen but I have heard that song. This one does go to other places but Sparnenn's voice is as crystal clear as Idina Menzel's and it soars just as well. It's odd for a prog rock album to suddenly reek of Disney.

Outside that track, they're very prog rock. While I haven't heard the band before, I have read comparisons between them and various legendary others.

Genesis are mentioned often but I didn't hear much Genesis here at all; none of Peter Gabriel's surreal experimentation and none of Phil Collins's pop stylings. Maybe there's some Steve Hackett in Chris Johnson's acoustic work.

I didn't hear Jethro Tull either, even if there's a strong folk element on offer, especially in instrumental sections with flutes and pipes. Even here, they're more Celtic folk in style than English. Really there's more Runrig here than Tull, but Mostly Autumn are too laid back to really warrant that comparison, even in more up tempo sections.

The most overt comparision is to Pink Floyd, because of Josh's guitar solos. If Viking Funeral didn't generate Dave Gilmour comparisons, Run for the Sun puts it beyond debate. Josh provides a long Gilmour style solo in front of Alex Cromarty's patient one, one two drums, which back him in a very Floyd way. Only one track further in, the same thing happens on Western Skies and that's not the last time on this album.

Otherwise, it's Barclay James Harvest or Camel that come to mind, especially on the quieter songs, such as the The Undertow and Gone, just with primarily female vocals. However, the seventies bands would have often kept the pace of songs like those slow, as Mostly Autumn do on Gone, but they more often up the tempo partway to introduce a more persistent drive. Even on slower songs, there's an eagerness that can be hard to hide and which runs out to play on faster tracks like Up, one of the more Floydian pieces on offer.

Perhaps they were saving their patience for the title track, which is epic. There's a lot going on here. I caught glimpses of Floyd, Toto and Tangerine Dream, even the Sex Pistols, which was odd, but it builds magnificently and doesn't feel remotely as long as it is. In fact, we get so used to it that the final track, Young, six minutes long as it is, feels like another part of the long song that preceded it.

White Rainbow is also notable for combining male and female vocals and doing it so well that it's suddenly surprising to find that this is the first point where it really happens at all. So there are surprises here, if few of them. It's an accomplished and mostly relaxing piece that will live or die on repeat plays. So far, it holds up well, but I'll give it a few more listens to see if it starts to fade.

Green Lung - Woodland Rites (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Occult Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Mar 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter

One of the surprises I received after starting to dig back into rock music at depth was the resurgence of occult rock, which sounds like it shouldn't even be a genre but has somehow become a burgeoning one. It occupies a distinctive space at the crossroads of a number of genres.

Most occult rock bands cite Black Sabbath as an overt influence, though the true originators were an American band called Coven, whose 1969 album called Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls predated Sabbath's debut by a year. A string of coincidences include the opening track being called Black Sabbath and the band's bassist being called Oz Osborne.

From Black Sabbath (or Coven, if you know them), it's hardly a long trek into either doom metal or stoner rock territory. Occult rock encompasses both and often adds a folk influence too (and that's traditional folk rather than folk metal) or a psychedelic one. Topping all that off is a focus on Satanism and the occult as an overt lyrical theme.

Green Lung are a quintessential example of occult rock. This debut album of seven new songs, none of which were on their EP from last year or their demo from the one before, is very much like early Black Sabbath with the heaviness toned down just a little by production, which makes it sound like the band are performing to us from the other side of the veil between life and death and that's subduing everything. However, the riffs are there, the vocal sneer is there and the psychedelic edge is there.

The most obvious comparison, though, are Cathedral, who chose to channel the Sabbath sound through a knowingly cheesy filter, especially with the copious use of clips from horror movies. Green Lung use samples on three songs here, plus the intro, and that helps them to be as clearly cheesy as Cathedral ever managed. However, Tom Templar's vocals are a little lower in the mix so the lyrics are accordingly a little less obvious until we pay attention.

And, when we do, we realise that Templar Dawn or Let the Devil In aren't too far removed in tone from, say, Cathedral's Hopkins (The Witchfinder General), even if there's nothing here as blatantly over the top as the doom exotica of Voodoo Fire. That's more obvious on the video for the catchy single Let the Devil In, which combines footage from films like Häxan, some nunsploitation and one of the Dennis Wheatley Hammers.

There's more folk apparent here and not only during the intros to tracks or the album itself, courtesy of a two minute Initiation. The folk tinges help set the scene for these five or six minute stories. It's no coincidence that May Queen is at once the most evocative song on the album and the one with the most folk on offer. It's hard not to imagine the band in a studio here; surely they're recording the song from a clearing in the middle of a wood.

There's more psychedelia too, especially a fantastic section three minutes into The Ritual Tree, which adds a whole new level to that song. Everything musical here is aimed at building moods. While Templar's vocals tell stories rather than conjure up ritual, the music does a pretty good job of the latter while he's setting the scenes. The combination is impressive.

I've seen a lot of wild praise for Woodland Rites and I can't say that I find myself sold to the same degree. The best debut album of 2019? Come on! We're still in March and I'd be surprised if it's the best debut of this month. It is, however, clearly an impressive album, mature and well crafted. For them to be this good on a debut bodes very well indeed. Now, just "open your heart and let the Devil in."

Tuesday 26 March 2019

Monocluster - Ocean (2019)

Country: Germany
Style: Stoner Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 7 Mar 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website

As the second half of my birthday present to myself, how about an album that has been recently shared on the Stoned Meadow of Doom YouTube channel, which is frankly mandatory for any serious explorers of stoner rock and metal. And, given that we spent all of yesterday on a virtual trip to Finland, let's stay in Germany today for Monocluster.

Monocluster are a power trio who describe their music as "stoner psychedelic death blues" and that sounds about as far up my alley as it's possible to get. The album is comprised of five lengthy trips, ranging from nine minutes to almost thirteen, so there's plenty of time for exploration and that's an appropriate word to use. Each track is a self-contained journey engaging on first listen but deserving of repeat visits.

They're from Cologne, three hours from the North Sea and a lot further from the Atlantic, whichever way they dance around the UK, so I'm unsure why the ocean is in their bones. However, like that ocean, there's a constant sense of motion here and an underlying power that's always there, even when it's not remotely interested in demonstrating just powerful it can be. It knows that we know and it does what it does safe in that knowledge. It's no show-off.

Oddly, because I adore to be bludgeoned by epochal riffs, what I like about this album most is the peace and patience of the quieter sections. Leviathan is a particularly peaceful but playful track, hardly the take I expected on the beast in the evocative cover art. The vocals are structured like a blues song, which is a strange thing to hear on a song like this but a welcome one. Like the ocean, the leviathan isn't to be messed with, but that doesn't mean it doesn't want to play.

There are epochal riffs here, so don't panic. We get those five minutes into Guns and Greed, which has an especially thoughtful vocal line. It's patient to begin with but it gets angry. There's some real vitriol when Chris spits, "Everyone is guilty and the game is rigged" and the riffs crash over us like tidal waves. A few minutes more and we could be in the middle of The War of the Worlds. However, there are far fewer epochal riffs than I expected. Ocean in Our Bones has some too, by the way, but in a different way. It feels like we're navigating the depths and the music plays like a sort of sonar, bouncing back at us off vast underground structures.

I should highlight those vocals, as few of them as there actually are in the grand scheme of Ocean. Records like this are often instrumental nowadays and this one has long instrumental stretches that sometimes make us forget that we ever heard a human voice. However, the vocals are no afterthought. Chris may do a lot more with his bass than his voice here, and just check out his patient bass on A Place Beyond as Jan's guitars and Ewald's cymbals build to a crescendo around him, but he gave just as much care and attention to his vocals and it's appreciated.

If A Place Beyond takes us out there, wherever there might be, Home brings us, well, home again to wrap up the album. It's hardly the expected return though and I wonder how to take it. If there's a sweep to the album in tone or message, it's a dark one. Our planet isn't a nice place and it's doomed, because of the actions of human beings. Some of this message feels like it's environmental in nature but much more of it is about the military industrial complex. War is coming. Everything will burn. We'll all die. So, why are we coming home? Why not stay out there on the ocean, which is in our bones, and play with the beasts of the depths? Maybe we have to come home because it's in our nature and the ocean will claim everything eventually anyway.

I like this and it's powerful stuff that I'll happily recommend, even if the definition of "powerful" here is hypnotic peace far more than it is crushing emphasis. That aids the journey, I think. And it really is a journey, maybe one that's cyclical until we decide to change it. Ocean is definitely one of those headphones in the dark at three in the morning albums and I very much look forward to exploring it further. I can easily see my rating going up.

Suicidius - Supremacy of Destruction (2019)

Country: Germany
Style: Groove/Thrash Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 8 Mar 2019
Sites: Facebook

It's my birthday so I thought I'd pause my global search for interesting rock and metal for some old stand bys. First on the list: let's find some German thrash!

Suicidius were formed in 2014 and this is their first album, after an EP last year called When We Come to Town. It starts out exactly what I was looking for but grows into something else besides. I enjoyed it.

Much of what I was looking for is evident on the opening title track. It demonstrates the band's cohesion and speed from moment one, coming out of the gates like a locomotive. It does take its time getting to where it's going though, the song being well over a minute longer than anything else on offer. This is good stuff! What's extra to my expectations is a groove metal overlay with a guitar that sounds rather like an industrial sander and vocals that remind more of Sepultura than Kreator.

I say overlay, because many of the songs here kick off very much like old school thrash, only to add groove metal elements like a mask. It isn't a full disguise, with the music changing halfway through, like they stopped being one band and became another. The thrash band I believe they started out as are always there, most evident in the drumming of Oliver Lenz, but that groove layer is added often, especially by introducing punkier vocals and shifting from technical thrash riffing to prowling bass.

There's definitely an attitude in the latter approach too, as if the band want to lash out at something with power rather than just destroy it with speed. They demonstrate a strong Motörhead influence on Thunder and back it up with Fuck It All, the first of two obvious message songs, the other being Fuck the System.

Valhalla moves in a different direction though. The drums go even faster and the vocals move into death territory. It's the other long song, for a band who seem to prefer three to five minute songs, at least, and this is six and a half. It seems like they needed the extra time to explore those extra subgenres. If it's a somewhat schizophrenic song, it's a good one at least, even if the cleaner vocals are a real stretch. It even ends with a melodic old school ending reminiscent of the Scorpions which leads right into the two minute interlude that is Legacy of Chaos.

Fuck the System turns out to be a completely different animal to Fuck It All. That was all aggressive punk, while this one is technical metal with a progressive edge. For a while it can't be sure if it wants to wear that groove mask or not but there's another neat thrash section three minutes in. I certainly prefer Suicidius as a thrash band but they're interesting as a groove band too and I think the groove side works best when it's not taking over. This applies as much for This is Hell as for Fuck the System.

The second half of the album is definitely interesting. Brotherhood has a power metal edge to it, which is strange because it's a change not only of type but tone. This is much more upbeat than anything else on the album, with the groove side adding a weight to proceedings. It's odd for a song to carry some of that weight but still overtly try to reach upwards, but I'm not going to say that it doesn't work. This World Dies plays in a lot of sandboxes too, as does End of the Light, which closes out the album.

All in all, this wasn't what I expected but that's not always a bad thing. It's certainly not the thrash album that it started out as, but it isn't the groove album it moved into either. It ends up being a marriage of two styles with others increasingly joining in as if it wants to stretch the poly concept in entirely new directions. All power to them.

Monday 25 March 2019

Los Bastardos Finlandeses - Rock 'n' Roll (2019)

Country: Finland
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 13 Mar 2019
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Wikipedia | YouTube

Let's make today a Finland double bill! After all, it's difficult to resist a band called Los Bastardos Finlandeses, especially when there's a song by the name of Rockabilly Nurse here. A little research finds six prior albums and a track as memorable as Bad Mother Fucker which is apparently about me. Or someone with the same name. Maybe. You never know. It's possible.

Anyway, the immediate influence to note is Motörhead, because of the voice of Bryn Jones, who, as you might imagine, is no native Finn. He hails from Essex, I believe, but the Welsh heritage obvious in his name is reflected in his band moniker of El Taff Bastardo.

These guys do seem to have fun. The band's drummer, who went by Twist Twist Erkniharju during his long run in the Leningrad Cowboys, one of Finland's most recognisable musical exports, is El Bastardo Grande here. The new guy, Ailu Immonen, is called Young Gun. He's the replacement for Ben Granfelt, formerly of Wishbone Ash, who was also no Finn and went by El Gringo. That leaves the other guitarist, Olli Kykkänen, or Don Osmo as he is here.

Jones is certainly influenced by Lemmy, as the band are by Motörhead, but they're no clone and, in fact, repeat listens lessen it because the tone is consistently different. While Jones certainly has a rasp to his voice and a very recognisable one at points, it's a smoother, softer voice that would serve him well in any rockin' blues band. On the softer songs like Someone Like You or Moonstruck, I heard some Phil Lynott in there too. On the harder ones, I heard Algy Ward from Tank, of course another Lemmy disciple.

The band mix it up quite a lot too, though they never leave that kick ass in a small bar vibe. They rock hard on The King is Dead and soften up when it's needed for ballads, or what are close to ballads. They bounce on Give It Up, like a biker band wanting the audience to pogo. They sway on Wheelers and Dealers, which is remiscent of Dumpy's Rusty Nuts. They get imaginative on Art of War which evolves a lot. One More Time starts out like Green Day but ends like Tank. Rockabilly Nurse begins like a Van Halen song but it really doesn't stay there.

In short, there's far more variety here than you'll find on an Asomvel album or The Hong Kong Sleepover record I reviewed a couple of weeks ago. However, there's a lot of consistency too, which I noticed all the more after leaving this on repeat for a few hours. Sure, there are songs that are heavier than others, songs that lean more to pop or more to blues, but they're all pretty consistent in tone once they're inside our head.

They're pretty consistent in quality too. While there's nothing here to set the airwaves alight, there isn't a bad song either and I'd happily listen to the whole thing from the bar of a small club with a beer in my hand, played in whatever order they want.

It's hard to pick a favourite song, though I might have to plump for Riot Act, a straight forward rocker with a rumbling bass and twangy guitars, as if the faux-Mexican personae they've conjured up ought to mean something in their music too. I could see Los Bastardos Finlandeses playing this from a rest stop as the heroes pass in a rock 'n' roll western update to the film Six String Samurai.

There's nothing groundbreaking here at all, but it's tight, consistent and very entertaining. Now, if you'll excuse me, while "the needle's stuck on this old song and I can't move on", I have six albums to catch up on.

Oh, and what's the worst thing about the album? The difficulty in googling it, given that album four was Saved by Rock 'n' Roll. Now, Rock 'n' Roll is pretty accurate, but hey.

Battle Beast - No More Hollywood Endings (2019)

Country: Finland
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 22 Mar 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I've heard Finland's Battle Beast before and this fifth album is pretty much what I'd expect from them, which is to say that it has plenty of power and even more melody and the two combine to provide something with serious bombast and bravado. It's happy music, uplifting and catchy and easy to both listen to and sing along to, even if you don't know the words. Now, that's partly because you might think you have heard it before, way back in the eighties, merely without production anywhere near this quality.

It opens very well. Unbroken is a story song with a real punch to it, both from the lyrics and the music. Vocalist Noora Louhimo emphatically makes her presence known immediately, as if the band behind her are working for her rather than playing with her. The musicians are all capable but the vocals are high in the mix, as if this was a solo release, and it often feels like the band are supporting rather than accompanying. It continues well too, for a few songs. The title track has a Sabaton-like swagger. Eden shines with a notably catchy chorus.

So far, this has been solid heavy metal, not always original but still good stuff nonetheless. It occasionally reminded me of Lita Ford, if she had been European and landed a job singing for a power metal band. The comparisons change with the tracks though and they're not all expected. For instance, Endless Summer sounds more like a Bryan Adams song made a lot heavier. It's lesser material, with a bunch of hoo hey yeah vocal moments that suggest that, for one song only, lyrics aren't important and the band just couldn't be bothered to tailor them to the music. I Wish thinks it's a James Bond theme, of all things, with all its associated orchestration.

In fact, the whole middle of the album sounds odd to me. I applaud variety but there needs to be a vision behind it and I can't figure out what vision Battle Beast have here. The songs aren't different enough to suggest a wild exploration like, say, Queen had on Sheer Heart Attack. However, they're not similar enough to identify what the band actually think is their sound. Are there hints of Celtic folk behind Raise Your Fists?

I should emphasise that none of these songs are bad. Some are cheesy and some are derivative but none of them are bad, per se. Maybe the Casio keyboards and electronic drums and sirens and whatnot that show up in the intros to Unfairy Tales, Endless Summer and Piece of Me are part of an eighties throwback mentality, but none of these songs needed any of that.

The Golden Horde is the first track that really grabbed my attention back to Battle Beast being Battle Beast. There's power to the music here, not just in Louhimo's voice. The verses are catchy, the chorus is a killer and those eighties keyboards in the intro quickly give way to the most vicious guitar anywhere to be heard here. This song feels as much like a real band as the previous half dozen songs didn't. The musicians push Louhimo and, well, she pushes right back and everything helps to elevate the track.

If The Golden Horde is easily the best song on the album, it's also a fresh start too. There's some real life in what's still to come to suggest that the band is actually starting to enjoy itself. World on Fire is softer and quieter but also wildly catchy and it deserves to be all over the airwaves. Two and a half minutes into Bent and Broken, Louhimo ratchets up the power with emphasis. She's truly magnificent here and, every time we think she's hit her peak, she frickin' goes beyond it just because.

That leaves My Last Dream. If the band were having fun on The Golden Horde, they're having a riot on this one. They venture into glam and punk territories and, at points, this sounds as much like Hanoi Rocks as it does Sonata Arctica. It has attitude to spare, with Louhimo channeling some Wendy O. Williams and the band kicking it like they're jamming with a bunch of punks in a pub.

I'd agree with the concept of No More Hollywood Endings, but I think we're in need of more Battle Beast endings. This kicks off with three solid songs and ends with four killer tracks for almost half an hour's worth of wonderful material. The downside is that, in between, there are six other tracks that just don't live up to the rest.

Crop that half dozen out and you'd have a very memorable mini-album. Crop a few and you'd still have a strong album. As it is, it's a mixed bag. I can see the pessimists calling it a disappointment, highlights notwithstanding. I can also see the optimists eagerly anticipating the band's sixth album, because an album that does what the last four tracks here do over the full length is going to slay.

Friday 22 March 2019

Aephanemer - Prokopton (2019)

Country: France
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 22 Mar 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

OK, here's something I wasn't expecting, perhaps because I haven't heard of Aephanemer until now and haven't been waiting three years for their follow-up to their apparently promising debut, Memento Mori. Others have. I now understand why.

On paper, Aephanemer are a melodic death metal band from Toulouse and that's a fair enough box to lump them into. However, they don't sound remotely like any other melodic death metal band I've heard and much of what makes them a special case is going to come out of trying to explain that.

Let's start with vocalist Marion Bascoul, who has a death growl that's both accessible and vicious. I'm not sure how she manages that apparently tough task, but it may tie to the way her voice is soft but very ready to rumble, literally. It's less aggressive than the other female death metal vocalists I'm aware of but not by much. She just prefers to hold notes than spit them out. It's an excellent performance, even before we factor in that she's also the band's rhythm guitarist and that she goes clean for parts of Snowblind.

Now you have an idea what Aephanemer sound like, let me explain why you're wrong. The most obvious instrument here isn't the guitar or even the bass; it's the keyboards. Prokopton is more layered with synths and orchestration than your average symphonic metal album, courtesy I believe of a gentleman named Martin Hamiche, who used to be the band by playing everything himself on early releases.

Now he has a band, he's restricted to just lead guitars and synths, but the latter are foundational here. Dissonance Within wraps up as orchestration alone, so notably that we start to wonder if we had indeed heard any more traditional instruments earlier in the track or whether we were merely dreaming.

These synths change the tone entirely, from the expected dip into darkness to a bouncy and exuberant reel. There's a three minute instrumental called At Eternity's Gate that wouldn't be entirely out of place on an Alestorm album. And yet, "Alestorm with death growls" doesn't explain Aephanemer any better than "Arch Enemy with synths".

I think this is because they're very much their own band. It's obvious that they didn't just latch onto a genre and change a single element to carve out their own niche. I presume they start with synth melodies and layer upwards until they have complete songs. I doubt they start with riffs or lyrics. It has to be said that they could lose the guitars before ditching the synths.

Frankly, Hamiche could lose the entire rest of the band and he wouldn't be anywhere different than where he was in 2015, but he'd be missing layers. I believe his initial success here was in finding musicians compatible with his style who could build upon it. After that, it's down to old fashioned songwriting, without which even quality musicians will founder.

This isn't the longest album ever, running just shy of three quarters of an hour, but it wraps up with a nine minute track that doesn't feel at all like nine minutes. Its energy is without bounds and the melodies never quit. The moment it ends we realise that the same could be said about the album as a whole and that's astounding.

Obviously there's a lot right with this album. Trying to figure out what's wrong with it highlights that there's precious little to bring up. I could have done with a bit more prominence to the guitars and the bass, the latter of which I'm not sure I caught individually until towards the end of If I Should Die. All that's in the layering though; they play their part.

This is outstanding stuff, so much so that it has to constitute my second 9/10 review in almost three months. Now, what did I miss before Prokopton?

Drowning Ares - Nocturna (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Progressive Metalcore
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 29 Mar 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | YouTube

I like Drowning Ares for reasons far beyond the music. For one, they sent me a copy of this EP, which is released next Friday, for review. I'm never not going to like free music unless Justin Bieber reaches out too. The line-up on their Bandcamp page lists their drummer as Magneto (Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, X-Men, Astonishing Avengers), so someone should keep a close eye on John Davidson. Oh, and the Artists We Also Like section on their Facebook page starts and ends with Wyld Stallyns. This band are clearly going to be fun, whatever their music sounds like.

And it sounds pretty good. They're all experienced musicians in the metal scene in northern Virginia, each with a number of other bands behind them, so it's not surprising that the musicianship is top notch. They've clearly rehearsed a lot too, because they're very comfortable with each other. The tempo changes a lot on this EP and, even with only six songs, it's longer than some full albums (hello, Reign in Blood), so there's a lot of it.

They play progressive metalcore, which means that it's loud and aggressive and the vocals are shouty but it's far more musically complex than hardcore ever gets. Easily my favourite track here is Beyond the Reach of Time and Reason, which beyond having a title we might expect from Dream Theater, is happy to attempt being as complex too, albeit within the bounds of four and a half minutes.

It does a particularly great job at contrasting the two vocalists. I don't know which is which, other than the pair are Navid Rashid and Jae Curtis, but one shouts in the usual harsh voice, though not outrageously so unless there's a good reason, while the other is cleaner with just a slight edge. The introspective mid-section allows them both to explore more than merely one style each too, with a neat escalation to ramp back up. There's a lot going on in this song and it's all interesting.

My other favourite is the closer, the six minute Nocturna (there's an odd ending tacked on to make it look like eight), because this rumbles on into being with suitable menace and gradually builds in aggression through clear sections, one of which features a vocal line that goes far beyond the usual shouting to almost reach black metal shrieks. Again, those different vocal styles weave in and out of each other in duet style, which is always more interesting than either of them alone.

I don't want to go on about the vocals, because the music behind them is a highlight on its own. With Jae Curtis restricted to a microphone, there's a mere trio generating this busy noise: Rashid on guitar, Patrick Larson on bass and John Davidson on drums. That's impressive but it also explains why there aren't more solos going on here. This is no nonsense stuff.

It feels a little more no nonsense too because each song runs into the next so it never seems like the band stop for the entire half an hour. That aids the aggressive feel. The catch to that is that it becomes harder for us to differentiate the individual songs, each of which follows the same sort of tone. If there's a downside here, it's the general inability of the tracks to stand out from each other. They all sound good but they mostly sound similar.

Frankly, the worst thing about this EP is its cover, which is minimalistic and generic, two adjectives that don't accurately describe the music to be found within. But hey, when the worst thing to say about music is what art sits on its cover, the band have to be doing a good job.

Thursday 21 March 2019

Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard - Yn Ol i Annwn (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Doom/Sludge Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Mar 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

As band names go, Wrexham's finest, Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard, have few peers in the lack of subtlety department and that's appropriate given what they sound like. They're not particularly subtle either, except perhaps for the dulcet tones of Jessica Ball, which may not be entirely as sweet as we expect from the Welsh but which are the epitome of sweetness when compared to the music unfolding behind her like a slow mammoth stampede.

What's notable here isn't just that this music is slow, because I've heard slower, but that it's patient, stubborn and relentless, perhaps to reflect the album's title, which translates from the Welsh as "I do not know Annwn". I should point out that Annwn is not a person but a mythical otherworld of immortality, which suggests that the band may be pissed off at being merely human and, taking inspiration from the mammoth of the band's name, want to stomp everything in sight.

I should point out that the tone isn't brutal but almost disinterested, as if the guitarists are set running at a particular riff at a particular pace and they simply stick to it relentlessly throughout. The bass and the drums follow suit, with the occasional fill from the latter, while Ball is tasked with providing whatever melody is called for with her voice, which floats over the music like a dove staying in flight over an endless lake of lava. What variety we're given is added in through the use of space rock effects, which take the place of the absent lead guitar. There are no solos here.

The reason I'm reviewing this album is because this approach surprisingly works. There's a trancelike aspect to it as if the music aims to hypnotise us so that Ball can work her ritual magic over us with our defences down. I found that I really dug the thirteen and a half minute instrumental slog of Katyusha, even though, on paper, it should be ten minutes too long. There's little variance in the riffing and those space rock sound effects should go only so far, but it's somehow immersive and magical. It even gets a little lively nine minutes in, though I don't want to hint at some sort of jig. A word like 'lively' when applied to Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard is relative.

As that track might suggest, this is a long album, comprised of long songs (ranging from six and a half to eight and a half minutes) and longer songs (which start at ten and work their way up). The only exceptions are the two minute intro, named for Kurt Vonnegut's go to planet Tralfamadore, and the four and a half minute track oddly named Du bist jetzt nicht in der zukunft but oddly so, because I don't think Ball sings it in German. This feels as if it's only half a song in this company.

The most out of character track is The Majestic Clockwork, for a couple of reasons. For one, it gets downright perky a few minutes in, which I would have sworn wasn't a concept this band understood. And, for two, it ratchets up the pace consistently to an almost up tempo finalé, the first change of pace within a song in fifty minutes.

Then again, Five Days in the Abyss kicks off without riffs but with violin, a particularly melancholic violin trying to convince the sound effects that melancholy is the way to go with only partial success. Of course, when the guitars inevitably show up, they do so in suitably heavy fashion with yet another simple but highly effective riff. The riffage here is epochal but Ball's vocals are a highlight too, even though I'm not convinced that she actually has words to sing on this song.

I should call out guitarists Paul Michael Davies and Wes Leon for credit as they slay on this album with deceptive ease. They're backed by bass player Stuart Sinclair and drummer James Carrington. Each one of these folk is as stubbornly relentless as the rest and that's pretty frickin' relentless. I still have little idea why this works so well but it does.

Let's just say that it's heavy enough to live up to the band's name and no album should be heavy enough to live up to Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard.

Liars & Lions - New Horizons (2019)

Country: Canada
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 Mar 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | YouTube

I've talked a lot here at Apocalypse Later about different patterns that I'm finding in these new albums. One that I'm starting to notice is that there's an increasing amount of individuals who constitute, on their own, entire bands. Circlet, Saor, Ædelric and Moongates Guardian are all comprised of far less people than you might expect and Liars & Lions is no exception.

Now, if I think of "one man band", I picture a busker with a collection of instruments arrayed around his person, many of them played simultaneously. I see the Lone Cat, Jesse Fuller, who wrote San Francisco Bay Blues and even invented new instruments like the fotdella to extend his range as a one man band. Technology has changed that nowadays, of course, and the modern equivalents are based in a studio with separate recordings of instruments layered together later in software. One or two people can do a heck of a lot by themselves, then bring in guests to do anything else needed on top.

I mention all this because Liars & Lions are primarily two Canadians who do pretty much everything themselves. Nick Waterman plays guitars while Imaad Dalal provides everything else: vocals, bass, synths, drum programming and more guitars. They wrote and arranged the whole album together, recorded it, mixed it, produced it, engineered it, you name it. Clearly this wasn't done in one take. It must have involved a lot of work over a lot of time with a lot of patience, but the end result sounds like a full band.

Listening to a song like Icarus, I'm seeing a full stage, with a vocalist concentrating on his delivery, a guitarist exploring his instrument behind him, an attentive bass player underpinning it all and a playful drummer at the back reacting to what the others are doing. Even the keyboard player is busy, especially in the quieter intro and outro sections but elsewhere too. That almost none of those dynamics are really there is amazing to me.

What amazes me most isn't that technology makes this possible but that the versatility of some of these people allows them to shine in different roles on the same album. For instance, Dalal obviously takes great care with his vocals, which are delivered as if they're his one and only job. Songs like New Horizons and End Credits highlight his imaginative bass playing. Quite a few feature imaginative rhythms on the drum machine or capable runs on the keyboards. I could call all of these out as highlights but all that credit goes to the same person.

At the end of the day, even on a progressive rock album, the songs matter too and it doesn't matter how impressive Dalal is if he and Waterman can't write songs. Fortunately they can and that's why this album is memorable, even when those songs are instrumentals like New Horizons or Bubbles. The first full song, Echoes, is a great example, with a soaring chorus that's neatly tied to the guitars and a glorious slowdown a couple of minutes in that allows for a pleasing solo.

Pleasing is a good word to use here. While the riffs do often jog in that djent way, there's a lot of more mellow music here and Dalal's voice has a pleasing alternative tone to it, rather like Steve Hogarth's or even Dave Grohl's. The synths often give an old school new wave feel, especially in the Gary Numan way they kick off the album. Even when the album is loud and driving, it's not as aggressive as it could be because it clearly doesn't feel the need.

And all this makes Liars and Lions hard to categorise. I believe they call themselves prog rock, which is fair but limiting. This is often prog metal but often alternative rock too. Sometimes the songs move from one of those to the other, like the Foo Fighters had heard Meshuggah and wondered if it might be possible to take their sound and apply it to a catchy Yes song.

Here's to the one man or two man bands! I may never see you live but I do appreciate what you do in the studio to create albums like this.

Wednesday 20 March 2019

Borders of Byzantium - Odyssey (2019)

Country: Hungary
Style: Post-Hardcore
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 8 Mar 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

I was in an interesting discussion last weekend. My eldest son, who's a big fan of Alice Cooper, mentioned that his wife listens to screamo. She looked at him like he'd just arrived from a distant planet; she doesn't listen to screamo. she said, utterly puzzled that he'd even suggest such a thing. And, given that the only album of hers I've heard is by the Pretty Reckless, who are variously described as alternative rock, blues and post-grunge, I might be confused too. I'm still unsure as to what she thinks she listens to but the lesson is that genre labels can be problematic.

Case in point: Borders of Byzantium, who hail from Budapest in Hungary and tend to be described as post-hardcore. Now, apparently I've been failing to realise what post-hardcore is. I'd figured that if post-rock was all about creating soundscapes with traditional rock instruments, then post-hardcore must be about creating soundscapes using aggressive music and shouty vocals, which didn't sound appetizing to me at all.

Fortunately, that's not what it is and I'm very happy for this wake up call because I kind of like this. Now I need to ask my daughter-in-law if this is what she really listens to and, if it is, whether I can borrow her collection.

To me, the only evidence of hardcore here is in the shouty vocals of Bence Joó, of which I'm not particularly fond even though he does it well. That's just me; I've never been a fan of that style. The four musicians who play behind him and Marcell Oláh, who handles the clean vocals, don't sound like a hardcore band to me in the slightest. If I'd been asked to describe them blind, I'd have gone with heavy alternative rock or light progressive metal.

Wikipedia tells me that post-hardcore is a punk rock genre that "maintains the aggression and intensity of hardcore" but "emphasizes a greater degree of creative expression". There's certainly creative expression here, with the musical palette explored ranging all the way from Depeche Mode to Dream Theater, with a lot more of the latter than the former.

Initially, they're very progressive, with Alive led by the drums of Kristóf Tóth and the neat interplay between the two vocalists. There's interesting guitarwork in there too, behind them, though using a lot less notes than a prog metal band would use. The Same Old Game moves from soft keyboards to a bouncy riff and bouncier pulsing electronica, complete with hand claps. It's new wave with a crunch. Fortified adds a chanting vocal that hints at rap before launching an catchy chorus.

That's three different approaches in three songs and the rest of the album pretty much combines those in different ways. The only songs to really take a different approach are Like Flies and the album's closer, Drawn Circles, which are softer by a degree and generally driven by textured keyboards but for the moments when they decide to get epic. They're like synth pop songs that dream of power.

Like Flies is surely my least favourite song on the album and it's telling that it's followed by Two Sides, probably the heaviest track on offer, that would be metalcore with a different sound mix and with less Oláh and a lot more Joó. This band does like to keep it fresh. They've said that the band name was inspired by the diversity of the Byzantine Empire, which they like to emulate in what they call a "genre-bending musical style".

I surprised myself by enjoying this rather a lot. Not all these tracks are as catchy as they think they are and some of them sound rather similar to others, even as there's an agreeably diversity within them. They obviously put a lot of effort into creating contrasts too and I liked that. There's a lot of hard vs. soft, metal vs. rock and clean vs. shouty and that elevates the album considerably.

Clearly I need to listen to more post-hardcore to get an idea of what it's all about. Borders of Byzantium are a promising start. Maybe they're the beginning of another odyssey for me.

Nik Turner - The Final Frontier (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Space Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 8 Mar 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website | Wikipedia

For those who don't know the name, Nik Turner was the flautist and saxophonist in the legendary space rock band Hawkwind in its early United Artists years, alongside such luminaries as Lemmy, Robert Calvert and Huw Lloyd-Langton. As such, you might not be particularly surprised if I tell you that this new album, released over forty years after he first left that band and thirty-five since his last departure, sounds very much like early Hawkwind.

Turner has freely admitted in the past that he's more interested in the feel of music than any individual aspects of it and that approach makes The Final Frontier an immersive experience, a cosmic acid trip to sit alongside any of those old Hawkwind albums, if not as dense and all encompassing as something like Space Ritual, still one of the trippiest albums I've ever heard.

The question, as with all such albums, is how well it's going to stand up on further listens. The first time through tends to be an experience, but do we want to go back for a repeat performance?

I would, but mostly for the instrumental sections. Turner was always a more interesting musician than he ever was a singer and most of his vocals here are closer to narration, often spoken word poetry, in which he monologues about interstellar beings or lost civilisations and wonders where the heck his spaceship has got to. I presume there's a vague storyline here but, if there is, it doesn't seem to make a lot of sense. It's not about the words, except when they're poetic like on Back to the Ship.

The music, however, is wild. Out of Control, which opens up the album with guitars at the fore over an evocative background of atmospheric keyboards and exploratory saxophone, is a real highlight, everything I want from Nik Turner. Interstellar Aliens is a weird ride, a psychedelic pop song in which he seems to float in a dreamlike state after being abducted by kindly aliens who return him home afterwards. Drenched in synth effects, this couldn't be more different but both tracks do their jobs really well.

Back to the Ship, on the other hand, apparently forgets what it's trying to do for three and half minutes. Maybe it's appropriate, given that the song is about being lost, but a long intro that sounds like a improvisation at a concert after too much LSD backstage doesn't play well on repeat. I'm not sure the rest of the song makes sense either, but at least Turner seems to be engrossed in his trip when accompanied by lively pulsing instrumentation.

My favourite tracks here are the ones that contain all that lively pulsing instrumentation but without any (or much) of the rambling speech. Strange Loop is entirely instrumental except for what could be described as a sort of choral cosmic backdrop, which is just as cool as that sounds. Thunder Rider, named for Turner's old Hawkwind nickname, does have vocals but not too many of them. Mostly it's more lively and pulsing instrumentation but with a long saxophone solo for extra merit.

It's worth mentioning that, while I prefer those two tracks for their lack of vocals, I also prefer them because they feature Turner's saxophone more than his flute because sax always makes for a trippier ride. PAD4, which wraps up the album, works the other way and, while it's delightful, trippy flute prompts us to leave peacefully, floating in space, rather than caught up in some cosmic maelstrom, as the trippy sax would leave us.

Maybe, given that we wonder where the next song is, Turner is adhering to the old show business maxim about always leaving the audience wanting more. That's where I ended up here. The instrumentation is timeless stuff and I want to return again and again, but the vocals often change my mind for me. What I want now is another dozen Nik Turner solo albums that I can happily experience once.

Tuesday 19 March 2019

Tesla - Shock (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 Mar 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I remember Tesla with fondness from their first couple of albums, Mechanical Resonance and The Great Radio Controversy. Those were released back in the very late eighties, before everything changed. It doesn't surprise me that I missed out on the next couple in the post-Nevermind early nineties or that the band split up in 1996. Well, they got back together in 2000, with the same line-up, which is mostly intact today (they swapped Tommy Skeoch for Dave Rude back in 2006) and they've now released just as many albums after reforming as they did before they split up.

Shock sounds relatively consistent with what I remember, being a dozen old school hard rock songs, some rockers and some ballads, performed without a heck of a lot of fuss. There's a swagger that tends to be associated with glam, mostly through Jeff Keith's vocals, but they were never a glam band and they aren't now. California Summer Song shows that he and they are as comfortable with a country vibe as a rock one.

What's new here that I don't remember is a bounce that could well come from the involvement of Phil Collen of Def Leppard, who produced the album. Now, Tesla always had an energy to them (pun not intended) but there's a sort of commercial crispness here that I don't recall and there are more handclaps and radio-friendly melodies and a more subdued, more electronic drum sound. This is slick and it knows it. It wants to be heard and in places outside the ones we might expect from a reformed eighties rock band. There's an ache for commercial success here that I remember from Def Leppard, who tweaked a successful sound in certain directions to get there.

It's certainly well put together, so best of luck to them. Of course, as a single listener, I can only speak critically not commercially. It's a good album and I'm enjoying it, but I wonder if it's too overtly commercial with too many ballads. Forever Loving You, seven tracks in, is the third ballad and the softest of them, though it has an intriguing Saigon Kick edge to it that I rather enjoyed.

The Tesla I think most people want to hear is most apparent on tracks like You Won't Take Me Alive and Tied to the Tracks, which are more up tempo and actually seem to feature a bass and a drumkit that has more than one drum, as well as a flair that comes from slide guitar and sassy vocals. These are kick ass songs, but still controlled ones. The band might sound loose and improvisational but I think it's a very choreographed looseness.

I think the best material here is in between those two extremes. I'm rather fond of The Mission, which starts out more like a ballad but is happy to let its guitar to finally run free. It's the most honest song here, which helps me not only to like it more but to realise just how the band perhaps aren't just being themselves on this album. This track is old school Tesla and it's great stuff.

The Mission plays to me like a "go on, just have fun" track on an album that feels otherwise carefully constructed to be diverse, radio-friendly and very commercial. I can't say that I don't like it, because it's very easy to like and Collen's production may well take them back to a level of success that they enjoyed three decades ago, but it's too clean and calculated for me.

This is music that I'd turn up on the radio while driving past the stadium that Tesla have filled to get to the club where a smaller band are going to just jam all night. It sounds good but it's fourteen dollar Budweiser music, when I just want a seven dollar Guinness. And no, I won't be picking up the Target exclusive edition with three extra tracks.

Mileth - Catro Pregarias no Albor da Lúa Morta (2019)

Country: Spain
Style: Pagan Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 5 Mar 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

Mileth is an deceptively simple name for a band who seem to like complexity. Their album title is much more representative of the complex track names and the complex music that brings them to life. I believe it translates from the Galician as something like Four Prayers at the Dawn of the Dead Moon, which is neatly evocative but also delightfully vague. Who's praying and what for? Why four prayers? And why at the dawn of the dead moon, which I presume is the moment that it begins to wax again after vanishing?

I have no idea because I don't speak Galician and Google Translate isn't as helpful as it could be with the song titles, which continue in the evocative but vague manner of the album title. I have no idea what Of the Dead and Spiral Silence or She, Who Walks on the Roots of the Cold Hell might be about but I'm captivated by the surreal imagery.

As you might expect, with song titles like that, the music is complex too. The band isn't small, with at least seven members and some of them play a variety of instruments. Hey, there are two musicians credited on bouzouki! Sure, one of them also plays bass and the other is one of three guitarists who also handles other instruments like whistles and mouth harps, but still.

The latter is Marcos do Relicario, who writes most of the material, and he also provides one of the two male voices here. I don't know which it is but the more prominent of them sings in a shrieky black metal style while the other has a rumbling growl more like we might expect from death metal. One or both also contribute vocals in a choral style.

Above them, leading the way, is Dana da Carballeira, who sings in a clean and overtly folky style. Whatever the music is doing at any point on this album, she brings a liveliness to proceedings, as if she's inviting us to dance with her or, maybe, given that there's often a command in her tone, she's asking us to dance for her.

Galicia is the autonomous region at the northwest of Spain, above Portugal and with lots of Atlantic coastline. While they're part of Spain today and have been for a long time, it's fair to say that they're their own land in many ways. More people speak Galician there every day than they do Spanish and Mileth are a Galician band performing in Galician.

I'm not enough of an expert on Iberian culture to say for sure but I believe a lot of the folk flavour here is Galician rather than Spanish and I find it enticing. The castanets that fade into the wind at the end of opening track, O Son do Buxo Baixo a Sombra do Xistral, are gloriously atmospheric. There are pipes and flutes and an accordion that's especially interesting midway through Da Mitolóxica Errante: ITH. Even the laughter at the beginning of Esperta, Letárxica e Erma Fraga! feels different somehow.

I like my folk music somewhere on the extremes. Either it should be simple, one voice telling a story with musical accompaniment from one guitar, or it should be complex, layering the textures of a culture into song so that we can transport ourselves, even for fifty minutes or so, to another place and experience something different. This is very much the latter.

As a debut album, it's thoroughly enjoyable, but as a portal into another place, it's even better. The variety of the music on offer is part of that but it's aided by other sounds that are woven into the music: lapping waves to remind that we're by the ocean and flickering fires so we can keep watch. I have little idea what stories are told here but I'd like to know. In the meantime, I'm enjoying conjuring up my own.

Monday 18 March 2019

Acid Death - Primal Energies (2019)

Country: Greece
Style: Death Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 15 Mar 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

While one of my goals when setting up Apocalypse Later Music Reviews was to explore the international nature of rock and metal nowadays, I have to say that I wasn't expecting Greece to stand out from the crowd as a hotbed of interesting material, but it's starting to do that. This is my fourth album from a Greek band in three months, but the first from a band who have a back catalogue.

This is Acid Death's fifth album, though two of those were released before their split in 2001 and two after they reformed in 2012. I believe that the line-up remains consistent from their last album, Hall of Mirrors, and two of the band members were there at the very beginning back in 1989.

It felt good from the very beginning but it was the saxophone solo that I'd hardly expected in the middle of a death metal song that really sold me. It elevates My Bloody Crown, which was already notable because of the bookends. I like the female voice at the beginning and end and the Tuvan throat drone is well placed too, even if it might seem unlikely.

Acid Death bill themselves as prog/tech death metal nowadays, which is fair because they're very capable musicians who don't seem interested in playing the same ol' same ol'. However, many people call them death/thrash and that rings very true on the second track, Inner Demons. They up the speed quite a lot, without losing any of their technical flair, and the vocals are harsh but no further into growling territory than some thrash bands have done for years.

The most obvious influence I heard was Celtic Frost, which is overt from the opening track even if it didn't slap me in the face until The Rope, another four tracks into the album. Part of it's the vocal style of Savvas Betinis, which occasionally, like on The Rope, sounds reminiscent of Tom G. Warrior, but part of it is the way that the guitar shifts into a bouncy repetitive riff approach. Fire of the Insane follows suit and then I just went back to the beginning, started the album again and heard it everywhere.

I should add that Acid Death are far from a Celtic Frost clone. They play faster for a start and far more into death metal territory. While there are progressive tendencies here, they're far less experimental than Frost tend to be, even with a throat singer and a saxophone on My Bloody Crown and the rave-style electronic siren behind the opening of Fire of the Insane.

Almost everything I want to say here is positive, because Primal Energies runs a fast, engaging and surprisingly short 51 minutes. It's a lush and oddly tactile album, like listening to it feels like a trek through a deep jungle of music. The vocals and guitars dominate, with solid backing from drummer Kostas Alexakis, but there are other sounds hanging from the trees waiting for us to walk past: keyboards here, layered vocals there, , buried piano on H.U.M.A.N., even an intriguing zither-like texture in the middle of Reality and Fear and again at the end that feels like a glimpse of the sun far above us.

I've listened to this album three or four times today, while recuperating from a root canal and it made me forget the pain. I'll be returning to it tomorrow, even with this review done, because I simply don't feel that I've got to know it well enough yet. There's a lot here to discover and I think I've only scratched the surface thus far.

Now, as to emphasise the quality of the scene in Greece, I see that Acid Death will be performing a presentation show at the Crow in Athens on 6th April with Voidnaut in support. One day I'll visit Athens, because I very much want to see my grandfather's grave there, but it won't be that soon. Enjoy that gig for me!

Superlynx - New Moon (2019)

Country: Norway
Style: Psychedelic Doom Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 15 Mar 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

Superlynx grabbed me right away with their second album but I struggled to come to terms with their full approach. Let me explain...

Musically, this is glorious stuff and I knew that from the opening to the first track, Hex. Ole Tiegen's slow beats, Pia Isaksen's fuzzy bass and the exotic guitarwork of Daniel Bakken combine into a heady mixture. Bass and drums clearly say doom metal, but that guitar says hey, I'm not going to be limited by that description; I'm going to pretend to be a sitar for a while and I'm going to introduce a belly dance troupe for a stretch. Put together, this is powerful, psychedelic and playful.

And then there's Isaksen's voice, which isn't. She performs her vocals in a droning monotone and, unless we're immediately and willingly hypnotised, it isn't something easy to get used to. The point, of course, is that this is ritual music and she's very introspective with her voice. This is music as both spellcraft and therapy, I think, and it takes a while to get into her mindset. She's only playful on the last track, The Thickest Night.

I was reminded of Sarah in Black Vulpine, not because the two sound alike but because they don't. Sarah has an ethereal voice that floats over the verses until she takes control with power. It's a logical approach but Isaksen refuses to go to either of these places. The sweetness to her voice is mostly in contrast to what she's doing with her bass because, however melancholic her vocals get and however much the music threatens to take over, we never believe that she's not without the power to deal with whatever she needs to. Perhaps, because she knows that too, she never ramps her voice up to force the point.

I think that how most people respond to her vocals is going to dictate what they think of Superlynx. I honestly wondered what this album would be like without those vocals and, as much as I'm totally sold on the music and would love to hear this as an instrumental album, I think it would be lesser for their omission. I wondered too what this album would be like with more of Ole Teigen's vocals playing the role of counterpoint, as they do at points in The Groove. I decided that, if she adds another element to the music, he adds another element to the vocals. I wonder why they don't do that more.

What fascinates me most is how the music works with these vocals but is so different in approach. It's a lot more varied, for a start, not just because of that wild and playful guitar but because the band clearly likes to travel musically but the vocals don't. Becoming the Sea opens with melancholy solo piano and, in the wildest musical moment on the album, Scarecrow kicks into high gear four minutes in for a fantastic burst of energy that prompted my slightly confused face to break into a huge grin.

After a couple of listens, I'm still not convinced if I like this album or not. Superlynx make a glorious racket for a trio and I love the music that truly fits the description of 'psychedelic doom metal': heady and doomladen but varied. Perhaps the best way to make that point is to say that my favourite tracks are probably the very different pair that kick off the second half.

These Children That Come at Us with Knives is a cautionary tale of folkish doom with stripped down instrumentation, layered vocals and an interesting line in lyrics. Scarecrow is denser and less patient, with a punky edge at the beginning and a looser approach even before the band kick out the jams and race for the finish line in gloriously reckless fashion. The two songs have completely different tones, the former like seventies occult rock and the latter more like a psychedelic Joy Division, but both work very well.

This is Superlynx's second album after 2015's LVX and I'm intrigued as to what that sounds like. I think I like New Moon. I certainly like a lot of what goes on inside it and I'm liking it more with each listen, but I'm fighting with myself as to why. Maybe LVX will help provide answers.

Friday 15 March 2019

Triste Terre - Grand œuvre (2019)

Country: France
Style: Atmospheric Black Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 15 Mar 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | YouTube

This is the first full album from Triste Terre, a French atmospheric black metal band from Lyon, and I haven't heard any of their previous EPs but, on the basis of this alone, I'm sold on their particular take on the genre.

In fact, Grand œuvre is precisely what I look for in black metal nowadays, a set of immersive songs that run long and complex. There are half a dozen on offer here and they range from nine minutes to well over twelve, so there's plenty of opportunity for two permanent band members and their guest drummer to create walls of engaging sound that are impermeable until we persevere to discover the delights within.

I really don't want to use the word "routine" but, on first listen, this is relatively typical of the genre, just done capably and enjoyably. The beat, courtesy of session drummer Lohengrin, is slow but the blastbeats behind it are often as fast as we'd expect. A gentleman by the name of Naâl provides most of the rest of the instrumentation, including the keyboards that help to create that dense background. He handles the vocals too.

I say "most" as there's another musician here, A. Varenne on contrabass, an interesting choice for a black metal album and that's the beginning of what starts to creep out of that 'routine' sound to highlight just how far from it this album is. Four minutes and change into Nobles luminaires, Varenne's contrabass gets playful. Suddenly we're listening to Satan's lounge band, a delightful bass run underneath the dissonant, clashing guitars and, before too long, the blastbeats.

There are certainly some surprises on offer here and a second run through highlights some of them nicely.

For instance, the opening track, Œuvre au noir, has quite a few of them. An old school church organ shows up here and there and makes itself at home in no time flat. Lohengrin does vary his drumming, with one particular military rhythm standing out for notice. And, if Naâl's vocals begin unremarkably, he does go high at points and that proves to be an elevation in more than just pitch.

In fact, when he does something different, he's a real highlight. On Corps glorieux, his voice gradually becomes more and more tortured until we have to wonder if he's performing from the stake with flames gradually creeping up to take him down. Early in Lueur émérite, he goes for a droning chant like a monk's. A few minutes later, he goes high again, with vibrato, like he's aiming for the nuns next door too. He's his own demonic choir when he wants to be.

As tends to be the case with more interesting black metal albums nowadays, I liked this on first listen but failed to catch much of what it's doing. It's a journey not a destination, so each return visit brings more and more into focus until, eventually, Grand œuvre may well become an old friend.

It's also a large enough friend to provide particular value. It could end after four tracks and still seem substantial at 42 minutes. Every accolade mentioned above would still apply. But wait, as they say, there's more! It isn't done, because there are two more ten minute plus tracks to bounce it over the hour mark.

This is definitely a candidate for three in the morning headphones, because interruptions are anathema to albums like this. Skip your virtual needle in half a song and see if it makes sense. It won't. This deserves for you to set an hour aside to immerse yourself into it like a virgin into a bath of blood. I can't say what my dreams will be like after such an immersion, not least because the final track, Tribut solennel, is as fast as the band get, but I'm willing to find out.