Friday, 31 May 2019

Black Oak Arkansas - Underdog Heroes (2019)



Country: USA
Style: Southern Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 24 May 2019
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

2019 continues to surprise us with albums from bands we never thought would release anything ever again. I've reviewed a lot of them here at Apocalypse Later. This month alone I've reviewed albums by bands as diverse as Saint Vitus, Banco del Mutuo Soccorso and Possessed, not to forget solid releases from recent returnees Whitesnake and Lucifer's Friend.

Well, if they aren't enough, here's the new album by Black Oak Arkansas, a band who haven't released a studio album under that name since 1976's 10 Yr Overnight Success, although lead vocalist Jim 'Dandy' Mangrum has generally kept the band going over the years under various names. One of these years I'll make it out to Joey Skidmore's Skid-o-Rama Garage Fest in Kansas City, MO, but I missed Black Oak Arkansas there last year.

Clearly, they're the latest to drink whatever it is in the water this year to prompt a strong look backwards at the past. I'm not sure what else might explain why two founding members, vocalist James 'Jim Dandy' Mangrum and guitarist, Rickie Lee Reynolds, rolled back the hands of time, but that's quite obviously what they were doing because, frankly, it's all over the lyrics like a rash.

The final track, Johnnie Won't Be Good, makes it most obvious, with lines like, "Today's rock 'n' roll ain't doin' what it should", but it's there in earlier tracks too. Channeling Spirits is almost a spoken word performance art piece that looks back at those names the world has music has lost over the years, from Etta James and Chuck Berry on to Dimebag Darrell and Randy Rhoads. It wraps with those members of Black Oak Arkansas who have passed.

"It is a sin to forget the unforgettable," it suggests, a line repeated on the next song verbatim, because it's Ruby's Heartbreaker and it's all about the last name spoken on the prior song, Ruby Starr, who often sang with the band back in the seventies. It's worth mentioning here that there's work on this album from another deceased band alumnus, Shawn Lane, who contributes guitar work to Do Unto Others, even though he died in 2003.

While the point of Channeling Spirits, is all wrapped up in the names that constitute most of the lyrics, there's a wailing guitar that never leaves the song and that becomes a common thread as the album runs on. I presume this is the work of David Flexer and frankly he's all over this album, so much so that he eventually becomes its focal point by sheer perserverance. Sometimes it's a searing lead and sometimes more introspective noodling but it makes me wonder if they just left him in the studio to solo for a couple of hours, then wrote songs around his material, because he keeps on going throughout the verses as well as the gaps between them.

It's been a few decades since I've heard Black Oak Arkansas, so I ought to go back and revisit their heyday. Even without that heritage at the back of my mind (and they charted with ten albums in the seventies), I dug this new album. They've generally been described as southern rock, but this is less a take on the Allman Brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd than it is a heady gumbo of Tom Waits, Dr. John and Memphis soul, set to that wailing Flexer guitar.

At its best, this is glorious stuff, unlike anything else I'm hearing this year, because Black Oak Arkansas always went their own way and I'm happy to see that they're still doing that over four decades on. The highlights are dotted in and amongst the others, but I would highlight the emotional Don't Let It Show and the glorious and atmospheric Arkansas Medicine Man, two songs that open the two halves of the album.

At its worst, it's just redundant. There are no stinkers here but there are songs that don't add anything to the album, which would have been better had they been shifted to the flipsides of singles. There's over an hour of music here and it does flag at points, even if that guitar never gets old.

I'd have given this a 7/10 if it had been more consistent, or an 8/10 if it had more standouts of the quality of Arkansas Medicine Man, but I feel that I have to drop a point for inconsistency. If you're a fan already, I'm sure that you're going to pick this up anyway, but, if you aren't, you'll want to hit its high spots first to see if this is for you.

Vader - Thy Messenger (2019)



Country: Poland
Style: Death/Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 31 May 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I haven't heard Polish death legends Vader in forever, but I enjoyed them back in the day so was keen to pick up this EP. The best thing about it is that it sounds just like the thrash/death I've kept in my mind ever since the early nineties. The worst thing about is that there's very little of it here, the five tracks adding up to only thirteen minutes.

The longest of them is the closer, a cover of Judas Priest's Steeler, taken from their British Steel album. That it isn't wildly different from the four that precede it highlights how important the Priest were to their history. The vocals are different, of course, and the drums a little too, but the energy and power are happy constants. Vader blitz through this EP and the four minutes of Steeler feel like two.

Of course, that means that the two minutes of Grand Deceiver suggest that the song is over almost before it begins. That makes it rather reminiscent of another blitzkrieg release, Slayer's Reign in Blood, even if the voice of Peter Wiwczarek is easily more death than thrash. The frantic soloing is taken right out of the Slayer playbook and there's a surprising amount of it too for a song this short.

Litany moves even closer to thrash with Peter hurling out odd words rather than lines and the pace never letting up. It kind of makes sense that it's the title track from their 2000 album reworked, but this benefits massively from much better production and, frankly, better performances from the band as a whole. Emptiness begins with a solo and then chugs along to another solo. Clearly I need to check out Dark Age, the prior Vader album from 2017 because I can't remember having heard this many guitar solos on a death metal album in a long while and I like it a lot.

Despair is Grand Deceiver on an even stricter timetable. It only just makes it past the minute mark and yes, there's a solo in the middle. It's fast and unrelenting, like the EP as a whole, and it sets the stage for Steeler to be that too but with more riffs, more breakdowns and more patience. How anyone can be unrelenting and patient at the same time, I have no idea, but after the first four tracks, Vader sound like they're playing in slow motion on this closer, but with just as much energy and passion, especially during the mid-section.

I was tempted to drop a point for the brevity here, because thirteen minutes is really short and the EP is over so quickly that you can listen to it a few times and still think it's short. I didn't, though, because that would be unfair to the music within. It's good stuff, the thrashiest death on my playlist in quite a while and I can't fault the energy levels or the excellent production.

So a seven it is, with the hope that a full length album will be following it soon. Vader tend to keep themselves busy in the studio, Dark Age being their fourteenth album and the largest gap between releases being only three years. That means that we should see another one by next year at the latest and the current estimate is December 2019. I'll be waiting!

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Myrath - Shehili (2019)



Country: Tunisia
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 3 May 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Myrath are the latest beneficiary of an odd phenomena that's done well for the Hu and Bloodywood. This is where people who aren't remotely metal fans are confronted with YouTube music videos shared on their Facebook walls of styles of music that they had no idea even existed. Mongolian folk metal? Indian rap metal? Tunisian superhero metal? The response is often to laugh at how wacky these genres seem but then to realise that these wacky genres sound a lot better than the mainstream crap that they're used to. Hey, that really isn't bad, they say, and so the world changes.

Myrath are the last of those three examples, a Tunisian progressive metal band with folk elements. They make music videos that tell ongoing stories with the band cast as what seem to be interdimensional superheroes. They're very cool indeed but the music on this, their fifth studio album, stands on its own. I've been playing this a lot over the last couple of weeks and it just keeps on getting better. It's got to the point that I have to apologise for not posting reviews for a couple of days because I just wanted to listen to this again.

The first couple of seconds of the album may sound eerily like the start to Money for Nothing, but the intro quickly establishes itself as something we haven't heard before. It seems reminiscent of an Islamic call to prayer and it ably highlights that we aren't in Kansas any more, Toto.

It seems odd to suggest that this intro sounds notably eastern, given that, if the band look east from their home town of Ez Zahra, they'll see Sicily and Malta, but it's certainly not 'western'. What follows is a magnificent demonstration of balance because Myrath are both eastern and western, both crunchy and folky, both progressive and catchy. More than anything, their balance between melody and power is so good that I can't think of a better example.

And, what's more, all this is in evidence on every single track, with the sole exception of Stardust, whose classical piano and playful bass leads it emphatically into western prog ballad territory. The oriental textures are everywhere else, whether in fluttering vocals, handheld drums or what really shouldn't be called Egyptian strings when the band are from Tunisia. North African strings maybe; do they have those in Libya in between? The majority of the album is sung in English but sections here and there are in what I presume is a dialect of Arabic.

Initially, my favourite songs were all in the middle of the album. Lili Twil is gorgeous; it's prog metal rather than folk metal but the flute and the lilting voice both add folk flavour. Dance is a fantastic commercial single and Monster in My Closet doesn't run far behind, with a glorious bounce, a great violin riff and a fantastic chorus. Both deserve to be massive hits in the west. Wicked Dice often approaches arena rock without feeling out of place.

The more I listened to the album, though, the more the first half grew to match the middle in quailty. Born to Survive is a worthy single and You've Lost Yourself feels anthemic with its memorable early siren giving way to a handheld drum fiesta and very catchy vocals. And then the last few tracks grew too, especially the deep title track which closes out the album. How do I pick favourites? I guess I don't.

Initially, I just thought there wasn't a bad track here, but much repeated listening tells me that there isn't an average one either. Last month saw only two 8/10s from me but this has to be a third 9/10 for me in May alone. It's outstanding stuff and there are four prior albums for me to discover. Life is good!

Ashes of Yggdrasil - The Path (2019)



Country: Canada
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 May 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | YouTube

Ashes of Yggdrasil have been together for six years and I'm not seeing any changes in their lineup, but this is their debut EP so they've certainly taken their time putting it together. They're a melodic death band from way up there in the frozen wastes of the north, a little east of Edmonton on the border between Alberta and Saskatchewan, and this is certainly a "grim up north" sort of release.

This sounds solid to me and not just from a melodeath perspective. Sure, the core of it is mid tempo death metal with a deep growling vocal from Brendan Wood but that's only the first component that points at a different genre. It's mostly intelligible, so we can follow many of the lyrics, but it's so guttural that I could easily believe that he's wearing a Viking helmet and carrying a bloody battleaxe while singing, especially on the opening track, Cry of the Valkyries, with his chorus echoing across the hills.

However, the pace varies a great deal. There are many slower points where the band ramp down to remind of early Paradise Lost, which means doom/death and slower melodies running over faster backing. There are speedy parts too that are clear enough to hint at thrash, especially when Ty Appleton's much higher and wilder voice briefly takes the lead. First to Attack and The Path both kick off like old school British thrash.

There are also points, like late in Arrows Fly High, when they nail a power metal transition and there were a few points where I heard Manowar creeping out of the shadows to make themselves known. Ashes of Yggdrasil really like to mix it up, which is always a positive point for me, and that's aided by some top notch production. Most debut EPs only dream of sounding this good!

There's no intro, so the EP gets right down to business, knocking out five tracks that are notably consistent in length, structure and quality. It's patient stuff, even at pace, drummer Robert Hayman notably restraining his performance to fit the style at hand, and the band really know how to end songs. The endings to First to Attack and Well of Urd are insanely simple but notably effective. It's almost a disappointment when Arrows Fly High just fades out.

On the negative side, while Wood's vocals have a deep and rich tone that I really dug, he's not able to vary it much at all. Frankly, he doesn't need to do that much but there are points, especially in slow, almost narrative sections, where it feels limited. Perhaps this is emphasised by the guitars which do the exact opposite. This is far from the repetitive and downtuned stereotype of death metal, but it's just as far from the Gothenburg sound.

The only other negative I found was in Cry of the Valkyries, as parts of it seem forced, like some of the transitions between styles. That's odd as the transitions are a highlight on the other tracks, but it feels like sections of this song had been trimmed away in the studio.

This is promising stuff though and I'd like to hear a full length album. Let's just not have to wait another six years for it, please!

Monday, 20 May 2019

Rammstein - Rammstein (2019)



Country: Germany
Style: Industrial Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 17 May 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I made the mistake of first listening to this album with the volume turned down a little. It wasn't quiet, merely not as loud as usual, and it taught me that Rammstein's power is more closely tied to volume than most bands. I know, of course, that they're an in your face kind of band, but the degree to which their power dissipated with just a little volume loss shocked me. Anyway, I fixed that for a second time through and immediately this seventh Rammstein album sounds like it should, even a decade after its predecessor, 2009's Liebe ist für alle da.

What it isn't is a reset, as might be suggested by the fact that this is a self-titled album, something Rammstein have never done before. Well, really it's an album without a title and, according to the fans, the match on the minimalist cover represents simplicity (and fire). The songs are no simpler than previous Rammstein songs, just as they're no more representative of a Rammstein sound than anything earlier. This doesn't replace Mutter as the best starting place to learn about the band.

As tends to be the case with Rammstein, the best tracks are the ones that are most in your face. Deutschland kicks the album off as it means to go on, with an incessant beat, strong vocals and interesting layers to bolster the focal points. This one has a slow electronic chords, a frantic guitar and an effectively varied approach to backing vocals. It's no Rammstein classic but it's a good song and a better way to start an album.

Other tracks stand out well too, especially early on. Radio features a great riff and some fun electronic noodling. Zeig Dich adds a Therion-esque choral section which works really well in this style. Ausländer features a callback in its chorus from a cute voice that sounds like it could have come from an anime. It's a lighter, more commercial Rammstein song but it's not that far away from the norm so it really doesn't matter.

The tracks that do diverge from what we might expect are a little less easy to take. Diamant is a ballad and I'm really not sold on it fitting into the Rammstein sound. Maybe it would work better if I spoke German, but I doubt it. Puppe starts oddly quiet too but it gets really raucous and I can't say that I'm fond of the overdone rough vocals once it gets going, which sound like vocalist Till Lindemann is either trying to go hardcore or just aiming to infuse his narrative style of singing with far more emotion. Either way, I don't think it works.

While the first half of the album is generally much better than the second, there's good stuff to be found towards the end. Weit Weg may just be the one classic on the album. It's in your face stuff but a well constructed backing endows it with a great deal of depth. While I found myself wanting to skip many of the later songs on a second time through, I kept replaying this one. Tattoo is another good belter in the traditional Rammstein style too.

But we leave with Hallomann, another departure that is, at least, successful in ways that Diamant and Puppe aren't. It's an odd way to end, though, and I wonder if the album would feel more coherent as a whole if it had wrapped up with Tattoo, Hallomann perhaps shifted to a separate release. It's certainly not a bad track, but it's not what we expect. That's fine, except when it's what stays in our mind when the silence hits at the end of the album.

I feel that Rammstein are experimenting a little here. They're successful in varying the backdrops for their core sound, because each of these layers is utterly different from the rest and, together, they make this album seem to be fresh and worthy. They're less successful on songs where they ditch the core sound entirely and try something new. That's where the album loses its coherence. What that means is that this is a mixed bag and I'm interested to see how it stands in a couple of years time.

Mystik - Mystik (2019)



Country: Sweden
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 17 May 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

I've been reviewing a lot of music lately that's clearly a throwback to the seventies, but here's an album that's a real throwback to the eighties. Just look at that fabulous cover! It's the sort of original art I tend to buy at sf/f convention art shows nowadays and I'd love to have this on my wall too.

The music enclosed inside is just as quintessentially eighties, right down to the church organ intro to Lake of Necrosis. It's heavy metal on the fast side, not far short of speed metal territory with guitars that roll on like a less vicious Sabbat or maybe Onslaught and a clean vocal from Julia von Krusenstjerna who sounds very much like a young Doro Pesch. Comparisons with Warlock will seem obvious but they're not too accurate, because Mystik play consistently faster. The title track of Hellbound would be a fair comparison though.

I enjoyed the heck out of this, even though there's far too much sibilance on the recording so I had to mess with my equalizer. That's a shame because I love von Krusenstjerna's delivery as much as her voice, because it really sounds like she's relishing every moment of this album, as cheesy as songs about Satan opening the gates to Hell or making sacrifices to the ancient majesty of Death get.

The band follow suit too and I wouldn't be surprised to find that this was recorded live. Some may complain about the production but it's clearly done deliberately. This sounds like one of those muddy eighties production jobs we all remember but it's also clearly done with modern equipment, so I have no doubt that the feel was a very important part of the recording.

However well it was designed to sound eighties, it's the songs that do that job better than anything. Into Oblivion starts things off as the band mean to go on. It's fast, it's powerful, it's catchy and it's cheesy as all get out. If we able to adapt to the latter, we're in for a treat because every track here plays out with those same credentials and not one of them fails on any level except for that cheese factor. I'd be hard pressed to pick a favourite song. Like a couple of albums this year, it'll be whichever one I happen to be listening to when you ask.

The band look young so I wonder what they grew up listening to. This is as close to a time capsule to 1986 or 1987 as I've heard and there's nothing here to suggest that they didn't just climb out of a DeLorean and jump into a studio without stopping to look around at the future. This is all German heavy/speed metal from the mid eighties, which grew out of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest influences. The intro to Ancient Majesty, not to mention the solos within it, make that Maiden influence obvious but this is generally reminiscent more of German bands like Warlock and Iron Angel, with nothing newer than maybe the earliest Helloween.

While this couldn't be further up my alley if it was recorded intentionally as a birthday present, I have to point out that some will argue that Mystik play at a pretty consistent clip, meaning that songs get a little samey. I have to give them the pace argument but the vocals are high enough in the mix to dominate proceedings whenever von Krusenstjerna is singing and she's able to pluck different melodies out of the air, so I don't buy the samey argument too much. As she takes a back seat in each song, the guitars come out to take over that focus with style and the solos vary too.

Talking of solos, I hope that the band's sound won't change too much given the recent departure of Lo Wickman, one of the two guitarists (the other is Beatrice Karlsson). Rather than replace her, von Krusenstjerna switched up from bass to rhythm guitar, so we have a different dynamic there, on top of an empty slot for a bassist that's being filled with guests for live gigs. I don't know what was Wickman on this album and what was Karlsson, but I hope they'll be able to keep up sounds like the divebombing wasp that is one of the guitars on Hellish Force.

I thought about giving this a 7/10 rating, however much I enjoyed it, but I started writing down my highlight tracks and ended up with the first seven, which is more than anything I've reviewed in 2019 except the Banco album. I know I've heard better albums this year but I'm going to be playing this one to death because I'd be hard pressed to name one that I've enjoyed as much. And Mystik are now at the very top of my 'want to see live' list.

Friday, 17 May 2019

Saint Vitus - Saint Vitus (2019)



Country: USA
Style: Doom Metal
Rating: 5/10
Release Date: 17 May 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

Time does fly when we don't pay attention and this self titled Saint Vitus album comes no less than 35 years after the last one, their debut release from 1984. It's only their ninth studio album, following Lillie: F-65 from 2012 and the early seven from the eighties and nineties. Surprisingly, the line up isn't much different, as the band has never featured less than two founder members, which is what we have here.

Dave Chandler has been the guitarist all the way through. While there have been seven eras of vocalists, that only amounts to three different singers and the original, Scott Reagers, is back again for a third time. Mark Adams played bass through to 2016 but sadly had to retire because of Parkinson's; Patrick Bruders is his replacement. And there have only been two drummers over the years; Armando Acosta handed over to Henry Vasquez shortly before his death in 2010.

Now my tastes in doom have always fallen a lot more on the European side than the American, from Black Sabbath at the beginning through doom/death bands like Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride to classic era Candlemass and the Monasterium album that knocked my socks off earlier this month. Of the pioneering American bands, I'd lean far more towards Pentagram and Trouble than Saint Vitus or the Obsessed, but I know who they are and I've enjoyed some of their work.

Part of that is the punk influence that's overt here not just in the rapid fire punk song that closes the album but in the deliberate looseness of the rest of the track listing. This feels like Saint Vitus got themselves into the studio and played whatever they wanted without much care about whether, put together, it constituted something that made sense. And, frankly, even though I love variety in my metal albums, this feels disjointed.

Remains is a highly promising opener, an elephant of a track given acid and let out to run loose. Chandler's wild soloing only gets wilder as the album runs on, but it all starts here. It gets even more wild on Bloodshed, then more prominent on 12 Years in the Tomb as Vazquez slows down so that he can showcase his manipulation of feedback without interruption, before joining back in at a faster pace. Then Chandler returns for more of this in Wormhole and Hour Glass, like he's a zombie Jimi Hendrix reanimated to wail away on an old guitar in the middle of nowhere as a conjuration of elder gods.

While Chandler's gloriously insane soloing is consistent, the songs around him aren't. A Prelude to... is intriguing but it doesn't lead anywhere. It sounds very much like an intro, with subdued vocals from Reagars and a folky bass run from Bruders, but it doesn't feel like a prelude to Bloodshed, which is far more up tempo and vicious. 12 Years in the Tomb and Wormhole have that punk doom vibe too, like they're recording live in Chandler's back yard. I appreciated Bruders's contributions here, especially leading a Sabbath-like intro to Wormhole.

Things get stranger though. City Park is a set of ambient textures with an eerie narration and a very slow plodding bass. It's half horror soundtrack material and half stoner take on Tom Waits spoken word poetry like What's He Building? Given that the voice is often lost behind the wind and the lyrics aren't really why we listen to Saint Vitus albums, the effect is lost and I have to wonder why this track is here. It's as out of place as the blitz of Useless, which ought to be a cover version but not one I recognise.

It's good to see Saint Vitus back and this is worth it for the solos alone, but there are only really two, maybe three fully formed tracks worthy of a seven years in the making album: They're Remains and Bloodshed, with Last Breath as the maybe, given that it slows down gloriously but sounds rather like a doomy Glenn Danzig song. I've been positively surprised a lot this year but this one runs the other way. It should have been much more.

Famous Last Words - Arizona (2019)



Country: USA
Style: Post-Hardcore
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 17 May 2019
Sites: Facebook | Twitter | Wikipedia

OK, I had to review this, given that the EP is called Arizona, even though Famous Last Words ironically appear to not be stopping here on the tour to support it. It's hardly my usual genre, though I've tagged it post-hardcore because it doesn't stay in any one style for long. Wikipedia adds metalcore and symphonic metal to that. I can hear Metal Archives laughing at the mere suggestion that this is metal, but Spirit of Metal list them as screamo.

I should add that they're not from Arizona, hailing instead from Petoskey, MI, which is a heck of a long way away. Why they went for Arizona as their EP title, I have no idea, unless it was to use sun drenched cover art that looks a lot more like Death Valley than anything in this state. There's no song called Arizona or anything like it. The titles follow the usual naming convention for screamo bands.

Runaways, which opens things up, is the quietest song on offer, much closer to the post-hardcore tag than anything else here. Where it comes into play elsewhere is because none of these songs fall into one category. One minute JT is screaming to the teenagers in the front row, the next he's singing in a clean pop voice and, before long, he'll add some effects to sound like a third singer. He isn't my thing but he does this very well. No wonder they have a Wikipedia page.

The band behind him is just as schizophrenic. A lot of the time they're in alternative rock mode, with a controlled beat and a steady bass while Evan Foley's guitar does whatever it's doing at any point in time. He has a lot of effects pedals, I think and, just as JT switches from style to style on the turn of a dime, Foley's guitar finds a different sound on every track. Tyler Myklebust, the band's former rhythm guitarist who's now on bass has all sorts of fun trying to stay with whatever tempo is in play at any point in time, which Cody Paige drives on the drums.

What surprised me most is that they don't play the verses at one speed and then ramp up to scream the chorus before backing down again. They speed up and slow down every time the wind changes direction. Whenever the beat has an idea to go frantic, everyone follows suit for another screamfest but it might last for a minute or just for mere seconds. It's unpredictable, which I appreciated.

This all sounds far too trendy for me (hey, I can't find an official website but every member of the band has his own Instagram page), which surely reflects as much on me as it does on Famous Last Words, but the band do seem very capable. I liked all the variety but don't have the background in these styles to point out comparisons. The only one that came up for me was an Emilie Autumn chorus in Scream, but frankly I'd be surprised if that's where they got the idea from. I'm sure the target audience will know what the band sound like (or don't).

What's most telling is that I still have no idea why this is called Arizona. And I still have no idea where that symphonic metal tag finds relevance.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Whitesnake - Flesh & Blood (2019)



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

I've learned a lot of lessons over my years as a critic but I learned some before I ever took up a virtual pen. Back in 1987, I read Kerrang! magazine from cover to cover and I still remember being shocked at the review of the then new Whitesnake album. It had nothing positive to say at all, giving it the minimum 1K out of 5 and bemoaning that it couldn't go lower. I learned there and then that critics should never make their reviews personal. I had no trust for that reviewer ever again.

That album, of course, was their self titled release, also known as 1987, a huge hit which is still easily the most successful Whitesnake album ever, a platinum seller in the UK and eight times that in the US. It reached #2 on the Billboard chart and became a mainstay on MTV. Sure, it was a commercial release in approach compared to the earlier bluesy albums but it was still an excellent album. The critic's job is not to argue with the direction of the band but to highlight what's objectively good or bad and provide a guide to readers as to whether they're likely to want to seek it out or not.

With that in mind, Flesh & Blood, only the fourth studio album since main man David Coverdale put his band back together again in 2002, is a strong release that fans will definitely want to pick up. On the slim possibility that you've never heard Whitesnake before, this is surprisingly as good a place as any to start. It's exactly what the rest of us would expect from them, a combination of hard rockers and emotional ballads, performed with a glam metal edge over a bluesy base, with Coverdale's ever-suggestive voice at the fore singing lyrics that are clearly about women, sex or both. It's good stuff but it's not surprising stuff.

I haven't heard those last few albums, not having checked in since Restless Heart, the sole product of the previous reformation in 1997, but it looks like they've been received pretty well. Good to Be Bad was the Album of the Year at the Classic Rock Awards; Forevermore seems like a celebration with former guitarists Adrian Vandenberg and Bernie Marsden both guesting on the subsequent tour; The Purple Album, as its title suggests, was reworkings of songs Coverdale co-wrote during his time in Deep Purple.

This, I believe, is all original material and, while the album does feel a little long at just shy of an hour (even without the bonus tracks), there's not a bad track to be found. Good to See You Again is a storming opener and Gonna Be Alright slows down, adds a layer of keyboards and lands a sultry and exotic vibe. Shut Up & Kiss Me, the opening single, is Whitesnake in a very traditional mode but with enough grounding to avoid comparisons to the now unfashionable glam metal era. That comes later with Well I Never, which is the least successful track at keeping the hairspray in the past.

The best track here is probably the one buried exactly at the heart of the album. It's called Trouble is Your Middle Name and it's the second single. The guitars are so playful that we wonder why they weren't this playful all along. It's followed by the title track, which is only the first of many of the second half songs to reach back to the blues. It kicks off with a neat riff and, while we know that Coverdale likes nothing better than some sexual innuendo (c'mon, what do you think Whitesnake means?), the way the guitars drive this song feel like sexual innuendo on their own. No words required.

While the most immediate songs probably all come in the first half, the most interesting ones wait for the second. Get Up features the most bluesy intro but really ramps up the speed to turn it into a fast-paced rocker. After All is the most overt ballad with a guitar approach reminiscent of someone like Jorma Kaukonen, who would feel natural covering this as an acoustic blues. And, after that change of pace, there's even an odd attempt at a Whitesnake Kashmir to wrap things up! Sands of Time is all middle eastern and epic and ambitious. No, it isn't Kashmir. Yes, it's interesting anyway.

This isn't the greatest Whitesnake album ever made, but it's a good one and an interesting one. It couldn't be mistaken for anyone else, but it's deep enough and modern enough in sound to avoid sounding like clichéd hair metal. Coverdale is 67 years old but he sounds as confident and capable as ever, so I can see the Snake writhing on forward for some years to come.

Magnolia Moon - Magnolia Moon (2019)



Country: USA
Style: Southern Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 11 May 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website

It seems that Magnolia Moon have been building quite the name for themselves in their home town of Macon, GA, where they're sponsored by two, count 'em, two breweries. How frickin' cool is that? They're a band of brothers, quite literally, with two Horton brothers, two Crowell brothers and Dwayne Boswell wrapping up the line up on keyboards, and these guys really rock.

I've tagged this as southern rock, so you're probably conjuring up a Lynyrd Skynyrd clone in your mind, but that's really not what these guys do. Sure, there's, inevitably, some Skynyrd in here, especially in the vocals of Zack Horton, but I'd suggest the Allman Brothers as a more overt influence, as I doubt anyone could miss from the two minute intro.

They play longer songs, not one of the six tracks proper here clocking in at under five and a half minutes. Mostly this is because, as sweet and pure as Horton's voice is, they're a jam band and they need space in between all the verses and choruses to explore how best to weave their instruments together to create something special. I should add that he's a major part of that too as one of the band's two guitarists.

I don't know how long they've been playing together, but they're very tight indeed and I could believe they all grew up with instruments in their hands preparing for this debut album. Everyone shines here but, even when they're in the spotlight, they shine as part of a band rather than as an overt star in its midst.

Surely they grew up listening to the classic rock legends of the seventies, because that's what shines through here. They cite the first three albums from Led Zeppelin and the first three from Black Sabbath as key influences, and there's certainly some of each here. The midsection of Daylight sees Horton add a lot of Robert Plant into his Ronnie van Zant and the rest of the band make similar adjustments.

It's actually hard to call out the rest for a couple of reasons. One is that Magnolia Moon never quite sound like anyone else, except for that intro, but incorporate a lot of other bands into their own sound. The other is that it is insanely easy to get lost in this music. I was taking notes on the Stevie Ray Vaughn nods in The High and the funk in Gypsy Woman and all of a sudden, the band were wrapping up Daylight and I realised that I'd spent the three intervening tracks in thrall, being carried along by these waves of sound.

Daylight is certainly the deepest track here, but it also has longer to play with, running almost eight and a half minutes. It's fair to say, however, that all these tracks feel deep. While there's nothing impenetrable here, I couldn't pick out a single. That's just not what Magnolia Moon do. They're not going to suddenly turn into the Georgia Satellites or the Black Crowes for the sake of commerciality, though they trawl some of the same territory and River Queen has strong hints of the latter. They're an album band.

And, of course, I'm sure they're a band who thrive most on the stage, where these five or six minute songs could become ten or fifteen minute jams. The five and a half minutes of Nothing Left honestly felt like fifteen but in a good way. It didn't drag, it just drew me in so far that I completely lost track of time. And that stood true on a second and a third listen, which is a heck of a subconscious compliment really. The same goes for Underwater in its final sections, because the band just rips.

I think this unashamed leap back into the seventies is fantastic stuff and Magnolia Moon are going to grow into a real force to be reckoned with. The big question is how underground they're going to remain, because this isn't the sort of thing that the radio is going to pick up on. I hope they break it somehow without turning commercial because they deserve to be heard.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Banco del Mutuo Soccorso - Transiberiana (2019)



Country: Italy
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 10 May 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

As I write, the last review I posted was for the new album from death metal pioneers Possessed, released no less than 33 years after its predecessor. It isn't the first surprising return in 2019, as Rosy Vista, formed as far back as 1983, finally issued their debut album, and Rock Goddess released a new album 32 years after their previous one. Suddenly Alan Parsons releasing a new album a mere 15 years after its predecessor seems unremarkable.

The surprises do keep coming though, especially in the world of prog rock, with other recent new albums from Focus, Gong and Banco del Mutuo Soccorso. There are a few reasons why this last is particularly surprising, only the first being that this counts as the first studio album for these Italian prog rockers since Il 13 in 1994.

Another is that four of the six current members are actually younger than the band itself, who were formed back in 1969 and helped pioneer the scene known as RPI, or "rock progressivo Italiano", with their first three albums, released in 1972 and 1973. At that point, Filippo Marcheggiani wasn't even born and Nicola di Già, Tony D'Alessio and Marco Capozi were far too busy learning how to walk and talk to explore the joys of prog rock.

A third reason is that Banco's memorable lead singer, Francesco di Giacomo, died in a car accident in 2014, and his replacement, after over forty years in the band, isn't necessarily who we might expect. He's Tony D'Alessio, a runner-up in the X Factor Italia talent show with a pop/rap band called Ape Escape. Then again, he's also sung for a power metal band, Lost Innocence, and a prog metal band called Scenario. And hey, with Queen + Adam Lambert becoming something of an institution, the stigma of appearing on TV talent shows has evaporated.

The final reason is that this album is pretty frickin' fantastic. Prog fans generally rave about those first three Banco albums and appreciate the rest of their output in the seventies but despise everything they've done since, especially their eighties albums, which were far more mainstream pop. This album, however, is being received very well, with ratings almost up at the level of those first three albums. The choice of cover, a globe shaped like the money box on their debut album, is telling. This is old school Banco.

Certainly, it feels like a classic prog rock album from the very beginning. The opening track, Stelle sulla terra, sets the stage with a notable range of sounds. It kicks off with soft keyboards from Vittorio Nocenzi, the only founding member left in the band, gets raucous with drums, then quiet again with piano, allowing the operatic lead vocal to take the spotlight. Halfway through, that vocal changes completely, to a staccato delivery over a sort of jangling bouzouki and an electronic pulse. The second half sees guitars join the fray, duelling with the drums before finding a groove.

This is the opposite of that Alan Parsons album, which was so safe that it could hardly be called progressive. L'imprevisto is just as progressive but it's catchier, with an opening riff that sounds rather like an imaginative Survivor, a swirling progression and a very cool chorus that's stuck in my head even though I don't speak more than a few words of Italian and have no idea what D'Alessio is singing about.

La discesa dal treno initially seems lesser in comparison, but it gets much more interesting as it runs on, with a glorious section three minutes in of jazzy piano over a strong beat, before moving through Italian lounge to the heavier but teasing finalé that points the way to L'assalto dei lupi. Did I hear a vibrophone in there? There's surely a xylophone under a roaming bass in L'assalto dei lupi, which I presume details an attack by wolves. There's a lot of playful experimentation going on here, some of which aims to sound like a growl. What 'sukiyaki' means in Italian, though, I have no idea.

The tracks continue to impress, both by their individual quality and their cumulative variety, and it becomes very difficult to pick highlights. What makes that task harder is that those songs, such as La discesa dal treno or Lo sciamano, that hint towards being less impressive turn out to merely be doing something we don't initially grasp and they get stronger on a second listen, often much stronger. Even when they don't stand out for attention, like Campi di fragole, they still play their part in the bigger picture of the album as a whole.

A final surprise, perhaps a telling one, is that this is long for a Banco album, running 53 minutes even without the two live bonus tracks, including an excellent rendition of Metamorphosi from the Banco debut that runs well over nine minutes on its own. However, that old song excepted, there aren't any lengthy tracks here at all, five exceeding six minutes but none by much. This new Banco is a different Banco, even if it's looking backwards to the early days for its chief influence.

After a first listen, I'd have suggested that this is little heavier than those old albums, but further listens scotch that. I think this merely has the benefit of modern production values and so its heavier sections feel a bit heavier. However, much of this album, in keeping with the RPI mindset, are much softer, often delicate. Nocenzi, at many points, sounds like he's playing icicles that might break under his touch.

This is easily the best prog rock album I've heard so far this year and it has to be the most progressive such too, as admirably varied as the recent Jon Anderson album but more consistent in quality and more experimental. I leave this highly surprised that Banco del Mutuo Soccorso knocked out a new studio album in 2019 but just as happy. Maybe it's a little longer than it should have been but I'm not complaining and I couldn't pick any song as an obvious candidate for exclusion.

Now, 2019, keep those surprises coming!

The Accüsed A.D. - The Ghoul in the Mirror (2019)



Country: USA
Style: Crossover
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 10 May 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website

I'll talk a lot in my Banco del Mutuo Soccorso review (next up) about how many surprising albums have dropped this year, but this is another one. I remember the Accüsed well from the eighties, when they were surely one of the punkiest of the thrash bands out there, pointing the way to what would be called crossover but wouldn't ever be quite as outrageous.

I really dug Blaine's vocals, as wild and untamed as they were, albeit in large part because they were wild and untamed. It's telling that the names I'd conjure up as a comparison (beyond Sid Vicious) are Gary Markovitch and George Anthony, who sang for a thrash metal band and a hardcore punk outfit respectively, Blood Feast and Battalion of Saints. Blaine was the insane middleground between those two genres at a time long before it was deemed appropriate.

What I didn't know was that he and Alex Maggot Brain weren't original band members, even though they were there when I started paying attention with the More Fun Than an Open Casket Funeral album in 1987. The bandleader was actually Tommy Niemeyer on guitar and he's kept the band going ever since founding it in 1981. In 2005, however, a year shy of a silver anniversary, the entire rest of the band left Tommy behind to form Toe Tag, which seems to have evolved into being the Accüsed A.D. After all, they included three quarters of the Accüsed and fans even prompted them to tour as an Accüsed "tribute band" called Martha's Revenge.

This is a fun album but it's wildly inconsistent, veering not just between punk and metal and back again, sometimes within the same track, but into a series of nods to classic rock. I know I'm hearing things here that aren't always deliberate, like the sliver of Armageddon that ends Prison Gig, but I'm sure that some of them are, like the Black Sabbath homage in the middle of Dirt Merchant. Why do I know the solo in Looking for the Smell?

It ought to easy to see which tracks fit on which side of that punk/metal borderline just by looking at the lengths of the tracks. The first dozen songs amount to less than half an hour between them, four of them under a minute and a half each, but they're not always the blitzkrieg punk songs. Hate Your Friends isn't Eating Teeth and vice versa. The four three minute songs aren't always the slower metal songs either.

We might think it would be safer to look at the song titles, with the more outrageous ones surely being closer to being the punk tracks. Well, Hate Your Friends is absolutely a rapid fire punk song, so much so that it feels too long at 1:29. However, A Piss Boner and a Handful of Dirty Words (and that's one song rather than two) feels akin to a band of drunks attempting instrumental NWOBHM at one in the morning.

Much of it is just the Accüsed, with songs like A Terrible Tail about all sorts of traditional material for horror movies. However, there are a few anomalies here, most obviously the five minute final track, The Comfort of Death (When Tomorrow Never Comes), another chugging Sabbath-inspired song (until it isn't), and a suitably outrageous take on Rick Derringer's Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo. Let's just say that this version wouldn't have made the charts in 1973 but in all the right ways.

I'm glad that Blaine, Steve and Alex are back under a vaguely reminiscent moniker. However, I'm even more intrigued by the fact that I hadn't known about Toe Tag at all and they knocked out a couple of albums earlier this decade, along with a slew of split releases and EPs. A lot of these bands may be coming back out of nowhere but some of them turn out to have been here throughout, just under different names.

Friday, 10 May 2019

Possessed - Revelations of Oblivion (2019)



Country: USA
Style: Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 10 May 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Wikipedia | YouTube

It's testament to the importance of Possessed that, since they split up in 1987, nobody else on the planet put together another band called Possessed, one of the most obvious names in the whole of metal. I found rock/metal in 1984 so I was there when Seven Churches came out and it was one of my very favourites from my first time through it. I liked Beyond the Gates too and The Eyes of Horror too, if not quite as much. I've always appreciated when bands cite them as an influence because, given that Possessed split up in 1987, you knew they meant it.

Seven Churches was something special. It was lumped in with thrash at that point but it was never quite what other bands were doing. It wasn't really the most anything—the most raw, the most brutal, the most intricate—there were always other albums outdoing it on all these fronts. But nothing else combined heaviness, speed and melody quite like Seven Churches, especially as it felt like the band were constantly about to fall apart, even if they never actually did. The whole thing felt acutely real and dangerous, with the drums of Mike Sus struggling to keep up and the rest of the band ever inching forward faster.

While Possessed changed even from 1986 to 1987, I was sad when they ceased to be and very happy when Jeff Becerra brought his band back from the dead in 2007 to perform a legendary set at Wacken with Sadistic Intent backing him, but I've been waiting for this inevitable album ever sense and it has finally arrived, holy crap, thirty-frickin'-three years since the last one.

I have to sadly point out that Becerra only performs with his voice, being paralysed below the waist in 1989, so Robert Cardenas handles bass duties nowadays. Emilio Marquez was there in 2007 when Possessed were reborn as he was the drummer for Sadistic Intent, but the remaining members joined in at later points in time, with guitarist Claudeous Creamer the last on board in 2016.

However long these folk have actually been together, it feels like longer, because this new Possessed are very tight indeed. I enjoyed the Shadowcult EP that came out last month, which featured two tracks from this album, and I find that everything else here holds up to its standards. This is a good and worthy new album.

Much of its success, of course, rests on the voice of Jeff Becerra. He's a little more controlled nowadays, but his voice is still an intelligible raw growl, nowhere near as extreme as the harsh vocals most bands use nowadays but still deep and warm and evil. He's still a singer rather than a texture to add to the music behind him, which feels refreshing. He also still sings about the sort of Satanic topics that veered off into black metal as the sort of death metal that Possessed pioneered found its own style.

His backing band have more control too. Larry Lalonde was always a notable guitarist but Creamer and Daniel Gonzalez increase the tempo he worked at and don't feel like they're even stretching, perhaps because Marquez keeps up throughout with some fantastic drumming. Their solos are a lot of fun as well; just check out the interweaving solos in Damned for a start and then follow up with Abandoned. Cardenas maintains the deep tone throughout and gets a great bass run on Demon.

They collectively keep up the blitzkrieg for almost an hour, which is much longer than the previous two albums, neither of which broke forty minutes. Then again, that's probably appropriate because times have changed and it's just an album, unlike Seven Churches which felt like a headlong rush into oblivion, an immersive experience as much as a collection of songs. I miss the mid eighties when bands like Possessed were challenging extremes while society at large looked on in abject horror.

The highlights are mostly the singles: No More Room in Hell, Abandoned and Shadowcult, but Damned is another and so are Omen and Ritual. Welcome back, Possessed! I've missed you. It's fantastic to hear an authentic old school death/thrash album and the fact that it's pretty damn good is a real bonus.

Vroudenspil - Panoptikum (2019)



Country: Germany
Style: Folk Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 Apr 2019
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia (DE) | YouTube

Here's something a little different. Vroudenspil are a German folk band who have been around since 2005. Note that I say "folk" rather than "folk metal" because there's no metal here. The band call what they do "buccaneer folk", a sort of blend of folk and ska, dressed up in pirate garb, that reminds a lot of gypsy punk. Apparently they used to have a more mediaeval feel too, but that's less obvious on this, their sixth album.

This is bouncy and engaging stuff and it's opened doors for Vroudenspil to perform at all sorts of niche festivals. They started out at renaissance festivals and expanded into pirate festivals, goth events, rock festivals, pagan events, you name it. They played three sets at Wacken in 2015, which is telling. Frankly, they're so engaging that it's hard to imagine anyone not liking this. They could support Manu Chao one night, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones the next and then the Dread Crew of Oddwood on a third.

Their particular combination of sounds gives them a consistent feel but the sheer variety of them gives them a lot of flexibility within that sound. A song like Schein und Sein, for instance, begins with smooth jazz, like it's introducing a Mike Hammer episode but then the beat kicks in and we're in acoustic Alestorm territory. By the time the saxophone gets a solo, we're bouncing up and down to a Madness song.

Many of the songs have a more consistent feel, often with a ska base, even if they sound far more like Gogol Bordello than Reel Big Fish, but get wild with certain instruments. Kaleidoskop brings in sea shanties with a "Yo Ho" chant. Tanzbär does something cool with what sounds like handheld percussion. Rausch der Sinne features some old school gypsy guitar from the Django Reinhardt school. Feuerteufel features an insane accordion solo that's reminiscent of Kerry King, merely on the accordion, but it also has a delightfully playful bass that's prominent throughout.

Even on something like Menschenbild, a relatively traditional folk song for a couple of minutes, Vroudenspil feel like they're not only musicians but performing artists, if that makes sense. The middle section is as visual as it is auditory, because I could just see these pirates on a Night Boat to Cairo and that's before the more conversational final act with laughter and all sorts of other things. On occasion I can see these songs as much as I'm listening to them.

The Madness references are surely deliberate, because Vroudenspil have that ska base and Madness constitute a good chunk of the great ska songbook. I'm fascinated by how some of the other references are surely not deliberate. I can't imagine that the flute solo in Aufgewacht was meant to sound like the theme tune to The Last of the Summer Wine, for instance, or the playful bit at the end of Selbsträcher was trying to emulate Jump in the Line. But hey, you never know!

Talking of playful, I think this album gets cheekier and more playful as it runs on. Just check out Kleine Fabel, two tracks from the end. The very beat is cheeky and the sax even more so, but the song gives every instrument its own moment in the spotlight. It's a joy to behold. And then Vanitas starts and its intro prompts the whole playful meter to move up another notch.

While Vroudenspil are a stretch in a whole new direction for the rock/metal spectrum, so they may well not be your thing, you should totally give them a try. I'd suggest that the only reason that they're not as famous as Gogol Bordello is that the latter live in New York and sing in English. The only song that won't have you dancing in your chair is Seelenfrieden, an anomaly of a song to wrap up the album. Everything else is guaranteed to put a grin on your face.

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Monasterium - Church of Bones (2019)



Country: Poland
Style: Epic Doom Metal
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 6 May 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | YouTube

I came into this album not knowing anything about Monasterium except that they play epic doom metal in Poland. I left it knowing a lot more, because this is really good stuff and they clearly enjoy what they do, describing themselves on Facebook as 'humble knights of doom on their second crusade'. Their first was a 2016 self-titled album which I'll immediately seek out [edit: it sounds good but not as good as this].

The one downside to this band is that they're clearly huge fans of Messiah Marcolin era Candlemass, so much so that this almost sounds like a tribute album. That's it. If you see that lack of originality as a problem, this is perhaps not the doom metal album for you and best of luck finding something that truly stands apart from what's gone before. If you really don't care and, frankly, perk up at the idea of something comparable to Nightfall and Ancient Dreams, then this is emphatically for you.

So, if you're still here, let me tell you how great this is. Of course, you already know what it sounds like because you've played those two Candlemass albums to death. It sounds like that. The vocalist attempting the tough feat of surviving a comparison to Messiah Marcolin is Michał Strzelecki who, get this, used to play guitar in a power metal band called Sorcerer. That seems really weird to me because it's really rare for a musician to transition to vocals with such emphasis but hey, I ain't knockin' it.

Strzelecki isn't Marcolin, though, of course, nobody else is either. He is, however, very good indeed. He sings entirely in English and does well, even if he can't quite hide his Polish accent. Frankly, it adds a little exotic texture. To highlight how good he is, he shares the mike on The Last Templar with Leo Stivala, who's sung for the Maltese doom band Forsaken for almost three decades, and, as good as Stivala is, he's clearly not as good.

If Monasterium were nothing but a great singer, I wouldn't be raving like I am here. Fortunately, the rest of the band are all strong. Filip Malinowski drives a lot of this on a highly resonant bass. Tomasz Gurgul is a walking riff machine on guitar. Maciej Berniak, manning the "drums of doom" keeps it all very much under control and even adds a little perkiness at points. The three of them all used to play in a prog metal band called Sadman Institute, who put out an album in 2015 that now intrigues me. It sounds like they live and breathe doom but apparently they didn't used to.

And, to put the icing on the cake, Monasterium aren't just a bunch of solid musicians. They have actual songs to play here and that's surprisingly often a missing component for otherwise highly talented bands. I don't know which band members to praise for the songwriting, but it's as strong as anything else here. I knew I was going to like this just from the title track, which opens the album, but it just gets better from there.

La Danse Macabre varies as to why it's better. It starts out very much as a guitar song with Gurgul churning out a glorious riff and Berniak setting an agreeable pace, but his work in the midsection brings a huge grin before Strzelecki lays claim to the song with a dramatic section and a couple of moments of sheer power. Liber Loagaeth betrays a surprising influence, in early Manowar, but still with a very doom vocal. It's too polished to have fit on something as raw as Hail to England, but it would have been worthy.

And then they get heavy! Ferrier of the Underworld and Embrace the Void are both crushing doom tracks led by more glorious riffs and some soaring vocals from Strzelecki. The former is as Nightfall era Candlemass as it gets and I have to praise Malinowski and Berniak for keeping the song as heavy as they do while Gurgul is soloing. The latter starts tantalisingly quiet and likes to stay there for the verses, but it builds with some serious power, Berniak and Malinowski once again crushing it behind the vocals.

Every song thus far has been great and we're coming up on my favourites. The Order of the Dragon and Sleeping with the Dead are both songs that do little more than previous songs did but somehow grew more on me. The latter is long too and I think Monasterium do well with longer songs. Of course, the longest is the last one, The Last Templar, with that guest vocal, and it builds like an epic should. There's a little of that old school Manowar here again but it's a killer doom track to wrap up a killer doom album.

I don't give out high ratings easily because I feel that classics can only be truly quantified in hindsight, but this is easily as worthy as anything I've heard this year. Thus far I've only given two 9/10s and this makes it three, with the added note that I expect to be going back to this far more often than Aephenamer and maybe more than Uluru.

Rumbleweed - Djinns of Duna (2019)



Country: Spain
Style: Stoner Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 6 May 2019
Sites: Facebook | Twitter

While heavy metal in the US seems to have become intrinsically tied to pot culture, I grew up in a very different scene in the UK and the whole stoner mindset just seemed dumb to me. Well, it may be, but I missed out because I have to say that stoner rock/metal is fascinating to me in 2019, long after it was supposed to die out as obsolete. It's an odd genre to persevere but it really found a foothold in the nineties and is enjoying a growth spurt as a variety of bands in a variety of countries take it in new directions.

Rumbleweed (which Google emphatically wants me to change to Tumbleweed) are a new stoner rock band from Santander in Spain, home to what little English money I have left, who were founded as recently as 2018. This is their debut EP, though at a mere two minutes shorter than Reign in Blood, it's not far from being a full album. It also highlights a real versatility in the band, even over as few as six tracks.

My favourite tracks are the first two. The Acme of Stupidity is psychedelic in outlook with the requisite fuzzy guitar getting bouncier as the song runs on and a beat that makes this almost sound like downtuned funk. By the end, it's got raucous enough to blitz out with punk attitude. L Devourer starts slowly too and builds well with some memorable riffs and good use of a pair of vocalists.

The middle two tracks have an odd habit of disappearing into the background. I say odd because I'm surprised at how the title track does that. It kicks off with a fantastic riff and always sounds magnificent whenever I tune back into it but, however many times I listen through, I somehow get distracted while it's on. That's easier to explain with Suffocation, which is easily the loosest and least overt track on the EP. It's easy to get lost in that song but I don't want to get lost in Djinns of Duna. I think it's the loose verses that do it, before the riff captures us once more. I'd say it goes home well too, but the cover may cast doubts on that. Where's home?

The last two tracks, however, never fade into anywhere. Catch the Bunny is another bouncy track, a relatively conventional alternative rock song but a successful one that's impossible to ignore. Finally, Tailored Suit, bouncy once more, finds still more success with the band's dual vocal approach. I should call out Rubi and Gad, the two singers, who combine magnificently. The achingly slow section three minutes in is a real bonus, as is the fast section a minute later that wraps up the song. I dug this one a lot and any release that begins and ends with its best tracks ought to do well.

I don't know enough about stoner rock to know where Rumbleweed found their sound or took their influences. I'm learning but I have a long way to go. I just know that I like this stuff: the fuzzy guitars, the interesting drums, the clean but otherwise highly varied vocals. I've always lumped this sort of thing in with 'alternative' and written it off and I regret that. This is a great example of something I'd have missed out on a couple of decades ago that I don't need to miss out on any more.

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Oxymorya - Save Your Mind (2019)



Country: France
Style: Symphonic Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 7 May 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | YouTube

Oxymorya hail from Dannemarie, which is so far east in France that it isn't far off either Germany or Switzerland. Perhaps that's why their influences are obviously primarily European, not just other symphonic metal bands like Epica, Nightwish and Delain, but bands with more extreme elements like Mors Principium Est and Sirenia. All these are cited on their Facebook page and aren't remotely surprising.

Initially, Oxymorya sound just like your personal favourite symphonic metal band, but it doesn't take long for other elements to show up to deepen what they do. The harsh vocals of Soizic Desbois (I presume that's what 'chant saturé' translates to), combined with the clean vocals of Aurélia Mouth, hint at the versatile sound we know from Tristania and Sirenia, while the intricate drum patterns of Cédric Mouth are only the most overt progressive element. Were Aurélia not present, Oxymorya could be easily classified as prog metal.

They start strongly on Welcome to Earth, with these two different singers adding their own textures to the song not verse by verse but line by line. They're so connected throughout the album that on one track, In the Long Run... We are All Dead, they share the very song title in the chorus, each tackling half of it in their own individual and wildly different style.

The guitars are surprisingly low in the mix, especially given the presence of two guitarists and a bassist, but the drums are not, so that we tend to find ourselves listening to symphonic, prog and melodic death metal all at the same time. There's certainly a lot of melodeath in The Cave, but there is also a lot of beautiful symphonic vocal work from Aurélia and a glorious bass run midway from Vincent Rigoni.

What I should mention is that Cedric Mouth isn't only the prominent drummer ('batterie' in French!), he's also responsible for the orchestration, which is handled very differently to anything I've heard from the bands mentioned above. He's not trying to add a virtual orchestra, at least I don't believe he is; he's adding odd little textures here and there from a whole variety of instruments. The Cave alone features brass and a heck of a lot of piano, while other songs benefit from other hints and accents.

It's also worth mentioning that his role here appears to vary depending on what his contribution is. As a drummer, he's the heart of the prog metal drive of the album: crisp, technical and deliberate. However, when wearing his orchestrator hat, he's much more like a pixie, very playful and wildly unpredictable. I'd even suggest that songs like This is the End would sound completely different if we merely removed his layer of orchestration.

I find this fascinating because the band, who only formed last year and for whom this is their debut release, clearly have a sound of their own, which is admirable in the world of symphonic metal, where many bands are almost indistinguishable from each other. I wouldn't mistake Oxymorya for any of them, even if Aurélia is traditional enough in her contribution.

The point is that she's singing in her style while her counterpart sings in her completely different style (except when she doesn't, on the fantastic The Great Apocalypse), Cedric plays prog and, frankly everyone in the band plays whatever they want, given their own influences. How this all doesn't fall horribly apart on every track, I have no idea, but somehow it all gels wonderfully into something very specifically Oxymorya.

Case in point: Divina Machina. Each time I hear it, it seems to belong to a different genre. Initially, it's a melodic death song, even if Cedric adds electronic fringes around it, on which Aurélia feels like a guest vocalist; all the vocals that count are Soizic. But then I hear it again as symphonic metal because Aurélia gets the verses and Soizic brings texture. And then I focus on the groove metal vibe. Or the jazzy guitar. Or...

Behind the Door does the same thing, because Cedric goes all vaudevillian with his orchestrations. It's another melodic death song, except it isn't. And the whole struggle begins again.

At the end of the day, of course, it doesn't matter what genre these songs are. They're simply good and that's all that matters.

Sparkle - Life (Black Point in World) (2019)



Country: Iran
Style: Post Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 16 Feb 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter | YouTube

The benefits of being a one man band are that you can just get on with it, whatever it might happen to be. Parvis Shabrang from Esfahan, Iran really gets on with it. Under his performing name of Sparkle, he knocked out six full length albums last year and has already matched that feat in 2019 by the beginning of May. This one came out in February and he's released four more since! That's one album a month with two in April!

The obvious question, given this sort of pace, is whether he's any good or not and I have to say that I enjoyed Life (Black Point in World), though it sometimes has to fight to stay in the foreground. The opening track, Imagine the End, for example, is almost nine minutes of early Tangerine Dream-esque ambient keyboards. It's hard not to like it, but it doesn't have the depth of tracks in a similar style on Tangerine Dream albums like Phaedra.

Shabrang describes what he does in a few different ways: funeral doom metal, ambient post rock and atmospheric space. A few years ago, I'd have struggled to grasp that but I'm finding that some unlikely genres actually connect in surprising ways.

Imagine the End was certainly recorded wearing Sparkle's 'atmospheric space' hat, while Radiant of Void moves into post rock, with some traditional rock instruments, such as guitars and drums, conjuring up a soundscape that's a lot more overt than its predecessor on the album. I'm not sure what it aims to depict but it builds well and it's very likeable.

Never Breathe combines the two approaches rather well, the atmospheric side suggesting that we're floating, in space or underwater, perhaps like the intriguing character on the cover, but the post rock side, mostly provided by a set of periodic power chords, adds a sense of danger, which is frankly appropriate given what the very same intriguing character on the cover is doing (or is having done to it).

If there's funeral doom here, it's on Mind on the Way Back, which unfolds with a lot of church organ and adds guitar halfway through that's heavier than anything on those post rock tracks by far. It's not funeral doom as I think of it but it does play in the same ballpark for a while. If you want the heaviness of powerful funeral doom but old school Tangerine Dream bores you silly, then this album really isn't for you. I can't say whether one or more of Sparkle's many other albums won't do the job, but this one won't.

Frankly, it ought to appeal most to those old school Tangerine Dream fans. Phaedra is one of my favourite albums of all time and I dig pretty much all they did in the mid seventies, after they moved past more overt Krautrock albums to find their own sound: think Rubycon, Ricochet and Stratosfear, up to their soundtrack for Sorcerer. Sparkle is a little less playful and far more ambient in approach, which generally means that it's harder to picture what he's visualising in sound.

The closing song, Sparkle from Inside, actually looks a little further back to those Krautrock albums of Tangerine Dream and others. It's experimental in outlook, though not wildly so, channelling Krautrock into post rock and coming up with something rather interesting, if not for everyone.

And, frankly, Shabrang knows that he's out there on a particular edge. Those who like his work are going to buy a lot of it and he's prolific enough to feed that market. Those who don't like his work aren't going to last through one album like this, never mind a dozen of them. I'm in the former category. This isn't the most essential album in this style I've heard but Shabrang is good at what he does and I'm intrigued enough to listen to some more to see if this is a greater or lesser example of what he does.

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Datura4 - Blessed is the Boogie (2019)



Country: Australia
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 5 Apr 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter

There's a great quote from The Australian that explains what Datura4 really sound like: "These songs evoke a time in music history when rock was getting really loud". I like that, because it's clearly rock music that's about to become something else and Datura4 don't want that to happen. They're happy with their high volume and psychedelic wail and tantalising hints at what might arrive in the fresh new decade of the 1970s but they're also happy to watch other bands actually carve that retro-future.

Oddly, they start out heavy with Black Dog Running, which for a while is as doomladen as anything on this album, with the sole late exception of Cat on a Roof, which has some wild old school Hammond organ to thank for its heaviness. It warms up and the middle section alternates between Black Sabbath and maybe Vanilla Fudge, heavy blues/psych that couldn't ever be called metal.

After that's the title track, which is like an entire classic rock station distilled down into one song. I heard Radar Love, Roadhouse Blues, Spirit in the Sky and a host of others, not to mention the overt nods to John Lee Hooker, but each only for brief moments because it somehow finds its vibe in and amongst those recognisable sounds. Frankly, I kind of dug the fact that it sounded so reminiscent of other songs without actually ripping any of them off.

There's actually a lot of seventies influence here for a band who sound like they don't want to leave the late sixties. Run with Lucy has a glam vibe to it, like a Marc Bolan song. The band's cover of Jessie Hill's 1960 hit Ooh Poo Pah Doo sounds more like an early seventies Deep Purple cover. The City of Lights is highly reminiscent of classic era Blue Öyster Cult. Not for Me begins with a quiet guitar that's the closest the band get to Led Zeppelin.

Their Facebook page suggests that, in addition to western bands like Nazz, Status Quo and Humble Pie, they also cite influences from Australian bands. It's been a long while since I've seen the the Masters Apprentices cited in anything, but I'm a big fan of A Toast to Panama Red. I hadn't heard of the Ted Mulry Gang, but I should clearly check them out.

Not everything here is essential. I quite liked Evil People, Pt. 2 on first listen, but it got old by the second time through. It would be too clichéd and arbitrary to suggest that Not for Me is, well, not for me, but it isn't my favourite song on here by a long shot. The honky tonk piano sounds very out of place, even if the neat guitarwork reminds of Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Frankly, these two songs together point towards the album tailing off early, but Cat on a Roof brings it back and The City of Lights wraps it up really nicely. None of these songs are bad and it wouldn't surprise me if the ones I liked least might be the favourites for someone else. There's enough here for everyone to find their own good and bad.

This is apparently the third album for Datura4 and I enjoyed it. I can see them on the stage at an Aussie pub in the middle of nowhere connecting with the patrons, whether they're drunk or not, as long as they're playing loud. Somehow it would be criminal to play Datura4 quietly.

Enter 6 - Black Dolphin (2019)



Country: Australia
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 5/10
Release Date: 15 Mar 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives

Wow, this is some really down and dirty stuff!

Enter 6 play thrash metal out of Sydney, Australia with a real fondness for groove metal. What they don't do is suck. What they do is struggle to escape from the muddy production of this album. Given that it's their second studio album and it took them no less than nineteen years to get round to it, I'm rather shocked that they couldn't find a better producer in that time.

What leaps out first are the drums of founder member Andrija Skocic, which would sound really impressive if they didn't sound like he was banging on a set of thirty year old suitcases in the cupboard next door. The saving grace is that the fury of Skocic's drums combines well with the bass-heavy drive of the songs and fellow co-founder Alex Vexler's amazingly rough vocals to create an evil vibe I kinda dug. It reminded me of some of the demos I used to buy on cassette in the eighties that were recorded in the bass player's grandparent's basement.

I started seeing this as a guilty pleasure by the time I was halfway through and, given that only one of the ten tracks exceeds four minutes and four are under three, that's not too far in. It really ought to be awful. Never mind the awful production and Vexler's raw and primitive voice, just look at the frickin' cover!

It's an exercise in what absolutely not to do on an album cover. The band's logo is futuristic shiny chrome but we're looking at a man's hand that we just know didn't just scrape five lines in blood on a crappy wall. Ah, but there's a crossbar for no apparent reason except that it makes six lines. Enter 6, geddit? Ugh. And yet the album is called Black Dolphin. Why? It's got entirely nothing to do anything. I have no idea. Why the hell not?

But, however awful it ought to be (and it's easy to find flaws), I have to say that I kind of enjoyed this. The band sound like they're really into it and they don't hold back at all. Ironically, if I could hear what they were doing, I might actually enjoy it less. As it is, they hurl themselves into track after track without any real surety that they're going to make it out alive on the other side and that makes for an energy that invigorated me.

I particularly like how they end these songs because it doesn't ever feel like they plan to. They just wrap up tracks because someone bought a round or the kettle boiled or a demon manifested in the middle of their rehearsal space. Yet every ending somehow works. Every song ends with the same attitude that endowed it with energy and power and brutality, even if it would have been twice as long in another band's hands.

Case in point: my favourite track here is probably All for Nothing, which starts at a hundred miles an hour, speeds up in the middle, does a groove metal stop/start thing for a while, goes so wild with its vocals that I'm not sure if it's supposed to be blackened thrash or some sort of tea party for baboons, gets lost for a moment and then kicks back in just in time to end with an unexpected flourish. I'm not even sure that it's good but it's absolutely delightful, punk as all get out and utterly no nonsense.

And really, that's what this album is. It's no nonsense, balls to the wall, who gives a shit, energy releasing mayhem. It may sound like they murdered the producer during the opening song and left him twitching on the mixing desk while they recorded the album, but it's really honest stuff, warts and all, and I appreciated that. It's the most Australian thing about the whole thing. I've heard a lot better material over the last couple of weeks but I doubt that I enjoyed half of it more than this.

Monday, 6 May 2019

Jon Anderson - 1000 Hands: Chapter One (2019)



Country: UK
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 31 Mar 2019
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Wikipedia

I mentioned that Lucifer's Friend have been around since 1968. Well, that's so long ago, it's when Jon Anderson founded Yes with Chris Squire. While he continues to be part of whatever version of Yes is around at the moment, he continues to record and tour solo and I believe I've just missed him at the Van Buren here in Phoenix, which sucks, because this album is just great.

I read that, while it's certainly a new album, it's not entirely new. Back in 1990 or so, he was working on a project called Uzlot in California with Yes bandmates Chris Squire and Alan White, among others, but nothing came of it and Anderson left the master tapes in his garage and forgot about them. A quarter of a century later, producer Michael Franklin reached out and, with further recording sessions, they became 1000 Hands. The artists on the roster are of serious calibre, from Steve Howe and Chris Squire to Jean-Luc Ponty and Ian Anderson via Chick Corea, Carmine Appice and Rick Derringer.

While Yes are regulars on my local classic rock station, I often play other parts of his career at home. The Jon and Vangelis album The Friends of Mr. Cairo is never too far from my playlist and I listened through the Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe album recently. What I haven't played in forever is a solo Jon Anderson record, though I have fond memories of Olias of Sunhillow. Clearly I should return to his back catalogue because this is fantastic.

Anderson sounds like Anderson, which might sound like an odd thing to say, but I can't think of another singer with a voice as recognisable as his who hasn't seemed to change it in half a century. Aaron Neville, maybe, but over time voices change and Anderson's just hasn't. Some of what we hear on this album stems from his vocal exercises.

And this album sounds as progressive as anything he's ever done, even with nothing over nine minutes long and only two tracks coming close. Everything is built around his voice, perhaps unsurprisingly, but what sits behind it varies so wildly that I'm surprised it all holds together so well.

Did I hear both Tuvan throat singing and a hurdy gurdy on Ramalama? There's calypso and South African gospel on First Born Leaders, courtesy of Belgian group Zap Mama. Activate is mostly backed by electronica, except when it's solo flute or a symphony orchestra. At one point, Make Me Happy seems to be caught up in a Brazilian carnival.

And that's just the first half. The album, presumably the first chapter in a larger work, is firmly separated into two halves by bookends. It begins with a vocal piece called Now and finishes with Now and Again, while the halves are separated by Now Variations, three versions of the same song. Given how wildly different every other song here is, I'm not sure why the tracks are in the order they are.

Maybe the first half is more emotional. It's clearly bouncier and happier and the second half is more thoughtful and introspective. I Found Myself features a prominent bass and violin but has an Americana feel. Twice in a Lifetime has a notably different approach to violin, before it drifts into French accordion and eventually to both harpsichord and a horn section. The title track, 1,000 Hands (Come Up) is a jazz workout for piano and drums before it turns into a clapping singalong.

WDMCF (or Where Does Music Come From) is the only track to throw doubt on that delineation, as it's a bouncy song in the second half, even if it gets its bounciness from dance music beats until it veers rather surprisingly into solo piano. Certainly I prefer the first half to the second, but it's not outside possibility that the second half is deeper and will take longer to appreciate properly.

This album reminds me yet again that there are artists who continually aim to reinvent themselves rather than trawling out the same ol' same ol' every album. Jon Anderson is up there with Robert Plant as a perennial reinventer, someone who's immediately recognisable to the ear but always doing something new and fresh. I wish I'd had been able to see him live last week.