Friday, 14 June 2019

Jimmy Barnes - My Criminal Record (2019)

Country: Australia
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 31 May 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

American audiences may not know the name of Jimmy Barnes, but it's one well worth looking into. I found him when he started to break into the UK market with his third solo album, Freight Train Heart, in 1987. It was a big deal, an attempt to expand his fame in Australia to the west, with a whole slew of major names backing him up, and it really should have done the job, full as it was with songs like Do or Die so powerful they seemed to come alive.

He did make a splash but never quite realised the fame he deserved in the west, but he's a superstar back home in Australia. It's difficult to point out just how big he is there, so let's just say that My Criminal Record is his twelfth number one album down under, restoring him to the top of that list again after Madonna and U2 caught him up. That's nine solo albums and three from his time as the lead singer in Cold Chisel, yet another name to track down if you're into roots-based rock led by killer vocals. And yes, they're still killer vocals, even though Barnes is now 63 years old.

He generally lends his blistering voice to no nonsense rock anthems with a lot of influences from outside the genre, not just the blues, but country, soul and gospel too. He's done a couple of albums dedicated to soul covers in his time, though this one is emphatically a rock album, often an angry one. One of the mote telling songs that he wrote here is I'm in a Bad Mood, an anthemic number that highlights his attitude this time out.

It's perhaps most obvious on Working Class Hero, a pessimistic John Lennon song clearly intended to be his take on Bob Dylan but which sounds, in the Plastic Ono Band original and even more in Barnes's hands, far more like a Steve Earle-esque alt country polemic. Lennon spat vitriol on the original but Barnes adds more of that here.

Shutting Down Our Town and Stargazer are country songs, the former written by singer/songwriter Troy Cassar-Daley. Both are rocked up here but never quite escape their heritage. My Demon (God Help Me) is a real stomper of a gospel number. Money and Class is just as much a stomper of a blues song. There's even a little surf on Stolen Car (The Road's on Fire, Pt II).

And, talking of that song, it's here twice in different forms and Stolen Car (The Road's on Fire, Pt I) may well be the best song on offer here. It's a quintessential Jimmy Barnes rocker, one of half a dozen songs he wrote here with his Cold Chisel compatriot, Don Walker. It starts subtly and builds atmosphere but becomes a real belter and nobody belts out songs like Barnes. The word 'Barnestorming' comes up a lot and has appropriately titled one of his tours.

My Criminal Record is also a long record, but there isn't a duff song here. It nudges just over an hour even before we count the four bonus tracks, two that could have made the album proper on their own merits and two alternate mixes, of Tougher Than the Rest and I'm in a Bad Mood, which are as worthy as the originals earlier on the album.

If you dig varied roots-based rock, this is essential and, if you don't know this singer, please treat it as a starting point. There's so much to find in his career and these thirteen (or fifteen or seventeen) tracks capably point in all the right directions. Frankly, he makes anything work. Just take the closer as an example. Tougher Than the Rest is a Bruce Springsteen song that could easily be sung in multiple genres: it would be a clichéd arena country song for one of those carbon copy hunks in hats or a safe, if ironic, easy listening rocker for someone like Jimmy Buffett, but Barnes makes it come alive.

This whole album is alive. Check it out.

The Lord Weird Slough Feg - New Organon (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date:
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

OK, how did I miss that a band existed with the utterly glorious name of The Lord Weird Slough Feg? I get the reference, because I grew up reading Best of 2000 AD Monthly and enjoyed Sláine as much as Judge Dredd, Halo Jones or Strontium Dog. Apparently, Mike Scalzi enjoyed him too, and took the name of Sláine's ancient and rotting Drune nemesis for his band.

They've been around since 1990, but this marks a return to their full name because they were simply Slough Feg from 2005 until earlier this year. This is their tenth album, the first since 2014's Digital Resistance. I'm really intrigued to see how they've progressed over the last quarter of a century, because a) their album ratings at Metal Archives seem pretty consistent and b) this doesn't sound like a product of 2019 at all.

It reminds me of early eighties heavy metal in two way. One is style. They play heavier than hard rock, led by metal guitars and clean vocals, both of which like power. They also seem blissfully unaware of the existence of any form of extreme metal. In their way, they're what Sabbat might have been a decade earlier. As it is, they remind of early Cloven Hoof, Brocas Helm or Ostrogoth, bands who gallop along in their own way without reaching levels of self-parody of Virgin Steele or Manowar. They'd play well with Raven.

The other is the way that they're so confident and unashamed about playing clearly unfashionable music. I don't just mean the spandex clad stereotype that leaps easily to mind but the folk elements that are inherent to their sound. They conjure up ideas of neanderthal drummers who go morris dancing on the weekends. Think miniature Stonehenge sets not wolfskin loincloths.

Of course, this would be a glorious moment to burst that bubble by pointing out that Scalzi is, by day, a college professor who lectures in philosophy, and it's easy to catch unusually thoughtful lyrics in these songs. Just dig beneath the surface and those clichés start to, well, slough away to reveal something a lot more intelligent than it initially seems.

For instance, there's a song here called Coming of Age in the Milky Way; I presume that it's based on the book by Timothy Ferris that explores how the human race has historically seen the cosmos. Certainly the album title is a reference to Francis Bacon and his 1620 volume, Novum Organum, that updated Aristotelian logic during the Enlightenment. You know, that old metal standard.

Did Spinal Tap ever wax lyrical on subjects like Being and Nothingness or Discourse on Equality, let alone The Cynic? Scalzi's totally at home here. "My friend Diogenes," he sings, "lost all sense of shame." I should point out that you need no background in philosophy or even know how to spell it to enjoy this album and it's far from a treatise. Slough Feg once recorded Traveller, a concept album about an sf RPG. They really don't care about being cool; they care about being good.

And I enjoyed this, perhaps because I'm as unfashionable as they are. They play seriously and consistently and there's a lot here to delve into beyond the lyrics. For all the guitar solos and galloping rhythms, there's plenty of folk music here, Headhunter and The Apology being but two overt examples before Exegesis/Tragic Hooligan goes beyond them. Coming of Age is an oddly Caribbean metal song and The Cynic arrives from a wild alternate universe: the vocals convey a sort of Tiger Lillies cautionary tale vibe, just not in falsetto, while the music behind it is a lot like Thin Lizzy attempting a Richie Valens song.

This admirable variety means that it's hard to pick favourites because this song may leap out on a first listen but that one does on a second and hey, that pair on a third. I think Being and Nothingness is mine for right now, even though it's almost the shortest song on offer. It's also arguably the speediest, galloping along with the drums and bass providing the hooves of horses while the guitars add their neighing. It's a delightful song and it finishes too quickly.

So does the album, but at least there are nine previous ones for me to seek out!

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Xentrix - Bury the Pain (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 7 Jun 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

It's Thursday and I haven't reviewed anything this week yet from an old band who crawled out of the woodwork with their first release in forever. I guess that means that it's time for the new Xentrix album, which they're releasing no less than 23 years after its poorly received predecessor, 1996's Scourge. I'm a fan of British thrash and enjoyed their Shattered Existence debut, so I can happily say welcome back, folks!

Well, it's mostly a welcome back. This new Xentrix, who split up in 1997 and again in 2006, are led by guitarist Stan Howard and drummer Dennis Gasser, a pair of founder members. However, the other two aren't here, though they did rejoin when the band reformed in 2013, only to leave again. Paul MacKenzie (bass) and Chris Astley (vocals/guitars) are replaced respectively by Chris Shires and Jay Walsh.

With that said, this sounds good, but it's structured oddly. From the very beginning, it's old school technical thrash with all the benefits of modern production. The band are clearly capable but there's something lacking in a few of the early songs. A couple in and I realised that they're a little too clinical, great technically but not so great on attitude. And it's the songs rather than Andy Sneap's excellent as always production.

Relistening, there are moments of attitude in there, especially during the title track which opens up the album, but the songs are unable to maintain it throughout. As The Truth Lies Buried shifts from clinical to urgent four tracks in, though, the album starts to feel ready and, sure enough, it kicks into a high gear with Let the World Burn, a blister of a song featuring plenty of in your face attitude. It's very reminiscent of Testament and that's a sound that works well for the band and for Jay Walsh's voice too, which also hints at Lemmy at a couple of points.

If it never gets better than Let the World Burn, the album generally keeps that urgency through its second half, as if it had lit up a lightbulb above the collective heads of the band. The Red Mist Descends follows suit, albeit a little more restrained at points, and so does World of Mouth. A couple more songs in and we start to wonder why we ever wanted more attitude. It's here in wild abundance!

They leave the other stormer until the end, so that Evil by Design can wrap up the album with emphasis, leaving us wanting more so that we loop right back to the beginning and play the whole thing again. Rinse and repeat. It's a good approach.

If the energetic songs make the album, some intricate intros deepen it. The best surely begins and ends The One You Fear, a neat interplay between two guitars, but there's atmosphere in the intro to The Truth Lies Buried too. The other variance I really enjoyed here was the mosh part in the middle of Evil by Design; it keeps the attitude of the rest of the song but slows it down considerably and ought to have the pit really moving. In between, the guitarwork is great throughout, with plenty of solid riffs and neat solos.

All in all, this isn't the best Xentrix album that it could be, but it's a strong album with a couple of really impressive tracks and a bunch of other good ones. Given how poorly fans took to their previous change of direction with Kin and Scourge, they should return in droves for Bury the Pain, which is old school and blistering. Like I said, welcome back, folks!

Grave Siesta - Voidward Spin (2019)

Country: Finland
Style: Doom Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 21 Apr 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Twitter | YouTube

Here's a very different doom album. It's the third full length release from Finland's Grave Siesta, who have been around since 2010, emerging from the ashes of a death 'n' roll band called Rite. I haven't heard Grave Siesta or Piss & Vinegar, but it's been relatively widely acknowledged that the sound of the band has changed over time, moving from doom to sludge.

It's certainly a very varied album. There are points where they're too fast to feel much like doom, such as the first few minutes of Vacant Throne, but there are other points where they're rather reminiscent of old Black Sabbath ballads, like the first couple of minutes of Weakness. Other tracks cover a lot of ground in between those two extremes.

There's also a raw and punky vibe here, mostly because of the occasionally tortured vocals of Taito Halonen. He's the biggest departure from the doom sound, often drifting into death territory, occasionally into black and so ending up reminding of early extreme albums before they really became their own subgenres. There's often an early Celtic Frost sound here, which I like because it's visceral and alive and uncommercial.

I liked the album, not least because this band is clearly good at what they do and what they do is their own thing. However, I wonder if Voidward Spin holds together as an album because it changes direction a heck of a lot and that doesn't help coherence. Those who expect their bands to have one sound will be disappointed here. I like albums like Saigon Kick's Water and Sheer Heart Attack by Queen that go in every different direction but somehow hold together as musical statements. This one I'm not convinced about yet.

If you're OK with vocals like Halonen's on a doom album, there's a lot here to enjoy. Vacant Throne starts fast but ends heavy, with some dark chanting in between. Intolerance is more routine but the vocals either elevate it or destroy it, depending on your preference. He shrieks and howls on this one like he's transforming into a werewolf, only to pluck a doom melody out of the air to torture with rough style.

Weakness starts soft and patient with fluid guitarwork from Sami Lintunen. Halonen goes clean here, sounding more like Nick Cave than Blaine from the Accüsed all of a sudden. When it kicks into gear, it's still Sabbath-esque except for those shrieky vocals. Bastardized finds a neat riff and Halonen tries for regular vocals; these two songs are the closest to classic doom that the band get on this album.

They're still a little fast, which is more overt on songs like Seizures in a Castle and Depopulation Prayer. At half speed, the intro to the former would be akin to Candlemass but, at this tempo, it reminds of a more raucous Saint Vitus with a hint of the Plasmatics. One riff is reminiscent of The Day of the Humans is Gone, which was only ever doom in lyrical content.

And that leaves Post World Peace, which almost feels like the epic of the album, even though it's under six minutes long and Weakness was longer. It takes its time and is surely the slowest song on offer, but it's never the work of tradition. Halonen gargles with acid before delivering a heartfelt vocal and Lintunen's guitar actually tries to match his torture this time.

I wonder about the make up of the Grave Siesta audience. They feel like one of those bands who can be seen as cool by both metal and punk audiences but they're still not remotely commercial. Some will see that as a good thing and they may get a kick out of this, especially the first three tracks and the last, but it takes an adventurous spirit to appreciate this fully.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Ihlo - Union (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 31 May 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook

Debut albums recently came up in conversation because there have been bands who truly nailed it on their first attempt. That conversation started with Van Halen, who became so influential that it's hard to realise how original that first album really was. My choice for best debut of all time would have to be Marillion's Script for a Jester's Tear, because there's so much there, it's all spot on and it ran utterly against the trends of the time.

No, Union, another debut prog album, isn't going to make second on that list but it is excellent stuff. Ihlo (no, I have no idea how that's pronounced) were founded in London in 2016 and, if I'm reading correctly, they won't be debuting live for another couple of weeks, almost an entire month after the release of their album. That seems odd to me, but it helps to highlight just how new these guys are.

The point is that they don't sound new at all, though their influences are clearly newer than the old school. They aren't trying to channel Marillion, IQ and Twelfth Night, let alone Genesis, Yes and King Crimson; they're more influenced by Leprous, Tool and fellow Brits Tesseract. The approach is for keyboards to not merely set the tone but to also take the lead and deliver melodies, while the guitars take a percussive role, combining with the drums to provide an even more powerful beat. Vocals are clean and alternative.

What this means is that everything is texture and the title track sets that goal in motion immediately. It's mostly up tempo, in your face stuff but it also takes time for a quiet section with soft vocals over minimalist piano enhanced by pulsing keyboards. Each of the textures are enjoyable but they also contrast very nicely.

Reanimate emphasises that percussive take on proceedings by providing highly repetitive, albeit slightly complex rhythms with drums and guitars while the keyboards float and the vocals explore. They're just as alternative here but there are early sections that are more nu metal. Maybe that's why this is my least favourite track on the album, even though it was their first single. I like the second half a lot better than the first. It gets more emotional and interesting.

From there, we get different takes on these approaches, but in better form. I honestly think that the album's sweep is to start decent and then keep on getting better until it wraps up with fifteen spectacular minutes of build and exploration that constitutes Coalescence. Each song has better cohesion than the last, a better sense of growth and a more patient outlook on life. The middle parts of Starseeker are a fantastic time for us to sit back and reflect on what we've heard and where it's going to go.

Starseeker is really good but Hollow is better. It's a lot more restrained than anything before it, but it knows exactly when to stop that and launch into something more overt. It's beautiful, immersive stuff and Andy Robison dominates on two fronts: his keyboards and his vocals, which move from calm to soaring. Triumph, the shortest song on offer at just under five minutes, is a good companion piece but it doesn't add anything.

Parhelion builds gloriously. It starts well but finds a real groove and has a blast exploring it; then, after a brief interlude, it shows how much more it can do. It ends beautifully too, leading the way into the epic that will finish off the album. Parhelion tells us that we're almost home again but a fifteen minute track separates us from that, because nobody wants to leave at this point. Coalescence builds even more gloriously than Parhelion with truly awesome escalations, a catchy midsection ten minutes in and a strong finale.

May hit me hard with great albums but June hasn't followed suit until now. I've only listened to this twice thus far but plan to stay with it. For now it's an easy 8/10 because four of the seven tracks are absolutely top notch, sit back and relish in the experience material. What's odd to me is they don't count the title track and the single in their number. Maybe I'll grok them later but, for now, they're hardly poor additions to an otherwise fantastic debut.

Délétère - Theovorator: Babelis Testamentum (2019)

Country: Canada
Style: Black Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 18 May 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

Today's major review is the debut album from Ihlo, which is a soaring prog rock/metal opus that's very easy to listen to. I wanted a real contrast for my other review, something raucous and raw but still interesting and a brief search led me to this second EP from Canadian black metal band Délétère.

Apparently two bands started recording in Québec in 2012 under this name, but this is the first formed and the one who kept going (the other changed their name to Neurasthene). They have a couple of albums out and this is a continuation of an apparent self-induced requirement for them to only record in Latin. Their first album was in French but they clearly didn't want to do that ongoing, perhaps because it wouldn't help them stand out in Québec.

Délétère, which translates as either 'noxious' or 'vilified', depending on the context, play black metal with an interesting sound. Unlike many black metal albums, the production is clean and the most dominant aspect is the melodic line of the guitars that may be accompanied at points by keyboards too. It's never fast, even when the drums speed up. Those drums often fade into the mix, as do the vocals which vary a lot here, not merely including the usual shrieks but also some guttural chanting.

At eight and a half minutes, Theovoratis Aduentum is the longest track here but it opens the EP well. It's most memorable for its middle section, whose guttural chanting isn't delivered only by the band's vocalist, Thorleïf, but perhaps whichever coven decided to crash the recording session to summon a demon as the band played. Before and after that, it's surprisingly peaceful for such abrasive music, because it finds a hypnotic rhythm and rolls with it.

This track grows on repeat listens. The busiest band member is clearly the drummer, who I presume is Kaedes (though Thorleïf gets a credit for drums too). It's the guitarists who sell the song for me. They're Anhidar and G. and they're smooth when the band play fast but jagged when they slow down and the keyboards let them have the fore.

Babel Insanifusor (which may or may not mean anything at all but does sound pretty cool) doesn't include anything special at all but does maintain that hypnotic rhythm for the five minutes it lasts. It's as easy to be caught up in these songs as it is on such a wildly different album as the Ihlo debut I'm reviewing next.

That leaves Milities Pestilentiae III - Babylonia Magnissima (and I really hope that they can remember these titles when introducing the songs live), which stays fast but almost feels bouncy. It's certainly higher in pitch, with backing vocals reaching for the sky at points, but it's grounded and consistent.

Oddly, it feels more epic than the opening track, even though it's a couple of minutes shorter, but that's probably because Theovaratis Aduentum feels like two songs bookending a demon raising. Milities Pestilentiae III feels like one song, even if it's the third part of an ongoing a series (Milites Pestilentiae II: De Violatione Ciuitatis Febilis Dei was on their previous EP and the original opened up their demo, Sacrificium Necrothytum).

I liked this but it's not the raw black metal I expected. It's melodic and rhythmic, but with appropriately rough edges. Thorleïf certainly has plenty of those, as do the guitars when the keyboards don't hide them. And yeah, I think it makes for a good contrast with Ihlo.

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Стожар - Холодом Битв В Объятья Зимы (2019)

Country: Russia
Style: Pagan Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 6 Jun 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Twitter | VK

From Bangladesh, let's wander up to Russia to check out a pagan folk metal band. Oh yeah, it's a great time to be alive! The internet is a wonderful place.

Стожар hail from Yaroslavl, four hours north of Moscow, and they've been a band since 2005, with three albums out before this one. The name translates to Stozhar, but I don't know what that means (Stozhary is the Russian name for the Pleiades, so maybe the band is named for a star cluster); the album title translates to Chill Battles in the Embrace of Winter. Now, Yaroslavl isn't Arkhangelsk, a thousand further kilometers north, but I'll trust that it still gets a bit cold during the winters for Стожар and this album would be a great way to warm up because they play pretty damn fast for a folk metal band.

The main man in the band goes by Yarosvet and he plays guitar and provides the male vocals. The rhythm section, Pavel Ivanov on bass and Sergey Glebov on drums, have been with him since 2009, which means that the new fish is a female vocalist, Evgenia Vitlugina, who joined in 2013. While Yarosvet has a raspy voice, if not raspy enough to make it to a death growl, Vitlugina has a sweet one that's also confidently powerful. They alternate lead duties on songs, rather than sing together.

They both shine on the first song, Ярость (or Rage). The backing is mostly fast and energetic and Yarosvet's voice fits that approach well. When the band slows down a little and Vitlugina gets the mike, it becomes much more interesting, not least because she's backed by swelling keyboards and what sounds like a flute but may be more keyboards. Whichever, it gets as much time in the spotlight as the guitar and that makes for two songs in one.

That continues on the title track, but the partners swap, so that Vitlugina sings over blitzkrieg backing. It's a delightful mix and I'd love to see it played live because I want to see how the audience react to it. That flute is playful creature and it clearly wants us to dance, while the rest of the band just as clearly want us to start a pit and burn off energy that way. I love the idea of an audience doing both or switching back and forth with the sections of the song.

Стожар describe what they do as 'Slavonic pagan metal' which is as good a description as any, I guess, with songs such as Славянская Сила (or Slavic Power) on the album. I have little idea what they're singing about but the song titles revolve around dancing, battles and winter. The former two are lively activities and the sheer energy that this band radiate fits them. In the rare occasions that the energy boils away, we're left with quiet piano and the sound of the wind, so the latter is covered too.

There's plenty of emotion alongside the energy. My favourite song may well be Ночи Хоровод (or Nights Round Dance), with Vitlugina's voice soaring in the sky above blistering backing that I can only assume mimics whatever the dance is. It slows down at points with some enticing keyboard work to back her, but soon speeds back up again, with Yarosvet eventually joining in the fray. The keyboards are dominant often onthis album and they make this song less like a dance and more like a tornado of death.

It runs long, seven and a half minutes, like a few other songs here. Стожар don't like to cut things off too soon and I'm thankful for that. None of the three long songs feel drawn out at all. Bizarrely, Голос Мечей (or Voice of Swords), yet another lively dance of a song, feels just as substantial when it's almost two minutes shorter. These are immersive songs and time passes differently when we're enthralled by them.

I like this a lot and haven't heard much like it, the most prominent Slavic music in my background being Romania's Bucovina, who play a very different style of Slavic folk metal. I'd love to know who else plays music like this because I feel invigorated just listening to it, so I think I'm going to be signing up for VK, the Russian Facebook, on which there seems to be a busy group called Slavonic Folk Metal. So far in June, they've posted about Ярл, Velesar, Motanka, Калевала, Orion, Sakramant and Стожар. Discovery is joy.

By the way, beware official websites. I've found two listed thus far: one doesn't exist at all and the other has turned into a porn site.

Oboyob - Abirbhab (2019)

Country: Bangladesh
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 31 May 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | YouTube

A psychedelic rock album from Bangladesh? Yeah, I'm in for finding out what that sounds like! And it sounds pretty good. Oboyob were founded as Chaotic Symphony in 2009 and renamed a year later to the more appropriate Oboyob, a word which apparently means "indistinct form or figure". I like it. With its bonus track, Abirbhab runs just shy of an hour and, even though it's often laid back, it never gets boring. In fact, each listen is more involving.

Ambitiously, it begins with the longest song on offer, Upolobdhi, which at almost ten minutes is certainly an exercise in patient build. Initially, it reminds of Cream's Tales of Brave Ulysses because of how the melodies run, but the overall sound is closer to a relaxed Pink Floyd. The middle section allows for extended soloing over a simple but effective beat. Opening with a ten minute song is a gamble but this one paid off.

While the majority of the album continues to be patient, merely at shorter lengths, the band don't stay there throughout and patient doesn't have to mean quiet or soft. The finale of Ditiyo Shotta is particularly frantic and that opens up with a pondering bass and playful drums, before the guitars join in to make the whole thing playful. The band know how to experiment, but they're comfortable enough doing so that they often make it feel very, deceptively, simple.

What they do best, I think, though, is to trawl the history of rock music for ideas to roll into their original sound. Every time I feel that I know where they got a particular feel, they change it into another one. Ditiyo Shotta, for example, has a Clash-esque punky sound for a while but it moves away from that, into prog territory and even adds a fantastic double bass run to wrap it all up. It builds gloriously, one of the aspects of this album I enjoyed the most.

Oboyob cite many influences, not just the expected prog and psych bands of the seventies or earlier, but more recent alternative names like the Verve, Chris Rea and Porcupine Tree too and it's this mix that helps them find an original sound. 1980 seems to be a real dividing line in influence, with a lot of bands taking their sounds from either side. Oboyob refuse to choose sides because they like both. This is a band who take influence from both Pink Floyd and Radiohead, but shift back and forth between those eras when each particular song requires it.

There's a lot more to their sound though. I heard a lot of Marillion here too, though alternative Marillion rather than overt prog Marillion. It's in certain transitions but it's especially in the vocals with the singer (and I don't know which of the two it is) on Oronne... Kolponay... reminiscent of Steve Hogarth. The bonus track, Shada-Kalo, has an old school U2 flavour with a little of the Pixies' Wave of Mutilation, the UK Surf version. These are clearly alternative in nature.

However, the album also gets heavy at points. Otopor Bastobota begins as a deceptively simple song but it adds in real urgency through a vicious guitar tone underneath the soloing. It's not metal but it and the song to follow, Shadhinota, are as close to metal as the album gets. Shadhinota starts out funky and then adds in a riff that reminds of Symphony of Destruction. For a rock band, they're a pretty good metal band too.

In short, there's a lot that's reminiscent here, sounds that run the gamut from Cream to Megadeth, but it's so mixed together that none of the tracks feel derivative. At the end of the day, Oboyob sound like Oboyob and that's an important thing for a debut album.

What I didn't hear was anything overtly local in flavour. I'm not sure what the band's Bangladeshi influences sound like but when I caught world sounds within songs, they aren't particularly eastern. The first half of Nogor o Nagorik, for instance, feels like Jethro Tull channelling Caribbean music, something I never thought I'd write.

This isn't a problem, I should add, but I'm going to continue to wonder what Bangladeshi psychedelic rock sounds like because this feels like psychedelic rock that merely happens to be performed by a band from Dhaka. What matters is that it's very good psychedelic rock. I'll be exploring this album for a while.

Monday, 10 June 2019

Arakain - Jekyll & Hyde (2019)

Country: Czech Republic
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 16 May 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website

I've never heard of Arakain before, but they're hardly new. They formed in Prague in 1982 and, unlike most bands from that era, kept going throughout the intervening years with a reasonably consistent line-up. Guitarist Jirka Urban is the only remaining founding member, but two of his colleagues have been there since 1986. Original vocalist Aleš Brichta left after a couple of decades but Honza Toužimský is coming up on a decade and a half himself. The least consistent role is drummer but new fish Lukáš "Doxa" Doksanský joined back in 2006, so he's already on album six.

This is their nineteenth studio album and it's a strong one even over fifty minutes in length. What's most interesting to me is how they manage to make the album sound so consistent, given that there are many obvious influences in play. Sure, the dozen songs fit in a consistent range from three and a half minutes to exactly five. Sure, Toužimský's vocals certainly ground it too but he doesn't dominate the mix to the detriment of his bandmates. But they throw their net widely, wider than the British hard rock classics of the seventies.

I should emphasise here that Arakain tend to move frequently between heavy metal and power metal elements, but there's a lot more here. Most blatant is the intro to Kiss's Detroit Rock City that appears late in Znal bych rád, a surprising nod for reasons to which I'm not privy. To co chceš mít is more like Savatage and Síť is reminiscent of Pantera, except for its commercial chorus. Kompromis and Sny dávají křídla shift into Metal Church territory, though the latter veers oddly into hair metal at points and even ends on a sort of acoustic note.

Jen vaše ruce is the most overtly different song on offer, partly because it kicks off with a different vocalist, presumably Lucie Bílá, but because it's much more of a hard rock song than a metal one, the only one on the album. The title track wraps up the album in clear metal fashion with a doomladen Black Sabbath feel. That's a heck of a lot of different sounds shoehorned into a heavy/power metal box but there's not a one that feels out of place, not even Jen vaše ruce.

Arakain sing in Czech, which I don't speak. Google Translate gives me a set of generic song titles, like Not Yet, I'd Love To and Just Your Hands. I'm intrigued as to what that's all about. Síť apparently means Network, Hřích means Sin and Signály, amazingly enough, means Signals. There's little in these names to help me figure out what they're singing about. The only hint I have to mindset is a slight look to the dark side, with songs like Sixth Sense and the title track. Who knows?

I liked this album, even without knowing what they're singing, but I didn't like it the way I might expect to like a nineteenth album, especially in this odd year of 2019 when everyone and their dog are appearing out of the ether with a vengeance. I liked it enough to wonder what their earlier albums are like. I see that they may have started out a little closer to thrash and that fits.

The biggest problem the album has is that, even though the band are on the case throughout and the music kept me alert a few times through, but it's difficult to identify one killer track to highlight. Perhaps that's why the album feels so consistent: it's good stuff but it's consistently good stuff that avoids great as much as it avoids poor. If you twisted my arm, I'd say that Šestý smysl or Sixth Sense is the highlight, but I may well call out a different track tomorrow.

Roaring Empyrean - Cosmic (2019)

Country: Iran
Style: Funeral Doom Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 8 Jun 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Instagram

There were a few reasons why I added music reviews to Apocalypse Later this year, on top of the book reviews I've been writing since 2014 and the film reviews I've been writing since 2007, but one was discovery. Everything at Apocalypse Later revolves around discovery and I wanted to see what was out there in the musical landscape of 2019 that I didn't know about. After all, modern music sucks, right? Nah, I wasn't buying that. What was I missing?

One discovery was Roaring Empyrean, a one man project from Iran that merged funeral doom with new age music, a counter-intuitive recipe that I couldn't imagine working but which somehow did. Well, Amir Asadi aka Doomed Shinobi, the one man who creates this intriguing music, found my review of Monuments and sent me a copy of his new EP, Cosmic. I've been looking forward to that point where a band I've reviewed releases new product so I can explore their growth. This EP marks the first repeat 'band' here at Apocalypse Later.

Monuments aimed to create soundscapes to evoke majestic creations, whether they were created by man or nature. This EP continues in that vein, each of the two instrumental tracks combining the slow and plodding beat of funeral doom with the swirling atmospheric joy of new age, a heady mixture of which I'm getting rather fond. It's often background music, easy to listen to and easy to be distracted from, but never for long as there are odd elements to draw us right back in again. Everything here is built from contrasts, even how we interact with it.

While the general approach is similar to Monuments, I'm also hearing a wild and abrasive edge on both tracks that goes beyond the clashing that we got on Mountains of Torment last time out. It's there in the metallic dissonance found in the second half of Pillars and it's especially there on Gates, from its very beginning, a gritty, almost industrial vibe underneath the new age electronica, like a Nine Inch Nails layer on music more overtly influenced by Tangerine Dream.

Of course, that makes it all the more eye-opening to suddenly catch a melody that's notably reminiscent of Abba's Lay All Your Love on Me, merely slowed down to the tempo of funeral doom. I'm enjoying the Mysterious Semblance at the Strand of Nightmares vibe and focusing on that dark and jagged underlay when suddenly there's an Abba melody. The world of music is a glorious thing.

These two tracks are long, as you might imagine for instrumental tracks that serve as soundscapes. Pillars runs almost ten minutes and Gates almost nine, which is a decent amount for an EP. They develop and they end without ever outlasting their welcome, even on a fourth or fifth time through.

While I liked this, I think I liked Monuments more. If there's a flaw, it's a really odd one. The cover art is of a galaxy and the EP's title is Cosmic, so I presume this is aimed at taking us on a journey into space. I have to say that I didn't get that from the music at all. The darker edges took me to darker, more hellish places, which isn't a bad thing at all, but perhaps isn't what Asadi intended.

I enjoyed this and am eager to hear what he might conjure up next. In the meantime, this EP is available at Bandcamp for the paltry sum of one dollar (or more, if you're so inclined), so I highly recommend that you pop over there and pick up your copy.

Friday, 7 June 2019

Gong - The Universe Also Collapses (2019)

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

Here's another name from across the decades and one with a notable history that's still being forged, even after all its most prominent members are no longer with us. Gong were formed in a Paris commune in 1967 by Daevid Allen and Gilli Smyth, who passed away in 2015 and 2016 respectively. After they left the band in 1975 (albeit not for long), Pierre Moerlen continued on as a jazz fusion band, but he died in 2005.

The line-up has changed more times than can be comfortably imagined and now features nobody who was involved at any point during the first four decades of the band's history. That's weird, but it doesn't mean that the musicians are new fish. The old hand nowadays is Fabio Golfetti, their Brazilian lead guitarist, who joined Gong in 2007 but also continues to lead his own prog rock band, Violeta de Outono, which he formed in 1985. Gong was one of his key influences from childhood so leading the band now must be a real blast.

Now, I've listened to a lot of seventies prog rock and I've enjoyed much of what I've heard, but I've never managed to get into Gong, whose influential Radio Gnome Invisible trilogy of albums still seem impenetrable to me. This album, ironically, seems far more accessible to me than legendary releases like Camembert Electrique which influenced the current members.

There are four tracks here, of wildly different lengths, but they betray a commonality in each being constructed from intricate little riffs that flow into each other like tesselations. This is an album for pattern spotters or listeners with OCD because those patterns vary just a little and are often the ground over which the saxophone of Ian East soars like an alien bird.

Forever Reoccurring is a twenty minute opener, because that doesn't seem at all odd when you're Gong. It starts softly, pulsing slowly into action with echoey vocals from Kavus Torabi. This is Gong in space rock mode, patiently building with a little escalation here and a new layer there, along with a looped vocal that runs behind a good chunk of the track.

There's a lot here, maybe appropriately given that the lyrics seem to have us singing together while the universe collapses. If this were 1970, there would be a host of different names for the different movements, some led by vocals and some led by different instruments. Like the universe, though, it plays well together and seems somehow timeless. Those twenty minutes last a lifetime but are over before we know it.

Oddly, Gong follow a twenty minute track with a two minute one, which is a decent piece for its length, but we blink and we're into My Sawtooth Wake, an even more ambitious take on the ideas in the first track but compressed into a mere thirteen minutes. It's two thirds in when it comes most alive with a driving riff and an explosive solo from East's saxophone. It's good throughout but, after that wild midsection, it fades somewhat.

The final track is The Elemental, which runs a short seven minutes and has the wrong mindset to wrap up this album. It's not a bad track, but it's the safest on the album and it was never going to stand out after the couple of earlier long tracks, as playful and experimental as they were. It does end well though, with a minute or so that sums up what's gone before but with a telling repeated lyric, "Remember there is only now."

Gong, it seems, are a going concern: inventive, fearless and somehow fresh, perhaps revitalised by an entirely new generation of musicians inspired by the Gong that came before them. Surely this was the goal of Daevid Allen's e-mail to the band asking them to continue on after his death. They've done him proud.

The Rods - Brotherhood of Metal (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 7 Jun 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Wikipedia | YouTube

The Rods may seem like yet another older band to resurface in 2019, but I'm seeing that they've back for a while and this is their third studio album since they reformed in 2010. Their heyday, of course, was from 1980 to 1987. Like L7, they reformed with their classic line-up intact: guitarist David Feinstein, bassist Garry Bordonaro and drummer Carl Canedy on drums. Canedy and Feinstein are founding members, while Bordonaro only missed their debut album in 1980.

It's good to see that these guys are as good as they ever were, but both the best and worst things about this album are that they're very much like they used to be. The good side of that is that they were and are rather talented, a straight ahead heavy metal group with solid musicianship and notably good solos. The bad side is that what was fashionable in 1981 often seems acutely clichéd in 2019.

This album kicks off with a great example of both in its title track. Brotherhood of Metal is a solid slab of old school heavy metal. It has a long piano-driven intro, then kicks in hard and, well, runs through a whole slew of clichés. This is very much for the "armies of denim and leather" and, while it's nowhere near as embarrassing as what Manowar get up to nowadays, it slides a few slots down the same scale. I was OK with it on first listen, thinking that its biggest flaw was that it was a little too long, but a second time through elevates the cheese factor.

And that keeps on coming. The cheese is there in abundance on Everybody's Rockin', which could have been written in 1984. It's there on Louder Than Loud, because of course it is, but it is kind of the point on that track. It's there on Tyrant King too. And Party All Night. And Tonight We Ride. And... yeah, it's there on pretty much all the songs on this album. This is a great choice to play heavy metal cliché bingo to and you can pick any song with similar results.

The good news is that, however clichéd it gets, it's played very sincerely and very well. The riffs are strong, the solos are worthy and the vocals do exactly what they need to do. The influences are worn on the band's sleeves too, with Judas Priest being the most obvious. Everybody's Rockin' could be a Priest song, merely with different vocals. Smoke on the Horizon could be too, even though it adds the heavy organ sound we expect from Jon Lord (and it adds it in gloriously). Add in the Manowar/Virgin Steele mindset of the opening track and you're pretty much set for the rest of the album.

Brotherhood of Metal runs to eleven tracks (hey, this one goes to eleven) and they're all consistent in both quality and cheesiness. The other song that I'll highlight is Party All Night, because Feinstein stops playing on the verses to give Bordonaro's bass the lead. He does a fantastic job but that's not the point I want to make.

I'd been impressed from the very outset about how easily I could hear the bass on this album. In fact it felt almost offputting that there was a bass in the mix, because producers tend not to be capable of acknowledging that the bands they work for even include a bass player. The Rods, of course, feature Carl Canedy in their line-up and he's a producer of note when not performing, so I have no doubt that he's the reason behind the laudibly audible bass.

I found metal in 1984, just a little late to be a big fan of the Rods. I'm sure that, had I been born in the US instead of the UK, I'd have picked up their older albums quicker, but I heard them and liked them. I like this as well and recommend it, but it's going to seem outrageously cheesy to anyone who weren't metalheads in the early eighties. The real question is whether you care or not.

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Fleshgod Apocalypse - Veleno (2019)

Country: Italy
Style: Symphonic Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 May 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Remember when Marty McFly convinced the younger version of his father that he was from outer space by simply popping an Eddie van Halen tape into his walkman and blaring it at his target? Well, I couldn't help but picture a fresh version of that scene when listening to this album.

Imagine waking up from a decades-long coma and the first thing you hear is Fury, the opening track to this album by Fleshgod Apocalypse. Even the name of the band could blow their minds, but this one track would convince them that they had someone been abducted by aliens and now residing on an alien planet.

It's extreme stuff but not in just the usual ways. Sure, it's a blitzkrieg of noise but it's full of strings and piano and choral voices. Where a band like Therion might craft that into a catchy metal number, this band layer them instead until we wonder if we're listening to three different radio stations all at once.

Initially, it's hard to figure out exactly what we're listening to. All the traditional instruments leap into Fury like boats into a maelstrom, the drums at hyperspeed from the very beginning and the guitars following suit. The vocals are death growls, low enough in the mix to be another instrument. Then, only ten seconds in, Francesco Ferrini starts wild runs up and down his piano keyboard and ten after that, a choir joins in for good measure. It's almost too much and this will be an assault on the senses for many.

But there are points where it really works. Of all things, a triangle kicks off a section a couple of minutes in that grounds what's going on here. It's like the clouds depart and we see a shining sky full of angels and death. I loved it but this isn't first time listen stuff. It needs three or four to really grasp what Fleshgod Apocalypse are actually doing and to start to appreciate it.

This approach continues on Carnivorous Lamb and Sugar, with other nuances. There's a female voice that speaks partway through the former but it's so buried in the mix that it's a sort of ghost, just like the strange laughter that kicks off the latter. The clean male voice that joins Carnivorous Lamb sounds like he's shouting from another studio through the wall. The piano that steals the early sections of Sugar and the guitar that takes heed later on sound like what Mussorgsky might write to accompany the flight of witches over a lake of fire.

In other words, this is death metal but it's not only death metal and adding 'symphonic' to the beginning of the genre doesn't cut it. This is wildly, uncompromisingly experimental in nature and it feels much more appropriate to compare it to the output of a jazz rebel like John Zorn as a death metal band like Deicide or Arch Enemy. There are similarities but the goal just isn't the same.

And, if we survive the thirteen minute onslaught of the first three tracks, we're thrown something completely different. The Praying Mantis' Strategy sounds like dark Enya with an oddly compelling metronome behind her, the final pair of delightful piano notes launching us into Monnalisa, a slower, more gothic piece initially driven by strings, piano and drum fills, with a decadent and narrative clean vocal from Paolo Rossi. It moves into Tristania territory a couple of minutes in but refuses to stay in any one place for long. There's a glorious contribution from soprano Veronica Bordacchini but it ends very differently.

There's so much in Monnalisa to detail that it's hard to give an impression of what it feels like, but it's a song that you feel as much as hear. The same goes for The Day We'll Be Gone, which features a notably wild pairing of soprano and harsh male vocal. Like always, it's done for effect but the effect sought is different here. This feels like a battle between good and evil for supremacy, because the voices both sing as leads and often at the same time. Veleno is an operatic interlude, a piano solo that does nothing outrageous but carries portents of what's to come.

Oddly, what's to come turns out to be a symphonic take on Rammstein's Reise, Reise, which ends with metronome and squeezebox, and a whispering gothic orchestral take on The Forsaking, originally recorded on Agony, the second Fleshgod Apocalypse album.

I have to call out special praise for whoever produced this, because it's the densest music I've heard but I can still hear everything I need to hear. With the amount of stuff thrown into this, that's a real achievement. Certainly the drums fit better into the mix than on previous albums. What results is something that's perhaps best described as an acquired taste. I have no doubt that this isn't for everyone, not even amongst the fraternity of death metal fans.

After a few listens, I have to say that I admire what Fleshgod Apocalypse have done here, especially given that most of it is the product of one man called Francesco Paoli, who contributes the lead vocals, all the guitars and the drums for good measure (yes, he has colleagues to do some of this live). Rossi adds bass and clean vocals, while Ferrini is responsible for piano and orchestration.

I can also say that I like it, but I really can't say how much. I think I need to listen to this album another couple of dozen times to grasp that.

L7 - Scatter the Rats (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Grunge
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 3 May 2019
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

This year has seen a whole slew of unlikely returns to the studio, running the musical gauntlet from death metal pioneers Possessed to Italian prog rock legends Banco del Mutuo Soccorso via seventies rock icons Black Oak Arkansas, but somehow the most unlikely is L7. Grunge is old enough now to fall into the nostalgia sweet spot but it hasn't and, frankly, it hasn't even shown any signs of returning to favour. L7's return doesn't look like being the spark to a trend but it could be, because this is a pretty fun album.

While we might think back at grunge sounding all downtuned and depressing, that's never been what L7 are. I'd describe this as pop punk, if I could keep inappropriate ties to bands at the more commercial end of that genre out of the picture, like the Offspring and Green Day. That's not what this is. It reminded me a lot more of early Adam and the Ants. Many songs here, especially Uppin' the Ice, feel like the grandchildren of Cartrouble and Physical (You're So) and others from the Dirk Wears White Sox era.

On Scatter the Rats, L7 do what Adam Ant did so well back then, singing no end of catchy tunes over simple hooks that all have a grungy twist to rock 'n' roll roots but are coloured through little responses from guitars and effects. Add in some Ramones and some Blondie and maybe some Bangles on Holding Pattern and this is as much a throwback to 1979 as it is to 1992 and that made for an interesting ride. What's different, of course, is modern production and pissed female vocals. Ouija Board Lies wouldn't sound too different if it was recorded by Adam Ant and Debbie Harry.

It's hard for a while to determine which the catchiest tracks are, but I'm pretty sure that Fighting the Crave has to top the list. It's driven by a delightful bass riff from Jennifer Finch and a callout style vocal from, I presume, Donita Sparks. It's worth mentioning here that this version of L7 features the entire classic line-up that existed from 1986 to 1996 and ever since they got back together in 2014 after thirteen years apart.

Album opener Burn Baby and Uppin' the Ice are the most obvious candidates to battle Fighting the Crave for the catchiest song here, but most of the rest aren't too far behind. Everything here is at least mildly catchy and I have to include Proto Prototype in that, even though it has the simplest and most repetitive riff I've heard in a long time. Stadium West relies on a catchy vocal line and meows, of all things, because it flaunts another simple riff that needs enhancement.

The majority of the songs here run from two and a half to four minutes, the band clearly not interested in anything that isn't short, sharp and to the point. The only exception to that is the title track which closes out the album, which is wilder and punkier. I quite liked it but it's a little out of place with the ten tracks that preceded it.

It's good to see L7 back and on form too. After all, grunge grew out of a rejection of the artificial music that was dominating the mainstream. Few would disagree that what's in the charts today is even more artificial than what was in the charts as the eighties became the nineties. Most songs are written by the same two or three songwriters and, hey, we have autotune now to make musicians cringe.

I'd dearly love for someone to crash that party and I'd grin like an idiot if that someone turned out to be a band of women in their fifties singing lines like, "My love is like a garbage truck." Let's turn the charts into a Celebrity Deathmatch between L7 and Justin Bieber with music winning.

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Death Angel - Humanicide (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 31 May 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twtter | YouTube

Those who have followed my reviews from the beginning of the year will know by now that I discovered metal in the early days of speed and thrash and they were my go to subgenres. I bought The Ultra-Violence when it came out and played it incessantly. I wasn't as fond of the next two albums but I was sad when the band ceased to be in 1991, especially as I hadn't got round to seeing them live yet. I finally got that treat in 2012, early in the current band's line-up, which has remained stable since 2009.

They rocked on stage and so does this album, but it took me a second listen to really grasp it. My first time through, in the wee hours of the morning, was decent but not great, highlighting traditional stuff in a notably clean mix. It played at mid tempo more than I'd like, but it had some surprising textures, like the piano-driven coda to Immortal Behated. I knew I liked it and a couple of songs stood out, but it didn't knock my socks off.

This morning, I revisited it and heard a completely different album, except for that clean production which is easily my least favourite aspect. Maybe I wasn't with it last night or maybe this just isn't as immediate an album as, say, the new Flotsam and Jetsam or Exumer albums, which were obviously great from moment one. It doesn't really matter. It's good stuff and, a couple of listens later, it's very good stuff.

It starts off fast, with a double whammy of Humanicide and Divine Defector. The first is intricate and the second is blistering, firmly in the sort of territory you might expect to find Kreator, but they're both fast. While I love Death Angel for their musicianship and really miss the instrumentals they treated us to on the first album, vocalist Mark Osegueda is clearly on top form here, hurling out the lyrics like his life depends on it.

Aggressor is traditional Death Angel, but I Came for Blood really isn't and this track stands out more than any other. It's like Death Angel attempting Motörhead, which I now realise sounds rather like Midnight or early Nuclear Assault. It's different from moment one, but the chorus makes it sound even more different because it's reminiscent of Electric Six. Yeah, that caught me by surprise too! Now, if someone had floated Motörhead covering Electric Six, I'd have thought them insane, but this has real energy and power to it and it may well be my favourite song on the album.

There are plenty more fast thrash songs to come with decent solos from Rob Cavestany and wild spitting vocals from Osegueda, that highlight a slightly punkier feel than I remember from Death Angel. Old school fans will not be disappointed. However, there's more than that here.

Immortal Behated is progressive thrash, with a commercial chorus, and it's interesting stuff, even before the extended coda. Cavestany and Ted Aguilar shine, but the whole band contribute highlights. Osegueda aims for cleaner vocals on Revelation Song and the band slow down a lot too. In fact, this isn't really thrash at all, it's a hard rock song with hints that the band know how to thrash too. Of Rats and Men adds a Savatage vibe to the fray, a relatively safe expansion of sound.

And then there's The Day I Walked Away, which wraps up the album. Again, it plays slower but adds surprising elements. The verses carry a gothic feel, and by gothic here I'm talking about Bauhaus or maybe Type O Negative, not gothic metal like Paradise Lost or Lacuna Coil.

These three songs are an odd way to wrap up a thrash album, but they're not bad songs and they don't really feel out of place, just a little jarring. I applaud the band's attempt to vary their sound without leaping onto another bandwagon and alienating their fanbase in the process the way that a number of other bands have done in the past.

There's a lot here to digest and that's a good thing. The only bad thing is the production which is very capable but very clean. Humanicide should have blistered more and it's the production not the band or the songs that's the cause of that.

Darkthrone - Old Star (2019)

Country: Norway
Style: Black Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 31 May 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Wikipedia

Well, this was a surprise for me, but probably won't be for most. I remember Darkthrone from their early Peaceville albums, as they shifted from being a European death metal band to the black metal for which they became known. I think I have Soulside Journey as a white label test pressing. Well, Fenriz and Nocturno Culto have apparently changed their sound quite a lot over the years and many albums since. Holy crap, I believe this is their eighteenth studio album in under thirty years and it doesn't sound like Soulside Journey or A Blaze in the Northern Sky.

Old Star clearly bears the hallmarks of Norwegian black metal, especially on songs like Duke of Gloat, where the only shock to a black metal fan would be the notably slow drumming. I Muffle Your Inner Choir kicks off the album in black metal style too, even if the vocals are a little more death than black and the drums refuse to acknowledge the existence of hyperspeed. It's good old wall of sound stuff though, merely a more patient black metal than we might be used to.

I Muffle Your Inner Choir slows down halfway through as well, becoming more of a heavy metal track than a black metal track. Never mind death from which the band was born, it's not extreme at all for a while except for when the vocals join in again. It's slow and steady but the moment we wonder if it's thinks about doom, it speeds up. To me, it felt like a throwback to the era before hyperspeed drumming, when bands like Bathory and Celtic Frost tested boundaries before some of these newer techniques came along.

This old school mindset is impossible to miss on The Hardship of the Scots, which begins with a riff that reminds of Y&T, of all people, albeit notably downtuned and apparently recorded in an aviary. This song really ponders on whether it should play with doom but it doesn't and, perhaps more telling, it isn't doom/death either because there's no melodic guitar line tempering the deepness.

It even brightens up a few minutes in, with an odd perky doom section, just as The Key is Inside the Wall does after about a minute. Is this a new genre that Darkthrone are inventing? Perky doom. I kind of like it! It's downtuned but riff driven and it chugs along with that dark vocal, as if Hellhammer were covering Judas Priest. I even caught a death grunt at one point and a lyric or two about Satan, who's fallen rather out of style nowadays. It has a rough production too but it's never muddy like the more luddite minded of the black metal bands prefer.

I liked this album but I wonder how much of that like is because it's rather different from what I was expecting, how much because it reminded me of what was deemed extreme midway through the eighties and how much because it does a good job whatever it is. I have a feeling it's a mix of all three and I'm not sure if that allows me to rate this appropriately. I've listened a few times but I feel like I should come back to it later in the year to see if I still like it.

I should especially look backwards, because my knowledge of Darkthrone is a dozen albums short and I haven't listened them since the mid nineties. They continue to slow down their output, even if that generally means an album every two or three years now instead of six in seven, so I should probably look at the last couple, The Underground Resistance and Arctic Thunder and see if that provides me with some context.

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Diamond Head - The Coffin Train (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 May 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Clearly I haven't been paying attention, but Diamond Head, whom I'd come to believe reformed and broke up every other Tuesday, only actually split up twice. What the heck do I know?

Well, I knew that the classic era ended in 1985, after one of the greatest rock albums of all time, Lightning to the Nations, and two other overlooked gems. They got back together in 1990, when the Metallica connection was at its peak, released a new album, Death and Progress, and promptly vanished again in 1994. I remember buying that album, full of wild anticipation, on its release.

What I didn't know was that they, meaning core members Sean Harris and Brian Tatler, reformed again in 2000 and the band has stayed in place ever since, albeit with a changing line-up. Harris left in 2004 and a gentleman by the name of Nick Tart attempted (and, according to the fans, failed) to fill his shoes over the succeeding decade and two further albums. He eventually gave way to Rasmus Bom Anderson in 2014 and that's who sings on this and another album, simply called Diamond Head, three years ago.

So Anderson sings and Tatler plays lead guitar. Andy 'Abbz' Abberley handles the rhythm guitar, as he has since 2006. Karl Wilcox is the band's drummer and has been since 1991 and that first reformation. That leaves Dean Ashton as the new fish on bass, having only joined in 2016. And with all that done, let's leap into how great this new album is!

Well, it's not great, sadly, but it does have great moments and it's pretty decent as an album, once we address the mix. There's so much sibilance that I had to turn the 16 KHz range totally off on my equaliser and the midrange up a bit too. I hate when I have to do that, but hey.

At least the songs are good. Belly of the Beast, the single which opens up the album, is a real belter that's impossible not to enjoy immediately but which gets better on each revisit. The title track is even better. It's a fantastic old school Diamond Head song, especially from the three minute mark, with excellent guitarwork and strong vocals from Anderson, who's from Denmark but doesn't appear to have sung for anyone else.

That's tracks one and three. In between them and The Sleeper in slot six (it has an intro at five), are a pair of songs that are only less impressive by comparison. Otherwise, they're solid tracks and the latter ably finds some of that build that the band were always unsurpassed at. Steve Harris once called them the new Led Zeppelin and that's mostly apparent in their ability to construct songs out of the ether that build and grow and evolve but each differently.

The Sleeper is the third highlight, featuring some fantastic riffing from Brian Tatler. The opening sounds Metallica-ish, which is circular logic at its best, given that Metallica got their entire early sound from that first Diamond Head album. This intro sounds more like Black-era Metallica but the rest of the song builds as Diamond Head do.

For those who come in wanting another Lightning for the Nations, I should emphasise that that's not what this is. While there's a lot of old school Diamond Head in songs like The Coffin Train and Death by Design, the latter ably highlights how 'old school' here means Canterbury. Hey, that was 1983; it's old school. And, while I'm a Lightning to the Nations man just like a majority of you, To the Devil His Due may just be my favourite Diamond Head track of all time and that was on Canterbury. I'm happily on both sides of that argument.

The album's problem, beyond the mix, is that later songs start to drop into the background, not by being poor, because they're all good, but by failing to keep up the standards of the first half. The best songs are Belly of the Beast, The Coffin Train and The Sleeper and the two in between them follow in their wake. That leaves four songs that are decent but just not as good as what preceded them and that's never the best way to wrap up an album.

An old show business mantra would have the punters always wanting more. By the time The Sleeper finished, I was ecstatic that Diamond Head are not only back but back on form. By the time the album finished, I realised that I was wondering what I'd been so ecstatic about. So I replayed the album and went through the same cycle. And again. And again.

This is solid stuff from the modern incarnation of a legend. No, it's not a new Lightning for the Nations, but then what is? It tries more to be a new Canterbury and, for half its running time, it does a pretty good job.

Blackstone Puppets - Breakdown (2019)

Country: Greece
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 25 May 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | YouTube

Well, this wasn't what I was expecting! Blackstone Puppets are a hard rock band from Thessalonika in Greece and I was intrigued to see what they would sound like. What I found was a kind of cross between Tank and Girlschool, a NWOBHM mixture that took me completely by surprise! Now I'm intrigued as to how those sounds coalesced in Thessalonika for a band who didn't form until 2016 to pick up on.

The best track, to my mind, is the one that kicks off the album. It's Beer in My Veins, which begins with Tank style guitars from Kirk and BB and then adds Girlschool vocals from Alice. While she, as the frontwoman, is easily the most obvious aspect to Blackstone Puppets, the rest of the band really constitute a fierce backbone for her to sing over.

They're notably tight and more than willing to jam for a few minutes midway through a song, swapping guitar licks and even letting Lucky's bass take a spotlight for a while. The remaining band member is Woodie, who's a patient but very capable drummer. No insult intended to Alice, but I could easily listen to these guys just jam without any vocals at all.

Fortunately, Alice is a strong addition to the band too, especially when it kicks up the tempo. She's at her best when rocking out on Beer in My Veins, soaring on Super Power Vein and especially getting wildly emphatic on Hopes & Dreams. Sadly she doesn't do as well on Forsaken, as it's a slower song and crooning just isn't her thing.

This often reminded me of a Friday Rock Show session, not only because it features four tracks that rack up almost twenty minutes between them, but because the point seems to use those four tracks to introduce them to the world at large and show off what they can do. Accordingly, the four songs are agreeably varied. Forsaken isn't a poor song, even if it's the weakest on offer, and I enjoyed the bluesy guitar and arena rock power chords.

While I saw Beer in My Veins as the standout track from my first listen, I have to highlight Hopes & Dreams too. It closes out the album in particular style, with a showcase performance from Alice and a glorious ending that's surely designed to trip up DJs who start talking over it because they think it's over. It stalks really well and it blisters when it's ready.

As far as I'm aware, Blackstone Puppets haven't released much else. There's a single (and associated video) from 2017 called Stoned Alice, the original name of the band which is unrelated to the lead singer's name as she didn't join until afterwards. This appears to be their debut otherwise. It's good stuff and I look forward to seeing what they're going to do next!

Monday, 3 June 2019

Osatia - All in Time (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Post-Hardcore
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 31 May 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Twitter

Those of you following my journey through the whole spectrum of rock music at Apocalypse Later will be aware of my complete lack of understanding of what the genre called post-hardcore actually is. The releases I've reviewed haven't helped much, verging from the schizophrenic screamo of Famous Last Words to the schizophrenic prog of Borders of Byzantium. There's more to it than schizophrenic, I'm sure.

The core of the genre seems to be an experimental approach to the energy of hardcore, which means that singers don't always scream and their music veers from pop to metal and back, sometimes within the same song. Osatia fit that bill nicely, sounding rather like a progressive pop band with vocals from a singer, Alex Pasibe, whom I was rather shocked to discover is male. That's no dig, by the way. His vocals are high and feminine but very capable and they're the best advert for Osatia, even if there are tinges of autotune.

That hardcore energy is definitely there, but there's nothing else here to remind of hardcore. Pasibe is a alternative rock singer, delivering clean vocals, even when he screams, which isn't too often. The drums are playful but driving and there are a wealth of electronic textures behind the band that flavour what they do.

Frankly, the biggest problem with the album is that it's short. Unlike the Vader EP I reviewed on Friday, this is supposedly full length but it doesn't even reach the half hour mark and it boasts only seven three or four minute songs with an acoustic version of We Care for good measure. That's a mini-album in my book.

Oddly, it's this acoustic track that defines the album. Rather than being a translation of a song into an acoustic style, as is so often the case, it's very much the regular punky We Care, two songs earlier on the album, merely quieter and softer, which ably highlights how any heaviness apparent in Osatia's sound is just another layer that can be easily taken away without damaging their material in the slightest.

Maybe that's why I'm thinking of this as Taylor Swift meets U2 but given a crunch and an energy through prominent drumming and power chords. That goes double for songs like The Inevitable, which is a heavy pop song in the same way that Babymetal play heavy kawaii pop. Personally, I much prefer Osatia loud and energetic and the opening couple of songs epitomise that.

First up is the title track, with its jangling melody and crunchy bedrock. It's emphatically in your face stuff, taking its "Keep on fighting!" lyric to heart, even when it quietens down. Atlantis is even better, a dissonant guitar and a melodic keyboard combining to make a tasty backing for Pasibe. It's energetic but experimental too and it's easily my favourite track on the album.

The middle of the album sounds very similar to me except for The Inevitable. Lose My Number, Anxiety and We Care all play at a similar pace and with a similar outlook. If you like one, you'll like all of them and, frankly, you'll like the rest of the album too. On the flipside, if you don't like the first one you find, this isn't going to be for you. Wasting My Life gets a little more screamo to wrap up the core album but it's not out of place.

And maybe this highlights the other negative side, that its experimentation is rather consistently applied and not particularly deep. Sure, it has the energy of hardcore and it has a neat combination of sounds, especially with the keyboard layers, but that's as experimental as it gets. So much for my latest definition of post-hardcore! All in time, I guess.

Cracked Machine - The Call of the Void (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Apr 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Twitter

The first 9/10 album of the year for me was an instrumental psychedelic rock album from Turkey, Uluru's Acrophilia. This is the closest thing to it that I've found since and, while it's neither as good nor as wild, it's a strong album that I enjoyed a great deal.

Cracked Machine come from the West Country of the UK and this is a follow-up to 2017's I, Cosmonaut. I haven't heard that album yet but this is a strong and varied release that suggests that I should go find it. The track names look like different languages but they really represent a set of mythical dragons or serpents from an intriguing set of cultures. That's a cool idea but I didn't feel an exploration of those cultures in the music.

Jormungandr is the closest to the Uluru album, a heads down jam built on a solid set of riffs. As you might imagine, Jörmungandr is a serpent from the Norse Eddas, the World Serpent who grew so large that he was able to wrap himself around the entire planet and grab his own tail. It's also a really good piece, the most up tempo and in your face track on the album, but it's also relatively simple and straightforward compared to what's to come.

Illuyanka is a lot more thoughtful, starting with a spoken word intro in a language I don't recognise but is presumably Turkish, given that Illuyanka was a dragon slain by the Hittite sky god. It builds slowly but surely but remains much more meditative than its predecessor. The story of this dragon is sad because of the sacrifice involved and some of that is easy to find within the music.

Kirimu is a lot more progressive, with a fantastic swirling riff, far more overtly psychedelic than the opening tracks. While the guitar has been the focal point thus far and it gets wild here, the bass refuses to play second fiddle here (if you'll forgive the mixed metaphor) and the drums shine. The dragon this time out comes from the Congo, the master of the deep forest in stories of the Nyanga people. He's a scary beast, with seven heads, seven horns and seven eyes and, while I didn't get a lot of African vibes from the song, the drums of coming closest, I did get a scary vibe.

These tracks get longer as the album runs on, five minute songs becoming six and then seven, eventually wrapping up with an eight minute epic. That gives the band more opportunity to explore their subject, though I struggled often to find connections. Yamata no Orochi, for instance, is all about a Japanese dragon with eight heads but I didn't hear anything Japanese in the music. I enjoyed the track, which lets the synths come to the fore, rough enough to perhaps suggest a shakuhachi flute but I'm really stretching there.

I love the idea of an instrumental album all about mythical dragon creatures but I'd have loved the result more if there had been more exploration of the cultures involved in the music. As it stands, the Japanese track segues for me right into the Persian track, Azi Dahaka, named for a dragon king. Both tracks are great but I just don't hear what I'm expecting to hear given the context.

And really that's where I have to go with this album. Never mind the theme, just lie back and let the music wash over you. Blazej Gradziel's drums are a real highlight for me because it sounds like he's hitting those drums really hard and he refuses to merely underpin his bandmates for the whole album. I liked the synthwork of Clive Noyes too, which often act as a sort of audible fog machine, adding atmosphere while Bill Denton's guitar swoops and swirls. That leaves Chris Sutton on bass, who is worthy too, whether setting a tone or taking the focus.

Talking of atmosphere, the most atmospheric song on the album is Typhon, a serpentine giant in Greek myth. Noyes sets the scene with his synths before bass and guitar battle for dominance. Without the drums, this evokes a pit in a forest which might just be a portal to somewhere fantastic. With drums, it feels more ritual in nature, so maybe a portal to feed with sacrificial victims. As the rhythm escalates, we wonder if those victims are going to start coming back.

Vritra, the Vedic personification of drought, wraps up the album with more of the same as Typhon, especially from Gradziel. It's another standout track for me, though a little simpler than Typhon, highlighting that there's post-rock in the line-up of Cracked Machine influences as much as space rock and psychedelic freakouts. Again I have to highlight the drumming, especially as the album fades out.

I liked this a lot and I've run through it half a dozen times already. It's a lively trip and I look forward to throwing it onto my headphones late one night in the dark. What it isn't is a cultural exploration of serpent myths, which is a shame. To throw a mixed compliment into play after a positive and negative, while it certainly isn't as good or as varied as Acrophilia, it's the closest I've found over the last five months and that's something.