Friday 28 June 2019

Jess by the Lake - Under the Red Light Shine (2019)

Country: Finland
Style: Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 7 Jun 2019
Sites: Facebook

This album was an eye opener for me, because it wasn't remotely what I was expecting. The Jess in the band's name is a vocalist called Jasmin Saarela, who's best known as the Jess in Jess and the Ancient Ones, an occult rock group that quickly showed up when I started researching modern psychedelic rock and being open to jumping sideways. She's a powerful, confident singer and this really highlights that, but it does it in surprising ways.

And no, I'm not just talking about moments like the break in Freezing Burn that reminds me of a section of Marillion's Grendel so much that I started to sing along. "Hounds freeze in silence bewitched by the reptile spell..." Nah, wrong song. What I'm talking about is the fact that the opening couple of numbers remind mostly of Amy Winehouse and so does much of the rest of the album, even if Jess describes it as "witchy melancholic space rock".

The change in band name reflects that this isn't an occult rock album but a singer/songwriter release, just not the type that qualifies as good country music, twee pop music or even thoughtful folk. It's gospel infused pop/rock with soulful and theatrical edges, the sort of thing that Adele might sing nowadays if the songs were a little catchier and orchestral. The title track has a sort of revival feel by the time it wraps up.

The Wait changes pace in interesting ways. It's driven by keyboards instead of guitar, the former being bouncy and the latter being jagged. The bulk of it reminded me of Natalie Farr while the later section driven by voice over minimalist keyboards reminds of Susanna and the Magical Orchestra. All these artists are worthy of exploration but they're not who I tend to expect to be thrown up as comparisons here at Apocalypse Later.

That trend continues. Halo (Ghosts in the Flames) starts minimalist too, in a sort of Leonard Cohen vein, but it really builds. While this is very much an album designed to showcase Jess's voice, the band are tight and unusual. They've found that glorious balance point where they're supporting as they were hired to do, but in an absorbing and worthwhile way. Take away Jess's voice entirely and this would still be captivating, especially on building songs like this and Interstellar. With Jess, of course, it's even more so.

Legacy Crown is the real standout here, not just because it's great (though it really is) but because it finds a very different groove. Instead of Amy Winehouse, it feels like Nick Cave singing on a thoughtfully slow rock tune with tinges of voodoo surf. There's a song on Pink Floyd's The Wall that's stayed with me forever but is often overlooked; it's called Empty Spaces and it has a slow but inexorable and thoroughly invulnerable build that I've not heard anywhere else until now. And that feel is accompanied by much more here, including a tribal vibe and a very knowing lead vocal.

My Hands wisely goes upbeat because Legacy Crown is a hard song to follow. There's Nina Simone here but over a modern dark pop backing. That leaves a nine minute track called Interstellar which really wants to be the epic of the album and would be if Legacy Crown didn't develop so magnificently. It builds patiently but firmly, eventually reaching that point of ecstasy we know from Fleetwood Mac's The Chain where the band remain achingly steady while the guitar goes wild.

I've listened through this a few times now and it keeps getting better as the songs find their way into my bones. Initially, I was thinking about a 7/10 because it's clearly a good album but it's definitely worth an 8/10. I wonder if it'll grow enough to make a 9/10 in the future. Swept by Natalie Farr did that for me and this may well follow suit for similar reasons.

Carolina IV - The Color of Your Soul (2019)

Country: Brazil
Style: Symphonic Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 15 Jun 2019
Sites: Facebook

When you name your band from a song on Angra's Holy Land album, it ought to be pretty clear what you're going to sound like. I'm not seeing any line-up connection to Angra but Carolina IV hail from the nearby city of Jaú, three and a half hours northwest of Angra's home in São Paulo.

I'm not finding much other information on the band, even on their Facebook page, not when they were founded or why they have a compass built into their logo, just a line-up and a list of influences that includes Angra (shock horror), Dream Theater, Nightwish and Epica. None of these are surprising.

The first track proper, The Great Ones are All Dead, hints at something not entirely traditional, which is odd, because this is a traditional symphonic metal album for the most part. It's just that this track, sedate in nature, alternates between a harsh male voice I can't identify and the lead singer, Vivian Capobianco, who hits a high note five minutes in that underlines why she's the focal point here.

She's really good, but this track doesn't give her much opportunity to prove that. That's Something, a couple of songs later, which is a real showcase for her operatic talents. What stood out to me most with the opener was the care by which it was constructed and a strange instrumental section four minutes in that sounds like vibrato for keyboards. I have no idea what they were doing but I liked it.

The Forge feels like the defining song on this album for Carolina IV. It has a similar tone to its predecessor but gives Capobianco more opportunity and adds some heavier riffs to keeps things interesting. This band can get heavy and they do precisely that with Get Out of the Abyss, which is welcome after the softer Something and before the piano intro to Inside Your Soul.

This track sits in between the others but it has real character in how those operatic vocals are put to use and how the band transition away from them to an irresistable headbanging riff and some more harsh vocals. Everyone seems to get their moment on this song, including swirling keyboards from Diego de Fábio and a nice guitar solo from Vinni Azevedo.

The Great Feeling kind of sums up everything that's gone before, in an epic framework of nine minutes. All the components I've mentioned thus far from earlier tracks show up here too, plus others I haven't like the whispering intro from The Forge. Unfortunately, while it's performed impeccably, it's also overlong and overdone. Fortunately the album as a whole isn't, serving instead as a decent introduction to what this band is about. In the absense of evidence to the contrary, I'm assuming that this is their debut.

Every member of this band is clearly very good at what they do, but I'm not sure that the songs here serve them best. What's needed is a follow up with catchier tracks that add up to a more coherent and consistent release. It's not that the songs are bad and I did enjoyed this album but I think I'd be hard pressed to identify a standout track or define the band on terms other than through comparisons.

Thursday 27 June 2019

Örk Bastards - Warmongers of the Gloomy Lands (2019)

Country: Russia
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 10 Apr 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Metal Archives | VK

No, I'm not going to pass up an opportunity to listen to an album by a band who call themselves Örk Bastards! How glorious is that? This bunch are from Petrozavodsk, which is so far northwest in Russia that it's almost Finland, and they play their thrash in short bursts with a back to basics punk vibe and a singer who could easily moonlight in a black metal band. This album has ten tracks and it still only just nudges past the half an hour mark.

If the name didn't sell me anyway, there are intriguing song titles to add interest. Green People of Barsoom has to be about the native Martians in the John Carter novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I wonder if the band are fans of the original novels or whether they were part of why the Disney movie did so well in Russia. I presume 32 Secrets of Vimaana is about the ancient Indian spaceships detailed in the epic Vedas. And then there's Rabid She-Wolf and her Furious Blade, which sounds so glorious that someone should turn it into a short film and submit it to my film festival. These are subjects close to my heart!

And then these Örk Bastards blister through their intro and I was hooked. I have to say that I prefer cleaner vocals on my thrash but A.N.'s harsh voice fits well with their simpler punky thrash sound. There's nothing fancy here on an album that's the precise opposite of progressive metal. It's a routine collection of fast tempo riffs with a few transitions and it's not going to blow anyone's mind, but it's done with passion and urgency and efficiency. This is the sort of thrash that you throw on at high volume and let it just clean you out.

That's not to say that it's not played well because it is. The whole album's worthwhile from the simple but effective riffs that drive Baptized by Smoke and Fire and Green People of Barsoom to the final few tracks which are oddly my favourites. 32 Secrets of Vimaana nails a blistering pace. Travellers in Time adds a bouncy feel which is fun at high speed. And then they add a neat melodic line to Obsidian Shining, which really got my neck moving.

In between, there are some slower songs, like the aforementioned Rabid She-Wolf and Her Furious Blade, which is closer to NWOBHM than thrash, but it's the fast songs that make this work so well. The band find a tempo at which to chug along for each song and then speed it up because that's what thrash is all about. It's good old fashioned heads down speed and I merely wish I knew who was in the band that plays it.

I believe that A.N. also plays bass and the drummer is a gentleman by the name of Naastmorkh, but there are guitars here too and I have no idea who's responsible for those. Then again, they don't get as much to do as would be the case on most albums. When a solo erupts on Obsidian Shining, we wonder where it came from because there just aren't many of those on this album. I have to say that it's one of the only two songs that exceeds four minutes, so maybe they thought they had time. There was another one during the last quarter of Green People of Barsoom but A.N. shrieks over most of it.

This is good stuff on a first listen, when all that leaps out is the speed, but it's good stuff on repeat too, when we let the riffs sink deep into our brains and we realise that it starts good and keeps on getting better. The only downside for me were the deep shrieky vocals, which aren't bad but also aren't my preference. If they're yours, then this might be exactly what you need to clean out your system at the end of a long day.

Now, given that they've been around since 2007 but this is their debut, how about a follow up a little sooner than 2031?

Narrow Gate - Message from the Land of Noah (2019)

Country: Armenia
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 Jun 2019
Sites: Facebook | YouTube

Here's something even more off the wall than usual, because it's not just a product of a far flung nation (in this instance, the band are from Yerevan in Armenia), it's also an instrumental concept album about Noah's Ark that's brought to life through progressive metal by experienced musicians in other bands. While the story dates back to Mesopotamian flood stories and is part of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, this appears to be a Christian take.

That's because the core band members are Garik Amyan and Sergey Areskin, a pair who are far from just musicians. Sure, both play guitar here and Amyan also plays bass and drums and composed all this, but they founded the label, Art4God Records, which released it, and are core members of Blood Covenant, a symphonic unblack metal band that's almost two decades old. Amyan is also part of the worship team for the Word of Life Church in Armenia, which is evangelical Christian.

All of which means relatively little because the album is instrumental and so hardly counts as preaching. It merely underlines how seriously the band take the material. And hey, I've reviewed a lot of black metal here of late, so maybe it's about time I added a white metal album too.

There are seven tracks, which combine to loosely tell the old story that we probably all know. For those who don't, God decides to destroy everyone and everything on the planet but Noah is righteous so he gets saved, along with his family and mating pairs of animals and birds, all of which survive forty days and nights of flooding in their gopherwood boat. Eventually the waters recede and the Ark ends up on Mount Ararat, where Noah sends out a raven and a dove. When the dove comes back with an olive branch, he knows the land is drying and ready for repopulation. The end. Or the beginning.

Message, suitably, is the only track with a voice on it but it's God talking in Armenian so I can only assume what it says. It's really just an intro to set us up for Wages of Sin, an attempt to describe in musical terms just how wicked the world is. What fascinated me here was how it's constructed out of a whole plethora of instruments, many of which seem to be Hispanic. That's a Latin guitar and a brass section. How old is Tijuana?

I have to wonder too how many instruments they actually used, because there are all sorts of sounds here, but I presume most are the product of someone on keyboards. Surprisingly the band don't bring Christianity into a summary of what they do, going instead for "ethno-progressive metal band". I assume that adds a folk element to their prog metal which accounts for the diverse instrumentation.

After the decadence of Wages of Sin, we get 382 Seconds Before Noah's Flood, perhaps the most descriptive title I've ever seen. Given that the track is 388 seconds long, we can be sure that the flooding is going to begin right at the end of it and, sure enough, there's thunder crashing right there. It feels underwhelming because that's not an epochal raging torrent.

I was much more sold by the next track, The Ark, which begins with a flurry of guitarwork that highlights how violent the scene must have seemed at the time, with everyone else and their dog drowning. A number of lulls highlight how quiet things get once the water level is high enough but they escalate quickly. The intensity of the song rises and falls like huge frickin' waves.

Eventually we get to KaqaviX, a word I don't recognise, which is about the raven and the dove. It's a playful piece, featuring a lot of lively music, often in the form of fiddle, piano and flute. Holy Mountain is more active still, surprisingly so given that I was expecting peaceful music to reflect the land that Noah found, but I guess it's merely a celebratory song about finding it after so long afloat.

It's New Beginning that finds peace, presumably after the olive branch has been found. The synths take over to swell with emotion, then guitars emerge from the synths to heighten it. It's described as an outro but it's longer than the track before it and is just as worthy. It wraps things up in happy style, at least for Noah and his family. Everyone else has drowned but they were all wicked so it's OK.

I'm not trying to be sarcastic here, but the instrumental approach provides a lot of leeway in interpretation and it seems like this album tells a very simple, sanitised version of the whole affair. That seems odd to me, because while I'd be more than happy for kids in Sunday School to be exposed to the joys of progressive metal, I don't quite expect that to happen and so this is far more likely to reach the ears of adults who are, in turn, more likely to ask awkward questions. There are no answers here.

Theology aside, I enjoyed this as a piece of music. It's fun stuff and it's easy to listen to, even if you don't want to use it as a teaching aid. It's just over half an hour of music, with an appropriate progression between the tracks, which seem well delineated. We get the story from beginning to end without it ever seeming to grate on our patience or surprising with content that doesn't fit. The musicianship is excellent and consistent, even with no less than four band members credited on guitar.

It's decent stuff and it would be a trip to see it performed at the Word of Life Church in Armenia, but it is what it is. You probably figured out your likelihood of buying it from the first paragraph of this review.

Wednesday 26 June 2019

Omenfilth - Devourer of the Seven Moons (2019)

Country: Philippines
Style: Black Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 12 Apr 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

Oh yeah, that's an agreeably demonic voice introducing proceedings over the ambient backdrop to The Dictate of Morbid Hegemony, which opens this album. Surprisingly, it seems to be demonic in English though, rather than Tagalog, because the delicately named Omenfilth were apparently "spawned out of the abyssal crypts of the Philippines", which translates to San Pablo, a couple of hours southeast of Manila on the other side of Laguna Lake.

I'm reviewing Devourer of the Seven Moons because a friend of mine has moved to Quezon City, saw my review of Mothflesh from Malaysia and so wanted me to tackle some Filipino death metal as well. Well, I'm keen on variety here at Apocalypse Later, so I plumped instead for some Filipino black metal driven by Filipino mythology, albeit black metal that feels rather like early death metal.

Fast and furious songs like Summon the Beast of Damnation or slower numbers like The Embrace of Solitude aren't too far removed from the proto-death I remember from Celtic Frost and Possessed in the mid eighties. Omenfilth say that they're mostly influenced by second wave black metal bands from Greece such as Rotting Christ and Varathron, along with the Swiss band Samael, all of which started a few years later at the very tail end of the eighties. It fits.

What we end up with is that there's a lot from both black and death in Omen Filth's sound. I'm not seeing any corpsepaint on video and, even when they speed up, they don't really hit the levels of blastbeat hyperspeed that I'm hearing lately. The vocalist's name is Deathfiend (which says much on its own) and there's both black shriek and death growl in his voice. The pace is often slow and deep and there are a couple of interlude pieces, the title track and Negare Omnis Vitas. In other words, they flout expectations nicely and the album holds together well.

Summon the Beast of Damnation and The Embrace of Solitude, very black metal titles, sit in between the first two interludes. Omenfilth get still more serious with the second pair that sit between the second two. Bakunaua ex Inferis is brutal feedback ridden black metal that reaches the fastest tempo thus far. Seared by the Flames of Bawo features another wild solo. For me, the solos are the biggest success of the album. This one and the one Summon the Beast of Damnation are raw and visceral. They're felt as much as heard and they carry the most evil to be found here.

This is Omenfilth's third studio album, with a live album in between and it seems like they've found the sound they want and they're having fun with it. All four songs here are worthy, especially for old school fans of eighties extreme metal. Frankly, the biggest problem is that there are only four of them. The intro and two interludes extend that effectively, but that still leaves an album shorter than Reign in Blood.

There is more to be found here. A cover of Vulcano's Bloody Vengeance, with the same Satan summoning intro, edges it past the half hour mark. Then there are a couple of live versions of tracks from their debut, Opus Sanguinarium, released back in 2016. The production is pretty dire on these live tracks so they don't feel like part of the album. Maybe they're really the second half of Pandemonic Ascension of the Ancient Serpent, that live album, just thrown onto this one too to pad out the running time.

And that's a shame because I like what I hear from Omenfilth otherwise. I'm fine with the interludes, because they help variety and capably showcase the musicianship of the guitarists, Deathfiend and Von Necroticus. I didn't mind the cover but the live tracks are an unworthy cheat. Another couple of new studio tracks instead before an instrumental outro would have balanced this out well and left me a lot happier.

So let's see this as partial studio album, four worthy songs paired off to defile us in between delicate bookends, and wait to see how the next one is built. Omenfilth are prolific enough for the wait to likely be a short one.

Tiltik Ujti - El comienzo de nuestra etnia (2019)

Country: El Salvador
Style: Folk Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 10 Jun 2019
Sites: Facebook | YouTube

For those who expect their folk metal to be either based on Celtic sounds or Scandinavian drinking songs, check out Tiltik Ujti, who describe what they do as "folk metal pre hispánico" (I so need one of those shirts), though they sing in Spanish as well as Nahuatl. Mostly it means that you shouldn't expect any fiddles or accordions but there's copious use of pan pipes and flutes and other Central and South American instruments. Is that an eight string ukelele to kick off a couple of songs?

For that Salvadorian flavour, just check out the first minute of Cayahuanca, which opens up this three track EP, or watch the video for Cihuatán. I like these folk already and I've never met them. I adore the fact that there's a kid on tambourine, dressed in traditional attire, while the jaguar warriors battle each other around their ancient site (at both ōllamalitzli and war, if the two can be separated "pre hispánico"). I love that he gets to be part of this. That's good parenting right there!

And I love the contrast between the breathy flutes and the downtuned metal framework. Enrique Valencia's metal voice is a mixture of black and death, while the guitar of César Cortez and drums of Isaac Marinero are darker and deeper than heavy metal so often remind of death, especially in the faster sections and sometimes, in the slower ones, hint at doom. I love this band most when they're blistering fast but there are flutes dancing above them.

Cayahuanca and Cihuatán do other things too, that metal framework slowing down to give traditional chanting or instrumentation a suitable turn in the spotlight. This is folk metal, after all. There's even a guitar section in Cayahuanca that oddly reminds of House of the Rising Sun.

Quelepa, the third song here that sits between them, is shorter, only just over half the length of Cayahuanca, and it gets down to business right away with both sides of that contrast: blistering metal guitarwork and breathy flutes. It's glorious stuff, though it's held back somewhat by lacklustre production values. Quelepa gets especially muddy in the middle.

Beyond the production, the biggest problem at hand is that El comienzo de nuestra etnia, which translates to The Beginning of Our Ethnicity, runs a skimpy eleven and a half minutes. Sure, it's an EP but that's a short EP and after three tracks of this I'm in the mood for a full album.

It looks like Tiltik Ujti used to be called Dark Transition but this marks their debut in the studio. I'd love to hear more. How about a full length release sometime, folks?

Tuesday 25 June 2019

Flesh of the Stars - Mercy (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Doom Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 21 Jun 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

Flesh of the Stars is hardly the most mainstream name in the world, but the band clearly aren't interested in mainstream, or they wouldn't have started this album with its 22 minute title track. Even Genesis left side long songs until the very end of their albums. Ironically, they're named for a website but don't seem to have one. That's weird.

This is their first such side long song, I should add, twice as long as any previous track they've recorded over their three prior albums, unless we see their previous one, Anhilla, as a single piece whose three quarters of an hour are broken up into tracks only for convenience.

Mercy is a beast of a track. It betrays Pink Floyd as a key influence and I mean really early, Syd Barrett era Floyd rather than the later Roger Waters version. It's odd hearing psychedelic pop suddenly turn into mammoth weight doom but I'm hardly going to sniff at originality. Maybe this could be seen as post-doom, because it's clearly meant to be really heavy stuff except on the occasions when it isn't and that approach suggests a sort of soundscape mentality, especially given the outro with its soft plucking, a drone and a bevy of birds flying around to give their vocal contribution.

It could easily be argued that it's a couple of minutes too long but it's a clear epic and it finds that feel a quarter of an hour in. From there, time distorts and becomes meaningless.

Rites, a snippet of a track by comparison at almost seven minutes, combines soft, folky guitar with deep crunch and floating melodic vocals. It becomes something of a promise by the time it wraps up, a sort of ritual piece for some esoteric gain or other. Oddly, given its name, Procession, doesn't aim to follow suit, though it does keep a more consistent step. Seen in a wider context, the two do fit together.

Wisteria doesn't, but it's an oddly deep song, given that it's quiet, almost ambient guitar string plucking under the clear voice of Rachel Rustemeyer, a folky set of pipes that sing with the melancholy dial ramped way up. At two minutes, maybe it's meant to be an interlude, a thought back before we hit a new high with the final track.

That's Burial, almost ten minutes long and much of that easily dominated by the truly wild bass of Travis Marmon. It kicks off like a bass solo and I haven't heard anything this vibrant from that instrument since Anasthesia (Pulling Teeth). It's eventually joined by a high melody and a clean vocal line. Those vocals are patient and controlled but the bass is a wild creature tasting newfound freedom.

It's this last track that confuses me, because otherwise it could be seen as a sort of loose concept album, speaking not to a life but a death from the moment it occurs to the moment the body is secreted away for eternity. The song titles all fit except for this one, which isn't remotely static. It's more like the body didn't want to be buried so flung off its shroud and ran away, whooping with wild laughter at being alive. If it wasn't so playful, I might throw out a paranormal comparison, but it doesn't feel dangerous, just blissfully unrestrained.

I've been exploring a lot of music this year that works around the nexus of doom, stoner metal and psychedelia. This is yet another album to play there but it's yet another album that sounds unlike any of the others. It's a neat crossroads to find for creative souls with unique visions and Flesh of the Stars, who hail from Chicago and were formed as recently as 2015, are worthy visitors to this font of originality.

Mothflesh - Nocturnal Armour (2019)

Country: Malaysia
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 21 Jun 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | YouTube

I have a love/hate relationship with melodic death metal, which somehow has apparently become the default sound of metal nowadays. On the one hand, the vocal style that comes along with it is inherently limiting, so bands have a tough job standing out from an ever-increasing crowd. Let's be frank: most melodeath bands sound like most other melodeath bands. On the other hand, a few still manage to find a way to bring something new to the table and they are worth their weight in gold.

Mothflesh stood a really good chance of being one of those few. I have to admit that I was drawn (ahem) to them because of their name, which is truly glorious. The wonderful cover art on this, their debut album, helped and it can't hurt that they hail from Kuala Lumpur. I just had to find out what a band like this would sound like and, while they hardly redefine the genre, they sound fresh and engaging to me.

Perhaps this is partly because they're clearly not interested in being just melodic death metal, taking it instead as a starting point to launch into a groove metal direction, hauling in other subgenres for the ride whenever it seems like a good idea. Their Bandcamp page states that they combine death, groove, industrial and thrash "to lateralise uncharted sonics".

A song like Swordfish, their first single, is a great starting point to hear just how diverse that gets. It's death metal for a couple of minutes with a thrash element or two, before it spins up Tool rhythms, sets a pit in motion with a groove section, hints at doom with a neat slow riff and then builds an alternative chorus, which remains at a consistent tempo, even when Tunku Shafiq hits hyperspeed on his drumkit, finally ending with a chanting outro. There's a heck of a lot going on in this song.

Frankly, if everything was this wild, I'd like Nocturnal Armour more than I already do, but the only other track to match it is the outro, Invertebrate, a two and a half minute instrumental with violins and electronica. Alternate universe versions of Mothflesh would have started their album with this and followed with Swordfish before blurring even more genre borders over thirty more minutes of tracks.

Sadly, that isn't what we get but what we do get isn't bad at all. It's just more straightforward. Some songs start out groove and then move into death, while others start out death and move into groove. Bufferzone adds a little electronica, but it's a groove song. Pleasure Principle adds a little power too, before thrashing it up and cycling back to groove. It's a good song and it's the opener to the album in this reality.

The other single is Skinless, which highlights just how deep the drum sound is on Nocturnal Armour. You'll need good speakers to avoid some distortion at the low end. It gets interesting a couple of minutes in but can't hold a candle (ahem) to Swordfish, even with a neatly layered finish.

I can't help but wonder after a couple of listens which songs were the first written. I kind of hope that Swordfish is the most recent because it would point the way to a truly interesting band and a very promising second album. It could be that it's the oldest song here, which wouldn't promise as much, as the band in that scenario are moving more mainstream and predictable. I guess we'll need to wait for the follow up album to find out.

Monday 24 June 2019

Hollywood Vampires - Rise (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 21 Jun 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

Clearly the Hollywood Vampires are trying with their second album to define themselves as a real band rather than just a bunch of wealthy celebs having fun playing covers. I found their debut from 2015 a mixed bag and had little interest in diving into a similar follow up but, thank goodness, this isn't that. In fact, it's a pretty enjoyable album, even though I'm not sure what they're really trying to be.

Certainly the best aspect here is the songs, especially the originals, and I should clarify that. There were only three original songs on the debut, the rest of that album taken up with cover versions of timeless classics that we all know backwards and which often felt unnecessary and awkward. This time, there are three covers, I think, and only one of those seems recognisable.

I Want My Now, the opener, and Who's Laughing Now, the single, are a pair of up tempo rockers that feel vibrant and purposeful. I'd argue that those two tracks alone make this album more worthy than its predecessor, but there's a lot more to come, much of which sounds very much like a young band of punks just itching to let the world know what they sound like.

I should emphasise here that the average age of band members is just above pretty scary. Alice Cooper is 71 years old and Joe Perry is 68. Johnny Depp isn't exactly young at 56. That this trio sounds urgent and hungry is the biggest surprise here and it's a very welcome one.

It's mostly Alice's show. Once he opens his mouth on I Want My Now to snarl about the instant gratification generation, he takes ownership of the album and many of the highlights are his, starting with his sarcastic need for a diamond selfie stick. Oddly, Perry and Depp, who are primarily here to play guitars, are most notable as vocalists themselves, even if their voices are far from as memorable as Cooper's.

Perry gets the first shot at the mike, to cover Johnny Thunders's You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory. It's not a bad song and it gets better with repeat listens, but it feels completely out of place here and Perry sounds like the bastard son of Johnny Cash and Joe Strummer who can't compare to either. Depp takes on David Bowie's Heroes and, while it's a surprisingly good cover, it has little purpose either. To be fair, he does a lot better with People Who Died later on but I'll get to that.

The worst thing about the album is the songs that aren't. There are sixteen tracks here but four of them are short and apparently pointless experiments. Good People are Hard to Find is a collage of sounds. How the Glass Fell is thirty seconds of harpsichord. The Wrong Bandage is a rainy piano interlude. A Pitiful Beauty is a minute and a half of some space age industrial band auditioning for Ming the Merciless. If there's a point to any of these, I'm unable to find it. They all get in the way and detract from the coherence of the album.

The actual songs don't need that crap. Who's Laughing Now starts out with a T Rex riff but gets grungy and gothic. Who's guesting here? That sounds like a vocal line from a Bauhaus song. The Boogieman Surprise is quintessential Cooper and, like him, it stalks and swaggers. Welcome to Bushwackers, with guest appearances from Jeff Beck and John Waters, is sardonic Cooper at his best, explaining how he's still the man (and a bad one) at 71, even against a musical backdrop that could have been stolen from a square dance. This is the sort of thing that most artists couldn't sell but Cooper can nail as it plays to his subversive nature.

The worthy experimentation is on songs like Git from Round Me, which matches an old school seventies riff with electronic manipulation, a rock rap and alternative nineties grooves. It's varied and impressive. Tell me again why we have frickin' harpsichord interludes?

And things get darker. New Threat is vitriolic Cooper over driving guitar. Mr. Spider is a dense and atmospheric Cooper song. We Gotta Rise is a rare political song from him, maybe because he didn't write much of this album. Depp and Perry wrote most of it and Cooper has spoken about how odd it is to be singing Depp's vitriol. This is a marching campaign song, fighting for truth: "Let's rise above the lies." Vote Alice.

Then Depp steps up to sing People Who Died, a faster and heavier cover of a punk obscurity from the Jim Carroll Band, before a spoken word poetry slam from multiple voices explaining why we should stay alive. These are surely takes on the cautionary tale that is the original Hollywood Vampires, and I think they're a better tribute than the entire debut album.

And, with all that said, I still have no idea what this band is now. I can happily say that they're a real band, one that spits venom at thoughts that they're old and past it. They're vehement and angry and blistering. They're relevant. They're risen. I just wish they'd ditch the pointless covers and the interludes. Bring on album three and just frickin' blister at us. I'm ready now.

King of None - Weightless Waters (2019)

Country: Finland
Style: Stoner Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 28 Apr 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | YouTube

Juho Aarnio, the bassist of King of None, reached out to me about his band after seeing my review of the new album by their fellow Finns Grave Siesta. I liked what I heard on this EP (which at over half an hour is longer than some of the albums I've been reviewing lately). It's their third, after a self titled release in 2014 and Troubles by the Score in 2016. And so here are yet another band from Helsinki well worth checking out.

There seem to be a lot of those lately. Just looking at the other Finnish bands I've reviewed this year, Los Bastardos Finlandeses and Battle Beast are also based in Helsinki, Children of Bodom are close by in Espoo and Jupiter aren't much further away in Kirkkonummi. Only Rifftera are on the other side of the country, in Vaasa on the west coast. And that omits a hundred plus other Finnish albums from 2019 that I haven't listened to yet!

King of None clearly don't like being lumped into one genre. Their Bandcamp page describes them simply as "Jack of all trades", but Juho tried "heavy psychedelic stoner prog rock". They're definitely heavy, though this album is arguably hard rock rather than heavy metal, even if it has no hesitation skirmishing on the other side of that border pretty often. I often found an Asomvel vibe here, though looser and more psychedelic and much less like Motörhead. That comes from their stoner edge, which also features a mildly fuzzy guitar tone and a fondness for hypnotic riffs.

It's those hypnotic riffs at the end of Worlds of Mine, while the band make a neat lyrical nod to You're So Vain, that hooked me. There's a playful bass to kick things off too, along with clean but tough vocals and good soloing, so it's not a one trick pony. Worlds Collide gets a lot more complex, maybe reflecting the prog rock in Juho's description that I didn't hear anywhere near as often as the other elements he cited. The instrumental section that wraps things up is joyous and not only because of the solo.

With a additional nod to the bouncy yet more doomy Frog Palace, each of the three songs in the first half is solid. Then there's Desolator, with a slow and achingly powerful riff to anchor its opening. "The time has come for you to define yourselves" sings Miiro Kärki and it feels like King of None are doing just that. This is heavier than anything that precedes it but it gives way to a patient and even mellow second half that's a real delight, Aleksi Kärkkäinen and Juha Pääkkö weaving combined magic over Aarnio's surprisingly prominent bass and Patrick Enckell's reliable drums.

King of None are clearly a good band with Kärki singing and I have nothing negative to say about him, but they're a better band when they just find a groove and jam. Detonator is the highlight here, for both its instrumental and its vocal sections, but then it's the end of Worlds Collide, the seven minutes of Yellow Snake King and the fantastic breakdown two thirds of the way into Starbirling. Almost all those are instrumental and I can hear the jams getting longer over time. Maybe Kärki should pick up a third guitar to keep him busy when no words are required.

I don't know if someone's dumped LSD into the Gulf of Finland or someone's spiked all the beer in Helsinki but this country with a population slightly larger than the Phoenix metropolitan area seems fuelled with creativity of late and I'm constantly shocked at the quality of material it's producing. Locals must be hard pressed to decide which gig to go to on any particular night in downtown Helsinki.

Watch out for more from Finland here at Apocalypse Later in the future and thanks, Juho!

Friday 21 June 2019

Helix - Old School (2019)

Country: Canada
Style: Hard Rock/Heavy Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 14 Jun 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

Wow, Helix! Of all the eighties bands which I expected to go away with the advent of grunge, Helix would be close to the top of the list, along with Krokus and Tigertailz. For a while, they were the epitome of cheesy cock rock with big hits like Rock You and Gimme Gimme Good Lovin' accompanied by overtly lecherous videos designed as much around topless women as the songs. The latter is especially notable as one of those topless ladies was a sixteen year old Traci Lords.

What most people forget is that Gimme Gimme Good Lovin' was a good song to begin with and Helix covered it well. The music just took a backseat to the boobs and, thinking about it, that could be a pretty good description of a good chunk of that decade.

Well, Helix survived grunge and kept on going, perhaps because they weren't an eighties band to begin with, having formed as far back as 1974. Vocalist Brian Vollmer has kept Helix going ever since and I have to appreciate that achievement. Way to go, sir. In other words, they don't qualify as another inclusion in this year's bizarre trend of old bands reappearing out of the ether because they never went away. If I'm counting correctly, this is the fourteenth (or maybe fifteenth) Helix studio album and the previous one was only five years ago.

The question, of course, is whether it's any good and I have to say that it is and it isn't. There's good stuff here and, well, less good stuff. There are also songs that carry a seventies or eighties swagger without any hint of embarrassment, but songs that just can't avoid that feeling. There are effortless tracks and others that seem to be trying much too hard. Oddly I see that the songs were all written between 1981 and 1989, so they ought to be quintessential eighties material.

Oddly, for an album with polarising tracks, it starts out underwhelming. I don't quite know why Coming Back with Bigger Guns doesn't do a thing for me, but it doesn't. It's just there and it does precisely what you might expect from its title. I liked Whiskey Bent and Hellbound much more. It doesn't feel clichéd at all, even though the title suggests that it really ought to be. It finds a cool rockin' vibe that's all eighties hard rock without the embarrassing overtones. It's a lot more Great White, say, than Warrant.

Just as the album's looking up, it softens down. If Tears Could Talk is a lot softer than the openers, a rocker that doesn't want an edge because it revolves around emotions. Your Turn to Cry is soft in different ways, like an outtake from Jefferson Starship's Freedom at Point Zero; it's a lot more seventies than eighties. Tie Me Down is quintessential eighties, however: a hair metal ballad with an unfortunate title, because it just makes us think Faster Pussycat. Why so many soft songs together? What happened to coming back with bigger guns?

Old school Helix fans will be happier with Closer to You and Games Mother Never Taught You. The latter has that mischevious and sex-obsessed mindset that I remember from those eighties hits, as does Southern Comfort, another double-entendre filled sex song. Fortunately they're not remotely as cheesy as Rock You. They seem like good examples of how to update an unfashionable approach to a different era, even if the songs aren't technically new.

Hound Dog Howlin' Blues
is a good example of how not to do that. It dates itself immediately with repeated uses of the word 'bitch' that was somehow cool for a while in the eighties and sounds really stupid now. It does have its good sides too. It's very playful, with Vollmer interacting with what I presume is a spliced in live audience, showcasing his voice. It's the most lively song musically too, with a vibrant closing section that showcases a pair of lead guitarists, Chris Julke and Kaleb Duck. These guys can rock.

And, frankly, it should have ended there, but we're left with what sounds a lot like a seventies TV theme tune and I'm not just saying that because it's called Cheers. It's because of the soft piano and heartfelt voice approach and the homespun philosophy of the lyrics. I have no idea why this song is on the album. It even sounds like it was recorded a few decades earlier than everything else.

In summary, there are good songs here that show that Helix still have it. I dug Whiskey Bent and Hellbound and Southern Comfort. There's good stuff in other songs, even if they don't stand up as well in entirety. There's softer and less worthy material. There's some dated and cheesy material that really shouldn't be showing up in 2019. And then there's Cheers.

I'm glad that Helix are still around and all respect to Brian Vollmer for that, but I'd like to hear a new album of new material to hear what Helix are all about in 2019.

Onur Hunuma - Lumina (2019)

Country: Turkey
Style: Symphonic Power Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 10 May 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

I've been enjoying quite a few releases from Turkey of late and I wondered what symphonic power metal would sound like with a Turkish angle, especially when created and performed by one man. This is Onur Hunuma's third full length album in four years and he's knocked out an EP and a bunch of singles in between.

Well, it sounds like the first couple of tracks, both of which are entirely instrumental. Shiva Shakti is an enticing minute long intro that develops out of what sounds like an Istanbul street scene. Valo & Kuolema doesn't but it still creates a visual space. Guitars give way to exotic synthwork, which in turn gives way to guitars. The riffs are simple but solid and the synths get more and more layered. It grows well.

Dreams I Have Seen does some of the same but it's more urgent, darker and more about solos than riffs. It gets much more interesting towards the end too, with what sounds like a brass section but is probably more synths. It escalates with layer after layer being added onto a crushing guitar. I hope Hunuma made it out of that dream alive. I'm sure there are stories to tell. It does end triumphantly, as if escape was its own reward.

And so we go. Well, no we don't, because Hunuma likes to keep things varied. Mostly that's by approach, because songs like Virtual Paradise and Blood Red Hiroshima aren't miles away from these early tracks even if they sound like it on the first listen. The former is a quieter, more background song that reminds of routine eighties soft rock on either side of heavier soloing, a synthpop drum sound defining it, while the latter is more aggressive and a lot more serious, speeding things up to tempos we might expect from extreme metal. They're opposite ends of the same scale.

What's most out of place is Aquatic and not merely because it adds vocals, which are sung in English, for the only time on the album (sans a few samples). It begins softly and never toughens up, content to stay in alternative rock territory with a sixties psychedelic flavour. I can't say that it's a bad song because it isn't, but it would fit better on a Donovan single than on an otherwise instrumental album of Turkish power metal.

I should add that 'symphonic power metal' is a limiting label for Hunuma, even if it's partially accurate. I felt that this was prog metal as much as power metal and it's not always symphonic either. Even on the final track, an orchestral version of The Origin, it brings in an overtly chiptune sound at one point that shifts our take on it from movie score to game soundtrack. The earlier version features samples and a melody that's oddly reminiscent of the James Bond Theme. The latter is there on the orchestral version too but it's more obliterated by the chiptune.

I've enjoyed a lot of one man projects this year and this is another good one. I appreciated Onur Hunuma's variety as much as his compositional skill and musical ability. It's an easy album to listen to but there are depths here that are worth exploring.

Thursday 20 June 2019

Burning Gloom - Amygdala (2019)

Country: Italy
Style: Sludge Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 14 Jun 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook

I realised a couple of days ago that my next pair of reviews would reach a milestone: two hundred since the beginning of the year. I felt that ought to warrant something special to celebrate but nothing I listened to really fit the bill. I found good stuff, much of which I'll be reviewing in the days to come but nothing that really stood out as special. Until this.

Amygdala is the debut album from a sludge metal band based in Milan, Italy, who released a couple of others under an earlier name, My Home on Trees. On their Facebook page, there's a note that, after seven years under that name, they "have started a new journey, made of fires in the night, a dark road enlightened by flames."

That's an evocative way to describe a serious enough change in approach to warrant a name change, but it gets more and more appropriate as this album progresses. By the time it reached Nightmares, I found myself on that road. I may or may not also have been on fire. Certainly I was hooked.

Simply describing Burning Gloom as a sludge metal band isn't enough. Sure, that's much of what they do, but they don't sound like anyone else I could conjure up. The production is part of that. It puts Marco Bertucci's guitar well and truly up front so that the vocals of Laura Mancini have to battle for dominance. It sounds like the band performed the entire album live in a band member's garage and someone recorded it on a Walkman. Yeah, the mix is hardly optimal but it makes the band sound incredibly urgent.

It also sounds like they're performing ritual ceremonies as much as music. Tracks like Eremite, Warden and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder feel like they might have the aim of conjuring someone or something up out of the ether. Nightmares sounds like they did that before the song started and whichever demons were called forth promptly joined in with the musicians and I don't just mean on backing vocals. That's Mona Miluski from High Fighter.

This ritual approach, as much the product of the often tribal drumming of Marcello Modica as Mancini's powerful and driven vocals, brings occult rock promptly to mind, whether Coven or one of the myriad inheritors to their sound. This music is often hypnotic. Occult rock has a lot of Black Sabbath in it, but that's notable separately here, especially on Beyond the Wall. It's also combined with a minimalistic Danzig vibe, which was surprising but welcome to hear. I'd say Tool, except the rhythms aren't as complex and this is ritual in nature.

Mancini is so confident in what she does and the band, especially Bertucci, are so in our face, that it sometimes feels like I'm not in my office with the album playing out of speakers; they're playing live inside my skull and they've transported it somewhere that I don't recognise. Sometimes, like on The Tower, especially the escalating second part, it feels like my skull is too small to cope.

While it's certainly not going to be for everyone, I found it impossible to ignore this album. It's the antithesis of background music. I'm an active listener but I rarely find myself trapped inside an album like this one and I rarely find myself assaulted by the silence that follows its end. This album is alive. It doesn't want to be over and the silence knows that and shivers. It remembers the crashing riffs on songs like Warden and wonders how safe it is and when it'll be noticed. That's what makes this special.

Pölisong - Soul Revolution (2019)

Country: Spain
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 14 Jun 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website | Twitter

Pölisong come from Galicia in the northeast corner of Spain. In fact, in Ferrol, they're even closer to the northeast corner than Mileth down the coast in Vigo. They've been around since 2011 but I believe this is their debut album and it's a varied affair but the more I listen to it, the more consistent it becomes.

That's because they don't take their inspiration from any one band but from an interesting variety of them, merging those sounds into something new. My Way, for instance, opens up the album in relatively commercial fashion. The band say that they worship Scandinavian bands like Hellacopters and Backyard Babies and there's certainly a lot of Hellacopters here, but there's some Black Crowes too. It's radio friendly stuff, catchy and easy to listen to.

The title track sounds like AC/DC from the outset but with a very different vocal approach. It reminds of the Cult for a while and then REM, eventually reaching a delightful female voice singing a pop chorus that's something else entirely. And then Electric Girl ups the fuzz and distortion to point as much to a stoner influence as the spaced out seventies cover art. Maybe that's Electric Girl emerging from a cave.

Trying to connect all these different sounds is fun and it requires that we listen to the whole album a few times to really quantify what's happening. I felt that nothing here was particularly Spanish, for a start. Often I felt that the music sounded more British but the vocals were more American, even with frequent nods to Paul Rodgers. It's fair to suggest that both sides of that are filtered through the bands Pölisong like from Scandinavia.

But that's not enough. Space Traveller marks another shift, halfway between the Cult and Lenny Kravitz. Darkness and Light is a quieter song, a southern ballad in many ways. Woman looks further back to an acoustic Led Zeppelin vibe. In other words, there's a heck of a lot here that we don't tend to see combined on one album by one band. That's a good thing.

If there's a primary influence above all others, I'd suggest the Cult, but there are no songs here that sound entirely like the Cult. The closest is Thunderbolt, which betrays that influence overtly to begin with, picking up an increasingly psychedelic vibe as it moves on. What's fascinating to me is that the Cult took so much of their sound from the Doors, but that band does not leap to mind here at all.

Sometimes albums that wander around the musical map work really well but it isn't a given. Some are praiseworthy for their variety, while others become inconsistent and confusing. This is a lot closer to the praiseworthy end as there is a general sound here that's all Pölisong and manifests itself over a lot of good songs. There are a few obvious singles and a few obvious deep cuts.

I just wish I knew how to describe the band as against any of those songs in isolation. They're a commercial melodic rock band knocking out catchy three or four minute radio friendly songs with ease. But they're also a much more inventive album oriented outfit writing six or seven minute songs that don't sound like each other. It's those two Pölisongs I can't quite tie together. But hey, at the end of the day, they sound good. That's what matters.

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 fewer than twenty-three 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.