Wednesday 31 July 2019

Cantus Levitas - Auf Grund (2019)

Country: Germany
Style: Medieval Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 Jul 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Metal Archives | YouTube

Before I virtually leave Germany for parts unknown, I knew I had to review a medieval metal album because it's become a quintessential German genre and I love it. Fortunately Cantus Levitas released their new one last weekend, no less than seven years after their first, Schnapsidee, so that's what's up!

What's medieval metal, you might ask? Well, it's pretty much what you think it might be, folk metal that's either exclusively or predominantly performed on instruments from that era. Pioneers Corvus Corax are the former, playing only period instruments, not just bagpipes, shawms and hurdy-gurdys but some that I'd never heard of, such as buccina, riq and cornetto curvo. This band, like the Corvus Corax side project, Tanzwut, include modern instruments too, such as guitars and a full drumkit.

I'm not sure what the Cantus Levitas line up looks like nowadays because I'm finding conflicting information, but there are at least a couple on bagpipes and a whole bunch on percussion instruments. The pipers also play shawms and others sit behind drumkits or play assorted percussion. Tobi, the guitarist, also plays the davul, which I had to look up; it's a large drum that's worn and played with mallets, used most often in middle eastern music. Many band members play more than one instrument, whether the additional one is a flute or an accordion or a cittern, a medieval mandolin.

And, given all that, what surprises me is that they sound a lot more like a regular metal band than a medieval metal band, at least whenever the guitar, bass and drums are in play. The bagpipes add a powerful drone over the top, and often a melody, almost like a keyboardist might provide in a different setup. Other instruments tend to wait for gaps to be heard.

Another surprise is that, for a band from the landlocked towns of Karlsruhe and Heilbronn, there's a lot of material here about water. Out of thirteen tracks, at least four are nautical, if Google Translate is being honest with me: Sieben Meere is Seven Seas, Flut is Flood, Altas Undas is High Waves (in Galician, for some reason) and Ferne Ufer is Distant Shore. Flut, the first song that really sold me on the album, is bookended by swirling waves. After all, the album title, Auf Grund, translates to On Reason, but the cover art features jellyfish. Yeah, if there's a metaphor here, I'm not seeing it.

Flut is the fourth track and it's sort of medieval Rammstein. The prior three songs weren't as overtly familiar and the following one, Aus dem Leben, my other favourite here, is a heavier song led by a powerful guitar riff that may have an NDH flavour but a more traditional heavy metal one too, with a few drum fills that hint at power metal. Of course, the bagpipes make for a very different sound overall, as they tend to do for any metal album.

The track that I'd most like an explanation for is Al ardu alqahila, partly because that's clearly not German; partly because it's an instrumental intro to Karges Land that carries a very middle eastern feel to it; and partly for the reason that I can't translate it, though "alqahila" is apparently Hausa for "penis". Why a German medieval metal band is using a Muslim Nigerian language to talk dirty, I have no idea, especially on an instrumental, but I really dug the music.

With the exception of that trio of very different tracks, which perhaps not coincidentally appear together on the album, I found that Auf Grund faded a little too much into the background. It's certainly long, at almost an hour, and it took a couple of listens to keep my attention. Fortunately, it gets better each time through, especially as that fresh focus enables different sounds start to leap out from different tracks.

After a few times through, I enjoyed the Sabaton-esque vocal line in Karges Land, the intricacy of In die Flammen and the kick up your heels dance tune that is Ferne Ufer. I dug the acoustic flavour during the first half of Windkries too, a folk song led by an accordion. It's a real singalong song, or at least it would be if I knew enough German to understand it. The title means Wind Circle, I believe, but what that is I have no idea.

In short, Auf Grund sounds good immediately (hello bagpipes, my old friends) but it's a little on the long side and it's easy to lose focus, especially on a first time through. Persevere; it's worth it.

Sieghetnar - Gebirge (2019)

Country: Germany
Style: Ambient Black Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 5 Jul 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives

I get a real kick watching genres grow and morph and especially merge with other genres that don't seem to make sense. Who would have thought that new age would work so well with funeral doom metal? Well, check out the one man project called Roaring Empyrean and see it work. Here's another: Sieghetnar, another one man project that plays ambient black metal, a concept that isn't new but which bemuses me every time because it shouldn't work.

If you haven't heard ambient black metal before, let me introduce you. Yes, we're talking black metal, with its blastbeats, shrieks and corpsepaint, not to mention its traditionally muddy production. And we're talking ambient, an attempt to discover the music in all sound, even if it occurs naturally with no orchestration. You know, Bathory meets Brian Eno, that completely obvious merging of styles.

What it really translates to is the wall of sound approach that often shows up in black metal, but without the dissonance or too many ominous overtones, rendered in long form and combined with quiet acoustic material and samples to create a sort of classical piece with rock instrumentation. Gebirge runs just short of three quarters of an hour, but it's still only one track with sections that are quiet or heavy but always melodic. Add in birds, fire and rain and we might grasp where all that light is coming from on the gorgeous cover, taken from Albert Bierstadt's 1868 painting of Yosemite Valley.

The man behind Sieghetnar is called Thorcraft and he's the entire show here, writing the material and playing all the instruments. He clearly keeps busy, not just because he's knocked out a dozen Sieghetnar albums, seven of them in the last five years, but also because he's also a black metal band called Harsgathyr, much of another called Todesrune, and a few more besides. What's more, he runs both Kristallblut Records and Nordsturm Productions, neither of which are restricted to his own material.

This is my first experience of his work and I'm impressed. This single track album runs along patiently but effectively. It's less cinematic than I might have expected but it's very evocative and immersive. I felt less like I was looking at the landscape Thorcraft aims to conjure up and more like I was in it, camping out and watching the scenery. Sure, I'm hearing those birds and that rain but there were points when I thought that I was smelling flowers too and I'm pretty sure my speakers only handle audio.

Interpreting a piece like this is highly individual, so I'll avoid too much of what I got out of it, because I'm pretty sure that you'll hear something else entirely. I will say, though, that Gebirge, which translates from the German as "mountains", played to me as both a passage of time, the mountains a backdrop to the weather that performs in front of it, and a mood piece, a set of reactions to that show of nature. Some of the most effective sections have a pastoral tone to them but it's becoming overwhelmed by something dark rolling in.

I liked this a lot and now have plenty more from Thorkraft to go and find. I see that the first Sieghetnar album featured vocals, but the rest have been entirely instrumental, except for some of the reissues. I like this without vocals, because I don't think they would have added anything, whatever style they were in, but think they would have detracted from the experience.

Tuesday 30 July 2019

Lacrimas Profundere - Bleeding the Stars (2019)

Country: Germany
Style: Gothic Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 26 Jul 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I remember Lacrimas Profundere well but, like usual, I'm out of date. I know them from the early 2000s with albums like Memorandum and Burning: A Wish. I dug their slow but emotional gothic metal sound, which clearly had its roots in the doom/death that they played on their first couple of albums. However, that means that I only heard one singer, founder member Christopher Schmid, and mostly only one drummer, Willi Wurm. The line up has changed a lot since then, it seems.

For instance, I see that I missed out entirely on Rob Vitacca's decade plus with the band as Schmid's replacement, showing back up to hear the debut of Julian Larre instead. Drummer Dominik Scholz has just rejoined the band for a second stint, having been behind that kit from 2010 to 2013. Only main man Oliver Nikolas Schmid has stayed consistent throughout, having played guitar since 1993 and other instruments at points too. I apparently also missed the band's alternative phase, Bleeding the Stars marking a return to their old gothic metal sound after a period of a few years playing alternative rock.

I have to say that I'm still intrigued as to what that would have sounded like, but this feels like comfortable ground. Larre certainly has both the voices I remember: the deep emotion-laden voice that echoes the band's name, which translates from the Latin to "to shed tears", and a harsher but still melodic death growl. Schmid still sounds as I expect, that guitar tone very memorable I went back to one of my favourite songs, Without, and opener I Knew and Will Forever Know plays pretty well beside it on all fronts.

If the best thing about the album is that the very first track is strong, a welcome return to style and form, the worst thing must be that the rest of the album can't exceed it. Mother of Doom comes close, soaking its way into our bones and clutching hold. I've never found Lacrimas Profundere to be an easily accessible band. Even as a fan, it always takes me a few listens to fully grasp any new album, as if I'm reading a book in a foreign language I don't speak, but suddenly, out of the blue, it makes sense.

I can't think of another band that plays this way to me. Celestite Woman is just the less convincing track after the opener until I suddenly get it and it's gorgeous. The Kingdom Solicitude works similarly. Mother of Doom was a little quicker to grasp, because it's even more reminiscent of Paradise Lost and it's done exquisitely. There's so much aching emotion in the relatively straightforward chorus. They do this so well.

Another thing that Lacrimas Profundere do that most bands don't is to create songs that feel like they last far longer than they do. It's not like psych where songs can descend into instrumental jams that capture us so completely that we lose track of time. Nothing here exceeds five minutes and every song is carefully constructed. They just feel more epic than their running times back up. I was surprised to realise that Mother of Doom, for instance, lasts under three and a half minutes and that there's only one other song shorter on the album. It feels like twice that because it's a song to savour.

Having listened through seven or eight times to make sure everything's come clear to me, I think the best songs are in the first half, but that's not to say that the second half is slacking. The Reaper flows beautifully in brass and mahogany. After All Those Infinities features some wonderful melodies. A Sleeping Throne is another immersive Lacrimas Profundere track that becomes something special.

At this point, I'm very happy that this band is still recording and that the album at hand feels compatible with but evolved from those early recordings for Napalm. Once I delve back into their last decade of material, maybe I'll also add that I'm happy that they're back to their old style.

Space Raptor - Galactic Shenanigans (2019)

Country: Germany
Style: Stoner Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 25 May 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | YouTube

What's most surprising about Space Raptor's new album, Galactic Shenanigans, is that it's rather down to earth. There's no space rock here and no cosmic prog, just the odd swirly synth behind the band. It's an instrumental stoner rock album that starts out with a notable light touch. I wondered for a moment why the catchiest song, Monaco Franz, a friendly five minute trip, is the closer rather than the opener. Clearly it's about the energy, which builds with the album and culminates at the finalé.

The opener is interesting if not as catchy, even with a name like Psychedelic Warfare. As if to make a statement, it's the longest song on the album at over ten minutes and it unfolds in episodic fashion, almost like it's four or five tracks in a row without any gaps. It starts out playful but finds a riff a couple of minutes in and has fun with it. A couple more and it gets ethnic with a middle eastern sound led by bass and cymbals. Then it gets quiet, with the guitar taking back over but calmly as if it's cooler not to care. Eventually it finds an ominous tone, just for a moment before the guitar decides to soar. It's a happy guitar and a varied track. It feels like both a warm up and a workout for the band but it's good stuff.

Miphisto is a little heavier, but it's still playful and happy in spirit, a little quieter and more introspective. Then again, Space Raptor appear laid back even when they're playing fast, like on Balls to the Wall. This one has an edge from the beginning, rather like a punk song. It slows down after a couple of minutes but finds a nice riff halfway through and a speedy one too because it gallops along like, well, a herd of space raptors, as wild as the album gets.

Die Nelke Zwischen den Distein is another laid back song, content for the drums to set the beat while the guitars play with a calm riff that waits for our brains to echo it. It escalates, of course, but this band is too mellow to get really intense. Even louder, faster and more emphatic, they're pretty laid back. Have I said that enough yet?

Teleport starts out like Black Sabbath, so much so that I was humming along to Sabbath Bloody Sabbath until the riff changed. It turns back into stoner rock, of course, but only after some big riffs. I love the slowdown late in the song. The guitar tone there is reminiscent of doom/death, like Paradise Lost, but done in a stoner rock framework.

It's Kauderwelsch im Commonwealth that really sold me on this album. It's the other long song, running over nine and a half minutes and it suckers us in slowly, almost creeping in on tiptoes until announcing itself a couple of minutes in with perky drums. It gradually gets heavier, the bass shimmying along nicely and interplaying intricately with the guitars. It's playful, but the time it ends, the band have got as heavy as they're going to get on this album.

And, with Monaco Franz to wrap things up with its prominent wailing guitar, Space Raptor impressed me without ever seeming to try. This is the happier end of instrumental stoner rock, with just a few moments of darkness for us to acknowledge that not everything is rainbows and unicorns and, well, space raptors. Mood is important in instrumental psych and this is refreshing, not only because it's different but because it's auditory lemonade on a hot day.

Friday 26 July 2019

Sacramental Smoke - Sacramental Smoke (2019)

Country: Finland
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 5 Jul 2019
Sites: Facebook

This album blew me away on a first listen and it kept on getting better each time through, but I quite grasp it until I researched it. Sacramental Smoke, a telling name, hail from Vaasa on the west coast of Finland, the same town as Rifftera, who impressed me so much back in January, and they play a brand of prog rock that's initially patient, laid back and utterly seventies, but gets more intense as it runs on, until it gets all funky on the title track a couple of minutes before the album ends.

Initially, they felt rather like Pink Floyd if Pink Floyd were a lounge act, but there's a lot more here than that. I got a strong Led Zeppelin vibe too, not in emulation like Kingdom Come or Greta Van Fleet, but in spirit, like a improvised Page and Plant side project done back in 1971 under the influence of mind-altering substances. There's folk here and blues, jazz and rock, all merged in some of the ways that Zep merged them.

There's obviously sixties psychedelia here as well, especially on something like Ride, which has a very San Francisco vocal, half Jim Morrison and half Paul Kantner, but with some country rock hints, jazz fusion drumming and a rather prominent saxophone for good measure. Put together, it wouldn't be a surprising cover in a Grateful Dead set.

There's also the genre-hopping backing I know from early Tom Waits albums like The Heart of Saturday Night. Opener My Girl could easily have been a Tom Waits song from his crooner era but with Vello Suigussaar just singing instead of portraying a persona while doing so. Brainwashed starts out that way too but turns into a psychedelic jam for a while and ends like Robert Plant auditioning for Pink Floyd.

I wondered how this unlikely set of influences came about, especially with almost nothing newer than the mid seventies. Well, the key showed up on the band's Facebook page, where there are two influences listed: Pink Floyd and Kingston Wall. Now, it's perhaps understandable that I'd never heard of the latter, given that they only ever played one gig outside Finland, but they combined a lot of these sounds on a very influential trio of albums in the early nineties. They were apparently prog/psych, with their sound a mix of Floyd, Zep and Jimi Hendrix. I must seek them out now.

Whatever the course of events that led Sacramental Smoke to this sound, I'm totally on board and I'm fascinated to see how they're going to evolve from here. The whole album feels very loose and improvisational, but was clearly planned carefully. There's a point in Leaving Tomorrow where the piano takes over from the vocals, but there's a percussion sound to die for behind them both that never shows back up. The sax/bass combo early in Across the Sea is similarly blissful but unrepeated.

Also, the way that the album starts quietly and inoffensively but gradually speeds up and gets more intense. It's almost two minutes into Across the Sea when the whole band just doubles their speed just like that and, when they slow back down again we realise that the sea is the galaxy and we're a heck of a long way from home. Two thousand light years, perhaps? But hey, we're OK with that. And, once they've sped up once, doing so again isn't remotely the shock it was the first time. Maybe the acid's taking and the trip is an enjoyable one.

The album certainly is. I really didn't want this trip to end.

Bloodred Hourglass - Godsend (2019)

Country: Finland
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 5 Jul 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Back in March when I first went virtual globetrotting, I started out in the heavy hitting country of Finland, which has a population lower than Arizona but where everyone and their dog seems to be in a band. In tribute to that, I'm finishing up this fresh week of virtual globetrotting in Finland, partly because I really want to review the new Sacramental Smoke album. To contrast with that, I'll kick off with something utterly different, a melodic death band from Mikkeli, which is not, for a change, on the Baltic coast.

Bloodred Hourglass aren't new, having formed as far back as 2005, and this is their fourth album. It's not the most original record ever recorded, with a sound similar to many other melodic death metal bands, but it's done well and it's consistent. As if to defer to standards across the board, Godsend runs just over forty minutes and breaks down into ten four minute tracks, with only one breaking five. It's not the sort of album you pick up for its surprise value, it's the sort of album you pick up because it's reliable.

It's upbeat and up tempo, a thrash influence obvious, and Jarkko Koukonen's vocals find that good balance point between harsh and engaging. It's rare to hear good intonation in death growls, but he's clearly been listening to the delivery of James Hetfield or Martin Walkyier, maybe both. It helps that the producer knew his stuff, because the balance here is solid across the board. It's Koukonen and Jarkko Hyvönen's driving beat at the front of the mix with guitars taking their turns as needed and keyboards floating over everything else. Even the bass is there if we pay attention.

The problem with such a consistent album is that it's hard to call out this song or that for special attention, especially on a first listen. Waves of Black starts things out well, with good riffs, good runs, good melodies, the works. The catch is that the other nine songs do a similarly capable job as well, so does it really stand out in a quality crowd? Yeah, it kind of does, but not as much as you might expect.

After two or three runs through, only Devourer really starts to emerge as a favourite and that may be because of my bias towards thrash, because it's a speedy one. It shifts between mid-pace and fast, with the thrashier parts a delight and the rest memorable too. It's my favourite but it may well not be yours. There are nine others to choose from.

In fact, what I found was that the album became a single forty minute track for me. It never faded into the background but the songs did start to merge and become parts of a whole rather than their own things. There were subtle differences, The Unfinished Story being a slower, more thoughtful song than the two around it; Alysia having a gothic flavour to it; Pieces being more epic in nature.

What I realised though was that most of that is due to Antti Nenonen, who's the band keyboardist in addition to being the lead guitarist. I presume he doesn't handle both duties when playing live because it seems like he'd be a busy man often taking care of both at once. He's fine as a guitarist, with my favourite melodic line from him coming in August, but I'm thinking that he's bizarrely a lot more important as a keyboard player.

On Waves of Black, he provides the texture that everything unfolds against. On Alysia, he sets up that gothic feel with piano and synths. On My Route, a bludgeoning song, he counters that with perky keyboards early and sweeping ones late. Pieces and Ask and You Shall Receive are epic because of him. He may be playing what we might expect is the least important instrument in a melodeath band, but he makes it count and I honestly wonder whether I'd be praising this album so much if those keyboards weren't on it.

That's not to say that anyone else is letting the side down, but most of the songs would blur together even more than they are. The power would still be there. Devourer would still blister and My Route would bludgeon but the feel would be different.

But hey, I'm not reviewing the album that might have been, I'm reviewing the album that is and Godsend has kept me entertained four or five times through and it's still feeling fresh.

Thursday 25 July 2019

E-an-na - Nesfârşite (2019)

Country: Romania
Style: Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 19 Jul 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website

Oh wow, there's a lot going on Nesfârşite, a Romanian folk metal album from the bizarrely named E-an-na, from Sibiu which used to be the capital of the principality of Transylvania. If that sparks history, then I should add that the band's name stems from Eanna, a Sumerian temple in Uruk, which was the home of Inanna, the Mesopotamian fertility goddess, who became Ishtar to a later bunch of worshippers. That it also sounds like the sort of chant you might find in a folk ballad is probably not a coincidence.

For a couple of tracks, it's pretty consistent in a wildly diverse way. Viu runs a mere three minutes, but travels a heck of a lot of ground. It begins with crunchy djent riffs but death growls give way to flutes, which give way in turn to an accordion and suddenly we're in a Romanian village fair. Then, just to underline that this is metal, we leap into high gear in the form of the sort of drinking song you might expect from Korpiklaani. Then, halfway, we find a folk melody that's joined by a plucky bass and now we're in gypsy punk territory, not far from a Gogol Bordello sound. Viu means Alive in Romanian and it's a highly appropriate title for such a vibrant song.

If you like the schizophrenic mindset of Mr. Bungle but your tastes tend to downtuned metal and eastern European folk music, then E-an-na are your band because they keep this up on Aer. It isn't quite as outrageous but it does come close and it's twice as long to allow for other elements, like synths that show up halfway through and an interlude for piano and humming. The core here is pretty close to repetitive nu metal, which I wouldn't normally thrill to, but the sheer imagination that peppers that core with a variety of wild textures is a delight. You simply never know what you're going to hear next.

From there, it becomes a very schizophrenic album, with a couple of wildly different approaches. It's akin to tuning into two radio stations at once, one of them featuring wild, engaging music that you've never heard before and the other being the same old mainstream stuff that you try to avoid. It makes for an odd but fascinating listen.

The first of those two stations is really out there, not just exploring the folk sounds of Romania. Some tracks are instrumental, such as Fiecare gest al nostru, with its prominent violin, and a guest slot for Robert Cotoros from a gloriously named band called Hteththemeth. Others are vocal. Pielea is an oddly frenetic jazz song that made me wonder if I'd woken up with my head on the counter of a European café for lunatics. I adored it as a jaunty vocal piece with energetic stylings from Roxana Amarandi and I adored it as an intricate instrumental. This could be my favourite song of 2019.

The best songs here to me are from this side of the band's sound. Pânda is a great example, a little less jazzy than Pielea but just as folky and with an inexorable patient drive forward that feels cinematic. I'm not the first to conjure up an Emir Kusturica comparison here and that doesn't surprise me. In this mode, E-an-na are irresistible. The opening of Mashiara features a delightful vocal from Roxana Amarandi that had me grinning like a madman. It follows Pielea perfectly for a double bill that isn't going to get matched any time soon.

That other station that keeps creeping in, sometimes a lot, sometimes only a little, is a nu metal station that plays djent and metalcore. Epitaf, slated for release as a single, comes to life whenever the bagpipes show up but it otherwise combines many of my least favourite aspects of modern metal, like Korn playing djent on St. Patrick's Day. It's really not my thing.

On occasion, this notable contrast works. iO.tă could be seen as a sort of duet between the styles and it works reasonably well for the most part. More often, it jars, especially when the metalcore takes over. Early in Frica, a monotonous guitar repeats while Ioana Popescu explores a piano keyboard and it's engaging, but then the contrast vanishes and it's just palm muting and shouts. As Frica runs on, it gets interesting then boring, then interesting then boring. It's like sitting outside a couple of studios with doors open, the fascinating band on the left constantly getting drowned out by the band on the right. And I couldn't move my chair towards the accordion.

There's a lot here and the musicianship is very strong, as it has to be to put something like this together. Even Epitaf, which lost me completely, is done well and I see that it's some people's favourite song here. Different strokes, I guess. However, I tend to adore bands that mix up styles, taking diverse sounds and bringing them together to create something new. E-an-na really ought to be one of my favourite bands and, frankly, they still could be, if only they'd close that studio door on the right.

Mirthless - Threads of Desire (2019)

Country: Romania
Style: Progressive Doom Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 14 Feb 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | YouTube

Goodbye Mexico and, indeed, the Americas, because I'm virtually hopping the pond and working inland to Romania today for a couple of interesting albums. First up is this slab of doom from Timișoara based Mirthless, who may or may not have changed immensely since they started out in 1998. The key player at that point seems to be a gentleman called Urmuz, but there's nobody of that name in the line up today. Maybe he changed his name to Sir Wagner. Maybe he just left. I don't know. Also, everywhere I see lists Mirthless Oblivion as if that used to be the name of the band before they stripped down to just a single word.

What's odd to me here is that Mirthless describe themselves as black/doom, a take that may be historical. The doom is completely obvious, but I'm hearing much more of a gothic feel to the band, the only black metal here being in the hoarse shriek that passes for Sir Wagner's vocals. The music is lush and feels reminiscent of velvet and mahogany and absinthe, as much as an elegaic sorrow. There's also a notable progressive edge. Come in late on Burning the Ground and roll over onto the title track and you can't miss prog. Put that all together and there's often a doom/death feel.

Things kick off with Ceaseless, which clearly isn't given that it only lasts six and half minutes. It begins with piano (and vinyl static), progresses in slow fashion through some glorious power chords and ends up with rain. It's exquisite doom, slow and aching, beautiful and dark. The tone stays in place throughout the album, though the tracks find different sounds. Burning the Ground, for instance, immediately jangles as if it wants to soar off onto a barely visible horizon but the drums ground it emphatically. It wraps up abruptly but very nicely.

Because of the gothic influence, Mirthless don't feel the need to remain at a snail's pace throughout. Songs like Drifted in Silence and the title track move along at a careful pace that's never fast but has a surprising energy to it. This is often uplifting doom, with that jangling guitar an oddity for the genre. There's a section in Drifted in Silence that features a narration behind the jangling guitars, all set against a wash of keyboards, and I felt like U2 might sound like this if they went goth and wrote a concept album on the romantic poets.

Maybe that's why the black metal vocals. Infamous Blood closes out the album with more playful guitarwork, an even upbeat chugging, but that bleak voice ensures that melancholy would be too cheerful a mindset. Sir Wagner couldn't sound more unlike Bono if he actively tried. Whenever there are vocals, we find ourselves deep in the forest or, given the cover art, out on the ocean. Either way, we're far from home and there's no guarantee that we'll return to anywhere that we recognise.

As one way trips go, this is an adventure. There's an inevitability here I'm used to from funeral doom bands such as Ahab, but it's shorn of its weight, except on Ceaseless which is pretty close to funeral doom. For the rest, we may be on some doomed quest across the waves and we may not make it out but, even if the captain is unceasingly grim, we're going to have a time of it if it kills us, damn it.

Wednesday 24 July 2019

Coventrate - Roots of All Evil (2019)

Country: Mexico
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 Mar 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | YouTube

I wondered which order I should put today's two bands from Mexico. SixSuns take us to new places but Coventrate, from Monterrey (not to be confused with Coventry from Ciudad Juárez), clean us out. In the end, I thought I'd explore the cosmos first and then return to the pit for some old school thrash and leave the day pleasantly exhausted. This is the second full length album for Coventrate, after 2015's Cannon Fodder and an EP in 2017 called Rat King, both of which I shall now eagerly seek out.

This is thrash how I like it best. It's fast and it's frenetic, of course, and it gives our necks a good workout. It's technically proficient and very well produced, with Leo Uvalle's bass audible and the drums not overdone. Michael X, who debuts here for Coventrate, has a clean voice with a rough edge and a periodic falsetto scream to stamp emphasis on proceedings. The album also plays very consistently indeed. I knew on the first listen that the opener, Thrashing of the People, would be a highlight, but Apocriphal Dream promptly outdoes it one further track in. That's a good problem for a band to have.

Most importantly of all, the escalations are great. The best thrash albums are aware of what speed metal did best, taking us from zero to crazy on the turn of a dime, just a little looser and wilder. There's plenty here that's right out of speed metal and, when they slow down, the intricate weaving of guitars that we expect from Iron Maiden. There's a great example of that on M.O.A.B. (Mother of All Bombs) before it escalates into high gear.

For sheer heads down no nonsense thrash, Brainless Consumer is a peach. It doesn't do anything fancy, just blisters for three and a half minutes until it's done and we're onto Speed Metal Command, which does much of the same. It does leave some room for a solo, which rocks, but I think my favourite solos here are on The Dictator and Distopic Paradise. The two guitarists are Pedro King and Ramon Fraustro and their bandmates know exactly how to kick in and out around the solos perfectly.

After highlighting that there are no bad songs here, I should also mention that not everything's perfect. M.O.A.B. quietens down for a finale but then just ends as if most of the band were already done and one guitarist hadn't noticed yet. There are some spoken word parts, like the one at the start of the title track and midway through M.O.A.B., that are lost behind the music and serve little purpose.

Also, I have no idea what the band's previous vocalists sounded like, and it looks like there have been quite a few of them since Ruso Talavera left in 2017, but Michael X is pretty traditional in what he does. I do like how he sounds and I can almost see him stalking the stage live, head back for the screams, but he's traditional enough to fade into the music a little, which stands out above him.

What it boils down to is that I enjoyed Coventrate when he was singing but I think I enjoyed them even more when he wasn't. The band are very tight and I lost myself in some of the more extended instrumental sections, like during the title track. Instrumentally, they reminded me of early Death Angel, who do not show up on the 'Artists We Also Like' section of their Facebook page. Slayer, Destruction and Municipal Waste do, alongside other more surprising acts like Uriah Heep and Danzig. I'm not hearing them here.

What I'd like to do, beyond seeking out Coventrate's earlier work, is to see them live. They sound like they ought to absolutely blister on stage. Maybe they'll wander far enough north at some point for me to get a chance to see them.

SixSuns - Cycles (2019)

Country: Mexico
Style: Psychedelic Blues Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 16 May 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook

Yesterday, I reviewed a couple of albums from Peruvian bands and I'm moving virtually north to Mexico for a couple more very different outfits today. It may be hard to describe SixSuns, who hail from Ecatepec de Morelos outside Mexico City, because they freely admit that "ninguna de las composiciones suena al mismo género", which means that their songs are often from utterly different genres.

That becomes obvious quickly. Taurus, the instrumental opener, is space rock in the Hawkwind vein, albeit a little more grounded. Strange Blues, however, is emphatically a blues song, with the voice of Angie Jiménez coming to the fore. Someone else joins in later for a spoken section in accented English, but the song belongs to her and, eventually, Daniel Moisés Rojas, who plays (I presume) the laid back bluesy guitar and the much more intense solo that brings us home. The cymbals are overdone, but that might be the mix. I took the 16 KHz range down to nothing and it sounded great.

Simple Things is a slow and steady folk rock song. It's decent enough and it finds its groove, with some mellow synths from Jorge Barrón elevating it and a nice vocal outro too, but it fades entirely from memory by the time we're absorbed by Cosmos, an epic psychedelic workout that takes up the middle ten minutes of the album. Realising just how varied this record is, I started it again after Cosmos and had already forgotten Simple Things.

Cosmos has a bluesy vibe but they're cosmic blues this time. It's a pleasant song early on, with a vibe so laid back it's almost horizontal, but it gets better still. I loved this because it's both warm and peaceful, as if we're out there adrift somewhere in the cover art, but we're safe and comfortable. Life is good! Rojas takes over for a guitar workout before handing over in turn, almost like a relay race, to Barrón for a solo section on the synths. Eventually, Jiménez returns to wrap the song up, but we wonder how long we were gone, lost in the music.

Frankly, this album is worth your money for Cosmos alone, but there's more. There are only seven songs here but, between them, they last over forty-six minutes. One of those is Gypsy, a much heavier song that mixes stoner rock, seventies Deep Purple and folk-influenced prog like early Genesis. It feels instrumental but Jiménez's voice shows up halfway through to elevate it. As great as Cosmos is, Gypsy may be my favourite song here because it carries a real emotional weight to it. It's achingly beautiful, perhaps a darker side to the lightness of Cosmos.

That leaves a couple more blues songs: Childhood, a shorter piece with more strong keyboards, and Misery Mind, which closes out the record with a wink and a grin. It's playful and fun and gives everyone in the band a moment in the spotlight. Néstor Yzmaya gets a bass solo a couple of minutes in before handing off to Barrón and then Rojas. Oscar Garcia deserves praise here for accompanying everyone ably on his drums wherever they take the song.

In the end, the way the band play with genres ends up being their best and worst attribute. On the positive side, they're good at all of this. They're good as an entirely instrumental band, but they're good with vocals too. On the negative side, I wonder if they'd do better splitting up their different sounds onto different albums. Throw out a straight blues album and then give us Cosmos and Gypsy stretched out to album length. Each of those would be a little more coherent experience than this album that combines those two sounds. But hey, where would Misery Mind go? It could end up on either.

I have no idea why SixSuns, when there are only five band members, however brightly they shine. Maybe the sixth is creativity.

Tuesday 23 July 2019

Regum - Regum (2019)

Country: Peru
Style: Hard Rock/Heavy Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 20 Jul 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram

If Coffin Rags were a good warm up for today's double bill from Peru, Régum are a great way to finish that up. I've had this one for a while and I like it more with each listen. They play it hard and heavy, with some songs more on the rock side and some more metal. They ought to do well with both those audiences.

They start strong with Refugio and Laberinto, but Linea Blanca just bounces with pent up energy and refuses to let us be. Moisé Huamán capably sets the vibe on drums, giving life to the song that the rest of the band play along with. Vocalist Joaquín del Castillo gives everything he's got on this one, his raw voice working really well and he even finds a really nice high note to put the icing on the cake. It's an impressive rocker.

There are nine songs here, none of them bad, and three of them killers. I'm fond of the fact that each of those killers is unlike the other two.

Duende is even more upbeat and bouncy but it's an alternative song, starting out as punk pop and ending up as glam metal without changing anything but the voice that's singing. That's del Castillo on the chorus; is it him in a different style on the verses too or does someone else step up to the mike? This one ought to be a real singalong song in Spanish speaking countries and should be firing up the airwaves in Lima.

The third is Ritual Canavis, which starts out with voice and drums like it's a Quiet Riot-style belter. Then it leaps from idle into high gear with the energy and some of the style of early Guns n' Roses, especially given that the guitars are a focal point here. Eloy Valdez gets a decent solo and Deyvi Hidalgo on rhythm bolsters the whole song wonderfully.

The opener, Refugio, is arguably a fourth killer, because it flows so well, again due in large part to those guitarists. It's heavier than those other three, but still carries a strong melodic line with del Castillo searing his throat just as much. It could be my favourite song on the album, though I'm not sure how to explain why except just personal taste. I like the balance of precision backing and raw vocals. I like the escalations. I like the way it ends on the turn of a dime. I just plain like this one.

And there are another five tracks that are all worthy. If Refugio is one of my favourites for vague reasons, yours could be any combination of the songs for your own vague reasons. Each time I listen through, another one grabs me for some reason, whether it's the guitarwork on Sonrisa Nocturna or the cool opening vocal on Poder Corrupto.

I feel that this is unusual for me to say, because I've got used to there being standout tracks on any album just from an objective standpoint but, here, they're all worthy and eager to engage with you. It's like wondering why you picked that particular puppy to adopt rather than those other eight. I guess it means that this is a damn good album.

Coffin Rags - Ascensión Omnisciente del éter (2019)

Country: Peru
Style: Black Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 14 Jul 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives

Coffin Rags, from Lima in Peru, state on their Bandcamp page that they're "a project born under spiritual instincts of a constant search of the secrets that lie in the subconscious, the ritualistic meditation through archetypal passages and manifestations of the dead, the occult and the alchemical give form to these thoughts and designs."

I'm not entirely sure what means but a quiet four minute intro in the subtly pulsing Tangerine Dream style of the seventies might be a good way to draw us into a meditative state. However, it gives way to the louder first track proper, Espectros del Arjé, and that's only ever going to wake us back up. I find that black metal is often about tone, whether a band can find that evil sound that they can play around, and Coffin Rags have an excellent tone, if not a particularly surprising one.

They alternate between fast and slow sections across seven songs of wildly different lengths, two minute interludes to nine minute epics, with the mix putting the jagged guitars well above the drums (though the cymbals shine a lot brighter than is usual). The bass is presumably in there somewhere, but mostly as added texture, with bassist Lord Dartheniod much more obvious as the band's vocalist. His vocals don't accompany this music as much as they float through it like mist.

I like his approach though. I don't expect to catch lyrics in black metal, especially when the band are from Peru and likely to be singing in Spanish, but Lord Dartheniod often sounds like he's not using language at all, just exhaling at length in a suitably Satanic style to drape a layer of texture over the music.

With a good tone and a good vocal approach, Coffin Rags are a worthy black metal band, but the songs do run into each other. If I wasn't paying close attention, I'd have heard Espectros del Arjé and Augurios del Arúspice as a single sixteen minute track. It's the dark ambient interlude that breaks it (them) apart from Satyros Pan, a faster and delightfully evil sounding song. Coffin Rags inserted a cheesy demon speech into Espectros del Arjé but the chanting and other vocalising late in Satyros Pan is much more effective. I have to say that it's easily my favourite track on the album.

As there are really only four tracks proper here, that just leaves the most substantial, Manipulación del Espíritu, which almost reaches nine and a half minutes. It rumbles gently into play with the bass finally audible early on, then explodes into action a few minutes in. It's best in its mid tempo parts but ultimately and surprisingly is the least track on the album.

I like Coffin Rags and not only because they have such a cool name. They're pretty traditional in what they do, but I see that they're describing their sound as black/death metal, so maybe they'll be mixing it up a little for a second release.

Friday 19 July 2019

Zion Knight - Zion Knight (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Melodic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 19 Apr 2019
Sites: none

Here's a bit of a cheat, given that I'm only supposed to be reviewing 2019 releases here at Apocalypse Later and this album was recorded back in 1991. Well, it was never released, outside of a promo cassette, and it languished on some shelf until April this year, when it saw a long overdue release by 20th Century Music.

I hadn't heard about it until this morning's Raised on Rock radio show (on 10 Radio last night in the UK) when Chris Franklin, purveyor of all things melodic, played the opening track, Maiden Voyage. I liked the song and dug the story so I dug a little deeper. Zion Knight, who hailed from Florida, I believe, rather than the expected Jerusalem, given the name, were another one off band for vocalist David Mikael, the singer for MPG and regular name on other one off AOR releases for bands like Thunderbox, Presence, As Is, Tin House and more. He also plays bass and keyboards.

Frankly, I liked his bass work here, though he's a better singer. His voice has been compared to some of the best in his genre, often people like Eric Martin or Lou Gramm, and I can see that, but he also pulls out a little Dio on points in Rock Rules the Knight and some Sean Harris on Sweet Searcher. He's very good at what he does and, frankly, I just wish I could hear what he does better, because one reason why this may not have been released back in 1991 is that he's far too low in the mix.

While I liked the opener, I found that the album got more interesting as it ran on. What really sold me on Zion Knight was Cry of the Dove, a couple of songs into the album. I liked the whole song, including the heartfelt vocal, an adjective that's a good thing in AOR, but the overlays were gorgeous, at the beginning and at the end. The titular dove coos and frolics with what I think might be cymbals or some sort of keyboard flourish, with a dark bass underpinning them. It's a really neat sound and the guitar solo it sets up soars beautifully.

It didn't just sell me on the band but on their versatility as well. Sweet Searcher was the next standout for me, as it aims for real depth. It wasn't just David Mikael's voice that reminded me of Diamond Head but the way that the track was constructed and how the guitars of Roderick Gray-Lewis were eager to explore and build while he's singing. And I'm thinking Canterbury-era Diamond Head, by the way, when they were even more unfairly overlooked. Somehow it helps that it sounds like Zion Knight recorded this one outside in the rain. It's gorgeous.

No AOR band could survive back in 1991 without at least a pair of standout radio friendly singles and I'd suggest that Bad Disposition could be the first such here and Lady of My Dreams the follow up. Thirty years on, I'm starting to hear singles from this era show up on my local classic rock station and it wouldn't be a hardship to hear Bad Disposition three times a day.

The downsides are obvious from moment one. The production isn't great, even for 1991, let alone for 2019. The introduction, titled The Warrior, is told with cheesy language and an even cheesier voice. The drummer's name is Chip Micronus, which surely can't be real. This doesn't sound like the work of a drum machine, but Chip Micronus has to be either that or the villain in an especially bad episode of the Power Rangers.

And, of course, the record is 28 frickin' years late. I'm glad it's finally getting a release, even in a limited edition of 500 copies. But I'm glad to be hearing it and I hope you are too.

Mefitis - Despair (2019)

Country: China
Style: Progressive Black Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 19 Jul 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

I have to admit that this EP leapt out for a number of reasons. For one, it features progressive black metal from Beijing, China, which had to be heard. For another, the demonic growling vibrato is provided by the same young lady who did the cover art, Rexco by name. And for three, Rexco aside, the band don't remotely look Chinese. Drummer Darian Kocmur also plays in Teleport, who are certainly appropriately named given that they're based in Slovenia, making his commute pretty tedious otherwise. And that leaves Allen Darling, surely the least Chinese name I can imagine, even with the prefix of Lucky, as it often has. He used to be the entire band.

This is Mefitis's debut EP, but Darling released a demo under that name back in 2017, called Nascence, and handled everything on it himself: the vocals, the guitars, the bass and the drum programming, quite probably the delivery of lunch during recording for good measure. I took a quick listen to that in preparation for this and quickly realised that the addition of other band members helped a great deal. Mefitis are deeper and more interesting when he doesn't have to do everything himself.

And they are both deep and interesting. This is a short EP, blistering along for the most part for twenty minutes, at which point it's done, but it does much of note along the way. Never mind the point a minute into opener Cetus when they shift between a few tempos seamlessly, what's going on behind the repeat of that thirty seconds later? There's a twanging that's only just in hearing, but is impossible to ignore, that sounds like Jew's harp. It comes back later, as do tempo changes, the instrumental section as far in again a real highlight and a very complex one too.

The beginning of Ecdysis, which means the shedding of an outer cuticle layer by animals who go in for that sort of thing, is gloriously intricate too. I was thrown back to bands like Mekong Delta who brought avant garde jazz into an extreme metal mindset back in the late eighties.

Desecrate is even more interesting. It starts out minimally, with Rexco like a demon creature recently escaped from a cage and ready to devour anyone or anything she encounters in the next five minutes. She has a wild and evilly dangerous voice and, while I have no idea what language she's singing, let alone what words, it's often easy to get caught up in what she's doing and forget there's music being played behind her. That music is far slower here, even when it gallops, and there are so many cymbals in play that surely some of them have to be bells.

That leaves Lotophagi, or Lotus Eaters, presumably meaning the tribe of lost addicts that Odysseus encountered when returning home from Troy, given that Cetus was a sea monster in Greek mythology. Of course, Mefitis was Roman not Greek, or rather pre-Roman as she was the goddess of poisonous vapours (foul-smelling gases of the earth) to the Samnites, who dominated central Italy in the years before the rise of Rome.

This one layers voices, demonic and clean, surely male and female too, and gets all melodic behind them. At the two and a half minute mark, everything goes quiet, a rumbling bass and a delicate guitar providing the eye in the storm that inevitably returns with a vengeance.

How this trio stay so tight when there are so many time changes, I have no idea. I presume it's a heck of a lot of practice. Having Darling on guitars and bass means that they can't have played live in the studio, of course. I wonder how many takes they took to knock out Lotophagi. The layering of the multiple voices helped it too, because, while I enjoyed Rexco's voice, it's really difficult to vary a delivery like that and that approach was getting old, even by that point.

I got a real kick out of this, but twenty minutes is probably a good length, as I'm not sure how I'd react to twenty more of similar material. I have a good deal of praise for the variety they snuck into the first twenty but I don't believe that a further twenty would help coherence. As it stands, I'm liking the ways they're finding to subvert their black metal, but I'm ready for it to get old as soon as that supply of subversion runs out.

I'd like to hear a full length album now just to see if they can keep this style interesting for forty minutes plus.

Thursday 18 July 2019

人間椅子 - 新青年 (2019)

Country: Japan
Style: Heavy Progressive Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 5 Jun 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Yesterday, I discovered German cosmic prog rockers Dice, through their 21st studio album. Talk about late to the party! Well, I'm late again, because here's a Japanese band I'm discovering through, you guessed it, their 21st album. At least here I have an excuse, because unlike Loudness and Bow/Vow Wow, they don't seem to use the English language at all, presumably content with playing to a growing Japanese audience.

Their name (Ningen-Isu) translates to The Human Chair and is taken from the title of an Edogawa Rampo story from 1925, more recently reimagined into a manga by Junji Ito and also adapted into a 1997 movie. The album translates to New Youth, though I have no idea what it's aiming at. The band date back to 1987 and have only changed drummers in that time, the latest being Nobu Nakajima who joined in 2004. They're not new youth and they don't look like it (guitarist Shinji Wajima wears the attire of a literary master from the Meiji era, so late Victorian); bass player Kenichi Suzuki wears a Buddhist monk's robes and paints his head white; and drummer Nobu Nakajima dresses like a yakuza). Maybe the audience is the new youth.

It's hard to pigeonhole them, which is a good thing. They've been described as the Japanese Black Sabbath but I don't see a lot of that here. There's a very Tony Iommi riff halfway through the appropriately named 瀆神 (which I've seen translated as both God and Blasphemy), but that's about it. Maybe they used to be more doomladen in the past. The closest I heard to Sabbath otherwise was some bass work on 月のアペニン山 (Montes Apenninus) and, if we stretch through a level of abstraction, a riff or two on あなたの知らない世界 (or The World You Do Not Know) are reminiscent of Randy Rhoads from early Ozzy solo albums.

It starts out sounding pretty contemporary. Opening track 新青年まえがき (or Preface to New Youth) sounds like Rage Against the Machine should they try to be a classic metal band. 鏡地獄 (The Hell of Mirrors) slows down and adds a little bit of space rock. It's older school but with a modern feel, like an alternative band brought some Hawkwind into an alternative song. Then it's God/Blasphemy and the most common influence manifests itself, namely Judas Priest.

There's a lot of Priest on this album. 巌窟王 (The Count of Monte Cristo) has an acute Priest sound and so does 宇宙のディスクロージャー (or Disclosure by Universe). I have no idea what the subtle linguistic difference is between 地獄小僧 (Boy from Hell) and 地獄小僧 (Hell-Sent Child), but they're next to each other on the album and the latter is another Priest-infused track. The former, however, feels like it ought to be on the soundtrack of a Japanese biker movie. It growls with menace that may turn out not to be menace at all, just loud bikes.

いろはにほへと (or Even the Blossoming Flowers) shows up between the first two Priest-laden tracks and does something very different. It has that bouncy feel from the opener and underlines how Ningen-Isu are a power trio, because that's a very prominent bass from Kenichi Suzuki. It also has the only ethnic sounds that I caught anywhere on the album, with cymbals that sound quintessentially Japanese. The closest otherwise is some background woodblock sounds early in Montes Apenninus, but they could come from anywhere.

The other influence I found here ties to that power trio reference, because 暗夜行路 (A Dark Night's Passing) carries a real Budgie sound to it, just with a much lower voice from whichever band member handles vocal duties. He's not remotely trying to emulate Burke Shelley's voice even if the riffs could be leftovers from the first couple of Budgie albums. 無情のスキャット (well, Heartless Scat, says Google Translate), the eight minute epic final track, continues in a Budgie vein.

Clearly, after 21 albums, Ningen-Isu have developed their own sound, even if some of their influences are reasonably obvious. I enjoyed this album, which is mostly heavy and powerful. It speeds up at points but never becomes speed or thrash metal, just faster heavy metal. There's a progressive edge too that is most obvious on Montes Apenninus, a much quieter and introspective song that anything else on the album.

I've listened through this a few times now and it's starting to find some cohesion. Initially, it sounded more like a collection of decent tracks that Ningen-Isu might have recorded over the last decade but, over time, I found some commonality that tied it together. They just don't want to do only one thing and I'm hardly going to complain about that.

And, hey, I have twenty prior studio albums to explore if I can find them to see where how that sound developed.

Elder - The Gold & Silver Sessions (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Jul 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Wikipedia

I've been getting things done today and it was instantly relaxing to return to my office, throw on some new Elder and start to chill before sleep. This isn't what we normally expect from the band and deliberately so. The label Blues Funeral Recordings have set up a PostWax project to challenge bands to attempt things they wouldn't usually do on their regular albums. That means that Elder got quiet.

This is instrumental psychedelic rock that's engaging but easy to listen to, not the much louder and heavier stoner/doom metal with vocals that's filled four highly regarded studio albums from them thus far. The name comes from a side project of multi-instrumentalist main man Nick DiSalvo, Gold & Silver and the cover turns those into the sun and the moon, opposites but somehow symbiotes. It's a different angle to Elder but what's telling is that, even so, it's still an impressive release.

There are only three tracks here on what they're calling an EP but, at well over thirty minutes, this is longer than many albums that I've reviewed of late. All are instrumental attempts to find grooves and create soundscapes, though they vary a good deal. The shortest takes up a mere five and a half minutes and the longest runs way past eighteen. They each have a different sound.

The first track is called Illusory Motion and that's a really apt title. I felt emphatically comfortable sat in my chair writing while the music took me somewhere else entirely. Eight minutes in, it becomes lively, suggesting that there's danger wherever we've ended up but it's all going to be fine. Don't worry. This is the most psychedelic track here and it's definitely a trip, but it's an enjoyable one, wherever it took me.

Im Morgengrauen is smoother still, flowing like a river for over half its running time. It appropriately starts out with echoing synths, given that Morgengrauen is the dawn. It's surprising to find Elder sound like an exotic Barry White number, but the guitar refuses to play that sultry game. The band have always been as progressive as psychedelic and this is very much the former rather than the latter. Stoner fans may dig this, but it's not stoner rock, it's instrumental prog in a laid back Pink Floyd way. Maybe it gets a little busier for Floyd later on, but hey.

Weißensee, presumably named for the district in Berlin, is very Tangerine Dream. The core of it is repetitive but it has little touches here and there to keep it interesting and the track builds. Patience is a virtue! It evolves into something more like a Grateful Dead jam and then, around the sixteen minute mark, it kicks in with the church organ and then rocks out for a few minutes to the close. It's the perfect way to energise me and make me want to play the whole thing again.

I wonder how this will be received by Elder fans, of whom there are plenty nowadays after Lore put them emphatically on the map and Reflections of a Floating World made a lot of end of year lists and escalated their profile. The Gold & Silver Sessions is not what they usually do, but it's compatible with it and, in its quiet way, it's pretty inventive. I think it'll work just fine for the diehards and bring some more fans on board too. Good stuff is good stuff.

Wednesday 17 July 2019

Dice - Yes-2-5-Roger-Roger (2019)

Country: Germany
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 17 Jul 2019
Sites: Official Website | Prog Archives | Wikipedia

I've reviewed a lot of albums this year from well-established bands, names I know well, who just haven't recorded anything in forever. The first album in ten years, the first this millennium, the first since I was born... it seems like they're expanding the gap each time out. Well, I have to call Dice as close to the opposite of that as can be found. They're well-established, as they were founded as far back as 1974 and haven't lost a founder member yet, but that's about it.

I'd never heard of them before, which continues to underline just how much I don't know about German rock and metal, even though I've thought of myself as a fan for decades, not just Rammstein and the Scorpions but Warlock, Can, Destruction, Uli Jon Roth, Sieges Even, Tangerine Dream and many more. Well, I've been really schooled this year, having finally discovered bands as not new and not minor as Lucifer's Friend, Iron Savior, Oomph!, Illuminate and, now, Dice. They're certainly not new, having released an album every single year since 1997: twenty of them studio releases and three live.

They tend to be labelled as prog rock, which is fair, but there's a strong element of space rock here too, albeit not in the way old school Hawkwind fans might expect. Dice are more like Pink Floyd if Pink Floyd were aliens. Or, perhaps as the title of their 2004 album suggests, If the Beatles Were from Another Galaxy, but there's certainly a lot more Floyd here than the Fab Four.

This is like Floyd's Wish You Were Here, not quite so laid back but looser, less cynical and with stranger vocals, Christian Nóvé's accented and oddly disconnected English making him seem like a shaman from otherspace who's floating over a lake of liquid guitar chords waiting for us to locate his frequency. He also drifts in and out, because each of the five tracks proper here run over ten minutes and there's plenty of instrumental opportunity.

I was a little put off by the experimental intro and that ghostly voice on Alive in the Galaxy but, by the end of the track, I was hooked. I know that I need to throw this onto headphones in the wee hours of the morning as the music swirls around, drifting from speaker to speaker and back. If the goal is to make us feel like we're out there in the great beyond, seeing things, as Roy Batty would have it, that you people wouldn't believe, then they're certainly on the right lines.

It's patient stuff, the drums of Tommy Tomson adding texture to the tracks rather than setting a pace. The most overt instrument in play is the guitar of Peter Viertel, which spirals off wherever he wants it to go, even during times when Nóvé is singing. It feels like the other band members can choose to follow him or not, as if they're a rock band supporting a jazz guitarist who's firmly in charge. Arguably, it's Nóvé's band, because he provides the bass and keyboards in addition to the vocals, and writes and produces, but, listening dry, it's Viertel's show.

Some songs are jazzier than others too, Alive in the Galaxy playing more as space rock but Living Day to Day often reminiscent of a jazzy cross between Steely Dan and Jethro Tull, with very lively cymbals. Black Stars feels yet more psychedelic than its predecessors, not just because of the spaced out keyboards but because of a late sixties pop influence, even though it ends up in familiar territory soon enough. Cybersky carries an industrial sound to keep things even more interesting.

I liked this a lot but a little more as an experience than a musical album. Suggesting that an album feels longer than it is usually tends to mean that it drags. That's not the case here, even though this is a mere snip shorter than an hour but feels like it sucked me in for a week and dropped me back home mind expanded and body recovering. That's a good thing. It's an album well worth losing yourself inside.

Kilonova - Omnicide (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Jul 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter | YouTube

Oh, this takes me back. Kilonova are a new band, playing interesting thrash out of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. I've sunk a few pints there in my time, just not during the lifetimes of these band members, judging from their photo. They were formed as recently as 2017 and this is their debut EP, after a couple of singles, one of which is also present here.

I say interesting because the sound doesn't quite stay where I expected it to. Initially, kicking off with Descent / Straight to Hell, this is clearly old school thrash and not just because the EP sounds like it was produced in 1990. I heard a lot of stuff like this back then, whether live, on demos I'd picked up or in sessions on the Friday Rock Show. Kilonova would surely have competed in the Rock War, had they been together (and alive) back then and I think they'd have done well with Blood in the Water, their epic track here.

The most obvious diversion from old school thrash is the shouting voice of Ellen Hill. She looks like the sort of girl you could take home to see mum, albeit not in her stage attire, but she can scream and shout with the best of them and could easily land a job fronting a hardcore band. There's some early Exodus in her voice and it's pretty substantial, but she's able to seamlessly shift to other styles as needed.

The band don't always stay at high speed either, though they start out that way with Straight to Hell and Hang the Hangman, two blistering three minute tracks. It's the latter that slows down a little for the chorus to suggest an acute Toranaga influence. That's all the more overt on Own Enemy, which kicks off with a nice acoustic intro (and a very prominent bass underneath it from Joe Bambrick), finds a gloriously simple but effective riff which the band stubbornly and achingly refuses to speed up, and ends with some thoughtful intricacy.

Blood in the Water, at six and a half minutes, does some of the same but it mixes things up even more. Hill sings, shouts and screams; Bambrick gets another good prowling run; drummer Steve Rouse elevates proceedings with emphasis in the midsection and guitarist Jonny Sloan gets to show off in slow and fast parts. It's a very rounded song that ably showcases what this band can do.

The biggest problem this EP has is that, coming up on seventeen minutes, it only has one song left. Ivory Tower is another good one, with some ramped up sections, to bring us home truly energised. Kilonova tend to be described as thrash metal and they're certainly that but there's heavy and power metal in here too, across a variety of tracks, and they do all of it well.

I remember fondly a number of nothern bands from the late eighties whom I followed from their demos and saw live as often as I could: names like Metal Messiah, Catharsis, Darkened and others. None of them really made it big, an album and a Friday Rock Show session for the former being as close as they got, but they were always entertaining. I'd see Kilonova in the same bucket and, if I wasn't six thousand miles away now, I'd be checking the listings to see how far I need to travel to see them play next week. Bradford? Leeds? York?

Now, I can only hope that they outlast some of those bands and stay together long enough to put an album out! I'm looking forward to it because I want to see these guys develop.

Tuesday 16 July 2019

Razorblades Terror - Return of the Crown (2019)

Country: Indonesia
Style: Technical Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 2 Jul 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Twitter

I have a love/hate relationship with the brutal end of death metal, finding that a lot of it finds an interesting tone but does little more than drag it out for however many tracks are on any particular album or even a career. It might sound great on a first listen but it gets old really quickly for me, unlike melodic death metal which can change up from track to track if need be and add in all sorts of textures as it does so.

The closest I've got of late to brutal death metal that I really like is an Indonesian band by the name of Razorblades Terror, who play technical death metal. What that means is that they play with a brutal back end that's fast and downtuned but with a front end that's dominated by shredding guitarwork. The vocals are deep and growly, but are surprisingly versatile.

Most of this album is done at great speed. Fafa sets a relentless pace on the drums for Borky's bass to track. Whenever Tom pauses his growls, Dwy's fingers go dancing and we have frantic melody over frantic backing. On its own, that's pretty cool and I dig the sound.

But that isn't all that Razorblades Terror do and it's the rest that makes them special. For one thing, even though they're more brutal than melodic in tone, they construct their songs like melodeath bands. They introduce some variety on the opener, Binary of Gold, which follows a minute of blitzkrieg with a spoken word section and ends with a sort of choral crescendo that I presume is really done with keyboards.

Suckcial Media is what caught my attention. It's frantic, like most of this band's songs, but it gets much more varied than I expected. There are parts in the middle that transform into heavy power metal, with a slower approach, melodic riffing and more of that choral thing. And, as always, whatever goes on with the band, as fast and deep and brutal as they get, you can be sure that the guitarist is noodling along at high speed on his fretboard.

Dwy does this so much that there are points where he's still going as one song shuts down on him, so that he has to immediately carry on on the next one from where he left off. If there wasn't a pause between Suckcial Media and Racism Culture, I'd have thought they were the same song. This approach could easily have led to the album becoming one long repetitive track, but little touches of variety elevate the material.

The onslaught pauses in Racism Culture, for instance, for a lovely creeping bass run, something that happens in Death Prophercy too, among other points. Another is during a staccato section in Corps of Robot that highlights how capable each band member is, including whoever's handling the keyboards. If we doubted that there were keyboards, they get more obvious on Particle of Throne because there's clearly a piano in play and handled classically too. That returns for Death Prophercy and especially for Outro the Crown, which is an instrumental outro.

I enjoyed Return of the Crown a lot, finding that it energised me with its speed and brutality but kept my attention with its guitarwork and variety. It's probably important that Tom's voice didn't annoy me the way that a lot of brutal death metal vocalists do. He doesn't do anything new or ambitious, but he mixes things up a little by setting the tempo as effectively as the drummer.

The most obvious downside, for those who don't find this style repetitive, is the fact that the band's command of the English language, in which they sing, isn't particularly great. Of course, I have the same problem here in Phoenix, because most people can't conjure up coherent sentences any more, but I'm not sure what I'm supposed to make of song titles like Particle of Throne, Binary of Gold or Corps of Robot. What's a Saliva Dealer and what's Candle Philosophy? I'm not sure that these things mean what they think they mean.

It really doesn't matter much, because Tom's vocals are not designed to be particularly intelligible, so confusedly looking over the track listing is about as problematic as it gets. No, that's not how Death Prophercy should be spelled. The catch is that, when Tom does appear to get intelligible, it doesn't work. The chorus on Suckcial Media sounds very much like "Everyone is daughter". I presume it isn't.

But hey, if that's all I can raise as a negative here, you know this is an impressive album! It's well written, well produced and well performed and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.

Elusion - Singularity (2019)

Country: Belgium
Style: Symphonic Gothic Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 28 Jun 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website

I googled the best metal bands in Belgium and, while Elusion weren't on the first list that I found, Ancient Rites topped it and that's the former band of Domingo Smets, who founded Elusion in 2015 after well over a decade and three albums with them. Maybe once Elusion have recorded more, they might be on there too. This is their debut album, after an EP, Desert of Enticement, in 2016 and it's pretty decent.

Metal Archives tells me that they play symphonic gothic metal, which seems fair but there's a lot less gothic than there is symphonic. Evy Verbruggen has the clean operatic style that you might expect with a decent range and everything else is built around that, including the darker growls of bass player Kristof Degreef, which often seem to be intended as much to introduce or punctuate Verbruggen as to contrast her. He's far from a co-lead, showing up here and there only as needed.

Another aspect that shouldn't surprise is that Elusion are comfortable with longer length, conjuring up complex songs with layers to explore. Only four of the ten tracks here run shorter than five minutes and one of those is an instrumental outro. However, only one exceeds six minutes, Anamnesis, which lasts over eight and wraps up the album in suitably epic style.

I enjoyed the opener, Choices and Chances, but it was the next two that sold me on the album.

The Strive is the obvious single, with its bouncy riffs, a catchy lead vocal and a heavy midsection with Degreef's most prominent vocal contribution. It starts out cinematic, with swordfights and ominous humming, but ends with a round. It's adventurous and ambitious but still accessible. The band clearly like it too because there's also a remix version here that translates it to electronic darkwave.

The Tales That Trees Tell is less accessible but just as enjoyable. Degreef is a tease on this one, serving to set up Verbruggen nicely. The guitars of Smets and someone I believe is called Stijn, stalk behind them, as if to let us know to pay attention to the background. Especially towards the end, we hear hints of flutes dancing just out of sight, as if they're hiding behind the trees of the title. Both these songs feel visual and that's not uncommon on this album.

If the rest of the album isn't as good, that's just by comparison. I enjoyed each of the tracks in different ways, not least because they kept on adding new sounds. There are Egyptian drums on Reconciliation of Opposites, there's a harp on In Eternity and there's brass on Crystal Doubts.

Lovelorn has a waltzing midsection to get our feet moving and interesting clean gothic vocals that came out of nowhere but felt very much at home. We get a clean duet too and that harp to emphasise the visuals. Maybe this is the gothic aspect; I'm seeing grand balls in grand ballrooms, even if I'm not seeing vampires in the middle of the dance. In Eternity brings the harp to the fore and adds a spoken word section over strings. Again, it's gothic in the sense that it conjures up period visuals rather than that it sounds like a song a goth might like.

Reconciliation of Opposites is appropriately titled because it gets heavier again but leaves Verbruggen soaring sweetly above everything else. I'm much more fond of heavier Elusion than lighter, I like the rhythm section, which chugs along well, and I like it when Verbruggen really stretches her vocal chords, as she does most obviously on My War Within.

I liked this on a first listen but the middle of the album didn't seem to hold up to the bookends: the great two tracks at the beginning and the epic Anamnesis at the end. A second listen elevated them because there's depth in them to explore, but the standouts remain the same.

Monday 15 July 2019

Omen - Halálfogytiglan (2019)

Country: Hungary
Style: Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Jul 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | YouTube

Omen's The Curse was one of those albums that was everywhere in the eighties but my first surprise here was that this Omen isn't that Omen. Maybe the title of this album should have given me a hint but I'd forgotten that the other Omen were from Los Angeles. This particular Omen, who also play power metal, are from Budapest. They've been around since 1990 and they've been busy too, as I'm seeing eleven studio albums to their name, plus a live and a best of.

I dug this immediately, though I was a little worried at how Most kezdödik, appropriately the opening track given that the title apparently translates to It's Starting Now, was reminiscent of Symphony of Destruction. It's not unfair to think of Megadeth here, as Omen are certainly the heaviest power metal band I've heard in a long time. They're always upbeat but never lose their crushing heaviness even when they speed up, which they don't do as often as I might have expected, given that they're often tagged with speed and thrash too.

They're at their best, I think, when they're chugging along because they're so damn tight and the production does a fantastic job of highlighting that. It may be partly because the longest standing members include Zoltán Nagyfi, the band's patient but powerful drummer. He's been with Omen since 1990 and so has guitarist László Nagyfi, who I presume is related. I was expecting a long standing bassist, but József Mezöfi didn't join until 2017.

If the band is rock steady in the rhythm department, rumbling along like a neverending earthquake, they're also elevated by the vocals of Péter Molnár, which are tough but clean. He resists any urge to descend into growls but he has a powerful guttural voice nonetheless. He's the new fish, having become the band's fifth vocalist only this year, but I'd have guessed that he had years with the band. I'd be surprised if those other four singers matched the band's style so well; three of them had multiple albums to do so and two had a full decade. I'll have to listen backwards to see.

Oddly, and unlike that other Omen, this band don't really sound like anyone that I can conjure up in comparison. I do hear elements of other bands: the patient power of a Metal Church, the melodic chugging of a Megadeth and the riffs and solos of an Accept, but the complete songs rarely sound like any of those bands. The closest is the title track, which is very reminiscent of Metal Church's style. It's done very well too, but I guess they have enough years and albums behind them to be able to sound like themselves.

Like the Black Pistol album I reviewed this morning, this is very consistent stuff and choosing favourite tracks really comes down to favourite riffs as much as anything. I'd call out Lehunyt szemmel, or With Eyes Closed, as one highlight, except that it gets smoked by the next song, Egy jobb pokol, or A Better Hell, with an effortless riff worthy of Accept and a grungy chorus. I like its solo too, though it ends too quickly; the twin guitars are courtesy of László Nagyfi and Matt Nagy. They deserve more attention.

And so do Omen. I've listened through this album a few times and it's still as heavy as ever, even when finding memorable melodies for voice and guitar like Az lesz, ami volt, or It Will Be What It Was. I have no understanding of Hungarian but I was trying to sing along with this one on my first time. Trying and failing, of course, but it really made me want to try and that's what counts!

I think I need to come back to this in a week or two and see if it holds up. I may need to up my rating.

Black Pistol - Sins of the Father (2019)

Country: South Africa
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Jul 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | YouTube

Not to be confused with Canadian rockers Black Pistol Fire, Black Pistol are a South African hard rock band with a stoner edge, because of the slightly fuzzy guitarwork of Roan Mustang. That contribution edges them more towards a Wolfmother comparison than an Airbourne one, those being the couple most obvious modern bands to raise. I've read that they have the usual sort of classic influences too but I'm hearing them a lot less.

They've been around since 2014 and this is their debut album, after a self-titled EP back in 2017. While they sound tight and natural together, there have been line-up changes. Apparently Stiaan Bruwer is a recent addition on vocals, as is a gentleman called Daniel on drums (the band's Facebook page credits him as Nicolas Cage, so I have no idea what his surname really is). The other band member is Jacques le Roux, who with Mustang, has been there for a lot longer, perhaps throughout.

While I'll freely admit that it was the fantastic cover art that grabbed my attention first, the music wasn't far behind. This is a deep album worthy of exploration but it's also an immediate one, with an enticing opening track, Nowhere to Run beginning with a brief drum solo, heavy bass and then bouncy vocals combined with bouncy riffs. The only oddity is that the bridge sounds bizarrely reminiscent of classic Magnum, who would not otherwise be raised in this review. It's very much Bob Catley phrasing.

For all the contemporary comparisons that can be conjured up, Nowhere to Run is an old school track with everything it needs and little more too for good measure. It's lively and very much to the point. The vocals are playful and melodic but with power to them that escalates as the song runs on. The riffs are strong and lead into an appropriately wailing solo given the song title. The rhythm section is solid but manages to find its way into the spotlight at points. And the whole thing is only just over four minutes in length.

What's more, the band take that as a template and promptly knock out another bunch of songs that check off most of the same criteria. Differences do show up though. Call to Arms finds points to quieten down, presumably to allow the audience to join in when they play it live. Devil in Disguise is slower and has a neatly heavy midsection that elevates it. If that hints at Black Sabbath, then Down the Hatch underlines that connection, though Bruwer has little in common with any of Sabbath's many singers.

Hilariously, Heaven & Hell is up next, though it's not that one! It's a top notch song too but it's not the epic that its name and six minute running time might suggest. That job falls to the title track which is probably the best song on the album. It has the best riffs and a fantastic melody too. I preferred the first half to the second but Evil is a late highlight, kind of like a Danzig song during the verses and a Danzig song on speed during the chorus. Preacher wraps things up with extra fuzz and a punky edge.

I dug this album a lot. Beyond simply sounding good, it has an urgency to it that bestows energy onto the listener. Black Pistol really ought to generate some action live. Most of it also gets better on repeat listens, though the opposite holds true for me on a couple of songs on the second half. They're consistent though, so that may well be a personal thing and you might adore them more than anything else here.

Consistency is never a bad thing and I'd very much like to see if that will hold true for a second album.