Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Jesus the Snake - Black Acid, Pink Rain (2019)



Country: Portugal
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 11 Jul 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Youtube

As if to emphasise the impression that nobody in Portugal seems interested in making any sort of music except instrumental psychedelic rock, here's a nice example (another nice example!) of that genre, this time from Braga, not too far from the northern border with Galicia. While it does heat up at appropriate points, much of it is laid back and the obvious comparison has to be Pink Floyd, even if the second and third tracks weren't called Floyds I and Floyds II as a giveaway.

This isn't the nine parts of Shine On You Crazy Diamond, extended to almost fifty minutes and with no vocals at all, but you wouldn't be too far wrong if you imagine that. Certainly the eighteen minutes of Floyds I and II tend to explore that sort of tone, but the style doesn't stay there and the fine keyboard work of Gonçalo Palmas doesn't fit that sort of song. This is both rockier and jazzier, those keyboards often being in that heavy organ style of the early seventies.

For a while in Floyds I, though, I was waiting for the moment when I could start singing, "Remember when you were young". It kept almost arriving but it never quite did, before the song started to explore other destinations. About four minutes in, it livens up and Crazy Diamond could never have had that, given its subject. As much as I like everyone here, I really enjoyed those keyboards, which add an extra dimension to the song.

Floyds II is my favourite here, though it's also the most familiar. It finds a groove almost immediately that emulates that of the cover of Bob Dylan's Going Going Gone which Bill Frisell, Robin Holcomb and Wayne Horvitz played on the Rubáiyát album to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Elektra Records. Find it. Trust me.

Beyond being reminiscent of one of the most exquisitely beautiful songs ever recorded, it's somehow deliciously laid back and subtly progressive at the same time. There are points that remind of King Crimson: chords and changes, as well as the windchimes that are such a tasty touch four minutes in. This one livens up too, an important thing here because each of the five songs on this album last around ten minutes and they need that breathing room.

Duna follows on well. Again, there's that laid back jazz influence but this one has a dalliance with lounge music, as filtered through progressive rock. It's like Focus landed a residence in Las Vegas. Black Acid, Pink Rain gets a lot heavier but it never sheds that mindset. The delightful drums of João Costa kick it off like that Focus residency in Vegas turned out to be in a tiki room and they had to add exotica into the mix. Those keyboards are an emphatic driving force here, but I often got caught up in the roaming bass of Rui Silva.

For those of you paying close attention, I haven't mentioned the guitar yet. Most psychedelic rock albums nowadays are driven by their guitar, often an overtly fuzzy lead. Jorge Lopes does a great job here, but that's not what he's playing. While he's happy to solo away whenever needed, he's a subtle and unselfish guitarist and this album benefits as much from what he doesn't play as what he does.

If that sounds oddly contrary, that's this album through and through. It's a beautiful record worthy of solid exploration, but it's also an album that is easily lost. It can drift away from us, not because it's unworthy background music but because it's worthy background music for a weird trip, especially once those keyboards really start pushing on the title track. I think it's best heard in the wee hours of the morning on a pair of good headphones. I'm planning to try that tonight.

Cabrakaän - Cem Anahuac My Home (2019)



Country: Canada
Style: Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 Aug 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter | YouTube

My previous pair of reviews were of melodic death metal and symphonic metal. In some ways, this Mexican album from Canada is a surprising combination of the two. The band were founded in Toluca, just west of Mexico City, back in 2012 but they're based nowadays in Calgary, Alberta, an odd choice given how overtly Mexican they are. Apparently, they played the Metalocalypstick Festival in Lone Butte, BC in 2017 and loved the place so much they moved north. By the way, I love that festival name!

Cabrakaän sing about Mesoamerican myth and folklore, include instrumentation from pre-Hispanic times and use imagery from that era as well. Just look at the hummingbird on the album cover. The Mayans saw the hummingbird as the animal that transported wishes and thoughts, the Aztecs saw it as immortal and the Zapotecs put it in charge of drinking sacrificial blood. I believe the band are referencing it as the Aztec god of war and protector of all warriors. A song on the album, Huitzilin, is the Náhuatl name of this god.

I've seen the band described in a number of ways, but folk metal is the one that rings truest, because there are a lot of sounds here and some songs are quite clearly based on folk melodies. I don't know if the melody on La Bruja is a traditional one or a new one written by the band, but it sounds like it could be hundreds of years old. There are a few languages used here, English and Spanish being but two. Cem Anahuac in the album's title is Náhuatl for "land surrounded by water" and it's what the Aztecs named their land in pre-Hispanic times.

Songs like the title track start out folk metal, but they evolve. The vocals are generally clean, courtesy of versatile lead singer Pat Cuikäni, but they are often accompanied by harsh vocals from drummer Marko Cipäktli, often but not always in sections where the guitars ramp up to a death metal level. It has to be said that, even when they do, they're lower in the mix than either the keyboards or a variety of instruments that wouldn't be usually expected to sit above the guitars, like maracas.

The symphonic side comes from Cuikäni being so versatile. She's generally in a pretty standard rock mode, but she shifts whenever the song needs it. On a song like Burning Flame, her vocal is the traditional part, sounding like an early eighties heavy metal singer, at least until the end. On La Bruja, she moves to folk mode, as if she's a travelling minstrel. On Huitzilin, she's a symphonic metal singer and, on the title track, a few sections see her shift into outright operatic style.

Cuikäni is the most obvious reason to pick this up, but it's worth listening to for other reasons, especially the variety, which is often on display even within individual songs. I'm not sure what instruments I'm listening to as The Eagle and the Snake begins, but it's very western. It's very cinematic too and I could almost follow the journey south, as if it started in desert territory and ended up in the mountains. A lot of this is cinematic and it's fair to say that I saw almost as much of this album as I heard.

I'm fascinated to discover just what the Canadians way up there in the frozen wastes of the north are making of their local Mexican transplants. As far as I can tell, they're having a blast up there and finding new fans at each new gig. I'd call myself a fan too, though more of the folkier material than the more traditional songs. Calm in My Storm is done as well as La Bruja, but it would be the latter for me every time.

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Astralium - Land of Eternal Dreams (2019)



Country: Italy
Style: Symphonic Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 23 Aug 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter

I've listened to Astralium's debut album a couple of times now and it hasn't thrilled me, even though it sounds like it ought to.

For a start, it's clearly capable stuff made by a set of musicians who just as clearly know exactly what they're doing and that's insanely important for a symphonic metal album. It's ambitious stuff, with each song trying to do a lot of different things. It's never boring, even at a touch over an hour, an especially long time for a debut. The songs are admirably varied, within the boundaries of the band's chosen style.

And lead vocalist Roberta Pappalardo has a truly glorious voice. She stood out for me even in a genre that's frankly full of truly glorious voices. Is she another Floor Jansen? Maybe not, but it's not unfair to ask the question and that's a serious compliment all on its own.

But... I don't love this. I love a few tracks on it, three of them in a row in fact, but overall it falls short and it took that second listen to figure out quite why: it's so close to textbook that it becomes generic. I wouldn't call anything here filler, but a bunch of songs that initially sound wildly impressive, start to falter as we pay closer attention.

For instance, there isn't a single component part of Hope is Gone that I can call out as wrong. There's nothing wrong with it at all. However, if someone took the entire combined outputs of Nightwish, Epica and After Forever, then poured it all into a clever database and had an accomplished AI generate an original song in that style, this is exactly what it would create. I enjoyed it while it was playing, but I forgot it the moment it ended.

Fortunately, not everything falls into that bucket and I should explore the three in a row I mentioned earlier.

Rising Waves from the Ocean is a gem of a song. It's catchy from moment one and gets catchier. This is how to write a symphonic metal chorus! The vocal performance is spectacular; Roberta has that rare ability to be powerful one moment and teasing the next. She challenges and soars and whispers and does whatever else the song needs, depending on the moment. She's on grand form here, but the band don't lag behind her. This isn't merely a singer's song, because it's also about the riffs and the drums and the orchestration.

My Life is My Eternity starts out the same way, teasing with guitar, soaring with orchestration and then finding power and emphasis. Roberta shifts from sultry to powerful on the turn of a dime. There's a great guitar part in the middle and the choral section is strong. It's not Rising Waves but it's good nonetheless. Whisper in the Silence is the one song that might match it here with its fast begining and memorable drumming. Salvo Grasso is fine playing slowly, but he seems to relish the up tempo stuff. And Roberta reaches some fantastic notes, while Emanuele Alessandro gets a strong solo.

So, three great tracks. The problem is that rest of the album consistently fails to match them, even though it tries for longer than most albums run. I think the male singer epitomises their problem in a microcosm. He's capable and he does exactly what he should, but that's his biggest problem. He has no individuality, so he becomes just like every other capable male voice in a symphonic metal band. And Astralium sadly follow suit.

If the whole album, all sixty plus minutes of it, was up to Whisper in the Silence and Rising Waves from the Ocean, this would be a gimme at 9/10. I'm almost disappointed that I have to only give it a 7/10. It's decent but I'm unable to get past the feeling that it should be much more.

Cyanide Paradise - Reach for the Stars (2019)



Country: The Netherlands
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 8 Jul 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | YouTube

Ironically, while I was listening to the female led melodic death metal band Frantic Amber at the end of last week, Linn Liv from the female led melodic death metal band Cyanide Paradise reached out with their debut EP, which I'm very happy to review too.

Linn is the singer for the band and, like Elizabeth Andrews of Frantic Amber (and insert your female melodic death metal singer of choice here), she has that recognisable something that I'm still trying to figure out is common to all female death growlers. Maybe it's a slightly higher pitch, even though it's still guttural. Anyway, she sounds good. The whole band sound good and its not difficult to like this EP.

Everyone does a solid job. The vocals contain a lot of energy and attitude. The guitar finds that balance between melody and power. The bass backs them up well. And the drums do everything they need to, even though there isn't a drummer. Since this EP was recorded, the band have added a second guitarist but I believe that they're still looking for someone to fill the seat behind the drumkit.

It should be too surprising that everyone does a solid job, because this is far from your average new band. Sure, they were formed this year, by Martin Vos and Jeff Wennekes, who play guitar and bass respectively, but they both previously did the same job for symphonic metal band Desolace Divine with the very same Linn Liv on vocals. They continued on after a rename to Veil of Delusions, with a different singer, and put out a full length album in 2016. Liv wasn't in the latter band but she does also sing for symphonic death metal band Pictura Poesis, alongside Wennekes on bass. They have two albums out, though I don't believe that Wennekes was with them at that time.

So, while Cyanide Paradise may be new, its band members know each other well and it's no surprise that they sound like they've been playing together for years. In many ways, they have and I'm sure that the point of this EP is to introduce the world to these old colleagues in a new project. If that wasn't the point, then this runs short at under twenty minutes, even if it is an EP.

Being short, I've been able to listen to this in entirety a lot of times and I've done that because I wanted to see if each of the songs would find their individuality over repeated listens. It's a very consistent album, which can be both a good and a bad thing. Here it's both. The consistency tells me how reliable the band are, but also that there's not as much variety as I'd like to hear.

There is some, but it's mostly variety that we have to find for ourselves. I think of Subatomic as the opening baseline for the band: a solid, dependable slab of melodeath. Enlightenment does more of the same, but it adds a worthy spoken section, still done by Liv in her harsh voice, but showing that she's able to show nuance with her voice better when she speaks guttural than when she sings it. Pestilence has a guitar that's more dynamic, almost cinematic; there's also a cool section with what sound like synth bells.

Best of all is the title track, because what I can only call a keyboard aura behind the regular instruments elevates what is already the best song on the album even further. I wonder if this was the last track written, because it feels deeper and more memorable. If this is the direction forward, I'd like to hear the band's debut album, especially if it's recorded as a solid five piece. Thanks for sharing, Linn, and best of luck to Cyanide Paradise!

Monday, 26 August 2019

Sacred Reich - Awakening (2019)



Country: USA
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 23 Aug 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Wikipedia

I wasn't living in Phoenix three decades ago when it was the next big thrash scene about to explode. I was six thousand miles away but I was listening to a lot of the bands that were tearing it up in what I probably thought at the time was just an endless desert. The name that most people remember today is probably Flotsam and Jetsam, especially after Jason Newsted elevated their name when he left to join Metallica, but they were far from alone. I bought Sacred Reich albums too and those of Atrophy, who were just down the road in Tucson.

If Flotsam and Jetsam were the most famous Arizona thrash band, I hear that Sacred Reich had the biggest and wildest mosh pits. I hope that's still the case 23 years after their previous album. And yeah, only 23 years. I bought Ignorance and the Surf Nicaragua EP back in the day but I don't think that I knew that they had knocked out a few albums in the nineties, before taking a break. I guess I wasn't paying attention, though I also see that they weren't entirely well received. It was a tough time.

They only went away for a little while, from 2000 to 2006, but they've only got round to a new album now, one that feels strong and punchy, as if they were just itching to make it. They've had a pretty consistent line-up over the years, though I do see one key recent change, namely that Jason Rainey, the only founding member to last until their debut album in 1987, has been on rhythm all the way through, but he left this year, to be replaced by Joey Radziwill. That seems like an important break. I wonder if it had anything to do with this album.

All the others who took part in the band's heyday in the late eighties were the second people in place. Phil Rind, the songwriter, vocalist and bassist, joined in 1985, replacing both Dan Kelly and Mike Andre. The lead guitarist, Wiley Arnett, showed up a year later to replace Jeff Martinek. After a year of Ray Nay on drums, Greg Hall took over and stayed for most of the band's life thus far. It's Dave McClain here, though, who took over from Hall for half of the nineties and did so again last year.

But what about the music? Well, the title track, which kicks things off, is a heavy, mid-paced song with a real punch. I don't remember Rind's voice as being this clear or this strong. He's quite obviously on top form here and the production aids him, as it does McClain's drumkit, which is relentless. Divide & Conquer is faster. It doesn't care about doing anything fancy; it just drops its head and blisters.

If Rind deserved the first overt compliment, the back end gets there too. It continues to deliver, song after song, so amazingly tight. That chugging at the outset of Manifest Reality is dream material for me. Then it kicks into high gear with Arnett's buzzsaw of a lead and I'm in heaven. Revolution's close as well. This is quintessential old school thrash, textbook stuff. Killing Machine also features the socially aware material we expect from Rind, anti-war material telling the stories of a succession of bright new soldiers, all of them inevitably "bodies for the killing machine". This album is far too long a time in coming but it delivers.

And there's variety here too. Death Valley is wildly different: alternative and even southern. Something to Believe starts out like a Judas Priest song but gets alternative in a very different way, almost like Priest covering a Creed song, if that remotely makes sense, with a notably heartfelt delivery from Rind and strong work on the bass too.

The flaw isn't in the music but in the fact that this is just a breath over half an hour in length and it feels short at only eight songs. Sure, this is authentic for the era it ably resurrects but I can't but feel greedy for the first album Sacred Reich have done in 23 years. I want more! Please, folks, let's see another album in 2020 or maybe 2021. We're glad you're back, even if you never really went away.

Eighteenth Hour - Eighteenth Hour (2019)



Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 23 Aug 2019
Sites: Facebook | Official Website

I have a very deliberate focus here on rock and metal from around the world, but that doesn't mean that there aren't great bands coming out of the US as well. Eighteenth Hour are an energetic hard rock band from Bethlehem, PA who have been winning all sorts of local band awards. This is their debut album after a decade supporting bands like Bon Jovi, Skid Row, Greate White, even blues singer Shemeika Copeland.

There are certainly classic rock influences here. You don't need to wait for the slide on Unnoticed to realise that a lot of it comes from southern rock. I kept hearing moments of Rory Gallagher too but his vocals rather than his far more famous guitar. It's in the phrasing of singer Geoff Houser, who has a rock voice but one clearly sourced from the blues. Of course, there are a few songs where he sounds a lot more like Jon Bon Jovi, like Unnoticed.

However, this sounds a lot more contemporary to me, even if I'm not up on a lot of the new bands to tell you who they might sound like, if anybody. I'm hearing an alternative edge but not so strong as to push this away from the hard rock core of their sound. There's even a little prog at points, like a neat riff on Should've Been Gone, after a few bars of an intro that sounds a lot like the Scorpions.

I don't know quite how long it's been since Eighteenth Hour was founded but it's been a while and I'm sure they've racked up a lot of songs in that time from which to compile this debut album. It doesn't feel rushed. They clearly have enough material to populate this with strong songs and probably have a bunch left over for the follow-up.

And I'd suggest that the songs are what they're all about. There are a few solid solos here, courtesy of Houser and David Zullo, not least on Takes Me Back, perhaps my favourite song (though the consistency is strong enough to mean I have a new favourite each time through). They're backed up by a solid rhythm section of Jim Touchton and Tom Chaffier who keep things tight. Just listen to Should've Been Gone to hear them do that even though Jim's bass is doing something completely different to Tom's drums. At the end of the day, though, none of them are showing off here. They're each just playing their parts to make the songs work.

And they all do. Few of these scream to be, well, singled out for a single release, but every one of them could be a viable single. They're all catchy without being flashy, which means that they grow. Hear one on the radio and you might let it pass unacknowledged but it might also take root inside your head and, next time it comes on, you'll be paying attention to it. The more you listen, the better it gets. And that goes for all ten tracks, none of which are clones of any of the others.

Maybe the most accessible are the ones that pause the music at key points so that the vocals can get a little emphasis. They do this on the first couple of tracks and they do it very well. The album gets deeper from there. I wish I could give you an elevator pitch for this band, but I can still recommend them highly. I dug this a lot. It sounded good on a first listen and then it dug into my skin.

Friday, 23 August 2019

Frantic Amber - Bellatrix (2019)



Country: Sweden
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 23 Aug 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | VK | YouTube

As I've mentioned here before, melodeath is the easiest genre to get lost in the crowd because it's easy to sound like everyone else. I treasure melodic death that stands out and that leads me to Frantic Amber, a Swedish band on their second album. I've enjoyed the pair of singles that preceded it and I was eager to check out the album once released.

They're another female led melodic death band, which I tend to enjoy. I've found that, once I got used to the idea of harsh female vocals almost two decades ago now, I started to recognise them when I heard them. There's an interesting component that I'm not sure I can describe. I wouldn't call it softness, but it's something that adds a melodic nature to the vocals to go above the melodic nature of the band behind them. Frankly, I prefer it now. Elizabeth Andrews is very good at what she does which makes her a welcome addition to the ranks of female led melodic death bands.

In fact, this band is eighty per cent female, I believe, but you can't tell that by listening to it! I like the sound too, because the vocals and drums don't overpower everything else and I can actually hear Madeleine Gullberg Husberg's bass. It's especially obvious in the midsection of Lagertha, but it's there throughout.

This is a concept album, very much like something Sabaton might do if they were women. Each of the eight tracks proper here are about warriors of note who just happened to be women. As Frantic Amber are very good at flavouring their songs with appropriate samples and ethnic instrumentation, we realise that these warriors are from all over the globe. This means that there are flutes on Lagertha; woodblocks on Joshitai; Jews harps, eastern strings and Mongol chants on Khutulun; and a host of other varied flavours that elevate the album.

As with the Sabaton album about the First World War, I highly recommend that you treat these songs as rabbit holes to discover some amazing stories. Just start with Lyudmila Pavlichenko, the Soviet sniper focus of The Ghost That Kills, and you won't be able to stop. She was known as Lady Death or simply "the Russian bitch from Hell", because she finished the Second World War at 309 confirmed kills of Nazi soldiers, which is insanely high, even before a pondering on how many more were unconfirmed.

This is melodic death rather than power metal, so it can't hold a candle to Sabaton on catchy choruses and earworm hooks, but this is a deeper, far more varied and more interesting album that outstrips Sabaton on textures. And I have to add that it's certainly not without solid riffs and hooks, whatever instrument they happen to be played on.

It's another of those albums that I was going to rate 7/10 until I realised just how many tracks I'd noted down as highlights. I enjoyed Lagertha a lot, Joshitai even more. The Ghost That Kills was my favourite until the pirate yarn Crimson Seas took over. That has everything: strong riffs, solid hooks and some great vocal phrasing, not to forget swords clashing in time behind the music. And The Black Knight wraps things up in style at a longer length, almost seven and a half minutes.

Given that there are only eight tracks proper (there's a short instrumental intro too), four of them are real highlights and the other four are hardly slackers, this clearly deserves an 8/10. Word on the street is that this is a step up from its predecessor, 2015's Burning Insight, but I'm now eager to check that out to see for myself.

Изморозь - Культ (2019)



Country: Russia
Style: Pagan Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 19 Apr 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | VK

Here's one I missed earlier in the year. I've finally got round to finding a phone so I can sign up for the Russian social media network called VK. In a community dedicated to the Russian folk metal outfit Стожар, whose album, Холодом Битв В Объятья Зимы, I enjoyed back in June, I saw a Best of 2019 poll. Ten bands had albums listed and Стожар made it to second with 13% of the vote. Way out in front, though, with a whopping 62% of the vote were a band named Изморозь with this album.

I don't read Cyrillic, so I'm relying on Google Translate to help me out. I believe the band's name is Hoarfrost, they hail from Moscow where they began life as a side project of folk metal band Ashen Light and this, their ninth album, is called Cult. I just had to track it down and see whether Изморозь have a heck of a lot of friends willing to vote in the social media polls or whether this is really that great an album.

Well, I have to say that I enjoyed Стожар more, but I enjoyed this too and it's continuing to grow on me. In many ways Изморозь could be seen as a dark side to Стожар. Instead of light and lively keyboards and clean and melodic female vocals, they play their folk metal with a black metal influence and a subversive nature.

It's often catchy stuff that's hardly serious in nature, as we discover on the two minute blitz of an opening song. I don't read Cyrillic so Медведь, балалайка, водка! means nothing to me, but the chorus makes it clear that the final two words are "balalaika" and "vodka", which need no translation; the first turns out to be "bear". Listening to this song alone, I knew that I had to share it with my son, who's a Trollfest fan.

Even when the songs aren't that wild, they're short and punchy. The longest falls short of the five minute mark and a couple are under three. What sells the dark side for me are the vocals, which are delivered if by a lascivious bearded dwarf with plenty of mead in him, even though I see from photos that precisely none of those attributes are the case. I'd like Trollfest if they had different vocals; I like Изморозь in large part because of them.

I don't know if these memorable lead vocals are provided by Belf or Kiv, as there are two vocalists here; the former also handles the bass and keyboards while the latter plays the guitars. Behind them on drums is Gumanoid. All three are highly experienced, having played in long lists of bands and on many albums and that experience shows here.

While much of this is a heady mix of fast drums and folk melodies delivered by prominent keyboards presumably masquerading as a variety of instruments, with those lascivious vocals emphasising them, there's actually quite a lot going on here. Злой князь (The Evil Princ) begins like Rammstein as a folk metal band. Берега храбрых (The Shores of the Brave) has a Celtic mediaeval feel to it. Лавка смерти (Death Bench) features a lot of variation in speed and plenty of what sound like flutes and other ethnic instruments. It kicks off like speed metal with bagpipes and I'm all for that!

And there are bizarre moments that I can't imagine are deliberate but, hey, may just be. Most come courtesy of the keyboards. I couldn't help but hear the Inspector Gadget theme on Злой князь, even if it isn't a likely source. I also my favourite game soundtrack on the opener and I'd be truly shocked if this bunch of Muscovite black/ folk metalheads grew up playing Fuzzy's World of Miniature Space Golf too.

I liked this on a first listen and I like it more with each further time through It's Изморозь's ninth album and there are EPs in their discography too. I'll be exploring those for sure.

Thursday, 22 August 2019

King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard - Infest the Rats' Nest (2019)



Country: Australia
Style: Stoner Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 16 Aug 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

I've heard a few albums from King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, having found them during the publicity boom for Polygondwanaland's ever-looping nature, and I've enjoyed them. I know they're no one trick pony but what I've found thus far has been pretty consistently psychedelic rock and this is clearly not that. There's psych here but this is a metal album.

Buzz suggested that it was going to be a thrash album, which made it a must for me, but it really isn't, even if there are some overt thrash touches. I heard a lot of Motörhead here, especially in the double bass drumming and in the guitar approach on songs like Mars for the Rich that emulates No Class. Even on faster numbers such as Planet B, they're as unlike a thrash band as they are the King Gizzard we know from earlier albums.

This is much heavier stuff than usual but the psych is still there and it's done in an notably alternative way. I heard plenty of Voivod too (not only in the use of science fiction) and heavier British punk like Discharge. I'm sure there are comparisons to make to nineties American metal as well that I'm unable to provide, as I didn't pay that much attention back then. A few tracks, especially Venusian 2, sound rather more like a Hawkwind album meant for 33rpm but played at 45rpm.

Stu Mackenzie, vocalist and guitarist, has said that his influences for the album came from the usual suspects of American and German thrash: Metallica, Slayer, Exodus and Overkill for the American side and Sodom and Kreator for the German. He also added Rammstein in there for good measure too. I have to say that I'm hearing very little of this, except in some odd phrasing here and there, the one exception being Self-Immolate, which has a slower Slayer vibe, including some frantic drumming from Michael Cavanagh to kick it off.

Maybe there's a little Sodom, as there's an overt punky edge to this metal. The guitars are fuzzy and often laden with feedback. The vocals are raw. I'd lean more towards Motörhead, the Plasmatics and some of the heavier stoner metal bands. In fact, some of it, such as Superbug, plays far too slow and monotonous for my tastes, taking the hypnotic tone of some psychedelic rock and applying it to a sort of Swans-esque drone mentality. I'm certainly not used to thrash albums being played too slowly, just as I'm not used to any thrash bands using feedback as a weapon like this.

The album's a creature of two sides, the first dealing with topical concerns about the environment and the second exploring Venus with rebels forced into leaving the Earth. Both angles seem angry and reactionary, which works for a angry and reactionary style like this. While there's plenty of punk in the sound here, it's punk in attitude and delivery too.

And that makes all for a surprisingly interesting approach for a band most of us know for psychedelic rock workouts. All power to King Gizzard for an interesting diversion into a new sound, but I have no doubt that, when I'm in the mood for them, I'll be pulling Polygondwanaland back out instead.

Origens - Destino (2019)



Country: Brazil
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 30 Jun 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Prog Archives

While South America seems to be particularly full of excellent psychedelic rock bands nowadays, there's plenty of quality prog rock down there too and Origens, from Maceió in Brazil are another great example. They were formed back in 2015 and this is their third album.

If I'm understanding correctly, the band is Alessandro 'Aru' Mendonça, who wrote all but the two minute opener; produced the album; contributed bass throughout; sang on two thirds of the songs; played acoustic guitar on five of them and plugged in for a sixth; and even added synths on one track and tambourine on another. I'm sure he probably switched out the lights too.

That's not to say that he's along here, as there are an amazing twenty-two other musicians involved, though I don't think any play on more than three tracks. What it means is that Aru is the driving force behind Destino and is surely who we should praise first, because this is versatile stuff, going to all sorts of different places and raising all sorts of different comparisons.

The most obvious is Pink Floyd, as there's a lot of that here. The opening track could have been on Ummagumma, while the closing one is more Dark Side of the Moon, but Aru has clearly listened to a lot of Floyd in his time and it's seeped into his bones. However, he's also listened to a heck of a lot of other music too, as evidenced by how some of these songs progress.

Saia de Si para Lá, for instance, clocks in at almost ten minutes and covers so much ground that I wondered if it translated from the Portuguese as The History of Rock Music Thus Far*. It starts out akin to Vangelis, hinting at Pulstar but going in a different direction, especially when the rest of the band join in. That's almost a Megadeth riff. That one's right out of Uriah Heep. And, when the siren shows up, we're in heavy psych territory, kind of like Black Sabbath without Tony Iommi's guitar. There's a funky alternative section that's almost Faith No More and then it's psychedelic solo time.

I found myself remembering each track by its progression. Uníssona é a Busca begins like Rory Gallagher blues rock only for keyboards to suddenly leap in like this is the prog rock it is. Super Delírio Atemporal - Pt. 2 starts out reminiscent of a psychedelic Midnight Rider but it gets very bluesy. Destino itself, the title track, has eleven minutes to develop and it begins with a long piano intro reminiscent of Barclay James Harvest, becomes Floydian and then funks up, with a brief diversion in Crosby, Stills & Nash harmonies.

Not everything does this or, at least, if it does I don't know what all the influences are. There's a great female lead vocal from Beta Moraes on Todo o Céu Colorido with fascinating harmonies behind her. It's very world and very prog all at once and it's delightful. Muita Calma goes the other way with a scream to kick things off like it's going to be an aggressive punk song. An aggressive slide guitar adds to that, achingly slower than we expect, with the extreme vocals continuing at points. The point is surely irony, as Muita Calma translates to Very Calm, which the song becomes later when it starts to resemble the Verve.

There are far too many people to praise here, beyond Aru Mendonça, but I'll move João Paulo's name to the top of the list because of the guitar work he contributes to the title track. I've been listening to this a lot and will come back to it again. Maybe when I do, I'll pull that guest list out with the goal of focusing on each of those contributions. Maybe, though, I'll be just as caught up in it as I have been today.

* Saia de Si para Lá actually translates to Get Out of There.

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Khoraja - Sailing Our Ships to Martyrdom (2019)



Country: Greece
Style: Black Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 16 Aug 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | YouTube

After the unexpected non-extreme nature of Planet Mastergod, I thought I'd look for something extreme to counter it and I came up against a whole bunch of black metal albums that sounded terrible. I mean, I know that black metal is traditionally supposed to sound terrible, but it's meant to refer to the production not the music. There are a lot of bad black metal bands out there and the first good one to emerge from that festering pit was this one.

Khoraja are a black metal band from Thessaloniki in northern Greece, pretty countryside for a genre born in the cold and bleak forests of Norway. They were formed "in 2017 under a crimson moon", says their Bandcamp page and I have to say that Greece delivers for me yet again, whatever the stars have to say about it. This is a versatile and solid album that blisters the way we want black metal to blister but does a lot more besides.

Submerged into the Firmament is a worthy intro. It's short and sweet and it builds from a soft and quiet beginning to a heavier ending. It bodes well. Then Nocturnal Uprising immediately kicks things into high gear. It doesn't stay at hyperspeed but it does goes there. The guitar tone is dark but not jagged. The vocals are bleak and harsh, but DM utilises timing to excellent effect to vary his delivery, punchy here but sustaining there. These songs are actual songs, not just four minute walls of sound.

Khoraja also know the benefits of contrast. Blood Veil pulls back halfway in to give us a neat interlude where the guitar stays harsh but the keyboards are surprisingly pleasant, even mellifluous. There's another quiet interlude at the beginning of Colours of the Dawn, before it ramps up. The sweet parts are sweeter for the chaos that follows and the blistering parts are all the more blistering for following that sweetness.

I enjoyed this variety a lot. Even on songs like Homa that don't let up, the melody even in these harsh vocals makes the song memorable. There are points where it's almost catchy. Lydia is never slow but it slows down considerably at the end to good effect. And the title track, which closes out the album, kicks off with what sound like bells or some sort of windchimes. DM hums as the song builds, not an approach we tend to associate with black metal. That track ends with a surprising quote from Conan the Barbarian too.

For all the variety, the majority of this is done at serious pace, with the blastbeats provided by a gentleman named Leonidas, who also handles bass and keyboards, not to mention lead guitar on a couple of songs. Thomas Goud, who wrote the music and lyrics and created the cover art, takes care of the rest of the guitars.

I loved black metal back in the early days because it was so extreme and so evil, not to mention so ruthlessly uncommercial. However, the reason that it was extreme is because it was new. Over time, familiarity rendered extremity not so extreme and much of the genre got tame and boring. Fortunately, there are bands who have kept invention within the genre and I think they're back at the fore lately.

Khoraja aren't remotely as inventive as some of the ambient black metal out there, let alone wild projects like Panopticon, but they're inventive enough to make this an enjoyable listen.

Planet Mastergod - There are Snakes in These Woods (2019)



Country: Norway
Style: Post-Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 14 Aug 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook

This wasn't what I expected in the slightest. I'd seen this listed as doom and the cover art would look like black metal even if Planet Mastergod were not Norwegian. However, it's really an alternative metal album, taking its influences from bands as diverse as Tool, The Cure and Soundgarden, and it got nicely under my skin.

I'm not sure if the title of the album is supposed to tie to the cover art, with some of those bare branches transforming into snakes if only we search long enough. Otherwise, it seems to have nothing to do with the four tracks that constitute the album. Dyret is short, at four and a half minutes, while everything else is at least twice that, and there are no snakes anywhere to be found. Well, maybe Dyret has a few, given that it translates to 'animal' and I don't speak Norwegian.

It's the odd track out for other reasons too. It's not just short, it's slow and alternative. I'm not sure what instrument was creating a sort of fuzzy drone behind the soft noodling of the guitar, but it felt like rain. It's a long while since I've heard the Cure, but there's a gothic melancholy to it that benefits from rain. The band call their home "the cold and dirty city of Halden, Norway". Maybe it needs some rain.

The other songs take their sweet time. The Doomriders Prayers has some goth to it as well, but it's more the Sisters of Mercy, laid over a careful build that's reminiscent of Tool, just still more patient. That Tool comparison is more overt as the album goes on. Secular Detox begins with another slow and careful build, but with a more prowling bass. The Monsters in Your Skies is as out and out Tool as Scandinavia gets without calling it Soen.

The other most prominent aspect to this album is its patience. The Monsters in Your Skies runs a mere three seconds under ten minutes and both Secular Detox and The Doomriders Prayers are longer. Yet whoever handles the vocals here is notably reticent about stepping up to the mike. I don't know who it is because, while there are four guys in the band, I can't find details on who does what. I presume that the mysterious singer also plays something in a standard two guitar, bass and drums line up. Those vocals are easily the most alternative aspect here, as much pop as they are rock, but melancholy pop that plays well against rock instrumentation.

Given that the instruments are traditional for rock music and all of these songs could be described as trying for hypnotic soundscapes, this could be easily described as post-rock as well as anything else. Planet Mastergod's Bandcamp page tags them "alternative" and "hard rock". Earlier albums (this is their fourth) include "metal" too, but there's less of that than I would have expected coming in.

As with most post-rock, whether this succeeds is going to depend if you can buy into the soundscapes they create. Many won't, because the tracks are so incessantly long and stubbornly patient. Those who are open to that sort of thing may dig this. I found it a rather agreeable companion at four o'clock in the morning while the rest of my world was asleep.

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Picture - Wings (2019)



Country: Netherlands
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 16 Aug 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Featuring such a generic name that it's easy to overlook them, Picture are a long lived band nonetheless. They were formed in 1979, so they're over forty years old, but they haven't stayed together that long. They split up in 1987 and reformed in 1996, splitting again in 1999 without any new releases. They returned again, hopefully for good, in 2007 and this is their third album in the new millennium. It's also the fourth reunion for the original line up, a record perhaps only broken by Black Sabbath.

It's good old fashioned hard and heavy stuff, feeling very much like it was recorded way back at the beginning of the eighties. It's mostly upbeat, with some serious tracks like Stroke, about bass player Rinus Vreugdenhil, who had a stroke a few years ago but thankfully seems to be doing fine now and sounds pretty good on this album.

Line of Life opens things up as NWOBHM with a Dutch accent and I mean that quite literally, as Ronald van Prooijen clearly comes from the other side of the North Sea. It gallops along and sets the stage well for the rest of the album, even though there's a lot of variety here.

Wings plods a lot more, with a strong Deep Purple feel. Van Prooijen sounds more like Uli Jon Roth here but the Hammond organ is often very Jon Lord and the guitar is very Ritchie Blackmore. Little Annie starts out southern but adds in some old school Iron Maiden. And, by old school, I mean really old school, the punk attitude of the Paul Di'Anno era. That returns later with Empty Room, which is right there at the Di'Anno to Dickinson transition.

Blown Away is something I could have heard on the Friday Rock Show almost forty years ago. There are snippets that sound eerily familiar but I can't place them right now. It's not just British metal too, there's German here as well. No Place to Hide is kind of half Saxon, half Accept.

It's an interesting album and it's a deceptive one too. It doesn't stand out as great on a first listen and, in fact, it's the odd things that stand out. Is It Real starts with a scarily thin sound only to pump the bass up twenty seconds in, so that we know how far production has moved forward. There are no killer tracks to rave about either, or it doesn't seem like it. However, it's a consistently strong record that never lets up at all and it keeps on getting better with each listen.

Being a fortieth anniversary, there are lyrics here almost designed for the use of critics. Still Standing is an early Saxon style story song about the band itself, because they're still standing. It ends with "Keep going on!" and I can echo that. Even better, there's a lyric in Empty Room that has us visualise, "A torn picture. An empty frame. I hate but miss you just the same." Well, this is a freshly strong Picture. The frame isn't empty any more. And, while we don't hate, we don't have to miss Picture any more either.

This is an enjoyable album for the old school, who probably aren't going to care about that thick Dutch accent. Seeing this band live nowadays may well be the best way to revisit 1981 we'll have until they invent a time machine.

Sceptre - One Shot One Kill (2019)



Country: India
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 14 Aug 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | YouTube

I try out a lot more albums than I review here at Apocalypse Later, staying with what seems like good stuff, and I was very close on giving up on this EP by Indian thrash metal band Sceptre. And by Indian, I don't mean Native American; I mean a band from India, Bombay in this case.

Initially it seemed decent enough. I liked the music immediately, which was both crafted and played very well. I got a Death Angel vibe and that stayed in for much of the album. However, the production is off, the guitars muddy and the vocals far too high in the mix. And, talking of vocals, I absolutely wasn't a big fan of the vocals, which seemed immediately amateurish, almost like a fan singing along over the band's instrumentation.

Just as I was going to move onto something else, those vocals switched it up with an eye-opening section akin to black metal shrieks and I started really paying attention. The longer I listened, the more I liked. The music kept getting better and the vocals started to get interesting. There are points with two voices contributing at once, so I'm not sure if we have one singer or two.

Somehow, while the voice is still too high in the mix on the title track, it seems more palatable and, again, the music is fantastic, courtesy primarily of the guitarists, Gilroy Fernandes and Ronojoy Barooah, but with excellent support from Aniket Waghmode behind the drumkit. The bassist is Janus Sayal and he does a solid job too.

Sceptre have been around for quite a while, which translates to a heck of a long while for India. They were formed in the last millennium, back in 1998, and they put out a self-titled EP a year later. While I don't think they've ever disbanded, they didn't release a full length album until 2008 with one more following in 2013. That's hardly a particularly impressive output for a fifteen year existence and they've been quiet on the recording front since.

I, for one, am glad they're back. I chatted recently about the Indian metal scene with the guitarist from another Indian band and he kindly provided me with a brief list of bands to look out for. Sceptre were in that list and I see why. Musically, they're fantastic and they get better as this five track EP runs on. Flesh Eaters has neat, predatory riffs and it grows well until a glorious escalation at the end. Fear the Mob is better still, grounded in a set of solid riffs.

If the vocals remain the weakest link, they get better as well, notably so on Hate Infested. Maybe the more modern Metallica does groove metal sound works better for the lead vocalist, whose name I'm seeing as Gary Glorious. If there are multiple vocalists in play, I'd like to know which are him and which are whoever else contributes. The vocals on this closer sound as much like a different singer as whoever provides the shrieks.

At the end of the day, this is great thrash with wildly inconsistent vocals and I plan to track down those prior albums to see how things play out with them.

Monday, 19 August 2019

HammerFall - Dominion (2019)



Country: Sweden
Style: Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 16 Aug 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

It's oddly appropriate for HammerFall to release their eleventh album right after Sabaton's eighth, because the two best known power metal bands Sweden has gifted the world are worthy of comparison, not only because the opening track here is all about war, Sabaton's one only lyrical subject.

HammerFall are an older band, having been formed in 1993, six years earlier than their fellow countrymen. They're more varied, combining a few obvious influences into their own recognisable sound but ably moving back and forth between them across different tracks. However, they're also less consistent, each album featuring killer highlights but also filler tracks. They're less reliable too, a fantastic start to their career fading over time with a few ill advised musical choices.

And this album, coming three years after Built to Last, with, appropriately enough, the same line up, is no exception though it's arguably a firm step up from the last few. It certainly begins gloriously, with three wonderful tracks to get proceedings underway.

Never Forgive, Never Forget may have Scorpions-style bookends but we're not in for a Swedish take on Still Loving You, we're going to quickly ratchet up the power. This is textbook heavy metal, quite clearly sourced in the Judas Priest school but with a friendlier tone reminiscent of Helloween because of the charming and effortless vocals of Joacim Cans. Testify follows suit.

In between the two is the title track, which starts out in Accept territory but brings in some Queensrÿche too. It features a particularly strong riff and another effortless vocal. Cans hits some fantastic notes here and he's a natural who makes it seem as easy as it is for Jon Anderson.

Thus far, we're in for a real classic of an album, but it starts to slip at this point. One Against the World is decent enough (a term I realise I use a lot when digging into HammerFall albums) but it feels like it's being played in slow motion. It's also pretty generic, as is (We Make) Sweden Rock, to be honest, though it's a perky enough piece obviously aimed to emulate a Saxon crowdpleaser. The problem with songs like this is that they need to define a point in time, like Denim and Leather, or they'll just seem cheesy.

My least favourite aspect of HammerFall albums is always the ballads. Second to One (not Second to None from their last album) is decent enough (there I go again) if you like that sort of song, but I couldn't fail to notice that they'd just got through telling us that they make Sweden rock, which they do not do here. No, HammerFall, you're not my everlasting flame. Please leave this sort of thing to the Scorpions. I have to mention a gorgeous moment for guitars just before the three minute mark though. That touched me!

Scars of a Generation is more like it, kicking off the second side with the same panache as Never Forgive, Never Forget kicked off the first. What I'm struggling with is the next few tracks, such as Dead by Dawn. I enjoy all of these, even on a third or fourth time through. They have enjoyable hooks and riffs. They're solid power metal. However, my memory wasn't letting go of a couple of earlier songs and often stubbornly replayed them in my head over the songs I was listening to. Does that mean that these are decent enough or that the earlier ones are just that fantastic? That's a good question.

I think what it means is that this is a better HammerFall album than we've been given in a while. I'm expecting the home stretch to be enjoyable filler but it's more worthy than that. It does, of course, take a dive at the end with a fresh ballad, but it may be that the second side is more consistent than the first. This is a return of form in many ways for HammerFall and it would be an 8/10 for sure, if it wasn't for those ballads and a couple of missteps on the first side. I think that it bodes very well for their next album in two or three years from now.

Spatial Moods - Cae un Mito (2019)



Country: Peru
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 13 Aug 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

Peru is quickly becoming my surprising country to go to for quality new rock and metal. Sorry, Greece, you're not surprising enough any more (but I still love you). Spatial Moods are an interesting psychedelic rock band with a lot of space rock in their sound and enough prog rock that I keep on hearing the strains of 21st Century Schizoid Man in Anime, un Mito.

I liked the opener, Mar de Escorpio, but Anime, un Mito found its groove at the outset, stalking and swaggering and then adding a very surprising vocal from Jorge Apaza Frisancho that sets up an interesting contrast. It's high and sweet and delicate and it's deliberately buried in the mix, which has a particular fondness for bass and guitar. It rocks on out, but too quickly as this is the shortest song on the album, albeit at five and a half minutes.

The rest are seven minute jams, 333 especially, given that it doesn't seem to have any particular destination in mind. It's best towards the end when it gets all playful. I could imagine the band creeping quietly over a stage in Victorian nightshirts, teasing the audience, only to face them and rock out again. I liked it a lot but I'm not sure if those couple of minutes had anything to do with those that went before.

Besitos de Hormiga starts out like a Satanic lounge band wondering if their audience will be OK with them playing Dazed and Confused but never actually getting to the point of doing so. The bass is ready but the guitar has some introspective quest to complete first and, by the time that it shows back up in the same reality, the band has moved on.

I enjoy this album greatly. I must do because I had it on repeat all through the night while I worked on a convention program book. There are wild hordes of sounds here rampaging through this album that I appreciate. I'm just not entirely sure if any of the songs come off sounding remotely coherent. And, without that coherence, the album shifts from tracks I enjoy to tracks that aren't going to play in my head later.

I ended up concluding that, as the band's name suggested from the beginning, they're more interested in exploring moods than writing songs. Amancaes, for instance, begins with each of the four band members playing different songs that just happen to be entirely compatible. A wild cacophony brings them to some sort of agreement as to how to proceed. It's a fascinating track. And, after it seems to lose the plot completely, it wraps up beautifully in sync.

For sound, it wouldn't hurt to think of early King Crimson as a stoner rock band being booked to play a jazz club and shifting up accordingly every now and then so as to not lose the gig. It's a great album to set running in the background while you're working, knowing that it'll grab your attention at a completely different point every time.

Friday, 16 August 2019

Finsterforst - Zerfall (2019)



Country: Germany
Style: Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 2 Aug 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | YouTube

Finsterforst are one of those bands that you either love or you leave alone and this fifth studio album isn't going to change that. The band's name is a reference to the Black Forest of their home state of Baden-Württemberg and their music is almost as impenetrable as the same Black Forest was to many of the characters of the Brothers Grimm's fairy tales. It's not remotely as densely packed as the Fleshgod Apocalypse album I reviewed back in June, but it's a formidable album nonetheless.

Part of that is the fact that this album runs almost eighty minutes long and yet features only five tracks. Never mind Wut and Fluch des Seins, which are both over ten minutes long, and Weltenbrand, which comes really close, Ecce Homo is amazingly longer than all three of those put together. I've reviewed many entire albums this year that run notably shorter than that Ecce Homo on its own! And this is folk metal, not a genre known for its long tracks.

Much of it is the structure of the songs, though. These are immersive slabs of music that aren't remotely constructed out of verse, chorus, verse. That isn't to say that there isn't melody, because there's melody everywhere; it just doesn't lend itself to visualisation of a big picture. There's variety too, plenty of it, but it's spread out over all the tracks so that it fails to help distinguish Weltenbrand from Fluch des Seins and Wut from Zerfall.

In fact, I've listened to this for much of the day and I continually fail to notice when a song ends and another begins, rendering this into one eighty minute track in five relatively similar movements. If that's not your thing, especially on a folk metal album that isn't all accordions and bagpipes and fiddles, then you're likely to hate this with a passion. If you listen to a sample, enjoy the sound and like the idea of immersing yourself in it for an hour, then this is done very well indeed. They're the Opeth of folk metal.

Me? I kind of dig it, even though it'll be a brave radio show that tries to play any of it. If they do, it ought to be Weltenbrand, which starts to make itself known after half a dozen listens, both for many heavy sections and a neatly quiet and intricate section six and a half minutes in. The production is excellent, the drums perfectly placed in the mix. The bass sets the tone and the heavy guitars aid it. The vocals are a highlight, Oliver Berlin ably mixing harsh, clean and choral styles to good effect, though he has help on the latter. Those choral parts sound like monks, sometimes being devout and sometimes clearly testing their mead.

I have a feeling that another half a dozen times through will reap rewards. There's a lot here waiting to be found and I'm already finding some of it. I doubt, however, that any but the diehard fans are going to expend the energy to explore this over weeks. And, you know what, I think Finsterforst are OK with that.

Blindead - Niewiosna (2019)



Country: Poland
Style: Post-Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 5 Apr 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | YouTube

The more I listen to bands from Poland, the more I realise just how varied and deep the rock scene must be over there. Case in point: Blindead, whose sixth album came out in April without me noticing. It's unlike any of those other Polish bands I've been enjoying. Frankly, it's unlike much of anything I've heard. While a few comparisons do come to mind at points, I'm not used to hearing all of them on the same album.

Niewiosna, the eleven and a half minute title track, for instance, spends five minutes building textures before vocals show up to surprise us. The music continues to build anyway, melodic jangling guitars gradually fading into the wall of darkness that grows up around them. Drums are punctuation not accompaniment. The vocals are spoken rather than sung and spoken in a recitation as if this is performance art or sardonic ritual. Sans vocals, this could be a new wave song played at a third normal speed. With vocals, I'm really not sure what it is but it had my attention.

The Bandcamp tag that makes most sense is "experimental", but it's musical experimentation not noise, even when the album gets extreme. They also use tags as varied as alternative, electronic, post-metal and sludge. There's a lot of truth to each. What makes the band special is how they can combine it onto a single album and have it make some sort of demented sense.

It was Niepowodzenie where I started to grasp the point. It's the shortest track here by far, at just under five minutes, but the music is both perky and hypnotic. It's also extremely rhythmic, not unlike some of the work of Philip Glass. More importantly it's cinematic, even without the performance art vocals. It felt like something Wong Kar Wai might use if he ever made a giallo. There's suspense but there's dynamism and hints of story, like some young lady is being chased, but by what?

By this point, I'd looked them up. If Google Translate isn't misleading me, the band's gigs are often soundtracks to the films of Roman Przylipiak. I'm finding a bunch of short films on IMDb by him but I haven't seen any. I have to say that I'm interested in doing so now.

And what film would Potwór się rodzi accompany? It feels experimental from the outset, reminiscent of Andrew Eldritch jamming with Coil in slow motion. But then, it gets all doomladen in the midsection, more like Swans, but with some ritual drumming from Konrad Ciesielski and snippets of conversation. If that wasn't enough of a change, it soon adds in the electronica and goes off the deep end. Are we in a serial killer's basement watching him warm up his power tools? This is heavy stuff but not in any usual way. At least the end has a pulse.

I was completely hooked at this point, because the rollercoaster was moving faster and the seatbelts had evaporated and what is Ani lekkomyślnie, ani bezboleśnie? It's pure punk, with snarled vocals. There's Iggy Pop in there and Lou Reed and some sort of demonic creature. It's like someone was forced to transform into his inner beast during an Einstürzende Neubauten concert, while Celtic Frost watched.

Maybe that's what happens. When I put the song titles into Google Translate, I saw a progression. It didn't know what Niewiosna means, but the others are Failure, The Monster is Born, Not Reckless, Not Painless and Spring. Maybe it's a concept piece with science going wrong, creating a monster, trying to deal with what it is and eventually finding a dark solution.

I'm less fond of that last track, Wiosna, which is too subtle until, well, it isn't subtle enough. It gets even more out there, but this is magnetic and engrossing stuff across the board. Most people will hate it, of course.

Thursday, 15 August 2019

Killswitch Engage - Atonement (2019)



Country: USA
Style: Metalcore
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 16 Aug 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Beyond having one of the coolest frickin' band names ever conjured up, Killswitch Engage are also one of the few radio-friendly modern American rock bands I'm still able to enjoy. No, I'm not likely to be reviewing the new Slipknot or Korn albums and I'm not too likely to be listening to them either. This is a different matter. This bunch are a real metal band underneath the hardcore elements.

Regular readers know that I'm hardly the world's biggest metalcore fan, but this outfit do it right. They have all the energy and attitude required but they mix it up a lot too and don't see melody as a four letter word. Sure, there's a lot of that shouty metalcore vocal that tends to leave me dry, but it's not everything here. To accompany a variety of styles in the backing, there are clean alternative vocals as well, plus fast thrashy vocals, slow churning vocals and even what almost sound like death growls as The Signal Fire kicks off.

That latter may be because there's a notable guest on it. He's Howard Jones, who was the vocalist for Killswitch Engage during the decade between Jesse Leach leaving the band and returning to it; fans ought to thrill to hearing both of them on a single track. The other notable guest is Chuck Billy, of Testament fame, who appears on The Crownless King. He's only one reason why it stands out to me though. It stalks. It churns. The pit will find serious motion to this one!

This is Killswitch Engage's eighth studio album, their first since Incarnate in 2016, but they're almost as regular as clockwork. They've never gone less than two years between albums and never more than four. It seems to work for them and nobody's complaining so far. Well, not about that. I have a really odd complaint about this album. There's a 'Yeah!' that gets thrown out like punctuation in a James Hetfield manner; it's all over the album and it's an annoyance to me, albeit because Leach doesn't sound like Hetfield elsewhere. The 'Yeah' is a real distraction.

Otherwise, this is solid stuff for metalcore fans, with an agreeable amount of variety. The Signal Fire starts out thrashy, then gets all puffed up in the chest like metalcore so often does, then finds its groove in time to set up a melodic chorus. Know Your Enemy is a bouncy piece, just what metalcore is supposed to be. Bite the Hand That Feeds has some real energy to it with an attitude strong enough to spit through the speakers. Take Control is one of the more straight forward metal tracks and it's just as effective, with a decent solo to boot. I wouldn't change the radio station if this was on.

It's been really interesting to see just how nu metal split the wider genre onto two completely separate paths: there's modern American radio metal and there's everything else. With this album, Killswitch Engage continue to be a rare band to be able to walk, with head held high, on both those paths. I'm not seeing a need to atone for that.

Anfel - Echoes of Buried Hope (2019)



Country: Russia
Style: Symphonic Gothic Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 12 Aug 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | VK

It seems odd to suggest that this is polarising music and then come down in the middle, but I'm going to do just that.

Anfel are an unusual band, not least because they're often the solo project of Denis Lobotorov, who goes by Dionis. He's Russian, from Tver on the road from Moscow to St. Petersburg, and he mostly plays symphonic gothic metal.

I say mostly because the steady release of new albums—eight of them in the seven years from 2009—stopped in 2015 so that he could concentrate on re-releasing each of them as solo piano performances. That's pretty gothic, I have to admit, but it's neither symphonic nor metal. I should add that some were instrumental to begin with, but this still marks a return from reworks to new work.

It also marks the debut as lead vocalist of Elvira Lobotorova, the guitarist of Blackthorn, who goes by Alchemida. She'd also previously played guitar on the prior Anfel album, Icy World, and I believe she does so here too. Dionis play bass. I presume that the rhythm comes courtesy of a drum machine, but I can't confirm that.

I liked this immediately and a good portion of that is Alchemida's voice, a soaring creature that seems to sing even slower than she does. The music is clearly symphonic, each song finding a swirling groove that I'd be surprised to find isn't the product of synths rather than an actual orchestra. I don't think Anfel has that much budget. Alchemida soars over it but she's part of it too, as if the music is clouds and she's floating on them.

What surprises me is that, as overblown and emotional as the music is, the vocals make it sound somehow patient and restrained, not something we tend to hear in this genre. It's lush material, music to be enfolded by. There's real melancholy poured into it, but it refuses to be too weighty. And that's a good thing.

What may or may not be a good thing, depending on your perspective, is that it's crazy long. Sure, there are only ten songs here, but six are over ten minutes and the average is only just shy of that length!

Sometimes that's certainly good. The opening song, And Our Proximity Create Only Chaos, doesn't feel remotely long at eleven minutes. It just continues to get increasingly exquisite, the soaring vocals of Alchemida at the fore and the harsh ones of Dionis rumbling underneath her to provide texture. It has to be said that, while there are plenty of instrumental sections, this is all about that contrast of voices.

Sometimes, however, it's bad. Dawn on the Ashes of Our Senses may get where it needs to go, but it takes its sweet time about doing it and it really has no business being nearly a quarter of an hour long. The whole album can be actively listened to or set off in the background for a pleasant environment but songs like this one do test our attention.

And this is where it's going to get polarising...

To fans, of whose number I'm now one (while acknowledging that the album is too long), this is often hypnotic stuff, the vocals lulling us as the drum machine speeds up and the synth strings swirl around. I've had it on in the background for a couple of days now and I seriously feel better for that.

However, to non-fans, this is going to seem interminable. They'll complain about how songs never end and don't vary much either, the groove found two minutes in to any song being the same groove found ten minutes later as it wraps up and, arguably in the next song too and the one after that. It does sometimes seem like a fourteen minute song is actually a four minute song with the key parts looped, but that may be overly cynical.

So which are you? Well, if you're interested, I'd suggest that you sample the track, And Our Proximity Create Only Chaos. If it knocks your socks off, this will be a must purchase. If it doesn't, then this really isn't going to be for you.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

The New Roses - Nothing But Wild (2019)



Country: Germany
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 2 Aug 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

The New Roses, who hail from Wiesbaden, Germany even though they don't sound like it, have been building a serious name for themselves over three albums and a lot of touring. This is number four and it's so full of energy that it might just explode in your hand. My only disappointment was that I heard the best track on it first, on Chris Franklin's Raised on Rock radio show, so it was all downhill from there.

Fortunately, it doesn't go very far downhill. If nothing's up to the quality of Down by the River, that doesn't mean that the other dozen tracks aren't a seriously good batch of songs. From the opener, Soundtrack of My Life, which is a six pack of Monster packed into three minutes of rock 'n' roll, Nothing But Wild does its level best to thrill us with music that's clearly new but just as clearly rooted in the classics.

One major compliment I can throw out is that, while I caught bits of a wide variety of rock artists in here, this band really don't sound like anyone else. I might, if you twisted my arm, raise Airbourne as a fair comparison, but that reflects on their shared approach more than anything else. The New Roses may have a little less AC/DC in their sound but it's still there, especially in some of their more relentless songs that don't want to stop for breath.

Down by the River is a great example of how they mix things up. It's a sort of Rick Springfield story song, but heavier and there's a lot of Scorpions in the melody of the chorus. There's glam rock riddled throughout the title track and there's a punk pop urgency to Unknown Territory. There's southern rock in The Bullet and more both country and AOR in The Only Thing; I spent a while wondering if it was more likely to be covered by Bryan Adams or one of those generic hunks in hats with twangy accents. To be fair, though, the crunch on the guitar elevates it past that sort of half insult.

Put it all together and it's very New Wave of Classic Rock, with songs like As the Crow Flies hard to describe in any other way. The band are certainly looking backwards, not just to a single style but to an entire era of music history. However, like some of the other bands wearing that banner, they're bringing those sounds into the modern era in a consistent manner to make the blistering hard rock fit alongside singalong clap-a-long songs like Meet Me Half Way, with clever lyrics like, "Don't be my partner, just be my partner in crime."

I haven't listed the band members, but that's because this is so much of a team effort and it's the songwriting that stands out first. Let's just say that nobody lets the side down and they all clearly had a lot of fun putting this together. If it doesn't feel too long at thirteen tracks, it's got to be fun, right?

Tomb Mold - Planetary Clairvoyance (2019)



Country: Canada
Style: Death Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 19 Jul 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

I hear a lot of good about Tomb Mold. Their second album, Manor of Infinite Forms, featured in a lot of lists of the best of 2018. I was eager to check out album number three. And... I just don't get why they're so adored.

Don't get me wrong. I don't hate this, even though I haven't really been a fan of old school death metal since I was diving off Autopsy and Obituary stages in my Morgoth sweatshirt back in September 1990. It was a new genre back then, extreme and brutal and enticing. However, I didn't stay with it for too long, because there were local bands like Anathema and Paradise Lost inventing doom/death that sounded much more versatile and interesting.

Even now, I prefer melodic death to brutal death and doom/death to both. I appreciate that Tomb Mold are trying to do something different with it and I liked some of what they did here. Just on the opener, Beg for Life, I like how it ramps up the pace a couple of minutes in. I like how it drops into an acoustic section a couple of minutes later. I like how it stays there, even when the vocals and drums kick back in, for a little while.

But, I don't like the muddy production. I don't like the way a late section involves the tempo changing frequently because it loses the groove. Most of all, I don't like the vocals of drummer Max Klebanoff, which seem unvarying not just through this track but through the whole album. I'm not averse to a good death growl, as regular readers will know, but this isn't what I'd call a good death growl. And so, even on the strong song to kick off the album, I like a lot of it and dislike a lot of it.

The same goes for the rest of the seven tracks on offer. I appreciate how a number of them feature samples or created effects to vary the sound. There's a three minute interlude called Phosphorene Ultimate, quiet noodling with a staticky communication of some description over it, that's neatly cinematic, but I don't know why it's there. The same goes for the two minute outro to Heat Death and the album, which I presume is supposed to be the universe in a downward spiral through some celestial drain. It's all interesting on the first time through but it gets old really quickly.

Given that I tend to look for different sounds even in my death metal, it's odd to say that my favourite parts of this album are the fast ones. While I can't say the production helps them, the band really know how to kick it up on songs like Infinite Resurrection and Cerulean Salvation. I found myself engrossed in the music on these tracks, because it has ambition and energy and, as far as the production allows us to tell, it's tight. I found myself wishing that the album was instrumental so I could hear more of that.

It's only because there are so many instrumental sections that I considered a 7/10 but the vocals bounce it right back down to 6/10. I've listened four or five times through and I'm just not grokking it. Maybe I need to catch a gig sometime and see how they sound live.

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Sabaton - The Great War (2019)



Country: Sweden
Style: Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 19 Jul 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website | Instagram | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Is it a compliment or an insult to suggest that The Great War, which is the ninth studio album from one of Sweden's most recognisable power metal bands (and HammerFall's album comes out next week) is just like the first eight? I think it's a combination of both, because Sabaton score low on ambition but high on consistency. They're one of the most recognisable bands in the metal genre today because you know exactly what you're going to get every time.

For those new to the band, that means that the ten tracks proper here each last three or four minutes, contain a collection of strong hooks and catchy choruses and recount some sort of historical story about war. There's also a further theme to link them, which is particularly obvious this time because it's in the title of the album. For those not paying attention to all those anniversaries over the last few years, The Great War was World War I or the First World War, which ravaged Europe and changed everything.

It seems appropriate to call it here The War to End All Wars and add that it took place from 1914 to 1918 and I'll explain that. While some Sabaton fans rave about the band's knowledge of the history of warfare, this is legend as much as it's history and it's dotted with numbers to make it sound more detailed than it is. It's just the sort of simplified history you might read about in grade school books. Take these stories as rabbit holes and give them worth.

For instance, Alvin York was a real soldier and his deeds certainly deserve to be recounted (he attacked a German machine gun nest, capturing a hundred plus enemy soldiers and killing a couple of dozen). That story isn't 82nd All the Way, which is as shallow as the spooky tales a new parent might read their baby to send them to sleep. But hey, it's chock full of details like 8th October, 1917, the 338th, Hill 223 and the 82nd all the way to make it feel like more than, say, the Gary Cooper biopic.

It's fluff, folks. But it's insanely catchy fluff that attaches its hooks to your brain and refuses to release it until the next song has taken over. The band are so good at these hooks that others bands might kill for the secret. They're so good that every one of the songs here has a real shot at being a single. Four have made it so far: Fields of Verdun, The Red Baron, Great War and 82nd All the Way, and I can't argue with any of those, even if I'd call out The Attack of the Dead Men as the catchiest thing here.

But hey, there's so much that's catchy that we could each compile a top five and still not come up with any of the same choices. Most of it is the vocals, where the verses are catchy, the bridges are catchier and every chorus is a deadly earworm. Some of it is choral, nesting multiple voices together, The Future of Warfare seemingly just as easy for Van Canto to cover as Primo Victoria from their first album in 2005. There's plenty of it in the guitars too and the keyboards bolster those, occasionally going solo, with a lovely Hammond sound at points. The drums do a great job of both accompanying and sounding like rifle shots in the background.

The line up is mostly the same as it was last time on 2016's The Last Stand. Vocalist Joakim Brodén and bass player Pär Sundström have been there all the way from the band's beginning in 1999. The rest of the band changed at once in 2013, with drummer Hannes van Dahl and guitarist Chris Rörland joining at that point. New fish Tommy Johansson replaced Thobbe Englund (who just put out a solo Judas Priest tribute album last week) on second guitar just after that last album and this is his recording debut with the band.

I highlight that because a new guitarist is at least a change. I think it's fair to say that everything else here is exactly as you remember it from any previous Sabaton album. And, as I said at the beginning of this review, it's both an insult and a compliment to point that out. No, there isn't anything remotely new here. Yes, it's just as good as you remember.