Tuesday 24 September 2019

Axe - Final Offering (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Classic Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 20 Sep 2019
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Wikipedia

Here's the latest in 2019's bizarre trend of long established bands finally getting round to a new studio album after a surprising amount of time. With Axe, it's nineteen years since their last one, The Crown, and I do believe that they've been together since then, even if only two of seven musicians were with the band at that point.

Axe are a melodic rock band who often veer into soul, blues or classic rock, often all at once. I've been waiting eagerly for this album ever since Chris Franklin played Land of Our Fathers a couple of months ago on his excellent melodic rock radio show, Raised on Rock. That's a superb storytelling song, very much in the Neil Young vein, and it turns out to be unrepresentative of the album as a whole in everything except quality.

There's a lot here for classic rock fans because Axe tread a lot of ground. Born to Lose, for instance, opens things up well with a soulful lead vocal and some tasty southern guitarwork. It moves quickly from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Whitesnake but it keeps the band's own identity and shows how comfortable a modern day Axe is with the blues. There's blues in Fire & Stone too, but an electric sort of Led Zeppelin blues, touching on the middle eastern flavour that Robert Plant likes so much.

And that's not the rest of the album. Bad Romance is a soulful rocker. Road to Damascus ditches most of the rock side of that and moseys all the way on into soul, mostly Otis Redding but with a calming Marvin Gaye influence and nods to rock in the drums and a guitar solo. Much of this is due to the lead vocals of Bobby Barth, the sole remaining founding member (keyboard player Bob Harris joined a couple of decades and change later and he has a decade on anyone else in the band).

At heart, Axe are a classic rock band who maintain that uncanny patience of a lot of those seventies legends. We just know that these songs will be much faster, much louder and much heavier on stage, but they restrain themselves here for effect. Make a Dream (Last Forever) would have got a lot of airplay in the eighties and Money and Old Scratch maybe a little earlier. The latter is a real stalker, achingly slow like Bad Company in slow motion. Talking of Bad Company, Who Will You Run To sounds like them at regular speed.

This is careful stuff and there's a reason for that. After forty years, Axe are apparently calling it a day and the album title is descriptive of their intent for this to be their last studio album. Maybe they'll keep touring. I hope so, because they're really on form here and benefitting to boot from a notably good production job. And hey, they've broken up before and come back so I'm not counting any fried chickens yet.

For those unaware of the band's history, they were formed way back in 1979 in Gainesville, FL, knocked out four albums by 1983 on major labels, landing support slots for some huge bands in the process, like Judas Priest, ZZ Top and Iron Maiden. That ended in 1984 when guitarist Michael Osborne died in a car crash during a tour with Mötley Crüe. Barth survived with spinal damage, joined Blackfoot and shifted into production work, but eventually reformed Axe in 1989 and 1997, releasing another couple of albums in the process.

I may have come into this album with crazy high expectations because of the glory of Land of Our Fathers, but I left it happy. It may be the best track here but there's a lot of other great material here that's both accessible on a first listen and rewarding of more exploration. It's really good stuff and I hope that they rethink that whole Final Offering logic.

Bykürius - A Heretic Art (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Symphonic Black Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 6 Sep 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | YouTube

There are a lot of ways that bands can grab my attention. I'll often check out an album because of its cover, genre or country of origin. Every now and again, like here, it's the band's very name that stands out. Black metal, with its legacy of anti-Christian, Satanic and, sometimes, outright Nazi ideology, is not well known as a genre for its tolerance. Yet here are a symphonic black metal band called Bykürius. Yeah, I was intrigued.

I was even more intrigued when I discovered that this duo (Swagrath handles the guitars and Muzgash the bass, with both adding vocals) have been a duo under this name since 2013 and have two full albums out but haven't written anything until now. Both those albums, and the EP that preceded this one in 2019, are comprised only of covers, from Iron Maiden to Cradle of Filth, via Andrew Lloyd-Webber, Madonna and King Crimson. I'm unsure whether I want to hear some of those, but original material is another matter.

And I wonder why they weren't playing original material all along, because I have to say that I've heard a lot worse in my time. What's more, for all the Cradle of Filth that's obviously in the band's sound, especially on Satan's Wretched Armies Grow, there's lots of originality in this original material and many bands with long careers can't claim that. That's a power metal solo in Rise, Our Father Lucifer and I dug both the violin and the theatrics in Baphomet Rules Below. Did I hear a harp on the instrumental intro, Your Obsidian Labyrinth Opens?

As a mere EP, this runs pretty long, mostly because the final track is only a few seconds shy of ten minutes on its own. If we exclude the spoken word poetry tracks on the new Iggy Pop album, this EP outlasts it by a couple of minutes. And, in its way, it's just as inventive. That final track, Worship the Fallen, isn't remotely what I was expecting, with a frequent soft tone, with violin and flute prominent. It's epic stuff and it's very tasty indeed. In fact, its storytelling about the fall of Satan often reminded me of Fish-era Marillion, who are about as far away from black metal as can comfortably be imagined.

And yes, lyrically it's dark. Black metal may have gradually moved away from its old Satanic imagery, but this is almost preachy about the wonders of the fallen angel, full of "Rise, our father Lucifer, shackle the frail God" and "Let Heaven ring with echoes ov our dark Lord's name". Musically, it's dark when it wants to be. Rise, Our Father Lucifer features spat vocals and fast blastbeats, the latter of which even continue through that power metal solo. The EP mostly continues in that vein until the final track, which is rather different.

Here's where I'd usually suggest that I'd love to hear a full length studio album from this new band, but they've already given us two of them that I'm frankly not too likely to check out. Even with the variety in evidence here, I'm not sure I want to try a six minute symphonic black metal version of The Court of the Crimson King. I want more Baphomet Rules Below and Worship the Fallen. Let's hope this EP does well enough in comparison with the previous releases to keep Bykürius on the right, erm, left hand path.

Monday 23 September 2019

Iggy Pop - Free (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 6 Sep 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

One of the great things about Iggy Pop is that, even though he's one of the most influential musicians on the planet, we can't ever assume what's going to show up on a new album with his name on the cover. There are songs here that sound roughly like what we might expect and his voice, of course, has never been mistakeable for anyone else. However, of the ten tracks on offer, four could perhaps be best described as spoken word poetry with some musical accompaniment, and one of the predominant instruments is a saxophone.

Three of those are clear. We are the People is a recitation of lyrics that Lou Reed wrote in 1970 but which were first published last year. Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night is the Dylan Thomas poem. The Dawn is original. The fourth is the title track, which opens up the album. "I wanna be free", Pop tells us twice with perfect intonation: the first time is phrased as an almost childlike question, but the second is a happy manifesto. These words are set against atmospheric keyboards and that sax, which is surprising but welcome and enjoyable.

That leaves only six songs proper, which comprise a mere twenty-five minutes or so, a skimpy running time for people expecting music. Fortunately, they begin with Loves Missing, which is very cool indeed. It's reminiscent of the most famous Iggy music, such as the Lust for Life album, but it builds its grooves with a different instrument set. There's a lot of texture here and it gets very dark and dense, almost a scream into the darkness.

Pop stated to Exclaim! magazine that he "wanted to wiggle out of the frame of rock instrumentation" and he does that well here. Just check out Sonali, which unfolds through a wealth of electronica, over which he delivers lyrics in a stream of consciousness style. There's ambient here and glitch and what are presumably programmed drums. They certainly sound very electronic.

James Bond ditches the electronica but is constructed on a bass riff rather than guitar. When the guitar eventually shows up, and it takes a while, it's content to support in an odd way that sounds almost Jamaican. For a third of its running time, Dirty Sanchez is Mexican brass but then it transforms into a call and response track in punk style, like Lust for Life's Success, but with a more immersive backing track.

Glow in the Dark is even odder. It features a deep manipulated vocal line that's oddly only accompanied while Pop is singing. The regular instruments stop every time he does, leaving an ambient backing track to fill the gaps. It's interesting and it gets agreeably intense with rhythm and tone, even with that sax dancing over the top of it all.

I liked all of these, as different and unusual as they are. I like hearing new sounds in my rock music and it seems that Iggy does too. A lot of them here are surely the work of Leron Thomas, a jazz trumpeter and composer who Wikipedia tells me is a "masterful genre-bender". He wrote four of the six songs proper solo and co-wrote the other two. In many ways, this album is a Leron Thomas album that Iggy happens to sing on.

The reason I'm dropping my rating to a 6/10 is because the poetry is decent but will get skipped over on any repeat listen and I really didn't like the remaining song, Page. Iggy experiments with a stylistic wobble in his voice as if he's rubbing his voicebox while singing and it became highly annoying to me.

So, as an Iggy Pop album, it's inconsistent and often delivers something not what fans might all appreciate. As a six track Leron Thomas album with guest vocals from Iggy, ending with Glow in the Dark, it's different and cool and enticingly weird. It's all going to depend on how you approach it.

Coffins - Beyond the Circular Demise (2019)

Country: Japan
Style: Doom/Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Sep 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Regular readers will know I've been a fan of doom/death since its beginnings but I'm as out of date with it as I am with other genres. This year has been a fantastic process of discovery for me. Coffins, who hail from Tokyo, Japan have been around since 1996 but they didn't record a studio album until 2005 and this is only their fifth, coming six years after their last, titled The Fleshland. It's only when we see how many singles they've split with other bands that we realise that they've kept themselves busy.

They aren't like any doom/death I know but they certainly fit in the genre. They play faster than most doom/death bands, for a start, though there are a number of slower moments, but what's really different is their tone. They're fond of playing very dense music and it's emphatically bass heavy, the usual main instruments of voice and guitar almost bent double by wearing the bass around their shoulders like an albatross. It's an interesting sound, which I could describe as slow grindcore.

Forgotten Cemetery may explain it. It's the third track, as we're beginning to get used to this sound, and it kicks off fast and low like an old school death metal song. I moshed to this sort of thing back in the early nineties! But, half a minute in, it completely stops and restarts as an achingly slow plodder of a doom song with a brief guitar solo and dark death growls which are presumably providing lyrics in Japanese. And a minute on again, it ramps up the speed enticingly.

In other words, Coffins are a doom/death band in the sense that they play in a death metal style that sometimes turns into doom. It's done very well too in its lo-fi way, as it sounds just like this was recorded live in one take in a venue that only holds about fifty people but which has an insane sound system that's overkill for the size. I wanted to leap into the pit when they sped up on songs like Forgotten Cemetery and Impuritious Minds.

It's been a while since I've listened to this sort of old school lo-fi death so I'm racking my brain to remember comparisons. I can say that this doesn't play anywhere near the Gothenburg melodic death sound, but it's just as far from what the brutal death Florida sound became. It's more like the earliest death, such as the Scream Bloody Gore album by Death and Seven Churches-era Possessed but slowed down for more than the sections that are aimed to get a pit moving, rather like early Doom. They're certainly the Peaceville act I heard here, because there's nothing from expected names like Paradise Lost, Anathema or My Dying Bride.

Once I got used to what this was (and wasn't), I dug it. It's old school in nature but in a completely different way to the other bands with overtly old school influences. It's interesting to me that a band in 2019 would take the most dominant metal sound of today and rewind it until it's underground and obscure again. I have to have respect for that and the result is energising stuff. It's metal enough for anyone who cares but it's punk enough as well to be something John Peel might have played back in the day.

I nearly went with a 6/10 to reflect that, while this is enjoyable, not everything finds a way to stand out. A few of these songs, especially late on, served mostly to cement the band's sound in my head rather than to add something new. It starts out strong with Terminate by Own Prophecy and it ends very nicely with Gateways to Dystopia but not everything in between is up to the same standard. I plan to listen to this album more to see if it grows on me though.

Friday 20 September 2019

Claudio Simonetti's Goblin - The Devil is Back (2019)

Country: Italy
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 10 Sep 2019
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Wikipedia | YouTube

While I've loved a lot of what I've heard of Italian prog rock, which was a major scene in the early seventies and never quite went away (check out Nova Malà Strana from the nineties), I know Goblin the way most people know them, which is through film soundtracks, such as those for Deep Red and Suspiria, giallo movies by Dario Argento. They've toured here recently and those of my friends who went were generally horror fans rather than Italian prog fans.

Of course, the reason they did so well with those soundtracks, and a host of others, is because they're an excellent and imaginative band and that shows if you dig deeper. I've heard some of their other material (they released a set of interesting collections in the mid to late nineties) but didn't know until now that they're still going not as one band but as four.

Claudio Simonetti was a founding member of Goblin back in 1972, back when it was called Oliver, and by the time he left in 1979, he'd played his part on the band's most famous work. His band is called Claudio Simonetti's Goblin (sometimes Daemonia) to delineate it from the current incarnation of Goblin, which features two other founding members: Massimo Morante, guitarist, and Fabio Pignatelli, the bass player who, with current Goblin drummer Agostino Marangolo, also plays in Goblin Rebirth. That leaves Cherry Five, the band's name between Oliver and Goblin, who reformed in 2015 with a couple of other early members, one of whom was a vocalist, not a common position in Goblin. Are you confused yet?

I don't think I've heard the current Goblin yet but Simonetti was a central part of that band and it's easy to hear them in his version of it. As he's a keyboard player, there's a foundation on that instrument that often reminds of other synth bands like Tangerine Dream. However, unlike such bands, they play in a rock format, with a very lively bass from Cecilia Nappo and strong guitars from Bruno Previtali, the reliable drumming of Federico Maragoni at the back of it all, occasionally finding a spotlight such as on The Devil is Back.

Case in point: Brain Zero One, the opening track. It kicks off with eighties synths, courtesy of Simonetti, like he's rewinding the years, but they give way to a nice bass run from Nappo and then Previtali's guitars crunch in. It starts the album in lively fashion, often arguing with itself about just how eighties it can get.

Many songs here feel like they could be rock songs with their vocals shorn away. Even though the melody in Revenge is driven by piano, the guitars and bass are very prominent. The only vocals show up, presumably as samples, on Agnus Dei and Saint Ange, which both move from a religious tone to the synth runs we expect. Songs like this are why Goblin fit so well on soundtracks, as the music sparks visuals. It always feels like something's going on and, if we're not given any associated imagery, we often conjure it up ourselves anyway. These are lively and playful but also dark. No wonder they ended up scoring giallo.

As befits a band known for soundtracks, there's a lot of range here. I liked how heavy The Devil is Back got, while Neverland, only a track later, stands out for its emotion. Solitude ups that, even finding a sort of eastern vibe for a while. Chi? and Chi?, Pt. 2 get down and funky, though the core melody to each remains a very simple thing, like many soundtrack melodies that need to work as themes that trigger our pattern recognition.

Even without a movie to enhance, this is strong stuff. I've run through this album a dozen times over the last week and it's still as fresh and engaging as it was on the first time. All power to Goblin, whatever form they happen to be in this week!

Toxikull - Cursed and Punished (2019)

Country: Portugal
Style: Heavy/Thrash Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 13 Sep 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | YouTube |

Following on from Anifernyen's black/death metal album, here's another album from Portugal that isn't instrumental psychedelic rock. Toxikull hail from Cascais, just outside Lisbon, and they're pretty versatile in their take on eighties metal, effortlessly moving between genres without ever losing their infectious energy. In a few ways, they do a similar job to Dream Tröll, but at the heavier end of the musical spectrum.

Certainly the first couple of songs are old school speed metal, the sort of Overkill fast and frenetic that blisters past us so quickly that we have to go back to really take stock of what they did. It's Killer Night where they betray their roots: Accept by way of Judas Priest. On songs like this that unfold at a mid-pace, those are the bands that spring to mind. When they add speed to that, like on Helluminate, they become reminiscent of early Helloween but with wilder vocals that remind more of Exciter.

There are two lead vocalists here, one of whom is wilder and higher than the other. I don't know which of them is which, but they're Antim 'The Viking' and Lex Thunder, which is one of the most eighties names I've ever seen. In case you're expecting him to actually be Mr. & Mrs. Thunder's boy, I should add that he founded this band in 2016 with his brother, Michael Blade, so I think they just like the eighties so much they don't want to leave it, even when signing their names. I can't fault them for that.

Senhors Thunder and Blade are the guitarists in the band and their riffs and solos often bring a NWOHBM feel to the album. Sometimes they're Iron Maiden and sometimes they're Diamond Head, but their guitarwork is always welcome. There are guitar highlights everywhere here, but I'm going to call out Dark Glory, not only because the changes are delightful but because they keep on coming, defying the mere three minute running time, and are done well enough for the vocals to come in and out without it ever seeming forced.

As if to emphasise how little the band care about trends, they even add an overt layer of epic cheese to songs like Sacred Whip and The Revival, which is a sort of intro to Rising Dust. These have an unashamed Manowar vibe and make about as much sense. I mean, was the former song really written about self-flagellation for religious purposes or is it just kinky for the hell of it? I have a feeling that it's the latter.

So they're a pretty versatile band, starting out as speed metal but showing their heavy metal roots with NWOBHM guitarwork and then adding power metal for good measure. They move effortlessly back and forth between these genres so that few songs can safely be described as only one. I presume that their own preferred definition sees the light on Speed Blood Metal, with precisely the chorus you expect: "Give me speed! Give me blood! Give me metal!" This one sounds rather like Raven, another obvious influence.

And, even with only one song left, they keep on varying their style, because In the Name of Evil reminds of a few European bands, most obviously Mercyful Fate. Like a few albums this year, we might have believed this to be a lost release from the eighties except that the production is undeniably modern. I realise that every time an album like this sends me back to revisit some old favourites, finding that they're as wild and energetic as I remember but are wrapped in annoyingly thin production.

Notwithstanding the prevalance of stoner/psychedelic rock albums coming out of Portugal, I really should dig into more of the other styles being played there, because if they're all like Anifernyen and Toxikull, then I moved out of England in the wrong direction.

Friday 13 September 2019

The Hu - The Gereg (2019)

Country: Mongolia
Style: Folk Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 13 Sep 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Well, I've been waiting for this one for a long time! I've mentioned before that my immediate wish for folk metal, when it became a thing, was for it to traverse the globe and trawl in all sorts of farflung cultures. I couldn't be happier that that's exactly what it's done. It reached Mongolia before the Hu and I adored watching Tengger Cavalry live in Mesa a few years ago. I hope to catch the Hu in Phoenix in early October. They've achieved something even trickier than making a good album though; they went viral on YouTube. I saw a lot of friends, varied and not all music fans, sharing the Hu's videos.

While this is still folk metal, it's a lot more tribal and a lot less metal than Tengger Cavalry or others I've found, like Nine Treasures and Hanggai. The band call what they do "Hunnu Rock", because they take inspiration from the Hunnu or Xiongnu, a powerful empire of nomads who ruled Central Asia a couple of thousand years ago. This is often very militaristic, one of those viral hits, Wolf Totem, constructed from warlike chants. It's so vehemently antagonistic that it could almost be a Maori haka. Even if you haven't seen the video, your imagination will create one very like it from the music.

Of course, anyone stumbling on Mongolian metal will hear a lot of new sounds that they haven't heard before, most obviously the throat singing technique, which I've adored ever since I first heard Huun-Huur Tu a couple of decades ago. Throat singers are able to create two very distinct notes at the same time, usually a really low drone and a high melodic trill.

Also, with the exception of the drums, the instruments are wildly different from what we're used to. Enkush and Gala play the morin khuur, or horsehead fiddle, usually played upright like a smaller cello. Jaya plays a jaw harp and flutes like the tsuur. Temka plays the tovshuur, a two stringed guitar. The result is something much more exotic than Celtic or Finnish folk metal, even the Andean stuff I'm enjoying so much of late.

What the Hu do differently from Tengger Cavalry and the others is let their traditional instrumentation drive everything so that this is less folk metal and more folk music that's just darker and heavier than would usually be the case. I could easily imagine Korpiklaani performing around a campfire in a forest, but they'd have amps to plug into and a full drumkit. The Hu don't seem to need that. They could simply walk up to that fire, perform and then climb on their horses and ride off to find another fire.

Some songs are more vicious. The morin khuur on The Same gets far closer to metal guitar soloing. The beat on Yuve Yuve Yu and the title track are given by western drums. There's a lot of metal in the intensity of The Great Chinggis Khaan. However, the majority of songs here are world music rather than any intensity of rock music, only some of which manage to walk in both worlds. The Legend of Mother Swan, for instance, is delicate but it carries a powerful intent behind it, courtesy of those tribal chants and drums. It is beautiful music. I fell into Song of Women, the seven minute closer and enjoyed it for what seemed like hours.

Fortunately, I'm a big fan of world music, whether rocked up or not, and I know that I'll be listening to this a lot because it fits perfectly in both worlds. The moods it invokes are powerful and I'm talking the grooves that the songs find, not just the evocative intros like the flute that kicks off Shoog Shoog. And I wonder if that will help or hinder the Hu. Viral culture is a finicky creature. They aren't going to get thirty million views for each video. They're going to fade away somewhat. However, they deserve to remain known because they're astoundingly good and should be listened to for their quality as much as for their exotic nature to mainstream audiences.

Magic Pie - Fragments of the 5th Element (2019)

Country: Norway
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 30 Aug 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | YouTube

I always thought that Jeremiah was a bullfrog, but apparently's he's a wino who lived from day to day (sadly past tense) and the opening track, The Man Who Had It All, is all about him. If that makes you conjure up a Jethro Tull sort of song, then you wouldn't be far wrong, especially as the phrasing of whichever vocalist is singing this one (and Magic Pie have a pair of them, Eiríkur Hauksson and Eirik Hanssen) is reminiscent of Ian Anderson. However, there isn't a flute anywhere to be found and there's a particularly lively keyboard presence to the song, courtesy of Erling Henanger, that reminds, at different points, of Marillion, IQ and other bands from the second wave of British prog rock in the eighties.

No, before you ask, not everyone in Magic Pie has the initials EH and P & C is a great moment to highlight the guitars, which does mean Eiríkur Hauksson again but also Kim Stenberg. While there was prog metal to be found in the opener, here's where they really start to remind of Dream Theater and Spock's Beard and other more modern bands. However, that's much more because of the guitar tone and production; in structure, they're still very seventies. The vocal approach on this one reminds of Ian Gillan era Deep Purple, at least once it gets past the lower register Yes intro, and the instrumental midsection is more like Frank Zappa.

As if building a repertoire of influences for the final track to explore all at once, Table for Two initially sounds like David Bowie. Again, this sound is driven by the vocals, but the music steps back a little to emphasise that on this track. Later the style evolves to become more of a gentle Wishbone Ash sound, but that David Bowie influence returns with emphasis for Touched by an Angel, which isn't a prog rock song with Bowie vocals; it sounds just like a Bowie song.

The Hedonist is the side-long finisher and it's suitably epic. It kicks off lively with plenty of energetic soloing on both guitar and keyboards. Vocals don't show up for three minutes but, when they do, they shift pretty easily between the styles already mentioned, so much so that the vocalist can shift from Gillan to Ian Anderson to Bowie in a single verse. This song is nigh on 23 minutes long but never feels like it's too much. Perhaps that's because it's able to evolve and breathe and grow.

And, because The Hedonist is so long, that's it. Five tracks last over three quarters of an hour, so this is a decent slab of music. I read that it's the fifth album for Magic Pie, who were founded in Moss, Norway by Kim Stenberg back in 2001. They've been on a four year release schedule ever since 2007's Circle of Life, so this is right on time for their fans.

I've listened to (and reviewed) a few Norwegian prog rock albums this year, enough to tell me that there's a scene up there that's definitely worth your attention. Motorpsycho and Mythopoeic Mind are good bands and I can happily now add Magic Pie to that alliterative mix, although the three are different in overt ways. Magic Pie aren't as heavy or as experimental as Motorpsycho and they're not as folky as Mythopoeic Mind, but they're more lively than either of them.

I mentioned in my review of the latter's Mythopoetry that it often felt like it was grown rather than recorded. This isn't as organic but it's often very liquid as if it flowed into form. I wonder if this tie to nature is a common factor in Norwegian prog rock but, sadly, I'm not up to being able to catch the local influences yet. Maybe in time. I'm going to happily keep exploring the scene.

Thursday 12 September 2019

Sonata Arctica - Talviyö (2019)

Country: Finland
Style: Power Metal
Rating: 5/10
Release Date: 6 Sep 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I remember Sonata Arctica from the early 2000s, but I've never delved into them particularly deeply and I'm surely blurring them in my mind with their fellow Finns, Stratovarius. All I know about them since then is that fans have disagreed on the musical direction that they've taken over their last couple of albums. Some are all for the expansion in scope, while others are questioning their move away from power metal to more melodic rock. I don't have a dog in this fight, so I was intrigued to see if Talviyö, their tenth studio album, would work for me.

And, mostly it doesn't, to the degree that I thought about not reviewing it. I see my job here at Apocalypse Later as to enable discovery and that's just not going to happen if I tear things apart, so I'm reviewing the good stuff and passing on the bad. Every once in a while, though, someone important has something new out and a review can serve as a warning. And that's where I am right now.

This isn't awful, though the ballads do get there, but it does so little of substance that it's an album for the more dedicated fans. It's certainly not as bad as the Papa Roach album, which I'd also seen as intriguing but which underwhelmed me. However, it's at the level of The Three Tremors album and the latest Saint Vitus, which were generally disappointments with some odd moments of interest. Here, that comes mostly through an instrumental, Ismo's Got Good Reactors, which is a bouncy, rich and enticing piece of music.

Otherwise, it's in moments rather than songs. There are some inventive prog elements to both Whirlwind and Storm the Armada and there are a lot of wild and interesting things going on in Demon's Gate: it has a clever intro and gets impressively dark with the riff that shows up a couple of minutes in. But those are moments.

Some songs are decent but hardly what we might expect. The two singles that preceded the album, A Little Less Understanding and Cold really aren't power metal in the slightest, the former especially a pretty straightforward pop rock song and the latter a little heavier but still far from power metal. I quite liked A Little Less Understanding but Cold left me dry.

Others are certainly listenable but won't stay in mind as far as the end of the album, let alone a month later. Message from the Sun may be a little bit better than that but Storm the Armada and Who Failed the Most aren't. I can happily enjoy them while they're on but then they're gone and I'll forget I ever heard them.

And then there are the ballads. The Raven Still Flies with You is sugary in tone but it occasionally finds some of the epic feel we expect from a power metal band. However, the cool instrumental prog section midway through and a folky section to wrap up only serves to emphasise how lightweight the rest of it is. At least it's leagues ahead of The Last of the Lambs, which is an insipid and tedious waste of four minutes. In turn, that's leagues ahead of The Garden, which is an interminable way to wrap up an album.

It's not good when the only worthy track is the sole instrumental, there are at least two annoyingly bad ones and everything else is forgettable. This is definitely one only for the diehards. Regular readers will know that there's a lot of great music coming out of Finland. I hope that Sonata Arctica find their way back into that category.

Detroit Hills - Discovery (2019)

Country: Belarus
Style: Post-Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 18 Aug 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | YouTube

You might look at the cover of this album and make a relatively safe guess at what lies within. If you had no other information to go on, you'd likely be wrong. This is a post-rock album, a short one too at a few minutes shy of half an hour, but it's not from the urban sprawl of south eastern Michigan; it's from a city called Navapolatsk or Navapolotsk, depending on where you see it written, in Belarus. The musicians aren't white suburbanites, they're White Russians. And I'm guessing they're not anthropomorphic animals, as the cover suggests.

I'm not seeing any breakdown of band members, but I do see a suggestion that they used to be a four piece band that wasentirely instrumental. That's not the case any more, as there are vocals on every track here. I don't know if one of those four members stepped up to the mike or if they hired a singer but the songs are driven by the vocals and don't feel like they would work anywhere near as well without them, at least not early on.

They're deceptively light, because this is bright and cheerful melodic music but with depth if you're willing to dip below the surface. Memories, as an example, feels like a Joy Division song as covered by U2, as if a thoughtful and introspective piece was rendered cheerful with bounce and jangles. State of Mind has a relatively standard alternative rock vocal but the music feels ethnic, as if there were reggae musicians adding their flavour.

It also gets heavier, which is an interesting sound for music this vibrant, and The Rustle of Morning Stars follows suit. This isn't metal by any means, but there's a density to the sound that goes beyond anything U2 have done to become almost a soundscape. It's these songs that bring back that thought of instrumental music. Without vocals, these two would be even more immersive than they are already. It would be easy to get lost in them. Certainly, this album runs short but feels shorter because we get caught up in it and lose track of time.

The closest we get to an instrumental is Into the Light, because the regular song ends three and a half minutes in, consistent with the other five tracks on offer, but it carries on in a different vein and it's fascinating. There have been progressive elements throughout, especially on Open, but this adds ambient and glitch electronica to the mix, which was surprising given what's before it, but it's welcome even if I'm not sure how well four minutes of it at the very end of the album affects its balance.

I like this music. It's a palate cleanser and I found running through it on repeat a very pleasant experience. I felt better (and I wasn't feeling bad) but I also found myself finding odd little touches in this song or that that I'd missed on a first time through. I can see coming back to this reasonably often, especially The Rustle of Morning Stars, which gets better every time I hear it. The way the vocals layer is a joy.

And, on a wider level, so is this album. I just wish there was more of it as it's over far too quickly. I see two previous releases, but they're short. Memory, released back in 2016, looks like a single with only two songs plus a forty-four second interlude between them. Delight, from 2015, on the other hand, is a full album and one that, with ten songs, is longer than this. I definitely need to track them both down.

And that just leaves one question. Why would a band from Navapolatsk decide to call themselves Detroit Hills? Inquiring minds want to know.

Wednesday 11 September 2019

Black Star Riders - Another State of Grace (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 6 Sep 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I'm late to the table for Black Star Riders, as this is their fourth studio album. For those others who are coming in fresh, they're a sort of spinoff from latter day Thin Lizzy but they're more interesting that that suggests. Thin Lizzy has been reformed many times by past members but, by all reports, none of them felt that it would be appropriate to record new material under that name. When a solid line-up seemed to be likely to do that, they chose a new name that had no connections to Thin Lizzy. That's Black Star Riders.

The line up has stayed reasonably consistent and is stellar. The remaining founder members are guitarist Scott Gorham, who had been with the original Thin Lizzy for a decade, playing on most of their most famous tracks, and Ricky Warwick, formerly of the Almighty. Damon Johnson, guitarist for Alice Cooper and the highly underrated Brother Cane, left in 2018 to be replaced by Christian Martucci of Stone Sour. Bassist Marco Mendoza, currently with the Dead Daisies, left in 2014 with Robbie Crane of Ratt taking over. Jimmy DeGrasso, of Y&T and Megadeth, among others, was the original drummer but he handed over to Chad Szeliga of Breaking Benjamin and Black Label Society in 2017. That's a lot of big names.

The standout here is the title track. If the opener, Tonight the Moonlight Let Me Down, didn't tell you in no uncertain terms that this is Thin Lizzy under another name, Another State of Grace makes it utterly impossible to think otherwise. It's the best Thin Lizzy song I've heard since Thin Lizzy were recording new material. It has an Irish folk melody to build it and it has to be said that Ricky Warwick often sounds uncannily like Phil Lynott. It can't hurt that he's actually from Northern Ireland, having been born in County Down, while everyone's favourite Irish bass player, Lynott, only grew up there, as he was born in West Bromwich in the English midlands.

Frankly, this song demonstrates how good it is to hear what sounds like Thin Lizzy with modern production values. However good the material on them, the old Lizzy albums often suffered from fair, if not outright bad, production. It helped me to be with the Black Star Riders for much of what would be the first side. Tonight the Moonlight Let Me Down and Soldier in the Ghetto are decent Lizzy-style songs and Ain't the End of the World is better. Candidate for Heartbreak, which closes out the album is solid too.

In between, I found myself fighting with the songs. Underneath the Afterglow is decent enough but it's a lot less Thin Lizzy and a lot more grunge, with some sections highly reminiscent of Nirvana. The ballad Why Do You Love Your Guns? takes its time to engage; it gets there eventually but it's only half a good song. Otherwise it's parts of songs that impress: the female backing vocals on What Will It Take?, the riffs on In the Shadow of the War Machine and the call and return vocals on Poisoned Heart.

These aren't bad tracks. They're just not up to the title track, which is a brilliant piece of music. An album of songs like that one would be an easy 9/10 for me, but, as it is, it starts out as an 8/10, drifts down to a 6/10 and I find myself arguing with myself over whether Candidate for Heartbreak lifts it back up to a 7/10. It's a good album. It's not a great one, though it has hints that it could be. I ended up tossing a coin, because 6.5/10 isn't an option and so 6/10 it is. Sorry guys.

Anifernyen - Augur (2019)

Country: Portugal
Style: Melodic Black/Death Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 9 Sep 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! Finally, I find a Portuguese band who don't play instrumental psychedelic rock! I should add that I've really dug those varied instrumental psychedelic rock albums. There's something in the water down in Portugal that makes that stuff work really well and I'm sure I'll be reviewing a lot more of it in the future. But for the first time this year, here's something else!

Anifernyen play melodic death metal but in a heavily black metal influenced style. Or hey, maybe they play melodic black metal with a death influence. I have to say that they balance these two disparate styles so well that it's hard to tell what the band's initial focus was. Even the name fails to tell that, as it would fit either genre. It's an ancient Breton way of describing Hell: "an ifern yen" translating to "a cold hell".

Surprisingly, given that this is their debut album, they were formed as long ago as 2003. It looks like they stayed together until 2010, issuing one EP, The Pledge of Chaos, in 2008. They reformed in 2016, with a new bass player and drummer. Ricardo Vieira also handles bass duties for thrash band Buried Alive. Hugo Almeida is clearly in demand, as he sits behind the kit for five active bands, including notably Inthyflesh, and he has another six under his belt from prior years, including, again, Buried Alive.

Almeida makes his presence massively obvious here, because the drums are a black metal blitzkrieg. They're tight and they're high in the mix. What's more, even if he plays slowly, relatively speaking, he continues to do very interesting things with his rhythms and fills. There's a lot of cymbal work going on too. He's very impressive and the rest of the group have to work hard to keep up with him.

Other than Almeida, most obvious here is Daniel Lucas, the lead vocalist. He displays a versatility with his voice that's needed for an album that works across two different genres. Frankly, if he hadn't been up to the challenge, this album would not be as successful as it is. He has a warm and enunciated death growl but he's able to shift it into a bleaker register when he wants to emphasise the black aspects. He doesn't shriek particularly, but he gets a lot harsher. I liked his whispering approach on Christendoom too.

As tends to be the case nowadays, we have to listen very closely to hear the bass, which contributes more as a layer than a separate instrument. It does make it through everything else at points, especially on Foreshadowing, and also on Christendoom, but it never makes it to the front of our attention.

There are two guitarists, Luis Ferreira and Diogo Malheiro, and they often fall into the mix too. The riffs are deep and dark and the solos a lot less frequent than I expected. Even the melodies are surprisingly subsumed by the backing though, when they really come out to play, they're solid. There are strong moments soloing on Graveborn, building Voleur D'âmes and contributing in a number of ways to standout tracks like Foreshadowing, Christendoom and Wormwood.

As if to show their disdain for genre boundaries, Anifernyen step away from the black/death style at moments. Emissary gets a little thrashy for a while and Foreshadowing starts out (and returns to) being very doomy. A number of tracks on the second half have a doom/death feel to them, regardless of pace. That really works for me. Oh, and if anyone doubted a Celtic Frost influence, the death grunt on Deadite ought to settle that.

And this album really works for me. I wasn't impressed on a first listen but a second sold it on me and it's got better and more immersive each further time through. It's good stuff indeed and it proves that there's more than a single musical style in play in Portugal nowadays.

Tuesday 10 September 2019

Tarja - In the Raw (2019)

Country: Finland
Style: Symphonic Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 30 Aug 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

I was intrigued to listen to this new album from Tarja, the solo band of the former lead singer of Nightwish, Tarja Turunen, because I don't believe I've heard her solo work before, even though this is the eighth studio album from Tarja since 2006. It sounds rather different to what I remember of her from Nightwish, though not in any incompatible way.

Dead Promises begins not only with tasty guitarwork but also surprising drum programming. It's a decent song, but Tarja doesn't stretch her pipes too far on it, not least because she's sharing the mike with Soilwork's Björn Strid. Her voice is still pure, clean and powerful, but it's mostly content to play a lot lighter than I remember from those early Nightwish albums.

It takes four tracks for her voice to demonstrate its operatic range. That's Railroads, which is very light and playful until its operatic chorus. Tarja is clearly happy to wander all over the musical map rather than remain in a single style, even if she happens to be one of the most important innovators in that style. I appreciate that.

The heaviest the album gets is the midsection of Tears in Rain, which builds with that vocal harmony escalation that everyone who's ever sung Twist and Shout knows really well, but turns into a heavy workout for the musicians in the band, which mostly translates to Alex Scholpp. Just on Tears in Rain, he provides the guitar, bass, keyboards and additional vocals.

I'm not sure if the lightest the album gets is The Golden Chamber or You and I, which are coincidentally the middle two tracks. You and I is a ballad with little except Tarja accompanying herself on piano. It's theatrical and would fit somewhere in a Disney animated feature if only Disney had balls. I think The Golden Chamber is mostly Tarja solo too, but it's more like Enya, a combination of swirling keyboards, tinkling piano and a vocal that doesn't often involve words but creates a great atmosphere regardless.

Everything else fits somewhere in between, whether it's a rock song, a metal song, a pop song, a show song or whatever Tarja feels like singing. A couple of other names guest on one song each: Cristina Scabbia of Lacuna Coil, who lends a hand on Goodbye Stranger, and Tommy Karevik of Kamelot, who helps on Silent Masquerade. Both are solid tracks in the more traditional symphonic metal vein. The latter is one of the album's highlights, instrumentally and vocally both, coming from Nightwish via Queensrÿche.

I liked this album, though I don't buy much into the theme. Perhaps there's some "raw, personal places in her lyrics" but, even with the orchestration dialled down, this is still immaculately crafted and produced material. I'd be able to conjure up a lot of different adjectives to describe it but "raw" is never going to be one of them.

Clearly I need to listen to more solo Tarja. I have massive respect for what she and her bandmates accomplished in Nightwish but somehow lost track after that. She's obviously keeping herself busy and she's created a strong album here. Sure, two of her eight studio albums are Christmas records and I'll be avoiding the most recent of those on principle, but I should clearly take a look at the others. The one previous to this is The Shadow Self, from 2016, and it features a Muse cover of all things. I'm still intrigued.

Universal Hippies - Astral Visions (2019)

Country: Greece
Style: Stoner Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 16 Aug 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook

Regular readers will know that I just can't get enough of what's coming out of Greece nowadays. Here's yet another impressive album, this time courtesy of a stoner rock band from, I believe, Kavala in the northeast. At least, that appears to be the home of Stavros Papadopoulos, the prolific guitarist who conjured up this band. I also see a local connection as, among a number of other bands (Super Vintage, Freerock Saints, Hard Driver, Hush n' Rush), he also handles guitar for Revolution Highway, whose vocalist David Fefolt appears to be right here in Phoenix.

I can't say that everything here is Papadopoulos, because he benefits from some able support from Jim Petridis on bass and Chris Lagios on drums, but this is a guitar album for guitar fans and Papadopoulos is front and centre on everything. It's entirely instrumental, but it's much more grounded than your usual instrumental guitar album, because he's not a shredder, even when he's soloing. He has a clear background in riff-based blues rock and I'm not surprised at all to find him behind the recent Shadowplay Project tribute to Rory Gallagher.

Zenith Rising, which opens up the album, sets the stage very well. After a little texture at the beginning, he finds a groove and follows it naturally, while Petridis and Lagios play their parts to help him. Empire Mind, Trilogy of Dreams and others carry on very much in the same vein, the riffs new and the solos new but the tone the same. These all carry an eastern flavour but not so overt as to seem middle eastern. These are eastern in the way some of Rainbow's songs were eastern, just a little heavier.

This walks that fine line between rock and metal. I'm seeing it labelled as stoner rock most often, sometimes psychedelic rock, and that's fair enough, but, mystical song titles aside, this is really just instrumental rock with roots in the blues and production that adds the heaviness of metal. There's some jazz thrown in for good measure; a little folk here and there, like the beginning of Monolithic; and even some flamenco too, on Starchild Galaxy.

The first signs of specific influences come in Eternal Wisdom, which could have been an Iron Maiden instrumental, especially once it gets going. Like plenty of Maiden songs, this is Wishbone Ash heavied up, but the midsection is built out of NWOBHM riffs. The most overt influence shows up on the last track, Transcending Reality, also the longest on the album. It kicks off so reminiscent of Led Zeppelin's No Quarter that I wondered for a moment if it was a cover, but it finds other ground to explore as the track runs on.

This is good stuff. It would benefit from more variety in tone, because the majority of these tracks tread very similar ground. I'm hard pressed to pick a favourite piece or call out highlight tracks, because they're all good but none are sufficiently different from the rest to warrant special mention. I can say that each of them is able to stand alone as a strong example of what Universal Hippies do.

Each song benefits from a reliable rhythm section which provides an solid backdrop for Papadoupolos's guitar, which finds no end of impressive grooves and can solo without ever seeming to show off. It has a lot of texture to it and some of what he does is very subtle. He's as impressive when he's not doing much at all as he is when he's doing everything. Each note counts.

I see that this is the band's third album together, preceded by Evolution of Karma last year and Mother Nature Blues the year before. However, I also see another one called Dead Hippie's Revolution, which appears to be a slightly different version of Mother Nature Blues. Maybe it's an alternative release. I'm interested in hearing where the Universal Hippies came from and I'm also intrigued about these other bands that Papadopolous seems to be collecting like trading cards. More to come, I'm sure!

Monday 9 September 2019

Status Quo - Backbone (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 6 Sep 2019
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Wikipedia

Status Quo are an institution. Francis Rossi and Alan Lancaster founded the band as far back as 1962, the same year as the Rolling Stones, but everyone remembers the late Rick Parfitt as their guitarist and he's no longer there. He was in the band for almost half a century, from 1967 to 2016, and he was on every one of what was apparently 32 studio albums, this being the first without him. I wondered if Rossi would keep the band going but I'm glad that he did.

I came in exactly halfway into that long run of albums, with 1983's Back to Back, which is coincidentally the line I'd draw between their old stuff and their new stuff. After a couple of psychedelic pop albums, they found their recognisable hard rock style and nailed it with 1972's Piledriver. While the rest of the decade saw a lot of commercial success, they were still a heads down no nonsense boogie band in 1983. By the time they recorded In the Army Now in 1986, that no longer held true. They've been a pop band for a pretty long time now.

And I highlight that now because this is heavier than I remember the Quo at any point since Back to Back. Cut Me Some Slack and Backing Off aren't pop songs looking for yet another chart position, they're old school rockers. I Wanna Run Away with You would sound like a late seventies hit if it didn't clearly have 21st century production values. The same goes for Get Out of My Head, but the early seventies; it's the best thing I've heard from the Quo in almost four decades. Even the title track, with its woo woo, na na and round vocal sections, runs on simple but effective driving guitars.

This makes me happy. The Quo got very comfortable with the charts and their albums featured a lot of songs that were all about vocals and keyboards. On this album, the guitars are front and centre and the drums aren't far behind them in the mix. Of course we can hear Francis Rossi singing but even when he finds a commercial melody, like on Better Take Care, it's still a guitar song. Frankly, I need to go back to 2011's Quid Pro Quo, the previous studio album, to see if this approach is brand new or I'm just out of touch.

Parfitt's replacement here is Richie Malone and he sounds right at home with this material. Hilariously, he seems to still have a day job, but I presume that may not last as the Quo are touring a lot lately. The other new fish is Leon Cave on drums, who took over from Matt Letley in 2013. It's good to see Andy Bown and Rhino Edwards still there, as they've been for decades. Bown joined on keyboards in 1976, though he'd been guesting since Hello! in 1973, and Edwards joined on bass in 1985.

Rossi has said that, "This new material had to be seriously good" and that's probably fair. The band had to prove their relevance in a post-Parfitt line-up and I'm surprised at how well they did that. There's no way that anyone could mistake this for any other band, but it wouldn't be difficult to think of this as having been released a number of decades earlier than it was. I'm rather shocked at how much I liked this, though not all the songs are up to the same level of quality. But there's definitely life in the old dog of two head yet.

Piranha - First Kill (2019)

Country: Switzerland
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 6 Sep 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | YouTube

Piranha is such a thrash name. Even if Exodus hadn't recorded a song of the same name, most of the bands called Piranha would still be recording thrash metal because of course they would. This Piranha hail from Switzerland and, sure enough, they're a thrash band though they have a secondary NWOBHM sound in there too. Just listen to a song like Turning Point, which blisters along in the time honoured Teutonic thrash style until suddenly it turns into Iron Maiden for a while.

For a while it sounds like Destruction with maybe some Sodom in there too. The opener, Chain Reaction, is packed full of their buzzsaw guitar tone and appropriately wild vocals and it doesn't let up for a moment. Turning Point continues with that thrash metal onslaught until the Maiden section midway through that's slower and cleaner. Then it speeds up again and we're right back where we were, the guitars of Oz and Skullshredder blistering along at a rate of knots like this is the mid eighties and Piranha want to test the limits of speed.

But then they slow down a little. A number of songs here, like For Your Own Security and Flight or Fight, are played at a mid-pace with less blistering and more chugging. Some of them ought to do well at getting a pit going. If their thinking is mostly still thrash, some move into a power metal mindset, like Rage of Fire with phrasing like Accept and guitarwork like Iron Maiden. Target Failed revels in that Accept power metal sound and Squaller's vocals start to sound a little less Schmier and a little more Udo.

Perhaps my favourite song here is Resistance to Change, a really old school speed metal song right out of 1985. This wouldn't have been out of place on the Speed Kills compilations that Music for Nations put out back in the day, full of Whiplash and Exciter and Hallows Eve and the rest. That's where my ears first encountered my very favourite Exodus song, A Lesson in Violence, which this song initially resembles. It goes to other places too, with even a hint of doom at one point, albeit not for long.

The other song I kept going back to was No More Voices. It's the longest of the ten tracks on offer and it's the most varied. It starts and ends at the mid-pace in that combination of speed chugging and riff-driven power metal, but it has a glorious midsection. Around the four minute mark, the chugging finds a neat groove and a whole army of whispers leaps in as if to wrap it up in gossip. It's original and impressive and the solo that emerges sounds all the better for it.

Every new thrash band that I discover is a good one in my book, because I'm so happy that the genre hasn't died out the way we thought it might in the nineties. Piranha are pretty decent and I hope they bode well for the other albums I'm seeing coming out of Switzerland of late.

Friday 6 September 2019

Eternal Storm - Come the Tide (2019)

Country: Spain
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 23 Aug 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter | YouTube

Hey, a melodic death metal band with a male vocalist for a change! That does seem odd to say but the dice have been rolling the other way recently in my vicinity. Eternal Storm hail from Madrid in Spain and they make interesting music. I liked this immediately, after a delicate guitar intro blew through a wall of blastbeats to find a perfect combination of melody and harshness. But then, a minute into the second part of the opening track, we're treated to a saxophone that doesn't feel remotely out of place.

I always know I'm on to something special when I find that I have trouble in composing a review because the music just captures me and won't let me free to actually write. It took three times through before I could put words down on the virtual page. I wonder how long this took the band to write, because there's so much here and it's ballsy. It isn't just the saxophone on Through the Wall of Light Pt. II, it's the clean vocals that precede and succeed it. It's the point later where the music retreats to a plodding bass line and a distant echo of guitars, with rain dominating the foreground.

Even as I enjoyed this ballsy approach, I could hear people complaining that this isn't what melodic death metal is supposed to be, but it's exactly what I'm looking for. You wouldn't believe how many melodeath albums I skip over for review because they're inherently the same as the last one and the one before that. I want something different. I want riffs and blastbeats, but I want textures and soundscapes too. I want stories in the songs and I want to feel them escape in front of me. I want this.

Another ballsy aspect is that this debut album runs just shy of an hour and that's ambitious. The two-part Through the Wall of Light opens up the album as a fourteen minute epic, a couple of other songs break the ten minute mark and only one of the eight on offer runs less than six. It's wild to realise that this is a debut, because the songwriting is notably mature, reminiscent of Orphaned Land in the way that it weaves melodies throughout the darkness. The band's name may highlight a focus on the storm, but the cover shows us that there's always light poking through somewhere.

One reason this feels smoother than most melodeath is that the guitars are a little low in the mix, even with a pair of guitarists. Another is that both of them, Jaime Torres and Daniel Maganto, also play keyboards. When it gets soft, they're usually the focus, picking with delicacy. When it gets brutal, the drums of Mateo Novati lead the way and Kheryon's deep but warm growl at the fore with them; the guitars are still playing with melodies.

Like a few albums this year, this is so consistent and so consistent in the way that it varies styles within each track that the tracks themselves cease to stand out, instead merging to become one hour long piece of music. What I find following me away from this album is the way that the band grow a sound that's harsh and dark but still beautiful. I don't suggest that you dance to it, but it's hard not to move to it. Maybe I'm adrift on that storm, but I'm not being buffeted about by its tumult; I must be floating in the eye with a majesty all around me.

Is The Mountain a better song than Of Winter and Treason? I have no idea. I find myself caught up in each of them and always wanting to explore more. I also find that, each time through, I argue with myself about whether I like the points when the heaviness gives way to peace or vice versa, and I can't make my mind up. Of Winter and Treason is sublime in the way it does both. The Scarlet Lake adds something close to death/doom and I grinned like a fool.

Some of my favourite albums of all time are those which I liked immediately but found deep enough to explore further on each visit. Beyond All Temples and Myths by Winds of Sirius is one such and the closest I'd found to that this year was Aephanemer's Prokopton, which was my March album of the month. Well, until now, that is. This feels deeper still, less driven by keyboards but just as driven by songwriting. It's exquisite stuff throughout and it'll take something truly special to deflect this from my September album of the month, especially as Insomnium's new album won't be out until October.

The Neptune Power Federation - Memoirs of a Rat Queen (2019)

Country: Australia
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 30 Aug 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website

From the land down under come the Neptune Power Federation with their fourth album. I hadn't heard of this bunch before, but I'll definitely be checking out albums one to three sometime soon, because this is wild. They hail from Sydney, Australia, and they play an odd mix of styles that I had no reason to expect. Hey, "psychedelic rock" is a wide genre, running from hippie folk to stoner metal, so my ears are well and truly open, but I wasn't expecting Can You Dig, which may best be described as Suzi Quatro meets Hawkwind.

Yeah, that was my reaction too, but this is a good sound, with a blistering vocal from the intriguingly named Screaming Loz Sutch, surely the "imperial priestess" of the lyrics and the possessor of an astoundingly strong voice. Whatever the style the band play in, and that varies from song to song, she reminds of Grace Slick but on steroids. To highlight the variety, the band's description of themselves is style-averse: their Facebook page going with, "10 Megatons of neanderthal rock fuelled by Satan and space hallucinogens." I can see that.

Watch Our Masters Bleed is an exercise in power and control, starting quiet but getting seriously intense, Sutch outstripping the power in the guitars' power chords just because she can. By the way, the guitarists go by Inverted CruciFox and Search & DesTroy, so there's an overt sense of humour here. The band are completed by Jaytanic Ritual on bass and Mr. Styx on drums.

If the Hawkwind sound is there from the start, this song follows Lemmy into Motörhead mode during its midsection, even if it ends like the Beatles. The variety continues to be delightful. Flying Incendiary Club for Subjugating Demons (how's that for a song title?) starts out like a satanic Sandy Denny playing call and return with AC/DC, but it moves into Joan Jett singing for the Ram Jam Band.

Rat Queen is truer to the style that Sutch fits best, the Jefferson Airplane acid trip with major emphasis on power. There's blues in there too, with a harmonica from hell. The blues kicks off the appropriately titled Bound for Hell in subdued fashion but it ramps up soon enough. I'll Make a Man Out of You is a sing-along glam song but an intense one. The Reaper Comes for Thee, as the title suggests, gets notably doomy on us before ending in a spiritual round, of all things. Only Pagan Inclinations, a harmonied pop song heavied up, did little for me.

I really like this band. These songs have energy levels that range from high to out of this frickin' world. The musicians kick seven shades of ass with a backing section of the sort that only Aussie rock bands seem to be able to do this easily, but I especially dig what this imperial priestess is laying down.

Watching videos, I see that she favours tall, ornate headdresses that hint at her being about eight feet tall. Frankly, her voice is bigger than that! She explodes out of this album like the medium isn't sufficient to contain her. There were many points where I honestly felt like she might climb out of my speakers to keep on singing on my desk. That's a feeling I haven't had since Noddy Holder of Slade and I honestly wasn't ever expecting to repeat. I really need to see this band live!

Thursday 5 September 2019

Tool - Fear Inoculum (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 30 Aug 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

I've long enjoyed Tool without being a fan of Tool, if that makes sense in a world where people either love them or hate them. I adore songs like Schism and Lateralus but don't immediately reach orgasm the moment anyone mentions their name the way certain of my friends do. The ten minute title track that opens this album is another of those songs for me to adore. The rest of the album? Well, let's see...

Fear Inoculum itself is a gorgeous creation and it's a very careful one. It has everything Tool do well: strange rhythms that build and multiply, weird lyrics delivered in that characteristic way, a bass that thinks it's a lead guitar. And it grows, like a progressive rock song that wants to hang out in a metal crowd. The heavier parts are less underlined by production, though I have no doubt they'll be heavy on stage, making this one feel even more like King Crimson than usual.

Pneuma starts out similarly: drums like a rattlesnake's tail, a riff setting the scene for its later build, then another to actually underpin the track. If Fear Inoculum hadn't been on the album, the majority of what people would say about it would be said about this song instead. It doesn't hold together quite as well for me but it's another good song, a deeper one that's warming up for me, as are others.

And, with over twenty-two minutes gone, we're two tracks in to seven. Given how Tool play with their lyrical structures, doing things like making their rhythms follow the Fibonacci sequence, I wonder about the song lengths. Fear Inoculum is ten minutes long and Pneuma is eleven. Invincible is twelve and Descending is thirteen. Culling Voices and the oddity that is Chocolate Chip Trip are fourteen between them. 7empest, to wrap things up, is fifteen. I do wonder what they had to change to make that work.

Tool have never been known for short songs but this is something extreme for them. It allows them to be as non-commercial as they like (are they going to play any of these songs on the radio anywhere?) and nail that hypnotic build that they do so well. Each song here is clearly Tool but it's more Tool than usual. In a world where Soen play Tool-esque material almost as well as Tool ever did, this is Tool squared for emphasis.

On my first time through, I felt that Fear Inoculum was the obvious standout track, but I'd heard it before as a single and got used to it. Other tracks blurred together on that first listen, but are finding their own voices as I listen afresh. Descending is emerging as another standout because of all the interesting things going on in its midsection, but it took me a few listens for it to come into focus. There's just so much material here to process all at once, the album running just shy of eighty minutes.

The song that ought to stand out is 7empest, as the longest track, the final one and the only one to follow the five minutes of experimental electronica that is Chocolate Chip Trip. Its most obvious difference to justify this odd separation from everything else is that it's angrier: the guitar more overt, the vocals more antagonistic, the drums more metal. It still plays with the pulsing rhythms and generates the strange patterns we expect, but it does so with a punch rather than a wave. It's a darker trip for what is really more prog rock than alt metal. Oddly it's the one song thus far I'm not finding a way into.

I wonder how this album will be received. The die hards are going to love it because it's Tool but more so. They've waited thirteen years but they've got a couple of albums worth at once and it's good stuff. However, anyone not in the fan club is going to be twice as confused by what's going on as normal and this is definitely not where those intrigued by Tool should start out.

Nevain - Hidden (2019)

Country: Israel
Style: Atmospheric Gothic Doom Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 16 Aug 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | YouTube

I've been enjoying a whole collection of one man projects on Bandcamp lately and here's another one, from Uri Jeffrey, who's located somewhere in Israel. He plays atmospheric gothic doom metal, or something like it. The gothic is more prominent than the doom but there's plenty of atmosphere with all eight tracks instrumental except for choral effects.

While some of these one man releases seem to be one track regurgitated over and over under different titles, Nevain is reasonably varied. Each of these tracks distinguished themselves in some way except maybe for a couple late on which blurred together.

The title track provides the first half of doomy bookends. This one is slow but with a lively, albeit rather melancholy, atmosphere. It speeds up midway as a presumably synthesised choir kicks in, but it never stays fast. Nevain has a grandiose sound that comes out of Jeffrey's gothic influences but it works well, perhaps never more than when the violin shows up five minutes in.

Those who came for doom may want to skip forward to the last song, Fields of Grey, which really plays it up for the first time, though there are hints at points here and there. It's the heaviest track on the album but it features a neat piano melody over its dark chugging.

In between are a succession of tracks that mostly vary the style enough to stand out. Shadowfall has a guitar/drum combo that's too bouncy for doom but it underpins proceedings while the keyboards take over the melody, often in a middle eastern style. Desolate Ways often sounds like a carillon, with its abundance of bells. Pale Distant Light adds a flute and that helps the track feel even more cinematic than it would have been otherwise.

The keyboards often dominate here and I wonder if they're Jeffrey's primary instrument, given that he also plays keyboards and bass for the doom/death band Clapsodra, who had an album out last year. I'm sure that many of these odd instruments, the carillons and flutes and whatnot, are the product of a synthesiser rather than a well-stocked music room. If I have a complaint at all here, it's that these other instruments don't sound more real.

Instrumentals don't have to sound like classical pieces played on rock band instrumentation. The most overt band influence here is on Disharmony, which I'm happy to say is not disharmonious. When it gets past its intro, it feels very much like a Paradise Lost song, albeit sans Gregor Mackintosh's highly recognisable guitar tone. There's a lot of Paradise Lost here, from various phases of their career, down to the electronica beats on Desolate Ways. Even the song titles are quintessential Paradise Lost.

I like this album. It's consistently good, though not consistently great, and it made for pleasant company while working, enough so that I ended up leaving it on repeat for a while. I'd give it 7/10 for Paradise Lost fans like me but 6/10 for everyone else.