Tuesday 10 September 2019

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!

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