Wednesday, 16 October 2019

IQ - Resistance (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 27 Sep 2019
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I remember IQ from way back in the day, as Tommy Vance played them regularly on the Friday Rock Show and I liked them then. What I don't remember is them sounding like this!

I remember them as a neo-prog band, similar to Pallas and Twelfth Night and a number of others who emerged in the UK in the early eighties in what soon became the shadow of Marillion, who had broken into the mainstream. IQ were an excellent band, though I do recall them softening up in a search for that ever elusive commercial breakthrough. I probably lost track of them by the time the nineties came around, but they've stayed together and, reading up on what's happened since, they returned to their core prog sound in 1993.

This feels a lot heavier than the eighties IQ, though they're moving towards their fortieth anniversary in 2021 with what's close to their original line-up. Co-founder Mike Holmes is still there on guitar as he's been throughout. Once original vocalist Peter Nicholls returned in 1990 after a few years out of the band, he never left again. Bass player Tim Esau took a long break but he's been back since 2011. Paul Cook wasn't technically the original drummer but he was on every recording until he left in 2005 and he's been back since 2009. The new fish is Neil Durant on keyboards, having joined in 2011. He's there instead of co-founder Martin Orford, who left in 2008.

Frankly, I'm very impressed by this heavier IQ, who sound like Yes as a prog metal band. Nicholls's vocals are still pure and clean as a whistle, but the band behind him provide a real crunch and/or an immersive swell as the need arises. What I'm most impressed by is how they shift from the quieter, more introspective moments to the heavier ones. Rise does this magnificently and there's a Paradise Lost style escalation on Stay Down that's really tasty as well. The best things about Resistance can be found in its dynamics.

A Missile opens the album with real power. Without trying to reach overdone superlatives, this is exactly what I wanted the Dream Theater album earlier this year to be. Rise goes there too but only at points, because IQ really work those dynamics and there's a heck of a lot going on in this song. Stay Down is more of the same, partly because all these tracks deliberately run on into each other like they're really just parts of a larger whole. Then they hit Alampandria, a shorter piece with an overt middle eastern influence that shifts from keyboard overlays to pounding bass.

At that point, they pause to take stock, with Shallow Bay starting out with solo piano. As it kicks into gear, with those pure vocals and some rolling drums, the light bulb went off above my head and I realised that this IQ is early eighties IQ, just with a glorious production job from, I believe, the band's guitarist, Mike Holmes. Did IQ sound like this all along and I just never noticed, perhaps because I never saw them live? I'll be listening to those earlier albums now with a different mindset.

If Anything goes more overtly back to the eighties, with an electronic beat and a simple emotional keyboard swell. Nicholls's voice isn't as high as Jon Anderson's but it's very reminiscent here. I remember IQ sounding more like Genesis (and they get there later, especially on Fallout), but they've gone more towards Yes with some King Crimson in this track too. It's also a very patient song, happy in the knowledge that this is a double CD (triple album) and there's no need to rush anything.

At over fifteen minutes, For Another Lifetime wraps up the first half and it isn't remotely the longest song here, both Fallout and The Great Spirit Way around the twenty minute mark. The vinyl version runs to three discs with a couple of one-track sides and three more with only two. As you might expect, For Another Lifetime is wildly patient for a little while, neat instrumentation (melodeon? theremin?) adding to the texture. As its slowdown reaches sleepy levels, regular instruments kick in and we're in motion with something of a Queensrÿche feel. It finds its arc and there are some tasty solos late on.

Holmes has said that he enjoyed working at more substantial lengths. I have to say that he's done it before, the very first IQ album kicking off with a side long song, The Last Human Gateway; and at least two other albums being doubles that include one song around the twenty minute mark. Does having two count as a real shift in approach? I doubt it.

I've seen a lot of prog diehards raving about Resistance like it's the start of the second coming, but I don't think it's that good. It runs together and it often relies on the dynamics to provide variety, which isn't what they're for. It's clearly excellent stuff but I'm wary of shouting from the rooftops that it's an undying classic just yet.

Gentihaa - Reverse Entropy (2019)

Country: Greece
Style: Symphonic Death/Black Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 23 Sep 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives

Nine months of deep dive reviews and I'm finding my go to countries. I still feel surprised that Greece is one of them, but it's proving to be the hotbed for a whole slew of interesting bands from across the rock/metal spectrum. I see that Gentihaa, who are based in Athens, describe their sound as "fantasy themed symphonic death/black metal". That's at once fair and overly limiting because I'm hearing a heck of a lot more here than that.

In fact, what leapt out at me first were the doom metal vocals of Andre, who somehow manages to not seem like he's in the wrong band. What he does fits a band style that refuses to be any one thing. On Empathy, for instance, which is the first song proper, half of it plays to his doomladen vocals while the other half wants to be metalcore. The guitars seem to be death metal and the drums play in that black/death combination style. It's probably fair to say that I was confused for a while here.

Vision is more of a doom metal song, even if the drums remain fast. Sneak on over to Candlemass's dressing room and lace a barrel of mead with speed and this is what might result. It's interesting stuff though I have to add that I wasn't sold until Metamorphosis three tracks in, which is wild. Going back to listen through again, the early songs are fine, just not what I expected. After Metamorphosis, anything seemed like fair game.

Again, it starts out like a doom metal song with blastbeats, but it refuses to stay there. It finds some weird time changes. It gets all shouty. Before long it sounds like Candlemass and Voivod jamming in the studio with a guest singer from a band like Shadows Fall. There's even a quieter section that's very much like Voivod channelling Pink Floyd. The keyboards swell while the vocals loop and it's all rather psychedelic, man. I dug it a lot.

There's some of that in Alpha too, accompanied by eastern string work and a very different sound. Its long outro is impeccably constructed and flows on to Beyond wonderfully. If it took a few songs to hook me here, I was hooked hard. Beyond ups the tempo seriously, emphasising the metalcore side of the band's sound, with the doom side present for texture. It even finds a rather theatrical sound late on. The band's Facebook page does add to that earlier description, by including "heavy guitar riffs, multi-dimensional vocals and diverse rhythms". I like "multi-dimensional". It fits.

But wait, there's more. Command slows down for an intriguing quiet section that hints at a Spanish sound, but spends much of its time loud and raucous with squealing guitars. Mastery starts out with a symphonic feel, not just because of the vocals but through the guitar build, but then ramps up to be a thrash song. Gentihaa never shift on a dime the way that, say, Mr. Bungle does, but they move through a host of genres without really acknowledging a boundary at any point. The achingly slow outro is fantastic too.

What surprises me most here is that Gentihaa don't appear to have recorded anything before, at least in this particular form. The band formed in 2015 but this is apparently their debut. Each member came from other bands, but even there the genres are varied. Vocalist Andre, for instance, sang for a melodic death band called Wings in Motion, a thrash/groove band by the name of Memorain and even a parody band called, get this, Sonata Antarctika. The variety here does explain a lot.

I for one am eager to hear more and not only because Gentihaa are one more interesting band from Greece. All of this is good and some of it is really great. It bodes well for a bright future.

Friday, 4 October 2019

Angel - Risen (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 4 Oct 2019
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Wikipedia

The 2019 trend of old or established bands releasing new product after many years away from the studio continues with Angel, the Washington, DC rockers who were discovered in a nightclub in 1975 by Gene Simmons and built quite a reputation over a few albums in the seventies. They split up in 1981 but got back together in 1998, releasing a new album, In the Beginning, a year later which happened to be twenty years after its predecessor, 1979's Sinful.

Well, this closely duplicates that feat, the current incarnation of the band getting together in 2018 with this album coming one year on and twenty years after In the Beginning. I wonder if that was a deliberate choice by the two current founder members, singer Frank DiMino and guitarist Punky Meadows. If so, I wonder if we can expect a fresh breakup and another reformation twenty further years down the road. These guys aren't going to be young in 2038.

They certainly seem to have got the bit between their teeth this time out. I have to point out that Risen has a pretty ambitious running time, lasting an hour and a quarter. There are no less than seventeen tracks on offer, two of which are re-recorded songs from their first album, the bookends Angel Theme and Tower. This is too much material and I could see it succeeding better as two separate albums, but it's still surprisingly solid.

In fact, it's fantastic for a while. Under the Gun, Shot of Your Love, Slow Down and Over My Head are strong rockers that could easily have been singles back in the seventies. 1975, an ode to the year they were founded, is better still because it includes a glorious keyboard intro of the sort that's sadly not done very often any more. It lasts a couple of minutes, which give way to soft guitar and reminiscing lyrics. Eventually we get vocal harmonies and a patient but tasty guitar solo. Production aside, this song feels like it's 1975 through and through and it's surprising to hear something like this in 2019.

What follows is a mixture of decent songs, weaker songs and surprising songs that betray not merely Angel's influences but who Angel influenced. For the latter, check out (Punky's Couch Blues) Locked, Cocked and Ready to Rock. It owes a great deal to AC/DC, a band who aren't namechecked in the lyrics of 1975, but it also helps to show how Angel influenced the eighties and bands like Y&T. Kiss were far more successful but Angel were one of the bands that all the other bands listened to and they seeped into their bones.

The majority are decent but there are so many of them that it gets too much. There's nothing particularly wrong with Don't Want You to Go, for instance, but it suffers by showing up fourteen tracks in. If it isn't as good as Turn Around and Desire, and they're not as good as Under the Gun and Shot of Your Love, then we start to wonder how bad it must be. It's actually a good song and it loses out only by comparison; on another album, it could have been a highlight.

The lesser songs for me are the more ballad oriented ones. I didn't want to stand up for Stand Up and I.O.U. is a notable step down. It's a sentimental love song that's wildly overdone and it reminds that, as much great material came out of the seventies, there's a lot that we'd like to leave there too. Even if these two had been cropped, the album would still have lasted over an hour and it would have been better for it. Trying to maintain the pace of the first four tracks is wildly ambitious and it trips Angel up in the end.

The most surprising song for me was Our Revolution as it has a really nice heavy riff. I don't think of Angel being a particularly heavy band but they do it with style and I wonder how this album would have played had they done it more often. As this song proves, you can be heavy and still have hooks to die for.

I really hope that Angel don't drift back away again because this is a good album that could have been truly great with some judicious trimming. I feel like I have to give it a seven but, cut down to the best ten tracks, it would easily have been an eight and very possibly a nine.

Azrael - Azrael (2019)

Country: Spain
Style: Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Oct 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Sometimes it pays to do your homework first. I discovered Azrael labelled as a speed metal band from Spain, which sounded exactly like what I wanted this early morning, especially as their name was surely sourced from the Crimson Glory song of the same name. And hey, this is a self-titled album so surely it's their debut, right?

Well, almost all of that is completely wrong. They are indeed from Spain but they've been around since 1991 and this is their eighth album. They started out playing speed metal but they've slowed down over time and now play heavy metal with a power metal edge. So this isn't remotely what I expected it to be. Fortunately, they're still a pretty good band, so happy discovery!

One thing I'll call out quickly is that the production here is excellent. I could easily hear all six band members in the eight songs on offer, though the bass is used primarily for texture. It isn't hard to hear the keyboards, which hang around each song like an aura. There's plenty of chugging rhythm guitar while the lead is soloing. And the voice of Marc Riera grounds this as power metal even when the musicians who play behind him up their tempo.

Frankly, until the final track, En Tu Propio Terreno, I'd suggest that it's hard to imagine that Azrael used to play speed metal. That song makes their origins clear, even if they hold back the reins and play more for tone more than speed. Especially before that song, the band play like a trained horse being led through a dressage routine than a wild one let out to just gallop for the sheer hell of it.

While that's surely my favourite song here, it's still power metal at heart; it's just a faster and heavier power metal song than those that precede it. I got a Helloween vibe from this one, especially through Mario G. M.'s solos which are warm and pleasant at whatever speed they play. The next fastest is probably Camino Incierto; that's power metal through and through and I think it would remain so even if the atmospheric keyboard layer was stripped away.

I appreciated how down to business it stayed. There are no intro tracks or interludes and none of the songs extend wildly: The shortest, Falsa Fé, is over three and a half minutes and the longest, En Tu Propio Terreno, stays under six. They're all self-contained and willing to do their thing and move on to the next. There are no ballads either, even if Hoy por Fin and Me Quema start out like they're going to be. Every track kicks ass, even with everything built on melodies, even the riffs and the solos. Nothing here outstays its welcome.

While I've always enjoyed the European style of power metal that grew out of Keeper of the Seven Keys, I've been away from it long enough that I couldn't tell you which bands Azrael most resemble. Clearly there's some Helloween in here and the band claim Symphony X as an influence, but I'm thinking more of Stratovarius with less intricate keyboards. They're not as epic as Rhapsody but more varied than Sabaton. They're heavier than Sonata Arctica but softer than Blind Guardian. They're more consistently metal than Avantasia but less than Iced Earth. OK, maybe I'm remembering more than I thought!

The core of the band has been together from the beginning. Half the members are co-founders and Mario G. M. joined them soon afterwards in 1993. It's in vocalists and keyboard players that they've been less successful, but Riera has been with them now since 2009 and he sang for Absolom with two founders of Azrael, so everyone clearly knows each other well. They're obviously very comfortable with each other. enough to know exactly who should shine at any particular moment.

If there's a flaw, it's that it's hard to call out favourites. Everything is played not only with a consistent tone and style but with consistent quality too. En Tu Propio Terreno grabbed me immediately as the track least like its peers, with only Camino Incierto close, but False Fé grew on me by my second time through. In short, every track here is good but little is spectacular. I'm getting interested in those seven prior albums though.

Thursday, 3 October 2019

The 69 Eyes - West End (2019)

Country: Finland
Style: Gothic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 13 Sep 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

If I recall correctly, my first experience of the 69 Eyes and their fellow Finnish goth rockers, HIM, was on CKY videos that were all over Napster at the turn of the millennium. I liked both bands and kept up with them for a while but eventually lost track when my life moved away from music. I like that the 69 Eyes stayed together throughout and are still going 30 years on with only one line-up change: Jussi 69 replaced Lotto on drums in 1992.

Their sound has matured but their influences are still clear and they're an odd mixture that still works surprisingly well. The core sound is a heavier take on eighties British goth bands like the Sisters of Mercy, with a vocal delivery from Jyrki 69 that's often so similar to Andrew Eldritch that only the fact that the latter doesn't release new studio material saves us from having to try to tell the difference. If the Sisters ever do release their fourth album, I wonder how much it'll sound like Outsiders.

However, there's a lot more here than updating eighties goth. In fact, Two Horns Up (and the album as a whole) starts with a Black Sabbath church bell and organ and kicks into gear with a quintessential Bon Jovi bass and drum combo, before easing into that heavy goth groove ten seconds in. There's a lot of hair metal here, though it's mostly buried.

One of the other names I'd throw out is Billy Idol. How often the band shift from the Sisters into a more Idol groove is open to debate, as it's mostly when they get less dark and more upbeat. Even though The Last House on the Left could be viewed as horror punk, the second vocal has a Billy Idol sneer to it and the music is as relentless as usual but not quite so dark.

Another thing that's open to debate is whether the 69 Eyes are a rock band nowadays or a metal band. Slower, more atmospheric material such as Death & Desire ought to underline rock but, for a while, it's done in the way that a symphonic metal band might intro before engaging a higher gear. This song is also notably crafted, which isn't to suggest that the rest aren't but that they tend to ramp up the tempo and kick ass, which isn't what this one wants to do. It's aiming at a very different texture.

Whenever the songs get slower, Jyrki 69 sounds less like Andrew Eldritch and more like Iggy Pop, which is an interesting shift. The closing song, Hell Has No Mercy, is delightful, as if Iggy is singing on a Nick Cave cover of a Shriekback song. The backing music is slow and atmospheric, kind of like Coelacanth done with traditional rock instrumentation. I can't get enough of this and, while I've listened to the album in entirety a few times, I've stopped here often to keep this song on repeat for a while.

In fact, I'd suggest that Hell Has No Mercy is the real highlight here, even though it's rather unrepresentative of the album as a whole. For a highlight that's also a good sample of the album, check out Black Orchid, the third of currently four singles, which also climbs inside your brain and immediately puts down roots.

This is a good album, the twelfth studio release for the 69 Eyes. It's good enough that I want to go back and listen to the five or six I never heard on their original release. They do what they do well, which seems to be a gimme for Finnish bands nowadays, but they've been doing it for a long time now. I wish them a happy thirtieth anniversary and this is a great way to celebrate.

Carnage Inc. - Tenebris (2019)

Country: India
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 Sep 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

I reviewed a thrash album from India in August and here's another one, from Mumbai's Carnage, Inc. I prefer this outfit to Sceptre because they're more consistent, the vocals of the former letting them down. Varun Panchal is an effective old school thrash vocalist and he leads Carnage, Inc. well without ever attempting to take over. His bandmates are up to his standard and these seven tracks play very consistently together.

Carnage Inc. claim to play in the classic Bay Area style, but I'm hearing a lot more of the German bands here, especially early on with lots of Kreator and Destruction in Eradicate the Empire, DeathScape and Saffron is the New Black. When that Bay Area influence does show up, it doesn't bring to mind any one particular band over another, unlike the Sceptre album, which was a clear nod to Death Angel. There's certainly some of that here too, but also moments that clearly come from Metallica, Megadeth, Exodus and Testament.

Even with old school influences, Carnage Inc. are a much newer band, Sceptre starting out at the tail end of the last millennium but this outfit forming as recently as 2011. This is their debut album at a full length, though they released an EP, Fury Incarnate, in 2016. I can only assume that they've been honing their writing and performance on the stages of Mumbai over the last few years because these are mature songs and strong performances. This band is tight.

One downside to the consistency is that, while there are no bad tracks here, nothing really stands out for notice over its peers, at least until a third or fourth time through. The highlights are initially more in parts of songs, like the galloping guitars of DeathScape, the chugging at the end of Murder Maze or the Orphaned Land-esque prog of Tread the Fire.

After a few runs through the album, the songs start to distinguish and they work pretty well as new friends who start to show their depths as we get to know them. Those three Teutonic tracks still play relatively similarly, but the later songs become more interesting. High on Panic, for instance, didn't seem like much first time through but it gradually became a favourite of mine, with a number of tempo shifts.

All the songs here play fast but the second half introduces lots of variety, with High on Panic starting that trend. Monstrosity is a thrash song but it betrays influences outside the genre. Murder Maze reminds me of something I can't place, which is annoying; it's thrash again but it slows down without losing any of its power. Maybe the vocal phrasing reminds me of Sabbat even if Panchal doesn't spit out his words like Martin Walkyier. Tread the Fire is the most different, playing with a few different dynamics and allowing Nikhil Muralidas to be much more obvious with his bass runs than elsewhere.

This is good stuff, even if it takes a little while to properly emerge from the background, and I look forward to another album. This runs short and I definitely left it wanting more. I'd also like to hear more of what's going on in India right now but, when another thrash album shows up, I'll surely be comparing it to Carnage Inc. over Sceptre.