Thursday 31 October 2019

1349 - The Infernal Pathway (2019)

Country: Norway
Style: Black Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 18 Oct 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I can't remember which 1349 album I heard last. It may well have been their least well received studio opus thus far, Revelations of the Black Flame, in 2009, but I enjoyed whichever it was and promptly forgot how they sounded. I see that they've recovered in the eyes of the fans with a couple of further albums and this is their seventh thus far, arriving five years after Massive Cauldron of Chaos, the previous release in 2014.

It would appear that this is a sequel to their 2010 album, Demonoir, because there are a set (ahem) of ambient instrumental interludes all called Tunnel of Set. Demonoir featured Tunnel of Set I to VII and this keeps going, from XIII to X. I'm not sure if there's a story ongoing here but, if there is, I don't see it at all. All I can see that these interludes do is as a means to break up the pace. They don't do anything musically otherwise.

I think what I remember most is the vocal style of frontman Ravn. He has an easily recognisable approach, growling his lyrics with all due harshness but in a way whereby most of them can be understood. Frankly, I see that as a contrast to the rest of the band, because the musicians here play intricate and fast, with all sorts of time and rhythmic changes. Often they feel like an approaching storm with Ravn its intent, clear and blatant at the front.

Most of what he does is reminiscent of Tom G. Warrior of Celtic Frost, just with more enunciation, especially on songs that are also reminiscent of the Frosties like Through Eyes of Stone. However, in Towers Upon Towers he finds a rhythm that reminds of Martin Walkyier's work for Sabbat, another vocalist with recognisable enunciation.

The music is dense and complex. It has an immediate effect through its tone but not otherwise, though repeat listens open it up somewhat. There are some engaging riffs almost buried inside the songs that are reminiscent not only of Celtic Frost but also early Possessed, partly in tone and partly because the tone seems to be all that matters. The riffs don't drive the songs in a traditional fashion. Sure, they catch us up like a tornado and we feel that energy and motion but there's little accompanying sense of direction.

Without direction, these songs are enjoyable but not memorable. Fortunately, there are some exceptions. Towers Upon Towers is a highlight for me because the music follows the voice closer and Ravn finds those strong patterns. It seems to me that the album gets better as it goes, with Deeper Still and Striding the Chasm trying hard, a fresh version of Dødskamp, released earlier this year as a single, standing out for attention and Stand Tall in Fire, the closer, finishing up with something different.

In fact, Stand Tall in Fire, sitting alone on the other side of the last of the Tunnel of Set interludes, is a real anomaly here. It doesn't seem like a black metal song at all for quite a while, building a heavy metal vibe with a long narration, but it does grow. There are more dynamics going on in this one song than on the entire rest of the album, which relies on ferocity and tone instead.

I can't say that I didn't enjoy this but I have a feeling that I'm going to promptly forget how it sounds, just as I did after my last 1349 album.

Katharos XIII - Palindrome (2019)

Country: Romania
Style: Black/Doom Metal, Dark Jazz
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 14 Oct 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives

I have no idea how to describe what Katharos XIII do, but I'm thankful that I'm struggling with that task now because it means that I've finally found them. I wasn't particularly looking for them but I'm always looking for the sort of music that I've never heard before and they're a great example. They really are an answer to questions you don't know you have.

I came upon them described as black/doom metal and it seems that they moved into that from depressive black metal, which really isn't light years away. However, if you imagine black/doom metal, you're not likely to imagine this. It's certainly not the bastard child of Mayhem and Candlemass and it's not remotely like other black/doom bands I've heard, like Barathrum.

I was sold on the album just listening to the bass of Hanos-Puskai Péter at the beginning of the opening song, Vidma, because it's dark and doomy but it has a warm and inviting tone. It's like telling us that things are going to be deadly but come on in anyway, because the water's warm. Then the ethereal voice of Manuela Marchis takes over, soft and melodic but always with power, like Tori Amos if her cover of Slayer's Raining Blood had been her biggest hit. Drummer Sabat refuses to play the expected rhythms, almost improvising over the other musicians. And then...

And then, three minutes in, it shifts from folky jazz into somewhere utterly unique. It's not just the eruption into black metal shrieks, presumably the work of the guitarist and keyboardist who goes only by F., over an achingly low and slow backdrop of exquisite doom, it's the fact that it's accompanied by a saxophone soloing over the whole thing. Yeah, you heard me. Except that the result is much better than you're currently imagining. It's courtesy of Alex Iovan who's the tenor saxophonist in Katharos XIII, adding an enticing and highly unusual element to their sound.

He's not the only one. A couple of minutes later, it all drops back into an ambient darkness, with jangling bells behind Marchis's haunting voice. I may be listening on Hallowe'en entirely by accident, but this sounds exactly like the house you don't want to trick or treat at, because there's no way you're going to leave. Her voice also splits into different tracks, that weave into something new, like a dark ambient take on Linda Perhacs where the abundant sky around us has fallen and everything's gone except whatever's grinning in the darkness in front of us.

Vidma is over far too quickly, even at eight minutes and change. It caught me so much by surprise that I hadn't quite grasped what was happening until it was done and I had to prepare myself for the next song. Instead, I went back to Vidma and listened to that a few times before moving onwards. That kept on happening too, as I had to fully devour To a Secret Voyage before I moved on to Caloian Voices and so on. By the time I got to Xavernah Glory, the last of the five tracks on offer which, between them, amount to almost an hour of running time, I'd been listening for most of a day.

And I'll be listening to this a lot more, including on headphones tonight in the wee hours with no distractions. There are a lot of parts that could slip easily into the background because they're so ambient, but that's deceptive because there's a lot going on even when it doesn't seem like it. The first couple of minutes of No Sun Swims Thundered fit that bill, but pay attention and they reveal their secrets. This song builds organically and incessantly to what I believe is a theremin solo. That's not a guitar effects pedal, right?

Katharos XIII are from Timișoara and this is their third studio album, with a demo and a split album with fellow Romanians Ordinul Negru to their name before it. Their Facebook page calls what they doom/black metal, but also dark jazz, a genre also known as doom jazz. How have I not heard of this before? It apparently grew out of a merger of film noir soundtracks and dark ambient music. I will be exploring. In the meantime, this is something the likes of which I've never heard before and I like that just because as much as because it's immersive and powerful stuff.

Just like the Ultima Radio album I reviewed earlier this week, this review may or may not help you understand whether it's for you or not. Just check out Caloian Voices on YouTube. If it leaves you dry, this isn't your music. If it wows you the way it wowed me, you'll have found another new favourite band.

Wednesday 30 October 2019

Michael Monroe - One Man Gang (2019)

Country: Finland
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 18 Oct 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I remember Michael Monroe very well, mostly from his years as lead vocalist for the legendary Hanoi Rocks but also from some of his early solo material, as the Not Fakin' It album did well in the UK at the end of the eighties. I know him primarily for pioneering glam metal, though, which this isn't, at least not through and through. It's more of an old school hard rock record that goes all the way back to the Stones and explores outwards from there.

Of course, there's quite a lot of outwards to explore when you travel back that far to a starting point. There's blues, there's rock, there's punk and there are all sorts of intriguing combinations of those, only one of which is that pioneering glam metal which comes out to strut on a couple of great songs, Last Train to Tokyo and The Pitfalls of Being an Outsider, two major highlights to the album.

I think this is the point, of course. There's a general theme here, which is to look at the stereotypical rock 'n' roll lifestyle through the time that Monroe has spent at the heart of it. It's done with tongue firmly in cheek but the majority of songs have at least one telling line that's deceptively simple and surprisingly deep. I rather like, "I'm on the last train back to Tokyo and I can't find my way home."

I prefer the up tempo rockers here, whatever the style. There are fast punk songs like the title track, which comes complete with a guest performance by Captain Sensible on lead guitar, and Black Ties and Red Tape, so punk that it's done and dusted in just over a couple of minutes. I dug the closer too, Low Life in High Places, which starts out like nothing but keeps on building until it wraps up the album in style.

Perhaps my favourite (right now, but ask me again tomorrow) is Junk Planet, which kicks in like a golden era Iggy Pop song with maybe some Alice Cooper swagger added for good measure. Monroe's harmonica does call and return with the lead guitar for a tasty touch. The song's title could be taken in a few different ways, one of which would work as a neat counter to The Pitfalls of Being an Outsider. Even when Monroe was in the middle of the lifestyle, he'd often opt out of things and suddenly become an outsider.

Heaven is a Free State is my other go to track and it's versatile. It has a Latin vibe, courtesy of Tero Saarti's trumpet, which isn't the only reason I heard a lot of Adam Ant in it, but it's never far from being a Stones track, with Monroe sounding even more like Jagger than usual.

My least favourite tracks are the quieter ones, not ballads per se but songs that play down a couple of notches. They're indie rock songs with Americana edges and they're even more introspective than the rest of the album. In the Tall Grass and Midsummer Nights are decent enough but they're the songs that I'm mostly likely to skip over on a repeat listen. Only Wasted Years finds a successful softer blues based vibe, with more harmonica and strong lines like, "For all my friends and all my peers, I got no regrets for my wasted years."

If you recall, the autobiography of Hanoi Rocks was called All Those Wasted Years, so those words are telling. It's worth mentioning here too that the special guest on Wasted Years is Nasty Suicide. As Sami Yaffa is in Monroe's band right now, that means three of the four surviving golden era members of Hanoi Rocks on one song. Only Andy McCoy is missing, but he's just put out a new album of his own that I should look at next week.

On the musical side, One Man Gang is a solid album with plenty of good hooks and the variety it needs to survive. More importantly, on the lyrical side, which seems to be notably important this time out, it's even handed. Monroe sings about all the bad things the rock 'n' roll lifestyle brings, and he's experienced some of the bigger lows that can be brought, but he also tells us that it was a heck of a lot of fun and he's got no regrets. Just to make it very clear, Helsinki Shakedown adds: "We're never gonna change the life we know."

That's good for us, because it means we get albums like this in 2019, with Monroe still young at heart even at 57.

Tandra - Time and Eternity (2019)

Country: Brazil
Style: Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 18 Oct 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | YouTube

I've reviewed other bands from South America, such as Herteitr or Tuatha de Danann, who sound like they ought to be from Europe because their genre of choice happens to be Viking metal or Celtic folk metal. Here's a new one to add to that list! Like Tuatha de Danann, Tandra hail from southern Brazil, though this band are from a couple of states further south, in the city of Curitiba.

They're primarily a folk metal band, but they don't always stay there. The intro, for instance, The Summoning to the New Age, could be mistaken for a spaghetti western theme, while the first track proper, Thunder's Calling, is more of a power metal song, especially during the solos. It's good stuff but it didn't ring many folk metal bells for me.

That kicks in with the third track and does so with emphasis, beginning with flutes, acoustic guitar and hand drum. This is the title track and it stays folk metal even when it veers into extreme territory, some parts sounding a little black and others a little death. It's suitably epic though, with the ending full of singalong Brazilian Vikings.

It doesn't get more folk metal than Open the Bar, which ably showcases the accordion of Carlos Linzmeyer, along with Felipe Ribeiro's flute and all the regular metal instruments. It's a drinking song, as I'm sure you've already guessed, in the Korpiklaani mould, and it really gets the juices flowing. I think I suddenly need a Guinness, but it's not lunchtime yet...

While everything thus far has sounded Scandinavian, Marching to Infinity has a rather French theme. It's a lively piece and it ends up Celtic but there's a lot that an accordion can do and it isn't always drinking songs like Open the Bar and pagan celebrations like The Forest Dance. Marching to Infinity feels a little lost in between those two up tempo scorchers, especially with the former sounding like Korpiklaani and the latter like Alestorm.

The real odd track out here, though, is Last War Sacrifice (Prelude), which is very different. It's an intro to the longest track on offer, Winter Days at eight and a half minutes, and it's an atmospheric ethnic chant. It takes a long horse ride east to the steppes of Mongolia for some throat singing or maybe a long swim west to the plains of the New World for a Native American chant. It wouldn't have felt out of place on the recent Hu album.

I like Winter Days a lot. It's a melodic death metal/folk metal hybrid and a good one, using the best aspects of each genre. The guitars are rampant and the riffs powerful, but they're always melodic and the flutes dance further melodies over the top. Five minutes in, it drops into a folk section, like a clearing in the forest suddenly appeared and we're not chasing through the trees any more, we're able to sit around a fire, revel in being alive and do what we need to keep the winter spirits out. It ends, of course, with us in the saddle again, racing on to wherever, maybe outrunning the cold.

The album wraps up with a delicate three minute outro called Tears of Sorrow which may mean that we never made it and we're lying in the forest snow and we aren't going to be getting up. It definitely has a melancholy air to it.

I still don't grasp why there's such a Scandinavian folk tradition growing in South America right now but, while my mind wonders about the factors to make it happen, my ears relish the fact that these bands do it so well. This is good stuff and varied stuff too. While the party songs, Open the Bar and The Forest Dance, are immediate, the deeper songs grow with further listens, as they should. I'll happily raise a drinking horn to all the Viquingues da América do Sul. Let's hope Google Translate got that bit right!

Tuesday 29 October 2019

Toxic Holocaust - Primal Future: 2019 (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Speed Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 4 Oct 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Toxic Holocaust, who I missed here in Tempe at the weekend, have always been a retro project for Joel Grind, who has generally been the one and only band member over the past couple of decades, but this cover is a thing of beauty, at least for all those of us who grew up renting straight to video VHS tapes back in the eighties. Is that Jean-Claude van Damme's TimeCop hiding inside that traditionally ridiculous post-apocalyptic suit?

Grind comes from Portland, OR but his key influences are European, primarily British. It doesn't take us long in Chemical Warlords to realise how much he likes Venom and that's apparent throughout the album. What part of his voice isn't sourced from Cronos is Cal from Discharge, which is especially obvious on Deafened by the Roar, a minute and a half punk d-beat blitzkrieg. There's Celtic Frost in here too and Bathory and GBH and Warfare and others.

It starts out fast, just as means to go on, with Chemical Warlords, the one single to predate the album, and it rarely lets up. The first time we get a chance to breathe is when Primal Future kicks off with an atmospheric intro and we realise that we're halfway through the album. It really doesn't feel like we've been listening for twenty minutes and, after twenty more, we're not ready to be done.

Part of that is the sheer sonic assault that comes from that early Discharge influence. We're used to those songs being two minutes or less each so that a mere ten of them can't amount to much. However, only Deafened by the Roar is really that short with Controlled by Fear coming close. The others run a more usual four minutes or so each that we might expect from speed metal.

And, while there's a lot of speed metal here, which helps proceedings pass a lot quicker than we expect, Grind does mix up tempos. New World Beyond feels a lot faster than it is because of what's around it, being preceded by the frenetic speed metal workout of Black Out the Code and followed by Deafened by the Roar, but it chugs along at a slower speed with panache. If it isn't as fast, it's a little heavier, the bass high in the mix and Celtic Frost in the inspiration.

The best thing about the album is that it becomes comfortable really quickly because it takes us right back to the eighties. It felt like an old friend I hadn't visited in a while and we picked up exactly where we left off however many years ago.

The worst thing is also that it becomes comfortable really quickly, because it fades away. Once we get past the first four tracks, which are strong, it vanishes until the fantastic riff that kicks off Iron Cage brings it back to attention. And, with nothing to match that later, it fades out again. Maybe we tune in to hear a more Quorthon-inspired vocal in Aftermath, but maybe we don't.

Playing the album a few times on repeat merely emphasised those early tracks and Iron Cage, while the rest vanished. That made me wonder about a rating. I'd initially gone with a solid 7/10 but with half the album falling away, it'll have to be a 6/10, even though there are four stormers of tracks on offer.

One last note: while Grind is the main man here and is usually the only man, I'm not sure that he's solo here. I'm seeing Robert Gray listed on guitars and Tyler Becker on drums. Maybe they're the touring band but they may be on the album itself, which would be something different for Toxic Holocaust.

Ultima Radio - Dusk City (2019)

Country: Austria
Style: Alternative/Post-Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 4 Oct 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | YouTube

Now, this is an interesting sound! Ultima Radio, from Graz in Austria, are clearly a stoner rock band. Just listen to the fuzzy guitar tone; what else could they be? Well, it isn't all they are.

Just check out the opener, Your Skin, as example. There's a lot of fuzz and a lot of feedback, but there's Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers in the riffs and the vocalist brings both David Byrne and Jello Biafra to mind. Who else would break into laughter quite like that as the song wraps up and then chant right into the next? The drums are tribal, making for hypnotic rhythm. The end result is similar to Rage Against the Machine or perhaps David Bowie from his Tin Machine era.

So I guess this is really alternative? The Ultima Radio Bandcamp page lists that, along with post-rock and crossover rock, whatever that is. Certainly, there's some experimental stuff going on, as the band find an wild groove at the midpoint of Limber which sounds like surf music fed through a blender. I never heard grunge bands doing that and this otherwise sounds like more Rage but in a Mary My Hope meets the Pixies framework.

7 of 8 finds another interesting groove. Lead vocalist Zdravko Konrad has an element of Iggy Pop in his voice anyway but it comes out to dominate here on a song that's raucous enough to remind of the Stooges, but with the bass as prominent as it would be in a funk metal band. There's also another layer on top of all this at points that I'm not sure is a guitar or keyboards.

I see that, in addition to the five band members on expected instruments, a sixth is credited for Sound and I wonder if that means that Kevin Prügger is not simply the sound engineer but the band member responsible for adding the extra sounds needed through sampling or whatnot. Certainly, when we get to a couple of interludes, we're apparently on a train and no, I don't just mean the standard blues rhythm.

Interlude I sounds like a haunted house theme. On a train. Yeah, it's not an expected thing, but it sounds cool, as does everything else here. For all of the influences I can cite, by the fourth track, Siberian, Ultima Radio sound like themselves, which is a trick that many bands still haven't figured out after decades of activity.

When Interlude II comes around and we're back on the train, I felt like Iggy as The Passenger, stuck in an alien metropolis soaking in everything around me. I see things from under glass. I look through my window's eye. And all of it is yours and mine. Iggy got it from Berlin. It's what I got from Dusk City.

On their website, Ultima Radio give us a little background. They started out as a stoner rock band, but "What we wanted to create was powerful, eccentric music, regardless of the genre it might eventually end up in." That's a good way to describe them. Sure, they're alternative, but this isn't what I think of first when I think alternative. There are relics of stoner rock here but it's not really stoner rock any more and, while there's clearly psychedelia added, it really isn't psychedelic rock at heart either.

Frankly, I could sit here running through different genres for the rest of a day and still not nail it because the point is that it's versatile. The best I can manage is heavy new wave, but I'm not thinking of Duran Duran. There's soundscape work at play here. Imagine someone like Shriekback or OMD ramping up the volume but still moulding sound into new and darker places. There's a lot of Voivod in Icarus, but it's what Voivod got from Pink Floyd, so maybe this is Ummagumma era Floyd moved on a few decades in a parallel dimension. So maybe it's a Radiohead album we've never heard before.

I've taken you all over with this review and probably confused the crap out of you, but that's fine. If you got confused and left, this isn't going to be for you. However, if you're confused and still reading, trying to figure out just what Ultima Radio sound like from my wild comparisons, then this is very likely to be for you. It's original. It's interesting. And it's damned good.

It have a feeling that this may become an abiding favourite of mine, never quite sounding like anything else even as the years run by, alongside Mary My Hope's Museum, Joy Division's Closer and Natalie Farr's Swept. Check back in with me in a decade.

Monday 28 October 2019

Vinnie Moore - Soul Shifter (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Neo-Classical Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 9 Oct 2019
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Back in the late eighties when guitar shredders seemed to be falling out of the woodwork, I found many of them tedious. There were exceptions. Steve Vai made very interesting music and I really dug Tony McAlpine and Vinnie Moore, who were both part of that scene but found a lot more texture than the norm. Nowadays, the genre is more palatably named neo-classical metal, but that's a name that brings to mind Yngwie Malmsteen rather than Vinnie Moore, who's also been a fantastic guitarist for UFO since 2003.

This is a hard rock album as much as it is a neo-classical metal album, with a lot of funk and jazz to flavour it. It can't be too surprising to find the funk dominating the opening track, Funk Bone Jam, but it's overt in Kung Fu Grip too, which is also a lot more interesting musically, reminding in turns of Jeff Beck, Steve Vai's talkative guitar and, with the liquid tone midway, even Peter Frampton.

In between those two tracks is a more soulful piece, Same Sun Shines, which is the only song here that reminds of me of another piece of music, not that I can place what. I just feel like I've heard these melodies before and the track plays out rather like an instrumental take on a vocal piece, with the lead guitar replacing a voice.

After them comes Mystified and Brother Carlos, less instrumentals and more a pair of solos, as focused as they are on Moore's pure and fluid guitar which soars and wheels and swoops. It's great stuff from Moore but less great from whoever else is here backing him up, because they have very little to do but keep a vague texture in place behind him. The other most famous name here is Rudy Sarzo.

Fortunately that isn't the case on everything here as those other musicians do get their moments in the spotlight, like the bass in Funk Bone Jam, and a lot more to do on other songs, like Soul Rider. This is a lesser piece, even if it's still a good one, but it's constructed well so that those musicians get the chance to actually contribute some talent rather than just hold back to showcase the guitar hero on the cover.

There's some of that in Gainesville Station too, which turns into a southern rock song, right down to the honky tonky piano that shows up late on. This could be a solo showcase stuck halfway into a Lynyrd Skynyrd song like Call Me the Breeze. This variety is one of the reasons the album is as good as it is and it's one of the reasons that Mind's Eye stood out for me back in 1986 when Moore was a young shredder on the rise.

A few years ago, we flew over to Scotland so that we could be at the wedding of my best friend growing up. I honestly delayed the flight out for one day so that I could see UFO live at Joe's Grotto, a tiny and, as of this week, a late lamented live music venue here in Phoenix. They blew me away and Moore was a key part of why. Of course, he has a specific job to play in UFO which prevents him from taking the sort of musical avenues that he can take on his solo albums. I just hope UFO fans buy them to see what else Moore can do.

Here, they'll find that he can play like other guitar heroes, whether they be vaguely namechecked (like who do you think Brother Carlos is about?) or reasonably obvious (Mirage feels very much like a Jeff Healey song to me). They'll find that he can dance seamlessly from one genre to the next, with a rock song following a soul song, which following a funk song. They'll find, without much surprise, that he's damn good at doing whatever he feels like doing. And, while I learned that in 1986 listening to Mind's Eye, I do feel that he's matured immensely over the decades.

If you don't know Vinnie Moore yet, go see UFO live and buy this.

Double Crush Syndrome - Death to Pop (2019)

Country: Germany
Style: Glam Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 25 Oct 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | YouTube

There's a lot of irony in the title of this album, a punky glam rock platter from Germany's Double Crush Syndrome, because this band are clearly trying, with a reasonable amount of success too, to craft the perfect pop song. Then again, the pop scene has shifted from Marc Bolan to Adam Ant to Prince to, cough, Kanye West and, if the band's point is that that really isn't a good progression, then I'm totally on board.

The oddest thing about this album, though, is that it sounds kind of like a compilation, even though, as far as I know, every track is performed by the same three musicians. The main man is Andy Brings, who sings the lead vocals and plays lead guitar; he's quite obviously a David Bowie fan and perhaps it led him to merge genres the way he does, these songs all being combinations of pop, rock and punk.

Now, Brings used to be in Sodom, one of the Teutonic big four, and Powergod after that, but there's nothing here like those bands. Only a couple of the eleven songs here could even be described as metal: Whore and We Cannot Be Ruled. The former includes a recognisable Iron Maiden riff halfway through, while the latter sounds like Bowie singing for the Ramones. There's quite a lot of Twisted Sister here too, on songs like Souls to Sell, and Tonight is able to successfully find a Hanoi Rocks vibe, so there's definitely rock in the band's arsenal.

I should add that Tonight is also the only song to exceed four minutes and it reaches five and a half, so it clearly has special meaning to the band. It's a simple song, with repetitive punk chords stuck while Brings preaches the band's manifesto: "We're the freaks who really don't care what all the other people think." It really works and, late on, it kicks so outrageously into high gear that it ought to send audiences wild at gigs.

Most of what's here is rooted in old school punk, though, as song lengths of two and a half to four minutes might suggest. Cocaine Lips may be the best song here and it's the Ramones through and through. The one German language track, Die berühmten drei Worte, is like a punk jigsaw puzzle, with the Sex Pistols morphing into Blondie via the ever-present Ramones. While I had to translate the title on Google (it means The Famous Three Words), I do know enough German to understand which three that means. Sure enough, they show up.

Those punk influences are varied enough for songs like I'm in Love with You to remain punk even when they're more delicate pop rock; this one's kind of like a Cheap Trick song with a very catchy hook. With Me is straightforward glam rock as David Bowie might have sung it before he turned into the Thin White Duke. Refuse to Kiss Ass couldn't have been anything except punk just from its title alone and it doesn't disappoint.

The oddest song is Mistakes We Love to Make, which is enticingly different to me and I'm really interested in the influences in play. It starts out as Tigertailz might if they ever covered the Sisters of Mercy, a combination I never thought I'd write down, but it ends up with an Adam Ant chorus, Bowie singing backup. Yeah, that's a heady mix but it's a tasty one. It's easily one of my favourite tracks here and I have a bunch of those.

Sadly, I'm living in the US where the only punk bands who get major airplay are Green Day and their type. Double Crush Syndrome kick their ass without even having to try and they deserve that level of success, even though punk traditionally expects lines like, "Money is good, fame is better" to never be anything except ironic. I hope that both come their way but, if neither show up, I hope that they keep on kicking ass in the underground for a long time. Death to Pop, ich liebe dich.

Friday 25 October 2019

Acid Reign - The Age of Entitlement (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 23 Sep 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Back in June, Xentrix released their first studio album since 1996. As if to underline that old school British thrash is back with a vengeance, here's an Acid Reign album, their first since 1990's Obnoxious. The big difference is that, when Xentrix reformed in 2013, it was with their original line-up, all four founding members, while this Acid Reign are original vocalist H with an all-new line-up of musicians. As he says, it's a reboot not a reunion.

I liked the new Xentrix album more than many, I think, but I called them out for a lack of attitude on a few early tracks. That's really not a problem on this album, because attitude is everywhere here, so much so that I wondered about how old these guys are. H is no spring chicken any more, but he sounds as snarly and pissed off as he did when I last saw them live at the Queens Hall in Bradford way back in 1990. Holy crap, I'm getting old too!

I felt invigorated after blitzing through this surprise of a return. I'd say that this isn't just the best Acid Reign album to date, it's also the best Anthrax album I've heard in decades. These are punky thrash songs with riffs bleeding out of the walls and hooks thrown at us with the unerring accuracy of a slapstick comedy pie fight. They're unapologetically geeky too. Like a song about The Evil Dead, namechecking both the short film that predated it and the first sequel, wouldn't fit on an Anthrax album? Of course it would.

There's even a blitzkrieg of a cover right in the middle of the album and it isn't even one we might expect to recognise. It's Blood Makes Noise and the original was by Suzanne Vega, of all people. It couldn't be more transformed if they'd tried, but it fits right in next to the in your face punk attitude of My Peace of Hell ("Help me please, I wanna be sedated!").

With everything on the album raging exactly as it should, it's hard to pick highlights but it is possible. The New Low is an excellent single, a snarly punch in the nose of a relationship ("Hate you, can't face you, can't live without you.") Sense of Independence may be surprisingly short but it also has everything, from blistering speed to some glorious slow chugging that I guarantee will generate pits everywhere Acid Reign play. Within the Woods isn't just an easy song to talk about, it's a great track period.

And I'm rather partial to the two minute breathless chase of a song that is Ripped Apart. What's more, I'm really digging the fact that there's so much variety here on an album that consistently kicks our ass. Just take Ripped Apart as an example. It comes right after the eight minute epic that is Within the Woods and leads into the delicate intro of United Hates. That isn't a problem for Acid Reign and the album is all the better for it.

Half of me feels jealous that I'm no longer in England where I could catch the likes of Acid Reign and Xentrix touring together. The other half knows that I'm in Phoenix, which was the next great thrash capital back in the day and a town where the subgenre is also firmly back on the rise. The Flotsam and Jetsam album in January was a fantastic slab of thrash and Sacred Reich are back too, their first album in 23 years a solid if long overdue return to the studio. It's a good time for us old school thrash fans to be alive!

Shadow Weaver - Shadow Weaver (2019)

Country: Canada
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 9/10 (originally 8/10)
Release Date: 11 Oct 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook

I wish I knew more about Shadow Weaver. They hail from Calgary, way up there in the frozen wastes of northern Canada, and I presume that this EP is their debut release, but that's about it. They have a Bandcamp page and a Facebook one too, neither of which tells us much about the band. Who's in it and when did they get together? I have no idea, though I'd like to know.

I'd also like to see them cite their influences because, while they do claim to be influenced by the seventies, they don't say who and it isn't the usual suspects. There's no more Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple or Black Sabbath than in any rock band nowadays. They don't sound like Judas Priest, as so many do in 2019. Musically, they remind of early Iron Maiden, but they may have sourced their intricate twin guitar attack from the source, namely Wishbone Ash.

To me, this is heavy Wishbone Ash in the way that so many NWOBHM bands tried to be. It's faster and more urgent, ditching all the quiet and introspective moments but keeping all the intricate solos, fills and time changes that we know and love from the first couple of Maiden albums. I'd raise Diamond Head too because there are riffs on top of riffs, but Shadow Weaver are too punky in attitude for that to be truly fair.

The vocals feel older school, more sourced in the seventies than the NWOBHM bands that copied them. They're done in an emotional operatic style, but not with a voice that's showing off. This singer isn't trying to be Rob Halford or Bruce Dickinson. At points, it sounds like he's crying the vocals as much as singing them. Given that the guitars are so clearly the focus, I'd think that this singer isn't even really trying to be a singer. I'd bet money that he also plays bass or one of those guitars and that's the role he thinks of himself in.

There's some psychedelia as the final song gets underway, but it ends up in the same sort of place, with Maiden's Phantom of the Opera springing quickly to mind at points. This final song is only the fourth on offer, which is the biggest problem with this release. Give me four tracks like these and I want another half dozen! We have to make do with a mere seventeen minutes, though I'm hoping that this will be successful enough to prompt a full length album soon.

I've had this playing on repeat for a couple of hours and, frankly, I can't pick a favourite track. All four are easily worthy of that honour. Even with the first couple, Horizon and Mind's Eye, ending under the four minute mark, they kick off as they mean to go on with guitar solos, because why the heck not? The latter is all melody and gallop and, if it isn't the single, it's a logical choice. Holy Woman builds on riffs rather than solos and fills four minutes well before the longer self-titled closer, presumably an anthem for the band, wraps it all up.

Googling for Shadow Weaver just gives me gigs in Calgary, where they seem to play support to bands like Chron Goblin, Black Mastiff and the Well. Either Calgary is kicking serious ass right now or those guys are getting blown off the stage, because there's no way that Shadow Weaver are this good on record without coming at least close to it on stage as well. Calgary's only sixty degrees cooler than Phoenix right now. It's tempting!

Thursday 24 October 2019

Eloy - The Vision, the Sword and the Pyre, Part II (2019)

Country: Germany
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 5/10
Release Date: 25 Sep 2019
Sites: Facebook | Prog Archives | Official Website | Wikipedia | YouTube

I remember Eloy from the eighties, with albums like Colours, Planets and the soundtrack to Code Name: Wild Geese, though Frank Bornemann had formed them as far back as 1969 and the seventies saw them busy and successful. I hadn't realised that they'd called it a day in 1984 and then got back together four years later, but they haven't gone away agian since and this appears to be a twentieth studio album for them. Their line-up has been pretty consistent as of the reformation, with only the drummer changing recently.

As the title suggests, this is the second half of a long concept album, the first of which had exactly the title you might expect and which saw release a couple of years ago. It's a rock opera about Joan of Arc, something that Bornemann (the only founding member to make it past 1975) had been planning since the nineties. I haven't heard the first half, which might help, but I didn't get much of a sense of flow from this second half and I can see a few reasons for that.

One is that some of the tracks don't feel as if they're meant to be songs at all and are presumably only here to serve as links within the bigger story. Some are spoken word pieces like Résumé and Rouen, while others are musical like the clumsily titled Between Hope, Doubts, Fear and Uncertainty. Maybe if the flow was more obvious (and, of course, it might well be if we listen to both albums together as a pair), this might work but, for me, these only served as interruptions.

Another is that the songs that did grab me often ended far too quickly, like Patay, which reprises the driving Pink Floyd approach that feels so tasty on the opening track, An Instant of Relief... Still the War Rages On. That one runs six and a half minutes, the longest song of thirteen, so it feels like a complete piece, but Patay drifts away without really being over. I wonder if Bornemann didn't want any one song to dominate and so trimmed everything ruthlessly to keep us moving on. Even the final song, the culmination of the two album set, feels acutely underwhelming, another link but to nothing.

A third is that some of it feels forced, as if the lyrics and the music were composed entirely separately and then jammed together. This works both ways too. Songs like Armistice or War? feel like they're pretty strong musically but the words had to be forced to fit. Paris feels more like it's a stronger lyrical piece but the music isn't much more than mild accompaniment.

The result of all this didn't impress me on a first listen much at all, but some of it improved on a second time through. I like the opener a lot. That Pink Floyd sound is the sound from songs like Empty Spaces and One of These Days, a real emphatic sound but one that's still commercial. This is akin to an accessible Floyd but where the lyrics aren't as important. And Patay and other songs like Abandoned go back to that. They're the highlights.

I really ought to check out Part I before dismissing this as vaguely decent, occasionally beautiful and powerful but more often routine and forgettable. However, this isn't just an album or even half of a double album, it's what Bornemann has been building for decades, the only project to see light under the Eloy name since Visionary in 2009. For something that meaningful, it's surely a disappointment.

Paladin - Purification du Mal (2019)

Country: Canada
Style: Doom/Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Sep 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives

Wanting something muddier and more dismal than commerical prog rock, I took a hard left turn into doom/death but wasn't impressed by anything I found. I found a bunch of albums that were much older than I thought and a bunch that just weren't any good. The first one to grab me like a meathook to the gut was this debut from a French Canadian band called Paladin, because they're way down there in the mire with a tone that refused to let me go.

It's really downtuned, to the degree that it's actually fun to play with the equalizer to see if we can actually make it any deeper through software. It could be described as the musical equivalent of getting stuck in a swamp but kind of enjoying the experience rather than climbing out. The lead vocalist, Louis, growls so low that there's almost a warmth to it. The band play along with him except for wild moments of vibrancy, like towards the end of Brûle when he lets out a tortured cry and a guitar solo erupts from it like some demon escaping its mortal prison.

This is an interesting sound because it's not what I tend to expect from the doom/death genre. Mostly Paladin feel like a death metal band to me (they cite Autopsy as a key influence and there's some early Possessed in here too) and they certainly play fast for doom/death but the doom is in the tone. Saint-Barthélémy feels like a death metal song, for example, until the guitar leaps out to layer a melancholy tone over it. Louis lets out another tortured cry in this song too and I adored it as much as I did in Brûle.

Paysans impies, on the other hand, develops in the opposite direction, with an early doom metal tempo that speeds up to finds a death metal vibe, though it refuses to stay fast and it mires down gloriously during the guitar solo. While I enjoyed the musicianship in the traditional sense of what notes were played and in what order, this worked for me more like a tactile experience. I had this on at work but I still found myself closing my eyes so as to feel the weight of the music in my hands.

The last album I remember feeling so tangible was by Beyond All Temples and Myths by a French gothic metal band, Winds of Sirius, and that was a couple of decades ago. It also hasn't been remembered well, except by me, and I do wonder if this will play out the same way. Will I be raving about Paladin in reviews of other bands in 2039 to the confused recollections of many who let it flow right past them as nothing special?

I don't think either of these bands are doing anything technical to warrant specific praise. They aren't the best musicians and they don't have the best production. However, they achieve something with their tone that affects me deep inside. Winds of Sirius employed much wider dynamics but the result is similar. It's all mood and texture and weight and feel.

I'd love to hear what others think of this. Passion mortifère runs too long and its solo is right out there on the edge, but it just feels exquisite to me. It might not to you. You might not hear anything special in the tortured cries that Louis occasionally comes back to (and there are more than one in Diablerie!) but they play perfectly to me. I'm not sure what emotion he has in mind for the audience to hear, but they're like a happy place for me.

The biggest problem I found with this album is that a few songs just ended on me. L'ordre suprême and Paysans impies come quickly to mind as examples. They both felt like they needed something extra to wrap them up and the band had no idea what that could be. Passion mortifère does the same thing, as if the band didn't know where to go next, so just kept on doing what they were doing until they weren't doing it any more.

While I have to stay with a 7/10 rating, this is likely to be one of my very favourite albums of 2019 for no better reason than I feel it. I adore those tortured cries, I adore the galloping drums in Purification du mal, I adore the wild, almost out of control solos. And I adore that I feel it as much as I hear it.

Wednesday 23 October 2019

Borknagar - True North (2019)

Country: Norway
Style: Progressive Black Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 27 Sep 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Why I haven't listened to more Borknagar, I have no idea. Sure, they started out around the time my life took me in other directions, minimising the time I could spend in the scene. The Friday Rock Show was over, Kerrang! had gone all alternative and I'd lost my connections to the cutting edge. So yeah, it makes sense that I wasn't paying attention at the beginning but they've been a prolific and major player ever since, with this being their eleventh album in a quarter of a century. I should have paid more attention.

As a fan of most genre-hopping, I like this a lot. The description I usually see, of progressive black metal, is highly appropriate but not quite as it's usually applied. This isn't black metal that just does progressive stuff. It alternates between progressive rock and black metal and often merges the two in a way that creates something very different. The opening track is a great example.

It's an eight and a half minute epic, because Borknagar don't tend to write short songs, and it's called Thunderous. It's powerful all the way through, but it begins with clean vocals, enticing ones over appropriately thunderous drums. They may not be quite as pure as Jon Anderson's but they remind a lot of his style and approach and they gain much the same result.

Then the black metal kicks in, as if another radio station has powered up on the same frequency, and those vocals go bleak and harsh. Midway through, the band move into a notably eastern instrumental section, oddly given the album is called True North and that's pretty much where Borknagar are from, being based in Bergen on the western coast of Norway opposite the Shetlands.

It's an intriguing mixture and it stays intriguing throughout the album. Up North kicks off at a gallop like a Uriah Heep song, before moving into more progressive territory. The Fire That Burns starts out extreme but gradually becomes a Yes song, which Wild Father's Heart is for almost all of its six minutes. Into the White is mostly progressive too, but there are some overt Black Sabbath dynamics going on too, especially towards the beginning.

Most of that is surprising to me because I haven't been paying attention but it might not be for you. What else is surprising is the balance between the progressive side of things and the extreme side. The vocals especially stay clean for most of the album, shifting into harsh black metal only as needed rather than the other way around which is more common nowadays. Sometimes it shifts at a certain point in the song, but more often that second voice just joins in for a few lines when that sort of contrast is needed.

There's also a folk element here, which adds another intriguing texture to the dynamics that are so key to what Borknagar do. It shines out at points in a number of songs, but is most obvious in the final track, Voices, which feels like a rural spiritual with darker orchestration. It may not be the best song on the album, without the opportunities for exploration that Tidal or Thunderous have, but it's patient and effective and it's surely the most evocative track on offer, a fantastic way to end the album. I could see it being sampled on a TV show during a particularly emotional scene.

In short, there's a lot here. This is an album to dive into and explore and it's still turning up new things for me on the fourth time through. The band have made some major changes, so I'm especially interested to go back to the previous album, 2016's Winter Thrice, to see how it compares.

While Øystein Brun, guitarist and only remaining founder member, continues on, his long standing vocalist, best known as Vintersorg, left earlier in 2019; while both lead guitarist Jens Ryland and Baard Kolstad, the drummer for most of this decade, both left last year. Those are major changes but I have to say that this album sounds both mature and fresh. Paying attention is a good thing.

Autumn Tree - Autumn Tree (2019)

Country: Germany
Style: Southern Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 11 Oct 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | YouTube

If I've been surprised by the continued rise of stoner rock in countries far away from its roots in California, I'm perhaps even more surprised about how southern rock is spreading across the globe. Autumn Tree aren't from Georgia or Florida; they're from Mannheim, Germany and I've noticed similar bands in nations like Russia, Greece and even Malaysia, places we should struggle to associate with Jack Daniels and the confederate flag.

Autumn Tree are very much a modern southern rock band, by which I mean that there's some Lynyrd Skynyrd and Creedence Clearwater Revival in their sound (check out the slide in the background during Lynda Q), but a lot less than more recent alternative rock bands like Black Stone Cherry, Alter Bridge or even Creed, though this outfit tend to be much heavier than Creed ever got. There's just a hint of country too, but completely from an anti-Nashville mindset. These aren't generic hunks in hats and they're never going to play the Grand Ole Opry.

They're modern and crunchy, with a prominent bass and a lively drummer, and their lead singer, Kai Lutz, clearly spent the nineties listening to grunge albums with the lights off. The quieter the band get, like some early parts of The Distance, the more it sounds like his voice is built of disaffection and near depression borrowed from singers like Chris Cornell. Sometimes, as on Promised Land, Lutz highlights that he listened to Metallica too, because that's a seriously James Hetfield chorus.

I do like Autumn Tree even more when they kick it up a notch and acknowledge that Metallica influence. Barman starts out slower but it ends up ratcheting up the speed and kicking serious ass. Kings of Rumble really threatens for a moment midway through but then slows back down again. And that's not unusual as the band often resist the urge to kick into high gear, staying more at a mid-pace and adding texture with effects pedals, as Velvet Revolver used to do.

I quite like that contrast of up music and down vocals and both do fall prey to the pull of the other on occasion without making it a habit. The question is always going to come down to how strong the hooks are, because these are all songs designed to be radio friendly without ever selling out. Almost all the eleven tracks are three or four minutes long, get down to business in no time flat and solidify their groove just as quickly.

I talk a lot offline about the need for content curators in rock and metal, people who can enable discovery for others in a world where everything's a click or two away but nobody really knows where to look. It's what I try to do at Apocalypse Later, explaining what obscure bands do and attempting with words to describe whether you're likely to be into them. With Autumn Tree, I just need to send you to YouTube, because any one song will tell you whether they're your sort of band or not.

If you dig it, whichever song that happens to be, you're going to dig all of this album and Autumn Tree are going to become favourites in your household. If, however, you don't, nothing else here is going to convert you. It's all about that tone. The vocals and guitars are either going to be exactly right for you or they're going to remind you why you hated the nineties, however much Skynyrd they sneak in. Let me know which.

Tuesday 22 October 2019

Kobra and the Lotus - Evolution (2019)

Country: Canada
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 20 Sep 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

There's something acutely comfortable about Kobra and the Lotus and I wonder if that's why I haven't liked them more in the past.

They're a very easy band to listen to and there's something archetypal about their approach that makes them easy to feel at home with. For instance, this album kicks off with a brief intro, Evodem, which is close to the definition of anticipation in musical form, and then it kicks into the title track just like the band are leaping out onto stage already ratcheted up to high gear. It's a feeling that every band out there aims to evoke in its audience, but Kobra and the Lotus nail it without seeming to even try. Maybe it comes that naturally to them or maybe they work really hard at making us believe that.

They're also a good combination of the old and the new. There's a quiet spot in Evolution that sounds enough like Pink Floyd that old timers like me perk up our attention, but then we roll into Burn!, which is fundamentally modern with its vocal effects, deliberate pauses and patient riffs, almost melodic metalcore in its approach, yet it still feels right to older fans who tend to complain about elements like them. I think the message that comes through is that Kobra and the Lotus are a new band (a mere decade old, even with six albums to their name) who make new music in new styles but who always remain accessible to rock fans who predate them by decades.

As one of those older fans, I liked them from the first time I heard them a few years ago and I find it very difficult not to like anything they do, but I'm no die hard fan and, as you can tell, I'm still trying to figure out why not. I shouldn't complain about how they can sound so ruthlessly commercial while also kicking our asses. They even make a song called Get the Fuck Out of Here sound like it should be a radio hit. That's a glorious, deceptively simple riff and other bands should be jealous.

Really, whatever is sitting in my brain constantly making me doubt myself on this needs to shut up because this is a damn good album. Every single track does its job and a whole bunch of them could be released on their own merits for frequent radio play without ever losing their power. These are not safe ballads; they're all rockers that happen to just have strong hooks layered onto their strong riffs. In fact, it's hard to think which should be top of the list for single release. It was Burn! and that makes a lot of sense, but so would Thundersmith or Wounds or especially We Come Undone.

Why Kobra and the Lotus aren't household names, I have no idea. Kobra Paige has a powerful voice, in an era where the talent shows have made that almost mandatory, and she knows exactly how to use it to its best effect. Listen to her soar on Circus, for instance, where that voice sounds especially larger than she is, and then ponder on how surprising it should be that you aren't focused entirely on her because you're also listening to the music.

And that's probably the key. She's the band's focus because she's cute and blonde and she sounds like a million bucks, but those other guys behind her are so tight that they make her job so much easier. None of them were in the band when it began, back in 2009, and Ronny Gutierrez only joined last year, but they feel like they've all been playing together since the eighties.

The lyricism may be utterly different but, in many ways, Kobra and the Lotus are a modern day Dio. Everything seems easier and simpler than it really is, each song is hard enough to kick our ass but soft enough to play well to a mainstream audience and it's all led by a powerful and recognisable voice. I need to go back to their earlier albums, because I don't remember them being this heavy and this commercial at the same time. Maybe this album is exactly what they need to break through whatever biases some of us have inexplicably conjured up in the past. It's that good.

Jangar - Jelang Malam (2019)

Country: Indonesia
Style: Stoner Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Oct 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram

Last time I reviewed a psychedelic rock album from Indonesia, it ended up as my album of the month runner up for February. That was O.M. by Mooner and it featured much more delicate pop-flavoured music than this, the debut from a stoner rock band called Jangar, who hail from Denpasar on the island of Bali.

Their Facebook page is named Jangar Doom and there's certainly a lot of doom in the heavy riffs on offer. Just check out the one a couple of minutes into Proklamator, which Black Sabbath would be proud of. However, they're not the sort of doom metal band that wallows in sonic mud. They're happier, livelier and more energetic than any doom metal band I can think of, so I think they fit better into the heavy stoner rock category.

A couple of other things back that up. One is that there's a lot of blues in their sound, especially the guitar of Adi Sanjaya, who feels like he's leapt forward in time from the late sixties where he would have fit in well with a band like Blue Cheer. I'm loving these psychedelic albums lately that could easily have been recorded years ago, if only the technology in use back then could pump up the bass and bass drums the way that we can now.

The other is that the production is most notable for its apparent complete absence. What I mean by that is that I'm sure that nailing this particular sound was the result of careful configuration in the studio, but the whole album sounds urgent and in our face. It's as if this four piece band set up their instruments in a garage and jammed for an hour after someone pressed record. Jangar often sound like a garage band.

A lot of that has to do with the vocals of Gusten Keniten, which are raw in a punk way, where attitude is as important as style. There are points where I wondered if he was singing through a megaphone, like Rudy Vallée. The trio behind him do a lot to maintain that attitude too, whether they're throwing out doomladen riffs in the Sabbath style on songs like Negeri Nego and Proklamator or more Zeppelin-esque classic rock lines on others like MSG and Sangkala.

I have little to no idea what he's singing about because the song titles I'm getting through Google Translate are pretty generic. Konstan unsurprisingly means Constant and Proklamator means Proclaimer. Kami Tahu translates to We Know, Kesurupan means Trance and Sangkala is Trumpet. That's not much to go on and there's no translation given at all for Aum Cilengkrang and Haerath. I'm particularly interested in the former, because Pasek Darmawaysya keeps excellent time on the drums while seemingly going completely outside of it on the cymbals.

All I know from an interview I found at Unite Asia is that Jelang Malam is apparently about the twilight time between day and night when the worlds of life and death merge and what might have been black or white becomes simply grey. The material doesn't feel that sort of spiritual, except perhaps early in Proklamator when the music takes a back seat to a shared singalong or in Haerath, Pt. 1 when there's a deep spoken voice alongside the singing one, but I'd love to see the lyrics, if only I could trust Google Translate to give me a solid English equivalent.

Even with four prior Indonesian albums under my belt this year, I still know next to nothing about what's happening over there. I don't even know how new Jangar are. Sure, this is their debut album, but that doesn't mean that they haven't been playing together for years. They sound like they have. They've also brought in a couple of guests: Rian Pelor, who sang for Auman and sings for Detention, and Doddy Hamson, the singer for Komunal. Of course, that has little meaning for me at this point.

Right now, all I really know is that I'm enjoying what I'm hearing thus far from Indonesia. It seems that music there tends to include psychedelic and progressive angles, whatever the genre a particular band happen to play in. Jangar aren't Mooner, just as Circlet aren't Razorblades Terror. And elder statesman of the scene, Dewa Budjana doesn't sound like any of them. That's healthy. I'm interested to see if other similarities show up as I dive into more Indonesian music.

Monday 21 October 2019

Lacuna Coil - Black Anima (2019)

Country: Italy
Style: Alternative
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 11 Oct 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

My son kindly took me to a Lacuna Coil gig here a few years ago and, while I enjoyed myself, it was telling that the band didn't play either of the songs I was really hoping to hear, My Wings and To Myself I Turned, both from the band's 1999 debut, In a Reverie. It would seem that songs like these simply didn't have any place in the setlist of a band that had moved far from their gothic metal roots.

This album emphasises that change, though I think it's heavier than the last couple of albums. I remember when Evanescence made it huge with Bring Me to Life but those in the know pointed out that they were just a trendy Lacuna Coil. Nowadays, it feels like Lacuna Coil are taking their influences from the bands that they had previously influenced, and that's a strange scenario to find myself in as an old fan of the band.

Sometimes it works really well. Layers of Time is almost extreme, certainly as heavy as this album gets, with intriguing melodies laid over a prominent bass and unusual drum rhythms. The contrast between the heavier general tone and some delicate vocals from Cristina Scabbia is very tasty indeed.

However, much of the rest sounds carefully produced to be just as extreme as the current state of music will allow without losing a mainstream audience. Tracks like Apocalypse, Under the Surface and The End is All I Can See are crafted cleverly but far too much, so that they hint sneakily at industrial influences while really being loud pop songs, perhaps the best definition of nu metal, which this is far too often. The latter could easily be a Depeche Mode song if it just quietened down a bit.

Unfortunately, I spent much of the album alternating between being impressed and being disappointed. Now or Never begins with a delightfully quirky intro but then it veers away into utterly routine nu metal, a slow melody playing over the top doing little to bring us back. It does get interesting again at the midpoint with Scabbia getting all shouty but in a punk way rather than a hardcore way, but it's too little too late. I was into it, but then I wasn't and then I was but then I wasn't.

The closest we get to old school Lacuna Coil is Veneficium, which kicks off with a choral chant and continues with cleaner male vocals. Black Anima, the title track that closes out the album, has its moments too, another of those slow melodies tinkling over the raucous backdrop. However, I wouldn't really call these highlight tracks, just more enjoyable ones for an old school fan.

And, really, that's the biggest factor in play here for me. Over a couple of decades, Lacuna Coil have moved from being slap bang in the middle of what I liked most all the way to where they're hovering outside what I like at all. They're a talented bunch of musicians and I'm happy that they're doing what they love, but it just isn't for me any more. This is far from gothic metal, being more like a third alternative and two thirds nu metal perhaps.

I wish them well but I suddenly feel old. Get off my lawn, you kids!

Assassin's Blade - Gather Darkness (2019)

Country: Canada/Sweden
Style: Speed Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 18 Oct 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | YouTube

Disappointed by the new Lacuna Coil, I went looking for a palate cleanser of speed and found this album from an international band. I believe that four of the five musicians are Swedish, including the two whose material prompted the band to get together to begin with, Peter Svensson and David Stranderud, so it's probably fair to call the band Swedish. However, the lead vocalist is Jacques Bélanger, of Exciter fame; he's from Quebec in French Canada and I'm pretty sure he hasn't relocated to Scandinavia, so they're international in scope for now.

They initially got together to release an album, Agents of Mystification, in 2016, which has a glorious steampunk/weird west cover. The process must have been a good one because they're back three years later for another album, an excellent one too. The opening track, Tempt Not (The Blade of the Assassin) is a sheer joy for speed metal freaks, very much in the sped up Judas Priest vein. Bélanger hits all those wild notes and the band behind him feel urgent and alive and passionate. This is for everyone in love with Painkiller and, well, the much earlier Exciter. You thought Bélanger's old band didn't take their name from the Priest song?

Priest are the most obvious influence throughout, though almost always their faster material because Assassin's Blade are fundamentally speed metal with little intention to explore dynamics in the vein of, say, Victim of Changes. There are slower songs, The City That Waits chugging along for a while at a mid-pace, and there are slower breakdowns in faster songs to keep a variety, so they're not balls to the wall all the time. However, even when they slow down some, they're still most reminiscent of Priest. Check out the intro to Gods and try to think of another band!

There are other influences in the mix here and there. There were points in Dream Savant where I thought I was listening to an old Iron Maiden song that I inexplicably didn't remember. Part of it is the guitar interplay but much of it comes, I think, from Bélanger singing at a certain pitch and reminding of Bruce Dickinson for a while more than Rob Halford. It's there a little in The City That Waits and The Ghost of Orion too. Those are two very different vibratos.

I enjoyed this immensely, but I'm biased towards old school speed metal. The biggest problem with the genre is that the music soon outstripped production quality, so a lot of those old albums sound thin in 2019. Of course, studio technology has progressed by insane degrees in the last forty years, so when a new band releases a new album in that old style but with modern production done right, it not only tweaks the nostalgia zones in my brain but makes me happy generally that the genre is alive and represented so well.

If there's a downside, it's that the songs, while enjoyable throughout, are not all as catchy as they could be. The riffs are solid throughout but there should be more killers. The hooks are strong throughout but, with the single exception of Tempt Not (The Blade of the Assassin), I'm not replaying them inside my skull after the album finishes. The solos are excellent throughout but, again, I'm experiencing most of them afresh each time through. The one exception there may be The Ghost of Orion, which is very tasty indeed.

I like this band though and I'd love to see them live. This is a no nonsense speed metal album and I treasure those. Bélanger dances through the octaves and his clear enjoyment doing that extends outwards to the rest of the band. I'm eager to check out Agents of Mystification and especially to see what a couple more years might bring. Assassin's Blade have huge potential and their third album could well be a classic.

Friday 18 October 2019

Mike Patton & Jean-Claude Vannier - Corpse Flower (2019)

Country: France/USA
Style: Avant-Garde
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 13 Sep 2019
Mike Patton Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Wikipedia
Jean-Claude Vannier Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Wikipedia

To suggest that a Mike Patton album is interesting is rather redundant but I got a real kick out of this one, created in collaboration with French legend Jean-Claude Vannier. The latter seems to be regarded nowadays mostly for his work arranging music for Serge Gainsbourg, Francoise Hardy and other French legends, but he made plenty of interesting solo music too, including a wild 1972 debut album, L'enfant assassin des mouches, or The Child Fly Assassin.

The album was apparently constructed with the two men on either side of the Atlantic. Vannier conjured up ideas which he sent to Patton, who played with them and sent them back. Patton recorded in the States with his band, while Vannier recorded in France with an orchestra. Some snippets were previously written and recorded, but incorporated into new music, while most are new.

If that conjures up images of Frank Zappa's patchwork studio creations, that would be fair because there's certainly some Zappa here, both musically, on experimental songs like Cold Sun Warm Beer with its varied voices (Patton's remind of Captain Beefheart) and wilder instrumentation, and lyrically, on scatalogical songs like On Top of the World or Pink and Bleue, which starts out, "When I drink too much, I shit my pants."

There are other obvious influences here too and they tend to make themselves that way quickly. The opening track, Ballade C.3.3, for instance, has Patton sound rather like Nick Cave but the words come from Oscar Wilde's The Ballad of Reading Gaol. I don't recognise any of the other lyrics but it would not surprise me if other songs took a similar approach. Hungry Ghost is full of dark poetry and A Schoolgirl's Day feels like a prose writing exercise.

Camion moves firmly into Tom Waits territory, with Vannier providing a set of odd instrumentation and Patton shifting into dark lounge singer mode. There's an old quote from Vannier that explains why this is natural. If I'd read it without context, I'd think that, "I've always been interested by the wrong side of the music, the wrong notes" would be a Tom Waits line, but it was Vannier.

There's a lot more Waits here than Cave, but there's quite a bit of both. I think the two combine best on Browning, a song about the gun, with the most involved delivery from Patton, who croons like Cave, whistles like Waits and even howls at points like Screaming Jay Hawkins. I love when artists that I admire start playing in territory mastered by other artists that I admire.

As ought to be inevitable with Vannier involved, there's also a particularly strong influence from French yé-yé music, about which I clearly know a lot less than I should. This was pop music but counterculture pop music back in the sixties, with much taken from English language rock 'n' roll. I've heard Serge Gainsbourg, Johnny Hallyday and others but, like Patton has apparently done lately, I should dig deeper.

There's French music everywhere here, but it becomes overtly at points, like in Insolubles, with Patton crooning to a backing of xylophone and accordion, or On Top of the World, a funky piece complete with handclaps and whistles, which nonetheless punks up at points in tone and lyrical content. There's a carnival organ on Hungry Ghost that could come from the Tom Waits influence or from France. It's great to see worlds collide here and suddenly make far more sense than they did previously.

As always with experimental albums, not everything works here but I dug it a lot. And, as always with Mike Patton, songs go to very strange and versatile places. One minute, we're listening to the operatic vocals of Anne Germain on Hungry Ghost, the next we're in the middle of what sounds like a domestic argument in Corpse Flower, which, I should add, is definitely not the flower on the cover. Why, I have no idea.

If your ears are always open for new sounds and your tastes are a lot wider than the regular rock and metal spectrum, you could do a lot worse than to check out this album. Let it be your gateway drug into the wonderful world of Mike Patton or, for me, that of Jean-Claude Vannier.

Morthifera - Apócrifo (2019)

Country: Argentina
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 11 Oct 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

I often like to end the week with a good old fashioned thrash album, because that's the best way to clean out my system for the weekend. This is a really solid one from Argentina that started good and then got even better. They've been around since 2010 but this is only their second full length album, the first being Basurero humano in 2016. They're very good at what they do and I hope that their supporting slot on the recent South American tour of Nuclear Assault brought that to a lot of new ears.

They're an unashamed thrash metal band because they don't tend to shift into other genres, though not everything is played at speed so they could easily be described as heavy/thrash. The opening song highlights that really well: Terapia de represión blisters early and late but slows for some very tasty sections midway, one of them led by a very prominent bass.

I'm impressed by everyone here, but Heber Rojas gets some very nice moments to shine on bass, most obviously in a solo run he delivers on Analepsis, the longest and most technically minded song on offer here. He keeps finding odd moments to elevate the material in ways we don't usually expect, like a solo on Odio heradado or a clever set of notes during a breakdown on Apostasía to enhance the song.

These musicians are notably proficient and willing to experiment a little at points, like in the short flamenco driven instrumental called Núcleo in the very middle of the album, appropriately because Núcleo translates to Core. I could see many describing this as technical thrash because Morthifera rarely take the simple options, even in slower sections.

However, while it's often complex stuff, it never loses its attitude. Daniel Perez sings and screams with punk attitude and there's often a real urgency to the music, that goes beyond thrash being inherently urgent. Just listen to Odio heradado, or Inherited Hate, which would feel like an angry protest song even if we didn't know what it was called. So, while Morthifera can be compared to a technical band like, say, Sieges Even, it's also fair to raise Nuclear Assault too.

As with any thrash band, the real test comes on stage. Audiences react to a sense of immediacy as much as quality and the best pits rely on charismatic delivery as much as the right tempo. On the basis of this album, I'd really like to see Morthifera live. They have all the musical components they need and I'm pretty sure they'll have the attitude to sell them to the audiences at shows too.

My favourite song here, apart from Analepsis, is Verso pollice, or Against the Police, which features a guest appearance from Wata, presumably the one who sings for Buenos Aires death metal band Matan S.A. Oddly, he adds what sound like black metal shrieks, among other vocal contributions, but I like the extra texture. This is a pit song without a doubt and I almost started one here in my office while I was working. It's good fast and it's great as a slow grind.

Not everything here is that great but there's nothing sub-standard here at all. The worst song is a good one and it's all uphill from there. This is a solid second album from Morthifera and I'll now eagerly seek out the first one and perhaps the famous Argentine metal band Lethal, given that I think that's what Morthifera translates to, perhaps in homage. Viva thrash metal sudamericano!

Thursday 17 October 2019

Michael Schenker Fest - Revelation (2019)

Country: Germany
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Sep 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter

The Michael Schenker Fest is an interesting project and, for the most part, it's a successful one, appropriately given that it's been fifty years since the young Schenker started a band with Klaus Meine called Copernicus. What he's done since then is, of course, legendary, whether for the Scorpions in their early years, during a number of stints with UFO or with his own band, MSG. The Michael Schenker Fest is a look back at a lot of that history, with new material created with a number of the vocalists who accompanied Schenker along the way.

On board for this second Michael Schenker Fest album are no less than four major vocalists, who combine their talents on three songs and divvy up the rest between them. And that's not including Ronnie Romero, the current lead singer for four bands including the latest version of Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow and the excellent Ferrymen, who guests on Lead You Astray.

Those four vocalists are Gary Barden, who sang on fully half of the ten MSG albums; Doogie White, who spent six years with Michael Schenker's Temple of Rock; Robin McAuley, who was the other half of the other MSG, when it stood for the McAuley Schenker Group; and Graham Bonnet, who was the other singer in the early MSG days, singing on Assault Attack. It's worth mentioning that White and Bonnet, like Romero, sang for Rainbow, along with a host of other bands. These aren't minor names.

That said, all of them play second fiddle to Schenker's guitar here. This is a real album with real songs played by a real band, but it often feels like a solo effort with a string of guests showing up to help out, kind of like a heavier take on the concept Carlos Santana made famous with his Supernatural album. Whatever those singers are doing, and they do plenty, there's a solo or a riff or a fill stealing the show back for the guitar.

Mostly this is good old fashioned hard rock with melodic vocals. Behind the Smile has a riff that reminds of Schenker's time in UFO, though it stays a little too low in the mix. Crazy Daze does something similar. Some songs are more up tempo: Silent Again and Lead You Astray gallop along with some real bounce to them. For a while, these could have been Van Hagar songs but the former somehow transforms into a power metal anthem with some nice keyboard work that's very subtle.

My favourite songs are the faster ones, like The Beast in the Shadows, which is a blistering rocker. The other melodic blitzkrieg is Ascension, which is an instrumental to wrap up the regular version of the album. Melody remains key on these songs, however fast they get, but they do move firmly over the tenuous border between classic rock and heavy metal. That shouldn't surprise anyone.

The biggest downside isn't really a downside, namely that these vocalists do sing in very similar styles so that it's rather redundant to feature so many on one album and especially on the same songs. I believe that the Fest had a beginning on stage, which is where this sort of logic ought to come into its own. Can you imagine enjoying Schenker with, say, McAuley at the mike, only for Bonnet to come out and join in? And then White and, perhaps, to wrap up an evening, Barden? That would be a real blast! It just doesn't hold quite the same magic on a studio recording.

Also, while all the songs are decent, some are more decent than others and a second listen starts to highlight which ones. Revelation is a fundamentally enjoyable album though, ably highlighting that Schenker still has it after a half century. I really ought to check out Resurrection, the project's debut release from last year.