Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Agnostic Front - Get Loud! (2019)



Country: USA
Style: Hardcore Punk
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 Nov 2019
Sites: Facebook | Twitter | Wikipedia

I learned long ago just how differently punk was seen in the US to the UK, a difference that's only got more obvious with the rise of hardcore in the US and its influence on what became nu metal and metalcore. The American punk I like isn't Green Day or the Offspring, but older bands like the MC5 and the Stooges, running through to the New York Dolls and the Ramones. The hardcore punk I like revolves around the bands who created crossover, such as the Cro-Mags, D.R.I. and the Crumbsuckers. After that era, I found grindcore and the slow stuff just didn't cut it any more.

That's why I'm happy to finally break my hardcore punk review cherry here at Apocalypse Later with Agnostic Front. I remember buying their second album, Cause for Alarm, back in 1987 or so, as a young thrash fan eager to explore the genre's roots. The songs were co-written with people like Pete Steele, who I knew then from the thrash band Carnivore rather than Type O Negative. In turn, members of Agnostic Front guested on thrash band Whiplash's debut album, Power and Pain, which is still a favourite of mine.

Get Loud!, which I believe is the band's twelfth studio album, isn't a mile away from what I remember from back then. It's short at just a whisper over half an hour but there are no less than fourteen songs. The half dozen under two minutes tend to be speed metal blitzkriegs. The, erm, longer songs, only one of which makes it past the three minute mark, are slower and moshier and are driven by punk bounce. It has to be said that the first mosh pits were at hardcore punk gigs, even if many of us gloss over that.

Unsurprisingly, I prefer the faster crossover material, but I'm digging the punkier songs too. While I attended a lot less hardcore gigs way back in the day, I felt some of the nostalgia in the lyrics of I Remember. It really was a brotherhood, even in England, where I was a metal interloper for a while. As long as I had a Motörhead logo visible somewhere on my person, it was OK because it meant acceptance. The pits back then were alive and we dived like crazy people.

Even while I enjoyed faster songs like Anti-Social (no, not the Trust track that Anthrax covered), mosh songs like the instrumental AF Stomp and up beat punk songs like the title track, I wondered at how Roger Miret's voice would appear to modern audiences. It's close to what I remember from back then and it works fine for me, but it's nowhere near the style that people tend to be used to nowadays, where hardcore vocals are vicious shouting assaults. Miret is somewhere between clean punk and hardcore shouts, with a little accent I don't remember, but he's easily nearer the former than the latter.

But hey, I've reviewed a lot of albums this year that are throwbacks to the eighties. Why should that just be a trend for heavy metal bands? Why should the punks opt out of that nostalgia, especially if they happen to be a band like Agnostic Front who helped create a surprising amount of what we might take for granted today? Without the New York punk scene, Anthrax would sound very different indeed.

The downside here isn't that its old school, it's that it's happy to be safe and relatively generic. Every one of the fourteen song titles sounds like it must be on a dozen different hardcore albums, from Isolated to Attention to Pull the Trigger. The music's good and the lyrics are good too but it's 2019 and there's so much obvious opportunity for Agnostic Front to, as they say, rage against the machine. They just don't seem to want to. I wonder why.

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Cult of Luna - A Dawn to Fear (2019)



Country: Sweden
Style: Post-Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 20 Sep 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

The point of post-metal, and its quieter cousin, post-rock, is to conjure up imaginative soundscapes using entirely traditional rock instrumentation. The leeway available as to what sort of soundscapes is immense and, while I'm an entry-level post- fan, I've already heard a lot of very different sounds out of this model.

Cult of Luna, on their sixth album (seven if you count a 2016 collaboration with Julie Christmas), sound much darker than the post-rock bands I've been exploring, perhaps as might be expected being post-metal. However, I think a deliberate choice factors into this too. They're not feeding off Shriekback or the Cocteau Twins as much as they are Coil and Nurse with Wound, albeit sans the wild experimentation.

Ten minutes of The Silent Man set the stage well. It starts out rather like a buzzsaw, with almost an industrial sound without any apparent electronica or samples. It quickly finds a groove, which is bleak and abrasive. I can't tell if the melody, when it comes, is the work of guitars with keyboards in assist or vice versa. Whichever, the resulting feel is dystopic, as if we're out there in a dangerous future (or maybe an alternate dystopian past, as it doesn't feel particularly futuristic), starting to realise that the world we thought was safe has been watching us and it's about to come down hard.

The vocals help, being something of a cross between a black metal shriek and a hardcore shout. While I wouldn't usually be a fan, I think they ably help the mood that the band are going for. They're not in our face the way that a hardcore voice would usually be, but they may well be sometime soon. They're harsh but a lot more human than shrieks would usually allow. I'm hearing big bad people out to get us, rather than demons or trolls or other supernatural creatures.

This mood continues on throughout the album, which is very long and features very few tracks. There are only eight on offer, only one of which runs short of seven minutes. Four of them last over ten and two of those do so by a big margin; Lights on the Hill is over fifteen minutes long. Each of them finds its own particular taken on dystopia though, so there is variety.

Lay Your Head to Rest almost pulses with sluggish life. A Dawn to Fear carries a real elegance, as if it's a David Bowie song lowered a few octaves and slowed down to boot. Nightwalkers is an industrial song recorded outside the factory rather than inside it, so we hear the clashes at a remove. There's a Joy Division sort of patience to it for a while, though it speeds up and gets more industrial.

As the longest song, Lights on the Hill should have impact and it does. It shows up well over half an hour into the song, the first in the second half, and it's slow and atmospheric, almost like this particular dystopia is post-apocalyptic and we've reverted to a wild west mentality. The wind is a major player for a while and we still hear it after it's gone. It escalates slowly but very surely. There's a real impact to it and the peaceful ending is odd but satisfying.

After that, I got tired. While Cult of Luna do what they do well, I find it wearing on the system. While thrash can clean me out and perk me up, this is the sort of music that can grind me back down again. If you're into that, I think this is emphatically for you. Otherwise, it starts to feel as long as it is, which is long enough to not fit on a single CD. The eight tracks add up to seventy-nine minutes and the least interesting tracks are at the tail end so, if this isn't your jam, it's going to get old long before it's over. I'd have given it an extra point if it had ended after Lights on the Hill.

Abigail Williams - Walk Beyond the Dark (2019)



Country: USA
Style: Atmospheric Black Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 15 Nov 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Wikipedia

Of all the many subgenres within heavy metal nowadays, I'm starting to grasp that atmospheric black metal is one of the most versatile. That's because it isn't really one sound, it's a combination of two very different sounds, the harsh of black metal with its blastbeats and shrieks and the soft of melodic ambience that often sets a scene. The key is that the balance between these two ingredients can be shifted either way to any degree.

Abigail Williams does much the same thing as Saor, another fundamentally one man band, but with a wildly different effect because the two bands mix those two ingredients very differently. Saor play up the atmosphere, so whisking me away to the Scottish highlands, where I stay even when their harsher side kicks in. Abigail Williams play their black metal fast and brutal, with the atmosphere layered in.

They (by which I mean mainstay Ken Sorceron and the musicians he brought in for this album) try to resist dipping into atmosphere at other points but I think they fail more often than they think they do. Fortunately, they do it very well indeed. The introductory few minutes to Black Waves are delightful and the outro to Born of Nothing, which segues nicely into the intro of the closing track, The Final Failure, is pretty damn good too.

It's also neatly different. Most bands dipping into atmospheric black metal use synths to conjure up their atmosphere with maybe some ambient samples. Sorceron, on the other hand, hired a cellist called Christopher Brown, who goes by Kakophonix when playing black metal for bands like Empyrean Throne, Black Reaper and Through the Thorns, not to mention his own "black ritual chamber musick project", Hvile I Kaos, which will release an album called Black Morning, Winter Green in a couple of weeks.

Like any atmospheric black metal, this is music to immerse yourself into and I haven't given this the 3am headphones in the dark treatment yet. I'm sure I will because I like it rather a lot and I'm delaying the next album on my list because I keep replaying it. The songs trend long, two of the seven on offer coming close to eleven minutes each, but they're more effectively seen as classical compositions with titles changed to things like Op. No. 7 with Blastbeats and Shrieks.

I'm particularly interested in how much the cello will emerge in the dark. I found that it became more and more prominent as the album ran on. It doesn't show up until a couple of minutes into I Will Depart and it sounds more like an exotic guitar solo with the music hardly slowing down to acknowledge it. The more I listen, the more I hear cello lurking underneath everything else adding to the textures, but the opening songs aren't too atmospheric.

By the middle track, Black Waves, it's impossible not to notice because it's up front and centre. By the last, The Final Failure, it's dominant. I wonder if this is because the guest guitarists are restricted to the opening twenty minutes, which means only three songs. Atmosphere on them is evoked more by competing shrieks or sections of almost tribal drumming. The point at which I heard the cover art most was the moment midway through Sun and Moon where the tumult drops to just tribal drumming and an ominous bass.

There's some good stuff in the first half, especially on Sun and Moon, but the album comes alive for me with the eerie intro to Black Waves and refuses to let me go after that. That's almost appropriate for a band named for the girl whose claims (with those of her cousin) helped to start the Salem witch hunts and refused to let the people of Massachusetts go. What did go was Ken Sorceron, who used to be a local here in Phoenix, but he moved to New York, then Los Angeles and is now based out of Olympia, WA, which sadly makes it a little harder for me to see him live.

Monday, 18 November 2019

Nile - Vile Nilotic Rites (2019)



Country: USA
Style: Technical Death Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 1 Nov 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

In search of something decidedly heavy after the decidedly subdued new Quiet Riot album, here's album number nine from Nile, my very favourite Egyptology-obsessed technical death metal band. I've mentioned a few times how I prefer melodic death to brutal death but I dig Nile a lot. I think it's because the music they play is similar to the manuscripts they turn into lyrics, in that they're an eye catching mystery. I often find myself caught up in the whirl of their songs without much of a clue what's going on but somehow liking the experience anyway.

They're at their best for me when they're furious, which is fortunately most of the time. They slow down a lot on the opener, but the second song is wild and frantic from moment one. Just check out the start of The Oxford Handbook of Savage Genocidal Warfare and buckle in for a frenetic ride. The breakdown a couple of minutes in when they slow down to a crawl but quickly ramp back up to regular speed is absolutely glorious.

I should add that that's not a particularly unusual title for Nile. This is the band who, honest to Ra, released a single called Papyrus Containing the Spell to Preserve Its Possessor Against Attacks from He Who is in the Water. It was pretty damn good too. Maybe we should require them to stick to songs with insane titles because they're usually the best ones. Of course, naming a track Snake Pit Mating Frenzy is an exception to the length rule. How can that possibly be bad? Answer: it can't and its guitar runs are as sinuous and dangerous as they ought to be.

There are other reasons why I like Nile, but a lot of it is the complexity that dominates their songs. They speed up and slow down so much that it's an impossible task to figure out the rhythms. Listen to Seven Horns of War and throw out all your youthful dreams of becoming a drummer. It isn't just that George Kollias can play that fast, it's that he can switch tempos every time you snap your fingers. Sometimes I focus on his drums on Nile albums the way I do Neil Peart's on classic Rush songs.

One of those other reasons is that I like their vocal versatility. While all the singers deliver in a harsh death growl, they do so at different pitches and many songs are really duets that see them pass the vocal back and forth. Add in different styles like what sounds like a satanic choir on That Which is Forbidden and Nile become the textbook on how to deliver in brutal death style without boring us with vocals.

Another is the variety that extends to other aspects of their music.

It's there in the choice of instrumentation. Were those trombones on Seven Horns of War? I know that's a frickin' huge bell on a bunch of tracks. Main man Karl Sanders has been credited before with instruments I've had to look up, such as bağlama; I don't seeing any such credits this time out but the instrumental called Thus Sayeth the Parasites of the Mind is certainly not played on anything you can buy at Walmart. It serves as a fantastic ethnic introduction to the musical haboob, Where is the Wrathful Sky, which has an array of middle Eastern instrumentation under its guitar riff.

It's also in knowing how long the songs should be. The eleven on offer here range from just over a minute and a half to close to nine. Those in between vary wildly because none of them are interested in outstaying their welcome. If a song's done in two minutes, then it's done. If it needs eight to do its thing, then it'll have eight. That one's The Imperishable Stars are Sickened and it's the slowest and heaviest song on the album.

And, of course, they kick ass. I usually turn to thrash metal when I need to clean out my system, but Nile fit that need too. Snake Pit Mating Frenzy or Where is the Wrathful Sky would play well after anything from Reign in Blood for a double bill guaranteed to curbstomp your previous mood. Then throw on The Imperishable Stars are Sickened and you'll forget who you are. I'll visit you in the asylum.

It's been a few years since I've seen Nile live but they're touring again to support this album and I should get them firmly onto the calendar. They're already my favourite brutal death metal band and they keep on delivering of late. This is the best album they've done in quite a while.

Quiet Riot - Hollywood Cowboys (2019)



Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 8 Nov 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Many bands have surprised me by still existing in 2019, but Quiet Riot are the easy exception. They've split up and reformed more times than I've been able to get up in the morning, with line-up changes on what often felt like a weekly basis, so that absolutely nothing surprises me about them any more.

For instance, their current vocalist, who's returning for a second stint in the band, is Jizzy Pearl, of Love/Hate fame. However, he isn't on Hollywood Cowboys, which was released less than two weeks ago, because that's James Durbin, who quit in September. This is his second album with the band after 2017's Road Rage, which was originally recorded with Seann Nicols but then redone with Durbin. Clearly they didn't want to do that again, because the scenario is the same. Durbin was singer #6 with Quiet Riot just since they got back together again in 2010. Pearl is #4 and #7.

For a while I was a little underwhelmed. This is more hard rock than heavy metal, content to sit back and relax a little. And that's fine, except that this is a band with a serious history as a heavy metal band. They fed Randy Rhoads to the Blizzard of Ozz. They claim that their take of Slade's Cum On Feel the Noize was the first metal song to crack the Billboard Hot 100 and Metal Health was the first metal album to reach number one. I'm not sure if those claims are true but it certainly sold six million copies just in the States and arguably ushered in the hair metal era.

So this is mild by comparison. The songs aren't bad. They're just softer and slower for the most part and missing a Randy Rhoads edge, even a Carlos Cavazo edge. They're capable but many of them feel unfortunately generic. A song like Don't Call It Love feels like a patchwork quilt of other material, like a recipe that calls for a bowl full of Mötley Crüe with a pinch of Led Zeppelin and a soupcon of Great White, all turned down to be more polite. A song like Heartbreak City is decent and well performed but it's doomed to be generic. Honestly, how many bands from LA have never recorded a song called Heartbreak City?

I think part of the problem is that Durbin is a decent singer but he hasn't found his own identity yet. He did well on American Idol and I can see why: he has a solid set of pipes and he can seamlessly change his performance to sound like whatever the theme is this week. The problem is that, while he's able to be this singer or that singer or even that one over there, he's not sure how to be James Durbin yet. He's like the best karaoke singer ever who doesn't have a voice of his own. I hope he finds it. The potential is there.

There are a dozen songs here so I'll call the first six side one. I enjoyed listening through that a few times but the only things I took away were the bands they'd channelled into the music. I found myself singing Wild Side by the Crüe because that's so much of Don't Call It Love. I liked the sound on The Devil That You Know, but it's just seventies Uriah Heep tweaked for the new decade of the eighties. These songs are enjoyable but forgettable, with the best moment being the talent show vocal showcasing that Durbin nails on Roll On.

It was side two that started to impress me, not least because it kicked off with Insanity, which is much more like it! It kicks off hard with wild and untamed guitars and proceeds at a serious pace. For the first time, this is the band that Randy Rhoads founded to kick ass. Last Outcast has some balls too, though mostly courtesy of Banali's stampeding drums. There's some Quiet Riot in here, despite themselves. I even liked Hellbender, because Durbin is able to find a cool vocal line over a seventies rock song.

I've liked Quiet Riot for as long as I've liked rock music, even if I prefer the Slade originals over their far more famous covers. A Quiet Riot without the drama of Kevin DuBrow? Hell yeah! I'm the right audience for this. That band's in here too, just far too infrequently. I know they aren't as safe as this album makes them sound. Let's see what the next will be like with Jizzy Pearl rocking it up. Assuming he hasn't left again by then, of course.

Friday, 15 November 2019

Opeth - In Cauda Venenum (2019)



Country: Sweden
Style: Progressive Rock/Metal
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 27 Sep 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

This is lucky album number thirteen for the Swedish progressive death metal legends, Opeth, though can we really call them progressive death metal any more? They were progressive from the outset but they've moved away from the extremes and often here even from metal, so maybe they're just a prog rock band nowadays. It has little importance, of course, because they're still fascinating.

I've always found Opeth fascinating but I've had trouble grasping what they do more than perhaps any other major band. Parts of their exploratory songs leap out at me as things of wonder but I often can't grasp their big pictures. This is easily the most accessible Opeth album I've heard and it still flew right over my head on a first listen. Some songs started to come clear on a repeat and a third time through brought almost everything into stunning focus.

It begins like a Pink Floyd album with pulsing synths, samples and strange melodies. There's a real care in the construction, down to single notes. The one that ends the intro, Garden of Earthly Delights, is precise. Dignity is prog rock until it gets all folky and that's a standard shift for Opeth. I love how an extreme music pioneer like Mikael Åkerfeldt can also be a huge fan of Linda Perhacs and parts of Dignity sound like what she might conjure up out of colours or shapes. For a while, anyway, until we go back to heavy Floyd.

The first song that I grasped in entirety was Heart in Hand. It's long and varied, kicking off with a powerful riff somewhat like Led Zeppelin's Immigrant Song but shifting into an acutely delicate place so Åkerfeldt can let his voice loose. It's very organic, as are many songs here like Lovelorn Crime, which swoops and soars, ending, if I'm not mistaken, with a harp. Its gorgeous tone is almost liquid.

The counter to that is Charlatan, which is thoroughly old school King Crimson prog driven by unusual time changes, unexpected riffs and a underlying bass from Martin Méndez that's just gorgeous. The guitars are stability, while the keyboards, when not providing a heavy drone under everything else, dance all over the place in a sort of wild duet with the vocals. It does a lot in a short time but feels constructed rather than grown.

Next of Kin is an intriguing mixture of both. It's carefully heavy but it's also delicately sweet with intricate instrumental sections. Universal Truth does the same, with a lot of Genesis in those quieter introspective moments. The vocals take over as the highlight on this one, seeking and exploring as if Åkerfeldt is really seeking the universal truth of the title.

I could talk in depth about every track here, because they're all worthy and interesting, even though they total well over an hour of music. They take a couple of listens to grasp and quite a few more to truly understand, but I'm not complaining about deep. They sound inviting from moment one and only get more so as we dive into them.

So I'll shut up after talking about The Garroter. As if to counter the clear darkness in its title, it kicks off subtly with a beautiful acoustic guitar and a perfectly timed shift to solo piano. It gets dark, of course, through another perfectly timed shift, and it continues to manage a balance between light and dark magnificently. It alternates odd bits of elegance, like jazz and strings, with a low and prowling piano riff as Åkerfeldt wanders through the subject matter and varied samples add flavour with screams and ambience. There's as much Nick Cave here as there is King Crimson and it's fascinating stuff indeed.

While I've listed the English language song titles, the double disc version of In Cauda Venenum features the album in Swedish and again in English, with very few differences beyond the language used. There are a few extra samples on the Swedish version, probably because they're in Swedish and not clear to English language listeners.

I've heard and reviewed a lot of albums this year that invite us to dive in and explore their songs. This is the epitome of that and it's a masterpiece worthy of heralding their thirtieth anniversary as a band. It's stunning how far they've come from their legendarily awful first gig to something as good as this. It's the closest I've come thus far to giving out a 10/10.

The Darkness - Easter is Cancelled (2019)



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

I surprised myself shortly into this by realising that I've heard a lot less music by the Darkness than I thought, maybe just a few odd songs. After all, this is their sixth album; they aren't new. Maybe it's because they split up after only two albums and stayed gone for a while. I certainly haven't heard anything from their second go around until now. And I should. It isn't every band who can support Metallica and Lady Gaga on tour. Separately.

The band's current line up is the original line up, but with one difference: their original drummer, Ed Graham, who was on board for the reunion in 2011, left a few years later. Currently, his seat is occupied by Rufus Taylor, who is a strong enough drummer on his own merits that it feels unfair to mention that he also happens to be the son of Roger Taylor. However, the spectre of Queen, with whose current incarnation Rufus has also played for years, just can't be ignored.

Just listen to the opening track, Rock and Roll Deserves to Die, which is an an ambitious track that features a dynamic, genre-hopping range on the scale of classic Queen tracks like Bohemian Rhapsody and Innuendo. Frankly, it's hard to compare it to anyone else. The only real difference arrives with the surprise that it's over in five and a half minutes. Isn't there a rule that an epic song like this has to last for at least eight?

Even if you drop such a clear homage to Queen in the seventies, that trawls in so much of what they did during that decade, their influence is all over this album like a rash. Check out Deck Chair, an outrageously overblown and over-orchestrated ditty to, well, a deck chair. Nobody else except Queen has been able to get away with this sort of lunacy until now and the Darkness do it very well indeed. The lyrics to Heavy Metal Lover are way out there too.

What keeps them somewhat apart from Queen are the vocals of Justin Hawkins. While these songs are clearly constructed the way that Queen would, they're easily distinguished. Slap on the title track and you could be forgiven for hearing Tie Your Mother Down but, when Hawkins lets his voice loose, we're a mile away. Sure, he has a thoroughly impressive range, right up to a strong falsetto, and we learned on the opener that he knows exactly how to scream to great effect, but he doesn't sound at all like Freddie Mercury.

Beyond feeling like a band who write Queen songs that Queen never recorded, what I took away from Easter is Cancelled is that the band are enjoying the heck out of life at the moment. I don't think songs like Heavy Metal Lover or Choke on It could be created by any band who aren't having a blast. Does anyone really make love to Cannibal Corpse? Suggesting Obituary as a power ballad band is priceless. I'm impressed by how they snuck the word "luthier" into We are the Guitar Men. That may be a first, even though few bands could exist without them.

I liked this a lot, not just as an album of songs but as a mood improver. I can enjoy just how overblown the band get on Deck Chair or how evil they get on Heavy Metal Lover, even how insanely prog they get at the end of We are the Guitar Men, but all of these songs leave me smiling every time and that is a neat trick if you can master it. The Darkness apparently have.

Thursday, 14 November 2019

Neil Young and Crazy Horse - Colorado (2019)



Country: USA
Style: Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 25 Oct 2019
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

Neil Young is a pivotal figure in rock music, having been a prolific part of it since forming his first band in junior high school in the early sixties. He's changed with the times but he always remains recognisable. The question I tend to ask when a new Neil Young album drops is whether it's relevant or not, because he has a strange habit of drifting out and back into relevance, notably becoming the godfather of grunge. Usually he's relevant or he isn't. This time he's kinda sorta, because this is a real mixed bag of an album.

There's little coherence across the album, these songs doing very different things in very different ways. For instance, it opens up with Think of Me, a pleasant enough three minutes spent with a lot of harmonica and an agreeably stripped down sound (this is the first Neil Young album with Crazy Horse for seven years). But then She Showed Me Love is a four minute song jammed for almost fourteen like this is a rehearsal of a garage band.

The goal, I think, is to hypnotise us into realising how we old white folks screwed up the Earth but the kids just may be able to fix it for us. I'm all for the message but the delivery is strange. Neil, in his traditional way of personifying abstract concepts, tells us that he saw Mother Nature and that "She showed me love". That's fine. The problem is that he repeats that over and over and over and over for a majority of the running time. I did find the often distorted guitar interplay interesting but not that interesting.

From those two utterly different tracks, we're given a real mixture of good, bad and indifferent in no readily apparent order. I wonder how long he spent on the track listing because there's no flow at all.

Let's look at the indifferent first. Olden Days is fair but the lyrics are a litany of expected rhymes that lessen the impact. Milky Way feels agreeably mellow, with the loose garage style guitar never threatening the mood. When we reach the end of the album, the last couple of songs seem fine while they play but they vanish into to the ether like magic tricks after we start the album again.

The bad seems to circulate around the environmental theme raised initially in She Showed Me Love. Eternity follows with a different approach, like it's an old hippie song. Even without context from Young's substantial career and even more substantial impact on rock music, the environmental material here sounds like an old hippie railing politely at the times. With Eternity, it's as if he's forgotten to even do that. Hey, listen to the train!

And that leaves the good, most obvious in Help Me Lose My Mind, where we can buy absolutely into that railing. It's an angry song, so much so that Young is too affected by his words that he hardly sings; he speaks and shouts and emotes. This is exactly the mood that Crazy Horse backs up so well. Young's often dissonant guitar finds real impact when he's hurling out his lyrics or just entreating us, "Won't someone help me lose my mind".

Based on the raw impact of that song, I'd have liked a lot more anger here. You're not wrong, Neil. We old white guys screwed up a heck of a lot but, it wasn't you and me, so maybe we should be angry about it on more than just a couple of songs. Help Me Lose My Mind is the one that really works. Shut It Down kinda works too. But nothing else here has any comparable anger level.

For example, the song in between them, Green is Blue, is the exact opposite of angry. It feels mellow, with some really nice tones in play. The lyrics continue the anger about environmental issues but, as if it was written and recorded while incredibly high, that anger is diffused into calm melancholy and elegaic acceptance. "There's so much we didn't do." It took me a while to get into it because it's so unlike its bookends, but it does its job.

And so this is a mixed bag. For three songs in the middle of the album, it's great stuff. Elsewhere there are just moments. What this album does most for me is tell me that, given the state of our times, Neil Young needs to record more with Crazy Horse. Channel that anger and scream at a lot more than just the environment. We old white guys screwed up a lot more than that.

Weapon UK - Ghosts of War (2019)



Country: UK
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 Sep 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter |

I've been highlighting bands that crawled out of the woodwork in 2019 and I don't think Weapon UK quite count because they kind of started that trend a few years ago. They were formed as far back as 1980, under the name of Fast Relief, quickly became Weapon and then split up in 1982 after one single and one demo. They got back together in 1984 and promptly split up again. And so we fast forward to the 21st century. They tried and failed again in 2005 but got themselves properly organised at last in 2009, finally releasing a debut album in 2014, 34 years after it all began. They were the Rosy Vista of 2014 and this is their follow-up album.

Now, I haven't heard Rising from the Ashes, but I like this a lot. As befits their origins in the NWOBHM scene in England in 1980, this is very much old school NWOBHM stuff, full of hard rock riffs, vocal hooks and a little punk attitude, though it's fair to say that the latter is easily most obvious on the band's rework of Set the Stage Alight, the flipside of that 1980 single so not one of the many new songs here.

I was enjoying the nostalgic feel for half of the titular opening track and then they added a whole other level. Clare Cunningham, the Irish lead singer of Swedish rockers Thundermother, shows up for a fantastic folky section in the middle of the song (it returns for the reprise at the end of the album). As it all heats back up, she heats back up with it to finish it all out with a roar. This isn't just a good Weapon UK album, it should be an intro to her band too, because they deserve the attention.

Ghosts of War is a really good song that's stayed with me, but Queen of the Ride is the best one on offer. It's quintessential NWOBHM, combining melody and power with a seventies Gillan hard rock vocal over a faster and heavier backing ready for the new decade of the eighties. The whole point of what I do here at Apocalypse Later is to highlight all the great music coming out a decade or four after Weapon UK were formed but I can't help but wonder here what they could have done during that intervening span had they been able to stay together.

This album is utterly rooted in the NWOBHM era and, if you doubt that, just check out '79 Revisited, with nostalgic lyrics that cleverly riff on the old "Saturday night and I just got paid" line from Rip It Up. Massive respect to the band for ending with the Friday Rock Show ident which defined the era as much as the opening to Am I Evil.

However, winding the musical clock back forty years doesn't mean that every song here is the same. NWOBHM was a movement but Diamond Head weren't Saxon, who weren't Iron Maiden, who weren't Angel Witch, and so on. Weapon UK find a lot of different sounds on this album without losing authenticity. Sea of Hope adds eastern flavour at a reduced tempo; it's slower but heavier than anything else here. All I Need has a stalking bluesy vibe. Tourniquet has a real growth to it. Queen of the Ride just gallops along. Emerald God starts out like a Status Quo song before adding power.

This isn't a new Lightning to the Nations or Killers for 2019 but it's good stuff throughout and great stuff on occasion. It's certainly a better album that Angel Witch or Steve Grimmett's Grim Reaper have managed lately and I'm looking forward to a third album.

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Monolord - No Comfort (2019)



Country: Sweden
Style: Stoner Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Sep 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter

I've heard a lot about Monolord, some of it high praise and some of it jokey dismissal, but this, their fourth studio album in six years, is my first and I'm only now hearing what they do.

What they do is big fat frickin' huge riffs. Sure, they describe their sound as "enveloping, syrupy sludge" but it's hard to imagine the scale of riffage going on. Critics like me often get overly enthusiastic about our favourite bands and wax lyrical in ways that frankly overhype their effect. This band are insanely heavy with the guitar much higher in the mix than the vocalist so that things feel even heavier. Monolord state that ultra-low frequencies serve as their fourth member.

From the very outset on The Bastard Son, Thomas Jäger builds ocean waves out of his riffs that thunder onto our unwary shoreline with his voice a distant surfer hidden somewhere behind the spray. Mika Häkki's bass plays along and underlines and emphasises that heaviness to massive degrees. Is this a band or a tsunami? Esben Willems is the drummer behind this duo and he does his job well, playing as few beats as possible but enough to keep this behemoth in motion.

Beyond being agreeably shocked at just how heavy The Bastard Son got, I was a little disappointed with the song itself. Monolord were crushing me with a ridiculous amount of weight in their sound but I wasn't sure where they were going with it. They nail the melodic aspect of this sort of doom later but I didn't hear it for a while. However, the simplicity of the riffs and, frankly their monotony, is shaken halfway through when the band start to mix it up. They get slow (well, slower), a lot quieter and much more intricate, without losing that weight.

Suddenly I was on board and I repeated that experience with The Last Leaf, a song that disappointed me until it got really interesting. It took a while, even on a shorter five minute song. I should point out that this album runs a smidgeon over three quarters of an hour, but that only means six tracks. The shortest is a heartbeat away from five minutes while two songs run over nine minutes and one almost eleven.

What really sold me on the band was Larvae, the third track. Like everything here, it's Black Sabbath influenced but this time it really acknowledges the sheer breadth of what they did back in the early days. It's Ozzy-era Sabbath at its folkiest but with the riffs still fuzzed up to eleven, if not twelve. It's never just sheer bludgeoning, it runs the gamut of dynamics in a real song structure. I loved it and I enjoyed Skywards a lot for similar reasons.

By this point I'd become a confirmed fan and I stayed that way through Alone Together, a kind of heavy ballad with Jäger's vocals appearing to float into the studio from another room. And that leaves the eleven minute title track, which is a delightfully heavy romp that feels achingly unrushed. There's a point just over the halfway mark where it drops into delicate noodling only for Häkki's bass to show up with an insane power chord and crush the world for effect. I absolutely adored that contrast.

I liked this, especially once it added melody to the crushing doom, and I'm now certainly going to be checking out Monolord's prior three albums. I hear a lot of good things about 2017's Rust and that's next on my agenda.

Wednesday 13 - Necrophaze (2019)



Country: USA
Style: Horror Punk/Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 Sep 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Tumblr | Wikipedia | YouTube

I've bumped into Wednesday 13 a few times at various Mad Monster Parties but hadn't realised quite what he did, beyond sing and play in a band that had a strong tie to the horror genre, the Murderdolls. Well, there are other bands too, gloriously named ones like Bourbon Crow, Maniac Spider Trash and, above all, the Frankenstein Drag Queens from Planet 13. There's also a lot of solo material, this being his eighth studio album, I believe.

Somehow I'd lumped him into the horror punk genre, which this really isn't, even if it gets mentioned a lot online. Horror doesn't equal horror punk and I didn't hear the Misfits anywhere in this material, except for maybe Bury the Hatchet, which is like Guns n' Roses covering them. Much of this album has an Alice Cooper feel to it, as if his backing band from the mid to late eighties got pushed forward through a time portal, decided that they adored the work of Rob Zombie and hired Wednesday 13 to be their new singer.

As if to back that up from the outset, the title track kicks off the album with the immediately recognisable voice of the man himself, over a simple but effective John Carpenter-esque synth line, though Alice is only here to provide narration, welcoming us to whatever the Necrophaze is. It's on the other side of the mouth of madness. Oddly, Wednesday 13 sounds a lot more like a chanting Rob Halford on this song, before moving firmly into Alice territory for the next few, including the obvious single, Bring Your Own Blood.

This is a heck of a lot of fun, just like the cheesy eighties horror movie that the cover art suggests, complete with some idiotic college kids in the dramatised bookends. The synths are high and the guitars low, just like the era would have expected. On seeing me post the cover to the new DragonForce album, Jim McLennan of Trash City fame quipped, "I'd watch that movie." I'm in no doubt that he'll say the same when I post this cover and, without any doubt, that movie would be what we get in Bring Your Own Blood. Don't forget pizza and beer. Oh, and your own blood.

Alice Cooper isn't the only influence here. Decompose and The Hearse feel a lot less theatrical in composition, even with eerie synths soaring over the latter, and fit more a heavy metal band who just like watching horror. The Hearse especially feels like something King Diamond might do, merely sans a falsetto voice. It's a deeper song than many here and it's a good one.

The Hearse also features a spoken word intro from Jeff Clayton of punk bands like ANTiSEEN and Murder Junkies. In addition to him and Alice Cooper, there are a couple of other guest appearances. Cristina Scabbia of Lacuna Coil is the voice above and behind Wednesday 13 on Monster, rather than as the guest lead, and Alexi Laiho of Children of Bodom helps out on a cover of the most notorious W.A.S.P. single, Animal (Fuck Like a Beast). I presume this is a bonus song because it appears after Necrophaze Main Theme (End-Credits). Maybe it's the radio kicking in after this album finishes at the drive-in and we head home.

Talking of W.A.S.P., Wednesday 13 does shift over a little at points from an Alice Cooper sneer to a Blackie Lawless growl. I heard that most on Tie Me a Noose. There's even some Axl Rose on Life Will Kill Us All, as if he's only Alice with a filter applied. This is like Guns n' Roses, even down to a sort of Slash lite guitar solo, and it makes me wonder how many styles Wednesday 13 plays in. I need to go back to some of those earlier albums just to see how much of a natural mimic he is. "Grotesque by request," the intro states, as if the Necrophaze is a futuristic jukebox where our dime picks the style and he delivers a new song in it.

I liked this and I'm going to need to find out what my eldest son, the Alice Cooper nut, thinks about it. I have a feeling this ought to be right up his alley. It's certainly a lot more up mine than I thought it would be. It's a great album for horror fans, with its narrations, dramatisations and samples about the Zodiac killer, but it's a pretty damn good album if you're just a metal fan and don't care about the horror genre.

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Mayhem - Daemon (2019)



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

For being one of the most influential bands in extreme metal, Mayhem are far from the most prolific, this being only their sixth studio album since they formed way back in 1984. Their debut, 1994's De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, is a pivotal black metal classic and I remember them from before that. I wish I'd bought a copy of their Deathcrush EP when Tommy Vance played the title track on the Friday Rock Show back in 1987. I hate to think what that's worth now.

One of the benefits of only knocking out an album every five or six years is that it allows for easy reinvention with less likelihood of pushback from a rabid fanbase. This is Mayhem trying something different yet again, even as they combine the dynamic play of more recent releases like Esoteric Warfare with formative approaches taken back on that debut album, which they've been playing live in entirety for a few years now.

What's new here is how impressionistic this all is and I'm not just talking about the lyrics which make zero specific sense in isolation but combine to create a broader impression than any one song can provide. In this instance, we're talking about Hell, which we're presumably looking at from a different point of view, that of the daemon of the title and the gorgeous cover art by Daniele Valeriani.

The classical style of that cover art seems important to me because this is less of an album to me, a collection of songs, and more a performance piece, like an opera. I found it hard to just listen to the music, because I saw it too, unfolding on a carefully furnished stage in an ornate European theatre. It's in the music but especially in an array of otherworldly sounds that are conjured up within it and the versatile vocal performance of Attila Csihar.

I adored what Csihar did here. There are points where he provides the usual black metal shrieks, but he stalks that stage with a commanding presence, as he orders and explains, reacts and sneers, suggests and gloats. I also felt that he wasn't just playing one part, but all of them. He's the torturer and the tortured both, plus the daemon responsible for what both of them do. The effect sometimes conjures up opera singers, Orthodox liturgy or even ritual sacrifice. It's a heady mix and it's the primary reason this performance art is so effective.

While the most obvious comparisons on a Mayhem album are to previous Mayhem albums, it's worth bringing up Celtic Frost once again here. When the early Mayhem wandered around the extremes to trawl in outrageous sounds, the most obvious source for what would become Mayhem was probably Bathory, hence the classification of black metal, but they took a lot from Venom and, arguably more than ever on this album, a heck of a lot from Celtic Frost.

This dark ambient emulation of fires and stakes and pain all came from them and it's rarely been done better because it's not here just in one track of sound effects, it's here in hints and impressions buried to the exact right degree in many of the songs. Was that a guitar or a scream? Was that a drum roll or the kindling underneath another personal inferno? Was that an aside from Csihar or the response to the arrival of a fresh soul to torment?

It takes a while for any Mayhem album to fully soak into our souls, but I'm half a dozen listens into this one and I'm feeling the flames of damnation flickering at my toes. It's in the stubbornly slow bass in The Dying False King and the grandeur of the summoning drums in Invoke the Oath. It's in the ritual elements of Daemon Spawn and the tolling mantra of Everlasting Dying Flame.

This is hardly music for every rock fan, but those who have been waiting for it since Esoteric Warfare in 2014 will be in heaven now that it's here. OK, maybe not literally; what an unfortunate choice of words that was! Suffice to say that this is already my favourite Mayhem album and they set the bar pretty high when they started out.

Trust - Fils de lutte (2019)



Country: France
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 Sep 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Wikipedia | YouTube

Legendary French rockers Trust were originally formed back in 1977 and lead vocalist Bernie Bonvoisin and lead guitarist Nono Krief have remained as the core of the line-up through four incarnations of the band. Fils de Lutte, or Son of Struggle, is their twelfth studio album, and it arrives only a single year after Dans le même, suggesting that they're enjoying themselves and we may see more in the years to come.

If the name doesn't ring a bell, it's probably because you're not French, as they are huge in their home country. They're probably best known in the west for featuring not one but two Iron Maiden drummers over the years, with both Clive Burr and Nicko McBrain playing with them in the eighties; and because Anthrax have memorably covered two of their songs, including their biggest, Antisocial, bringing it to a whole new audience.

Over the years, the band with whom they've been most frequently compared are AC/DC and that's still appropriate. There's plenty of AC/DC to be found in the opening track, Portez vos croix, or Wear Your Cross, though it alternates into older school rock 'n' roll, going all the way back to that original Chuck Berry sound. It shows up in Ce n'est pas la Corée du Nord too (It's Not North Korea) and in Tendances (Trends), which has a fantastic slow riff.

Bonvoisin is sounding less and less like Bon Scott with age though. There's still a wink in his voice, most obviously on the highly cheeky Miss univers, but he's more like Bob Seger nowadays, especially on a song like Y'a pas le feu mais faut brûler, which translates to the intriguing There's No Fire But You Must Burn.

There are other influences apparent in Trust's sound, though they've been an influential band for long enough that it's easiliy fair to say that they've influenced even more other bands than they've drawn from themselves. There's lots of Thin Lizzy in C'n'est pas d'ma faute, or It's Not My Fault, and some Golden Earring in the bass-driven Les soleil brille pour tous, which I think translates to The Sun Shines on Us All.

By the way, the bass there is not the work of Izo Diop, bassist for sixteen years, because he switched over to guitar in 2016 when David Jacob rejoined the band. Between them, they've handled bass duties since 1996 and now they function as a dual guitar band.

Les soleil brille pour tous also features a fantastic use of female backing vocals, as do quite a few songs here. I don't know who the singers are who are responsible for that, but it sounds great and it adds a soulful feel to songs that are based more in the blues. They elevate On va prendre cher, a mysterious track because I cannot translate it; J'ai cessé de compter, which means I Stopped Counting; and Y'a pas le feu mais faut brûler, among others.

Trust are known for providing good value with their albums, this one being the shortest this millennium even though it features a dozen tracks in well over fifty minutes. What's notable is that there's no filler here, each of the tracks doing its job, though nothing leaps out as an obvious single. It plays out like albums used to do, showcasing different angles to the band's sound across a variety of quality songs.

The biggest complaint I can have is with the track listing. Every one of my favourite songs is on the second half of the album, as if they turned it up a notch when I flipped it over. Also, while it wraps up with a decent song, Delenda, it doesn't feel like an ending. But hey, when the track listing is the worst thing to say about an album, you know it has to be worth listening to. I look forward to lucky album number thirteen in 2020!

Monday, 11 November 2019

DragonForce - Extreme Power Metal (2019)



Country: UK
Style: Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 Sep 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | VK | Wikipedia | YouTube

DragonForce are back with their eighth studio album and I have to say that I was wary going into this one. With an album title like that and outrageously cheesy cover art that makes it look like a Japanese laserdisc from the late eighties, they're obviously not fighting the fact that they're becoming an unfortunate cliché through a surprising shift into fame.

They've been around since 2001, a couple of years more if we count the early ones as DragonHeart, but they're now more famous than any of their peers. In many ways, they're struggling to remain an actual band nowadays rather than just the ultimate insane Guitar Hero level and, if that's what the world is going to care about most, then why not play into it? Yeah, I was wary.

Sure enough, it starts horribly. The opening track, Highway to Oblivion, is so close to what we're expecting that it almost feels like self parody. The twin guitar attack of Herman Li and Sam Totman is as virtuosic as we expect but are all the technical theatrics they're performing helping the song? No is the quick answer and it stays no for half of it, I think. What surprised me is that, when vocalist Mark Hudson put down his mike to give way to the inevitable guitar duel, it stopped being cheesy for me and I started to dig the song.

My next surprise was that the second track plays better, even though it has the frankly ridiculous name of Cosmic Power of the Infinite Shred Machine. I have no idea how Highway to Oblivion is cheesy but a song like this finds a way to avoid that, playing like an early Gamma Ray gem. The keyboard section could be lifted for a retro video game and the theatrical part before it has potential as a sci-fi musical movie trailer. However, there's also restraint here. They could have played this at twice the speed but they chose not to. Maybe they're not planning on being self-parody after all.

So, while DragonForce initially try to be the Steel Panther of power metal, they turn back into an actual band again and I stopped cringing and started enjoying. Yeah, it's still outrageous and overblown but there's a line there and DragonForce moved back onto the right side of it pretty quickly and they stayed there for most of the rest of the album. It still blows my mind that a song called Cosmic Power of the Infinite Shred Machine can be on the right side of that line, but hey.

If the shred machine referenced is the Li and Totman double act, then it's a consistent one this time out. I dug the guitar duels on a slew of songs like Heart Demolition, Troopers of the Stars and Razorblade Meltdown. I think the middle of those three epitomises their unique approach of playing guitars in such a way that they sound like chiptune programs. If you're into this sort of thing, they do it better than anyone and they do it a lot.

My last surprise was that that temporary restraint continues. Not everything here is done at hyperspeed and the very clean production job brings details like the acoustic koto on The Last Dragonborn to be front and centre. Sure, these lyrics are cheesy but no more so than anything that Ronnie James Dio sang on half a century's worth of classics. Hudson delivers them well.

The Last Dragonborn is really a melodic rock song that just happens to have insanely fast guitars, just as Strangers is really an arena rock song given the DragonForce treatment. If most of the songs here continue to remind of early Gamma Ray, there are other influences and they're not all power metal. Maybe that's why Extreme Power Metal ends with, of all things, a cover of Celine Dion's My Heart Will Go On. No, I'm not kidding. It's completely unnecessary and it adds nothing to the album whatsoever.

Until then, however, this is strong stuff. As if to highlight that it's not all about those duelling guitars, there's even a hyperspeed bass run from, I presume, Frédéric Leclercq before he left the band earlier this year, on the excellent Troopers of the Stars. There are nice tinkling ivories to kick off Razorblade Meltdown and bagpipes to start Remembrance Day, timely given when I'm posting.

Don't turn this off if Highway to Oblivion, the first single, is too wildly ridiculous for you. Stay with it and it really impresses in a way that's as quintessentially European as Hellyeah are quintessentially American.

Hellyeah - Welcome Home (2019)



Country: USA
Style: Groove Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 Sep 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I've read that Vinnie Paul recorded the drum tracks for the sixth Hellyeah album before he passed. However, he died in June 2018 and the band weren't supposed to start recording until November, so I'm not too sure about that. Frankly, it doesn't matter. Whoever's behind the kit here does the job well enough that we hardly notice because we're caught up in the songs that rely on these beats. Paul's live replacement is Roy Mayorga, from Stone Sour and Soulfly, though he hasn't been listed as an official member that I can see.

Let's assume that everything here is Vinnie Paul and that makes it a solid exit to remember him by. Certainly, the last track, a sort of hidden track that isn't hidden, is an opportunity for him to leave us with a final word. "Don't ever think it's not a good time," he tells us, because "a wonderful time is irreplaceable." Thanks, Vinnie.

Hellyeah are a band that I can enjoy, even though they're a lot closer to nu metal than I like. They bring in a lot more influences than most such bands: hard rock, heavy metal, southern rock, grunge, even country and end up with a rather energetic groove metal sound. Just listening to this album in my office was enough for me to picture the crowd at a Hellyeah gig in motion right behind me. "Welcome to the slamboree!" indeed.

They start out strong with a couple of punchy but catchy songs that could be obvious singles. 333 was the first of five released thus far with Oh My God the third, even with a slower grind. Black Flag Army is straight up groove metal with a prowling bass, punchy riffs and shouty vocals. It's effortless and exactly what Hellyeah do best so it's almost impossible not to respond to its call. Boy, however, is close enough to nu metal to cross the line for me. It has plenty of bounce and power, along with tongue tripping lyrics, but it isn't my thing, even after Black Flag Army threatened to convert me.

However, there's more variety here. The title track adds orchestration and a more unusual melodic line for Hellyeah. It's an odd mixture of Radiohead and Metallica and it's pretty cool. This mashup style comes back on Bury You too and, frankly, it's more interesting to me than the regular stuff even though I'm usually wary of overproducing bands who thrive on their raw edge.

The band's grungier angle is more overt later in the album. At Wick's End is built on a solid riff reminiscent of Powerman 5000 but it gets far grungier, delivered with a real sneer. Somehow this song also reminded me of Testament and Saigon Kick at their grungiest, say One Step Closer. I never expected to hear both of those in a single song, especially alongside Powerman. Perfect kicks off with an incredibly dirty guitar but instead of continuing into the swamp rock we might expect, it becomes a loud pop song with the best lyrics on the album: "You're as perfect as an apple with a worm and a bruise."

The biggest departure from the band's regular sound is Sky and Water, which is like a grungy Blind Melon playing country. There's so much grit in Chad Gray's voice on this song that we can't help wondering if the band put him (and maybe everything else too) through a filter. He sounds gritty anyway, of course, but that's ramped up to eleven on this one.

It's an odd song to end the album because it takes us away from the bounce. Sure, Sky and Water couldn't have been put anywhere else on the track list without creating even more upheaval but it does that even here at the end. While this isn't my go to music, I enjoyed the album and would have enjoyed it more had I left it on the bounce a track earlier.

Friday, 8 November 2019

Alcest - Spiritual Instinct (2019)



Country: France
Style: Blackgaze
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 25 Oct 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

I haven't listened to enough Alcest but I've liked what I've heard thus far and I like what I hear on this, their sixth album, too. They started out as a black metal band but then they veered into shoegaze territory, an unusual choice but one which seemed to be a natural evolution for them. In between and after, they've merged the two genres to effectively define blackgaze. I say "they" because they are a band nowadays, a gentleman named Winterhalter handling the drums and percussion, but for most of their history they were one man, who goes by the name of Neige, and he does everything else.

This certainly fits well in the blackgaze genre, with half of the album full of blastbeats and dissonance and the other slow and ethereal like the post-punk era that influenced shoegaze. Michael Nelson of Stereogum described Le Secret, Alcest's pioneering 2005 EP, as being "like a Cocteau Twins/Burzum collaborative split". This plays pretty close to that description, although the alternation of those styles has gradually become a true merger of them, so that the Cocteau Twins parts and the Burzum parts can and often do play out at the same time.

For instance, the guitars that follow the killer bass in opener Les jardins de minuit are both somehow both harsh and melodic at the same time, and the sweet voice that soars over it all adds more melody. Even when it ramps up into hyperspeed, it never loses that melody, so that songs feel rather like welcoming danger, like a tray of cookies laced with cyanide brought to you by your new neighbour.

The other tracks follow suit. L'ile des morts kicks off with a pulsing synth beat and harsh guitars at speed. There are points where the speed takes over but the melody is still there in the vocals. I should add that those vocals are clean here almost exclusively. While the blastbeats and harsh guitars of black metal are frequent, there are precious few shrieks. Protection may be the only track that really goes there with a couple of moments behind clean vocals on Sapphire.

My favourite here is surely Le miroir, which does all this with emphasis. It starts out with a glorious drum build, then shifts into delicate intricacy, not unlike a Wishbone Ash track. It almost turns into a melodic Iron Maiden instrumental section, but slowed down for effect and staged theatrically. A wall of darkness, hovering from those initial drums, rises up behind it as it develops, but a soft voice floats over too. What results is less a song and more a sort of sonic sculpture in the vein of Shriekback or the Cocteau Twins, hurled out there as a gift to the gods of the dark. Even the patient but decidedly vicious single cymbal clashes are delightful.

That's a fair description of the rest of the album too. The biggest problem for me was how it was a delight to listen to but a bear to try to focus on. I had this playing for three or four days so it's become an old friend, but even now it mostly plays like a forty minute piece of music rather than the six individual tracks that make up that running time.

It's especially hard to focus on the longest song, L'île des morts, which is a nine minute textbook on dynamics. None of these songs are short, Sapphire the shortest at five minutes even, but they're the usual sort of length for an Alcest album. Looking back, I only see one track, Délivrance on the 2014 album Shelter, that exceeds ten minutes and that only by six seconds. I left this wondering what an actual forty minute Alcest track might sound like.

I doubt it would sound too much different to this, though with a little more control in the structuring of its dynamics. And that's not a bad thing. This is wonderfully evocative stuff, whether we see it as a single album or a set of half a dozen tracks, and it tells me that I need to go back and pay a lot more attention to those previous five albums and some of the other material that peppers Neige's back catalogue.

Steve Grimmett's Grim Reaper - At the Gates (2019)



Country: USA
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 11 Oct 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube |

I remember Grim Reaper without remembering Grim Reaper. They were around at the point I discovered rock and metal, though I don't recall them ever being played on the Friday Rock Show. Their second album, Fear No Evil, was one of the first albums I bought, I believe, the memorable hand-drawn cover art as unapologetically metal as it gets with its grim reaper, in flowing red robe and with a scythe strapped perhaps unwisely to its back bursting through a stained glass window on a motorbike.

What I don't recall are the songs, even after going back to that album in a quest to spark my memory. I remember vocalist and the band's current leader, Steve Grimmett, more from other bands. He was on the underrated Chateaux LP Chained and Desperate, joined Onslaught for their third album and formed the excellent band Lionsheart in the early nineties.

For a while, this album made me wonder if I just wasn't paying due attention back then, because it's top notch metal in the British style of the eighties that I remember growing out of NWOBHM, with a heavy but melodic approach. The drums pound, the guitars take flight and the vocals soar, but everything is done with hooks firmly in mind. It's fast stuff but it's not speed metal. It's technical but it's not complex. It's catchy but, outside Iron Maiden, it's not what made it into the charts.

Then I started to realise the fatal flaw. After a few listens through to get the general impact, I realised that every song is solid but none of them are able to stand out for special attention. Taken in isolation, every song here is decent, worthy of our attention on its own merits, and each of them does its job in a slightly different way. However, put together, none of them is particularly memorable and neither is the album as a whole.

Part of that may be because the best of the songs are at the very beginning: the title track and Venom, tracks one and two. The former has the best riff and the latter the best hook, or maybe that should be the other way round. Either way, they would both be solid singles. From there onwards, I enjoyed every song and never felt that the quality dropped off, but I still didn't leave the album with the feeling that I'd just heard something amazing.

I thought about how we're used to much heavier material nowadays; this isn't remotely extreme. We're used to a lot more complex music; this is content to do without frills. There's nothing original or groundbreaking; if it wasn't for the excellent modern production, this could easily have been written in 1986. All four musicians are clearly capable and it's good to see that Steve Grimmett's voice hasn't lost any power at all over a decade or three, but I can't call anyone out for special mention. The problem is that every point I just made suggests that this is run of the mill and it isn't.

What it is, I think, is outstandingly generic. I must have seen every one of these song titles on a dozen other albums and the lyrics are also likely to be similar every time out too. Under the Hammer is decent but it's also just another song called Under the Hammer that does pretty much what every other song called Under the Hammer does. What is there in this one that might make me remember it? Nothing.

I liked Breakneck Speed, except for the fact that it's not delivered close to breakneck speed and I'm more likely to remember a song with that title if it's recorded by an actual speed metal band. What's Line Them Up about? Or Rush? What Lies Beneath? I really can't remember and I've been listening to them for a few hours now.

And that's why my eventual feeling here is disappointment. There isn't a bad song on this album, but I doubt that there's one that I'm going to remember in a couple of weeks. Listening to it, I'm thinking 7/10 at least because I'm having a ball with it but, if I wait an hour and think again, it can't be anything but 6/10 because I can't remember anything. Maybe that's why those eighties albums haven't stayed with me either.

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Jeff Lynne's ELO - From Out of Nowhere (2019)



Country: UK
Style: Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 1 Nov 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Jeff Lynne is another classic name whose new album seems to have come, well, from out of nowhere, given that I thought he was happy as a mega-producer to the legends, but apparently he reformed the Electric Light Orchestra back in 2014 under the name of Jeff Lynne's ELO and this is the second album to see a release under that name, after 2015's Alone in the Universe.

If you're into Lynne's style of pop/rock, this is an essential album. There simply isn't a single bad song here, each of the ten on offer being a three minute and change crafted masterpiece with a hook that most musicians would kill for. It's the closest thing I've heard to the Beatles since, well, the Beatles and, even with long term collaborator Richard Tandy on board again, it's pretty much a one man band nowadays.

Lynne wrote all the music, of course, and that's his voice on all the songs, often harmonising with himself. He played almost every instrument: not just the guitar, bass and drums but piano, cello and even vibraphone. He handled the production. He probably even put the coffee on when needed. Tandy did a piano solo on One More Time and engineer Steve Jay added some percussion at points, which may mean that he shook a couple of tambourines. And that's the extent of outside involvement, I think.

Clearly the man is a genius, but the real question is whether this is going to stand up to posterity as there are two obvious catches.

One is that this sounds safe, something that I'm starting to resent as I get old. With every year that passes, I find myself empathising more with the Dude from The Big Lebowski: "I hate the fuckin' Eagles, man." It's not that they don't do their jobs supremely well. It's just that I know they can add an edge but they refuse to do it because it'll hurt the bottom line.

The other is that the album's sound is so inevitably consistent. While it's clearly in the style of the Beatles, it's very safe Beatles, with maybe an extra pinch of safe Eric Clapton on songs like All My Love. Listen to this through, then follow up with Sgt. Pepper and Disraeli Gears and recall what those musicians did when they didn't have self-imposed boundaries.

Even when the source style isn't outright Beatles-influenced pop, such as the funk of All My Love, the soul of Goin' Out on Me and the rock 'n' roll of One More Time, the end result still sounds like John Lennon singing for the Beatles in the seventies. That's odd, of course, given that Lennon was from Liverpool and Lynne hails from Birmingham, but it's there nonetheless.

All that said, the last time I felt like this about an album was Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever, which sounded like a safe take on what Petty had previously done, mostly because of the writing and production of one Jeff Lynne, but it went on to become a bona fide classic and, as much as it gets overplayed on my local classic rock station, I'm not tired of it yet the way I am of Take It to the Limit Eighty-Four More Times.

This album seems strong enough for a similar end result and I don't know why I'm surprised. Lynne will turn 72 years old next month and he's apparently rediscovered his love for writing and performing. He's rich enough to never set foot in a studio again, let alone on a stage, but he clearly felt driven to write another ELO album and do it this damn well. All power to him.

November's Doom - Nephilim Grove (2019)



Country: USA
Style: Progressive Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Nov 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I've heard November's Doom before but somehow they never clicked with me. I have no idea why. Maybe I wasn't listening to the right albums. Maybe I was too invested in the English doom/death sound that was growing up around me in Halifax from local bands like Paradise Lost, Anathema and My Dying Bride. Maybe I just wasn't ready. Whatever the reason, they never engaged with me.

This album did from the outset. Opening track Petrichor rolls along with an inexorability to it, as if nothing in the world could slow it down except a pause or break decreed by the metal gods. There's a point in the second half that sounds like it came out of Sad Wings of Destiny and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, but as a breakdown from a drumming blitzkrieg that could never have happened back in the seventies.

Interestingly, the vocals are slow and harmonising, even when the drums are at their most blistering. It's almost like there are a couple of different bands playing at the same time and at completely different tempos but oddly remaining in sync throughout. Those vocals are clean, by the way, and eager to elongate and hold notes, though harsh vocals show up on other tracks.

I see that drummer Garry Naples is the new fish in the band, having joined as recently as 2011, so I wonder if he changed their sound (research states that may have been more Vito Marchese's doing, after he joined in 2003). I don't recall them being remotely this fast, even when they got going. If he did, good on him because the contrast between slow vocals and fast drums is an enticing one. I know what fast death and slow doom/death sound like and this is not really either but somehow both.

It's also progressive and comfortable with that. There's Opeth here but the list doesn't end there. There's also Voivod and Tool and Budgie and a whole bunch of wildly different bands. The title track is a great example of that variety, with a slow quiet build ending up firmly in death metal territory but with Sisters of Mercy vocals and Uriah Heep organ.

There's always been a gothic element to doom/death (hey, my favourite genre album is Paradise Lost's Gothic) but it feels a lot more obvious here than I remember for November's Doom. If songs like What We Become or The Clearing Blind had their elements of death metal removed, as indeed they are on the Matte Variant bonus tracks on the limited edition, they ought to be right up the alley of traditional goths. It's certainly much closer to the sound of My Dying Bride than any era of Paradise Lost, perhaps because they were always the more prog of the doom/death bands that I grew up with.

Given what works here, I can easily see them going more and more into a My Dying Bride direction, because the clean vocals work so much better than the harsh ones. The latter are done well, but they're unable to raise the level of melancholia on a song that the clean vocals do effortlessly. It doesn't feel like they're complementing each other most of the time, though they do that at points, such as on Black Light. Most of the time they're battling as to what a song should be and the clean vocals win those battles every time.

I liked this. I liked how comfortable November's Doom felt doing this, as if they've evolved their sound to the point where things just feel right. These nine songs all do different things but in a similar way, mixing death not so much with doom but with goth and prog. Each runs for a reasonably consistent length, from just under five minutes to just under seven. That gives them a decent amount of time to mix up their formula and do new things.

This will prompt me to go backwards and see if maybe I'll enjoy earlier work by November's Doom, but it certainly prompts me to want to hear whatever the next album will sound like.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Babymetal - Metal Galaxy (2019)



Country: Japan
Style: Kawaii Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 8 Oct 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

It's rare that when a band conjures its genre out of thin air, it's actually more accurate that anything else we can come up with. Case in point: Japan's imaginative export du jour, Babymetal, who call themselves "kawaii metal". I honestly can't come up with anything better, especially on this, their third album, because it's all over the musical map.

At heart, as you probably know by now, it's heavy metal meets Jpop, a weird combination but at times a very good one. However, this album aims to mimic their journey bringing kawaii metal to all corners of the earth by bringing local music into their own, so it's often a sort of folk metal, as indeed a favourite song like their debut single, Megitsune, kind of was. When this is successful, it's fascinating. When it isn't, on the other hand, it's pretty awful and that's why I have to give it only a 6/10 rating.

It's hard to come up with any defining logic around which songs succeed and which don't, except that the worst heavily feature autotune and the best are the most international in flavour. I wouldn't have expected Pa Pa Ya!! to be one of my favourites, given that it features Thai rapper F. Hero, but it's a wonderful song. Once again, it's unlikely genres merging in a way that works but I can't explain why.

Shanti Shanti Shanti is easily my choice for the best song on the album. It delves into Indian music enough that it sounds like it began as a Bollywood song, but it leaps into both metal crunch and pop cuteness, mixing all three elements well. The middle features traditional Japanese melodies over Indian drums. I'd absolutely watch the Bollywood movie this came from.

Oh! Majinai does the same with what sounds like half Russian and half Celtic music. The guest vocalist is Joakim Brodén, the voice of Swedish power metal band Sabaton and he drives much of the song. It could be more than it is but it's still a lot of fun, much of it in the vocal shenanigans.

These two remind that, for all the power the musicians generate behind them, Babymetal are a vocal band. Many of the songs here are pop songs with added crunch. Da Da Dance is a rave with guitars, like a kawaii Rob Zombie. Rarely do the songs seem to start out as metal but add pop vocals. Elevator Girl is certainly one and it works a little better for it. At points, the guitars seem to make the singers go faster.

What surprises the most is how varied those vocals get, even if we focus on the Japanese girls rather than the guests. BxMxC is really interesting with its chiptune voice effects and other vocal acrobatics. Sadly, it utilises a lot of autotune, which makes the whole thing sound artificial and false. It became really hard to not skip songs like Brand New Day and ↑↓←→BBAB when listening through again. The former features Tim Henson and Scott LePage of American math rockers Polyphia and serves mostly as a reason not to look at what they sound like normally.

How the whole album doesn't end up as an unholy mess, I have no idea. To me, some of it does. Brand New Day, for example, is an overproduced mess that I just can't stand. Future Metal is nothing but an intro with autotune. Fasten your neckbrace, it tells us, before taking us into a rave with Da Da Dance. Sometimes it works, like In the Name Of, which is choral until the Brazilian steel drums take over in time for the ethnic death growls. I have zero idea where this ends up. Which parallel universe am I in?

Night Night Burn! is the epitome of this. It starts out as electronica meets neo-classical metal and stays that way until it doesn't. Cuban rhythms play behind staccato nu metal riffage before leaping onto centre stage. Was that the James Bond theme in there? It's all over the musical map but, again, it's immersive and enticing and fascinating.

I either really liked or really disliked the first dozen songs but was never bored for a second. The biggest problem the album has isn't that it fails to be all things for all people but because it forgets what it is. After those dozen songs, there are four more but they're instantly forgettable because a key element, that wild and insane imagination, is missing from them all.

I won't diss them because I went back later and listened only to those four songs, finding that they're decent enough on their own merits. The girls go extra cute on Shine and Arkadia is a solid melodic death metal song of the sort that Abba might have made had they formed a quarter of a century later in Gothenburg. It's just that they should have been issued as a separate EP rather than buried under a dozen wild and varied musical explorations.

What's especially interesting is that my son, who saw them live a couple of weeks ago, roughly agreed with my takes but didn't match entirely. There are songs that I didn't like at all that pushed the right buttons for him. And I think that's the key here. You're not likely to enjoy everything here but it has enough tracks that deleting the half you don't still leaves half an hour of stuff that you dig and which you absolutely won't hear anywhere else.