Friday 29 November 2019

Blind Guardian Twilight Orchestra - Legacy of the Dark Lands (2019)

Country: Germany
Style: Symphonic Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 Nov 2019
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I've had a blast catching up with the glut of releases from major names over the last couple of months and I hope you've enjoyed Name November as well. I wrap that up today with something completely different. This isn't the next Blind Guardian album, hence the slightly different name credit, and it's not really symphonic power metal either. So why I am reviewing it?

Well, it's a piece of classical music (a cantata? an oratorio?) composed by Hansi Kürsch and André Olbrich of Blind Guardian and performed not with the regular band but the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. There are no drums here, no guitars and no bass. All the music is orchestral, though Kürsch does sing on the various songs which punctuate the album, as do others, who I presume are part of the orchestra's choir.

And, while there are 24 tracks on offer, only eleven are actually songs. The structure here is a stricter version of what Blind Guardian did on Nightfall in Middle Earth, alternating songs with narrative dramatisations, featuring a host of different characters. There's an instrumental introduction too to round out those numbers. On occasion, the lines are blurred by bringing the narrative actors into a song like In the Red Dwarf's Tower.

While this should be best approached as an experience, I'm not sure whether Kürsch even plans to mount a full stage production like an opera. I have no doubt that such an undertaking would be insanely expensive. A film version would be cheaper. I would guess that most will be coming for the songs that do, after all, constitute over an hour of the running time.

They're a whole heck of a lot of fun and, even if we weren't feeling it, it wouldn't be difficult to contract fun from Kürsch's performance. His voice soars the way you'll expect, but it also soothes and stalks. What I enjoyed most was the way that the music interacted with his voice. The woodwinds on In the Underworld are playful and engaging but they also tease Kürsch. It's easy to see the interplay in dance within a stage production.

I've listened through a couple of times but haven't delved into the lyrics at any depth, so I'm not really grasping the story. I believe it runs much wider than this album, including a novel by Markus Heitz called Die dunklen Lande. From what I see, I believe this is based on Heitz's characters as a companion piece to the novel. However the ties, it sounds suitably epic for such grandiose orchestration.

As something so unique, it's hard to find anything with which to compare it. Sure, there are connections to Nightfall in Middle Earth and some of this is reminiscent of Blind Guardian's more traditional songs. However, it's a full blown orchestral composition shorn of metal in every way other than Kürsch's vocals, so it's fairer to compare it to a cantata like Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, which is a lot more varied than the O Fortuna bit you know.

Maybe it falls somewhere in between those two. It's certainly more classical than the Nightfall album and it's more metal than Carmina Burana. However, I heard a lot of film soundtrack music here too, especially in 1618 Ouverture, the introduction, though the deeper sounds of James Horner and Howard Shore rather than the quirkier ones of Danny Elfman.

I hear that it took Kürsch a couple of decades to make this happen, so I'm happy that he's realised the dream that he conjured up so long ago. I'm even happier that it works, though it isn't going to be for everyone, even among Blind Guardian's fans. They may well dig songs like Dark Cloud's Rising but only a subset will put up with the narrative sections on repeat listens.

Michael Sweet - Ten (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock/Heavy Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 11 Oct 2019
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OK, this one was a real surprise for me and it seems to have been for a lot of other people too. I remember Michael Sweet from way back in the eighties, when he sang for pioneering Christian rock/metal band Stryper, who I recall being cheesy, melodic and overblown. They didn't sound remotely like this.

I can't recall if I've heard any of his solo material until now, but I know what I expect it to sound like. It doesn't sound remotely like the work of someone who gets hired by Boston as vocalist/guitarist or someone who makes a couple of albums with George Lynch of Dokken. It doesn't sound like this.

The sound varies from song to song, but it's generally heavy metal not hard rock and it's lively heavy metal at that, as befits the guests who bring an unlikely variety of background to this material. That's Jeff Loomis of Arch Enemy on the opener, Better Part of Me, and Marzi Montazeri from Superjoint Ritual and currently Exhorder on Lay It Down. Now or Never features Gus G of Firewind. These aren't the AOR keyboard players I was expecting.

With people like Loomis and Montazeri involved, it's heavy stuff. The drums that kick off Lay It Down are more like something I'd expect on a Motörhead album than one by the dude from Stryper. What fits is the powerful voice of Sweet, because even when he was singing cheesy Stryper numbers like To Hell with the Devil, he had an operatic metal range.

To be fair, the heaviest stuff is at the beginning, though the album never wimps out. I see that Sweet has been accepted into Metal Archives entirely based on this album. To provide context there, there are two tracks here on which the guest guitarist is Joel Hoekstra of Whitesnake, who aren't deemed metal enough to be included. Matthew Sweet and Stryper both are apparently seen as more qualifying.

The majority of the album is more straightforward heavy metal, many tracks sounding like demos recorded so guitarists could try out for Ozzy's band in the eighties. The variety here is really interesting. Sweet carries on much in the same way throughout, but Jeff Loomis isn't Gus G and neither of them are Tracii Guns from LA Guns or Rich Ward of Fozzy.

Sometimes the guitarists elevate the music. I wasn't feeling Forget, Forgive at all until it livened up because of the guitarwork of Howie Simon, perhaps best known for his stint with Alcatrazz. I'm not a huge Fozzy fan but Rich Ward creates a memorable vibe on the title track. Sweet complements what he does well, belting out that he's giving us ten, appropriate for the song but also because it's the title of both the song and the album and because it's Sweet's tenth solo album, if you include that pair with George Lynch.

Sometimes Sweet leads the show, like on Shine, which he continues to build a little more and a little more until it's epic stuff by the end. Ethan Brosh of Angels of Babylon does a solid job but it's Sweet's show. So is Let It Be Love, which is the softest song on the album, surely the closest to Stryper as I remember them.

The songs that feel best in sync between vocals and guitar are the two with Hoekstra, Never Alone and When Love is Hated. What I found most interesting here is that the two songs are very different. Never Alone has a heavy feel, like Black era Metallica, at least until the chorus which points the way to When Love is Hated, which isn't too far away from Graham Bonnet era Rainbow.

The biggest mistake the album makes is perhaps to put songs after those two, which are next to each other. After hearing Sweet with Hoekstra, everything that went before is instantly lessened and everything that comes after fails in comparison. Don't get me wrong; Tracii Guns does deliver a strong solo on Ricochet, but it feels like a guest appearance. I haven't heard the Sweet & Lynch albums, but Sweet & Hoekstra sound like a band.

Thursday 28 November 2019

Pretty Maids - Undress Your Madness (2019)

Country: Denmark
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 8 Nov 2019
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Frontiers Records are putting out a heck of a lot of good stuff nowadays and I really should be reviewing more of it. They're based in Italy but they're releasing new material from a lot of classic names and finding some quality new bands too. Sure, I wasn't too impressed with the latest Quiet Riot album but this new Pretty Maids is pure class, I have another Frontiers album down for review tomorrow and I can't wait for the new Blue Öyster Cult album, due in January.

I knew that Pretty Maids were still around because Ronnie Atkins has been a guest vocalist on the last few Avantasia albums, including Moonglow, but I was surprised to find that they've never really gone away since I first heard them back in 1985 on The Friday Rock Show. There was a brief moment in 1991 when they technically seem to have split up but it only lasted long enough for a rethink and they were back up and running. Given how good this album is, I really should take a look back at the last few because this is their fourth in seven years.

If you haven't heard them, they're a melodic heavy metal band from Denmark, which is unsurprising nowadays but was far from the norm in 1985. They're a pristine example of how a band can be heavy without ever losing an inherent focus on melody. I wrote it that way deliberately because, however much of an influence they've been on European power metal, that's not what they are. Power metal starts with the power and brings in the melody. It feels like a Pretty Maids song starts with the melody and brings in the power.

In fact, the majority of songs here could be covered by a soft rock band and still sound amazing. Sure, there are heavied up ballads that could easily be de-heavied like Shadowlands and Strength of a Rose, but someone like Richard Marx could take on Will You Still Kiss Me (If I See You in Heaven), which is a heavy song with a heavy build, and it would still sound great without any of that heaviness.

The heaviest song here is surely If You Want Peace (Prepare for War), which chugs along as well as any death metal song I've heard this year, albeit a little less extreme. Pretty Maids aren't an extreme band, but it's not hard to see why more extreme bands see them as an influence. If a band closer to the soft end of the spectrum could cover other songs, I could see a heavier band covering this one.

The best song may well be the one in between the two I just mentioned at the heart of the album. It's Runaway World and it's class throughout. It starts out softly with Chris Laney's keyboards swirling to set the mood. It builds with vocal harmonies as the instruments kick in. The verse is a textbook of how to build to a chorus and the hooks when it arrives are fantastic. I have to say that I'm surprised that it isn't apparently seen as single material, the two released thus far being the openers, Serpentine and Firesoul Fly.

If the best material is in the middle of the album, they're a strong way to begin it. They're a little subtler than Runaway World but they're both great songs. With a really strong first half and a glorious middle, it's somewhat inevitable that the second half fades a little but it's still decent. It's a quieter affair, after If You Want Peace, because the last four songs include the two ballads, which fortunately aren't remotely soporific.

This is the band's sixteenth studio album and it sounds like they're as good now as they've ever been. I enjoyed them back in the late eighties but they weren't anywhere near this good then. This is much slicker than Red, Hot and Heavy but heavier and more consistent than Future World. Ronnie's voice has matured well over the years too and he has a really tight band behind him at the moment. Obviously there's a lot of material in between those early days and now and I'm going to be very interested in seeing how long they've been up to this standard.

Entombed A.D. - Bowels of Earth (2019)

Country: Sweden
Style: Death 'n' Roll
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 30 Aug 2019
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While I drifted away from the rock scene in the early nineties, I did notice Entombed, whose 1990 Left Hand Path album was a pivotal death metal release and who demonstrated a will to evolve musically on their third studio album, Wolverine Blues, in 1993. Of the current Entombed A.D. line-up, only vocalist Lars-Göran Petrov was with Entombed at that point, but this band formed out of that one, after they split up in 2014. Founder member Alex Hellid had the rights to the name, so everyone else formed Entombed A.D. to continue their work in the death 'n' roll style.

I don't believe I've reviewed a death 'n' roll album yet at Apocalypse Later and I do know that Entombed A.D. don't particularly care for the genre name. I get that because they're just playing death metal in a different way, like their home town scene in Stockholm had a different sound to Gothenburg, over on the other side of Sweden.

To me, this just feels more rooted in hardcore punk than other Swedish death metal, even though it all was. It's more obvious in the sound, which amps up the bass and aims more for bounce than riffs, not only through the very punk drum sound. It makes sense for the cover on the limited edition to be of an unusual Motörhead song, because they were always as punk as they were metal too.

This is the third album for Entombed A.D., the fourth if you count the final Entombed album, Serpent Saints: The Ten Amendments, on which three quarters of this band performed, and I haven't heard the others, but it took a while for me to get on board with it. It sounded good from the very beginning but it didn't sound memorable until the title track kicked off like a piano with a lifelong dream to really be a music box, something it does at other points throughout the song.

Regardless of whether Petrov's guttural but intelligible vocal delivery has you grinning or not, Bowels of Earth chugs along on wonderfully. The guitar interplay is excellent, as is the solo, and the drums feel a lot more alive. The dynamics when the loud metal and quiet piano alternate are a lot of fun. There's a lot in this song and it's all good. Going back for a fresh listen, Hell is My Home has some strong sections too, but this album really begins for me with the title track.

It doesn't hurt that the next song is even more fun. It's Bourbon Nightmare and it kicks off with a mariachi intro. This is where Petrov's vocals work best, because they're enthusiastic but relatively monotone and this song is full of punk urgency. It's like a fifties rock 'n' roll number performed by a band of highly dextrous cavemen with nothing on their mind except rocking out with every instrument downtuned, including vocals. It's the opposite of subtle and that's absolutely fine.

From then on, this felt good to me, kind of like DOA as a death metal band. Listening to Petrov with punk in mind rather than metal, suddenly his vocals make sense. Perhaps that's why these songs work at three minutes and change but don't work as well at a longer length. To Eternal Night isn't bad, for instance, but it's almost six minutes long and that's too long for a style like this. It doesn't allow for a lot of imagination.

Entombed A.D. are a metal band, so they're more than happy to go with guitar solos, but their effect is punk and so they can only get away with so many of them before they turn back into a death metal band. For now, I'm happy a pair of Entombeds are stalking around Stockholm, but I wonder if either of them is going to grow much from here.

Wednesday 27 November 2019

Die Krupps - Vision 2020 Vision (2019)

Country: Germany
Style: Industrial Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 15 Nov 2019
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I'm pretty sure I heard Die Krupps back in the day when they didn't sound at all like they do now, but I can't remember quite what. Going back to listen to their early music, I find that they've always been changing. Their first album, Stahlwerksynfonie, is avant garde industrial noise like Einstürzende Neubauten. Volle Kraft Voraus! sounds like post punk chiptune, while Entering the Arena is electronic pop music with alternative flavours.

It was in the early nineties when they began to merge synths with metal and they've continued to grow ever since. 1995's III: Odyssey of the Mind is an album that sounds like what I think of as industrial. By Paradise Now, they were as clearly industrial Metallica as it gets. Only here do they suddenly sound more like NDH. I'd say that this is a better Rammstein album than the one Rammstein put out back in May.

Just check out the title track that opens the album. It has all the driving guitars and dark electronic melodies that we expect from Rammstein, with an impressive hook for the chorus. The odd title is because it's a pun. It's a look at what's coming in 2020 with a pessimism drawn from looking backwards with 20/20 vision. That pessimism continues throughout, with revolution and apocalypse a common factor in the lyrics. Welcome to the Blackout, indeed.

What surprised me most was how simple everything seemed. The guitar tone is the same throughout, as is the primary keyboard tone, and there's only one vocalist, Jürgen Engler, who never varies his delivery much, so it's not an outrageous assumption that the songs are all similar. Sure, there's flavour infused through different riffs, different hooks and different samples, but the overall impression is similar.

Over time, with repeat listens, that impression starts to fall apart. There are different grooves here. Extinction Time works a Sisters of Mercy vibe. F.U., which stands for exactly what you think it does, is the most overtly political song, snarling at an unnamed but very clear Donald Trump with the backing of White Zombie-esque electronica. Welcome to the Blackout kicks off with cheeky electronic interplay before crushing riffs join in, and there's other synth work to throw melodies over everything. Destination Doomsday is faster stuff, almost groove metal.

Perhaps most memorable is Trigger Warning, which has a particularly playful riff, making for what's almost a Yello song but done as industrial metal. I liked that a lot, just as I enjoyed the contrast between the catchy riff and the abrasive siren over the top of the intro and chorus. This isn't an album that fades into background ambience, but Trigger Warning continued to grab me on every relisten.

Most uncharacteristic is The Carpet Crawlers, which is very much electronic pop with milder vocals over oddly hypnotising keyboard runs. It's the only track that doesn't have the guitar crunch and emphatic drive that makes this a metal album. It's more like David Bowie in a post-disco world showing the way forward. It's a good song that gets under the skin, but it's like a Die Krupps song from a couple of decades ago that doesn't fit any more.

As I mentioned, this is a better Rammstein album than the most recent album from Rammstein and it stands up to repeat listens, but it's not as catchy or as inventive as the best of Rammstein, say their Mutter album. The question, of course, is whether Die Krupps will sound like this on their next album or if they've moved on again to something new.

Shark Island - Bloodline (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 11 Nov 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Wikipedia

Latest in the seemingly unending list of wannabe comeback artists, here's a second eighties band that many remember for their contribution to the Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure soundtrack. I reviewed the new Tora Tora album in February, so now it's time for the first Shark Island album in the thirteen years since Gathering of the Faithful, which resulted from vocalist Richard Black's prior attempt to resurrect the band. The album before that was Law of the Order in 1989.

It's certainly not a bad effort either, though it aims more at the sound of the eighties than Tora Tora went for and hits less often. Make a Move opens up proceedings in a way that makes us question if Shark Island ever went away. It's a strong, if unsurprising, rocker that would have been an easy single choice back in the day. It's followed by Fire in the House, which is a stalker of a song in the Kiss style, even if it doesn't remotely like Firehouse.

It's track three where we arrive much more up to date. Policy of Truth is a Depeche Mode cover, done with some real weight. The guitars are very low in the mix and the bass (and the bass drums) very high. It's an engaging cover, albeit one that took me a while to get used to. It feels rather out of place until I remembered that it's not 1987 and my mind opened back up again.

My favourite song may be the next one, Aktion Is, though again it took me a while to get used to it. It kicks off with drums that sound very electronic and so provide the song with an odd feel for a while. Is this Robert Palmer? Is it the Bangles? Is it some modern remix of an unreleased T Rex song? It does find high gear eventually and rocks out in true LA hair metal style.

From there, things turn into a mixed bag. Some songs leap out immediately, like Rocks on the Rocks, which benefits from an AC/DC feel at the back end, that tight and incessant drive forward. Maybe it's more the Cult, as that's apparent elsewhere in more than the rhythm section. Some are enjoyable but never seem to quite shine the way they're supposed to, such as Crazy Eights. There are songs I could have done without, like the ballad, On and On, that really does go on and on as it closes out the album until a guitar solo does a little to save it.

There are songs that grow with each listen, like Butterfly, which felt like it was out of control until it came into focus on a second or third try. And there are songs that haven't found that focus yet. I'm not sure why I don't like When She Cries, because I like a lot of what happens within it and I'm not unappreciative of the rest. I think it's over-ambitious with details to the detriment of the song as a whole.

The result is that there's good stuff here but it's in small pictures rather than the big one. I'm unsure that I can recommend this new Shark Island to you because this album doesn't tell me who they are or what they're trying to accomplish. I can certainly recommend some of the songs here but that's a different thing entirely. It seems to me that the band have a hundred ideas and they've tried to cram them into eleven songs. Some of them work but some of them don't and going with eleven of those hundred ideas may have been a better choice.

Assuming that they stick around for a while, and past history suggests that they may not, I'd be interested in hearing their next album. Maybe they just need some time to gig around, realise what works and what doesn't, and focus in on a follow up. It could well be the album that this isn't.

Tuesday 26 November 2019

Andy McCoy - 21st Century Rocks (2019)

Country: Finland
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 Sep 2019
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I reviewed Michael Monroe's latest solo album, One Man Gang, at the tail end of last month and I mentioned that his Hanoi Rocks sidekick, Andy McCoy, the other half of the Suicide Twins, had a solo album due a week later. This is that album and, while it might seem completely obvious to compare these two albums, they really have little in common. In fact, they highlight just how different these two musicians are and therefore just how much variety they brought to the Hanoi Rocks sound.

Monroe is a rock 'n' roll showman who brings strut and swagger and a sexual charisma to his music. McCoy is a musician who collates sounds from diverse sources and channels them into something new, coherent and vibrant. McCoy is Keith Richards to Monroe's Jagger, or maybe Joe Perry to his Steven Tyler. I think there's more though, because the variety here is more apparent than I expected and it continued to impress me in a way that only Heaven is a Free State did on Monroe's recent album.

Sure, the general sound here, like on Monroe's album, is clearly rooted in the Rolling Stones. The opening title track is built on a riff not dissimilar to Bitch and Bible and a Gun is an overt Stones homage that's agreeably rough enough to have been included on Sticky Fingers. However, just as the Stones drew from more music than the blues, so does McCoy. There are a host of ethnic sounds on this album and they elevate it considerably.

That opener has what sounds like an Indian radio station as its intro and Indian music adds to a new version of Soul Satisfaction from his 2018 EP of the same name. There's flamenco to kick off Seven Seas, old school rock 'n' roll on Batteram, which has lyrics that surely deliberately namecheck song titles. More out there, there's mariachi brass infusing a Latin flavour to Maria Maria, lap steel on Give a Minute, Steal a Year and saxophone on more than just The Hunger and Undertow, but it's particularly effective on those two. Most out there of all is Love It Loud, which is psychedelic reggae.

All that makes this suddenly sound like a world music album, but this still rocks, whatever sounds McCoy is adding into the mix. So there's a seventies style organ/guitar interplay on This is Rock 'n' Roll, with soulful backing vocals to boot, but it's full of outrageous guitar solos and the title is a fundamental truth.

One other angle that makes this feel more exotic is the fact that McCoy is more than just the guitarist; he provides the vocals too and his voice is, shall we say, an acquired taste. It's proudly unpolished and it provides a link between sleaze rock and gypsy punk. He's not Mick Jagger but he might well be Keith Richards after two bottles of Jack. The overall impression is an odd mix of Eugene Hütz from Gogol Bordello, Alice Cooper and Neil Young, of all people. It's not deliberate; it's there in inflections and moments, but it all adds up to a bizarre amalgam of voices into one.

On a first listen, this album doesn't feel particularly coherent. It's like an acid trip through Europe with the radio on but shifting from one station to another with each border crossing. On further listens, these songs start to feel a lot more consistent. They don't all get there, Maria Maria always staying apart from everything else, but the country, punk, soul, reggae and psychedelia start to feel like different accents of the same language.

I liked Monroe's album and I'm giving this the same rating, but they're two completely different sets of music and I'm more likely to come back to this one than the other. If you're less experimental in your music choices, then you may prefer Monroe though. It's more recognisably rock 'n' roll.

Exmortus - Legions of the Undead (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Technical Death/Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 25 Oct 2019
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Legions of the Undead is a neatly old school EP in that it allows a band to release a couple of new songs and add a bunch of odd stuff that wouldn't fit on a regular album as a bonus. That's what I remember EPs as being for but I don't believe any that EPs I've reviewed this year have done that until now. Thanks, Exmortus!

The new songs are Legions of the Undead and Swallow Your Soul, both of which sound good to me. I see Exmortus usually listed as technical thrash or death metal and this is kind of both together. Jadran Gonzalez uses a harsh voice that's not particularly extreme; it's a death growl but I've heard far more harsh from pure thrash metal singers in the past. While Swallow Your Soul is reasonably fast, it's not crazily so, and the title track is slower. This is far from frantic stuff.

The one word that rings truest from those genres is "technical", especially on the title track. This is a four piece band and they solo as much as they riff, so that there are melodies hurled out from all over. The bass of Cody Nunez is audible and welcome and Adrian Aguilar mixes up the rhythms a lot from behind the drumkit. While these songs aren't as fast as I tend to like my thrash or as evil as I tend to like my death, I thoroughly enjoyed both as heavy metal songs with extreme influences and I should look backwards.

Exmortus have been around since 2002 but didn't release an album until 2008. Last year's The Sound of Steel was their fifth studio full length and I see that they've generally been received well, sometimes very well indeed. They tend to focus more on war than traditional extreme subject matter, with war being from a more fantasy perspective: battles and heroism and glory, rather than the more historical bent of, say a Sabaton. If these two new songs are representative of their past material, I'm on board.

I'm actually even more on board because of the odd stuff that follows. I see that the band have featured at least one instrumental on each album and some of them have names that hint at a classical influence. Moonlight Sonata (Act 3)? Yeah, I think I know what that is. Appassionata? Yeah, I have an idea on that too. Here, Exmortus wrap up proceedings with three more notably varied instrumentals, finishing up with a very metal classical piece.

The first two are skimpy because they always have been, in the form of short movie soundtrack pieces. First up is Beetlejuice, the Danny Elfman theme you expect but rocked up massively with cool soloing over the refrains. Next up is Bernard Herrmann's memorable theme from Psycho, with shrieking guitars a highly appropriate replacement for shrieking strings. What's notable is that these two themes, written by other people for other purposes, fit well both with the original Exmortus songs here and the one classical track to follow.

That's Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain, one of the most metal classical pieces of music ever written, both in its sound and its imagery, as it's an attempt to visualise a witches' sabbath. Exmortus aren't the first band to record it as metal but this version feels a lot closer to the original than the Accept version on Symphonic Terror. That's because the guitars of Conan Gonzalez and Chase Backer sound so much like a string section. They really do sound like witches in gleeful and frantic flight. Shenanigans are surely afoot. It's glorious stuff and it's a great way to wrap up a memorable EP.

Monday 25 November 2019

Phil Campbell - Old Lions Still Roar (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock/Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 25 Oct 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

While they can be wildly inconsistent, I have a particular fondness for this sort of album, which is a solo project brought to life with a varied line-up of guest stars. I like them all the more when those guests take the main man in completely new musical directions. Think Carlos Santana's Supernatural or Dave Grohl's Probot. Santana got to record with Lauryn Hill and Rob Thomas, while Grohl got to play with Cronos and Tom G. Warrior, not likely team-ups but very effective ones.

Now it's the turn of Phil Campbell, who's apparently been planning for years to do a similar style of solo album but was too busy touring the world with Motörhead. Campbell wrote a bunch of songs, sent them out to friends and let the project coalesce. As you might expect from the success of Phil Campbell & The Bastard Sons, his three sons feature heavily here, one or more of them playing on six of the ten tracks, but the guests aren't just vocalists; they fill all the roles needed.

Most of the album rocks, of course, though the bookends are interesting. The opener is a sort of folk/country story song that tells Campbell's life story thus far. It was written by Leon Stanford, whose voice adds emotion. I love the imagery of "the whole world screaming 'I don't want to live forever'" in a song that looks back on a life, even one that's thankfully still massively productive. The album ends with an introspective instrumental, Tears from a Glass Eye, on which Campbell plays guitar and piano and Joe Satriana handles everything else.

In between, there are unsurprising songs featuring unsurprising rock royalty like Rob Halford on Straight Up, Alice Cooper on Swing It and Dee Snider on These Old Boots, on the latter of which Campbell also plays bass. There are songs featuring a couple of vastly different Welsh singers. Nev McDonald of Kooga and Skin provides a soulful AOR vocal on Left for Dead, with Mark King of Level 42 on bass. Benji Webbe of Skindred brings a surprisingly emotional touch to Dead Roses, with Matt Sorum of Guns n' Roses on drums. These songs are all solid, whether they're up tempo rockers or the more soulful songs.

The more surprising material explores stoner metal territory, not something I'd expect from Campbell. Ben Ward from Orange Goblin sings Faith in Fire, a relatively straightforward stoner track, though again it's a good one. Walk the Talk is funkier but still very heavy. I really dug this one, even though it's arguably nu metal. The two vocalists are Nick Oliveri of Queens of the Stone Age and Danko Jones of the band of the same name. Oliveri also plays bass, while Ray Luzier of Korn adds drums.

I thoroughly enjoyed how some of these musicians brought their usual sound with them, Campbell playing along with it as if he's checking off subgenres from his bucket list. He's not likely to play a lot of material like Dancing Dogs (Love Survives), a grungy rocker featuring Whitfield Crane of Ugly Kid Joe, but he clearly has fun with it. Others play along with whatever's being done, Chris Fehn of Slipknot and Mick Mars of Mötley Crüe content to let Dee Snider take These Old Boots wherever he wants.

The inherent problem with albums like this is that the different approaches are likely to work to different levels, meaning inconsistent quality. While I liked a lot of Supernatural, for instance, some of it left me totally dry. This, on the other hand, is solid throughout. I don't think I'll be playing it as often as I do Grohl's even more varied Probot album, but this is much closer to that in quality. I enjoyed it a lot.

What's more, unlike Probot, I could easily see a follow up to this. Campbell has done very well for himself with Motörhead and, with that era of his life sadly over, he's free to do whatever he wants. He's busy with Phil Campbell & The Bastard Sons, but he should have plenty of opportunity to put together more material like this in the future. I hope he does. Let's see what other checkboxes he has yet to mark. Old lions definitely still roar.

Edenbridge - Dynamind (2019)

Country: Austria
Style: Symphonic Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date:
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Wikipedia | YouTube

This is the tenth studio album for Edenbridge, who have been consistent and reliable since they issued their debut, Sunrise in Eden, as the millennium turned. They're still consistent and reliable here, sometimes a little much so because this is so effortlessly good that we sometimes relax too far and realise that we've drifted away from it.

It certainly took a while to grab me. The first few songs seemed completely fine but I needed time to get to know them. It was four tracks in when they made me pay attention, courtesy of the overtly Celtic intro to the overtly Celtic On the Other Side. It's a folky piece with dance in its blood and it would be difficult not to move to it, whether you're a dancer or not. It's also the first overt departure from the traditional sort of symphonic power metal that Edenbridge play.

There are actually quite a few departures here, just as there's quite a lot of variety, but the band are insanely good at making them fit comfortably within their particular sound. It's like they happily open the doors of the Edenbridge castle to welcome whatever other elements want in, only to make them feel so at home that they all become part of the family.

For instance, there are faster songs here, such as Where Oceans Collide, and heavier ones, like What Dreams May Come, but they remain inherently melodic and fit well with everything else. There's also a notably progressive track in The Last of His Kind. It runs a full twelve minutes but never seems long because a five minute song flows right into a progressive section, not only because it has time available for keyboard solos, which segues right into a second regular five minute song. Those songs have a prog feel too, reminding of a calmer Dream Theater, but they never forget that they're still melodic symphonic power metal.

The band I need to bring up here, not because they're a good comparison but because they're doing what Edenbridge only appear to do, and that's Sonata Arctica. This album feels very light to me, but it's deceptively so. Sonata Arctica have really lightened up, while Edenbridge only seem to have done. I think it's partly because it seems so effortless, always smooth whatever the band are doing, and partly because of the vocals of Sabine Edelsbacher, which are so clean, so patient and so well intonated that the elegance takes over and we don't realise that she's doing anything flash.

In other words, I can't see Edenbridge being recommended to voice coaches to react to on YouTube the way that, say, Nightwish's Ghost Love Score is every day of the week. However, if any of them do take on an Edenbridge song, like maybe the title track here, for all that it's a coda rather than a complete song, and they'll shower her with compliments. She sounds fantastic and her control is magnificent. I actually like that she's not showing off, singing along with the orchestration rather than setting up contrasts with it.

This is a very difficult album to dislike. It would take a listener utterly antithetical to the concept of symphonic metal to be left dry. However, it's so smooth and easy on the ears that we have to pay attention to realise just how good these guys are. They've certainly had time to find their groove, as Edelsbacher and main musician Lanvall are founder members with over a couple of decades with the band now. Here, with their tenth album, they deliver once again what their fans expect in a way that may land them some more.

Friday 22 November 2019

Tygers of Pan Tang - Ritual (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 22 Nov 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

There seems to be a huge resurgence of old NWOBHM acts releasing new albums in 2019. This month alone, I've reviewed Angel Witch, Steve Grimmett's Grim Reaper and Weapon UK already and here's the Tygers of Pan Tang. Yesterday a new Persian Risk double album dropped too. Who else is on the horizon?

The good news here is that they seem to be getting better and batter. Ritual is the twelfth album from the Tygers and it's really good. They've been back for a while; the most recent reformation happened in 2000 and they've put an album out every three or four years since then. I remember them from back in the early to mid eighties, having heard The Wreck-Age on original release in 1985 after they got back together for the second time. This is the fourth if we count the brief reunion to play Wacken Open Air in 1999.

Most of the band are new, the only founder member being guitarist Robb Weir, though he opted out of the eighties reunions. The line-up's been relatively stable since 2001, with drummer Craig Ellis dating back to then. Gavin Gray played that Wacken gig but didn't join the band proper until 2011. Guitarist Micky Crystal is the new fish, having joined in 2013. Jacopo Meille is the third vocalist since the reformation but he's been there since 2004 and he's a major part of why this album works.

Sure, we're immediately hooked by the guitars, courtesy of a rapid fire riff on the opener, Worlds Apart, that reminds of Tokyo Blade, but Meille's right behind it and he makes his presence felt quickly. The primary sound here is Whitesnake, somewhere in between the initial bluesy rock band and the slick and commercial hair metal band of the late eighties. Meille often finds that Coverdale tone and he does it well on songs like Destiny, Spoils of War and Love Will Find a Way. Occasionally it builds to Dave Meniketti power, though oddly not on Rescue Me!

It's interesting how he sounds like so many other vocalists without changing much of anything. On Raise Some Hell, another faster song with a great Tank style riff, he sounds more like Sean Harris of Diamond Head. On the Japanese edition, he even tackles an old Tygers track, Don't Touch Me There, from the 1980 debut, Wild Cat, and he's as different on that song as he's been, even adding some John Lee Hooker moments and, I presume, another with a talk box.

The album isn't far short of an hour, if we include that Japanese bonus, but there are no duff tracks to be found. Even songs slick enough for me to slip right off them on a first run through assert themselves on a second. If this was 1987 instead of 2019, Ritual could have become one of those rare records to see every one of its songs played on The Friday Rock Show. Some are good candidates for wider airplay too.

Part of the reason for that is that it isn't just Meille who shines here. I talked about memorable riffs and hooks on some of those earlier albums from NWOBHM legends, or the lack of them. They're here in abundance, so much so that I'd be hard pressed to pick a favourite track because it's always the one I'm on.

As I wrote this paragraph, I was thinking White Lines, which is commercial heavy metal at its best, but I was listening to Art of Noise and realising how solid its simple riff is and how well the guitars build late on in the track. Ultimately, I think I like the heavier riffs better, so Raise Some Hell and Worlds Apart, but only just. There are so many candidates.

As I listen to all these new albums from old bands, it's impossible not to notice how much better the production is nowadays. Technology has moved on and I've been waiting for something to come along that's just as good as the classics I grew up on but which benefits from that new tech. There were some songs on the new Diamond Head album earlier in the year that achieved that, but this is the first full album to do it and the result is glorious. This may well be the best NWOBHM album I've heard since the NWOBHM era.

The Steve Howe Trio - New Frontier (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Jazz/Progressive Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 27 Sep 2019
Sites: Wikipedia

Name November was all about me catching up with a glut of releases from the well known artists and important lesser known ones who apparently waited to release their new work all at once. In hindsight, November shone because of bands at the heavier end of the spectrum: Opeth, Insomnium, Alcest, Mayhem, Nile and Exhorder. Only Jeff Lynne's ELO album really stood out amongst them from a lighter perspective, so I'm interested to see if anything else light might play well in that company.

So here's Steve Howe, best known as the guitarist for prog rock legends Yes (and their temporary continuation in Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe), but he also deserves recognition for his work for arena rock bands such as Asia and GTR. Add a many solo albums, plenty of collaborations and guest appearances on albums for artists as varied as Lou Reed, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and William Shatner and you have a serious rock career.

The Steve Howe Trio is a jazz group featuring Howe on guitar, his son Dylan on drums and Ross Stanley on Hammond organ. There are no vocals and there's no bass. As you might imagine, it's easy listening both in the sense that it really is easy to listen to and in the sense that it could well be piped out of hidden speakers in hotel lobbies. This is their third album in just over a decade, following 2008's The Haunted Melody and 2010's Travelling.

However, it's also interesting stuff if we focus in and, with Howe the major driving force and with fellow Yes alumnus Bill Bruford contributing to three of the ten tracks, it's not entirely shorn of the prog rock elements that we might be forgiven for seeking out. And, while this is clearly Howe exploring a new musical direction, hence the title, there's prog rock here, especially early on.

Hiatus, for instance, may be an odd title for an opening track, but it's an impressive one whose major flaw is that it ends too soon. This is prog rock, especially before the drums kick in, with Howe coaxing delightful sounds out of his guitar and Stanley's Hammond doing exactly what we don't expect. The drums don't add much here, but the combination of guitar and keyboard could easily have built into a Yes song, with a full band joining in when it ends.

Left to Chance, the longest song on the album at six and a half minutes, is prog for a while too, again mostly through the interplay between guitar and organ. Dylan Howe gets the picture a minute in and gets interesting too. If the song progresses into more overt jazz territory after a while, that's OK because this is a jazz trio, but Yes fans coming to this will have found it worthy. Of course, it's hard not to imagine Yes fans not getting into Howe's guitar, whatever it is that he's doing.

I'm not remotely well versed enough in jazz to recognise anything that this trio borrow from the expansive jazz songbook, but some parts do sound rather familiar, especially on Showdown but also on Fair Weather Friend and others. It doesn't matter, of course. Jazz is all about reinventing material, often in an improvisatory setting. This doesn't seem loose enough to be a freeform jam but that doesn't mean that they aren't riffing on older material in new songs.

I enjoyed this interlude from the heavier side of name November. It's hardly going to be of interest to all rock fans and it's not remotely challenging, but anyone into prog and jazz would likely get a kick out of it. Even with only three instruments recorded in a bare bones setting, there's plenty of interesting stuff going on.

Thursday 21 November 2019

Exhorder - Mourn the Southern Skies (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Thrash/Groove Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 20 Sep 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I have no interest in stirring up the controversy over whether Pantera stole their power groove sound from Exhorder and promptly succeeded greatly while the latter languished in unjust obscurity. I'll just mention that I've been struggling with Pantera for years, far more than any other major metal band and for a host of reasons, but I like this album a whole heck of a lot.

This is only the third studio album from Exhorder, though they were founded as far back as 1985, when Pantera were still a glam band. This is the first in 27 years, adding them to the growing list of important bands crawling out of the woodwork in 2019 with new material. And, like a surprising number of these bands, this particular material is really good.

It's also a lot deeper than I expected it to be and I mean in substance not in pitch. It's mid-tempo thrash for the most part, with some songs a little slower, but the groove element is less overt than on the prior album, 1992's The Law. Sure, there's still the highly prominent bass and many songs have the groove bounce that moves them away from pure thrash. However, everything works. The songwriting and the performance are both more mature by a massive degree. This is accomplished stuff and I clearly need to look into what the core band members have been doing elsewhere for the last few decades.

These are songs catchy enough to hook us in on a first listen but not catchy enough to sell us singles. However, they grow on further listens to become old friends. If we invest a little time into it, it pays back dividends. And that goes for every single song here. It doesn't matter if it's a faster one like Beware the Wolf, which is akin to Metal Church mixed with Exodus, or a slower one like Asunder, which exchanges immediacy for elegant power. There isn't a bad song among the ten here and there isn't a merely OK one either.

While the tone is consistent, each track has its own identity. Some of them blister, some stalk and some get under our skin. I've only listened a couple of times through thus far, but I'll be playing this a lot this weekend and I look forward to seeing what grows the most. For instance, Yesterday's Bones didn't grab me first time through but it may be the most impressive track of a second listen. It's a long song, running just over seven minutes, but it doesn't waste any of that time. The solo is great and the ending is too.

Initially, the most overt variety comes at the end of the album. The Arms of Man slows down enough that it's almost a lively doom song. Then it's Ripping Flesh, a re-recording of a song from their 1986 demo, Get Rude, which is the purest thrash on offer. It's at least twice the speed of anything else here, with Beware the Wolf the only other track even in competition. Guest drummer Chris Nail, who played on the original, is a whirlwind. Finally, there's the title track, a lush nine minute epic that benefits from a long, slow build. This trio couldn't be much more different but there's still a common thread.

Going along with the newfound maturity to be found everywhere on this album, the delivery of vocalist Kyle Thomas is a huge improvement. Yeah, there's a hint of hardcore shout in there, but he's using a clean thrash delivery with real power behind it. It's warm and rich and notably well served by a 21st century production job from Duane Simoneaux. We can't fail to pay attention to what he's singing because there's command in his tone.

Exhorder released this album exactly a week before the new Opeth and the two are worthy of mention in the same breath. This isn't as varied but it's more accessible without losing depth. It's a real treat and it's not helping with my task of picking my albums of the month in a week or so. October was tough and it looks like November is going to be hard too. This or Insomnium as the runner up to Opeth? Or Alcest? I'm going to need to start tossing coins.

Jinjer - Macro (2019)

Country: Ukraine
Style: Progressive Groove Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 25 Oct 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I've mentioned as recently as this week that metalcore doesn't tend to be my thing. Here's Jinjer to prove that every rule has an exception. Hey, there's been enough negative news about the Ukraine this week; let's find a positive side! Jinjer hail from Donetsk and temper all the shouting with some notable variety, hence the "progressive" label. Tatiana Shmailyuk screams very well, thank you very much, but she also sings clean here, often shifting back and forth surprisingly quickly. One of the other band members, though which I'm unable to say, adds death growls. I only assume they're not her too because they often coincide with her doing something else.

They're groove metal at heart but with such a heavy metalcore component that it wouldn't be unfair to call them metalcore too. Fortunately, the nu metal side that often comes with that is less apparent than it used to be, with a progressive edge becoming accordingly more obvious. That's most overt on the closing track, lainnereP, which, frankly, is different enough from the songs around it that it couldn't have been placed anywhere else on the album, but there's prog throughout if you listen. I, for one, feel that this is a major plus point in the band's evolution.

They're also now comfortable enough to play with unlikely genres, finding a way to fit them into regular songs without culture shock kicking in. Easily the most obvious example of this is Judgment (& Punishment), which kicks off like another bass-heavy groove metal song, but then inexplicably leaps into reggae territory before heavying up on the fly and getting all shouty. This shouldn't work but it does. It's highly unexpected but I have to admit that it's also highly effective.

Songs like Pit of Consciousness and The Prophecy and moments in others were most surprising to me by revealing that mixing groove metal with progressive rhythms and vocal lines can end up sounding like Voivod, who came out of the merging of prog with punk and metal. Sometimes different journeys end up at the same destination, I guess. I seriously doubt this was intentional.

The lesser songs for me here are the ones that don't add much prog, as they merge together and fade from interest. A lot of people seem enthused by the song called Retrospection, but it's most interesting for me for starting out in Ukrainian, which sounds really good on this material. It fades later for me, as do Pausing Death, Noah and others in the middle of the album. To me, the interesting songs are early ones and late ones.

In particular, I think the album ends really well. Home Back features a neat mellow section midway through that's rooted in soul and jazz, shifting into and out of it seamlessly. The Prophecy ratchets up the speed and that Voivod sound again for a while during the non-shouting verses. Then lainnereP does something completely different, playing up the prog and removing the heavier side entirely for narrated whispers, synths and a delightful bass.

Much of the success is due to Tatiana Shmailyuk, who's almost a textbook on how to use the human voice. She sings, she shouts, she growls, she whispers, she snarls, she screams, she skanks. She's fascinating to listen to whatever style she's using. While the band behind her are tight and talented, they're just not as interesting on half these songs.

I'm also not a particular fan of the drum sound. It's not drummer Vladislav Ulasevich, who does a fine job; it's that it often sounds like he's hitting a plastic ice cream container rather than what I presume is actually a high tom. Add that to the djeneral groove/metalcore tone and this often fights to do things that leave me dry.

In the end, the variety wins out. I have trouble even listening to a lot of metalcore albums, but I've run through this one three or four times now and, when it's interesting, it keeps my attention and my enthusiasm. Even when it isn't interesting, it doesn't annoy me and push me to turn it off, it merely fades from my attention until something interesting shows up.

Wednesday 20 November 2019

Airbourne - Boneshaker (2019)

Country: Australia
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 25 Oct 2019
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

It may be my high expectations coming in, but I was a little disappointed as I worked through this new Airbourne album, at least for a while. They were a band who completely blew me away when I discovered, a couple of years ago, a movement was afoot by the name of the New Wave of Classic Rock. I listened to a whole bunch of their songs on YouTube and wondered how it was possible for me to have never heard of them before. Why aren't they in heavy rotation on every radio station on the planet? It may be fair to say that they're a good reason why I dived headlong back into the scene this year.

They've always sounded as much like seventies AC/DC as anyone else, but this sounds even more like that than the real AC/DC. I haven't heard anyone sound this close since Dirty Looks back in the late eighties. I actually had to go back to hear Oh Ruby again to reestablish my baseline of vocalists who sound exactly like Bon Scott. Only then did Joel O'Keeffe suddenly start to move a little away from clone territory. He isn't the mimic that Henrik Ostergaard was, but he does seem to be trying hard here, even with some Angry Anderson and some Jimmy Barnes in the mix too.

What saves them from just being a clone band is that they're so damn good. I don't just mean the songs either, which are excellent. They have more energy than any other band I can name off the top of my head and that's apparent on an album recorded in the studio not the stage. How energetic must Airbourne be live? Must they take out extra insurance in case they blow the rooves off the venues? They're tight too and that's kind of really important for a band playing in the style of AC/DC who have boasted the tightest rhythm section in the business for decades now.

And they hardly take a breath until track nine, Weapon of War, which has an intro and ominous tone to reflect its darker subject matter, even though it speeds up as well a minute and some in. Just like the Agnostic Front album I reviewed before this, this is a very quick half hour. Put the album on, rock out and, before you know it, it's time to repeat. The ten tracks only add up to a skimpy half an hour. That's kind of how AC/DC used to it, but sped up a notch so forty minutes only take thirty.

I like this, but it's almost impossible not to like Airbourne. The question is how much and I think I need to let it soak into my soul a little before I figure that out. I'm not sold on the opener yet, but Burnout the Nitro is a killer song and I like the slight shift to Rose Tattoo territory on This is Our City, even if it's not my favourite song here.

The really good news is that I'm not sure which one that is, because there's so much choice. It may well be Backseat Boogie, because that one just rips, especially during the solos. Then again, maybe it's Switchblade Angel or the inevitable Rock 'n' Roll for Life. They swoop in, grab us with a riff and a hook, then cast us aside, spent, after two or three minutes.

For now, I'll say that this is easily a 7/10, but it may well warrant higher marks and I'll address that by seeing how it stays in my head. Today I woke up with Switchblade Angel rattling around in there. That's a good sign! This fifth Airbourne album is is worthy, don't doubt it, but it may elevate too. I think it's an album that needs the benefit of hindsight to properly judge its value and that means time has to pass.

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
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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
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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
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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.