Tuesday 31 December 2019

Cyaxares - Shahnameh (2019)

Country: Iraq
Style: Folk/Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 17 Dec 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

I've noticed a lot of trends during this wildly exploratory year and one of them is the preponderence of one man bands in farflung climes. If anyone has kept a list, here's another one to add to it. Cyaxares is a solo project of one Mir Shamal Hama-faraj, who also sings for a thrash metal by the name of Dark Phantom. That's a five man band with all the expected instrumentation, but he took all that on himself here. I'm sure the female voice on The Whirling Sufi isn't his, but I believe everything else is him.

And it's interesting material, located somewhere on the boundary of folk and death metal. I've seen a lot of descriptions that emphasise the latter, like Mesapotamian death metal, Middle-Eastern death metal, Oriental death metal and Kurdish death metal. The folk element is obvious almost throughout, so it makes sense to me for Metal Archives to combine the two genres, listing Cyaxares as folk/death metal.

The more folk Cyaxares get, the more I like it, perhaps because Mir's vocals are easily my least favourite aspect (followed by the length of the album, a scanty half hour, even including the second version of Seraphim that appears here as a bonus). He has a capable death growl but, like so many death metal singers, he struggles to make that vocal be anywhere near as varied as the music that he plays around it. It's neatly buried on Temples of Fire, where it works well as an instrument, but the clean vocals, both male and female, on The Whirling Sufi add an extra level that I missed thereafter.

What impressed me most here was the versatility. While there's a consistent feel to the album, perhaps inevitably given that every instrument on every track is played by the same man, none of the songs here sound particularly like each other. Mir likes to combine softer intros with harder tracks, but the melancholy chimes that kick off Seraphim highlight how it isn't always lively folk dances that introduce these songs.

I liked both the straightforward, albeit rather bouncy, death of Temples of Fire and the lively folk of The Whirling Sufi, both songs finding strong but very different grooves. I liked the way both styles combine in The Anunnaki, which kicks off with a folky dance but evolved into a thrashy sort of death at a serious clip. It's hard not to move to some of these intros, The Horns of Hattin including perhaps the liveliest. I wonder if these are traditional melodies or new compositions by the man of the hour.

I wonder too how many instruments Mir plays here. Obviously, there are drums and guitars. There's a menacing bass during the intro to The Anunnaki and it underpins most of the album if you focus. I'm hearing flute, organ and a set of hand drums too, among others, and I wonder just how many instruments Mir plays or whether he brought in any other guests.

Regardless of the answers to those questions, I liked this a great deal and I'm happy to be wrapping up the decade with a review of something this good and this different. I just wish there was more of it. Take away that second, more emphatic, version of Seraphim and it's shorter than Reign in Blood. I'm thinking of tracking down those earlier EPs and seeing how long they extend this as a listening session.

I'm also certainly eager to hear anything else Mir is involved in. It looks like, in addition to Cyaxares and Dark Phantom, there's a death metal band called Torture Hymns which features Mir on all the instruments and a Syrian gentleman called Sami on vocals. We live in interesting times.

And, to update my original review, this is a more interesting album than I'd previously thought. Thanks to Jason Paul Lamtman of Ohio Entertainment Group for filling me in on the background. It seems that the two EPs that Cyaxares previously released were longer than they might seem on Bandcamp, as this is a compilation/rerecording of the best songs from them and all the songs that made the cut for this were removed from them on Bandcamp. And, with the band becoming just that with additional musicians in the US, I'm even more eager to see what Cyaxares comes up with next.

Cosmic Circus - Cosmic Circus (2019)

Country: India
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 4 Dec 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

I can't find a lot of information online about Cosmic Circus, just enough to know that they're not the cult krautrock band who released Sternenmaskerade in 1972. This Cosmic Circus is a versatile duo from Mumbai, India. I have no idea who either of the musicians are or how they split up responsibilities, but I know that I like what they came up with. They call it post-progressive rock and this is their debut album.

Their Bandcamp page tells me that this is a concept album featuring a set of five different characters, each of whom gets a track of their own and all of whom meet at the end of the album, their stories intertwining. I'm not sure how that works, given that there are only five songs with words and some of those have very few of them. If everyone meets in the title track, they have very little to say about such a momentous occasion. Maybe there are themes in here that I'm not tracking yet on a few listens.

I can say that what I'm presuming are the five songs in question are notably varied.

With Exordium an intriguing instrumental intro, I would expect that Her is the first track proper. It's initially laid back, reminding of Wishbone Ash but soon moving into King Crimson with layers that I remember from Epitaph on their first album. The lyrics tell a sad story of the violent escape of an abused child, with a video sample midway to highlight that. After that, it gets fascinating, with finger snaps to punctuate an acoustic guitar that evolves into an electric solo and an ending that's a promise but maybe not a pleasant one. It's a real story.

It leads right into Pegasus, a jaunty seventies piece that moves into a prog metal crunch under wild keyboards. I would expect it to be the second of the five songs but it's an instrumental so I have no idea what story it tells. I got caught up in the music, which is almost entirely driven by synths right down to what I presume are emulated steel drums. The guitar solo is fine but it's not as wild as the keyboard solos around it, even the one that plays at the end in some jazz club with the waiters busy and the band tuning up.

Like all these songs, Pegasus runs over six minutes, but it never feels like it's long and only part of that is because the tracks to come get longer as the album runs on. Pale Euphoric hits the seven minute mark and takes things in a completely different direction, being a gothic new wave number before a melancholy voice underlines it. The drums are uncannily lofi here, almost as if they were recorded on a drum machine in a closet somewhere in Leeds while the band rehearse downstairs. For a dark song, it ends playfully, leading to what sounds like a passing bomber and an alarm clock. I don't know why.

Silhouette Before Dawn, longer still, has an eastern edge, sinuous Egyptian melodies emerging from a guitar intro that could have been recorded by Steve Howe for Yes. It's not an instrumental, though it feels like one for a long time, and it makes me wonder why I'm not hearing anything Indian here. This band conjure up a lot of comparisons, almost all of them English, mostly the greats of seventies prog rock with a little second wave from the eighties to keep things interesting.

If that makes four of the five story songs, the fifth is certainly Chasm of Endless Suffering, which is even more jaunty than Pegasus, starting out like a roaring twenties song (and I mean the 1920s not the new decade starting in a few hours) but with a guitar solo over the characterful piano. This is the real epic of the album, almost thirteen minutes long and sometimes feeling like it. There's good stuff here, from Pink Floyd-esque samples to a dancing keyboards section and some neat building riffs, but it's my least favourite of the five core tracks and I don't buy its arc. Maybe it wouldn't have been as much of an anomaly at half the length.

And so to the title track, which supposedly links everything. It doesn't for me but it sounds good anyway, even with overdone static as it starts. It's a darker piece than anything prior, even finding some Black Sabbath as it goes through a slow build, but that build takes to a welcoming psychedelic vibe. "Welcome to the Circus Cosmic" indeed!

With more Steve Howe (or maybe Steve Hackett)-inspired acoustic guitar in a long coda, appropriately enough called simply Coda, we're left to ponder on the previous fifty minutes. I'm not sure if it's as coherent as the unknown musicians planned it to be and it gets lost for a while during Chasms of Endless Suffering, but it's a delightful album for me, constantly inventive and imaginative, as all prog rock should be. The worst thing about it is easily the cover. Here's to the follow up!

Friday 27 December 2019

Andvaka - Andvana (2019)

Country: Iceland
Style: Funeral Doom Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 Nov 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives

The holiday season tends to be a happy time of year for most, whatever name they give it and whatever faith they follow or don't. Most, of course, means not all so here's something for the rest of the world that isn't happy right now. What Andvaka do is described as funeral doom, melancholic doom or post-doom, depending on where you look. They don't sound happy but they do sound very good indeed.

I have no idea who's in the band, but they apparently include members of the Icelandic black metal band Zakaz, whose musicians all go by roman numerals, just like the tracks on this album. I guess they really want the music to do the talking, which it does. It's not much for a couple of minutes, just slow dirge tones, but then it kicks in with vocals and everything has perspective all of a sudden because that's not the voice I expected.

Initially, this sounds ritualistic, especially when the tones add a hypnotic feel three minutes in to Partur I. According to their Facebook page, Andvaka means "spirit invocation" and I can feel a primal spirituality here. Over on their Bandcamp page, this album is described in religious terms as a "three-part series of hymns". Certainly, there's a reverence to the chanting, as if the band members are monks. It's too dark to suggest Gregorian doom, but the thought isn't too far away during the midsection.

Partur I ends with melancholy and the realisation that eight minutes went by surprisingly quickly, given how slow the music is. The last couple are quiet guitar and what sounds like a distant echoing harpsichord in a sweet duet. I love contrast and this is a very light section compared to the darkness that came before, with not only that ritual chanting but also a section of death growls in the middle.

Partur II and Partur III both revisit some of the same territory, but at an even slower pace. If Partur I is clearly doom, Partur II is clearly funeral doom. It's achingly slow for a long while and that includes the vocals, as if the whole thing was recorded at 45rpm but I'm playing it at 33rpm. I did realise that i we sped it back up, the few fast changes would sound insane! Partur III starts out with a gorgeous slow ritual groove.

I enjoyed this, as a sort of antidote to the whole Christmas spirit. I can't say that I'm unhappy nowadays but this gave me a break from the particularly forced happiness that Christmas requires from us. It's great mood music for a very different mood and, by that, I mean a sort of dark spirituality. It's as full of inherent beauty as it is of crushing sorrow. Listen to it in the dark, reflect yourself in it and enjoy forty minutes when you don't have to smile at everyone else.

I'm a little at a loss as to why it's divided up into three parts. None is a particularly coherent third of a whole, though the long gaps between each of Partur I, II and III underline that that's how we should see it. None of the thirds feels entirely like one piece of music: there are still movements and interludes and wild changes in each of them. They're also not remotely close in length, lasting eight minutes, eleven and a half and well over twenty, so it's nowhere near balanced.

Even though I don't know why we get the three hymns that we do, I like this and it's presumably a musical departure for those involved. While this does offer nods to depressive black metal, it doesn't ever really go there, being content to take doom metal as its base and create something new out of it. I wonder if there are other spiritual doom bands out there building a movement of sorts. This one hails from Iceland but there's something quintessentially northern about it and I could imagine Russian bands creating something like this out of doom metal and Eastern Orthodox ritual. Let's dig.

Carl Dixon - Unbroken (2019)

Country: Canada
Style: Melodic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 29 Nov 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Here's something friendly for Christmas week! If you don't know the name, I should mention that Carl Dixon is a Canadian singer who's perhaps still best known for being the main man for Coney Hatch, surely the greatest band to be named after a lunatic asylum. He was their vocalist and guitarist for their heyday in the eighties and, 28 years after their former final album, was the trigger for them to recently reform and put out a new one. He had a stint in April Wine, on voice and keyboards, and two in the Guess Who, singing with them until a severe car accident in Australia temporarily halted his career for a while. This is his seventh solo album, I believe.

He's a versatile singer but, as you might imagine from those credentials, he leans towards the radio friendly melodic rock style and he focuses on vocals here, leaving the instruments to others. The backing line-up is respectable, with Robby Böbel of Frontline, Evidence One and Phantom V on both guitar and keyboards; Thomas Bauer, also of Frontline and Evidence One, on bass; and a pair of drummers who each perform on about half the tracks: Mark Santers, of Santers and the first Lee Aaron album, and Dylan Gowan.

The problem is for me as a critic because I find melodic rock particularly difficult to describe in useful terms. Sure, these are upbeat songs that are melodic and pleasant to the ear, but that's kind of the point of AOR. Sure, there's a twin attack of vocal and guitar, with the former turning out hooks and the latter mild riffs and decent but not too challenging solos, but again that's not remotely surprising. The back end both accompanies and emphasises, again as you'd expect.

Lyrically, it's exactly what you might expect, all about keeping the faith, even though nothing lasts forever but this isn't the end. It opens up with a song called Can't Love a Memory that's as archetypal as anything in melodic rock. "I want to tell you a story", Dixon sings, "about a woman and a man." This could be any melodic rock lyric from any melodic rock band. It even has a woah intro for the real words to build out of.

In other words, this passes all the tests to be a capable melodic rock album but not one thing I've said in those prior two paragraphs tells you whether it's any good or not. I'd say that it is, because it sounds decent on a first listen from track one to track eleven and it gets better with repeat listens as the songs find a little identity of their own, but I have no idea at all how to back that up to you. There are no musical soundscapes here, nothing pushing a boundary or introducing something new and interesting, no magic contrasts or dynamics.

I can say that I enjoyed the guitarwork of Robby Böbel, which is a constant delight and the primary reason that this maintains as much of a hard edge as it has. AOR can venture either side of the tenuous line between pop and rock and this stays on the rock side mostly because of him. But is there a single riff or solo I could call out for special mention? Not really. He just does a solid job throughout.

Mostly, it's Dixon's voice that remains the focus. It's a warm and friendly voice that carries power in everything it does but rarely goes into a belt. He's not interested in demonstrating how good his voice is or how versatile he is. He just wants to sing some songs and infuse them with emotion so the result may generate nostalgia in the listener. I can imagine people hearing Summer Nights on the radio and remembering some of their own from years ago.

Not having lived most of those hallmark moments, the standout song for me is the one that seems to really tell a story, which is Nothing Lasts Forever, a look back at Dixon's career in music. When I wasn't letting this album play pleasantly again while I work on something else, I was wondering how to find a recording of Iron Maiden, Fastway and Coney Hatch on American Bandstand.

I enjoyed this not because it's special or challenging music but because it does what it does well enough to feel damn good. It's kind of an anti-Opeth. I don't have to focus in on details and I won't find anything new if I did. I just need to let it play and keep playing and the day is automatically a better one for its inclusion. Good AOR to me is kind of like pornography to the Supreme Court: I can't define it but I know it when I hear it.

Friday 20 December 2019

Sentryturn - Upon a Mess (2019)

Country: Germany
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 29 Nov 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Flickr | Official Website | YouTube

Here's an interesting album from Germany's Sentryturn, a prog rock band with three guitarists who sound rather like Tool might if they were friendlier to new ears. Only part of that is complexity, as there are complex rhythms here to enjoy; it's more that the band don't let the complexity rule the songs. I like Tool and, if that was indeed Maynard James Keenan who poured me a glass of Chupacabra red at his wine cellar in Jerome, AZ, he was a real gentleman, but I find their music as often cold and distant as enjoyable. Sentryturn is a much warmer and more approachable band.

I wonder if it's to do with those three guitars. If I'm hearing this right, the initial approach seems to be for two to build a solid bedrock while the third does something different, surprisingly not as much soloing as jangling or picking or doing something else equally interesting. Sometimes the three merge to create an even thicker sound, just as sometimes the second leaves the base to do something else. The dynamics are fascinating and immersive.

Part of it is surely that the tone is warmer, all that interplay enveloping us rather than challenging us. There are quiet sections that feel tangible, like the beginning of Monrovia, where piano notes over a subtle drone feel like interlocking ripples in water; the echoing clacking over it all reminds us that we're not watching alone. This immersion is what prompted me to run through this album maybe four or five times before I was able to put virtual pen to paper.

This band tend to create something unique to characterise a song, then shift into a groove which plays consistently with the rest of the album. They add little touches that elevate and delineate each track, while unusual rhythms counter the smooth clean vocals. Monrovia ends up with strings under it and it doesn't feel remotely overdone. Sometimes it's synth work or maybe guitar effects. Whatever it is, there's something to hook us and something to keep us captive as long as the song runs.

The heart of the album is the title track, which comes in three parts. The first, Collateral, launches right into high gear and plays relatively harsh with churning rhythms. The second, Overtones, throws out a quiet repetitive piano loop as a grounding, then swirls voices over it before adding in other instruments with a very nice use of a gong. It's achingly slow. The third is a mixture of the two, appropriately given that it's called Revised. It's an opportunity for drummer Max to showcase his talents too.

Even after half a dozen listens, there's a lot here to take in. Sure, it's a warm and inviting album, but it's a rewarding one for those who dig deep. It falls most overtly into prog rock, albeit with a notably strong alternative edge, but I couldn't compare it to any of the legends of the genre. Perhaps there's some King Crimson here and there, but Sentryturn are clearly neither Yes or Genesis and they're too alternative for the second wave.

All the complex rhythms might suggest math rock but it's far too exploratory for that. Post-rock might fit because there's a lot of soundscape conjuring but the vocals are far too dominant for that. Deep in the details, there are hints of jazz (The Purge), ambient (Overtones) and world music (a faux koto to kick off Collateral) for flavour. Line of Sight unfolds with a generous dab of glitch electronica. I might even throw in grunge, because there are points where the melancholy is overt, especially in the vocals.

Really, I think there's enough here that I'll be finding new things even on my tenth or twentieth listen. I wonder who brought what to the table, as the five members of the band have all been there since the start over ten years ago. This music hasn't been composed at all; it's been grown from five very unique seeds germinating together. The only thing I can fairly compare this to is Dusk City, the Ultima Radio album that became my October album of the month and, even there, more in approach than in sound.

And, hey, if this was forty years ago, I'm sure Bowie would be jamming with Sentryturn in Berlin. They're that good.

Deviltears - Верни мне сердце (2019)

Country: Russia
Style: Gothic Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 3 Dec 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | VK | YouTube

I review a lot of albums recorded in foreign languages, but Deviltears don't usually do that. They're from Rostov-on-Don in Russia, at the northeast end of the Black Sea, but their previous three studio albums have been recorded in English: Night Vendetta, The Keys and What Dreams May Come. It looks like they shifted to Russian in 2018 after thirteen years together because that's when new vocalist Viktor Ivanov arrived. The album title translates to Give Me Back My Heart.

Deviltears play gothic metal, but with a surprising set of influences listed on their About page on Facebook. For one, none of the giants of the genre in the west are there, such as Paradise Lost, Cradle of Filth or Moonspell. For another, the list does include a pair of unexpected bands: W.A.S.P. and U2. Lastly, the gothic metal bands that do make the list all hail from Finland, well over a thousand miles to the northwest and past four countries: To/Die/For, Poisonblack, Entwine, HIM and Sentenced.

Those influences put them well on the commercial side of gothic metal. While it plays on the rock side of the fence often, it's also often much heavier, with a lot of power chords, riffs and guitar solos from the two guitarists, Sergey Sapukhin (one of two remaining founder members) and Anton Yemelyanov (who has since left the band). However, it never dabbles in extremes, there is lots of piano and the vocals are always delivered with melody foremost in mind, even during the verses. I kept turning the volume up because it always felt a little quieter than it should.

I preferred the crunch that came along with the heavier songs, which kick in on the second half, and the added power allows the band to play around with contrasts. One great example is Швы, or Stitches, which starts out quiet and then builds with keyboards but finds an agreeably heavier vibe as it runs on to a close. My favourite solo is on По ту сторону горизонта, or Across the Horizon. My favourite riff is the one that introduces Сталкер, or Stalker, even though that track promptly shifts to an electronica backing. Each of these songs is heavy but not exclusively because each of them is also soft.

I like these contrasts, which work for me even though I don't understand any of the lyrics. I only have the English song titles because of trusty Google Translate. Hopefully it isn't lying to me today. The underlying tone is one that fits commercial gothic metal, most of the songs suggesting dark but not extreme ideas. That seems to fit earlier material, which I haven't heard. I do wonder how they sounded with a different vocalist singing in a different language.

With the darkness not too overt and melody high on the band's priority list, I could see this album playing well to melodic rock fans, and not only on a pair of overt ballads that wrap things up: Открой глаза, or Open Your Eyes, where even the solo has softer edges, and В зареве, or In the Glow, which is even softer yet, built not from guitars but from almost new wave trappings. The commercial rock/metal that pervades the first half ought to play well to that audience too, especially the second single, 100 дорог, or 100 Roads, an especially slick number with fantastic hooks.

This is one of those solid albums that works to different expectations. The melodic rock fans will love the first half and be OK with the second, while the heavy metal fans would reverse that. Everybody wins.

Wednesday 18 December 2019

The Who - Who (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 6 Dec 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I realise that the Who are doomed to live on forever in irony because of the one line, "I hope I die before I get old", written as far back as 1965. Yes, they've been around that long. Heck, Roger Daltrey founded the Detours, who evolved into the Who, in 1959, when my mother was only fourteen and Daltrey was actually only a year older. That's real staying power. He's heading into his seventh decade as a musician.

What surprised me is that this is only the twelfth Who studio album. A full third of those twelve are now over half a century old, including Tommy, but the Who have never been prolific. Their prior album to this, Endless Wire, came out thirteen years ago in 2006 and the one before that, It's Hard, was released as far back as 1982, on the other side of a split up. However, the band has been back for longer than they were together the first time around.

Nowadays, of course, the Who are merely half of their classic line-up. While Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend continue on, Keith Moon died back in 1978 and John Entwistle joined him in 2002. Kenney Jones took over on drums for a couple of albums after Moon's death, but there have been no official members other than the core three since the band reunited in 1996. It's notable that drummer Zak Starkey has been touring with the band for almost twice as long as Keith Moon now.

But enough of the history lesson, what does this new album sound like? Is it any good? Well, it's not bad at all, though I wouldn't expect to hear any of these songs replacing some of the band's timeless classics in the opinion of fans. That one that already has legs is Ball and Chain, the first single, as it's a reinvention of a solo Pete Townshend song called Guantanamo, released on a compilation in 2015.

Some of it certainly sounds like classic Who, not least the opener, All This Music Must Fade, ironically because their greatest songs haven't. Daltrey is on form, shifting between tender and raucous. Townshend lets loose a slew of power chords, just as we might expect. They interface well and the result is a vibrant and urgent song that's as effortlessly punk as anything the band's ever done, right down to the perfect profanity at the end.

A number of other songs are obviously the Who, but aren't quite as obvious. Ball and Chain is clearly a blues song with Who adornments. There are a lot of deceptively intricate keyboard loops in the background, which sound good every time they're used, which is rather often. While none of these tracks sounds particularly like Baba O'Riley, most of them bring it back to mind at some point because of those playful loops in the background. Maybe they ought to hire someone on hurdy gurdy.

Break the News may be the epitome of that, as it finds an enjoyable groove with enough happening behind vocals and guitar to ensure that it's always interesting but without too much happening to turn it into a mess. It's an attention-getting busker song. Detour is the Who stripped even further down to basics, playing with dynamics. Rockin' in Rage is the same but even more so, beginning quietly and then building with power chords but always feeling restrained, like a rocker played in an acoustic set.

The Who have never restricted themselves to one sound, though, and, as this album moves on, they try more and more different things with varying degrees of success. Hero Ground Zero brings in orchestration that ends up being odd elegance on a song that doesn't need it. I'll Be Back sees Townshend perform the lead vocal and, while it's a lot better than his earlier backing vocals, it only highlights just how little the Who sound like the Who without Roger Daltrey at the mike. It sounds like a solo song by someone we don't know.

Generally speaking, I liked the album as it started but I drifted away from it as it ran on, until it grabbed my attention again late on. The best and most emphatic songs are the first four, while the most interesting are the last three. Who finishes with She Rocked My World, a highly engaging song that feels intimate and jazzy, like a band playing in the corner in a quiet café. It feels like the band wanted to rock out for a while in the studio but lesser songs midway prompt them to go outside and busk in front of people instead.

And that makes for a rather inconsistent album. There's some great stuff on offer and some interesting stuff too but quite a bit of filler to extend it to album length. It's good to see them back writing new material but there's a decent mini-album in here, not a full album to cover thirteen years.

The Dark Element - Songs the Night Sings (2019)

Country: Finland
Style: Symphonic Power Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 8 Nov 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Wikipedia

Here's another release from Frontiers Records, who are doing a fantastic job down there in Italy. While the Dark Element, who are a symphonic power metal band from Finland, may not seem like a traditional choice, it was the label who put them together. They offered a deal to guitarist Jani Liimatainen, a founder member of Sonata Arctica and now a member of Insomnium, adding in a major lead vocalist in Anette Olzon, the singer for Nightwish in between the eras of Tarja and Floor, who appeared on two of their albums.

The initial Dark Element line-up, present on their self-titled debut album, was fleshed out by a couple of members from another of Liimatainen's bands, Cain's Offering, bassist Jonas Kuhlberg and Jani Hurula. The single change for this second release was to replace Hurula with Rolf Pilve, the current drummer for Stratovarius. As such, this is surely a power metal supergroup and they live up to that billing.

My initial feeling was that this was a heck of a lot better than the Sonata Arctica album I reviewed in September. For all its melody, it's heavier and happy to be heavier, the guitars high up in the mix, the drums able support and the songs wanting to rock. We don't get to a ballad until track six, To Whatever End, and even then it doesn't stay that way throughout. Even with a more delicate approach for a while, it still has more balls than anything on Talviyö. In fact, the dynamics in play make it a real highlight here.

And it's also followed by one of the faster and heavier songs on the album, The Pallbearer Walks Alone, which doesn't feel out of place next to it. This is my sort of symphonic power metal, even though it doesn't set its borders anywhere near that tightly. Was that a disco section midway through Get Out of My Head? There's certainly some Abba in there and even some electronica and these are all little touchs that elevate the song. There's a jazzy feel to I Have to Go, which closes out the album in style.

Generally speaking, Songs the Night Sings is immediately pleasing to the ear but not so catchy as to be earworm material. It feels warm and friendly but a little elusive, as if the band is eager to be introduced but holding back until we get to know each other over a drink or two. Symphonic metal can be distant, willing to let us listen politely until it knows that we're classy enough to respond, but this doesn't feel remotely like that. It's symphonic metal that's as willing to raise a pint as a cocktail.

Listening through again, those earlier songs do grow. Not Your Monster is a stormer, even with quieter piano sections. It's the longest song anywhere on this album at six and a half minutes and it throws a heck of a lot at the wall in that time. The good news is that most of it sticks. The title track follows in a similar fashion, mixing up pop melodies with metal backing and finding a sweet spot. Things still heat up midway through the album though. My favourite three songs are the middle three.

There's a lot on this one to enjoy, as I realised when I figured out how I'd rate it. I was initially thinking a 7/10 as, while every one of these eleven songs is a good song, some are also certainly less good than others. Then I realised that I'd marked six of them as highlights, which is a lot. So it's an 8/10 and I look forward to coming back to it in a month or so to see how it stands up.

Tuesday 17 December 2019

The Dead Sea - Hypernatremia (2019)

Country: Jordan
Style: Melodic Doom/Death Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 15 Nov 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Metal Archives | YouTube

Sometimes albums just leap out to be reviewed. I've been a fan of doom/death since the very beginning and I'm always keen to see where new bands take it. This band is one man from Amman, Jordan called Azmo Lozmodial, who wrote the music and the lyrics, played all the instruments (except for some additional guitarwork from guest Alex Papadopoulos), sang in both harsh and clean voice and even mixed and mastered the album as well. I had to hear this.

And I'm very happy that I did! This is interesting stuff indeed, even if I'm not entirely sure where the title comes in. Hypernatremia is a notably high concentration of sodium in the blood, which leads to a whole slew of medical problems. Here, on what is apparently a concept album, it refers to the lady in the story tasting the salt in every word the protagonist utters, perhaps as a curse after he's murdered her, reflected in reality through his leaving her underwater and perhaps joining her in death.

There is a track called Mental Salinity, but it's an instrumental so doesn't add anything to the story. The Dead Sea, of course, is full of salt, so much so that we can float in it without having to inflate anything to help. It is a logical choice for a musician from Jordan calling himself The Dead Sea to use that famous local attraction as the venue for this poetic action. And it is gloriously poetic.

The music stands out from moment one, but the lyrics, which Lozmodial sings in English, are absolutely worth your attention. On the first track proper, Mummified Beauty, he introduces us to both the beginning and end of a weird relationship. It begins with melancholy promise: "You fell from the moon and landed inside a cave inside my chest." It ends with bleak darkness: "Embrace the shores now eternally." The title track covers the gap, showing an inner ugliness manifesting itself physically and setting up a violent response.

Or at least, that's what I got here. This is wildly impressionistic so that there are probably many readings. I couldn't be quite sure if this describes murder, murder/suicide or just an incredibly dark reading of a relationship gone bad. There's even a hint at a supernatural element. Is this lady human or a mermaid or siren? Maybe there are no people at all and this is about a sun and a sea, the former killing the latter with aching slowness. The Dead Sea has been dying for 65,000 years, getting saltier as it goes. Whatever it means, it's a beautiful and evocative take on a story that's isn't likely to be very beautiful at all.

The music works on its own merits, standing alone as a melancholy piece that feels gothic in its grandeur but fundamentally claustrophobic too, as if we might be slowly drowning along with whoever actually dies in this story. As such, it also works as a companion to the lyrics if we sit down to read them and let the imagery seep into our souls. Everything's filled with water and death, love and grief, regret and inevitability.

As everything plays so consistently, it's hard to call out individual tracks for special mention. They all feature slow but complex drum rhythms, jangly and melancholy guitars and melodies that flow so slowly that we often catch part of them and then build up a full impression. Mummified Beauty features a piano echo to a guitar melody that's lovely. Bells play an ominous but melodic part on Echoes from the Barren Seabed and others. My favourite moment comes in the early stages of the title track when everything stops a number of times only to build right back to full gear almost immediately.

The vocals shift between harsh, clean and spoken and all work. When they're harsh, they're dark and brooding but always intelligible; when clean, they carry a longing to them that's only enhanced by melody. This is strong use of the human voice as an instrument without ever losing understanding. That isn't as easy to achieve as you might expect.

Lozmodial seems to be a busy man. In addition to The Dead Sea, which may be a one-off project rather than something ongoing, he has a string of others in motion, often either one man efforts or collaborations with international musicians. The most traditional band he's been involved with thus far seems to be is Chalice of Doom, a melodic doom/death band to which he contributed lyrics, clean vocals and keyboards.

Just looking at his active efforts, he's half of Xathites and Now Everything Fades. The former is an Egyptian based depressive black metal duo, while the latter plays depressive black/doom; he provides all the music while Fernando Garcia handles the vocals. Tholomat is straight black metal, but the band is split between Norway, Hungary and Jordan. Cyclothymia appears to be another one man project. And that ignores Al Lat, DeathDiaries, Forgive Me and Lord Azmo. Al Lat sounds particularly interesting, as middle eastern folk meeting symphonic black metal. Clearly I need to explore.

Wheel of Smoke - Sonic Cure (2019)

Country: Belgium
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 29 Nov 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

I enjoyed this album from Belgium's Wheel of Smoke, which is a lot more laid back than the psychedelic rock I've been reviewing lately. Instead of being taken on a wild trip through the cosmos or whatever a particular band plans for us on a particular album, it felt more like I was experiencing it all at a remove. I never felt like I left my chair but I did imagine somebody else going on that trip. Maybe it's more of a dream than a trip. It feels safer.

You probably won't be surprised to find that the album consists of five long songs, ranging from just over five minutes to almost ten. The first surprise is that this veers relatively quickly into space rock territory, because the cover doesn't suggest that sort of approach. However, the title track, which opens up the album, soon finds itself in a Hawkwind vibe, down to the mildly buried vocals and some sound effects.

Sonic Cure is a good song. It starts out exotic with an indeterminate middle Eastern feel, perhaps closer to the cover art. The tempo speeds up a couple of minutes in to feel a little more urgent, but it's still relaxing in that dreamy sense. The vocals show up over halfway through and remain throughout; they're intelligible but I didn't really focus on words, content to let them roll over my like the instruments.

Brainshaker continues in the Hawkwind style, with an incessant riff setting the groundwork but surrounded by swirling keyboards and overlaid with guitar soloing. This one starts out with a delicate groove, like Hawkwind covering the Beatles, but it builds to recognisable Motörhead changes. There are no vocals here but the song evolves, repeating themes in different ways but in a planned fashion. This doesn't sound like a jam.

Beamed starts even softer, with some nice interplay between guitar and bass, but the guitar goes jagged without ever becoming jarring. Given that there's some Pink Floyd sound in the backing, that's perhaps understandable. While I enjoyed this and the earlier tracks, I was feeling a little apart from this, even though it ought to be immersive.

Then On a Wave shows up and Wheel of Smoke demonstrate what they do best. It features vocals again, but playful ones that seem to aim more for rhythm and sound than meaning. I'm not sure if they were subjected to subtle effects or they were delivered that way, but they sound integral. I caught words, which are surreal. "Aliens create electric cheese," someone chants, "surfing on a wave and feeling high."

It's not just the vocals though, as the vibe here is delightful with another neat interplay between guitar and bass growing throughout the song. While I may not have found myself transported onto a wave with the band, I certainly didn't want this song to end and I found it impossible not to move. It's so endowed with motion that I needed a moment to reorient myself to level when it was done, like a sailor stepping foot on dry land for the first time in a few months.

That leaves Electric I to wrap things up. It's the longest song on the album and it's agreeable enough, but it struggles to match On a Wave, which turns out to be the highlight of the album, even as the album as a whole starts to coalesce into a single entity. Listening to it, it feels like it's a set of individual tracks. Once it's over, it immediately feels like an album, with what sticks in mind applying to the whole thing.

I believe Wheel of Smoke are aiming at a heavy psychedelic rock sound but it never gets as heavy as I think they want it to. Maybe that's production, but I think it's more the inherently mellow vibe the band has. They seem relaxed and open to whatever's going to happen next, as if the music is happening to them as well as us. Rather than actively creating something to take us on an exotic trip, they passively set the wheels in motion and sit back with us to experience the album washing over us all.

That's an odd feeling to get but I can't say that it wasn't enjoyable. This is really hard not to enjoy. It's warm, friendly, comforting psychedelia at its worst and it's even warmer, friendlier and more comforting at its best. It's an album to wrap yourself in and feel better.

Monday 16 December 2019

Sons of Liberty - Animism (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Southern Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 25 Oct 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Of all the southern rock albums I've reviewed this year, I believe that the Macon, GA-based Magnolia Moon are the only ones to actually come from where we might expect. The genre has found legs, it seems, so I'm finding bands in Greece and Germany and, here, Bristol, England, though some of the musicians are from south Wales. Now, I was born in the south of England and this isn't what I heard growing up, but it wouldn't have been a bad swap.

Sons of Liberty play a British hard rock take on American southern rock, so the guitars are more restrained and less prone to finger pickin' duels. The vocals arguably lead the way, though Rob Cooksley is an easy gateway to the guitars, which are stellar. The midsections of Start It Up and Old Soak Joe are just two highlights. The end result is surely southern rock, but I could imagine Sons of Liberty playing really well with British bikers. They could easily play alongside bands like Asomvel, Dumpy's Rusty Nuts or Status Quo.

While the listed influences are the expected brace of southern boogie bands, Sons of Liberty don't really sound like any of them. If I was forced to pick one now, I'd suggest that they're much lot closer to Molly Hatchet than the Allman Brothers, but the band who sprang to mind often was a surprising one: Los Bastardos Finlandeses, albeit because of the tone driven by the back end and the effortlessly powerful rough but melodic lead vocal. They'd be a good touring partner too.

This is the band's debut album, though they've been around since 2014. Last year saw a couple of EPs but this is a strong debut at a full length and it's stronger for an excellent production job. Cooksley has a big voice to begin with and he doesn't have to stretch at all; when he does, it sounds all the better. A pair of guitars sit alongside him and they're both busy and lively. The band was founded by the two guitarists, Fred Hale and Andy Muse, and they're the driving force behind the southern sound.

The back end, Steve Byrne on drums and Mark Thomas on bass, are solid and reliable. The former gets jaunty on a number of songs, even funky on Marvin Popcorn Sutton. I'd have liked to have heard the bass a little more because it's fantastic when it gets the spotlight, like halfway through Lead Don't Follow.

The album kicks in well with It's My Bad, a phrase which I have to realise isn't a common one back home in Blighty, though it's commonplace here in Phoenix. If you haven't heard it, it roughly acknowledges, "I screwed up. Sorry." There isn't anything for the Sons of Liberty to apologise for, though, because it serves as the first of eleven solid tracks. While I surely like some of them more than others, your favourites may not be mine and that's fine. None are lower quality songs failing to keep the side up. They all do the job.

Personally, I like Sons of Liberty better as a rocking band than a soulful one, but they do both well. A track like Into the Great Unknown shows both sides of that coin. It starts out slow and never really speeds up to tempos the band has already demonstrated, but it does build fantastically well. It has a full minute on anything else on the album and, while it's no Freebird, Whipping Post or Green Grass and High Tides, there are a couple of excellent solos: the first rocks and the second soars. It's a grower.

The southern style is there throughout, but it really comes out to shine on the first standout song, Snake Hips Slim. Marvin Popcorn Sutton has a great southern vibe, even with a funky beat and points where Cooksley finds a roar worthy of Angry Anderson. There are story songs too, like Old Soak Joe, that are southern in more than sound. The harmonica on Up Shit Creek, a phrase I think needs no explanation, adds to that too.

The more I listen to this, the better it gets. Initially, I liked them most as a sort of nine pound hammer: a force to be reckoned with when things need to be hit hard but not as useful when the need for subtlety takes over. That feel goes away after a couple of times through, because they're damn good at subtlety too. Over maybe three listens, Into the Great Unknown shifted from possibly my least favourite song to possibly the strongest highlight on the album.

This is really good stuff and I'm aware that they probably sound ten times as good on stage because there's an energy apparent here that you just can't capture on a studio album, even with a great production job. We have cowboys out here in Arizona; we're worthy of a tour too!

Cattle Decapitation - Death Atlas (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Progressive Death Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 29 Nov 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Here's an eighth studio album from San Diego's death metal legends, Cattle Decapitation, who turn out to have evolved a great deal since I heard them last. I remember them as brutal death with a nod to grindcore, but nowadays they're progressive death. There's even a strong production job on offer, a concept that really isn't something I associate with this band. Now I just have to figure out how out of date I am. It must be at least a decade.

I'm assuming that this is the latest stage in a gradual evolution away from pure extremity to a sound that's varied and interesting. Certainly, it's the longest album they've released, by almost ten minutes, though over seven of those are taken up with four interludes that address environmental issues in an apocalyptic fashion. They're ambient pieces with dialogue that may or may not be discernible: the first is in foreign languages and the third is in an awkward guttural monotone that's difficult to understand.

That means that there are ten songs proper here and that's where good stuff can be found, starting with the first, The Geocide. It opens at hyperspeed, David McGraw's drums as frantic as anything I've heard this year, and with a decent scream from Travis Ryan that presages some admirable vocal work from him. Bizarrely, he provides both my favourite and least favourite aspects to this album. He's good here, both with the expected guttural death growl but also with a second voice that's somewhere between Bobby Blitzer of Overkill and Dani Filth, with maybe a hint of Udo Dirkschneider.

It's this second voice that I enjoyed most here. It's versatile, sometimes reaching full black metal shriek and sometimes calming down almost to clean levels. It's not just the tone but the inflection and intonation that's so effective on tracks like With All Disrespect, Time's Cruel Curtain and One Day Closer to the End of the World. The guttural one works for the most part but occasionally goes way over the top, like in Vulturous and at the end of Bring Back the Plague, where it's like we're draining a vat of sludge that gargles forever. It ceases to be a voice and becomes a crappy sound effect.

The Geocide is fast in a death metal style, though McGraw does outstrip the rest of the band considerably. There's a point where he slows down a lot but they don't and yet everyone suddenly syncs. The twin guitars of Josh Elmore and new guy Belisario Dimuzio do try to keep up for a while, almost reaching neo-classical shred. Finish Them ventures into thrash territory and a couple of other tracks like With All Disrespect also go there. Vulturous has black metal style, albeit mostly through McGraw's blastbeats and Ryan's shriek.

The most surprising sound is reserved for the title track, which wraps up a long album with a carefully constructed and thought out piece of music. The Cattle Decapitation I remember had trouble writing songs over three minutes. I looked back and only found a couple over six, neither of which was a real song. Alone at the Landfill, from Karma Bloody Karma, was half ambience and Men Before Swine, from Humanure, was never anything else, just a ten minute outro. This, on the other hand, is an actual song, and it's a good one that blisters, chugs and even quietens down for a gothic section in the middle with strings.

This year, I've followed up on a number of albums by delving into the back catalogues of interesting bands. I had zero expectation of doing that after this album, but I'm going to need to do so. I remember Homovore being awful and To Serve Man not being much better. In fact, I don't remember anything from Cattle Decapitation that impressed me at all, at least until now. This didn't knock my socks off but it surprised me often and I dug a whole bunch of songs. If Ryan had ditched the toilet flushing voice and cut down on the interludes, I'd even have gone a rating point higher.

As this is clearly a progression (those eight albums spread over a couple of decades), I'm now keen on hearing their next one. I'll be working backwards too to see when they got interesting. Memories aren't everything.

Friday 13 December 2019

Dressed to Kill - Midnight Impulsion (2019)

Country: China
Style: Heavy/Speed Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 23 Nov 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Douban | Facebook | Metal Archives | YouTube

I'm not sure that Dressed to Kill, who hail from Beijing, China, have quite figured out what they want to be yet, but that's fine because they're pretty good at a number of different things. Even once we get past the intro, which is a soft synth thing that sounds like it could have escaped from a B-movie soundtrack from the eighties, maybe the same one that's depicted in the art on the cover, the songs never manage to seem entirely consistent.

They start out with Midnight Comes Around, buzzsaw guitars and fast drumming heralding a speed metal song. The band are Chinese but they sing in English and this song is reminiscent of a bunch of speed metal bands from the early eighties, whether Canadian, American or even British, one of the NWOBHM era bands who felt the urge to speed up, especially given that there's a lot of twin guitar attack in the midsection. This band could easily have shared the stage with Raven and Tokyo Blade and done it well.

Then they move into Rose of Kowloon, which drops the speed and moves into a more traditional NWOBHM sound. It's a catchier track with neat hooks, though it never feels as mainstream or commercial as say, the Scorpions. It's still the music of a jobbing metal band who do their business on the stage. So are Dressed to Kill a heavy metal band or a speed metal band?

Let's check out Welcome to My Carnival, which kicks off with a neat intro of carnival organ and wicked laughter. It moves, however, into punk territory, albeit the glam end of punk, so more like the New York Dolls or Hanoi Rocks than the Ramones or the Sex Pistols. So that's three styles so far in three songs, albeit with Yang Ce's vocals moving seamlessly between them. I wonder where Dressed to Kill will take us next!

Well, things move back and forth between those styles as the album runs on. Breakin Thru the Sky feels urgent: up tempo heavy metal but not speed until a faster section late on, all bolsted with a punk anger. Rock on the Way of Dream plays with that glam sound, with sleazier guitar solos, shouted yeahs and a hairspray laden intro. A Blade in the Night is back to straight speed metal, making me wonder how much this band would blister on stage. I'd love to see them live to find that out on songs like this one.

Part of the problem is the production, which leaves them sounding more like a glam metal band than I think they would otherwise. The vocals are high in the mix, as are the cymbals, but the back end is restrained. With that back end bulked up, as I tried to emulate with my equalizer, Dressed to Kill are a heck of a lot more powerful than they might initially seem.

As much as I like Yang Ce's voice, it's the instrumental sections that sold me on the band most, especially with that equalizer tweaked so I could hear the excellent contributions of Hao Chenxi on bass and Zhang Yichi's drumkit doesn't sound like it's in the next studio over, being recorded through two open doors. The guitarists are Yang Fuwen and Chen Wake and they duel very nicely indeed in the Iron Maiden tradition. The intro to Queen of the Night is glorious and there are sections in almost every song that made me grin.

This is Dressed to Kill's debut album, even though they formed back in 2013. They released an EP in 2017, which featured two songs that made it onto this album too, Murder City and Speed Metal Mania, along with a cover of A-II-Z's The Witch of Berkeley, to underline that NWOBHM influence. However, they've changed vocalist and one guitarist since then, so I'd expect it to sound a little different to this.

I'm interested enough to find out, though, because Dressed to Kill are solid enough to make me pay attention. This isn't the greatest album ever recorded and I hate that production more and more with each listen, but it shows much promise for a band who are happy to alternate between 1983 and 1986 and who really don't seem to care about anything released since. I'd like to hear a fresh album in a couple of years time to see how they've grown.

Hamradun - Hetjuslóð (2019)

Country: Faroe Islands
Style: Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 30 Nov 2019
Sites: Facebook | Wikipedia

If your tastes run even a little towards world music, this is going to be an easy album to like. Even though vocalist Pól Arni Holm started out with Týr (that's him on their debut, How Far to Asgard), this isn't really folk metal at all. It's folk music, pure and simple, merely folk music that's played on rock instruments at points. How often, I'm not sure. There are a lot of folk instrument sounds, but they may or may not be the product of keyboards.

How far Hamradun go in either direction, towards pure folk or towards metal, can be easily seen in the first two songs.

Kirsten Piils kilde is a dark ballad. It's driven by a voice, which is clean and traditional and is clearly telling a story. I have no idea what that is, because tradition here goes as far as adapting ancient ballads and singing them in Gøtu-Danish, a dialect of Danish that's spoken in the Faroe Islands, from which Hamradun hail. I presume that the rest of the songs are sung in Faroese but, either way, I don't understand the lyrics but would like to, as they revolve around Faroese legends and history.

There's a deep, slow drum beat behind the vocals on Kirsten Piils kilde that surely comes from a drum kit but is phrased like a hand drum, albeit a hand drum of brutality. There's a hint of something else behind it too, conjured up either by keyboards or more traditional folk instruments. The full band only joins in after a build that lasts for a minute and a half and, even at that point, it's still all about the vocals. It's the sort of story song we might expect to hear around a campfire, in good company made even better by alcohol.

Hevndin, on the other hand, is a metal song. It's a heavier song from moment one, with an electric guitar to the fore and none of the instruments are as restrained. There are riffs and guitar solos to highlight musicianship along with the singing. There's dynamic play, moving from loud to quiet and back, presumably as the lyrics require. Sure, the song's point is still to tell a story, but the music isn't there just to back it; it's also there for itself.

If those songs mark the boundaries, the other seven songs each fit somewhere in between and there are still surprises waiting for us. Feigdarferð starts out rather proggy, the keyboards at the fore, and it goes on to feature very nice electric guitarwork. Grimmer går på gulvet has a gorgeous alternative vibe to it, not least because of the bass of Heri Reynheim underneath. What a heavy build for a song that's more rock than metal! Naglfar almost finds a glam metal vibe as it begins, though that's unsurprisingly not where it goes. At the end of the day, though, these are all story songs told to folk tunes.

I liked this album, which is Hamradun's second, after a self-titled release four years earlier. Hetjuslóð means The Path of Heroes, so highlighting the lyrical focus on history and legend. The biggest problem I have is that I'm unable to understand what Pól Arni Holm is singing and that's more important here than usual, because these are story songs. I can enjoy these as pieces of music but unfortunately not as the stories they are. At least until I can find English language lyrics somewhere...

Thursday 12 December 2019

Moon Cresta - Civil Fuzz Brigade (2019)

Country: Spain
Style: Psychedelic Funk/Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 22 Nov 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Here's something a little different: a Spanish psychedelic rock outfit named for a Japanese arcade game who lean very heavily on the funk. The only band on their influence list who aren't regulars on classic rock radio stations (Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, etc.) are the Raconteurs, a highly successful alternative rock band from Detroit in the late 2000s.

I can hear that sort of mix. Like those bands, Moon Cresta don't feel a need for every song to sound the same. There's a lot of invention here, as if the band are seriously exploring their musical influences rather than trying to sound like them. Yeah, I know, that should be a given but it's rare that it feels as obvious as this. A song like Misfortune Always Comes Again clearly comes from a Beatles mindset but there's a lot of Zeppelin in there too. I'd suggest there's more Zep on this album than anyone else even though the band only really sound derivative at points in No Time to Waste.

What surprises me about that list is the lack of more recent names. There's some Black Crowes in the opener, The Myth of the Rolling Rock, and Someone Has Put a Spell on You sounds like Lenny Kravitz with a fuzzy stoner guitar behind him. Here We Are has a rap vibe but it's never anything but funk, like Mike Patton guesting with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Mr. Know It All is the Beatles channelled through Extreme. Much of the fresh interpretation of old material is similar to what Saigon Kick did a couple of decades ago.

That recognisable Mike Patton vibe is all over Are You on Their Side? too, but the song feels more like a seventies song and not just because of a few Led Zep moments. I haven't enough background in American funk to be able to set up comparisons. Maybe I'll run this past my better half, who grew up in a time and space where that was everywhere and it became part of a musical baseline for her.

For me, this is a heady mix that gets headier. There's even some prog in the changes in No Time to Waste and that's a really weird thing because funk and prog tend to be more like opposite approaches than compatible ones. Suddenly the idea of funky prog makes sense. If I'm translating websites right, Moon Cresta go for "power funk", which makes sounds good to me. A lot of songs on this album could be hit pop songs, but they're generally much heavier than a mainstream audience is used to. Their debut album in 2006 was appropriately titled eROCKtile dysFUNKtion SOULution.

I've listened through Civil Fuzz Brigade a couple of times now and I'm sure that I'm going to playing it quite a lot more. I'm interested to see if any of the band members really start to leap out for special mention. Right now, beyond the vocals of Mr. D. that were always going to be a focus, this feels like a real band performance. Everyone's doing interesting things, often at the same time, but never in a way that steals attention from the rest of the band. Moon Cresta play deceptively loose but are actually really tight.

I'm not seeing a line-up history, but it looks like it's been consistent for a long time, with David, Mr. D., on keyboards as well as vocals; Manu "Doble L" on guitar and Antón F. "Piru" on bass. Manuel Ares is the new fish behind the drumkit, because it was Sergio "Sir" Puga on the last album, Moonary, in 2016. All of them deserve praise here as this feels like a real band rather than just a set of capable musicians playing in the same place.

I'll be listening to this more and looking for the earlier three albums (the other was 2010's The Sparkling Radio Stars and Their Lunatic Orchestra). At that slow release pace, that should keep me busy for a while until they get round to album five in another three or four years time.

Aleister - No Way Out (2019)

Country: France
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 29 Nov 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | YouTube

This isn't quite what I expected from a thrash metal band returning after a quarter of a century with a new album and who label what they do old school. This is definitely thrash, but it's predominantly mid-tempo thrash with the bass of Didier Renaud prominent in the mix and the guitars tuned reasonably close in pitch. Given the strong focus on bass, it might be odd to imagine similarities with slower Metallica but it's that tone for a while, albeit a little less imaginative.

However, the next most overt element takes us in a different direction and that's the decidedly rough voice of David Roustany. It's hardly traditional clean metal singing and it's just as far from a death growl. It's more akin to the early extreme bands who were in the process of creating black, death and whatever else but hadn't quite defined them yet. Put together, this has a sound that feels like a crossover album from a band who might have started out as hardcore punks. I have no idea if they did or not.

What they stand out for is the time taken between their last album and this one. Their debut studio album, Tribal Tech, was released in 1994 after seven years of demos and gigs and they promptly vanished sometime soon afterwards, even though the album seems to have impressed the underground. The band got back together again last year with, if I'm reading the details right, with two of the original four members now performing as a trio with Renaud as the new bass player.

It's good though, often really good and it gets under the skin because it's really tight and that's not necessarily the first thing we notice. We don't notice guitar solos because it feels like Aleister don't even have anyone on lead, Roustany content to play rhythm along with the bass and drums. That's probably their weirdest aspect, as if this album is really a studio demo of what the band came up with before the leads were added in. We don't focus on vocal hooks because Roustany isn't interested in those either.

We don't even focus on riffs as much as we do how they shift from one to the next. These riffs are more mechanical, industrial without sounding like the work of an industrial band. What the band do is just knuckle down and try to keep their sound interesting with changes, which sound good from the outset because this trio is so tight and only sound better when they ratchet it up a gear and really show how tight they are. Slave has Voivod style changes, a band worthy of comparison if you ditch their fondness for prog rock. There's no Pink Floyd here but there's some of that War and Pain back end.

While the best riff likely belongs to the final song, Gods Don't Bless You, my favourite song here is probably the middle one, Straighten Up. It has the closest thing to a solo, albeit one that's delivered on bass rather than the usual guitar, and that makes it interesting. The mid section casts a sort of intricate web around that bass solo and it ups the tempo a little too, which I liked while it lasted. Primary did some of the same too and the drums get frenetic on Bastard, which is emphatically not a Mötley Crüe cover.

As I mentioned, this took me by surprise. It's not remotely what I think of as old school thrash. It's not fast enough, for a start. It's too downtuned and it's shorn of solos, blistering or otherwise. It feels very different to me, but that's a good different. I don't know that a sound as stripped down as this is a great way to go—I'd certainly like to hear this album with an added lead guitar—but it's interesting stuff, its highly rhythmic approach a little hypnotic. I like and I have a feeling that people with a fondness for both Pantera and Sepultura might like it too.

Thursday 5 December 2019

Misery Loves Co. - Zero (2019)

Country: Sweden
Style: Industrial Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 29 Nov 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Wikipedia

Latest in a growing list of bands coming out with a new studio album after a long time away is Uppsala's Misery Loves Co., who released three albums back in the nineties to much acclaim, Not Like Them beating out Entombed, Tiamat and Hammerfall to land them a Swedish Grammi. They called it a day in 2000 but the original duo of Patrik Wirén and Örjan Örnkloo got back together in 2016. This is their first studio album in nineteen years.

It's interesting stuff, Misery Loves Co. being grounded in industrial music but with a heavy edge. The opening track, Suburban Breakdown, has a notably heavy guitar, as if the band want to make it clear from the outset that they haven't softened up over time. After all, they have toured with Slayer, Fear Factory and Machine Head. They ought to have some sort of crunch to them and that's notable here and on Dead Streets.

A Little Something adds wilder rhythms and a post-punk influence that's also notable on The Waiting Room and the title track, but it's still heavy, not least through the guitar at the end and a dark bass line from Örjan Örnkloo. Örnkloo is perhaps more notable for providing the industrial edge, including the drum programming. That shines on Only Happy When It Rains, which reminds of both Joy Division and Nine Inch Nails, even though it's a Garbage cover.

And that's where a slightly lighter sound comes in that continues throughout the album. It's not soft, but it lets up on the heavier guitar and shifts to a more new wave approach to heavy industrial. It's another band that they've toured with that leaps out for comparison and that's Paradise Lost. Most of the album features gothic tinges and experimental edges along with its solid industrial base, as if they're combining different eras of Paradise Lost.

Fell in Love sounds like a One Second-era song but with some of the earlier doom overlaid as a filter. Would You?, the single, is even more reminiscent with some Nick Holmes vocal lines. Later tracks move away from Paradise Lost and then come back to them again, but they're never far from the sound, just without any of the death from their doom/death days. Misery Loves Co. don't have any wish to go there, it seems.

This band showed up in 1993, an odd time for me. Tommy Vance was leaving the Friday Rock Show for Virgin Radio, Kerrang! had gone all alternative and I'd drifted into other interests. As such, I don't believe I ever heard them in their heyday, unless it was on an Earache promo or a cover disc somewhere. I like what I hear here though and ought to check out that earlier material, a skimpy back catalogue but a well regarded one.

I've only dipped my toes in the industrial genre now and then over decades, enough to find a few favourite bands (hey, Velvet Acid Christ and Hanzel und Gretyl) but not enough to gain any real expertise. Misery Loves Co. arriving hot on the heels of the new Die Krupps album makes me want to delve deeper. Learning more about NDH this year just adds to that.

StoneWire - Life as We Know It (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Blues Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Nov 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Here's another name to watch from the burgeoning and increasingly varied New Wave of Classic Rock movement. StoneWire are a hard rock band with more than just one foot in the blues and at least a few toes in southern rock. Oh, and by southern rock, I don't mean the south of England, whence they hail, but a more American deepsouth. Think halfway between Lynyrd Skynyrd and Aerosmith, like a Bad Company who grew up in Jacksonville, but with a strong lead vocal from Sky Hunter, who clearly boasts a serious set of pipes.

While nobody lets the side down, it's Hunter's voice that really leads this band. What's particularly impressive to me is that she generously avoids the urge to show off and turn this into a Sky Hunter showcase. She has a raucous whiskey drenched voice in the vein of Janis Joplin or Maggie Bell but she's more like the latter in that she's clearly a singer in a rock 'n' roll band rather than the lady in the spotlight, even when she really gets going, like towards the end of House Rules.

I don't know how the songwriting chores are divvied up, but she seems to be rather grounded in the genres that StoneWire play in, to the degree that she hosts a Whiskey Hour on Hard Rock Hell Radio that runs the gamut from blues rock to outlaw country via "anything that grooves". I recognise a number of bands on her playlists, from Clutch to the Quaker City Night Hawks, though I don't recognise anywhere near enough so I should download some of the shows from Mixcloud and get me some education.

The songs are consistently good here, though they tend towards the lyrically generic. Has every blues rock band ever founded written songs called One for the Road and Kick Up Some Dust? The latter sounds particularly familiar; is it a cover I don't recognise? I'm not sure anything really stands out over anything else but that doesn't mean that this is mediocre. StoneWire merely start out strong with the catchy Monkey Talk and stay at that level for nine more songs, before they virtually pack up their kit and move on to the next pair of speakers on the road to do it all over again.

Think of it this way. You may not wake up tomorrow morning with any of these songs replaying on your mind but you'll enjoy the whole album and you'll be telling friends on Facebook that in ten years time. "Back in my day, we had real bands who really rocked, you know, like StoneWire." And you'll pop this album back on and you'll enjoy the whole thing all over again.

They're a five piece band with Steve Briggs and Rob Glasner reliable at the back end. We don't really focus on what they're doing because they don't do anything flash, but there are points on relistens where they start to stand out for a moment. That's a good bassline on FTM underneath the slide guitar and another dances along wonderfully on House Rules. It's rather prominent on the stalking All That Matters too and it gets a cheeky response moment on A Step Too Far.

There are two guitarists, Gaz Annable and Duncan Greenway, and I don't know who's responsible for what but, like Hunter, they just keep on delivering on track after track, stealing our attention here and there with a riff or solo but never trying to steal the show. There's a lot of slide work on offer and it adds an agreeable vibe whether it's hard and soft. These guys don't play at full intensity level all the time; some of the best grooves are on slower parts of songs like Hero's Journey, whether it's the intro or the solo.

Ultimately, though, I have a feeling that, like most blues rock bands, this one are going to truly show what they can do on the stage. It's possible for that blistering live sound to transfer to a studio album—just check out No Compromise by the Mick Clarke Band—but it's hard to do and this doesn't feel like the band are playing live on my desk. They're behaving a little in the studio and are reserving the real blistering for when we buy tickets to see them. I'd like to do that. Life as we know it is good.

Wednesday 4 December 2019

The Fërtility Cült - Kosmodysseia (2019)

Country: Finland
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 18 Oct 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | YouTube

For a band who don't sing all that much, The Fërtility Cült sure have a way with words. Their descriptions of what they do are evocative, whether brief, like "Milking the Cosmic Cow since late 2008", or verbose, like the bio that you'll find on both their Bandcamp and Facebook About pages. Typically, they can't be pinned down to a single genre, going with "the doomy side of prog, the rock side of jazzy, the banal side of the exquisite".

And that's fairer than what Metal Archives describes as "psychedelic stoner/doom metal", really, at least on the basis of this fourth album. I can hear some sludge at points under the saxophone on the opening track, but it isn't a focus here. It's more apparent on Return to the Desert Planet and Hunters of Galactic Daemons, which run on heavier vibes generally. Maybe they used to be more extreme on early albums. I certainly plan to find out.

To me, this album is halfway between progressive and psychedelic rock with a seventies hard rock edge. That opener starts out like Wishbone Ash but ends up more like King Crimson. The Hammond organ of Solismaa firmly anchors the era on the control panel of the band's time machine, but it's the saxophone of Ryhänen that really gives them life. What's perhaps strangest is that the result rarely sounds like Hawkwind. Well, maybe Hunters of Galactic Daemons in some ways and Timeless Ithaca in others, but still not really.

Now, I'm hearing sax on a wide variety of albums of late, from prog or psych bands like Gong and Nik Turner to death metal outfits such as Acid Death and Eternal Storm via Katharos XIII, the dark jazz of which does spring to mind here, albeit not in such an extreme fashion. This is definitely a candidate for 3am headphones in the dark and I may well pop it on right after another run through Palindrome.

This is a concept album, albeit perhaps a vague one that follows an immortal but forgotten hero, the Planeswalker, who wanders through the cosmos to find his way again, encountering as he does so devastation, a luresome entity and "the boldest". It's precisely the sort of that might have come from the pen of Michael Moorcock, making it all the stranger that this doesn't sound like Hawkwind.

This captivated me on a first listen and I've enjoyed immersing myself into it more. It may not be as great as it first appears, but it's still deep and engaging and, the longer I listen, the more wends its way out to my notice. I particularly like Star Siren's Song, which is another song that moves from Wishbone Ash to King Crimson, with a jazzy saxophone adding another level. I love the way the band contrast light and dark, which isn't always with that mild sludge at the bottom end and light guitars or dancing sax at the top.

Another reason that I think I like this album so much is that it starts out well with the first part of Kosmodysseia, but finishes even better with the final couple of tracks. They're the longest on the album, the second part of Kosmodysseia lasting over eight minutes and The Queen of Spacetime over ten, wrapping up both the story and the album.

Timeless Ithaca, that second part to Kosmodysseia starts heavy and chanting in the Hawkwind style, but evolves from dark to light, as our immortal hero figures things out, growing all the way. King Crimson would have named its movements. The Queen of Spacetime is a journey all on its own, almost as if it's the entire album in miniature, with the bass of Kailasha wandering just as much as the hero. While it works superbly as an ending, it's also hard to not let the album replay.

If I'm understanding correctly, The Fërtility Cült are from Tampere, Finland and their line-up hasn't changed since they formed over a decade ago. Since then, they've released four albums at roughly equal intervals and I'm highly interested in seeing what the previous three sounded like. This is certainly another band I'm happy to have discovered.

Millennium - A New World (2019)

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

Many thanks to Brian Mear of Mearfest for making me aware of Millennium, an English heavy metal band who emerged during the NWOBHM era and somehow went away again after six years without me ever noticing them at a point in time where I was noticing everyone. This is particularly surprising to me, as the vocalist back then, who also reformed the band in 2015 as the only original member, is Mark Duffy of Toranaga fame and I was a huge Toranaga fan, to the degree of being a signed up member of their Bastard Squad.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this had a Toranaga vibe to it from moment one but I wasn't sold for quite a while. I liked it but I didn't like it as much as I thought I should and it took me a few times through to figure out why. Once I did, I was able to settle down and enjoy this in a different way to how I enjoyed Toranaga, albeit not quite as much. I'll get to why later.

The most obvious difference is that Millennium are slower than Toranaga, the band content to chug along at a steady pace, dishing out elegant riffs and finely tuned power akin to Toranaga's slower, less thrashy moments. Duffy's recognisable voice is still strong and emphatic without ever losing melody and he's high in the mix. The rhythm section doesn't do much that's flash at all but is relentlessly reliable. And the twin guitars find a very palatable tone, higher and more melodic than Toranaga's.

The songwriting is strong and careful, building hooks on riffs, and it leans naturally towards the anthemic. I haven't heard anything close to Victory on that front in forever, perhaps since Twisted Sister's breakthrough into the mainstream with songs like We're Not Gonna Take It and I Wanna Rock. This is so defiantly anthemic and, let's face it, so lyrically generic that it could easily be adopted by a nation as its own. The idea of a classroom full of an eager bunch of kids belting out "Start to believe that you'll succeed and it will lead to victory" is priceless.

No other song reaches the same degree, but there are moments that do, on the title track or especially on Summon the Dragons, where Duffy finds a balance on the chorus between restraint and sheer power that's simply majestic. When he launches into the bridge with "They will rise again", I remember why he's as commanding a frontman as I've ever been privileged to see live. I saw him lead Toranaga four times in two years in small clubs. No wonder I signed up for the fan club.

The closest they get to Toranaga here is Assassin, not just because it goes more up tempo generally but because there's a moment three minutes in where the band cut loose with a serious abandon. It only lasts twenty seconds but they're a truly glorious twenty seconds and they scream to me that this band is easily able to blister whenever it wants to; it simply doesn't want to for the most part and this is where my problem lies. This whole album is too controlled.

Once I realised that, I heard it on every track but King of Kings is perhaps the most obvious culprit. Like the other tracks here, there's nothing wrong with it per se: it's built on good riffs and it runs on a good melody. It's delivered well, with the guitars particularly standing out for praise. It's also memorable, which is where a number of old NWOBHM bands have tripped up on new releases lately; Millennium never fade into the background.

However, King of Kings, and many of the other tracks here, feels like a dog that's burning to run but is stubbornly kept on its leash. Millennium do let that dog run a little, here and there, as songs like this one build. However, the band build so much energy that I found myself waiting for those moments when they give it back and they tend not to come. Remembering those Toranaga gigs, I wonder if Millennium let loose a lot more on stage. I'd love to find out but I doubt they're touring on this side of the pond any time soon.

As frustrated as this review might sound, I really enjoyed this album. It's good stuff from a tight band and it's fantastic to hear Duffy's voice again. I see that Millennium put out another album, Awakening, in 2017 so I need to track that down next, along with their self titled debut from 1984. This is a happy day for me. Thanks, Brian!