Friday, 17 January 2020

Magnum - The Serpent Rings (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 17 Jan 2020
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

While many were happy to see a new Stabbing Westward release after almost a couple of decades and a new Rage album is always welcome, this is the first major release of the year for me and I like it even more than the band's surprising hit of a couple of years ago, Lost on the Road to Eternity.

I've been a Magnum fan ever since I found rock music in 1984, with Chase the Dragon quickly becoming one of my favourite albums of all time. I know they went away for a little while at the turn of the millennium, but I have never stopped seeing them as the epitome of a strong and consistent band doing the job regardless of current trends and I'm happy that they're still doing that almost fifty years on. Amazingly, they were founded as far back as 1972.

The band has changed of late. It still features the founding core of singer Bob Catley and guitarist Tony Clarkin, but the rest of the band has shifted recently. This is Dennis Ward's debut on bass, following long runs by Colin Lowe and Al Barrow that, together, go back to 1975, three years before their debut, Kingdom of Madness. Drummer Lee Morris and Rick Benton joined before the prior album but they're still new fish. I wonder if these changes are a factor in how vibrant and dynamic the band sound right now.

Frankly, they sound like the Magnum I know but even more solid than usual, a seriously good production job aiding them greatly. Where are You Eden opens up with Clarkin's guitar as powerful as I've heard it, Ward's bass adding to that density, Morris powerful but steady on drums that resonate beautifully and Benton's keyboards welcome extra layers, whether they're mimicking brass or strings or bells. And when he joins them, Catley's voice is as strong as it ever was.

What's more, there are parts here heavier than I remember Magnum being since Soldier of the Line in 1982, and a good part of that is the drums. They are thunderous and when Morris really turns it up, like in the middle section of Not Forgiven, it's sublime stuff. I've been a fan of Morris's for years, his work for Paradise Lost being fantastic, but all credit to whoever mixed this too. I should add here that, however heavy the drum sound, all the melodic hooks and progressive moments that you expect from Magnum are still there.

There are all sorts of points where the band elevate songs. Often it's the starts, like the eastern melody and storm that kick off the title track and the old school piano and vocal combo that sets Crimson on the White Sand going, or the endings, like the elegance that wraps The Archway of Tears or the jazzy brass climax that takes us home in House of Kings.

Arguably the most interesting come in the middle of songs, because the band is already in motion and have set up how they're going to sound, only to do something wild to change it up. In Madman or Messiah, Benton hammers power chords on the keyboards while Morris's drums punctuate the harmonies Catley layers in. I was singing along without even knowing the words. Not Forgiven has more layered harmonies, this time over piano and Morris's drums escalate power to kick us back into high gear.

While much of this is quintessential Magnum at the top of their game, there are lesser songs. You Can't Run Faster Than Bullets is really just there. I liked The Great Unknown but it's softer and feels a little out of place for that. The title track is decent too, but at almost seven minutes, it's more patient and exploratory than anything else and it doesn't all work.

All told, though, this is another excellent album from one of the best and most criminally underrated hard rock bands of all time. It's a great way to kick off the major releases of 2020. Let's hope they're all this good.

Inculter - Fatal Visions (2019)

Country: Norway
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Apr 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives

A thrash group I belong to here on Facebook saw a lot of members post their top ten thrash albums of 2019 and Inculter often featured in those lists. I think the first one I saw also included the Dust Bolt and Exumer albums that I thought were excellent, so I was happy to take a listen to this one too. I have to say that I'm even happier to say that it's also excellent, an urgent and visceral album from Norway that reminded me a lot of early Slayer.

It feels old school immediately. The instruments speed along as if this is a race and there will be a prize for getting there first. The vocals are in a proto-extreme style from the early to mid eighties that hints at what death growls would become but just seems gruff, like Tom G. Warrior used to do on early Celtic Frost albums. The tempo varies greatly as well, with the speed metal sections giving way to slower, heavier ones.

Open the Tombs and Impending Doom are a great way to kick this off, like an early Slayer crossed with Possessed and maybe some Destruction too. Shepherd of Evil slows things down for a powerful intro before the guitars speed off to try to outrun the drums, like Sodom did so often early on. The riffs are excellent but the pace is just as important. This is thrash to clean you out and reboot your system, the sort I like the most. Hurl yourself into the pit and come out a different person half an hour later.

I enjoyed Fatal Visions from the outset, my biggest problem being how long it isn't. 34 minutes isn't short enough to complain and, in fact, it's about right for the era it's conjuring up, but it didn't seem like it was done as the final notes of Through Relic Gates vanish into the ether and I certainly wasn't ready for it to end. It was Endtime Winds that really got me to stand up and pay attention though.

For much of its running time, it's another frantic sprint with the vocals as reminiscent of Cal from Discharge as anyone else, the band following suit to make this a metal sounding punk song. However, it starts off slow and heavy, with a fantastic riff that reminds of Toranaga. It's gone by the time things speed up a minute and a half in, returning for the ending, but it remains in the brain throughout and it wouldn't shock me if I wake up with it playing in my head for the next couple of weeks.

Nothing else here matches Endtime Winds, but the album thrashes on unabated with another four songs that continue with the mindset of the first couple. Everything here is strong stuff, but the second half of the album does blur together because there's nothing different enough to stand out the way that Endtime Winds or even Shepherd of Evil do until the intro to Through Relic Gates, which is another heavy and slow churn with a decent riff.

I do like variety, but consistency isn't a bad thing when it's to knock out an impactful song and then follow it with a string of others that do much of the same. The core of the band is the dual guitarists, Remi and Lasse Udjus, who sprint along as if they're auditioning for a Slayer tribute band with no material newer than Reign in Blood. Daniel Tveit's drums fit that too, right down to the drum intro to Towards the Unknown. Remi also handles vocals and he deepens the band's sound with hints at punk and death. The bass of Cato Bakke is prominent in the mix and again adds a hint towards death.

I like this a lot. It's not remotely original and it sticks stubbornly to a particular sound that it wants to emulate. However, Inculter do that rather well. That means that I have another prior album to catch up on, as this is the band's second, following Persisting Devolution, which was released back in 2015.

Thursday, 16 January 2020

Adrian Tăbăcaru - Lucifer: A Rock Opera (2020)

Country: Romania
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 15 Jan 2020
Sites (Adrian Tăbăcaru): Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube
(Lucifer: A Rock Opera): Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | YouTube

Here's something a little different. Adrian Tăbăcaru is a Romanian drummer who's composed and performed in a variety of genres, from jazz to electronic and including stints as an orchestral percussionist. However, this album is Tăbăcaru with his prog rock hat on, because it's a rock opera performed by a set of musicians and actors from Romania and the UK. He composed this piece of music but the story isn't his.

It originated as a poem by Mihai Eminescu, who has been called as important to Romanian literature as Shakespeare was to English. This project prompted me to read up on him and he's a fascinating author. I'd love to track down an English translation of Luceafărul, the long poem first published in 1883 that is the source for this rock opera, and especially a novel or novella by the name of Poor Dionis, which for 1872 looks seriously wild. So the poem is by Eminescu and the libretto is by Ioana Ieronim. Also somewhere in play is Anșoara Moraru, credited as "literary consultant". How often does prog rock need a literary consultant? Yeah, I was intrigued.

Luceafărul isn't the traditional western story of Lucifer, the fallen angel. It does deal with a similar celestial being called Lucifer or Hyperion, who is doing his job as the morning star when he's called by a lustful princess called Cătălina whom he naturally falls in love with. She wants him to glide down and be with her, in all the meanings of that term, and he's all for it, even agreeing to give up his immortality for her. However, he can't do that without permission from the Demiurge, who he promptly visits at the edge of the universe. Sadly, by the time the Demiurge dissuades him, the sly mortal Cătălin has stolen his Cătălina away.

Yeah, that makes Lucifer surprisingly sympathetic, which is odd, but it also makes for an emotional ride which is perfect for a rock opera like this. It plays a lot closer to classical than say, the Who's Tommy, but a lot closer to rock than anything by Verdi. Tăbăcaru's drums are rarely entirely absent, though they're as versatile as they need to be here. Check out the power of Exordium, the overture that kicks us off, or the wild keyboard runs found in Intermezzo, rock instrumentals that bookend some operatic sections.

We're introduced to the key characters in Lucifer and hear them set up the story in Longing for the Star. Lucifer is a strutty character who hints at being playful and Cătălina is as playful as it gets, the harlot. After this introduction, though, the styles shift. Beyond Infinity has a narrator move us forward and The Long Way Home demonstrates how dark this can get. It's a quiet piece but a dark one, with ritual elements to the lead vocals and the chanting ones behind her. There's lots for Tăbăcaru's drums to do here and there's an oddly slow organ too, creating a neatly unsettling tone.

Thus far, the project has been a little schizophrenic, with a pair of rock instrumentals and a pair of story songs performed by actors in an operatic style. While there are vocals on The Long Way Home, I couldn't catch their words, so this is a mood piece that sets us up for a short but raucous rock song that borders on metal. It's Asking the Void and there are extreme lead vocals here as the keyboards get dissonant and experimental, vocals akin to black metal shrieks but lower and mostly intelligible.

As if in reaction, Antithesis returns to the darkness of The Long Way Home but with more evil vocals, albeit whispery ones full of intent like they're delivered by a devil pretending to be an angel and not doing a great job of it. The music backing her is experimental, xylophones and dissonant strings. If that's the least engaging song because of its odd nature, then the most engaging is the next one up, A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, in its way just as experimental, with dancing piano and urgent drums. The urgency only builds as this rock song suddenly becomes a metal song halfway through, fast metal at that with a whole new urgency.

There's a lot less Hyperion and Cătălina as I'd have expected from what the poem promises, but album does take us on an appropriately emotional journey with genres involved that I didn't expect. It's a highly varied piece, which is at once its best aspect and its biggest problem. I do appreciate a world in which Longing for the Star and A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning can appropriately exist on the same album, but I do wonder how much of an audience is going to appreciate that. It would seem that people who like one aren't too likely to like the other. I hope that's not the case.

What else I liked here is that a prog rock opera, with enticing snippets of brass and experimental xylophones, not to mention a cast of eight vocalists and the pivotal role being played by a drummer, can teach me about Romanian poetry. That's a world I very much want to live in. Thank you!

Waste of Space Orchestra - Syntheosis (2019)

Country: Finland
Style: Space Rock/Doom Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date:
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

Variety in source location as much as genre is one of my core principles at Apocalypse Later but trying to find an album that did really well with the critics last year that isn't from an American band can be troublesome. This album, however, made a couple of top lists of 2019 and topped one, a rather thoughtful and interesting list from Pop Matters. And, as it's an odd album from Finland, that's why I'm reviewing it today.

It's odd in a few different ways, beginning with the band itself, which is a unique creation. For a start, it's not one band but two, who merged when the Roadburn Festival in the Netherlands commissioned them to create and perform a ritual piece of music there in 2018. One is Oranssi Pazuzu, a psychedelic black metal band from Tampere and Seinäjoki with four albums to their name. The other is Dark Buddha Rising, a drone/sludge metal band from Laitila who have six albums behind them. Uniquely, the Waste of Space Orchestra includes every member of both bands, so two drummers, two bassists, three guitarists, etc.

I haven't heard either of those bands before, so can't extract their sounds from this musical merger, but I do like what I hear while acknowledging that it really isn't going to be for everyone. It's tough to describe the result, but it's an intriguing mix of space rock, drone doom and performance art. It plays consistently as a conceptual piece but brings to mind a versatile set of influences. Journey to the Center of Mass feels like krautrock for quite a while, a little like early Tangerine Dream, but Wake Up the Possessor is a heavy Hawkwind jam, while Infinite Gate Opening is an overtly ritual section of a piece that was designed with ritual in mind.

The album's page at Svart Records explains that it involves three beings and their quest for knowledge. The Shaman sees oppressing visions of the future. The Seeker searches for truth in unknown dimensions. The Possessor corrupts the others, manipulating them for his own purposes. They conjure up a portal during a ceremony, which sucks them into an alien dimension, "populated by brain-mutilating colour storms and ego-diminishing audio violence". Finding equilibrium, all three minds are melted into one collective consciousness.

You know, that sort of thing. What's amazing is that wild visions like that tend to sound wild on paper but the performance turns out to be a let down. How can anyone live up to that? Well, Waste of Space Orchestra do precisely that. While you wouldn't conjure up every detail of the story from a listen or three, the music does mirror it rather closely. It's clearly not just a ritual but a journey too and "brain-mutilating colour storms" is as good a description of a piece of music like Vacuum Head as any I can come up with. You don't have to be a synaesthete.

For all the black metal and sludge roots of the bands involved, this should play best to Hawkwind fans as the closest thing I can conjure up to compare it with is their double live Space Ritual album from 1973, not just because the title would be appropriate here too but because it features a sound both as dense and as trippy, because its songs were interspersed with electronica and spoken-word sections (some written by cult author Michael Moorcock) and because it was an audio-visual experience. This, of course, is heavier.

What impressed me from the outset was the use of melody. Void Monolith is a crushingly heavy intro, all those duplicated instruments layering to deepen the effect. However, there's a delicate melody woven through the whole song. The Shamanic Vision doubles down on that deep heavy sound, with two drummers going full tilt tribal and the voice of the Shaman howling into the void. It eventually finds a black metal blitzkrieg but there's a melodic cloud waving around everything. However heavy this gets, and it gets very heavy, there's always something melodic going on too.

The other important thing to note is that, while this is a studio recording that splits the concert piece into nine tracks, the breaks coming at logical points, this quickly becomes a single hour long piece of music. As such, my list of highlights isn't made up of songs but parts of them: the build-up in Journey to the Center of Mass, a hypnotic section towards the end of Wake Up the Possessor, the opening drums in The Shamanic Vision, the way Vacuum Head kicks in hard.

This certainly isn't going to be for everyone, just as neither band involved is probably going to be for everyone, but, if you're into the idea of a wild trip into the cosmos that encompasses space rock, black metal, drone, ritual chanting and electronic weirdness, then this is magnificent stuff and it's a must for anyone who wants to, as Bill Hicks said, squeegee your third eye. I recommend checking out the Pop Matters list in general. I only reviewed one album from their top twenty last year, though I've caught up with three more this January, and I only disagree about one. I'll be dipping into it further over the rest of the month.

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Tortuga - Deities (2020)

Country: Poland
Style: Psychedelic Stoner/Doom Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Jan 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

One of the countries that surprised me in 2019 by the quality and diversity of its music was Poland with bands as varied and impressive as Monasterium, Velesar and The Matter of A, so I'm eager to keep on exploring Polish music in the new year. Here's the second album from Poznań's Tortuga, who describe their sound as "psychedelic stoned doom". It's certainly a lot more rooted in psychedelic rock and stoner metal than Monasterium, but it's still doom metal at heart.

Deities isn't a concept album per se but it's themed around the elder gods of cosmic horror legend H. P. Lovecraft and, as the Archpriest of Chaos in the First United Church of Cthulhu, I salute that and I salute the glorious cover art by Too Many Skulls which is absolutely gorgeous.

A few other aspects became quickly obvious as common factors.

One is that a majority of the album is instrumental. Technically, only two of seven songs on offer are instrumentals (Shining Sphere and Defective Mind Transfer), but there really isn't much singing going on. Esoteric Order is seven and a half minutes long but it only contains four lines of lyrics. The others have more, Galeón de Manila even unfolding in Spanish, but not one of them has much. The two vocalists are also the two guitarists and it's clear that they think of themselves as guitarists first. It's actually possible that there's a higher word count in the samples and narrated intros than in the lyrics.

Another is the prominence of the bass guitar. This first manifests during a glorious intro to the first track proper, Esoteric Order, which is as jaunty as stoner doom gets. It's guitar free for a whole minute and really makes a strong impression. The bass thankfully never goes away but it returns with a vengeance on Black Pharaoh II, surely the standout track here. Most of the time when I mention the bass in album reviews it's to complain that it isn't audible or to be happy that it is. This is my second review this week alone to compliment the fantastic bass work, here delivered by someone by the name of Heszu.

The third is less surprising and that's that this is a heavy album. Tortuga play monolithic doom in that it's very heavy but also uncomplicated with an avoidance of flourishes. The guitars are particularly economical, playing as few notes as needed to generate the necessary doom and despair. While there are nods to psychedelic rock and stoner metal, not least in the fuzziness of the guitars, the result is doom, slow and heavy with wailing solos.

For Elizard is particularly stupid but it's a lot of fun too, given that it introductes us to Yig, a snake god, who Tortuga define as completely hating Godzilla, "this other fucking lizard". Vocals are delivered in gaps between minimalistic riffs or over another gorgeous bass run. The song is solid, as dumb as it is, and I can't resist a chorus that reads, "Yig hates Godzilla. Fuck you, Godzilla!"

Doom metal just can't succeed without riffs and the riffs here get more and more crushingly heavy as the album runs on. For Elizard has a very nice one, but there's a heavier one in Defective Mind Transfer and then Black Pharaoh II ups the ante yet again. Three times. Midway through, the band add a solo onto the riff and it seems as delicate as the foam on top of a tsunami wave that's already above us and ready to crash down. However, Black Pharaoh II also features an amazing section where the drums get all jaunty midway and rework the perspective of the riffage magnificently.

The first time the riffs really calm down is for Trip, which is the odd man out on this album for a few reasons, not least that it's a lot quieter and subdued in the mix. It's also the one track that's more psychedelic than it is doomy, perhaps appropriately given its title.

And then there's Galeón de Manila, the inexplicable final track, which takes longer to end than the third Lord of the Rings movie. Fundamentally, it's a five minute song with a two minute intro and, without any attempt to kid, a nine minute outro. There are bands who spend their careers building up their skillset until they can finally write a nine minute epic and Tortuga throw a nine minute outro onto this song like it's nothing, which it mostly is.

It made me wonder if the album was written live and recorded chronologically because this outro is the sort of thing that probably felt like a great idea during the trip of the previous track. If the band had cut ten whole minutes of soft but escalating pulses out of this one, they'd still have racked up a respectable three quarters of an hour, all of which would have had purpose. I have no idea why they went nuts at the end here.

Ignoring that, this is a solid album. It's as simple and straight forward as psychedelic music ever gets, anchored by cavernous riffs and hindered by few words. I like it, though I like its bass guitar even more.

Tom Keifer Band - Rise (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 13 Sep 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

It may not be trendy to admit it, but I didn't dislike the hair metal era, as cheesy as it got, and there were some seriously good bands hiding behind all the make-up and spandex. One of my favourites was Cinderella, who were a lot deeper than their airplay suggested. Whether they ever actually split up or just stopped doing anything for long periods of time, such as when lead vocalist Tom Keifer suffered paralysis of the left vocal cord, is debatable, but they haven't released a studio album since 1994's Still Climbing.

Certainly, Keifer has continued on as a solo artist, releasing a solo album, The Way Life Goes, in 2013 to consistent acclaim and adding this second last September, credited not to Tom Keifer but to the Tom Keifer Band. I planned to review it during Name November but I ran out of slots on the calendar and left it until now. Looking back, it's far better and far more consistent than the Neil Young album, so it's a good choice for a final January catch-up.

Cinderella were always more overtly rooted in the blues than many other hair metal bands and that's apparent here, but Keifer draws from wider sources to vary this eleven tracker, perhaps because it clearly draws from the Rolling Stones a great deal, Keifer really trying to emulate Mick Jagger on Waiting for the Demons and especially Taste for the Pain, quieter rock songs with a Stones vibe to them.

On the stormer of an opening track, Touching the Divine, Keifer sounds a lot more like Brian Johnson, that memorable scream as in your face as ever. The band don't sound like AC/DC much but there is a strong similarity in how the finalés to many songs here layer, with lead and backing vocals duelling with a guitar solo and everyone involved bringing added emphasis to what they do. Check out the end of Untitled to see what I mean, then go back to For Those About to Rock (We Salute You).

While the first couple of tracks are up front rockers, just as metal as they are rock, Waiting on the Demons shows that Keifer is going to play with the boundaries of the genre. It emulates the Stones approach to balladry with an emotional, swaggering lead vocal over acoustic guitar. The slide solo guitar in the middle is a delight. It's also telling that the album wraps with what can only be described as country rock in You Believe in Me. Hey, the band is listed as being based in Nashville.

Perhaps the oddest track here is Untitled, because it somehow features both an eastern and a southern vibe to it, like an Egyptian band resident in the blues bars of Alabama. The slide guitar shines again too and I should add a note that I'm not sure who to credit for a lot of what goes on here. Is that Keifer himself, given that he's certainly playing guitar as well as singing on this album, or is it Tony Higbee? I have no idea.

Similarly, whose is that soulful backing vocal that really elevates the end of the stellar title track and pops out to be noticed at odd points in Touching the Divine, among others? Is that Keifer's wife, Savannah, credited on vocals, percussion and piano, or is it Kendra Chantelle, on vocals and percussion? I have no idea here either, but whoever it is sounds rather like Joss Stone, which isn't a bad thing at all.

As is entirely appropriate for someone who didn't just front Cinderella but wrote most of their songs, this is both an immediate album, full of strong riffs and stronger hooks, and a deep one, worthy of exploring over multiple listens. I thought about giving it a solid 7/10 for now with the knowledge that I might need to up it to an 8/10 after a few more listens, but I kept it playing while I pondered on that and decided to go straight to an 8/10. I think Keifer is getting better than ever.

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Stabbing Westward - Dead & Gone (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Industrial Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 3 Jan 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

2019's trend of bands crawling out of the woodwork with their first release in forever is apparently set to continue. Stabbing Westward were darlings in the nineties, landing heavy rotation with their Wither Blister Burn & Peel album in 1995; touring with the likes of Killing Joke, the Cult and Depeche Mode; and making the soundtracks of movies like Mortal Kombat, The Faculty and Johnny Mnemonic, as well as a True Blood season finalé. However, their fourth, self-titled, album didn't reach the studio's expected sales and so they split up in 2002. This is their first release in nineteen years.

I was born in 1971 so I'm a child of the eighties rather than the nineties, and the latter is when a lot of the alternative music crossing the Atlantic from the US prompted me to drift away from the scene. I'm much happier with Stabbing Westward and other major nineties bands returning with new vibrant music in the twenties outside the mainstream, meaning that they can do what they do and do it well without it swamping everyone doing something else.

While many fans who saw Stabbing Westward reform in 2016 for their thirtieth anniversary with two of the three founder members on board, surely wanted a full album, they're still happily welcoming this skimpy EP as something more than nothing. It includes three new tracks and two remixes, so it's a tease as much as a release. However, the three new tracks are pretty good, mixing the dance beats and industrial crunch they're known for with good hooks and the usual angsty lyrics. "I failed to realize I'd found everything in you," is just the first line of the first song.

Whatever you think of industrial pop music, the tempo escalation from verse to chorus in Dead and Gone is a statement of intent. The band are back and they're feeling it. This is urgent stuff and, dare I say it, deserves a pit to erupt at gigs because it's that sort of moment. This song reminds more of Depeche Mode than Rammstein, but it's a lot heavier than the former and has a chorus more comparable to the latter.

Cold continues the angst with a song about unrequited passion that kicks off with a surprising eastern flavour. That works really well and ably compares the emotional desolation of a failed "I love you" moment with a geographical desolation, all sand and wind and emptiness. It's catchy as all get out too, a worthy candidate for serious airplay, but it doesn't ditch that heaviness for commerciality.

Crawl is where the band turn the heaviness down a notch. It's a slower song that uses the power more for emotional weight than urgency. In its place is a clockwork riff that nods to the surprising niches they're finding of late. I see that they were a big hit at Dark Side of the Con and rolled over into the organiser's other event, Steampunk Con in New Jersey, alongside Victor Sierra, Rasputina and others. We live in interesting times.

I'm a lot less fond of the remixes, one of Dead and Gone and one of Cold, feeling that the glitchy manipulation only serves to remove most of the urgency from the original songs. So the Cold remix has a more overt dance beat? Shrug.

I'd give the three original songs a 7/10, because they all find that magic balance point between power and commerciality. Stabbing Westward are really back, not just throwing something new out for the cash. This feels like the band is a priority again and they have something to say. Frankly, that's a higher rating than I expected to give, but I'm happy to be surprised with a good set of songs. That said, those three songs only rack up a dozen minutes and I'd be feeling generous if I gave the remixes a 5/10, so let's split the difference and give the EP as a whole a 6/10.

Avalanch - El secreto (2020)

Country: Spain
Style: Melodic Power/Progressive Metal
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 29 Mar 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Metal Archives | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I've been collating various end of year lists to see how they gel with mine and to see what I missed. One particularly interesting one I found was a top sixty Spanish metal albums (meaning from Spain rather than Spanish language) apparently across all subgenres from the Headbangers Latino America website. I've reviewed four of those, from Azrael (#32), Mind Driller (#28), Salduie (#15) and Eternal Storm (#2), so I knew I should take a listen to number #1, which is this album, El Secreto (The Secret in the English language version) by Avalanch, who hail from northern Spain. Hey, any album that can beat out Eternal Storm must be a fantastic album indeed!

They're new to me but they've been around for a very long time. They appear to have started out as Speed Demons as far back as 1988. The changed their name to Avalancha a year later but switched again to Avalanch when they put out their debut album, La llama eterna (which is The Eternal Flame, not The Eternal Llama) in 1997. They've been busy ever since, El Secreto being their thirteenth studio album. The line-up is mostly new, though, as nobody pre-dates 2016 except lead guitarist Alberto Rionda, who was a founding member.

If I tell you that that line-up includes musicians who have played for Rage, Gamma Ray, Yngwie J. Malmsteen, Axel Rudi Pell, Tony MacAlpine, Tarja, Mägo de Oz and Jeff Scott Soto, then you've probably figured out that they play a sort of virtuosic power metal with progressive edges. I should add that most of those credits were racked up by drummer Mike Terrana, who has played for all but two of those and at least as many more, though guitarist Jorge Salán played with Mägo de Oz and Jeff Scott Soto and bassist Dirk Schlächter also played for Gamma Ray. Terrana is clearly a busy man.

It's strong from moment one, El oráculo opening with a serious bombast and technical aplomb, staccato drumming segueing into riffs. It's very patient, knowing how much power it carries, especially with a keyboard swell behind it, and it delays upping the tempo until it's good and ready. When it does, it's a delight and above all the stellar musicianship, the voice of Israel Ramos soars. He sounds excellent on the English language version but he's a little more natural and unrestrained in his native Spanish.

If El oráculo is an intricate and powerful and seemingly effortless opener, Demiurgus continues that trend. It's crunchy and powerful but delicate when it wants to be and it's endowed with serious class. We start to understand why Avalanch are topping an end of year poll, though I'm sadly not seeing El Secreto on any of the others I'm looking at, in either language, and it has to be said that, when Korn and Slipknot both make four of those lists, it's not difficult to see that many compilers don't have much musical depth and spring for the popular crap. Eternal Storm did make one list, at least, but critics do seem to set their horizons wider the heavier the music gets.

Just to mix things up completely, El Caduceo is a ballad for a while but it combines an elegant power metal style with the layered harmonies and sheer playfulness of Queen. It has a fantastic intro and, when it heavies up a minute in with riffs that sound like Dream Theater covering Led Zeppelin, it's as tasty. I have to praise the backing vocals here, as if to keep up the trend of each song showcasing one of the musicians briefly: El oráculo had a great run on the drums, Demiurgus passed the baton to the guitarists and Katarsis hands it on to the keyboard player.

I have to say that this is a grower of an album. The first time I listened through, I was impressed but none of the songs stood out. I was catching a section here or there instead: the instrumental midsection from Luna nueva, the exquisite intro to Alma vieja, the end of El peregrino. The second time through highlighted that the reason is because they're all so consistently strong. It's one of those albums where every damn song is a highlight and those are precious albums indeed.

By the fourth or fifth time through, this had become a favourite and I knew that I had to go back to Eternal Storm to see how that 9/10 from me squares up against the 9/10 this one was going to get too. The Dream Theater album last year went for shorter, catchier songs without losing the intricacies of prog metal. I mostly wasn't impressed but I now realise that this is what I want from that sort of approach. Now where's the opening slot for Avalanch on the next Iron Maiden tour?

There's clearly a lot of great music coming out of Spain. In addition to the bands I did review last year from the Headbangers Latino America list, none of whose inclusion I can argue with, I'd highly recommend Sechem (technically released at the very end of 2018) and Mileth, as well as rock bands Pölisong and Moon Cresta, all of whom got a 7/10 from me in 2019. Like Eternal Storm though, this is clearly above them and I can only be happy that I have twelve prior Avalanch albums to catch up on, even if none of them featured this exact line-up. Life is good.

Monday, 13 January 2020

Armadura - Nuevas tierras (2020)

Country: Bolivia
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 7 Jan 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Tumblr | Twitter | YouTube

Let's notch off another country on the growing map of bands reviewed here at Apocalypse Later, because Armadura hail from El Alto, right next to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. They play heavy metal rather than folk metal, but JC Mamami provides a folk element by adding a variety of wind instruments as an enticing backdrop and as a frequent alternating solo with the more expected guitars. And the intro that kicks off the album, Qhantati, is about as close to the sound an Andean Danny Elfman might create as I've ever heard.

Armadura aren't new, having been around since 2005 and still featuring four original members within their six-man line-up. Drummer Chelo Borda joined in 2009, ahead of their debut album, Premonición two years later. Mamani is the new fish, having joined in 2015 before their follow-up, AJAYU, a historical concept album about an indigenous revolution led by Túpac Katari in colonial Bolivia. This is album number three and it sounds very good to me even when Mamani isn't bringing that extra folk element to proceedings.

The first regular song is Elegia heroica, an appropriately bombastic title for a song that highlights that Armadura's heavy metal comes with more than a little taste of power metal too. The back end is crisp, Borda providing a tight beat and Marco Sanchez Martinez getting a lot more opportunity on his bass than most metal bassists dream of. They make this upbeat and the flutes add a spiritual edge.

In between, the instruments we tend to think of most with heavy metal do a solid job too. The vocalist is Boris Mendez Cossio, who used to shifted from drums to just vocals in 2008 and he has a strong voice, albeit not one that dominates the way we might expect for heavy/power metal or for the symphonic metal that Destino dips its toes into. He's happy to support the songs and leave the fancier moments to the twin guitarists, Ivan Mendez Cossio, surely some relation, and Franz Thamez Rossel.

I liked the album from the beginning, but it takes a while to really warm up for me. Extinción and Imperio feel like filler, until Martinez starts showing off with a big bass run in the latter before handing over to one of Mamani's flutes. The flourishes of these two and their interplay at the end give the song much more of an impact than what's gone before. It certainly ends much better than it begins.

Martinez gets to introduce the title track with another cool bass run and there's a bombast here that fits the band really well, with a nice keyboard swell and a neatly teasing riff building into a catchy chorus. And it's here that things really start to work for me with every one of the six musicians doing interesting things and passing the focus back and forth between them. From here the songs find a host of impressive new sounds.

La senda del guerrero has a neat groove that reminds of a metal take on Kate Bush's Mother Stands for Comfort. Del norte replaces the metronome drums of that song with a more tribal approach, which is fascinating when mixed with a jazzy piano; it also adds a conversational vocal midway like Armadura are playing in a café. Fruto Ancestral (Mamá Jatha) is as close as they get to folk metal, courtesy of a fantastic guest female voice, prominent flutes and what sounds like a ritual opening dance. Destino starts out all symphonic.

While the best songs are clumped in the middle of the album, the interesting sounds continue to the end. Valor may feature the best guitar solo anywhere on the album but it's the way that the flutes chug and riff as well as solo that grabbed me. Sendero eterno kicks off with elegaic piano and seamlessly adds guitar and then flute over the top. Lago sagrado starts out industrial goth and progresses to swirling prog keyboards.

There's a lot here to unpack once it gets going and it surely highlights why Armadura have been doing so well in Bolivia, landing all sorts of gigs that seem particularly unlikely for a metal band: the launch of the live launch of the first Bolivian satellite, the anniversary of the US embassy and the passing through of the Dakar rally. It sounds like they're not just a solid metal band but a cultural phenomenon in Bolivia. All power to them!

Wolfmother - Rock 'n' Roll Baby (2019)

Country: Australia
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 29 Dec 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Tumblr | Wikipedia | YouTube

Not everything I'm reviewing from 2019 this January was culled from the end of year best of lists. New releases continue as if rolling from the end of December to the beginning of January had little meaning and Wolfmother, the fuzzy hard rockers from Sydney, Australia dropped this on 29th December. It only runs twenty-three minutes so I'm not buying that it's the new album. I would call it an EP or a mini-album, given that it features seven songs.

It's roughly what you might expect from Wolfmother, sounding like the early seventies as proto-hard rock bands figured out what the new genre was going to sound like, but with a modern stoner rock edge and hooks everywhere. As always, it's part Sabbath, part Beatles and part Zeppelin but fitting very well alongside a modern band like the Darkness. There isn't really anything new here at all.

But, my goodness, it's catchy! I had it playing on repeat over much of the weekend and the result is that I've been waking up with Hot Night jamming in my head. With its stop/start chorus, it's punchier than anything else here and the whole thing is punchy, primarily courtesy as always of the main man Andrew Stockdale, who's responsible for vocals and guitar. The latter remain upbeat and fuzzy, though the level of fuzz varies substantially from track to track; the solos are short and in your face; and the vocals are full of hooks even when he's singing a verse.

I'm unsure about who the other musicians are here, as I'm seeing conflicting information as to who's in the band nowadays. Hamish Rosser seems to be the drummer again, after a couple of years with the band early last decade. Who plays bass and keyboards depends on where you look. And, scrolling down the Wolfmother Facebook page, I'm seeing a lot of suggestion that the musicians varied from song to song. It's Rosser on drums on Kick Ass but Lucius Borich on Rock 'n' Roll Survivor and at least seven people have played with Andrew Stockdale in Wolfmother in 2019.

Let's just say that it all sounds good, but more like a collection of songs than an album. I don't know if it's just that ever-varying level of fuzz on the guitar, but the mixing levels seem to keep changing too, as if this is a product of multiple musicians across multiple recording sessions. At the end of the day, the constants are the quality, the upbeat tone of the songs and the utterly generic lyrics. What might you imagine songs like Rock 'n' Roll Survivor, Hot Night and Kick Ass talk about? Yep, you're exactly right.

What impressed me most is the variety and the consistency. Even with a mere seven songs on offer, none of which last past the four minute mark, I have at least four highlights and, each time I listen through again, I'm tempted to add another one to that list. Wolfmother fans certainly won't be at all disappointed in anything but the overall length and the band may well keep on finding new fans with this material.

Higher is a heavy stoner rock song. Stockdale has said that he was driving around LA listening to Fu Manchu when he wrote it. Rock 'n' Roll Survivor is stoner rock too but much closer to that Black Sabbath original sound. Kick Ass brings in that most seventies of instruments, the Hammond organ. Spanish Rose is a fuzzier Uriah Heep. And, with Hot Night a playful stop/start rock song, that's a lot of variety in the first five tracks, but it gets wilder over the last two.

Freedom is Mine carries a layer of distortion over the vocals and it results in a strange combination of hard rock, glam rock, garage rock, psychedelic rock and punk rock. Is there a rock that isn't represented somewhere in the song? It's kind of like Iggy Pop singing a Beatles song with Queens of the Stone Age behind him and that's not a bad thing.

Special Lady adds an electronic disco beat to proceedings and it really goes there with a funky robotic voice effect partway through. However, the guitar fuzz remains and it still sounds like Wolfmother, even if it's a little more experimental than usual. When the disco robot voice comes back for a second shot, it's during a notably Iron Maiden-esque solo.

This is a glorious way to start a week and I wonder how long these songs are going to keep playing in my head first thing in the morning.

Friday, 10 January 2020

Rage - Wings of Rage (2020)

Country: Germany
Style: Heavy/Power Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 10 Jan 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Never mind the bands from way back who went away but have come back recently with new material, I have a special admiration for those bands from way back who never went away at all and Rage are one of those. Sure, Peavy Wagner has been the only founder member left since 1987 and they're now on their fifth long running line-up, Marcos Rodriguez and Lucky Maniatopoulos both on their sixth year with the band, but they've never quit.

I remember Rage from the eighties and they're one of the first bands to come immediately to mind when I think of heavy power metal. Those early albums on Noise Records, like Reign of Fear and Execution Guaranteed, weren't the best examples of the genre ever recorded but I enjoyed them and bought a few when they came out. I'm a little shocked at how far out of date I am though. This is, I believe, their twenty-fifth studio album and they've done rather a lot in the thirty years since I've been paying attention.

I leapt at this because I wanted to hear a band I liked back in the eighties doing something new with modern 21st century production. It sounds great and the mix is decent. I'd have liked a little more definition to the bass but I guess it's hard to lose it entirely when the band in question is a trio. The opening tracks are up tempo without being thrash, heavy without being death, powerful without losing melody. It's a really nice balance.

True, the opening track, has absolutely everything I want from a heavy power metal song. It's exactly what I wanted to hear in 1987 when technology just couldn't make this sound possible. Let Them Rest in Peace sounds more up to date with modern riffs opening it, but just as we think Rage are going down a Pantera road, we realise that the tone, in everything from the guitars to the backing vocals, has that warmth that power metal is so fond of. It's very European.

I ought to see what my son this of this album as, while it has zero plans to blister like Kreator or Destruction, it has a similarly huge sound and it's not exactly slow. Lucky Maniatopoulos, in particular, feels like he's rather keen on venturing into thrash at points on songs like Tomorrow, HTTS 2.0 and Wings of Rage, though the band never quite follow him across the border from power metal except for Don't Let Me Down which is speed metal at points.

As its subtitle suggests, Shadow Over Deadland (The Twilight Transition) is a break point six tracks in. The five that precede it are all lively and up tempo numbers full of riffs and hooks and solos and everything that we might expect from heavy power metal. This one's there to calm us down for a moment before the band add an orchestral backing in A Nameless Grave. I should note here that their 1996 album, Lingua Mortis, is remembered as the first metal album to be recorded with a symphony orchestra and they've kept that up ever since, albeit on only one song here.

Wings of Rage isn't short, clocking in only a few minutes less than an hour, but it never outstays its welcome. I'm many albums behind but the ratings on Metal Archives are a little lower over the past decade than they were before that. Maybe this a return to form because it sounds solid to me. Sure, there are highlights, so not everything is of similar quality, but there isn't one bad song here among a dozen.

The two albums prior to this one, The Devil Strikes Again and Seasons of the Black, were made with the exact same line-up so I'm keen to check them out. I've had this one on repeat today. It still feels as fresh as it did when I first pressed play but I want more. Fortunately, there's a lot of Rage that I haven't heard for me to catch up on. Let's hope it's as good as this.

Lingua Ignota - Caligula (2019)

Country: United States
Style: Avant-Garde
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 19 Jul 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | Wikipedia

This isn't metal in any definable way, but it features on at least five best of 2019 metal lists and in the top ten of four of them. It's performance art as much as it's music but it's not the unapproachable noise that you may be imagining from that term. It's raw and it's visceral and it's heartachingly real, a sort of therapy for musician Kristin Hayter, a survivor of domestic abuse who describes her songs as "survivor anthems".

At times, this is sheer noise. On her Bandcamp page, the lyrics for Day of Tears and Mourning read simply "[INCOMPREHENSIBLE SCREAMING]". Sure, it has quiet organ music to start but it gets very dark very quickly and her vocals resemble black metal shrieks, albeit over a plodding and ominous beat rather than hyperspeed blastbeats. Do You Doubt Me Traitor has a full on assault on our senses, Hayter primal screaming into the void, transforming the words of her abuser into fierce art.

At other times, it's exquisitely beautiful. Hayter was a church cantor who's classically trained in piano and voice and a number of songs here feature a polyphony that I recognise as Bulgarian from Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, a glorious album of world music that led the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir to places they never expected to go, from Xena to Kate Bush via The Tonight Show. This style is especially obvious as the album begins on a song called Faithful Servant Friend of Christ.

Sometimes, the beautiful and the noise merge, like on the utterly brutal and unforgettable If the Poison Won't Take You My Dogs Will. Hayter chants, the beauty fragile and cracking over a soft drone, but when she reaches a Kyrie Eleison refrain towards the end of the song, that being the Greek for "Lord have mercy", a curtain of noise descends over her in a way that any extreme metal band would dearly love to emulate. There's a similar curtain in I am the Beast and before Do You Doubt Me Traitor gets visceral, it's a heartfelt invocation.

What amazes me is how well read Hayter is musically. She's only in her mid-thirties and she didn't find rock music until a cousin left behind a copy of Nirvana's Nevermind. Yet, even in high school, she was listening to Ornette Coleman, Cattle Decapitation and John Zorn. "It's not too difficult", she's said, "to get from Nine Inch Nails to [Einsterzende] Neubauten to Merzbow." That's true, though most people aren't going to make it all the way! I wish I could mention influences like Klaus Nomi, Diamanda Galás and Nick Cave on more reviews. She even performs throat singing on Sorrow! Sorrow! Sorrow!

It's impossible not to be affected by this album. I popped it on, expecting to listen to a couple of tracks and head to bed. Instead, I devoured it and let it devour me, finally dropping at six in the morning. Hayter's mantra in Spite Alone Holds Me Aloft is "betray me" and she wrings more emotion out of those two words than you can comfortably imagine. And that's before shifting to "kill them all". The album wraps up with I am the Beast, a sort of vicious madrigal, in which the mantra becomes "all I know is violence".

Frankly, Caligula shocked me, not just as statement but as musical vision. I may have encountered a lot of experimental noise albums, but it's a rare one that I'll go back to or even finish. This is something as brutally impactful as it is entertaining. It's certainly not going to be for anyone but it's a lot more accessible than it might seem. The dynamics are amazing and it will make you read up on Hayter's background. The combination will tear out your heart and leave it bleeding in your hand. It's the most vital piece of avant garde music I've ever heard in my life. And it loops, because the saddest thing about abuse is that it's a cycle and the music reflects that.

Thursday, 9 January 2020

Andy's Game - Andy's Game (2020)

Country: Greece
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 9 Jan 2020
Sites: Facebook | Twitter | YouTube

I know very little about Andy's Game, but I like much of what I hear on this album. The Andy of the name is Andreas Chatzimanolis, who goes by Hatchma, a name he also gave to his studio. I can't find a website but it looks like he teaches guitar and composes for others on a freelance basis. It might not be too surprising that it took six years for him to finish this album, as I bet it was done in spare moments as time and money allowed.

While the name suggests a band, it's almost entirely a solo effort. He wrote everything; sang and played most of the instruments himself (with one guest, Thomas Andreou on drums); and produced and engineered the album too. I would think that's why we can actually hear all those instruments. It's easy for a mixer to hide the bass player but when the guy playing the bass is doing the mixing, it's audible.

Andy didn't grab me immediately. The weakest aspect is surely his vocals and the opening track, The Battle of Navarino, starts out as a vocal track. Only as it runs on does the solid riff really settle into our bones, the bass add a solemn note to proceedings and the guitar get really interesting, firstly with a surprising folky section, then with some fancy stuff and finally with a solid solo. I wasn't on board at the beginning of the track but I was when it ended.

For all those little fancy guitar moments, this isn't a show-off album. The best thing about it may be that this guitar teacher isn't just hitting every note on the instrument like he's the next greatest shredder celebrity, he's happy to showcase just what a guitar can do. He builds these songs from the ground up with riffs then adds in whatever else will work for the material. I admire his restraint as much as his talent.

I also admire his variety, though some of that may be due in part to the six year recording process. It's within the bounds of possibility that he saw a debut solo album as a great opportunity to perform a collection of songs in the styles of his idols. Never Say Die sounds like Deep Purple from its very first note and Silver Lights kicks off like a radio friendly Van Halen song, even if it becomes more of an upbeat Demon number. As they run on, they all become Andy's Game songs, though, as his voice doesn't follow the emulation.

Only one is an actual cover version, Ditch Queen being the Frank Marino song from his Juggernaut solo album in 1982, and I think it's a better, livelier and sleazier version than John Norum's. It's a real showcase for his bluesy guitar talent too. Other songs do feel familiar though, even if I'm unable to place them. Digital Wormhole isn't a cover, but it burrowed into my brain and made me think that I'd heard it before. It's a real grower of a track, starting out feeling a little empty but evolving into what might be my favourite song on the album.

It's as hard to place in time as anything here, though Hard Night is surely the epitome of that. Like many of these songs, it feels like something from the early eighties, when the NWOBHM was transitioning into something not so revolutionary. The vocals feel like they're from a working class punk who's evolving his sound into metal. And there's a solid seventies rock riff that feels highly reminiscent of Jimmy Page.

I believe Andy is Greek and his studio is somewhere in Greece, most of this is in English and he's entirely fluent. One song, however, the quirkier and more playful E.C.P. Ye, is in Greek so I have no idea what it's about. It's yet another different sound for the album, with keyboards that lend a world flavour to proceedings.

I'd love to read an interview with Andy Chatzimanolis to discover the roots of this album and why it sounds the way it does. Until I find one, I'll just sit back and listen to the whole thing again. It's at once so consistent and yet so varied in style. I like it. I even got used to his voice by the third or fourth time through!

The Drowning - The Radiant Dark (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Doom/Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 Nov 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

I've mentioned a few times that I was around when doom/death was created. I lived in Halifax, home to bands like Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride, and I bought their work from the very beginning. I remember seeing the former live in Bradford before they had an album out, being surprised when a kid a year ahead of me at school who wore a Kiss T-shirt on non-uniform days got up on stage to drum for them.

However, while I kept up with those particular bands, my drift away from the music of the alternative nineties made me miss new bands like The Drowning, a Welsh doom/death outfit founded in 2003 whose fifth album was selected by two Angry Metal Guy reviewers as the best album of 2019 and one as maybe the best doom/death album of the decade. That's strong praise indeed. Of course I needed to check it out!

And, while I wouldn't praise it as highly as them (I rated three doom/death albums higher in 2019, though one was from the previous year: Phlebotomized, Eternal Candle and The Dead Sea), it's pretty damn good. I think my biggest problem with it was the mix, which feels off and sometimes empty. The guitars often let the music soar but the vocals of Matt Small keep it anchored to the earth. They're too prominent in the mix and the end result suffers for that. Also, Steve Hart's drums are a little too prominent as well and it often sounds like he's banging on a set of plastic tubs.

As such, The Drowning sometimes sound less like a doom/death band and more like a death metal band who play slower than usual. I should add here that slower doesn't always mean slow. Prometheus Blinded isn't particularly slow at all and the majestic guitars that open the next track, In Cold Earth, do a fantastic job of highlighting just how far the band had drifted away from doom/death. It's just a death metal song.

In Cold Earth, on the other hand, has a solid, aching weight to it and it's driven, like so much of this album, by the guitars of Mike Hitchen and Jason Hodges. They aim at a My Dying Bride feel more than a Paradise Lost one and they nail it. There are many points where I wish I could let the vocals fade away and, on this track, the drums too, which feel a little intrusive and overdone, so I can just listen to those guitars soar above the universe.

All my favourite moments here tie to those guitars. They're fine just doing business as usual, but there are moments when they shine even brighter and I found myself grinning. There's a great riff when The Triumph of the Wolf in Death moves into a quieter section and a fantastic doomy riff midway through In Cold Earth. The slowdown moments in All We Need of Hell are glorious (oh, hey, there's a bass in here too, courtesy of Richard Moore, who also suffers from the mix) and I'm talking the ones within the song as well as the grand slowdown that is it's end.

All this is to say that I enjoyed this but it didn't blow me away the way it blew away those Angry Metal Guy reviewers. That is, until we get to the last couple of tracks.

I Carve the Heart from the Universe is the longest track on the album, at a nudge over ten minutes, but it's a real gem, with the guitars doing joyous things, the drums delightfully restrained for a change and Small's vocals as versatile on this one song as they've been for the entire rest of the album. If it's exactly I wanted from this band, then Blood Marks My Grave is what I dreamed they might become. It's majestic from its first moment and it keeps on getting better.

These are how the definition of how to end an album. If the whole thing had been like these two tracks, I'd be raving about how magnificent it was too! For now, even discounting the production issues, I don't think it's anywhere near as consistent as it could be and only moments of genius here and there live up to the way the album ends. I'm happy to have finally found the band and I have four prior albums to devour. All hail British doom/death!

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Motorbooze - Motorbooze (2020)

Country: Argentina
Style: Southern Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Jan 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

Any rock/metal band name that starts with Motor, with or without an umlaut, is automatically going to stir up expectations of being a Motörhead tribute band but that doesn't help Motorbooze, who aren't remotely that. Sure, they clearly like Motörhead and there's a little Motörhead in their sound, but I wouldn't even call it their primary influence. Juan Della Ceca doesn't drum remotely like Philthy or Mikkey and Scorpion Shaw doesn't try to sound like Lemmy at all.

What they sound like is a southern rock band, which is rather appropriate as they hail from Buenos Aires in Argentina, which is rather further south than most southern rock bands! They have a heavy edge, so they're flirting with a southern metal tag constantly but I'd place them more on the rock side of an ever hard to define boundary between rock and metal, even though there's not much Allman Brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd here. Think heavier than Black Stone Cherry but not so far down that scale to reach the likes of Exhorder.

While this, their debut album, starts out well enough, I actually think that it gets better as it goes along. Blood kicks things off nicely and it finds a nice groove, but it tries far too hard and there's so much staccato guitar that it lost me a few times. Obliterator plays in a similar vein but it kept me throughout because it stayed in the groove that it found. That it's also an aching groove helps too. It could easily be faster but it doesn't need to be and I appreciate the band fighting the urge.

As the album runs on, I found that those grooves get more engaging. From the relatively simple one midway through Roussian Roulette to the delightful and much deeper groove that pervades Blackmoon Shadows, the band comes across as particularly comfortable on these later songs, as if they were attempting to deliberately push the envelope on earlier, more overt songs and just settled down to what felt most comfortable to them later.

The boundary may be Motherfucking Song, which kind of does both. I love the more restrained solo midway through but I also love how punchy the song gets behind it. All the guitars, whether bass, lead or rhythm, are provided by a man named Sebastián Taux and he does a lot on this song, once the Al Pacino sample that opens it up gives way to the music.

As much as I enjoyed the work of his cohorts in Motorbooze too, I think Taux is what I'll take away most from this album. Shaw steals the limelight from the outset but Taux slowly but surely steals it away from him with a steady succession of solid riffs and elegant solos. I say slowly but surely because he doesn't really do anything flash at any point, so it takes a little while to realise just how good he is. By the time we get to the end of Mindset of Destruction, we realise it even as we acknowledge that it seems effortless for him. The final blitzkrieg is just a bonus.

I should also highlight Chaos Maker, which closes out the album. Everything here runs pretty consistently around four minutes, with Blackmoon Shadows a minute longer than anything else. Then there's Chaos Maker, which is a nine minute epic to wrap things up. And it does feel epic, as if the band took a look at all the things they did on this album and made extra sure to do them all double on this one last track. Somehow, it isn't overdone and the band sound all the better for being let loose like this. I liked it a great deal.

While the name is likely to continue to be misleading and I have no idea at all what the cover art is supposed to be telling us, this is a strong debut for Motorbooze and a solid recommendation for any who prefer their southern rock with a bit of crunch.

White Ward - Love Exchange Failure (2019)

Country: Ukraine
Style: Post-Black Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 20 Sep 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | VK | YouTube

I'm always interested in seeing how far genres can stretch and no genre has stretched as far lately as black metal, which has gradually embraced sounds that not one person listening to the first Bathory album back in 1984 would have believed possible. Part of that is because of the advent of post-black metal, which is what Ukrainian band White Ward play.

For three minutes, this is soft piano and teasing saxophone, not the sort of thing you might expect from a traditionally confrontational genre like black metal. Perhaps the cover art influenced me subconsciously, but I felt like I was walking through someone else city where I was at once out of place but somehow still safe and comfortable. Then it veers wonderfully into a vicious section because that's what black metal does best.

As this title track runs on, it continues to alternate between soothing and vicious and the result is something that's very difficult to ignore. As it ends, twelve minutes in, amidst warm and organic pulsing, we know that we've heard something of note and want to go back to the start so as to experience it afresh immediately. I resisted the urge for a change and continued on.

Very few bands have the sheer command of dynamics that White Ward have and I wonder if that's because they came to this style from the opposite direction to usual. Often black metal bands start out raucous and raw and grow into a more diverse, more nuanced, more elegant sound over time. I may be wrong and what I can see on their Facebook page suggests that I am but it sounds to me like White Ward started out as elegant and nuanced and added the black metal vehemence onto that.

Either that or they fit a couple of session musicians into their line-up far more completely than usual. It would beggar belief if Dima Dudko on sax and Stanislav Bobritskiy on keyboards just wandered into the studio one day and laid down the tracks that they were given. They're inherent to this music, a crucial and key part of it, yet I'm not seeing them listed as actual members of the band. Whole sections of these songs simply wouldn't be there without them.

Even for someone like me, who's got used to saxophones in places I wouldn't have expected them, there's a lot here. This is a long album, featuring four songs over ten minutes, interspersed by three shorter ones that still aren't necessarily short. The shortest track here is only just shy of six minutes, meaning a running time of over an hour. It's easy to get caught up with the flow of this album and lose track of time entirely. When it eventually wraps up, it's almost a shock because we're living in the world of White Ward.

I should add here that the world of White Ward isn't quite as soothing as it initially seems. The title track, which opens things up, is warm, welcoming stuff to begin with but it ends on a darker note. Later songs emphasise that even in the quieter sections. Dead Heart Confession opens in a room where a radio is broadcasting about the crimes of Jeffrey Dahmer.

I'm not sure what goes down at the end of Uncanny Delusions and so also the album, but someone is clearly really unhappy about something, screaming her discontent. The band describe their music as "intensely deviant music of a noir share" and that's a neatly poetic way to put it. As welcoming as they often sound, there's a darkness below the surface if we pay attention.

I'm still in love with the Katharsis XIII album of dark jazz that I reviewed in October and this sits well alongside it. It's less jazzy but it's just as full of immersive depth and dynamic range. I'll throw this one onto the same device to listen to in the dark and see if it will stay with me as much.

Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Desert Colossus - Eyes and Tongues (2020)

Country: Netherlands
Style: Stoner Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 3 Jan 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram

Many of the albums I enjoyed the most in 2019 were stoner rock albums, not a statement I ever thought I'd write. Sure, I've always liked psychedelia, in all its many forms, but I missed out on the ascendancy of stoner rock in the nineties and am now finding myself enjoying it a generation later. I have a lot of groundwork to still do, but I've added Desert Colossus to the growing list of bands to follow.

What surprised me here wasn't that I enjoyed most of it but that it's varied beyond my expectations, perhaps because the influences go beyond the usual, even beyond what the band list on their Facebook page. Amongst the expected stoner rock bands like Kyuss, Fu Manchu and Sleep, I'm easily hearing others they list like Hawkwind, the Sword and Soundgarden, albeit not necessarily throughout the album. While Black Sabbath are the most obvious name that is nowhere to be found on that list, perhaps because they're a gimme, I heard some glam rock here on a couple of tracks too.

That's most obvious on Wicked Man, which feels like Sabbath with a glam rock swagger, but it's there in the pausing two note riff on the opener, Tear Me Down, as it reminds me of Sweet or the Ram Jam Band. As Desert Colossus are Dutch, it may be more of a Golden Earring nod. Anyway, it moves on into the more playful end of stoner rock, very lively and very engaging.

While that's a good song to kick things off, it frankly pales in comparison to the next song, which is fantastic. It's called The One - Eyes and Tongues and so I presume it's the title track. It's also thirteen minutes long and I wasn't bored once, even with a slow repetitive intro. It starts out heavy, a hypnotic approach countered by pausing for the vocals to be delivered during gaps in a frenetic fashion. Partway through, it goes all delicate in a way I might expect for an early Sabbath song, then ramps up instrumentally to the finalé. It's the best song on the album and it's a gem.

From a thirteen minute song to a three minute one. Predicament slips on into play with a cool wail and gets right down to business. It also builds with a hypnotic vibe, but this time it's more akin to Hawkwind with an alternative vocal style. As the songs run on, they continue to change and that's mostly a good thing. Collect Call to Reality is more laid back with a little grunge to flavour it. Null aims for a live punk vibe within a stoner rock framework and it's as in your face as anything here gets.

Wicked Man is my other favourite here, with Predicament hovering behind its shoulder to make itself known too. Beyond being Sabbath with glam swagger, I liked the contrasts in speed. After an intro that feels acutely familiar, it really blisters for a while, like Sabbath on steroids, until it slows down to a pace that, by comparison, feels achingly slow but really isn't, before eventually going back to blister again. I appreciate good use of dynamics and apparently so do Desert Colossus.

What I didn't appreciate was the final song, The Final Signs of the End, as it features a long sample under the music that mostly isn't intelligible so ends up as more of a distraction than a texture. It seems to be some sort of religious rant but it ends up sounding more like a baseball game playing too loud on the radio next door that we're trying to drown out with loud fuzzy guitars. I like the guitars but the clash makes the song feel long. When the eight minute song feels long but the thirteen minute song doesn't, there's a problem.

I hadn't heard Desert Colossus before but this is their third album, after a self titled one in 2016 and Omnibeul in 2017. Both are available at Bandcamp so it shouldn't be hard to check them out. The change between tracks makes me wonder what the band used to sound like and how they're evolving.

Blood Incantation - Hidden History of the Human Race (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Death Metal
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 22 Nov 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

I'm still collating end of year lists to see if there's any sort of critical consensus about what was greatest last year. What's obvious thus far is that this second album from Denver-based death metallers Blood Incantation was an impressive hit. Even though it was released in late November, it made eleven lists of the best albums of the year and topped one. By comparison, I'm not seeing anyone else on more than seven lists and the four on that many happen to include the amazing Alcest and Opeth albums, as well as the disappointing (to me) Tomb Mold album and one from Inter Arma that I haven't heard yet.

The first impression is that this is very old school death metal. It's low, it's downtuned and it features growly vocals that took me back to the early days of the genre. It's reminiscent of early Death and, if you imagine the vocals buried deeper in the mix, Morbid Angel too. As the opener, As Slave Species of the Gods grows, though, we start to realise just how much depth Blood Incantation are exploring here with a traditional four piece setup of vocals, twin guitars, bass and drums. Yes, that's four: Paul Riedl is doing double duty on guitar and voice.

The Giza Power Plant continues on as Slave Species of the Gods began and the two work very well as a pairing. They're deep and warm and rich songs. Even during the more traditional sections of up tempo death, every member of the band continues to do interesting things. Every time I hear these two songs, and I'm four or five listens through thus far, I catch something new and the whole thing draws me in deeper. This is immersive stuff.

Isaac Faulk's drums caught me first. I love how he blisters along at serious speed but has an equally seriously slow beat going on behind that. There are so many changes that it's a real adventure to keep up with them. Also, while this is predominantly old school death at heart, the second half of The Giza Power Plant ventures into doom/death, with slow guitar and bass over rampant drumming, and it does it really well. There are hints at thrash too, though the band never really go there as a sound.

I mostly see Blood Incantation described as simply death metal and that's no lie but nobody who listens through those first two tracks even once is going to avoid the words technical and progressive. The spaced out intro to track three, Inner Paths (To Outer Space), emphasises both in instrumental form. I did catch some vocal work at the end but there are no words, just texture on top of an already interesting track that's consistent with but travelling in wildly different directions to the opening pair.

Finally, there's what would, in the old days, be side two, because it's just one single song. It's called, and I kid you not, Awakening from the Dream of Existence to the Multidimensional Nature of Our Reality (Mirror of the Soul) and it's almost as long as its title suggests, over eighteen minutes. A mere five seconds more and it would count for half the entire album! That's what we might expect from Yes or Peter Gabriel era Genesis. But do we expect this sort of thing from a death metal band from Denver on the follow up to their debut album? No, we don't. This is seriously ambitious but they pull it off.

In many ways, it's the first half of the album reimagined in a single long, surprisingly coherent track, told in movements that roughly equate to a pair of tracks with an interlude between them and a long and varied outro to take us home. The first five minutes continue on in the old school vibe from the opening couple of songs, taking that old sound as a starting point and then progressing it forward, but the cosntruction is fascinating. The interlude is more spaced out stuff, with an electronic pulse that sounds like a Pink Floyd sample, but we wrap with doomy psychedelia. This really shouldn't work but it does and it does magnificently.

So is this the album of 2019? I've heard a lot of great music thus far and I look forward to a little more over the next month, so there are many albums competing for a title like that in my mind, but I can't deny that it really is up there with the best. I'll fight the other critics about the Tomb Mold album, which really disappointed me, but not about this one. It's astounding for a second album and now I need to track down the first, 2016's Starspawn, while waiting with bated breath for a third.

Monday, 6 January 2020

Burden of Ymir - Jötnar (2020)

Country: Canada
Style: Blackened Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 6 Jan 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Metal Archives

Here's another one man band to kick off the new year, though I'm really not imagining Joe Caswell busking at the roadside with dozens of instruments on and strapped around his person. He's a Canadian who I believe is generating those instruments in a studio through the magic of synths and, outside those keyboards, I don't know how many he's actually playing in person. I'd guess at the guitars at least and maybe the drums too.

I picked this one out because I'm hearing a lot of great music coming out of Canada of late and this looked interesting. Not only is it a one man cross beween black and folk metal, but it's instrumental and also a concept album, the ten songs on offer representing a different jötun from Norse mythology. Put together, they're jötnar or giants and the music is accordingly big and bombastic.

With an intro and an outro, the first real song is From Hræsvelgr, the Winds and it does rather a lot in its three and a half minutes. It starts out as a strutting folk dance in the Trollfest style, led by bass guitar and followed by accordion. It speeds up midway, initially in the black metal style we're expecting but then with a hint at thrash, which we're not.

Caswell mentions "blackened folk metal" on the Burden of Ymir Bandcamp page, which seems fair as there's a lot more of the latter than the former. Songs like Hosted by Vafþrúðnir highlight that by including no metal at all and a focus on harp as lead instrument. Others, such as the dynamic Because Þrymr Looted the Hammer are clearly metal songs but the folk melodies outweigh the black metal drumming without much effort.

This song was a real delight for me. It ventures into thrash metal as often as black metal and it's sometimes a real heads down system cleanout. I love the dynamics between the folk melodies, whether they're played on guitar or accordion, and the speedy sections. What's most bizarre is that it wraps up with what can only be described as chiptune. I would totally splash out for a game that has me playing a Norse giant stealing Thor's hammer and burying it eight miles deep in the earth as an incentive for Freyja to marry me.

The same goes for the end of Suttungr Seeking Vengeance, as if Caswell came from the world of gaming soundtracks but wanted the musical freedom of this solo project. Jötnar is the first Burden of Ymir album, but there are three previous EPs. The first contains nine tracks but only lasts twenty minutes, so this album would seem to be a real progression.

The best aspect of this album for me is easily its playfulness. The lack of vocals frees the music and allows it to roam free and get up to the sort of shenanigans that always went down in Norse mythology. That story about Þrymr is full of theft, cross-dressing and outlandish feats of eating and the song about it is just as lusty and larger than life, as are the rest. It wouldn't work to create songs called Thus Came Skaði with Bow Held High or By Surtr's Shining Blade and have them be underwhelming and Caswell makes them larger than life.

The worst is the reliance on electronica, because it makes some songs feel a little artificial. The ethereal melody behind the drums on As Eggthér Strums the Harp would normally be played on a flute, but it's surely the product of the synths here and it ends up reminding of the Doctor Who theme tune. That happens on To the Lair of Þjazi as well and it's a little offputting. I have to assume that the harp and accordion are synths too.

This is fun stuff, great to kick off the new year of 2020, even if it might sound even better with a full band playing it live on stage.