Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Stonus - Aphasia (2020)

Country: Cyprus
Style: Stoner Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 6 Mar 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

As if we needed any more proof that heavy stoner/doom rock is alive and well and continuing to spread across the globe, here are Stonus, who are Cypriots from Nicosia, even though they've apparently been based in London since 2018 and they recorded the album in Greece. This is killer stuff, six tracks that take us on a psychedelic trip that's bookended rather nicely.

Awake starts things out heavy and betrays a lot of influences. There's blues here, especially in the midsection, and it's psychedelic blues with a really good mix. There's space rock here too, the song often sounding like Hawkwind but without all the synths. Just to make it even more interesting, it's also about as sleazy as I've ever heard stoner rock get. The genre is versatile.

And it needs to be on a thematic concept album like this one. Aphasia is the inability to understand words not because they're not known but because the brain has forgotten how to connect them with their meaning. This album is an attempt to "imitate the mental disorder in a more spiritual and personal perception".

The title track is a little clearer because that's an Ozzy vocal through and through, though the music backing it doesn't play in the expected territory of early Black Sabbath. Sure, it's heavy and doomladen but it doesn't feel like an homage at all. It's more like what a different band might have done in 1970 or 1971 if they'd had the same influences as Sabbath but chose to go in a slightly different direction.

And then it gets really interesting because Mania gets all patient. This one absolutely captivated me, kicking off with a liquid guitar that's relatively standard for stoner rock but then pausing suddenly and beautifully as a hint for the rest of the band to crunch in all together. Rather than finding one riff to build the song, it quietens down massively and goes dreamlike first. While it does ramp up late with some excellent soloing, Mania is as notable for what it doesn't do as what it does.

Fortunately, Nadir, the longest track on offer at eight and a half minutes, follows suit. It starts out with a guitar mimicking Pink Floyd electronica, then moves into a stoner chillout zone that somehow remains a little chill even as it escalates into something more powerful. When the vocals show up, we suddenly realise how long we've been without them, this band being just as effective instrumentally as when Kyriacos Frangoulis exercises his voice. There's certainly some Sabbath here this time out, but the trippiest Sabbath you can imagine.

If you think we might be missing the riffs, Stonus add plenty back on Dead End, but the vocals stay in that hallucinatory trip mindset. There's also an effect applied to them that makes them seem closer to the guitar. Depending on how deep we've dived into this, that proximity in tone adds another level to the psychedelic nature of the trip. The frantic harmonics towards the end are cool too.

And that leaves Ghost Town to take us home by combining the Ozzy vocals from Aphasia with the chillout trip of Nadir, over a very Sabbath-esque bass line from Andreas Aristides. Eventually it ends up back in Hawkwind territory, a driving trip but again without any synths to space it out. We're almost back where we started and that's a great moment to just let the album play again.

I believe this is the debut full length for Stonus, though they've put out a couple of EPs, Lunar Eclipse in 2018 and a single called Sweetspot late last year. Given how excellent this is, I'm eager to check those out while I wait for the band's follow up to Aphasia.

Smouldering in Forgotten - Invictus Mortem (2020)

Country: Bahrain
Style: Black/Death Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 1 Mar 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter | YouTube

The best way to highlight what Smouldering in Forgotten sound like may be to explain where their name came from. They were happily going about their days under the name of Bleached Bones until deciding in 2005 to rename to a lyric from Upon This Deathbed of Cold Fire from the debut Goatwhore album. It does make my heart glad to realise that Goatwhore, one of my favourite band names of all time and an excellent live act, are known well enough in the Kingdom of Bahrain to prompt a local band to rename in homage.

If you don't know Goatwhore, their style is blackened death metal with some elements of thrash. Smouldering in Forgotten are similar but darker, warmer and with Mardus's vocals far more consistently death than Goatwhore's black, oddly given that they seem to have started out as a black metal outfit. I'd suggest that they have better production as well but then I realised how it blows out the extremes for the sake of volume and so it distorts annoyingly often. Instead I'll just praise the mix, however it got output. Of course, you can never be sure with anything that touches on black metal if the bad production is deliberate to "keep it real".

When it stays within available amplitude, I like the sound here and I prefer the deeper vocal style, which is old school death metal. The instrumentation tends to build a backing wall of sound, over which the guitars embellish and riff and the vocals rumble. There's not much variety here but there are some interesting points, like the middle eastern flavour early in Tartarus that I wish had emerged more often, and the philosophising about the rise and fall of civilisations that closes out the album.

Generally speaking, I prefer the longer songs here. The average Smouldering in Forgotten song runs five minutes and change and features much of the same result. As if to suggest that they need more room to work, the longer songs bring a little more to bear. My favourite here is Lord of Venom, a seven and a half minute epic. After that, I'd probably plump for Of Chains and Crowns, which runs almost seven minutes if we cut out the long sample. It's notable that these songs don't do anything special that the other ones don't except breathe more. The riffs feel stronger for it and the slower moments feel all the more ominous for it.

Excepting Of Chains and Crowns, which closes out the album, it's the trio of tracks at its heart that impress the most. Lord of Venom kicks them off and Tartarus wraps them up. Inside those bookends is My Pyre Awaits, which could well be the fastest and most blistering piece here and the closest we get to a black metal song. Busac is a whirlwind behind the drums and both the bass and guitars get memorable runs for Hussam and Voidhanger respectively.

There are a couple of earlier Smouldering in Forgotten albums, Legions into Black Flames and I, Devourer, though they're surprisingly old, having been released in 2007 and 2010. I don't believe the band ever ceased to be but it seems that this is the band's first new material in a decade.

I like it but I don't like it as much as I should for "first new material in a decade". I ought to feel the hunger of a band who finally find themselves back in the studio and can't wait to lay down ten years worth of writing and honing and finessing. I don't think they sound tired and they're all clearly talented musicians but, sadly, I don't think they sound remotely as hungry as they should.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Pure Wrath - The Forlorn Soldier (2020)

Country: Indonesia
Style: Atmospheric Black Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 6 Mar 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

Pure Wrath is another one man project, this time from Indonesia, and the one man is Januaryo Hardy, who does everything here except the drums, which come courtesy of Yurii Kononov, formerly of White Ward and currently of a host of varied bands, and the piano on the opening track, which is by Dice Midyanti. It's Hardy's fourth release as Pure Wrath, following two albums and a split release with French symphonic black metal band Onirism, and it counts as an EP, even though it generously runs almost half an hour.

It's also very good indeed. I've listened through a few times and every time it shocks me by ending so quickly and I realise all over again just how much it sucked me in. There are only three songs on offer, ranging from seven up to ten minutes, but they're so immersive that they feel like five apiece. If I have a complaint, it's in the mix of the drums, which are excellent but a little buried in the mix. The piano works well down there, because it teases and we pay extra attention to hear it. The vocals are buried to exactly the right level too, but I'd have liked a crisper drum sound.

The piano gets overt at the end of When a Great Man Dies, underpinning what I presume is a voice sample of someone who was involved in or affected by the subject of the album, which is the genocide that began in Indonesia in 1965 as an anti-communist purge after a failed coup and became so much more, leaving a million dead and setting up the New Order of Suharto in power for the next three decades. Maybe it's a late recording of Sukarno, the deposed president, who was placed into house arrest until his death.

I've read that this bloody period is little talked about in Indonesia, due to being suppressed by the government, so it's good for it to see a little light on this album, even if I have no idea what the lyrics happen to be. I did catch odd bits here and there, enough to believe that they're delivered in English but not enough to have a clue about what they cover. I'd like to read those lyrics, just as I'd like to know who's speaking in that sample.

Atmospheric black metal is a fantastic genre to explore this sort of subject matter. hardy and Kononov create a powerful wall of sound that's impossible to ignore, just like the mass murder of one per cent of the population would be. It's hard and mostly fast until, at certain key moments like one midway through With Their Names Engraved, it all suddenly stops and we're calm in the eye of the storm wondering what's still going on out there while it's so peaceful here inside. After that moment of peace, the last couple of minutes are melancholy, with an almost choral dirge, as we come to terms with what's just happened.

What impressed me most, beyond this structuring, is how the guitars retain a melodic line even at ludicrous speed. One of the benefits of being a one man band is that every part you play has to be recorded separately and, once you get into that mindset, it's no great stretch to add further layers. As this album has such a dense sound, I can't say how many guitar layers Hardy added but much of the album obviously features a backing layer to maintain density and a lead layer for surprisingly patient melodic riffing.

I liked this a lot on a first listen and I liked it all the more after a few times through. I look forward to seeing what else Hardy has done, whether as Pure Wrath or one of his many other bands. He also provides everything for a brutal death project called Perverted Dexterity and a post-black one called Lament, among a host of others. He shows a lot of versatility here and that is never a bad thing when you play in multiple genres.

Silent Tiger - Ready for Attack (2020)

Country: Honduras
Style: Melodic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 21 Feb 2020
Sites: Facebook

Ready for Attack, whether the song or the album, is hardly the most original music ever released. If you're a fan of the genre and tried to come up with ten quintessential song titles, you'd come pretty close to the ones on this album. Fortunately, that's the last negative thing I'm going to say about it because this is a quality release from a band that's based in the Honduras with a session vocalist who's apparently everywhere at the moment.

They start out reasonably heavy with that title track, but Chasing the Wind adds a more prominent keyboard sound and we're grounded in what Silent Tiger are going to bring us for the next forty minutes. This song starts out with a decent eighties metal riff, layers in keyboards and then strong vocals on top of everything. David Cagle's voice is definitely at the top of the mix, even if I'd have liked Jean Funes's guitars to be as far up there with him, especially because the songwriting seem to value both equally.

Most of the information I can find on the band revolves around the line-up, Cagle being a prolific session vocalist perhaps best known in melodic rock circles for Northrup Cagle, LastWorld and Marty and the Bad Punch. Funes and drummer Joel Mejia play in Hearts on Fire, with Funes also cited for Sound of Eternity and Mejia for Codigo Eterno. I haven't heard any of these bands though I'm far more likely to seek each of them out after enjoying this album. I think this also means that this is the debut for Silent Tiger.

Their Facebook page does list influences, which are surprisingly heavier for the most part than we might expect having heard the album. Sure, that's very recognisably a Def Leppard riff in Only Heartbreak but the rest of the song, like the others here, is much more grounded in AOR bands like Foreigner, REO Speedwagon and Journey. Unannounced, Tearing Me Apart could play on my local classic rock station without anyone realising that it wasn't a contemporary of Wheel in the Sky or Feels Like the First Time.

While Tearing Me Apart may well be the best song here, Come to Me sounds just as quintessential, including every component of a successful AOR song: power riff, driving beat and heartfelt vocals, but also a layer of keyboards that keeps us from ever thinking that it's too heavy for daytime radio. Then Edge of Love follows it up with more of the same but with more imaginative drums. The most fun riff is surely on the closer, Eyes of a Blazing Fire. Frankly, had this album been released in the heyday of AOR, it would have featured at least four or five singles and been heavily rotated on mainstream radio.

If, I should add, that the powers that be didn't realise that they were from the Honduras, because I always believed that there was an unwritten rule to require all AOR bands to be perceived as American, even if they were really Canadian and regardless of how many Brits were in their line-ups. If nobody owned up, though, then Silent Tiger would have got away with it because, if David Cagle isn't actually American, he sure sounds like it. The whole album is certainly sung in English and without an accent.

The best album I've heard this month is a melodic rock album, from Canada's Harem Scarem, and, while this isn't as good as that remarkable gem, it's an album worth mentioning in the same breath. There are similarities in style, consistency and quality. Also both albums are worth listening to a few times with different focuses.

Listen to this without a focus, letting the songs introduce themselves. Then listen again with special attention to Cagle's voice and how his hooks drive the melody. Then shift your focus to Funes's guitar to see how he grounds it all with his riffs and elevates it with his solos. Then ditch the focus and see how it washes over you as an old friend. It's a strong album, even if it isn't particularly original.

Monday, 23 March 2020

Chris Poland - Resistance (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Fusion
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 13 Mar 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

If you only know the name of Chris Poland from old Megadeth albums, this may come as quite the surprise, not least when rapper Rhymefest starts to do his thing on opener, Battle Bots. No, this isn't a rap album, it's a solo guitar album and Poland works through a heck of a lot of styles over a dozen songs, most of them entirely instrumental. And no, it's not remotely like his first solo album, Return to Metalopolis, either, because that was shred. This is a fusion album at heart, even if it gets heavy at points.

If you're an older school rock fan with at least a few Jeff Beck albums in your collection, you'll immediately see a similarity. For all that a couple of songs do have vocals on them, this isn't about writing songs. It's about exploring what the guitar can do within a framework that non-guitarists can appreciate too. And, for the most part it works, because the guitar can do a heck of a lot and Poland has fun underlining that here.

I didn't know until reading up on him that he used to play jazz fusion with drummer Gar Samuelson even before the pair of them joined Megadeth. That he went back to it after Megadeth and a brief stint on bass in the Circle Jerks shouldn't be too surprising. He's recorded a bunch of albums with OHM and a joint project between OHM and Umphrey's McGee called OHMphrey.

After that fascinating opener, Poland gets heavy for a little while with The Kid and I Have No Idea, jazz fusion numbers with a lot of bass and a soaring guitar. He gets older school later with Sunday, the sort of accessible track that Tommy Vance would have spoken over in between blocks on The Friday Rock Show. The album wraps with a couple of jazzier songs, Maiden Voyage and Song for Brad, that are more for the die hards.

My favourite tracks ably serve to highlight the variety and versatility that is on offer here. Moonchild kicks off quiet and melodic, then, as the drums stay slow, Poland's guitar gets all bluesy and wild like a hair metal guitar solo. If it goes with half a dozen notes where one would usually do the job, Django flips that around and aims for a sparse but exquisitely beautiful Roy Buchanan approach. It's delicate and

And, hey, if you haven't heard of Roy Buchanan before, go and check out any version you can find on YouTube of The Messiah Will Come Again. I'm happy to be your introduction! Guitar playing isn't just about notes and how fast you can play them, it's about tone and emotion and dynamics and finding magical sounds that have never been played before that people will still be talking about decades on from your performance. I'm not saying that Poland nabs any of them here but he's certainly looking and Django is the piece in which he looks the most.

I'd also suggest that Django is the song where the backing musicians get the most to do beyond just supporting whatever Poland's doing. Billy Dickens is the bassist on everything else, but it's Kevin Woods Guin on this one, with co-producer Jim Gifford on drums and, I believe, David Taylor on the second guitar. It's easy to get lost in Poland's performance but kudos to the rest of the band on this one too.

As I mentioned earlier, if you like Jeff Beck's solo albums, you should like this too. The opener notwithstanding, it's not either as ambitious or as experimental as what Beck's done lately, but it ought to play well with his older albums. If you've never heard solo Jeff Beck and have no idea what jazz fusion is, I would suggest that this is as good a place as any to start.

Boneweaver - The Long Way Down (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Mar 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

Here's an interesting debut of what's almost a one man band. Tristan Feilla is the main man here, responsible for the vocals, guitars, bass and most of the keyboard work. Excepting a couple of guest musicians who show up for a song each, the only other person involved is Mark Stewart, who took care of the drums, as well as the mixing and mastering of the album.

It's a carefully constructed album because there's a great deal of dynamic play going on and not just because of the shorter delicate interludes which sit between songs. Even a song as pumped up as the opener, White Knuckles, has a lot going on within it, if not as much as later ones like Bloodlines or Leavings of the Wolf. White Knuckles is an appropriate title because of how much effort Feilla puts into it. He throws everything he can into those vocals and, while he's certainly more polished as a guitarist than he is as a singer, I can't fault him for effort.

It's Bloodlines, the next full song on offer and the longest to be found on the album, that really shows us how much Feilla plans to play with dynamics. It's quiet and introspective one moment, then raucous and driving the next. There are emphatic vocals here too, but quieter, more controlled singing as well. What's more, Feilla layers his contributions so that, not only does he vary his delivery as the song grows, but sometimes there are multiple styles ongoing at once, like a shouty lead backed with an almost soothing backing.

While the music here is intricate metal, Feilla clearly listens to a lot of hardcore or the shouty modern metal that adopted that vocal style, because it's his default mode when not varying for effect. I'm not generally a fan of that shouty style but I think it works here because it's a logical stop on a scale of dynamics that ranges from soft up to very hard indeed. Clean vocals wouldn't work at that extreme without this turning into something it isn't and I get the decision to go with shouts over growls.

All that said, it's fair to say I prefer the music to the vocals. This is a prog metal album rather than metalcore and there's a heck of a lot going on in the instrumentation. I particularly like Leavings of the Wolf, because of the sheer range that it explores and the fact that it does so appropriately, without stretching the song beyond its natural limits. There are solo vocal sections that carry a lot of atmosphere to echo the cover art, intricate and heavy guitar sections and a lot of interesting bass work too. It feels a lot more epic than 4:19 ought to allow it to be.

Really, all these songs are epics that just seem shorter because the intros to them are labelled separately. Bloodlines is a couple of minutes longer if we include L'appel du vide, which sits before it; Leavings of the Wolf would be almost seven minutes if we count in Fourth Birch; and Depths would sneak over that mark with Empty Sky factored into its running time. This might seem like a minor gripe but it fundamentally shifts how we see the album. Right now, it's eleven short songs over less than three quarters of an hour, but a shift in perspective makes it five long songs and White Knuckles as a guide.

The more I listen to it, the more engaging it becomes. It's a good album if we treat it in isolation. It's an even better one if we acknowledge that it was almost entirely created by one man and it marks his debut in the studio. With that in mind, Feilla is clearly someone to watch, even by someone like me who isn't that fond of shouty vocals. Let's see what he conjures up next.

Friday, 20 March 2020

My Dying Bride - The Ghost of Orion (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Doom/Death Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 6 Mar 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I can't just walk straight into a My Dying Bride album. I usually find that the most effective way to approach such a creature is to pour the thing over me slowly so that I can acclimatise to their exquisite sound. As usual, the first half hour or so washed off and away from me, but the sheer majesty of The Long Black Land stuck and captured me utterly and I lost the next couple of hours to the band.

This is their lucky thirteenth album, thirty years into their career, and it lush. Only Andrew Craighan and Aaron Stainthorpe are still on board from the beginning and the former provides all the guitarwork here, because new fish Neil Blanchett didn't join until the album was done. It's also the first to feature Jeff Singer, formerly of Paradise Lost, behind the drumkit. Bassist Lena Abé has been with the band for over a decade now, as has Shaun MacGowan on keyboards and violin.

The band's sound has always remained identifiably theirs even with a musical shift or three over the years. This is emphatically doom metal but with some death on the side, Stainthorpe shifting to death growls at points on quite a few songs. The gothic metal aspect The gothic metal aspect mostly manifests through the violin and guest cello from Jo Quail, which provide an elegance that fits the relentless slow pace. Every note is chosen as carefully as the lacquer on a magahony Victorian box or the polish on a brass fitting.

The album breaks into sections for me. The first includes three songs, which include the two singles thus far, but oddly it's the least worthy section to me. Sure, it simply reeks of anguish and can't be ignored but, compared with what comes later, it sounds like an excellent band warming up. The interlude between this and the second half is The Solace, an even more emotional piece that's entirely bereft of bass or drums. It's entirely solo guitar, if never guitar solos, and it's directed by the guest folk vocals of Lindy-Fay Hella.

And then we get serious. After half an hour or so, my breathing had slowed to match the music as if I was entering a meditative state and it's here in The Long Black Land that I fell fully into sync. It starts well with Quail's cello and a slower pace even than before, teases at speed with a neat churn or two and adds emphasis with a death growl from Stainthorpe. But then the midsection truly captured me.

I'm writing this in self-isolation due to COVID-19 but this transported me somewhere where I felt truly alone (but on board with that). The keyboards set the scene and the guitar and cello decorate it. The drums, at the point when they show up, tease exquisitely. Two minutes later, the full band crash the scene with utter majesty and take me slowly home. This is precisely what "power and glory" is meant to describe. The second half of this song made me feel like I was immortal and, only when it suddenly ends, was I shaken back to mortality.

The Long Black Land is a second shy of ten minutes and The Old Earth nudges just over that mark, kicking in with more folk before turning it way up with some exquisite crescendoing. It's preceded by an interesting title track, an elegant set of whispers with acoustic guitar accompaniment that allows us a moment to recover from the previous song and prepare ourselves for the next. It's followed by a choral outro.

And we briefly quantify our state of being before launching right back into the album again to find that Your Broken Shore is a grower. As tends to be the case with My Dying Bride, I look forward to many hours getting to truly know this album. It's a safe 8/10 for now. Let's see if raise that later.

Voodoo Six - Simulation Game (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 6 Mar 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

No less a luminary than Steve Harris of Iron Maiden has been "keeping an eye on" Voodoo Six and it seems like he's become something of a godfather to the band over the years. They've already supported Maiden in Europe and they're about to support British Lion on tour in December. Then again, Tony Newton, bassist and co-founder of the band is Maiden's live sound guy.

Now, I reviewed the British Lion album earlier this year, with Harris on bass, but I think I like this more. It's clearly hard rock rather than heavy metal, even if the opening riff to The Traveller is a little reminiscent of an Anthrax mosh part. The band formed in 2003, so they're hardly new, and this is their sixth album so far. Alongside longterm members Newton, drummer Joe Lazarus and Matt Pearce on one of two guitars, they've added Tom Gentry of Gun on the second, and a new lead vocalist, Nik Taylor-Stoakes.

What impresses me here is that, even with so many connections, they aren't a clone of Iron Maiden at all. In fact, they aren't a clone of anyone that I'm able to conjure up. There are obvious influences but they're merged well and none of the songs really sound like anyone else. And here I should highlight that Simulation Game is emphatically an album of two halves that are further apart than we might expect if we only listen to one or the other.

I adored the first half. I caught hints of Maiden in some of the dual guitar breaks, but also hints of Led Zeppelin and even Jethro Tull, among a variety of others. The influences are generally from the seventies and eighties and primarily British, but these songs sound apart from anything else I've heard from the New Wave of Classic Rock thus far. I heard different people in the vocals of Taylor-Stoakes too, most overtly Sean Harris of Diamond Head but also a lot of David Coverdale and even Chris Cornell.

Overall, I think the biggest vibe I got here was Diamond Head, not because a single song sounds like them but because the general approach plays similar. Each song features a progression of different riffs that are often simple in themselves but add up to something complex when plugged together. The vocals play along with that, adding a more soulful layer over the top of the music. The biggest difference is in the density of the sound. Diamond Head like to stay stripped down and let the riffs speak for themselves. Voodoo Six prefer a denser sound that adds more texture, including what sounds like strings.

Only time will tell, of course, as to whether any of these songs gain iconic stature the way that so many of Diamond Head's have. The band sure give it a good shot though. The Traveller, the majestic Gone Forever (my favourite song here) and Inherit My Shadow are each really solid tracks on a first listen that get even better with a second and third. In between them, Liar and a Thief takes a bit more time to grow but I wonder if it's even better. Last to Know finishes off the first side well.

And my biggest problem with the album is that the second half doesn't build on that start but takes a wildly different approach. Instead of being rooted in classic rock and NWOBHM, with contemporary layers added, it's much more alternative in nature, albeit with far more strings. That Cornell influence becomes really overt on Lost and stays throughout the second half. Brake and Control clearly take their influence from the noughties and both feature the strings far too much for my tastes and in more intrusive ways: they add to The Traveller but detract from Control. The latter rocks more than Brake does, but all these songs feel grungier, American and more alternative.

There's also Never Beyond Repair, which is a ballad and the first song here to leave me entirely cold, but only One of Us really grabs me on the second half. And that leaves me in an odd place for a rating. The first half is an easy 9/10 for me, some of the best songs I've heard this month. The second, however, is more like a 6/10 with some of it lower, so I think I'm going to have to even out to a 7/10. That's going to rankle with me, though, so I'll plan to come back to this in a week or so and see if I want to bounce it up a notch.

Thursday, 19 March 2020

Waltari - Global Rock (2020)

Country: Finland
Style: Alternative
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Mar 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

The boundaries of rock opened up a lot in the nineties and there may not be a better example of a band who embraced that than Waltari. Their 1992 album Torcha! ran the gamut from rap to speed metal, a former punk band covering Madonna, and they've only expanded on their musical tastes since then. This is very much for the open minded, so much so that some of this goes too far even for me.

Case in point: opening number Postrock, which combines crunchy metal guitar and autotune, the oddest combination of styles I can imagine. Metalheads are not always averse to other genres of music, even chart pop, Billie Eilish a surprising name on a lot of metal lips nowadays. But rock music generally is based in live performance and autotune is anathema to that mentality. I'm a hater of autotune myself because it sounds awful to me on anything but the most abstract electronica. I don't like this song because of it.

That said, it's only used for effect on this one song and not throughout it, while the rest of Postrock sets the stage for a lot of what's to come on the rest of the album. This is pop music but it's metal music and there's enough of each to underline both. The choruses here are pure pop but the backing is metal and the midsection is as far from pop as it gets, with duelling guitar solos and prog phrasing. We're not in Kansas any more, Toto.

The question is whether such a wide variety of styles can co-exist within a single song because Waltari don't merely alternate heavier songs with light ones, they combine those styles within songs. They mostly confine themselves to the pop/rock/metal spectrum, so they're not as wild as, say, Mr. Bungle, but they often bring Faith No More and Babymetal to mind. I'd especially say the latter because of the frequent use of pop vocals, often saccharine ones, over a metal backdrop. The latter is more obvious in the shifts of style not only within songs but sometimes, as with Metal Soul, within lines.

Wikipedia currently tags Waltari as avant-garde metal, alternative metal and progressive metal, but I think they need to reevaluate that given how much a lot of songs depart entirely from metal here. Skyline is the extreme here, a song that kicks off with AOR phrasing, then adds a little heavy guitar for a moment before a fundamental shift to hip hop over electronica, finding a pop chorus within a minute. It's not really my thing but it is done well and I'm not going to rail against it the way I did the autotune on Postrock.

What it does is variety and it does it well, just as do so many other songs here. No Sacrifice starts out like a churning Slayer number with vocals that range from Rage Against the Machine to Ozzy Osbourne; halfway through, it's all symphonic before that Slayer riff kicks back in. Sick 'n' Tired reminds of Oasis with less of an accent until it grows into a Peter Gabriel number. Going Up the Country is a popped up blues song, a sort of Spirit in the Sky type spiritual chant but remixed by a DJ. Orleans kicks off with a driving metal riff in the vein of Accept but adds in some electronic woops and some country blues slide. There's a lot here.

The wildest song may well be Boots, which shifts from an R&B influenced acid intro to an arena metal number rather like the Scorpions, before becoming a sort of cross between a rave and an aerobics routine. And yes, the title is referring to the Nancy Sinatra song, These Boots are Made for Walking, which is re-interpreted for the chorus, even though this isn't a cover of that or the Megadeth take on it. It's remix culture gone wild.

The most varied songs are the most interesting ones here, though it'll take an open mind to appreciate all of them. What gets me most isn't the variety but the lack of acknowledgement of what's cool and what isn't. That may well be what impresses me most here, because Waltari aren't just mixing extremes, they're doing so in any way they want, even if it means incorporating arena rock, AOR or the nu metal that's all over The Way, even though it does get a little more older school as it grows.

The most forgettable songs are the ones that don't care to get remotely that imaginative. There are a lot of them here, thirteen full songs taking up an hour of play, so it shouldn't be too surprising that some of them are rather forgettable, especially towards the end. Sand Witch is easily the best late song with its transition from folk into power metal and post-punk.

All in all, this is a wild journey for anyone with the balls and the disdain for trendy labels that's required to really get it. I admired this more than I enjoyed it but there are still songs I wouldn't mind playing a lot. Kudos to Waltari for making something this interesting.

Feastem - Graveyard Earth (2020)

Country: Finland
Style: Grindcore
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 13 Mar 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | YouTube

Knowing I'd be reviewing the new Waltari album today, I looked for something as loud and raucous as possible to balance against it. Feastem looked like a great choice, given that they were formed in 2005 "to play the fastest, most pissed off grindcore imaginable". I wouldn't say that they succeeded but the band are certainly fast and pissed off, even if the quality of musicianship is high.

The downside is quickly obvious, if you'll forgive the pun. Feastem's fourth album is their shortest yet, over in under twenty minutes, which is way too short for an album. Just call it an EP instead, folks, or even a mini-album, anything to highlight that it's really short. Then again, their longest thus far, 2011's World Delirium, was still shorter than Reign in Blood, albeit a little closer. I'm docking a point here as a token complaint about length.

While I've seen both thrash metal and death metal associated with Feastem, I don't hear that here. This is old school punk played fast and ferociously to fit firmly in the grindcore category. There are no guitar solos. Every song here kicks off fast, finds a groove and explores it briefly before wrapping up. There are fourteen tracks here, only one of which makes it past the two minute mark. Two of them don't even get to a minute and the powerelectronics outro is longer at 1:14 than half of the actual songs. It's kind of like DOA on speed or early Discharge with more buried vocals.

Fortunately, the music is excellent. The band don't care about gimmickry, so there's no gore or porngrind here. They're more old school punk politicians, railing against the current state of world affairs, the title track being as telling right now as anything else I've heard during the COVID-19 pandemic. It's certainly pessimistic but, frankly, lyrics like "Mob mentality, a hive mind in frenzy, the corpse of civilization, the wreckage of hope" could have been written about my local Walmart this morning. Then again, that could be Walmart any day, pandemic or not.

Even if this is perfect music for those with attention deficit disorder, the songs don't get old. I enjoyed this as much, if not more, on my fifth listen as on my first. Certainly the riffs, which are all simple but effective, are surprisingly memorable for grindcore. I Will Never Kill manages to cram two such into a minute and both are so simple but so effective that I could well wake up in the morning with them playing in my head.

That's not to say that there aren't more ambitious musical elements here. I rather like Sortovalta, the first of five songs in Finnish, because the riff is rather like a call and response between drums and guitar. It sounds great and it doesn't sound like anything else here, highlighting a variety that I don't often hear in grindcore, where the in your face effect is the one and only point. No, you're not going to hear a sitar or a trombone or something else wildly adventurous for the genre, but you're not going to hear fourteen takes on the same song either.

For a start, while this is generally just as fast as you'd expect, there are songs here that slow down. The title track evolves nicely, benefitting from a whole two minutes and ten seconds of running time, more than anything else on the album. That's not typical, of course, but there are moments in a few other songs that highlight how Feastem don't need to spend all their time at a hundred miles an hour. Terror Balance has a neat section that's far slower than the rest of the song too.

I liked this, even if I wanted a lot more of it than Feastem were willing to give me. I reviewed a few albums last year that are longer than this band's entire back catalogue put together and that includes four albums, a couple of EPs and a couple more split singles. Remembering that Reign in Blood was released on cassette with the entire album on both sides, maybe Feastem can throw out a cassette version of Graveyard Earth with the entire album twice on both sides. I'd still listen through the whole thing.

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Crematory - Unbroken (2020)

Country: Germany
Style: Industrial Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 6 Mar 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I haven't listened to enough industrial metal but it's a subgenre that needs to grab me to work and I struggled with this one a lot. Crematory have been around since 1991 and this is their fifteenth studio album so they certainly don't sit around getting bored. "Music is an addiction, my first love and my religion," they sing on the title track, which opens the album. It's clearly autobiographical, as the "29 years and still alive" line vouches.

However, their sound has evolved a great deal since they began. Rather than simply changing, like so many bands do, they've added new genres into their core sound and never really got rid of the old ones. That's both successful and, well, not so successful for me, because there are bits that I like here and bits that ended up just annoying me.

They started out as a death metal band, a genre that's most obvious nowadays in the lead vocals of Gerhard Stass. He's oddly high in the mix, the backing music feeling a little subdued behind him, which is odd for industrial. The reason for that is probably because they've ended up close to the NDH sound of bands like Oomph! and Rammstein, who thrive on their vocal hooks.

From death metal, they grew into gothic metal and that's very obvious in the first few tracks. The title track has very little goth to it, but Awaits Me adds a lot, not least an accompanying clean vocal from Connie Andreszka, and Rise and Fall brings even more of that into play. There's also a melancholy piano that sits behind songs like Rise and Fall and leads its melody. I like these songs the most here and wonder about how the band sounded during their gothic metal years.

The biggest problem for me is that I started to enjoy the accompanying vocal a lot more than the lead. Stass sounds best for me when the music behind him is most aggressive and when he doesn't try to underline his growling. Behind the Wall is surely the best example of both, a hard driving industrial track with a good hook, a memorable chorus and a lot of electronica backing both, even a guitar solo that sounds like Rolf Munkes is standing on a gantry with sparks launching off his guitar in all directions. The Downfall fits that as well, with a Sisters of Mercy type drive to it.

However, when the music gets less emphatic, Stass seems to want to push his growling style further and it doesn't work for me the way he clearly wants it to. My Dreams Have Died is a great example, because it almost seems like Stass is a death metal fan doing karaoke to a generic industrial song. when Andreszka chimes in, I realised how much I missed him. He didn't need to add his voice to Behind the Wall at all but I was happy when he returned on The Kingdom and especially here.

I wondered about whether he could lead an industrial band on his own because his voice is much more subtle than Stass's: warm and rich but not remotely as dominant as we might expect with industrial; he felt more suited to prog goth. By the time we get to songs like Inside My Heart and Voices, though, I became sold on him as the lead with Stass serving as texture. Like the Tides wraps things up with only his voice and it worked for me.

While Stass's vocals were the biggest problem for me, the album also runs a lot longer than it should. It's a very generous release, with fifteen songs totalling over an hour, and that's before we factor in the bonus disc. It's a lot of music, and all credit to the band for being that generous, but the uninitiated like me are likely to find it too much. There's not really much here that isn't covered definitively in the first eight or nine tracks. The album could have jumped from The Downfall almost to the end and miss out six or seven tracks without losing any of its impact.

I often end my reviews by saying that I want to dive into a band's previous albums. Usually that's because I enjoyed myself enough to just want more. On this occasion, it's to find out how Crematory's sound evolved because I have a feeling I'm going to like them more a few albums ago.

Noir Reva - Continuance (2020)

Country: Germany
Style: Post-Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 6 Mar 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram

I still don't have a firm grasp on what post-rock is, beyond the fundamental idea of creating soundscapes with traditional rock instruments, but I love a lot of what I'm hearing. Case in point: Noir Reva, a post-rock band who hail from Koblenz in Germany. They sound like they play electronic music but I'm reasonably sure that, if there are any actual keyboards in use here (surely the intro to They Do Exist proves that there are), they really aren't doing anywhere as near as much as we might think.

While Fiowia and Skyward open up proceedings with major emphasis, the quiet parts mostly serving as an underline to the more overt ones, this album does settle down as it goes until it's a sort of upbeat jangly ambience for quite a while, but with depth to it like all the best electronic music. Fiowia is the most overt rock song here with Skyward the most contrasted, its peaceful midsection leading into an agreeably dark conclusion.

My favourite song is easily Goraiko, which starts out much like it could be an instrumental post-rock cover of a wildly famous pop song I've never heard before. It grows and evolves as it goes, out of a vague sense of familiarity and into a voyage of discovery. The cover art fits this song because I could imagine starting it on those steps where I might have chatted with no end of people for years but ending it somewhere on the other side of those trees, where I've never previously been but which I'm better for now having visited.

While much of this album, as with much post-rock, could be the soundtrack to an imaginary film or book or video game, the most perky sections, like the beginning to Goraiko, sound rather like a better version of what we hear on YouTube compilations of fantastic football goals. I usually put those videos on mute because I don't want their generic and unimaginitive scores when I want commentary but I'd certainly leave the sound on if music like this was used instead, because it's far from generic and it's full of imagination.

While parts of this would work on videos like that, much of the album would not because it doesn't stay perky and upbeat. Come Back Apollo has darkness woven throughout, the jangling becoming somewhat melancholy. I don't know if Apollo ever plans to come back but, from the tone of this song, I doubt the band believe he will. I'm not sure what the subject matter of They Do Exist is but it's menacing enough in the midsection to count as the discovery of a suppressed alien invasion.

It's songs like They Do Exist that really highlight what post-rock does, as it could have been created entirely using synths but I'm assuming that that isn't a drum machine and those are guitars and a bass. It's an odd idea, to conjure up electronica-esque soundscapes with traditional rock instruments, but I'm really digging it and Noir Reva sound very good to me, soothing but with an underlying sense of menace.

There seem to be four gentlemen in the band, but I can't find details of the roles they play, beyond being songwriters. The other key information that I can provide is that this appears to be their second album, after a 2016 full length called Nuance, a title that could easily have been applied here too. It was a little shorter and the songs on it were a little shorter too, but I would like to hear it to see how the band have progressed.

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

Vulcano - Eye in Hell (2020)

Country: Brazil
Style: Death/Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 13 Mar 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

If I mention Brazil in conjunction with extreme metal, most of you are going to think Sepultura, but they weren't the only band doing that sort of thing in the early days because there was a major scene growing there back in the early eighties. Other pioneers included Dorsal Atlântica, Sarcófago and this band, Vulcano, who were formed in São Paulo in 1980 as Astaroth, changing to Vulcano the following year. They found their style in 1984, playing a hybrid of black, death and thrash metal that still feels proto-extreme today three and a half decades on.

While they only split up for five years in the early nineties, this is only their eleventh album, their first since 2016's confusingly titled XIV. It's good old-fashioned extreme metal, reminding often of early Slayer and Celtic Frost, which is no bad mix, especially when you add in some Teutonic thrash. I haven't heard Vulcano in a long while, so I'm out of date in what they've been doing. I'm not seeing great ratings on their last few albums but this certainly seems decent to me.

It's far from the most original album I've ever heard, but there's a hunger in the sound that I really like and an excellent production job that renders an almost live in my office feel. I really like that too and a blisterer of an opener like Bride of Satan to kick things off in old school Slayer style doesn't hurt either. Neither does the Teutonic vocals on Cursed Babylon. It all starts out great, with decent riffs, strong churns and excellent solos.

Its biggest problem is that it isn't particularly varied and, even where it is, the album's structure prevents us from seeing that in any big picture. A pairing of Evil Empire with its slower mantra-like Celtic Frost guitars and the up tempo Struggling Besides Satan with its frantic vocals that struggle to keep up with the music is worthy variety, but that's about it. We get the same sort of pairings throughout the album and not much else. Most of these songs are variations on the same styles.

Its biggest success is that the raw and live sound feels great and none of the songs outstay their welcome. Sure, part of that is because they're all short, with only one of thirteen tracks making it past the four minute mark and five of them lasting less than three. That makes this a real blitzkrieg release, one that ramps up early and sustains at least one of a holy trinity of speed, heaviness and intensity throughout, if not more than one at once.

What all that boils down to is that, if you're into that old school extreme sound but want to hear it recorded in a studio with modern technology, this is a great choice. We can even hear the bass, especially within songs like Dealer of My Curses, where it gets its own moment in the spotlight, or with songs like Inferno, where it rumbles along gloriously underneath everything else.

However, it doesn't deliver anything that you haven't heard before, making this more of a completist purchase for the diehards than a discovery moment for the curious. Now, if the latter do find it and love it, that's fantastic and it'll work well as a starting point for an exploration of the genre. The more discovery that curious listener does, though, the more this will vanish into the background.

This is one of those albums I'll give a 7/10 for being thoroughly enjoyable in a style that I love but should drop a point for people who don't share a passion for this sort of thing.

Aridonia - Aridonia (2020)

Country: Argentina
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Feb 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

I love how flexible genres can be nowadays. Case in point: how can we place a band like Aridonia into just one pigeonhole? Quick answer: we can't. Just listening to the first track on this, their debut album, I hear it drifting through half a dozen different genres, though the flow is entirely natural.

It's Abismos and it starts out as a soothing, hypnotic and psychedelic rock song. When the fuzzy guitars join in and the vocals get more raucous, we're firmly in stoner rock territory. Then we get all prog with intricate changes and even an ethnic section. The bass of Tomas Longombardo gets some welcome runs during the middle of the song. And the end slows down considerably and heavies up, with a nod towards doom or sludge metal.

I don't know if there's a particular lyrical vision behind the song because Aridonia are from Argentina and sing in Spanish. Google Translate isn't much of a help on this, perhaps because the lyrics are abstract or colloquial. It looks like they're talking about a journey through time and past lives, but I visualised it as a trip down into the depths of the ocean, Abismos meaning Abysses, with the colour of the song representing the weird and wonderful at serious depths and the heaviness representing the weight of the water.

Fantasmagoria is an odd follow-up because the otherworldly images I conjured up from the opener continue but it kicks off with a riff that's reminiscent of Metallica's Frantic, of all things. While Robert Trujillo would leap into bass runs like Longombardo gets here, the rest of that band have become part of the mainstream and we can only attempt to imagine them doing something as interesting as this.

I won't be much of a surprise for a band who delve into both psych and prog, but Fantasmagoria is the shortest song here and it's still over five minutes in length. Abismos is the longest at over nine and it doesn't feel remotely too long. These songs are as long as they need to be and no longer, even at seven or eight minutes.

With the band tight and constantly interesting, the weak spot for me is the vocals which aren't bad but are rough and would fit better on a dirty blues album. The singer is Fernando Echenique, who is also one of two guitarists, so I'd bet money that he thinks of himself as a guitarist who also sings not a singer who also plays. Oddly, when the band get closest to dirty blues, as they do at points on La serpiente y la manzana, he doesn't sing much, though he fits perfectly when he does.

Echenique's voice brings a down to earth garage rock sound to the band which would otherwise seem trippier and more detached from reality. This is music to accompany you during astral travel or on some sort of heroic psychedelic trip. It's often dark but it's always warm, so it's an interesting companion rather than a dangerous one. Its presence is comforting but it does too many imaginative things for us to relax, so we can't and don't want to ignore it. It's almost like a conversation, though I have no idea what I'm contributing to that.

I don't think anything here approaches the majesty of Abismos, but this is a rather immersive album, enough so that I listened three or four times before putting virtual pen to paper. It's easy to get lost in the second half, with Magia negra particularly magnetic but that feeling continuing on through Oda a la memoria and Leviatán for a twenty minute chunk of solid trip.

I should add that I only have a little Spanish, but I could figure out all these song titles without online help (except for one, "manzana", which is "apple", so meaning that La serpiente y la manzana is presumably Biblical). The only bit I'm stuck on is what Aridonia means, because I'm not seeing a reference or a translation, so maybe they just made it up.

Monday, 16 March 2020

Harem Scarem - Change the World (2020)

Country: Canada
Style: Melodic/Hard Rock
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 6 Mar 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

I vaguely remember Harem Scarem from the hallowed pages of Kerrang! back in the day but, even though they had formed as early as 1987, they didn't put an album out until 1991, when grunge was ascendant and polished melodic rock was firmly relegated to the niches and, in the case of Harem Scarem, to the soundtrack of Degrassi Junior High. If this sixteenth studio album (if we're including a few released under the name of Rubber in some markets) is a good introduction to the band, then I've seriously been missing out.

They're a melodic rock band at heart but with hard rock edges and they sound very smooth and very catchy. There are more hooks here than in your average bait shop but there's a thump behind the vocals and guitars that prevents it all from getting soft. What's most important is that, unlike a whole slew of the melodic rock albums I listened to back in the eighties that had a couple of radio-friendly songs and a bunch of filler, there isn't a song here that could be described as average, let alone poor or bad.

Change the World has a jaunty guitar to open up, hinting at an Irish jig. It calms down to a peach of a singalong chorus. You and I are apparently going to change the world and I'm suddenly believing it. I believed it even more a couple of songs later because Aftershock and Searching for Meaning are sheer class in under four minutes each. As I couldn't figure out which one I liked most, I'll just highly recommend both of them.

The two key players here are Harry Hess and Pete Lesperance, who co-founded the band and have only left it for four years or so when the various members decided to indulge in solo and other projects. Hess provides the vocals and keyboards, while Lesperance handles all the guitarwork. Both are stellar on this album, which may have a little more focus on the vocals but only just, because whenever Hess steps back from the mike, Lesperance is there to pick up the slack with his guitar.

I'm not sure who else is involved, because the band's website doesn't appear to want to share anything newer than 2009 about the line-up. Let's just say that Stan Miczek may be playing bass and it may be Creighton Doane on drums, but that's unconfirmed. Maybe the rest of the band are session musicians, as may be appropriate given that both instruments are both utterly reliable and utterly unwilling to take the spotlight here.

The eleven tracks on offer are incredibly consistent, so you can pick any of them on YouTube as a sampler. If you dig it, you should probably just go out and buy this right now. If you don't, then this isn't for you and you're not going to get convinced by anything else on the album.

There are some slight variations. The Death of Me and Fire & Gasoline are heavier when they want to be. Mother of Invention begins softer and a little more prog. No Man's Land starts out a bit more alternative and edgy. In the Unknown features a slightly more hoarse vocal for effect. No Me without You is more overtly emotional. Riot in My Head showcases a Thin Lizzy influence that gets clearer every time I hear it.

Generally, though, this is a pretty consistent set of hook-laden songs that, in a different era, would have been all over the airwaves. This is an album with eleven worthy singles out of eleven. I wonder how many more got left on the virtual cutting room floor to keep this just under three quarters of an hour. Now I have some backtracking to do because, if I've heard anything by Harem Scarem before, it was album number one and this is number sixteen.

Smoulder - Dream Quest Ends (2020)

Country: Canada
Style: Epic Doom Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 13 Mar 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

Having thoroughly enjoyed Smoulder's debut album, Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring, I've been eagerly awaiting their new EP, which is finally with us. While they're calling it an EP, it's a mere 21 seconds shorter than the full length album, so it's serious value for money. However, only half of it is new, the second half being their three track demo from early 2019, two of which tracks ended up on the album.

Before those are three new songs: the title track, Warrior Witch of Hel and a lusty cover of Manilla Road's Cage of Mirrors, which originally appeared on that band's Metal album back in 1982. This release is dedicated to Mark 'The Shark' Shelton, vocalist and guitarist with Manilla Road, who died in 2018. As usual for Smoulder, their original songs are sourced from fantasy literature, Dream Quest Ends presumably from Lovecraft and Warrior Witch of Hel from the Bloodsong novels that C. Dean Andersson wrote as Asa Drake.

Listening to the three new songs and the three demos offers very little in difference in sound, whether in song construction or production. That makes this flow much more than I thought it would, which is a major positive. The production is by Arthur Rizk and it's spot on. The guitars crunch, the drums pound, the bass prowls and the voice of Sarah Kitteringham constantly fights for supremacy.

And those new songs aren't just pretty damn good, they build as the EP runs. I like Dream Quest Ends, but I like Warrior Witch of Hel more and the cover of Cage of Mirrors reminds me just how great Manilla Road used to be and how I really ought to listen to their early albums more. These songs are so big that I feel like I'm experiencing them from the inside, power chords echoing around me.

While there isn't a song here under five minutes, the only epic on offer in running time is the cover at almost nine. The rest just feel epic because of the way they're built and the way they sound. Dream Quest Ends is elevated by some duetting between Kitteringham and whoever's stepping up to provide the clean male voice. Warrior Witch of Hel thrives on epochal riffing and a chorus that's just as heavy. Like the full album last year, this is far too alive to be regular doom. Epic doom works as a description but it's so alive that simply heavy metal would work too, with heavy underlined in blood.

I went back to the Manilla Road original of Cage of Mirrors to seek context and a few points made themselves immediately obvious. Manilla Road clearly spent a heck of a lot of time listening to Rush from the mid-seventies. The technology in studios in 1982 totally sucked compared to what bands can use today. And the Smoulder take on this song is pretty close to the original, the less theatrical but just as heartfelt approach to the vocals being the most obvious difference. It feels more complete too, the original being five parts that add up to a piece of music but this version a song in five parts that flow together better.

I'll skip over Sword Woman and Voyage of the Sunchaser, as they appear in a slightly more developed form on last year's album. The one that didn't make it onto that is The Queen is Gone, perhaps because the opening riff is a slow doom version of the Inspector Gadget theme tune. It's another chugger of a song and I have a feeling that, if the band re-recorded it now, it would be a little faster and a little more overt. It's still a good song though and wouldn't have been out of place on the band's excellent album last year.

Now, when will this coronavirus pandemic be done so Canadian bands can tour down here again? I'd pay good money to see Smoulder live with Shadow Weaver.

Friday, 13 March 2020

Elixir - Voyage of the Eagle (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 6 Mar 2020
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | YouTube

Elixir are one more band back for another bite at the cherry, though it's a third shot for them. I remember them well from the mid-eighties, when they recorded a solid session for The Friday Rock Show and released an excellent debut album in The Son of Odin, which I have on vinyl around here somewhere. However, I'm not sure that I noticed that they issued a second album before calling it a day in 1990. I certainly didn't notice the reformation in 2001 that saw four more albums before they quit again in 2012. They're back once more, reforming last year with only bassist Kevin Dobbs not on board. He's replaced by Luke Fabian.

To my ears, they haven't updated their sound much in the last three or four decades, but the nostalgia in me says that's not entirely a bad thing. The bad thing is that Voyage of the Eagle requires some patience and I can see a lot of people listening to this once and drifting away because they couldn't find anything to hook them. That's an unfortunate property for an album to have, especially one like this that does grow if we have a little patience.

The opening couple of tracks are solid growers, because they're nowhere near as catchy as they want to be but they're thoroughly enjoyable nonetheless. A brief interlude named Horizons later and we're into the first song to remind us of the glory days. It's The Siren's Song and it's a patient piece with an excellent build, so slow and heavy and sure of itself that it's almost doom metal, a tone not altered by the presence of Katie Alys Barton as the Siren.

I'm presuming that this is a concept album, given that almost everything is nautical themed, including the title, and there's a recurrent sound effect, the creaking of the masts on a sailing vessel mid-voyage, that keeps showing up at the beginning and end of songs. Any thoughts that Elixir are going all Alestorm are scotched during the chorus of the opener, Drink to the Devil, a nod otherwise to pirate metal. After that, though, there's no comparison.

What Elixir do best here is that slower, steadier hard and heavy sound built from solid riffs and clean epic vocals. That means The Siren's Song and Sail On mostly, both of them strong numbers to build an album around. Perhaps the worst aspect is that they don't build as much as they should because there's no spark here to make it all memorable and it really needs one. I've stayed with it and been rewarded for that because it gets better each time I listen through, something that didn't happen with other frustrating albums like the Angel Witch from last year, but I still wanted more than I got.

What I really wanted was some urgency and hunger. Just because Elixir isn't a young band any more doesn't mean that they shouldn't sound like one. They reformed after seven years away for a reason and I wanted to hear it in the songs here but I couldn't find it. I found some decent songwriting, some agreeable old school riffs (the one in Mutiny is starting to get stuck in my head) and some impressive vocals (especially late in the album, on Whisper on the Breeze and Evermore), but I didn't find what's driving the band to return to the studio in 2020.

I should add that they do up the tempo and energy on occasion, such as with Onward Through the Storm. I wish they had done that a lot more often and, on the occasions when they did, that they did it with more emphasis. I have the feeling that this material is going to sound good on stage but this studio release is going to need people to give it time to shine for them. This was a skimpy 6/10 on a first listen for me. After a few more, I'm upping to 7/10 but there ought to be an 8/10 album in these guys and sadly this isn't it.

Ghost Toast - Shape without Form (2020)

Country: Hungary
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 3 Mar 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Now, here's an interesting album! Ghost Toast, a name of which I thoroughly approve, play instrumental prog rock out of Debrecen in Hungary and they're on their fourth album here. With no vocalist, that role occasionally filled by samples from movies, the line-up is guitar, bass and drums with a fourth musician on keyboards and cello. You could call it art rock, post-rock and experimental rock without being wrong and sometimes switch the rock out for metal because they have some serious power behind them.

Certainly, the opener powers up a minute and a half in from a soft piano to driving guitar. That a keyboard swell floats over the top of it for a while doesn't dissipate the way that guitar gallops and stabs. However, the return of the piano adds a melancholy contrast that keeps the guitar from becoming too vicious. It's called Frankenstein's and it's not as iconic as the Edgar Winter instrumental of almost the same name but it's still a solid opener.

The band's experimental edge is obvious in the way that László Papp sets up Eclipse with unusual drumming. It gets more interesting a minute and a half in when those drums play with the bass in what almost sounds like electronic music but isn't, except for a helping hand from the keyboardist. I feel that the riffs in the heavier sections, as solid as they are, almost function as interludes between more the experimental sections rather than the other way around.

Y13 is where the samples kick in, this time from Assignment: Outer Space, a 1960 sci-fi flick by the ever-prolific Antonio Margheriti, and the music is suitably cinematic. It's been a long while since I've seen the movie so I'm unaware of whether the band play with any of the themes from the soundtrack but they do acknowledge that movie scores are an influence for them. That's no surprise because, like all the best post-rock, they conjure up visuals.

Beyond movie scores and "heavy, trippy music", they're clearly well read in the diversity of music because Hunt of Life is a cover of an Icelandic folk song, even though it's drenched in electronica and even finds a reggae-like groove at one point. There are vocals here, but they're a sample too, from an a capella version of the song on YouTube by Kelly Jenny. While that makes it sound like they just added music behind her, there's really a heck of a lot more going on here than that, to the degree that she's hardly in it and it's mostly an instrumental.

The other song with samples is the epic closer, W.A.N.T., which stands for We Are Not Them. The piece opens with Big Brother from 1984 introducing us to hope through the "land of peace and of plenty in Oceania", but it isn't alone: it's spliced with Kurtz in Apocalypse Now reciting parts of Eliot's The Hollow Men, the poem that also gives the album its title. I thoroughly appreciate the imagination that went into combining two samples this way as it's not common. However, the imagination that went into a composition this advanced is even more appreciated.

Before W.A.N.T. are a couple of tracks that don't do anything special and so could be easily skipped over by someone only looking for special things, but they're excellent tracks on their own, even without samples or other source material to boost their presence. In fact, they're a couple of my favourite pieces here. Follow kicks off as delicately as anything on this album but it heavies up as it goes and the contrasts are neat. Compositions with dynamics always interest me and this one's done right. Before Anything Happens may be even better, with some catchy lines and more neat contrasts.

Ghost Toast have apparently been doing this for a while. Formed as a trio in 2008 with János Pusker joining a year later on keyboards and cello, they say they didn't have much musically in common but exploring the focal points is how they've come up with such interesting music. The line-up hasn't changed since and this is their fourth album. I'd very much like to go back to discover those other three.

Thursday, 12 March 2020

Ross the Boss - Born of Fire (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy/Power Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 6 Mar 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Here's something new to me. I've heard quite a lot of Ross the Boss over the years, not just with Manowar (Hail to England is one of my top ten albums of all time) but also with Shakin' Street and the Dictators. However, he's made four solo albums now, oddly backed by a Manowar tribute band formerly called Men of War, who hail from Germany, and I haven't heard any of them until now but I'm glad to catch up.

This one at least is heavy metal as sonic assault and it took me a couple of listens to really grasp what they're doing. It's easy to go passive in such an onslaught and let it wash over you. I could imagine leaving a venue after a Ross the Boss set and thinking, "That was intense! Now, what did the band sound like? I can't quite remember. They were intense..."

The key to the sound is energy and the production is able to assist that. I caught a little Manowar in there, as we might expect, but surprisingly very little, because this material is faster, heavier and much more up front and in your face, with strong elements of power metal and thrash metal to scare away any thought that the band might be wearing loincloths while they play. Glory to the Slain may be a title worthy of Manowar but the song itself has far more valid comparisons to Overkill.

It's also over in under three minutes, because this band don't hang about: a dozen tracks add up to three quarters of an hour, with only of them reaching the five minute mark. They get up to play and blitz through song after song before wandering off for a beer. There's no time for cymbal solos here, even opening narrations. It's all about power and energy and no nonsense getting the job done.

The influences are really all over the map, which makes the band interesting to figure out once we get to the point where we can listen to the songs, not just let them punch us in the face over and over. Fight the Fight is kind of like Motörhead covered by a European power metal band who boast an ambitious vocalist. There's folk metal to kick off Maiden of Shadows but it moves into Crimson Glory territory too. I am the Sword is machine gun Judas Priest with maybe some Helloween layered over the top. The title track is probably the truest European power metal, with a major hook of a chorus.

I'd throw out Judas Priest as the most obvious influence, the basis for all that European power metal. However, while the vocals of Marc Lopes do aim at Rob Halford on occasion, he doesn't just stay there. He's so quintessential a metal singer that he doesn't ever really sing much, but he never growls or shrieks like he's dipping into the extremes either. This is older school: he snarls and chants, he screams and preaches, he conjures and commands. It's a good performance but some people may see it as a bit much and I think I'm among them. He even layers on occasion, I believe, because it doesn't sound like backing vocalists joining in.

Of course, as prominent as Lopes is here, the band is named Ross the Boss as an acknowledgement of its leader, Ross Friedman, who has gone by the moniker Ross the Boss forever. He was there in New York City in 1973 co-founding the Dictators when I was figuring out how to walk. He's not new but he's just as full of energy as he ever was. The guitars here reminded me of Painkiller, a clean buzzsaw sound that really resonates. The key difference, of course, is that Priest have two guitarists and Ross the Boss is the only one here.

I liked this but not as much as I wanted to. Even after a few times through, it sounds good but doesn't stay in my brain. The catchiest number is surely the title track but that's ironically probably my least favourite song here. It's the riffs that are likely to stay with me most and there are plenty of them on offer, especially in the incessant but interesting songs that I like most, titles like Glory to the Slain, Maiden of Shadows and I am the Sword. I think I need to come back to this in a month's time to see how it stands up then.

Electric Feat - Electric Feat (2020)

Country: Greece
Style: Hard/Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 Feb 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram

I enjoy a wide range of different styles of music and almost everything that I review is recommended to some degree, but I don't think I've come across a band in a heck of a long time who feel as alive as Electric Feat. They're a psychedelic rock band from Athens (the one in Greece) and the video for The Caveman is a Terry Gilliam-style fever dream. It took me a while to discover who does what in the band, but the members go by monster pseudonyms: say hi to Dr. Nanos, Madam Manthos, Prins Obi and The Tree.

Oh, and they're like the bastard son of the Doors and Black Sabbath, which I really dig. Somehow I hadn't realised quite how the two bands connected, but it's impossible to miss here, because they frequently transform from one to the other and back again. Song of Disobedience starts out like the Doors but shifts into Sabbath and the vocals follow suit, though whoever's singing is still somehow Jim Morrison even when he grabs Ozzy's cape and structures the lyrics his way. The Lizard King and the Prince of Darkness? Suddenly it all makes sense.

It's Alright (with You) is psychedelic garage rock, rather like the Doors if Ray Manzarek had played bass instead of keyboards; there are no keyboards in this song but the bass is up front and overt. The band call this one "Alice Cooper-ian" and they're not wrong either. It stalks and struts like it's a performance as much as a song and we know that Coop is into garage rock from his Breadcrumbs EP last year. I'm imagining the costumes.

Lizard Queen continues this, just in case the title didn't give it away. The guitars jangle and the keyboards are completely absent (as they remain until Fogdancing late on in the album). There's also a neat homage to Whole Lotta Love with a recognisable but subdued riff and a canopy of drums and bizarre vocalising, but with a Tony Iommi solo over the top.

It's Song of Disobedience where the band slow down and really emphasise the Sabbath in them. Sabbath are there in pace, riffs and in lyrical structure and it's the first time that it's been this overt except for lyrical nods in the opener. And from this point, they really start to bounce back and forth between their two key influences: sometimes one, sometimes the other, often a combination of both.

The Caveman is so much akin to the Doors that I started to sing along with Roadhouse Blues until I realised it wasn't a cover. It grows too, with some progression that could almost warrant a guest appearance from Arthur Brown. I had the same problem with Leather Jacket, a Sabbath-infused song that's so reminiscent of N.I.B. that I had to cry out "Oh yeah!" at the right moment simply because it needed to be there.

I loved this cross pollination of sounds, because these two bands aren't as far away from each other in style or in time as we might assume without the benefit of a moment's thought. If it wasn't for the excellent production, I could imagine that Electric Feat were an unknown proto-metal band from 1970 who we're only just discovering now. They blew minds supporting the Airplane at Winterland and their jams with Iron Butterfly at the Fillmore are a thing of legend, right? I'd be into that alternate history.

Blackwood Secrecy is as garage rock as the band get. Bandcamp says that this album was "recorded (almost live)" in the Diskex studio and it's easy to buy into that. It sounds like they're playing on my desk in front of an audience of one and still giving it everything. This is the debut album for Electric Feat, I believe, but I'm hoping to hear more soon. They're too alive to wait long for a follow up and, my goodness, I want to see this band on stage!

Wednesday, 11 March 2020

Rose Tattoo - Outlaws (2020)

Country: Australia
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 6 Mar 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Wikipedia | YouTube

I was wary about this release, because it's not a new album from the Aussie legends (we haven't seen one of those since 2007's Blood Brothers) but a re-recording of their iconic debut from 1978 with a new line-up. Lead vocalist Angry Anderson describes the goal of the project as "honoring the past and respecting the present", so I can only presume that the Tatts are treating this as a new beginning. Let's see where it can take them from here. It'll certainly take them here to the States for the first time since 1982.

If you don't know Rose Tattoo, you should. They come from the same old time bluesy hard rock school as fellow Aussies AC/DC, Cold Chisel and the Angels and their first couple of albums are as good as anything that ever came out of Oz. They never reached the same heights of fame as AC/DC, with whom they shared the producers Vanda and Young, but they've been a huge influence on bands you know. Guns n' Roses wouldn't sound remotely like they do without Rose Tattoo and more than one of its members has said that they were set on the rock 'n' roll path by the band.

So yeah, you should listen to Rose Tattoo. But, given that it isn't tough to get hold of Rock 'n' Roll Outlaw and it's one of the essential purchases in the genre, is there a real need for this re-worked version? That's the real question here and, while I was ready to dive in to find out, I was prepared for the answer to be an emphatic no. Fortunately it's a yes with caveats.

It's cleverly structured, for a start, because this isn't the same playlist, even ignoring the three "new" songs, which I should emphasise aren't new. It kicks off with One of the Boys and Tramp isn't far behind it. Both songs are similar enough to the originals to seem pointless, though the production is great. I just sang along like I had thrown on Rock 'n' Roll Outlaw.

But after each is a "new" song that keeps us on the hop. There are three on this album, all written back at the time of the first album and demoed, but none made the album. I'd only heard Snow Queen before, having been included on the original album's 1990 re-release. The other two are Sweet Love (Rock 'n' Roll) and a ballad, Rosetta, that closes out the album. The early couple are decent songs. Rosetta isn't bad either, highlighting just how much the early Tatts were influenced by the Stones, but it can't follow what's gone before. No wonder they left it off the original album.

And then we really shift things up. Rock 'n' Roll Outlaw is a sleazier song than it used to be. It's the first track here to sound completely different from the original. Then it's the old story song, The Butcher and Fast Eddy, which starts out shaky and fails in comparison for a while, before finding a new life through rewritten lyrics. It isn't the original but it is able to find its own identity and that's crucial when covering such an iconic song.

It's worth mentioning that, even knowing these songs so well, I didn't sing along (much) because I wanted to listen to these new takes. And much of the reason they work is because the band is of serious quality and very willing to grow the songs. On bass is Mark Evans, of early AC/DC fame; he played on the Let There Be Rock album, among others. Bob Spencer on guitar has played with the Skyhooks and the Angels. Drummer Jackie Barnes is the son of Jimmy Barnes of Cold Chisel fame. I don't know what Dai Pritchard has done but I do like his slide guitar.

By this point in the album. I wanted to see how this line-up would take on a couple of the hardest hitting hard rock songs of the era, such as Remedy and Astra Wally, songs that simply cannot be too loud. I turned this up until my eyeballs rattled; my ears haven't recovered yet. And the new Tatts do well, but both pale in comparison to their originals. Remedy, in particular, has a mix that places each guitar in a different speaker and jumps back and forth, leaving one always too quiet. It's like they need another guitarist in there to bolster up the wall of sound. The mix benefits the slower, bluesier songs that play up the slide, like Stuck on You.

A couple of the more iconic songs are left towards the end, namely original single Bad Boy for Love and the most famous song on the record now, courtesy of some high profile covers, Nice Boys. The former is slower and stalks more than the original. The latter turns into reminiscence of old rock 'n' roll standards: Heartbreak Hotel, Lucille, Tutti Frutti, Blue Suede Shoes. It's a great way to reinvent a song that's a classic all on its own. Both songs are twice as long as the versions we know. The 1978 album ran 36:33 for only ten tracks. Omitting the three new songs to match it, this runs a dozen minutes longer. Add those three back in and it lasts over an hour.

All told, this isn't the original, even with over forty years of advances in studio recording technology to benefit it. But it's a good album nonetheless and it's made by a good band. Frankly, it's better than I expected it to be. Anderson's voice may not be quite as huge as it used to be but it's still a heck of a lot bigger than he is and he has evolved these songs over a forty plus year span so that some of his delivery is actually better here.

His new backing band is solid as a rock too. They're more than able to take on and reinvent an iconic album. Sure, this isn't the Tatts of 1978 but then AC/DC aren't the band they were in 1978 either. Without a time machine that can take us back to the days to when Bon Scott, Malcolm Young, Peter Wells, Mick Cocks and others were still strutting the boards, I'm not complaining about this bunch. They still kick so much ass that most of the other bands out there ought to be scared to follow them.

And, if I was in Australia right now, where they're touring in support of Live, Bush and Stone Temple Pilots, I'd be there for Electric Mary and the Tatts and then I'd hit the pub to recover.