Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Night in Gales - Dawnlight Garden (2020)

Country: Germany
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 24 Jul 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I struggled with this new Night in Gales album for a while. Certainly, part of it is that I'm not a big fan of Christian Müller's vocals, which seem to me to be overly emotional for the material, a cross between hardcore shouts, death growls and emo pouts. He was the band's original vocalist back in the nineties but he handed over to Björn Gooßes in 1996 and it's Gooßes on their first five albums. Müller rejoined in 2016 and this is his second album with the band since, after 2018's The Last Sunsets.

I'm much happier with the music but it still didn't grab me off the bat. It wasn't until the eighth track, A Spark in the Crimson Eclipse, that I got on the right wavelength. That felt like an old Dark Tranquillity song to me and that's no bad thing. Through Dark Decades sounded great too following it and my favourite piece of music here is surely The Bonebed, which closes out the album instrumentally. And that's not just because of the absence of vocals, but because of its slower feel that's closer to doom/death.

Listening through again, I found that there are doom/death notes throughout, especially in the guitar solos, though the pace continues to be far too fast to qualify as doom/death until The Bonebed. A song like Winterspawn could be easily slowed down to half speed and its excellent riff might even have more impact that way. I also found that I was even getting conditioned to Müller. I still much prefer Gooßes's more traditional delivery but my second listen brought Müller's stronger growl into focus. He isn't always overemotional.

Maybe I just needed to get inside this music. Maybe Müller's wailing put me at a distance and I couldn't get closer until A Spark in the Crimson Eclipse pulled me in with its more inspired dynamics. Certainly, even on another run through, the second half seems stronger than the first, even with that riff on Winterspawn, some very cool bass work on Beyond the Light and relentless pacing on Beasts Leave Tombs Again.

Ignoring the brief dissonant intro that is Atrocity Kings, which doesn't do anything for the album, there are ten songs here, making Kingdom technically the end of the first half. It's certainly the heart of the album, right in the middle of it and almost two minutes longer than anything else. It has an intricate intro and a fantastic breakdown in its midsection, the latter featuring the best vocal work on the album. It's here that Night in Gales really start to shine.

Then, after the decent The Spectre Dead, come A Spark in the Crimson Eclipse and Through Dark Decades, which both shine. The former is a tour de force, a complex song with constantly shifting tempos and no end of dynamic play. The shoutier end of Müller's delivery actually works here, as it's energetic and raw. The most annoying thing about this song is that it isn't new, being the A side of the Razor single back in 1996. Through Dark Decades continues that well, albeit more predictably and with a steadier pace. Choir of Unlight has a tasty guitar solo, almost a setup for The Bonebed.

For German melodeath, this is emphatically done in the Swedish style. At its best, it reminds of early Dark Tranquillity. At its worst, it reminds of the most average At the Gates. I originally had a 6/10 in mind, but it convinced me on that second listen to go up to a 7/10. I still want to listen to this at half speed just to see how near to doom/death it would sound like, but it does the job. It's good to see Night in Gales surviving the loss of its lead vocalist of sixteen years and moving forward, even if I'm not totally sold on his predecessor/replacement.

PS: I adore that cover by Costin Chioreanu!

Tommy Grasley aka Tommy Gunn - I Believe in Love (2020)

Country: Canada
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 14 Feb 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter

Tommy Grasley, who sent me a copy of this album for review, seems like he's a nice guy. He's bubbly and charming and full of life, an impression backed up by the quirky lyrical content and the broad smile that decorates his face in every photo I can find of him (except, ironically, the one on the cover). It looks like there was plenty of darkness in his past but he's survived and moved forward and his vibrancy is engraved in every virtual groove on this album. Quite frankly, it's infectious.

Now, I'm here to review an album rather than a person but the two seem to be intrinsically linked. This feels good in large part because Grasley clearly felt good when he recorded it. Certainly its character is his character and its identity is his identity. He doesn't have the widest range and he wisely doesn't try anything flash, beyond a neat metal scream on the heaviest song, Jct 66. He just sings (well sings and writes and produces, but doesn't play any of the instruments) in his own characterful style.

I love voices that revel in sounding different and Grasley's certainly fits that bill. In some ways, his voice reminded me of Robin George's guitar, in that neither really does anything out of the ordinary but somehow finds its own groove to become instantly recognisable. I haven't heard Grasley's prior album but, if someone threw it on six months from now, I'm sure I'd be able to perk up my ears and recognise him.

The best song here is surely Love Conquers All, which kicks off rather like a cheeky Beatles track and only gets funkier. The opening riffs aren't from Greg Godovitz's guitar but the bass of Mike King, occasionally echoed by the saxophone of Grasley's dad, Sonny Del Rio, who's showcased on Sonnyfoxdale, the instrumental interlude before it. There's some Beatles on Baby XO too, a fundamental melodic line always Grasley's primary goal.

Rather than just turn out Love Conquers All in nine different guises, there are a lot of different sounds on this album, which thus occasionally becomes a little schizophrenic at points. For instance, Jct 66 is much heavier than anything else here, almost a grunge song on a melodic rock album. It's not a bad song at all, but it feels out of place. Then there's Richard, a tribute to Richard Newell, best known as King Biscuit Boy, whom Grasley met when his dad was performing with Newell's band, Crowbar (no, not that one). This song is emphatically a blues song, which would have felt less out of place had it not followed Jct 66.

Earlier songs are more consistent but with their own quirks that bring them quite a lot of life, often in Grasley's songwriting as much as, if not more than, his singing. There's some quirky harmonising on Haterz that I dig and Strange finds a particularly neat groove. This one's almost like an eighties song hauled out for a timely revamp to comment on just how much has changed in the decades since then. Dale Harrison provides some memorable drums here and he's reliable across much of the album. A number of guitarists add good solos too.

By the way, I like Strange just as it is, but I could totally see it become a hit for someone else, in precisely the same way that Tom Waits is known by so many through the songs of others more palatable to the mainstream, like the Eagles or Rod Stewart, who's incidentally related to Grasley through his mother. I expect to see Grasley's Strange on YouTube in future years with a host of comments from people who found the original from a indie movie after it had become famous in a version by someone else.

It might take you a couple of songs to get into this, but listen through a few times and it'll take root in your skull as a set of melodic rock songs that don't sound like anyone else. And I see that as a good thing.

Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Kansas - The Absence of Presence (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 26 Jun 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

There's a lot in this latest Kansas album to unpack but it seems clear that the band has no interest at all in resting on their laurels or just trading their name for a big money trawl through the hits tour. This isn't just new music, it's carefully constructed new music that sounds good and highlights just how much they're looking forward. In fact, the band has found a strong balance between a solid core of four old faithfuls and a busy duo of newer faces.

Those old faithfuls are Rich Williams and Phil Ehart, the only two founding members left, on guitars and drums respectively; bassist Billy Greer, who's been a consistent face since 1985; and violinist David Ragsdale, who joined in 1991 and rejoined after a decade break. When Steve Walsh, the heart of the band, decided to focus on playing live, those three recorded an album on the side under the name of Native Window. After Walsh left Kansas in 2014, they brought in new blood and started a new era.

New lead vocalist Ronnie Platt and new guitarist Zak Rizvi were in place for The Prelude Implicit in 2016, their first studio album in sixteen years. Its ten songs were written by ten different combinations of the seven members of the band, plus others, so there was little consistent vision. This time out, just four years on, the music for each of nine songs was composed by either Rizvi or new keyboardist Tom Brislin, who joined in 2018 and is now one of three lead singers. Brislin wrote many of the lyrics too, often with Ehart, and Platt contributed as well. It looks like they've found what works.

It's certainly ambitious, if not catchy. I've listened through a few times now and there are no obvious singles, let alone one that might outsell Dust in the Wind. In fact, the only piece of music running under four and a half minutes is an instrumental, albeit a very good one, Propulsion 1. These are often complex compositions, drenched in both guitars and keyboards, and the title track kicks off the album at the uncommercial length of 8:22. I'd say that the catchiest thing here is the closer, The Song the River Sang, which often resembles a funky Yes with a teasing riff and wild drum rhythms, even though it's also the most experimental song on offer.

What that means is that it's an immersive album. I need to throw this onto headphones and listen in the dark because it feels like it would just come alive in that setting. There's plenty going on in The Absence of Presence, though it unpacks well over time to feel less busier. It's full of dynamic play in Yes style, quiet moments with a voice over piano giving way to lush instrumental passages full of complexity and vice versa. And that goes for both the title track and the album it gives its name to.

That opener is certainly one of my favourites here, because there's so much going on within it that it's a sort of gift that keeps on giving. Throwing Mountains has an edge to it; there are guitars here that are both faster and heavier than I expected on a Kansas album, though this firmly remains prog rock and has no interest in flirting too closely with metal. Propulsion 1 is a joy that ends too quickly; the vocals are always enjoyable here, but I ached for more instrumentals. Never is softer but still memorable. Eventually there's The Song the River Sang, which may have been my favourite song on a first listen and certainly grabs me every time through. It's easily the most adventurous piece here and it's a great way to wrap things up.

I enjoyed this a lot and will give it a few more spins before I'm done with it for now. I may well come back to it periodically too. It's not an album to throw on once and move on from. It's an album to explore, leisurely and often. So much great prog nowadays, so little time.

Satanica - Resurrection of Devil's Spirit (2020)

Country: Japan
Style: Heavy/Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 Jul 2020
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | YouTube

With their corpse paint, Satanica could be mistaken for a black metal band, but their poses suggest that they took their look directly from Kiss. Black Widow certainly feels like a Kiss song in pretty much every way and it isn't too difficult to find their influence elsewhere either. The first Satanica album, after all, was called Knights in Satanic Service, as a nod to the old PMRC explanation of KISS as an acronym. Nice.

Mostly, they're a little heavier than Kiss, with a riff-driven sound right out of the Judas Priest playbook, often as filtered through the NWOBHM era and power metal from a little later. The most Priest influenced song here is the instrumental, Kamikaze, which is a decent workout for the twin guitars of Ozzie Alastor and Shee Lipps. The influence is there throughout, though, from beginning to end, starting with the opening track, Resurrection.

The NWOBHM feel is most obvious in Dark Star, which could have been a song from the Midlands in 1981; it almost sounds familiar. Deal with the Devil starts out heavy in ways I'd associate more with later Metallica or Pantera, but ends up back in NWOBHM territory. Thunderstorm sounds like a Tokyo Blade song and, while Satanica hail from Japan, Tokyo Blade, their eastern name and image notwithstanding, don't. They're British through and through.

There's some Accept in Thunderstorm too, but those Teutonic riffs show up a lot here. Liar is the most obviously Accept-influenced song, with its strong and relentless pace and its effortless power. I half expected it to become Princess of the Dawn. Like a Fire nails that quintessential Accept drive as well, especially with guitars soloing all over it.

Satanica aren't a new band but they don't date back to the heyday of bands like Bow Wow and Loudness. They were formed in 2002 and put out that debut a couple of years later. This is only their fourth album, coming a full decade after its predecessor, so we might expect a more modern sound than this. It certainly sounds like a 2020 album because of the production, which is heavy at the back end, but the band are looking backwards throughout.

And the result sounds pretty good to me. It's a decent mix: memorable NWOBHM song structures that are full of reliable Teutonic riffs, Priestly solos and Kiss melodies. The voice of Ritti Danger somehow fits all those components, not even attempting the high notes we might expect at points but managing to do a good job regardless, even if he's keeping the beat throughout because he's also the band's drummer.

This is a long way the most original album I've heard in 2020 but it's clear that Satanica aren't particularly interested in original. They just do what they do as well as they can, influences worn on their sleeves. It's telling that, while I can pick my favourites here pretty easily, such as Dark Star, Kamikaze and Liar, there's nothing beneath a second tier of enjoyable songs. I'd be happy to hear any one of these on a metal radio show.

Let's hope the satanic name, look and album titles don't distract potential listeners from checking them out, because this will be right up the alley of old and new school NWOBHM fans everywhere.

Monday, 24 August 2020

Massive Wagons - House of Noise (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 17 Jul 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I thoroughly enjoyed Full Nelson, the fourth Massive Wagons album, which was one of the first to fall under the banner of New Wave of Classic Rock that I reviewed here at Apocalypse Later. I thoroughly enjoyed this one too but I'm in two minds as to whether it's better or not.

It's certainly just as energetic, if not more so, with my personal highlight of Pressure punkier and extra lively. It finds the singalong Status Quo vibe that Back to the Stack did last time out and I think this one's even better. I'd call the production easily better too, which especially serves the first few upbeat rockers really well. It's one of those albums you always want to turn up, even if you're at maximum volume already and the neighbours are on the phone with the cops.

I'd say that the first half is even more consistent too, In It Together and Bangin in Your Stereo stonking openers but the title track able to add just a little something more to the mix. There's some Thin Lizzy in that one but it's never derivative. Looking back over the last couple of years, it's fair to say that Massive Wagons still sound like Massive Wagons, even against the growing roster of New Wave of Classic Rock acts.

I think it's because their set of influences are completely different from all those bands who are looking back at Led Zeppelin and Bad Company. Their sound comes from Quo and Terrorvision, with a dash of Lizzy here and another of AC/DC there and maybe a little bit of pop punk to keep it all bouncing so well.

Certainly Hero tries to be an AC/DC song but, while I do rather like it, it isn't very successful at that. The opening Bon Scott prowl is beyond Baz Mills, who finds better success as the song shifts towards and away from Brian Johnson, and a steady drone isn't a good replacement for what aches to be a rumbling bass line. However, there is a really nice guitar solo here from either Adam Thistlethwaite or Stevie Holl and there's a really nice vibe behind it too.

I'm less enthused about the second half of the album than the first, even if it starts off so well with Pressure. The Curry Song is capable but even more stupid than the stupidest song on the prior album, even if it has quite the decent mosh part, and I can't quite get into Glorious and Hallescrewya, even though I rather want to. As fun as they are, especially with the Lizzy-esque dual solo on the former, they're still distant.

One obvious change from last time is the song lengths. While most songs here continue to sit in the three to four minute range, easily worthy of airplay, there are longer songs here. Hallescrewya takes the place of Northern Boy as the one that nudges past five minutes, but Hero makes it past six and Matter of Time, which closes out the album, runs a full eight.

It's definitely worthy of mention because it's a slower, bluesier song with plenty of opportunity for solos, which are excellent. The guitarists stay a little restrained throughout the album, presumably for the sake of commercial appeal, the Randy Rhoads-esque intro to Sad Sad Song notwithstanding, but a longer song or three do give them the opportunity to shine and I appreciated that. Energetic radio friendly hard rock songs are great and all but sometimes I just want sit back and enjoy the hell out of a good guitar solo.

So this is at once a greater and a lesser album than Full Nelson and, after a few listens, I think I'm going to rate it slightly lower. It's still a must for New Wave of Classic Rock fans though.

Lapsus Dei - Sea of Deep Reflections (2020)

Country: Chile
Style: Progressive Doom Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 16 Jun 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | VK | YouTube

I came to this album believing that Chilean band Lapsus Dei play doom/death metal, and yeah, there's some of that in here, but it seems like it's a long way back in their history. They've been around since 1998 and this is their fourth studio album, their first since In Our Sacred Places five years ago. It plays more as progressive metal to me, with predominantly clean vocals, a strong sense of perky doom and at least one leg in the hard/prog rock era of the seventies.

For instance, The Call of Sirens feels fundamentally rooted in doom but far forward in the band's evolution, as if Messiah Marcolin's era in Candlemass had evolved into a prog band, adding folky keyboards, Led Zeppelin riffs and a David Gilmour solo, even enhancing the latter with a little Fleetwood Mac edge from The Chain.

It does make for an interesting sound and the result is highly Scandinavian, so much so that it's hard to reconcile that this is a band from Chile. Were I listening to this blind, I might imagine someone like Amorphis, circa the point with Am Universum that they moved away from their original sound into something more progressive and hard rock in nature, but newer, less overtly catchy and with a tinge of a band like Soen.

Only one song is sung in Spanish and it's Naufragos, the longest song on the album and another one that feels like it came out of doom but got faster and perkier. The swirling keyboards are so light that, however demonstrative the beats, I was too uplifted to feel doomy. Given that the title translates to Shipwrecks, that ought to feel a little odd. Somehow I left it wanting to be shipwrecked.

Naufragos pretty much finishes halfway through and goes instrumental. That means a fresh Gilmour-esque solo and it's very confidently delivered. I like this sound a lot but I have to admit that I found myself anticipating where it was going at points, as if I'd heard these particular changes before. Was Rodrigo Poblete drifting into Shine On You Crazy Diamond or did he just nail the underlying sound behind it?

The Last Trip is the first song to feature death growls and, by this point, we're almost halfway into the album, so we can't see it as one of the band's primary focuses any more. However, The Last Trip, and Colossal which follows it, are excellent slabs of atmospheric doom/death, if still brighter than we might expect.

The doomiest song on offer here may be Alone I Break, not because it ditches any of the keyboards but because they float so achingly over a neat dirge of a riff. Like so many of the songs here, it finds its mood and milks it well, even if half of it features clean vocals and the other half harsh.

It's all extrapolated forward so far that it's hard to imagine where Lapsus Dei started out. I look forward to working through their back catalogue to find that out. For much of the album, I'd suggest a Paradise Lost influence, as there's much in Alejandro Giusti's voice to suggest that he's listened to a lot of Nick Holmes, across multiple eras, but the music often suggests My Dying Bride instead, especially during the second half of the album.

Either way, I like this a great deal. Every album I hear from South America adds to my wish to hear more. This is very different from the prog I've been reviewing from there lately, but it's just as welcome.

Thursday, 13 August 2020

Bob Dylan - Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Folk/Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 19 Jun 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

I have to say up front that I was wary going into this album. I've enjoyed Dylan's work for decades but, the more I hear it, the more I find I prefer his earlier work. The Times They are a-Changin' is one of my top ten albums of all time, not because of how catchy the title track is but because of how deep that album goes. Now, I'm no folk purist. I love electric Dylan too and Hurricane plays in my head at all sorts of random moments. I haven't enjoyed the deterioration of his voice over the years, though, and I haven't found myself grabbed by more recent albums.

And, on my first time through this one, his 39th studio album and his first made up of original material in eight years, I wasn't grabbed at all. It's a quintessentially laid back Dylan album, False Prophet notwithstanding. It's easily the most laid back I've ever heard him, about as far from rough and rowdy as it gets, and it was offputting. I lost a few songs in the middle of the album because I just tuned out.

Sure, it's laid back (I've Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You is so laid back it's almost horizontal) and the music is emphatically a backdrop to his lyrics and, rather surprisingly for me, his vocal delivery, which was much more intonated than I expected. It's varied in style but almost deliberately inoffensive so we never actually lose a focus on the words. If we heard this as instrumentals, it would be safer than your average soft jazz album.

However, some of it comes from a less ambitious structure to songwriting. I caught plenty of cleverness in the lyrics, as we might fairly expect from a poet who has become a Nobel laureate. However, each sentence seems delivered in short and easily digestable chunks for a modern ADHD audience and some of the rhymes are cheap and scan awkwardly, right from the opening lines of the opening song, I Contain Multitudes.

But I kept listening, perhaps spurred into attention by the two long songs that wrap up the album, Key West (Philosopher Pirate) and Murder Most Foul. Every listen saw the album burrow deeper into my brain. Those songs close to the heart of the album started to grab my attention. Songs that seemed to be overly simple started to find serious depths. And I started to realise just how good this album is. It's just Dylan reinventing himself yet again, at 79 years young and almost 60 years into his recording career.

There's something of a growl on False Prophet, the most in your face song on this album, and it almost finds a Tom Waits vibe, albeit not so avant-garde. Mother of Muses reminds of Leonard Cohen. But most of this is quintessential Dylan, just in a different form. It's introspective and personal. It takes a long look at how American culture has moved forward, phrased in unusual ways like Murder Most Foul being a sort of ongoing wake for JFK in the form of a string of musical requests for Wolfman Jack to play on the radio. It's hard not to see it as Dylan's American Pie; it's just as cryptic but it's a lot deeper. Even the album title is a riff on Jimmie Rodgers.

That song is almost seventeen minutes long, dwarfing Key West's skimpy nine and a half, but they're quiet but quietly commanding and they contain a heck of a lot to unpack. Suddenly we realise just how much Dylan was sifting his way through American history through its music on songs like Goodbye Jimmy Reed and Mother of Muses. There are themes here, woven throughout the album, and it takes a little while to realise just how clever that is. Dylan plays with our attention spans on songs like I Contain Multitudes, but suckers us into consuming a heck of a lot more than we think we did.

This isn't a short album, running over fifty minutes even without that long final song that comes on its own disc. I'm half a dozen listens through and I'm still finding new things every single time. The Dylan of 1962 is in here waiting to be found when we look for him but he's inside the Dylan of 2020, who's an older, wiser and far more patient voice of reason in a crazy world. It's timeless but also very timely indeed.

Wednesday, 12 August 2020

Vicious Vision - Aïn (2020)

Country: Morocco
Style: Groove/Thrash Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 13 Jun 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Twitter | YouTube

When I noticed a new thrash album from a band from Morocco, I knew I had to take a listen and, while it's not quite as culturally wild as I hoped it might be or quite as vicious as the band's name might suggest, it does sound good and interesting to me and I'm happy to have learned a little more about African metal. The band have been around since 2006 but have roots in the golden age of Moroccan metal, which I'd love to hear more about.

Vicious Vision hail from Casablanca and Aïn is a letter of the Perso-Arabic alphabet. I wonder why they used it as the title for this album, given that much of it is sung in English and there are even samples of English news to introduce BodyFence. That does make it more accessible to me but I'm sure a cultural or linguistic detail is eluding me.

They play their thrash very much on the groove metal side of that subgenre, so they've surely been listening to a lot of Pantera. Surely they've paid a lot of attention to Sepultura too, both because of the ethnic sounds that a bunch of these songs overlay at points and because of the emphatic vocals of Joao Paulo Esteves which are clearly influenced by punk but still sound more metal than anything I hear in hardcore nowadays.

By the way, I should emphasise that the ethnic sounds sit under these songs, absorbed into them as background, because they rarely quite seem to actually be part of them. It's like the band happened to be rocking out on the street while a selection of other musicians happened by and they tailored what they were doing to match them, rather than the other way around. It makes for an interesting approach and, while it was a little offputting at first, I soon got used to it and dug it too.

I tend to prefer straight thrash to groove/thrash hybrid bands, but that's a lot to do with the more groove oriented bands being less imaginative on the whole. I still dig the more diverse groove bands, Sepultura surely being the most obvious, and Vicious Vision definitely on that list. I like that every song has common elements, helping to define the sound of the band, but each song still has overt differences and travels a different road.

Check out Burst into Chaos, for an example. The first half is straight ahead groove metal, decent but not outstanding, but then it shifts into a bluesy guitar solo halfway and then builds quickly into a fantastic sprint to the finish. I love how it kept me on its toes. Free of Mind does that too, as a staccato groove metal song until it isn't, with tribal drumming, some funky riffs, a lovely ethnic vocal midway during a breakdown, some excellent bass work from Hamza Chiaou and even a thoroughly unusual punk chant to wrap up. Oh yeah, these guys have imagination!

As a thrash album, this might not satisfy, because it rarely speeds up to a point where thrash really applies. This isn't a clean out your system album. As a groove album, it fares much better, always interesting and ready to add other sounds where they'll help, whether they be the ethnic underlays or an abiding habit to get down and bluesy. Bleeding Alone is like bluesy Pantera and I really like that.

I believe this is Vicious Vision's debut album, though they did release one of its songs as a single six years earlier. That's Sir 3allah, which feels both more vicious and more primitive than other songs here. It doesn't end so much as it deteriorates into static. El3ar is more primitive too and it gets really shrill vocally. I'm guessing these are older songs representing where the band came from rather than where they're going to. If so, I look forward to seeing how they'll develop further in the future.

Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Deep Purple - Whoosh! (2020)

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

For an album that begins with a funky riff, this is surprisingly free of the iconic guitar riffs that tend to define Deep Purple in the eyes of many. It isn't free of them, of course, and Steve Morse, who I'm surprised to realise has been Purple's guitarist for twenty-six years, does the expected fine job but this seems to be driven as much by Don Airey's keyboards.

In particular, there are a couple of points where this brought the Perfect Strangers album to mind and its couple of instantly recognisable classics, but instead of the guitar defining No Need to Shout and Remission Possible, it's those keyboards with vehement held chords, even if the former promptly kicks in with cool guitarwork as well. It's that more songs seem to kick off with keyboards than guitars, with Nothing at All perhaps the epitome, and a reluctance on the part of the keyboards to stay in the background.

But, quite frankly, this isn't a bad thing and it makes me want to go back to see how the previous four studio albums from Purple Mark VIII sound with that in mind. It gives this longest running incarnation of the band a real identity to distinguish it from Mark II and Mark IV. It's a proggier Purple but one in which melody is still key and the tracks are kept short, Nothing at All feeling the most indulgent and only two songs exceeding five minutes, so ADHD radio-friendly blips compared to the excesses of the seventies.

To be fair, the longest song isn't really The Long Way Round at five and a half, it's the suite that surrounds Man Alive, which really stands out from everything else as the most imaginative and unusual song here. It feels like the title track it kind of is, given that "Whoosh!" is featured within its lyrics. This interesting suite begins with the brief proggy instrumental jam of Remission Possible, patiently explores the end of the human race in Man Alive proper, an unusual song on its own, and then wraps up with a further instrumental, And the Address, which is a redux of the jazzy opening piece of Shades of Deep Purple, the band's debut, which was released over half a century ago now.

That's an interesting choice, in many ways. This album is a solid release, a strong set of nine songs before this point. Then we get the standout track, the title track, the most unusual track on the album, introduced by a brief instrumental. It explores the demise of civilisation and then washes up one man on a beach. Whoosh! And the next thing we hear is the first Deep Purple song anyone ever heard, as if Purple is going to replace humanity. I'm sure some will also highlight that after that is only a bonus track, Dancing in My Sleep, with some programming work from Saam Hashemi. A new direction? No, I'm not going to dig that deep.

Above everything else, this is an enjoyable album. There are no duff songs and most are memorable enough to stand out after we move on to other albums by other bands. Some, like Throw My Bones and Step by Step really stand out, even amongst the enviable back catalogue of a band like Purple. I especially enjoyed the diversity of these songs with the delightful groove of Step by Step and its backing vocals right out of gospel rolling right into the good old fashioned rock 'n' roll honky tonk of What the What. Almost all these songs have something to distinguish them from each other and that's rare in this modern era.

The band sound like they're having fun too, albeit with a patient mindset that's obvious from the outset with Throw My Bones. Gillan sounds good, even if he's a long way from the manic genius of Child in Time or No Laughing in Heaven. It feels like like a safe album for him, even if he's recognisable like always. His most unusual moment, on Man Alive, comes through providing narration rather than any wild use of his substantial vocal talents. Steve Morse is as reliable as we might expect too, surprising mostly by how rarely he launches into a guitar solo. Roger Glover and Ian Paice are reliability personified too, Glover's bass audible and distinguishable throughout. Paice is the only musician to play on every Purple album and we aren't surprised.

But this is Don Airey's album for me. He introduces songs like Nothing at All and The Power of the Moon and its his keyboards that primarily make the former lively and the latter bouncy. He has great solos on Drop the Weapon and Remission Possible. He defines No Need to Shout with a single note. I'm happy enough with Bob Ezrin's mix that I can track every musician here on a fresh runthrough but it's always Airey that returns to focus for me.

GoneZilla - Sang Noir (2020)

Country: France
Style: Gothic Doom Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 19 Jun 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Given all the other Apocalypse Later things I've been doing recently to cut into my music review time, I've had this on repeat for so long that I don't need to actually press play any more for it to rattle around my skull.

It's an EP from France, sent to me by GoneZilla bassist Clément Fau, and it features doom/death with that balance weighted more towards the former than the latter. It reminds me a lot of early Paradise Lost, not least because of a heavy gothic influence, but with a layer of atmospheric texture that rings of a different French band, Winds of Sirius.

The vocals are primarily female and clean, melancholy and emotional, full of gothic splendour. I liked this from my first listen, but when lead vocalist Céline Revol injects an extra level of emphasis into her voice a minute into the opening title track, I knew this was going to be for me. She doesn't do that unless she needs to, but when she needs to she can always turn it up an extra notch and that's a real benefit here.

Two minutes and change into that seven minute opener, the band add an extra voice, a harsh male growl from guitarist Florent Petit that works well as a counter, especially during darker sections. Sometimes it feels like there's an ongoing battle between the elegant gothic doom side of this band and its twisted death sibling. Revol leads the former while Petit brings the latter to the battleground.

This is generally lush rather than sparse, but there's a breakdown a minute or so from the end of Antitaktai that highlights how they sound with all the atmosphere turned off, especially as the response to that breakdown is to go right into an atmospheric section with textured layers. Check out the intro to Dexter-ity II, because many bands might feature a cool guitar like that, but it's the spectral keyboards floating around it here that help to define the GoneZilla sound.

In instrumental sections, that Gothic era Paradise Lost sound springs to the fore, not that it's ever far away. That's especially the case in the second half of Dexter-ity II when the vocals give way to instrumentation. It has a more intense Gregor Mackintosh-style lead guitar, but I have to call out the rhythm section for praise here because, while I was enjoying Julien Babot's solo, I was also adoring the vicious bite of Petit's guitar and Fau's bass, not to forget the admirable patience of Florent Olivier. Babot gets more and more intense and Olivier steadfastly resists the urge to follow him.

While I like Sang Noir and Antitaktai, they're relatively immediate songs. I can't remember how many times I've listened through this EP but there was a point where I realised that Dexter-ity III is easily my favourite. It simply took longer to let me know that, growing and growing on me until I couldn't ignore it any more. The same happened with Amor Tenebris but not to the same extent.

The only negative comment I'd throw in here, beyond this being an EP rather than a full length album (and I want more, dammit), is that the best song is presumably a reworking of a song on their debut album, which came out a few years ago in 2016 and was called Chimères. Now, that's hardly a major issue and it just makes me want to track that debut down even more, but hopefully GoneZilla are keeping safe over there in Lyon and working on a new album to release in the not too distant future.

Monday, 10 August 2020

Cro-Mags - In the Beginning (2020)



Country: USA
Style: Crossover
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 19 Jun 2020
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website

So many bands have emerged out of the shadows over the last couple of years, if not from completely out of the blue, but I shouldn't be too surprised to see the Cro-Mags among them, given how often they've split up over the years and how often they've got back together again, in one form or another. They have something of a reputation for internecine feuds, as if all the clichéd New York gang movies are somehow true to life.

This, however, marks an official shift of the band away from its incarnation under John Joseph Bloodclot, who led the Cro-Mags for the last decade in his fifth stint in the band, and to the band's founder, Harley Flanagan, who is now on his fourth. It was Flanagan who sang on Revenge, the band's previous album, which was released only three weeks into the year 2000. They've been gone from the studio, if not the stage, for a long time.

While some of the folk in Joseph's new incarnation of the band, Cro-Mags JM, have decades of service in it, everyone in the current line-up has time with the Cro-Mags dating back at least three stints going back to the nineties. I see Rocky George from Suicidal Tendencies on guitar; he was on that previous Cro-Mags album too. With Flanagan on bass as well as vocal duty, that leaves Gabby Abularach on the other guitar and Garry Sullivan on drums.

I first heard the Cro-Mags in 1986 when my favourite band had changed from Iron Maiden to Nuclear Assault and I'd become fascinated by the new merger of thrash metal with American punk. I'd dug deep into thrash but knew almost nothing about punk at that point. What I quickly discovered was that I was a metalhead not a punk but I did like a lot of the pioneering crossover bands, including the Cro-Mags, D.R.I. and Bad Brains.

In the Beginning is more of a metal album than The Age of Quarrel was back in 1986, with Flanagan's vocals deeper, more controlled and far more mature, and the two guitarists providing a real crunch. The punk side of the band is more obvious in the rhythm section. Just check out the energetic bass intro to No One's Coming, which is possibly the best song on the album and surely the most important too.

For instance, it's at that point that we realise that we haven't even been listening for ten minutes yet, but we're already onto track five. The band simply blister through the first four songs, none of which make it past the three minute mark and one of which only just sneaks past half that. Over the album as a whole, fully half a dozen songs wrap up in fewer than two and a half minutes. The entire run of thirteen is done and dusted in under forty.

It also shows some real imagination. Not only does it last long enough for a guitar solo in the middle, which doesn't remotely slow the blitzkrieg riffs and bludgeoning drums that drive the song forward, but it adds another sound later on. We start to hear more beats than G-Man ought to be able to provide and we realise that they're not his. It sounds like the band are rocking out in an underground garage and the audience is joining in by banging whatever they can find against the wall. As it wraps up, we realise that this is all in effective ethnic rhythms.

There is one longer song and that's also interesting, because it ditches the vocals. It's Between Wars and it's entirely instrumental for its almost six minutes. It's not really rooted in thrash at all and it's the drums that are most obvious, shining far brighter than the guitars, G-Man doing a glorious job as the apparent octopus behind the kit.

So that's two highlight songs that I've praised the drums in. I should point out that the guitars are generally everywhere here, providing ever-reliable crunch and riffage. The more we focus on them, the more we realise just how tight this band is. PTSD is absolutely textbook crossover—no nonsense, balls to the wall, bludgeoning energy—and so is The Final Test, with its fantastic speed up at the halfway mark; only its vocals do somewhere different, being surprisingly subdued for a not remotely subdued genre. I like.

The most punk song is probably Two Hours, which is vehemently up front and threatening. It's less a song and more an angry musical punch in the face, the lyrics preached rather than sung or shouted and the music slower as if it's background texture to something visual than the backing to a song. Is there a video to this one? If there isn't, there ought to be.

Not everything holds up to the best songs here, but nothing lets the album done. It's a powerful statement of intent for a band who haven't released a studio album in twenty years. Welcome back, folks.

Nighthawker - From Wither to Bloom (2020)



Country: Netherlands
Style: Southern Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 Jun 2020
Sites: Facebook | Official Website

I got caught by surprise by this second album by Dutch rockers Nighthawker and I've been listening to it a lot to figure out what's happening in their sound. It's clearly rooted in southern rock, but it's quieter and much more subdued than the usual Lynyrd Skynyrd or Molly Hatchet influences. They're surely there, but there's as much Crosby, Stills and Nash to lighten it all. There's easily as much late sixties here as seventies and on.

Instead, the guitars carry some unmistakeable fuzz with them. As bluesy as a song like Dishwasher Blues gets, with Mischa van Dalsen providing some tasty harmonica licks, there's always a connection to more modern stoner pop/rock and that's even more obvious on ongs like Night of the Hunter. The Moonlight Rider takes us back to the late sixties but it sports a psychedelic vibe not a hippie one. I could imagine this played by a band supporting the Doors at the Fillmore.

This versatility impresses me but it's really pretty straightforward. While we're used to bands going back to a point in time and playing everything in the style of that time, Nighthawker are a great example of a band who don't stop at that point in time but work forward from it in a direction that's a logical one for them, creating their music from that thin slice of influence going back through the decades. I just love bands who explore those slices.

The core of the band is four musicians, two male and two female, the latter not being relegated to the roles you might expect. I don't think any of them shine over any of their colleagues, but that's because they work so well as a cohesive band. While the songs here are created by four people, they sound like they're really created instead by a single unit with eight arms and the requisite other bodyparts to do the job right. That helps provide a sort of live feel, as if the various instruments can't be separated and can only be performed together.

There are guests too, with a saxophone on this track and congas on those two but it's the guest vocals that stand out most. Three of the band members are credited with vocals: guitarist Steven van der Vegt on male lead and drummer Kiki Beemer on female lead, with Brandon Spies adding backing vocals to his bass duties. Only guitarist Gwen Ummels doesn't sing, but she provided that gorgeous cover art, so I ain't complaining.

The two songs featuring guest vocals are The Rabbit Hole and Sundown. The former features the talents of singer/songwriter CelineShanice, which I believe is one word not two, and she does a fine job as a complement to van der Vegt. She's even better singing lead for Nighthawker on a cover of Led Zeppelin's What Is and What Should Never Be, which can be found on the band's website. It was the unique voice of Edith Spies-Wawrowska on the latter that really blew me away, though. Her main band is Violet's Tale, who are apparently an old time country outfit for whom she sings lead, and I simply must find out what they sound like, but she fits superbly here as well, even if her voice stands out enough to make it obvious that she's a guest.

It does feel odd talking about vocals here, because Nighthawker are a guitar band, just with subtle guitars for folk with such an overt love for southern rock. There's only one real chicken scratching guitar jam, for instance, at the end of Leaps of Faith, though Mountain Bridge does think about it. Other songs highlight just how varied the guitarwork is here, from Ummels and van der Vegt. They both play acoustic and electric, while the latter also adds a real flavour to the closer, That Train Left the Station, on slide.

This appears to be Nighthawker's debut album, following a couple of 2018 EPs called Escape the Hornet's Nest, named for sides of an LP rather than parts of a continued release. I'll have to track them down along with my expected side journey into what Violet's Tale are doing. And I'll add this band to my "want to see live but probably never well" list. I'd love to experience the feel of a live Nighthawker gig because I have a feeling it might be special.

Friday, 12 June 2020

BPMD - American Made (2020)



Country: USA
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating:
Release Date: 12 Jun 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter

Having recently reviewed an album of all original music from what used to be a tribute band (Fragile, in case you're wondering), here's a counter: some major names teaming up to cover a bunch of American rock classics from the seventies. The project started with bass player Mark Menghi of the groove/thrash supergroup, Metal Allegiance, and he created another tight side band here with an accomplished set of musicians.

The band name is the initials you might expect, with Menghi the M. The B is Bobby 'Blitz' Ellsworth, lead vocalist of New Jersey thrash outfit Overkill; the P is Mike Portnoy, former drummer of Dream Theater; and the D is former Machine Head guitarist Phil Demmel, who's now with Violence. For a line-up of mostly thrash musicians, they treat these songs as rock songs, heavying them up a little but rarely speeding them up. This wasn't about reinventing them in a thrash style.

Apparently, each member of the band chose two songs to cover, with the final two being group decisions and it's interesting to see who picked what.

Mike Portnoy's two choices show up first and they're a fantastic way to kick things off. They're well known songs, so everyone can sing along: Wang Dang Sweet Poontang, originally by Ted Nugent, and Aerosmith's Toys in the Attic. The former gives Ellsworth a great opportunity to introduce the band in the sort of rapid fire rhyme that Nugent used to famously introduce the song on Double Live Gonzo! My favourite of these two is the latter, though, because it's similar to the Aerosmith original but more vicious and in your face.

Menghi's choices are iconic numbers too, including the one that sparked the band and album to begin with, Lynyrd Skynyrd's Saturday Night Special. The other is ZZ Top's Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers and it was here that I realised how true to the original tempos BPMD were being. There may be a couple of extra notes in Saturday Night Special to give it a little more emphatic crunch but the band don't attempt to reinvent the song, just give it more urgency.

Ellsworth and Demmel plumped for deeper cuts, especially to my British ears, given that my seventies rock education was from bands that Overkill acknowledged on their Coverkill album: Black Sabbath, Motörhead and Deep Purple more than Cactus, Mountain and the James Gang. Overall, my favourites here were the more obscure numbers, with the exception of We're an American Band, the Grand Funk Railroad standard. That's a song everyone knows and the one that I looked forward to least here, but BPMD do a superb job of making it seem new and filling it with fresh life.

Ellsworth's choices were Evil, the Cactus version of the Willie Dixon blues number and Never in My Life, a Mountain song that I don't know. Strangely, I would call the former the least successful choice here but the latter one of the most successful and for much the same reason. I don't think the band are able to catch the groove in the former and Ellsworth's vocals overwhelm it, but they absolutely nail the groove in the latter and Ellsworth shines, his snarl really fitting the style.

That leaves Demmel, who to my way of thinking is the backbone of this album, as utterly reliable as Portnoy and the others are but let loose to shine on a more frequent basis. He gets to play in quite a number of styles, provide both the lead and rhythm and to do the job of two guitarists on his own. His contribution to Toys in the Attic sounds very different from what he brings to Never in My Life or his own choices, which are Blue Öyster Cult's Tattoo Vampire and Van Halen's D.O.A., but he's excellent on each.

Both could be called deep cuts, even though the originals were on albums as famous as Agents of Fortune and Van Halen II, and, while other songs on them spring quickly to mind, these didn't for me, perhaps making these versions a bit fresher inherently. BPMD really dive into both songs though, with a wild guitar from Demmel. Tattoo Vampire feels like such a gimme for a thrash band that I'm surprised I've not heard it covered by one before and the latter is so quintessentially Van Halen that anyone not knowing the original would not be in doubt as to who originated it. Both are real highlights here.

That leaves a couple of bonus tracks, selected by the band as a whole, with We're an American Band the closer that leaves us happy but wanting more, as indeed all closers should. The other is another deep cut that's a highlight for me, the James Gang's Walk Away, which everyone shines on, including some slightly less sneering vocals than usual from Ellsworth.

I really dug this album, a lot more than the last covers album I reviewed, a much more predictable affair from the Ron Keel Band. This is just as fun and even better performed but it's not remotely as disposable. Beyond bringing fresh life to a few songs so well known that it's difficult for anyone to do a good job in the modern day, they also shed new light on a bunch of lesser known songs that listeners are absolutely going to seek out now.

I think part of the success is the clear passion this band has for this sort of material but part of it also is that, whoever chose a particular song, it took the whole band to bring it life and, with the one exception of Evil, I would say that everyone shines on everything. I've listened to this through a few times and whatever instrument I focus on, it's heartfelt and strong. I would love to see a follow up to this album whenever the guys are ready for it.

Shakedown Suzies - A Business Doin' Pleasure (2020)



Country: Sweden
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Jun 2020
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Twitter

I love exploring subgenres old and new to see where bands are taking sounds in new directions. Sometimes, though, I just like to sit back so that a back to basics, no frills, good old fashioned rock 'n' roll band can kick my ass and Shakedown Suzies definitely fit in that category. There's nothing new in their sound at all, outside the cool carnival music that bookends Delicious Vice, but they do what they do very well indeed and, what's more, they do it with an infectious energy that's hard to resist.

They play hard rock with a emphatic glam edge, that approach led by the lead singer who goes by Ricki Rascal, but it knocks on the door of metal rather a lot. Jonathan Mortensen's guitar is metal through and through, so much that I should probably call it an axe. It slices through the air far more deeply than a regular hard rock guitar would. There's also metal in the energy and the pace and the sheer wall of sound.

Much of this reminds of Dr. Feelgood era Mötley Crüe, Mads Mattsson's drums pounding away like thunderbolts as the rest of the band parade a solid array of riffs and hooks past us. Best of Me is probably the closest to that sound but it's riddled throughout the album. However, when the band kick into high gear, they end up in Motörhead territory. Check out the beginning of Savage Hearts or the end of Alibi, let alone the whole of Hair of the Dog.

All this makes for an energetic sound that's both more raw and more vicious than the pure energy of, say, Airbourne. If I had been played this blind, I would have conjured up a telling line-up in my imagination. The vocals feel like a fifty fifty mix of Michael Monroe and Sebastian Bach. The guitars are an alternating combo of 'Fast' Eddie Clarke and Dave Murray. The back end is the gritty, ever-reliable pairing of Duff McKagan and Tommy Lee. And that's a supergroup in my mind.

Most importantly, the Suzies don't let up. This isn't the longest album I've ever heard, its eleven songs running just over forty minutes, but they don't let up at any point. Even a brief intro suggests that we might be in for the inevitable power ballad, like Rascal Remedy, the band quickly kick it up and find a tougher vibe, in this case ending up as an interesting cross between Thin Lizzy and Asomvel. The closest to a ballad that the band get has to be the closer, I Don't Do Regrets, and that's still no ballad. It merely avoids high gear and lets Mortensen and bassist Agust Ahlberg strut their stuff in Guns n' Roses style.

While the mix gets the instrument levels right, this material demands to be played loud but, when I turn it way up, it distorts a little at the top end and that's not good when each new song just wants me to turn it up further. That distortion is the worst thing about this album, which speaks volumes on the band's consistency.

I should emphasise that I'm a fan of how raw and energetic this sounds and, like all the best rock 'n' roll, it stamps a reminder onto the inside of our eyeballs that we have to see this band live. I haven't because they're from Jönköping in Sweden, so I don't know how they are on stage, but they leave the impression that they'll dominate so much that a good chunk of the guys who never ever leave the bar will find their legs and move up front to join everyone else.

It's also worth mentioning that glam metal often sounds great the first time through, as the hooks catch us, but gets old after we've heard them far too often. I've had this album on repeat for a few days and I haven't tired of a single song yet. In fact, the album just more and more consistent. My choice of a favourite has changed so often that I'm not even going to give you one to go on. Just buy the album. I promise you won't do regrets.

Thursday, 11 June 2020

Centinex - Death in Pieces (2020)



Country: Sweden
Style: Death Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 29 May 2020
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Wikipedia | YouTube

Here's another old school death metal band who were formed around the point where I was getting bored of old school death metal. They're Centinex, from Sweden and they had what looks like an impressive run from 1990 to 2006, at which point they split up. With eight albums behind them, they reformed in 2014 and have added three more since. On the basis of this one, I'm a fan but...

To be fair, the present Centinex isn't remotely the original Centinex. Bass player Martin Schulman seems to be the heart of the band; he's not just the only original member, continuing with them throughout, he's the only member who's been in the band more than about five minutes. Drummer Florian Rehn is the new fish, having only joined this year, while vocalist Henrik Andersson and guitarist Jörgen Kristensen came on board last year.

While I doubt there's a heck of a lot of past consistency when Andersson is the band's seventh lead singer and Kristensen the seventh lead guitarist, I like the current sound and, for right now, that's all that matters.

They get right down to business, each of the eleven songs on offer a short, sharp shock. Not one of them exceeds four minutes and five clock in at under three, but the style really suits that length. It's lively death: up tempo but never full speed, dark but never outrageously downtuned, deep and growly but never so far to strip Andersson of the ability to intonate. It's heavy anyway and it's even heavier because of an excellent mix.

There isn't much space in this sound for intros or outros or much in the way of dynamic play. I could call Pieces a song featuring a rare intro for this album, but, to be brutally honest, it's nothing more than an intro. Sure, it happens to be a really good one but, by the time it's ready to kick into top gear, it's over and we're into Cauterized, which happens to be a relentless highlight. Centinex just knuckle right down and deliver the goods, over and over again.

What that means is that, while I like this a lot, I'd probably only like it a lot in certain circumstances. For instance, each time I've thrown this on for a listen, it's been after something completely different: prog rock and garage rock, nothing extreme. This worked well as a counter and I enjoyed an hour or so each time of being hammered into submission by listening through a couple of times. I think I'd dig this band as a reliable top support band live, focusing in after all the local guys that had gone before and getting us firmly in the mood for the headliner.

However, I don't ever think I'd throw the Centinex back catalogue on loop as I'd probably get bored pretty quickly. I'd love to listen to the band's next album but I probably won't throw this one on again. They're tight enough and consistent enough to kill live but, if the band in the top support slot did anything unusual at all, they'd probably be the one I'd leave reflecting on rather than this bigger name band at the top of the bill.

And that lack of variety is why I'm dropping this down to 6/10. I enjoyed it a great deal but, outside of perhaps the chorus in Cauterized and the core riff in Sacrifice, if you asked me for the best track or my favourite song or any other moment for special mention, I'd have to ask you to pick a card, any card. They're all simultaneously the best and the worst, because they're interchangeable and whether you see that as a good thing or not will shape your appreciation of the band and this album. If you're a Centinex fan, add at least one point back on.

Clavicule - Garage is Dead (2020)



Country: France
Style: Psychedelic Garage Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Jun 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | YouTube

Garage is dead, say Clavicule, releasing what is really a psychedelic garage rock album. The results tell me that garage is far from dead and nobody has even nailed it to the perch. It's clearly alive and well in Rennes, up there in the northwest of France, where Clavicule have mixed it with an intriguing array of sounds. There's Hawkwind in here but Danzig too and Dick Dale and, quite frankly, I never expected to write those names in the same sentence.

This looks like their debut album, though it features the three tracks made previously available on a self-titled EP last year, including the opener, a sensitive little ditty entitled Asshole. This starts out with some surf rock in the guitar but restrained surf against a lofi garage rock backdrop. As it hits full stride and the vocals come in, they're punky in the vein of Glenn Danzig. That's an odd mix but it works really well and it hooked me.

There's no Danzig in the second song, Special Trip, because there's a layer on top of the vocals that gives it a spacy effect. With the vibe generated a hallucinogenic one and the beat an emphatic one, it's not difficult to hear some old school Hawkwind in the song and hey, that works really well too. It shows some neat versatility in the band, even though the two songs aren't as far away from each other sonically as I may have suggested.

Today feels more like garage pop, just as emphatic and just as raw but with a slower Beatles vibe in the construction. There's indie rock in here too, a genre I don't know well enough to highlight comparisons to, but that's where garage rock usually fits so it shouldn't be too surprising. The rhythm is an emphatic old school dance rhythm and the middle eastern sounds in the solos help it to sound almost flamenco.

If that's a wide set of influences, it's a tasty one and Clavicule mix them up over the rest of the album. My Time might start out like an Adam Ant demo but, when it speeds up, it does so with a wild garage flamenco transition. I live for moments like that one. CAB has a flamenco rhythm too, but goes deep into the surf sound three minutes in, which becomes neatly intense, and that sound gets even more delightful when the riffs shift over to keyboards. I'm a big fan of the bass too when the song breaks down towards the end.

Garage bands don't tend to play long songs, but there are two here, with CAB being the first. At 7:19, it's double the average length of the rest, but it never outstays its welcome because it's constructed in phases. Strangely, if CAB is one of my highlights here, my least favourite song is the other long song on offer, Jericho, which closes out the album with an uncharacteristic patience for 6:25. It's the only piece of music here that doesn't take me anywhere, except during its ethnic sections.

I know next to nothing about the band, though Facebook tells me that they're a four piece, with two guitars. Marius plays one and also takes care of the vocals, while Kamil plays the other. Ian handles an occasionally funky bass and Alexis brings an often punky vibe to the drums, or more appropriately in French, the batterie. I have no idea who's responsible for the castanets in the second half of Vertigo, when everything goes garage flamenco again.

While my favourite songs, like My Time and CAB, can be found at the heart of the album, moments like the beginning and end of Vertigo are also highlights and there are plenty more of those. The Race has a particularly epic ending, while The Monkey starts out like Mark Knopfler has stepped in on guitar. I'd given up by that point on any expectation that Clavicule wouldn't just keep on surprising me. I don't think their styles work as well on a ballad, but I won't complain, especially given that The Monkey goes suitably nuts to close.

I really dug this, because it sounds both accessible and highly inventive, a mixture of styles I hadn't heard before that suddenly sound natural together and ought to be mixed more often. Now I really want to hear Clavicule live, maybe alongside a band like The Villainz. That would make for a particularly wild night, hopefully in a tiny but utterly packed club, especially if they join forces at the end of the evening to jam.

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

Shok Paris - Full Metal Jacket (2020)



Country: USA
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 10 Jun 2020
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website

Here's yet another band returning from completely out of the blue, cementing 2020 as following in the footsteps of 2019 for surprising resurrections. The old band with new life this time are Shok Paris, who I remember from a 1987 album called Steel and Starlight, though not only for the music; it featured a highly memorable album cover. That was their second eighties album of three and this is album four, because the only studio album they've released since 1989 was a reissue of Steel and Starlight with its heavier original mix.

I actually listened to this back earlier in the year because it was due out at the beginning of February but it got delayed, so I'm returning to it now. My thoughts in July are pretty much what they were in January, namely that I like this but took a while to get used to it, because of the vocals; that it has every bit of the life and energy that a first album in 31 years ought to have; and that it gets better as it moves along.

Maybe Shok Paris never went away but merely hopped through a portal in time from 1987, because the title does indeed refer to the Stanley Kubrick movie. There's an intro called The Creed, which, if you've seen the movie, is what you think it is, merely recreated musically rather than sampled. That leads into the title track, which is decent anthemic hard and heavy stuff that's a throwback to the band's heyday without ever sounding like they don't mean it just as much today.

I should introduce the band, who are led by original guitarist Ken Erb, who co-founded Shok Paris back in 1982 and has been them throughout, except for the two decade gap that ended with reformation in 2009. The other musicians joined in 2010, after the other former members promptly soured on the idea of getting the band back together again. Ed Stephens is the name, because I think he's played bass in every rock band in Cleveland since the James Gang. Well, except Nine Inch Nails. The reliable drummer is Donovan Kenaga and the second guitarist who weaves solos so well with Erb on songs like Fall from Grace is John Korzekwa.

That leaves vocalist Vic Hix, who joined in 1984 and, like Erb, has remained with the band throughout. Unlike Erb, he did release other music during that two decade hiatus, putting out some albums with Philly-based Aftershok. He's the hardest aspect of this album to get used to, though I did get there. He has old school air raid siren vocals with an odd accent and what sounds like a frequent difficulty in catching breath. He has a distinctive enuncation, a trademark that gets overt on These Eyes with its Crimson Glory vibe.

The first half of the album is decent stuff, songs like Nature of the Beast, Metal on Metal and Brothers in Arms enjoyable if never outstanding. It's at the halfway mark that things start to really reach full gear, initially with Black Boots and especially with Hell Day, which reminds of the late eighties when heavy metal bands had sped up in response to the speed metal bands and often found a really cool balance point between power and speed.

I like the second half in general more than the first but the other gem is a power shanty called Symphony of the Sea. The wild vocals of Vic Hix keep it away from pirate metal bands like Alestorm but the melodies flow in much the same way. After that is only the closer, Up the Hammers, which may not mean the same thing in Ohio that it does to Steve Harris. With Stephen's bass on the gallop during the opening, I presume it's a knowing nod to Iron Maiden, for whom 7:14 wouldn't seem particularly long. Hail to the gods, indeed.

This is a decent album, not the impossible to miss comeback album the band's members might have hoped it would be but a very palatable return that makes me look forward to the next one. The current line-up has been stable now for a decade, even with this being its first release, so I presume they're both getting on as a band and getting a good response from the Cleveland audience which is not a minor one. Let's see where they go from here!

Fragile - Golden Fragments (2020)



Country: Germany
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 16 May 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook

I have a love/hate relationship with tribute bands. I understand the draw of being able to see the equivalent of bands live at a fraction of the cost of the real thing and in a much smaller venue, especially when the originals no longer exist, at least in the form that we might want. AC/DC with Bon Scott in your local club for ten bucks? A tribute band's your only option. My big problem is that many of these bands nowadays feature musicians who are damn good at what they do and I'd love to hear their own music instead of another take on someone else's.

Case in point: Fragile, who have evolved from their origins as a Yes tribute band to be an "original band paying tribute to Yes in our own unique way". I see that they've been around since 1998 but this is their debut release with original music and I'm really happy that they've evolved to that point, even if it also means that they're no longer playing live.

These musicians also aren't nobodies. For instance, the female vocals come courtesy of Claire Hamill, who's sung for Fragile since 2013. She may not be a household name, but she's guested on albums by Wishbone Ash, Steve Howe and Jon and Vangelis. As a solo artist, she was signed by Ray Davies of the Kinks as far back as 1973 and her solo career has lasted just as many years as I've been alive. Eva Cassidy covered her.

The others may not have Wikipedia pages of their own, but they're clearly as able as they'd need to be to play in a Yes tribute band. There are also some guest vocals from Clive Bayley, who formed Mabel Greer's Toyshop way back in 1966, the band which gradually hired Chris Squire, Peter Banks, Jon Anderson and the other musicians who would soon rename the band to Yes.

While this is clearly music inspired by Yes, mostly from the classic era you might expect from the band's name, Fragile have found their own sound too. I believe having a female lead vocalist helps, especially given that her voice is mostly pitched a little lower than Jon Anderson's. With both Bayley and a regular male vocalist, Max Hunt, of course, even lower, there's little fear of us mistaking the bands.

The Yes influence does extend to the structure of many of these songs. Four of seven are actually pairs of songs that last for up to twelve minutes and change, with a wide use of dynamics and an even wider profusion of lengthy instrumental passages. The closest song to Yes may be Time to Dream/Now We are Sunlight, but aspects of the Yes style can be found throughout, whether through quiet guitar interludes like Open Space or fullblown imagination in musical form like the second half of Surely All I Need.

The latter is itself the second half of a song pair with When are Wars Won? and it opens the album in very lively form. At its most imaginative, it's an instrumental attempt to take us into a landscape such as the cover art might hint at. Put yourself in that position with that point of view and then turn around 360° and imagine what you see. That's Surely All I Need, even if the delightful lyrics suggest at a different vista, and it's easily my favourite piece of music on this album.

While Hamill sings the first two pairs of songs, Five Senses shifts Hunt up to the mike to sing lead and it's telling that the song doesn't feel at all like a different band. Sure, Hunt's voice is in an echoey lower register and his songs hint at space rock, but Fragile never turn into Hawkwind, even on Heaven's Core. The earlier songs are all exuberant pieces of music, with the band building layers of sound until they're unstoppable forces.

I listened to this a lot because it's highly immersive stuff and I came to a few realisations. The obvious one is that, while the guitar of Oliver Day is notable, this is driven a lot more by its keyboards than it is guitars and those are a further contribution by Max Hunt. As he also plays the bass and dabbles in guitar and percussion, along with being the primary male voice, I assume that he's the band's driving force nowadays, even though I don't see his name listed as a founding member.

Others are less obvious. The album, which runs a decent fifty minutes, moves throughout from exuberance to introspection, so that we're initially caught up by the rush of it all and conditioned to that by the time Open Space and Time to Dream come around and the folky vibe of Old Worlds and Kingdoms. I love Claire Hamill's vocals but only gradually realised that, while she's an outstanding lead vocalist, she's also an outstanding backing vocalist, which I ought to have assumed once I realised where I've heard her before. Now I'm intrigued as to where she is on The Friends of Mr. Cairo.

I know this isn't the first tribute band to release a strong studio album of original music, because I reviewed Stripwired last year and I'm sure they were far from the first, but I do wonder how prevalent the approach is nowadays. I hope I see it more.

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

Vandenberg - 2020 (2020)



Country: The Netherlands
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 29 May 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

It seems weird to suggest that an album called 2020 is a surprising release in 2020, but this one's by Vandenberg, the band led by Dutch guitar wizard Adrian Vandenberg, and the last one we saw was Alibi way back in 1985. That was a good album, but we've got used to Vandenberg the person playing for a slew of other bands, not least Whitesnake, so hardly expected Vandenberg the band to resurface after thirty-five years for album number four.

It's a really good album made by a really good new line-up and those of you who still play Whitesnake's album 1987 often will really dig it. Vandenberg was responsible for the solo on Here I Go Again '87 and that's a good template for what's on this album. Just add slick 21st century production that keeps everything punchy, drop the overt ballads and forget the cheesy eighties MTV videos. This stands on its own merits and it kicks ass.

While it all sounds thoroughly American, I should emphasise that only one of the current band is American and that's drummer Brian Tichy, the name that I didn't know, even though ten seconds of research highlights that I've heard him often, from his work with Foreigner, Billy Idol, Gilby Clarke, the Dead Daisies, Sass Jordan and others, including Whitesnake. Here I must point out that I'm not sure if Tichy is actually in the band or just guesting on the album. Some sources suggest the former, but the Vandenberg band site states the latter, as the actual drummer is Koen Herfst, of Epica fame.

The same goes for the bass player, which Wikipedia says is Rudy Sarzo, who's played for everyone. Where you know him from may depend on your age. For me, it's Quiet Riot, but you may know him best from his work with Ozzy Osbourne, Dio, Queensrÿche or, inevitably, Whitesnake. However, again the Vandenberg site says that he's also guesting while the real bassist is Randy van der Elsen, best known for his work with Tank.

How this resolves, I have no idea. Maybe the band members are van der Elsen and Herfst while Sarzo and Tichy recorded the album. Answers on the back of a postcard please. What we know for sure is that the new vocalist is Ronnie Romero, who's surely the busiest singer in rock nowadays. He's best known at this point for Lords of Black and the reformed Rainbow, but he does a great job whoever he's singing for and this album is no exception.

You'd be insane if you thought there wasn't a lot of Whitesnake in the sound but the best material here, which to my mind is Hell and High Water, merges it with Rainbow. It's obvious in Romero's vocals, in Vandenberg's guitar and especially in the keyboards that underpin the second half of the song. It's not Stargazer but it's a heck of a lot closer to it than you expected before reading this. It's a real peach of a song.

I really like Let It Rain too, which follows it on the album, even though it starts out teasingly like a power ballad. Just as we're imagining hairspray budgets and Tawny Kitaen, it kicks into a neat groove, a worthy contemporary take on eighties hair metal that effortlessly avoids cliché. There's enough grit in the mix and Romero's vocals to make this feel right for 2020 and not just 1987. The inevitable exception may be Shout, which is so eighties hair metal that we almost cringe. Almost.

While Romero is so good at this sort of thing that it's easy to focus on him to the detriment of everything else, Vandenberg has always been a fantastic guitarist and he seems to have a lot of fun creating an album under his own name again. The guitars are just right in the mix and he gets quite as many opportunities to shine as you might expect, without ever overdoing it. This band may bear his name but it's still a band not a solo performance. Perhaps his brightest guitar moments come on the opener, Shadows of the Night, but I could have thrown out a half dozen other choices without much hardship.

The biggest catch to the album is that it doesn't attempt anything remotely new at all but it's fair to say that anyone into this sort of music won't be too worried about that. It's unashamedly what it is, melodic hard rock with a direct line back to hair metal. The riffs work, the hooks work and Romero and Vandenberg both shine, while whoever happens to be backing them does the reliable jobs expected of them. Now, let's hope the next album isn't called 2055.

Alligator - Direct Heart Massage (2020)



Country: Ukraine
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Jun 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Metal Archives | VK

It's been a good year for thrash metal but it hasn't been a great one, with a lot of the big names releasing albums that are worthy but not outstanding. Annihilator still have the edge for me thus far in 2020 and I've never been a particularly big Annihilator fan. So I've been wandering virtually around the globe looking for more good stuff in the hope of finding great stuff. I expect to be looking all year but here's another good album from Sevastopol in the Ukraine, courtesy of Alligator.

Instrumentally, they're excellent, and they stay that way during long intros on many of these tracks. A Chisel, which opens the album, runs on for a full minute and a half before vocals show up and the song only lasts a couple of minutes longer. The intro for Dying For takes a full minute of the three and half that the song runs. And these are far from acoustic intros intended to set a mood, they feature the whole band riffing away at full pelt. Ditch the long intro and you get songs like So Fear is Born, which is a blitzkrieg at under two minutes in the vein of Destruction.

Most of the first half is fast, beginning with A Chisel, which is enough to get the blood pumping without any of the manual intervention depicted on the cover art. It's not breakneck though, because this is technical thrash and it lives or dies on its riffs and changes rather than its sheer speed. It's consistently fast enough to keep me happy as I do like fast thrash bands so much more than those who stay relentlessly at mid-pace. Shake up the tempos, like Alligator do on the title track and indeed much of the second half, but don't ignore the speed completely.

It seems that Alligator have been around for a long time, originally getting together back in 1992 but giving up the ghost only four years later without having recorded anything. Clearly they didn't get serious until reforming in 2015. Since then, they've released two EPs and three studio albums, this one being the most recent. Maybe Believe in Yourself is a musical take on their new work ethic: "Your time will come," they tell themselves and I hope that happens.

Alligator are a power trio and the main man is Vladimir Ternovskoy. The best thing about this album is his guitar and he's the only guitarist in play. I adore his guitar tone and I adore how he puts it to use. There's no messing around here. He just gets right down to business and bludgeons us with riffs for the twenty-six minutes the album lasts. That's the worst thing about the album, by the way: that's shorter than Reign in Blood and that's noticeable in 2020.

Talking of Slayer, they're clearly a primary influence and there are points where this sounds like Schmier singing for Slayer. The voice also belongs to Ternovskoy because he does double duty in this band and, while I enjoyed his vocals, I enjoyed them less than his guitarwork. It's a rough voice, with an accent obvious even in the faster sections, and it makes the tone set by the guitar even grittier.

Backing him in Alligator are Nikolay Chechin on a solid and audible bass and Evgeny Tikhomirov on very reliable drums. They're clearly backing Ternovskoy rather than leading the music anywhere; I didn't catch any solo moments for the bass to shine or points where the drums set the direction forward. That said, they don't mess around either. Even at midpace, this is pure thrash. I could imagine walking into a gig late with Alligator on stage and instantly finding myself in the mood to leap into the pit.

Interestingly, my favourite songs here are a mix of fast and slow. I dug the speed of So Fear is Born and the in your face attitude of Street Guys, but I also appreciated the closer, Father's Tears, which is slower and, at under four minutes, still happy to ditch the vocals before the halfway point and wrap up things instrumentally.

If I wanted more than Alligator were willing to give me, that's entirely a comment about the length of the album and I feel I have to dock a point for that. The music, however, is glorious, and it's a lot more consistent than anything the American bands people are raving about have released this year.