Friday 31 January 2020

Dawn of Solace - Waves (2020)

Country: Finland
Style: Gothic Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 24 Jan 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

Dawn of Solace is mostly another one man band, this time the work of Tuomas Saukkonen from Lahti in Finland, who contributes everything here except the clean vocals, which are provided by Mikko Heikkilä, the guitarist and clean vocalist in Kaunis Kuolematon. Saukkonen is a busy lad. Apparently Dawn of Solace grew out of another of his bands, Before the Dawn, who played gothic death metal. When some of the material written for their third album turned out different enough, he diverted it to a new solo project, Dawn of Solace, and released it as The Darkness in 2006.

He continued to work in many different bands, like thrash/deathcore outfit The Final Harvest, melodic doom/death group Black Sun Aeon and melodeath project RoutaSielu. However, he disbanded them all in 2013 to concentrate on a new one called Wolfheart. Like many of his solo projects, it grew into a full band and they're four albums in and still going. However, as another melodic death metal band, this material wouldn't have fit so he resurrected Dawn of Solace for a second album, fourteen years after the first.

I see Dawn of Solace listed as melodic doom/death metal, but there's more to it than that. The vocals are almost entirely clean, Heikkilä sounding a lot like Joel Ekelöf of Soen; Saukkonen's death growls restricted to a single song called Tuli and even then in the background behind Heikkilä. The music isn't entirely unlike Soen either, but their progressive leanings are toned down greatly in favour of a gothic sort of melancholy. It's often slow with a prominent piano and the grandeur of it fits gothic metal too.

There is certainly doom here (check out the beginning to Ashes or the core riff in Silence) but it feels more upbeat than we might expect and sometimes faster as well; Numb reaches quite a clip at points. When it gets very slow, like the piano driven Ghost, it has all the melancholy that doom can dream of but I'd still say that it ends up far more gothic than doom. As to death, that's pretty much confined to Tuli and isn't prominent there anyway. I read that Dawn of Solace's first album was heavier, so I presume this marks a conscious move away from the doom/death they're known for.

Whatever we call it, the result is delightful. From the weaving guitars that open Lead Wings to the slow piano fadeout of Ghost, everything is strong and everything maintains that sad forlorn tone. It's certainly depressive music but it's the sort of depressive music that helps to exorcise your demons and let you go on with your day rather than the sort that lets you wallow in the sheer pointlessness of it all. I can easily see this becoming a regular play for its healing benefits.

The album feels short at just over forty minutes, but that's because it's an immersive experience and there are no lesser moments to be found. There are eight songs on offer and every one could be considered a highlight. At some point, depending on the day, I could suggest any one of these as a personal favourite. Right now, I'm leaning towards Ashes, because of its guitar solo, its slow build and its gorgeous refrain. But then I'll listen to one of the others and start to doubt myself. Maybe Hiding is my favourite instead. And Numb. And Lead Wings. And...

The Wildhearts - Renaissance Men (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 3 May 2019
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

The Wildhearts came along at the point in time that I was drifting away from music for a while, dissatisfied with an apparent sideways step away from the traditional evolution of rock and metal. Had I kept on reading Kerrang! and listening to what The Friday Rock Show became, I'd surely have become a fan of the Wildhearts, because they came from the world of the Quireboys and the Dogs d'Amour, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed. Main man Ginger Wildheart was the second guitarist with the former right before their debut and early drummer Bam came from and went back to the latter.

Sadly, the Wildhearts' debut, Earth vs. The Wildhearts, came out in 1993 and I'd cancelled my Kerrang! subscription by then, so I missed readers voting it the best of the year. Having devoured this ninth album, a return to the studio after ten years of side projects for the line-up that recorded the band's second album, P.H.U.Q., in 1995, I feel the need to catch up with it a quarter of a century late.

I'm late to this one too, but not so much. It's on Metal Hammer's top twenty metal albums of the year, appropriately described as "the coolest, loudest and snottiest rock album of 2019." It also tops the top fifty rock albums of 2019 at their sister magazine, Classic Rock, knocking Rival Sons into second place. And I'm now on the side of the Wildhearts too, because this is a real stormer of an album, clearly a rock album but a surprisingly heavy one that manages to consistently kick our ass even as it sets up singalong hooks and melodies.

There are so many influences obvious that, without knowing those eight prior albums at all, it feels like they're both looking backwards and forwards in an album that's a statement of intent. All four band members have spent much time in this band, even if mostly in combinations of three of them, and they can be considered the definitive line-up. This is a new beginning at a point three decades into their career.

Knowing the Quireboys and the Dogs d'Amour, I expected some glam here and I wasn't wrong. However, it's less old school Faces and more punked up sleazy Hanoi Rocks but, as befits a band from Newcastle, I would have imagined the band in outfits like they're wearing on the album cover rather than anything with multi-coloured tassels. This is a dream pub band who are good enough to never have to play in a pub again if they don't want to.

They're a lot heavier than Hanoi Rocks here though. Dislocated kicks off the album like Motörhead with some industrial torture in Ginger's vocal approach in the verses, though it turns into a crooning pop punk song in the bridge. The punk here is mostly down to earth basic Ramones style, like in Emergency (Fentanyl Babylon), though there's a visceral political statement there too. However, Let 'em Go is a raucous singalong more in the style of the Dropkick Murphys, something rooted in folk that can't be belted out loudly enough at a pub gig to outdo the audience singing along with it.

Diagnosis is perhaps the oddest song for me. At heart, it's a heads down no nonsense old school Status Quo boogie and it really blisters. However, with an utterly different production job, it could be a Def Leppard song. There's a universality to some of these songs that suggests they could be redone in completely different styles and still work really well. The Renaissance Men is another hard hitting rocker but I could imagine it covered by a ska band like Madness or a new wave band like Bow Wow Wow. "Arriba!"

And there's certainly pop music to be found here, as heavy and in your face as the production makes it all seem. The chorus of Little Flower sounds like a sixties pop song that's become a favourite on the football terraces. Even the lyrics play to the common people. Diagnosis rails against impersonality in healthcare, referencing the Elephant Man for effect. My Kinda Movie wants "Real time, real love, real life." Kudos to Ginger for putting Takashi Miike and Ingmar Bergman in the same line too. My Side of the Bed suggests racism and sexism don't thrive in the streets but in the pages of The Daily Mail.

I loved this album, through and through. The Wildhearts don't sound remotely subtle but Ginger writes clever lyrics. Every song is in your face impactful and deceptively loose but they're all carefully constructed with solid riffs and catchy hooks. The band sound like they could play any size venue but the smaller it is, the more legendary it would feel. If they don't split up yet again, it shouldn't be Earth vs. The Wildhearts, it should be The Wildhearts Conquer the World.

Thursday 30 January 2020

Mortiis - Spirit of Rebellion (2020)

Country: Norway
Style: Dark Ambient/Dungeon Synth
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 24 Jan 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

The man behind Mortiis, Håvard Ellefsen, may have started out his career as the original bassist in black metal legends Emperor, but his musical vision was something very different. When he started his solo career with The Song of a Long Forgotten Ghost in 1993, it wasn't black metal at all but what he called dark dungeon music and has grown into a genre known as dungeon synth. He didn't stay there, as his seventh album, The Smell of Rain, moved into a synthpop sound, while the next few were industrial. Now he's back with that original dungeon synth sound for a new album that grew out of reimagination of the 1994 release, Ånden som Gjorde Opprør.

Like an author who works in different genres but doesn't change the name on the cover, this leads to confusion. I knew Mortiis had played with Emperor when I picked up The Smell of Rain, thoroughly enjoying it but being rather surprised to find it sounded a lot more like Shriekback. Looking back at his earlier albums was even more surprising and I never quite got into the whole dungeon synth genre. I don't dislike it, but it sounds more like soundtrack material to me, maybe more for games than movies.

And this fits very much into that category. Like Ånden som Gjorde Opprør, it features only two tracks, this time A Dark Horizon and Visions of an Ancient Future, reasonably evenly split over fifty minutes or so. I went back to the Ånden som Gjorde Opprør album and heard a lot of similarities but this isn't the same album, not least because there's no vocal work on it at all and the instrumentation is wider.

As dungeon synth aims to conjure up dark ambient soundcapes using primarily a mediaeval soundbase, it's not surprising that much of it sounds like what might sit behind a battle scene in a fantasy videogame. That's more obvious on A Dark Horizon here, with the opening part slow, martial and regimented but with a lightness behind it that suggests that this army is on the march in good weather with whichever god they worship on their side.

Visions of an Ancient Future is a lot more playful but also darker, with its opening part both a celebration and a dirge. It feels as if the army from A Dark Horizon has won the day but not everyone made it back and their losses were substantial. Now, around a huge fire, they celebrate their victory and honour their dead. There are vocals here, though not words, and they add a ritual element to proceedings too.

Each piece of music (I can't really call them songs) grows as they progress, of course, and we're invited to find a narrative in there. The point is for us to be moved enough by the music to imagine what it's accompanying. While not all instrumental music does that, some going for mood rather than story, I find that Dungeon synth is emphatically story over mood, with mood just an underpinning to that story. The question is always what that story might be and I'm not sure there's a right or wrong way to go there. You might hear a different story to me and what we each conjure up might not be what Mortiis has in mind and that's fine.

I'm not well versed enough in the genre to be able to compare this to peers but I have heard enough to say that this is a decent album. It stands well with what I've heard of Mortiis's earlier work though it doesn't stand out from them as a new undying classic of the genre. The pace seems relatively unvaried and when enticing themes arrive, like in the fourth and fifth parts of Visions of an Ancient Future, we realise how absent they've been up until then. Fans of the genre will dig this though and will be happy that Mortiis is hard at work returning to it.

Wilderun - Veil of Imagination (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 1 Nov 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube |

Wilderun, a progressive metal band from Boston on their third album, ranked number one on two end of year lists that I know about: from Angry Metal Guy and Metal Storm. Clearly I should check them out before I run out of January to do it. I like what I hear though there's so much going on that it takes a few listens to come to terms with the sheer ambition of this band.

Rather similarly to the Nektar album I reviewed yesterday, this is a lengthy affair, running six minutes over an hour but only including eight songs, the longest being the bookends at fourteen and twelve minutes respectively. Also like Nektar, this feels a lot shorter than it is because the music is highly engaging and immersive, not to mention varied.

The poetic aspirations of the songwriters are clear in the song titles, all vivid products of imagination that need insight to understand. Where is Far from Where Dreams Unfurl? Who are the Sleeping Ambassadors of the Sun? What were the fire and the rose When the Fire and the Rose Were One? Just to set the poetic nature of the album in stone, it opens with Doug James reciting Wordsworth and ends with him taking on Eliot.

In between those spoken word bookends is pure ambition. Just attempting the sort of thing Wilderun does here takes balls and the reason they're topping end of year lists is because they do a damn fine job of it. The best bucket to throw them into is progressive metal, but that isn't close to all of it. The Unimaginable Zero Summer moves from poetry into pastoral prog folk with an orchestral swell a few minutes in. Then it hits high gear just like that and we're firmly in symphonic metal territory, with the vocals combining an era or three of Therion, mixing lead death growls with a choral backing.

Clearly what Wilderun do best is dynamics, exploring peaks and troughs like this is classical music, but with rock instrumentation. Evan Anderson Berry is the lead vocalist and his range just within this opening song runs from death growls to a quiet introspective section to piano accompaniment which sounds like a musical number, albeit not a soporific Disney tune that would play to the lowest common denominator and land an Oscar in the process.

This opener is a fantastic song that never loses our interest, even at over fourteen minutes. O Resolution!, at a mere six, is even better still, with a confrontational choral section and orchestrations that underpin and elevate the riffs wonderfully. It finds time for dynamics too, what could easily be a cantata shifting into quiet singer/songwriter territory then adding heavy guitars without any apparent notion that these changes are unusual.

And so we go. A first time through Veil of Imagination will blur all these songs together, not because they sound the same but because they contain so much variety that it's easier to see them as many parts than a single song. Also, many of these songs end in a way that resembles the start of the next more than some of its own parts, so it's easy to hear this as one diverse piece of an hour plus than eight individual songs. All this starts to shift into form with each further time through.

There's so much going on here that I think I need another half dozen listens just to figure out what my own favourites are. Sleeping Ambassadors of the Sun is darker and more cinematic. Far from Where Dreams Unfurl is symphonic folk. The Tyranny of Imagination is a swaggering power metal song, heavier because of faster riffs and more death growls, but simultaneously lighter in orchestration and with some vocals swirling around in middle eastern style. There's even a classical section in the middle of When the Fire and the Rose Were One.

Wilderun hail from Boston and have only been around for less than a decade, conceived in 2008 but not properly formed until 2012. Veil of Imagination is their third album, following Olden Tales & Deathly Trails in 2012 and Sleep at the Edge of the Earth in 2015. Clearly I should check both of them out as soon as is humanly possible, because this is fantastic stuff.

Wednesday 29 January 2020

Nektar - The Other Side (2020)

Country: Germany/USA
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 Jan 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook 1 | Facebook 2 | Official Website | Wikipedia

The story of Nektar gets complicated so I'll try to keep this succinct. It's an English band but they were formed in Hamburg in 1969 and included a line-up of six members, only four of whom were actually involved with the music. Members came and went and the band split entirely a few times. Leader Roye Albrighton died in 2016, leaving original drummer Ron Howden with a group of recent additions as New Nektar. Howden chose to relocate to the US, where he reformed Nektar with most of the other remaining founding members.

In other words, this English band now exists in two forms, one in the US and one in Germany. The previous album, Megalomania, was by the latter but this album is by the former, though some of its songs date back to sessions that took place in 1978 but weren't released or maybe even finished. The rest of it is entirely new but written and performed by most of the people who were there for the others in 1978. Whew.

And while it's unmistakably rooted in the seventies, this is strong, vivid material that deserves to find a lot of fresh ears in this new twenties. It features influence I wasn't expecting to merge. It starts out rather like a Deep Purple album, with a heavy organ sound out of which guitars wail until the song finds a groove. I was almost ready for this to be an instrumental, but the vocals eventually kick in and fit perfectly.

Keyboards trade off with guitars, in riffs as much as solos. There's a lot of interplay. It's bouncy stuff, full of life, and escalating into a finish. The Purple influence turns out to be the more experimental Mk IV Purple but mixed with the jazzy prog rock of Focus and the pop/rock hooks of the Moody Blues. The final piece of the puzzle is two keyboard players, because there why settle for one when you can have two.

It's all so engaging that we don't notice in the slightest that I'm on Fire ran eight and a half minutes and Skywriter almost eight. We might not even notice that Love Is/The Other Side runs almost eighteen! We're not sitting back analysing the structure as it unfolds, like some prog rock equivalent of a jazz nerd; we're right there in the middle of the music dancing along with the spirits, even when it drops briefly into solo piano.

The songs stay long, this album featuring only eight of them but running a full six minutes over an hour. Oddly, given that most bands tend to work up to their epic closer, they get shorter towards the end. The Light Beyond is a skimpy three minutes keyboard piece that could have introduced something by the Moody Blues which, come to think of it, Look Thru Me could easily be.

The album wraps with Y Can't I B More Like U, a title more suited to Prince than a prog rock band over half a century old, and it underlines another of the influences that are dotted throughout. This one's a hint of psychedelic sixties pop but channelled into keyboard heavy prog, as if the late Beatles had tripped too far and somehow turned into Yes with Rick Wakeman wondering when he joined the Fab Five.

If this is what the new Nektar (not New Nektar, remember) are going to sound like, I just hope they don't split up again until they've given us a couple more studio albums at least. The three founding members are Howden on drums, Mick Brockett on "special effects" and Derek "Mo" Moore, who plays bass, one of the keyboards and shares vocal duties with Ryche Chlanda, whose stint in the band back in 1978 sparked this. Chlanda also plays guitars, which leaves Randy Dembo as a second bassist and Kendall Scott on the other keyboards.

I was looking forward to The Other Side, but I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected. It's been a long while since I've listened to Nektar, but clearly I should go back through their back catalogue and explore, especially those mid-seventies albums before they split for the first time in 1978.

Algebra - Pulse? (2019)

Country: Switzerland
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 30 Sep 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | YouTube

Most of the thrash bands I reviewed in 2019 were on the punkier side of the genre, with high energy levels and plenty of vicious speed. Algebra, on the other hand, are very much on the technical side. That means that while they do get fast on occasion, they're far more interested in playing at mid-pace and getting intricate with the riffs. In other words, there's a lot less of the usual Slayer influence and a lot more Watchtower and Mekong Delta.

That said, Algebra don't want to get entirely pigeonholed along with those bands who brought prog rock, classical or even jazz influences into thrash metal. Chaos Edy, which is a fantastic name, does that as a guitarist, with carefully constructed mathematical riffs, tight time changes and classical-infused solos, but his vocals are a lot cruder, reminiscent instead of the crossover bands that brought punk into thrash. It's an interesting mix and it makes the Sepultura cover that ends the album more understandable.

While Edy is the most obvious member of the band, a front man who plays the lead guitar and sings, I have to call out the others here too. Phil Void is a second guitarist who has to be just as tight as Edy and their interaction is seamless. That goes double for Tony Sharp on the drums, but he's easily up to that challenge. And I was very happy to hear how prominent the bass is on this album. I caught neat things that Mat Jass did on the opening track, Ego Destroyed, but he shines on the next one, Inner Constraints.

I love technical thrash, Sieges Even being a particular favourite, so I took to this like a duck to water. I loved the intros, with the mix of crunch and elegance on Manipulated Soul standing out. I loved the builds, so many riffs that they're impossible to count. I'd add early Death Angel to the influence list here, because I could easily see Algebra exploring these sorts of riffs and changes on ten minute instrumentals. There are points where I think Edy forgets to sing because he's so caught up in the music the band are making.

And, without trying to be rude, that's OK with me. Edy's vocals are solid but I'm not convinced that it's the best choice for the backing that he and his colleagues provide. I enjoyed the vocals while they were there, but had no feeling of loss when they went away and, when they lasted for a while, I started to wonder when they would stop again. If this came packaged with an extra disc that featured the same album sans vocals, that's the version I'd be gravitating towards.

Just listen to the instrumental section in Concrete Jungle and tell me that you're happy when it turns back into a regular song. Even better, dive into the eight minute title track, which does feature vocals and try to remember it as anything but an instrumental. It's a gem of a track, which spends much of its time as a melodic twin guitar workout, with a fantastic bass that is exploratory early on, prowling later and teasing later still, in front of a notable impressive set of frantic drumming changes.

Algebra hail from Switzerland and have been around since 2008, Pulse? being their third studio album thus far. It's been five years since the previous one though, Feed the Ego, and I hope that they don't wait five more to give us another. It's strong stuff with intracacies that deepen with each listen, even if it sometimes sounds oddly like a welcome throwback to a time when bands were looking forward.

Tuesday 28 January 2020

Midnight - Rebirth by Blasphemy (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Black/Speed Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 Jan 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website

I didn't know Midnight until I saw them a few years ago supporting Obituary and Kreator. Opening band Horrendous had intrigued me, then Midnight hit the stage and blitzed through their set like the apocalypse was waiting outside and they didn't want to be late. I picked up CDs from both and followed up on them with a run through their studio output, which is rather skimpy for Midnight given that they were promoting their third album fourteen years in. I was eager for more and, three years later, here's a new one.

On stage, I remember the band numbering three and playing speed metal with a raw punk edge. In the studio, they're a solo project and Athenar takes care of absolutely everything himself, right down to the imitation Cronos vocals. This album is more like old school Venom than Venom is nowadays. Do a blind listen to either the title track or Devil's Excrement, then anything off of Venom's last album, and you'll swear blind that this is Cronos and Venom.

It's only the production that tells us that this isn't 1981 because there's nowhere near as much speed as I remember there being on stage. Even opening track Fucking Speed and Darkness, which is agreeably fast, isn't really done at speed metal tempos, until perhaps three minutes in and it's over by four. It does show up on occasion, like in Devil's Excrement, during the breaks in between verses on Warning from the Reaper or at the beginning of Escape the Grave, but it mostly stops by for a cup of tea, rarely moves in.

Fortunately, the songs sound good at a slower pace. If Athenar hadn't sold you on his Cronos impression on the opener, the title track will do that for sure. It's a real highlight, perhaps behind only Devil's Excrement but with none of its stupid lyrics. It's certainly as ruthlessly raw and vicious. I'd put Rising Scum up there behind them, even though it's a lot slower, playing up the heaviness rather than the speed, because the slow beat gets into our skulls and the grunting chants somehow work over that riff.

I'd have preferred more speed but what Midnight do best is raw energy and I think it's safe to say that that comes across here, whatever the tempo. The vocals are very much in the vein that Cronos introduced with Black Metal and they explore much of the same lyrical territory, blasphemous and profane. If you didn't assume a Motörhead influence from Venom, then let me highlight it too. It's there in the drums throughout, but it's there on a wider basis on songs like Cursed Possessions. The lead guitar takes the buzzsaw approach of early speed metal and maintains it, even at a slower pace.

The other name I'd throw out is Raven, because songs like Raw Attack remind me of their proto-speed NWOBHM sound. That one's fast but not crazy fast, a little less satanic in its vocal stylings and with metal solos on top of a solid punk riff. Call that a fourth highlight. The final one is the song to close out the album, You Can Drag Me Through Fire, which aims at a more epic feel and mostly succeeds. Again, its roots are in NWOBHM but with an eye on the extremes of the future.

This sounds like a fantastic album for 1981 and Midnight would have been an abiding favourite for the establishment back then to hate with a passion. It isn't just the rough and ready sound, it's the profanity and lyrical content that includes occasional callouts almost designed for that purpose. Halfway into the final track, Athenar throws out "Burn you bitch!" before his solo, as if he was performing live on Mary Whitehouse's desk and absorbing energy from her look of sheer horror.

Of course, this is 2020 and we've moved on rather a long way in thirty years so I doubt Midnight are going to conjure up that sort of response nowadays. However, I can't think of another band who sound so relentlessly pissed off and willing to piss off in return. They're the band Venom wish they could be again and the band Green Day see in their nightmares to emphasise what punk really means. And they're one dude from Cleveland, OH. That must piss them off even more!

Earth - Full Upon Her Burning Lips (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Stoner Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 May 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

The line-up of Earth, famously named for the original name of Black Sabbath, has varied considerably over the years, reaching five people on occasion but never, until now, dropping down to a duo. That's Dylan Carlson, the founder of the band and consistent leader throughout, with Adrienne Davis on drums, as she's been since the band reformed in 2001. Like any drone band, they're an acquired taste but they're more accessible than most and I've become fond of 2005's Hex and its follow-up, The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull.

This 2019 album, their ninth, doesn't grab me as much, but it's an enjoyable album for those into this sort of thing, with Carlson's guitar taking off on slow flights of fantasy and Davis maintaining a surprisingly light grounding underneath it on her drums. It must have been a constant temptation for her to cut loose and speed up the tempo but she steadfastly remains restrained all the way through.

Without any apparent commercial concerns, Earth almost deliberately make it hard for the uninitiated to get a grip on this album by kicking it off with a twelve minute track, Datura's Crimson Veils, almost like a challenge. You don't like this? Then you won't like the album. Make it through intact and there's another fifty minutes for you to enjoy.

The problem is that, while this track is capable enough, it doesn't do what it needs to do in my opinion to justify that track length. Sure, Davis does some interesting things with her cymbals but it quickly feels long and that isn't a good feeling to have at the start of an album. It's the third track, Cats on the Briar, where accessible nuances show up and this sounds like the Earth I enjoyed in the mid-eighties, albeit in even more stripped down form.

It's here that the album gets really interesting. The Colour of Poison mixes it up even more, almost playfully pausing guitar notes and runs for a minute or so until it finds a riff it likes and then runs with that until it wants to go back to playful pauses. Descending Belladonna highlights that Carlson isn't only playing guitar here; he's also providing bass, which is welcome for its presence at last. Davis brings in some interesting sounds, surely a combination of woodblocks and bells, and there's a glorious echoing sound I adore that really elevates the song.

That's three winners in a row, all running five minutes plus. The fantastic Earth that I remember is certainly here and, As always, the best way to let them in is to switch out the lights, turn up the volume and let this music take you somewhere, whether you're under the influence of illegal narcotics or not. I like the groove to be found in the eleven minute She Rides an Air of Malevolence but, if you don't find a trance state quick enough, it's not going to seem to end.

My other favourite here is Maiden's Catafalque, which at under three minutes is insanely short for Earth. Short it may be but it's an acutely inquisitive piece, a feel that's to be found elsewhere on this album but not in such a concentrated form. Davis has teetered on the edge of jazz throughout but she crosses the line here, I think, albeit in as restrained a fashion as she's been all the way through.

As perhaps Earth's most stripped down album thus far, this is certainly not for the uninitiated. Start out with Hex and work forward in time. If you're still listening by this point, then you're a fan and you're more than able to appreciate the slow and minimalistic sound with all its various nuances. If you're already a fan, this will still seem minimalistic to you, but it'll sound good to start with and still grow on you with every listen.

Friday 24 January 2020

ADX - Bestial (2020)

Country: France
Style: Heavy/Speed Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 24 Jan 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

I only have vague memories of ADX from back in the day, but they're a French heavy/speed metal band who formed back in 1982 and remained together for a decade, an era that saw four well-received studio albums. It looks like they got back together for a blip in the late nineties for one more, reforming in a more sustained manner in 2006; this is their sixth studio album since that point. The two founder members in play are vocalist Phil Grélaud and drummer Didier 'Dog' Bouchard.

They have a clean sound that's fast without being hyperspeed. The opener, Au dessus des croix noires finds a pace that's partway between heavy and speed metal, somewhat like the fastest songs by Iron Maiden, a fair comparison as there's some melodic dual guitarwork here that's reminiscent of Maiden and, like Maiden, the bass of Julien Rousseau is audible and excellent. Combined with the tribal intro that is Rituel Ancestral, this is a strong way to kick off an album.

My favourite songs are probably the next two. One of the weaker aspects to this album for me are Grélaud's vocals because he often shifts into a style that's as much punk as metal. He's not bad, don't get me wrong, but he's a vocalist for those who prefer the style of Paul Di'Anno to Bruce Dickinson. Whichever way you go, he's fantastic on Overlord, which also features some great duelling guitars over a fast paced backdrop, and there are points in Les Sanguinares when he shifts to a lower, almost chanting style that fits the song really well.

Google Translate tells me that Les Sanguinares means The Bloodthirsty, but I'm sure there's more to it than that, given the general horror feel (that I'm starting to remember from earlier albums) and especially the delicious creepy version of Happy Birthday, sung in French, that introduces the song with knowing laughter. Sadly there aren't any lyrics on the Bandcamp page for this album because I'd love to know what's going on here.

There's certainly a continuing horror theme in play here, as Collecteurs de chair translates to Flesh Collectors, Le marche des spectres is The March of the Ghosts and, if you couldn't guess, Action cannibale is Cannibal Action. What's more, the second half features three very short (as in under thirty seconds) tracks that are spoken word pieces narrated by guitarist Nicklaus Bergen, presumably as progression for a concept piece that spans multiple tracks. Again, I'd love to find out exactly what it's all about.

Ironically, given that there's a language barrier here, I should emphasise that it doesn't affect the music at all. ADX, who always sang in French, did struggle to break through into wider markets in an era when European bands, like the Scorpions, chose to sing in English. Nowadays, I don't think people care as much and I'm certainly living in Google Translate, to help me with a host of foreign languages, some of which don't even use my alphabet.

The band, which also includes a new second guitarist by the name of Neo, is excellent whatever language you happen to speak, the back end very tight indeed and the twin guitars fluid in how they weave around each other. I'll praise the mix again for keeping the bass so prominent; Rousseau introduces a couple of songs and rumbles along under a bunch of others to great effect.

What surprises me is that this isn't as fast as I remember. I paused most of the way through and sought out Exécution, ADX's debut album from 1985. Sure enough, they used to be a speed metal band who slowed down on occasion. On this album, they're the other way around, a heavy metal band who ramp it up to a speed metal pace on occasion. They sound good but I'd like some more of that old speed. Clearly I need to go back in this multilingual era and check out those early ADX albums again. It's been too long!

Revival Black - Step in Line (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 11 Oct 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

I've tried to keep up with the New Wave of Classic Rock here at Apocalypse Later in 2019 and, to see if I did OK, I checked out how the Facebook group of that name voted at the end of the year. Well, I reviewed four out of the top ten, as voted for by members, which seems pretty good, but only one more from the top twenty, as voted for by admins, which doesn't, especially given that that top twenty also contains another three albums as a bonus.

Only four albums made both lists and the most successful band were Germany's New Roses, members placing them fourth and admins second. I've already taken a look at Nothing But Wild, so I'll take a stab at the next most successful band on the list. That's Liverpool's Revival Black, whose debut album ranked sixth by the members and first by the admins. I should add that the members put the Kris Barras Band top of the list with Light It Up and also included my highest rated NWoCR album last year, Feral Roots by the Rival Sons, which was my Album of the Month for February.

While they play in a completely different style, Revival Black are a similar band to Decimator, the Brazilian thrash outfit I reviewed yesterday. Neither is particularly original or subtle, but they don't try to be. What they plan to do is kick our ass and keep doing it until their time is up and I'd say that they're both doing a fantastic job of it. I'd love to see both bands on stage because it feels like that's where they would thrive most.

The way Revival Black kick our ass is with an incessant, dense sound that's made all the more dense by a vicious slide guitar. I read that they used to be called Black Cat Bones, perhaps as an homage to the late sixties band of that name which featured Paul Kossoff and Simon Kirke, both later of Free. I hear plenty of that blues rock sound here, though this performs it on speed. It's kind of like a meeting of the soulful power of Bad Company, the sleazy eighties rock of Whitesnake and the blistering guitars of southern rock.

Many will focus on singer Dan Byrne, fairly because he has a real stormer of a voice. I hear plenty of Paul Rodgers in his voice, with David Coverdale in there a lot too and maybe even some W. Axl Rose. If I'm reading the history properly, he wasn't part of Black Cat Bones, joining the band as they became Revival Black. I don't know where they found him, but they should be really happy that they did.

All that said, it's hard to not see the guitarists as the band leaders. I'm not sure if Alan Rimmer is the only lead guitarist or if Adam Kerbache joins him in that role, but whoever unleashed the blistering solos on every track here is worth their weight in gold. Give You the World is a showcase, with those guitars starting and ending like Stevie Ray Vaughan and turning into Dave Hlubek of Molly Hatchet three minutes in. It's a guitarist rather than Byrne who kicks the album off too, just like they're Slash and this will be Revival Black's Appetite for Destruction.

There isn't a bad song anywhere to be found and I didn't find an average one either. Everything is either worthy single material or destined to become a live favourite. Midnight Oil follows the bluesy Whitesnake approach but amps it up. All I Wanna Do is like the drunken bastard son of Bad Company's Feel Like Makin' Love. No Secrets, No Lies and Silverline both kick off like they might have been Georgia Satellites songs and anyone who can rival that band in sheer energy is surely going to slay live.

I'd throw out my favourite tracks for posterity but I may elevate others on my next listen. I don't know enough yet to say whether it's really the best New Wave of Classic Rock album of 2019 but it has to be in fair competition for that title. It's certainly the hardest rocking NWoCR I've heard so far, which is a title worth fighting for in its own right.

This album is great on a first listen and it gets even better when we're familiar with it. I might wake up tomorrow with something from Step in Line playing in my head, but it might not be the vocals; it might be the bass of Jamie Hayward that brings us into So Alive or the guitar solo from Hold Me Down that sounds just like Rimmer or Kerbache is bending a lightning bolt.

And, if you're reading back home in Blighty, Revival Black are currently on tour around the UK with Scarlet Rebels in support. That's two of only four bands to make both the members and admins lists at the New Wave of Classic Rock Facebook group. It sounds like a gimme to me.

Thursday 23 January 2020

Decimator - Alienist (2020)

Country: Brazil
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 17 Jan 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter

After the peace of Diagonal, I felt like a good thrash album to clean out my system and where better to go for that sort of experience than Brazil? This third album from Decimator is just what the doctor ordered. They're not even close to subtle and, while they do vary tempos a great deal, I don't think a slow moment can be found anywhere on this album. The ten tracks on offer are done in half an hour because their style ranges from intense to very intense and I'm all for that. I feel rejuvenated.

They hail from Porto Alegre, which is even further south than São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. They're closer to Uruguay than I am to Mexico and that means pretty close. They were founded as far back as 1999 but they didn't release their debut album, Killing Tendency until 2007. Bloodstained followed it in 2011 and the only change in the line-up in the nine years since then is that vocalist Leonardo Schneider is no longer with the band and guitarist Paolo Hendler has taken on that role too within the structure of a four piece.

The subject matter this time out is firmly in Agent Steel territory: aliens and abductions and the like. How can anyone resist a title like Vivisection of a Specimen with Opposable Thumbs Taken from the 3rd Planet of Tp4c4152 Star System? That goes double for the fact that it runs under three minutes. At the risk of stretching that metaphor too, they take us out of this world almost immediately, with Lift-Off starting at high speed after the intro.

What impressed me first, apart from the pace and the changes, is how firmly the riffs are defined in this production. This song feels really fast and I can only imagine the pit it would generate, but the core riff is slower and very efficient. While one guitar is speeding off into the stratosphere with the drums, the bass and the second guitar are building the song with riffs. At times, of course, the lead guitar slows down to match and those sections churn really nicely.

And, at the risk of being a lazy critic, the next eight songs don't do much different. They start fast and they finish fast, with plenty of solid riffs, time changes and churning mosh sections in between. Hendler's voice is very rough and reminiscent of early Mille Petrozza; its sheer energy level is a perfect match for the music unfolding behind him. That's also reminiscent of Kreator but there's as much Slayer in there too.

So, if you're looking for a half hour of sheer blitzkrieg, this is certainly a good choice. Decimator are well named. They're the sort of band who wait for a couple of support bands to warm up the audience a little, then destroy everyone for half an hour and vanish, leaving the headlining act to have to up their game just to follow them.

If you're looking for acoustic song intros, ten minute instrumentals or some sort of esoteric local flavour, you're in the wrong place. If you want songs that take much more than three minutes to wrap up (nothing reaches four and only Lift-Off exceeds three and a half), you're in the wrong place. If your take on thrash involves subtlety in any way, then you're in the wrong place.

What Decimator do is what's perhaps best epitomised by Alien Spring. It's a short blistering song built out of simple but strong riffs. It's fast out of the gate but it gets faster as it goes, except for the slower bits that dot the song like challenges for the band. The vocals will tear at your throat, the solo will blister paint off your walls and the rhythm section under it all is so damn tight it almost hurts.

I air drummed along with what Alceu Martin does here until I couldn't move my feet any more and none of this would sound remotely as heavy if Patricia Bressiani's ever-reliable bass wasn't there adding an extra level. And then they hit another song and we're off and running again before we've caught a breath. Taken is my other favourite here, because there are parts where the guitars are speeding off into the distance and Alceu Martins actually slows the drums to tease us for a moment before following suit.

My problem with this wasn't that it's short on originality and subtlety. I like both a lot but there are times when I just want my ass kicked for half an hour and that's why albums like this exist. My problem wasn't even that it's over that quickly, because it's longer than Reign in Blood and nobody cares about how short that was because they just flipped the tape and played it again. My problem is that I want to see this band live tonight and I'm a seventeen hour flight away.

Diagonal - Arc (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 6 Sep 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Prog Archives

Before the internet, it was a lot harder to hear any sort of music that was deemed non-mainstream. What often happened was that kids would rifle through their elder sibling's record collection, run out of bands they knew and find albums like this. This is the epitome of something that a fourteen year old kid would find that way, vaguely enjoy without really grasping it, return it and go back to a safety zone band, then wonder twenty years on what that one album was that they didn't bother to tape.

It kicks off with 9-Green, which would be insane for that fourteen year old because it has so much going on. It's built on funky tribal rhythms, for a start, over which a David Bowie-esque voice holds court. However, the synths that show up don't do what we expect, being both melodic and dissonant, and the backing vocals feel unusual too, providing sounds rather than words. A jagged guitar solos over a swirling organ. What's going on here?

That fourteen year old will leave with the impression that every member of a large band was tasked to figure out something interesting to do with their respective instruments, maybe more than one interesting thing, so that some engineer could layer it all together to create a piece of art as much as a piece of music. And they'll forget it until it starts playing in their head twenty years later and they'll take a decade to track it back down again.

What else will throw that fourteen year old is that Diagonal don't define a sound in that first track that they then explore a little over the remaining seven. Stars Below is as soft as 9-Green is hard, an ephemeral sixties folk ditty with gentle vocal harmonies and a teasing saxophone that returns for a long solo during the eight minute long organ-driven Citadel. Yeah, this is a difficult place for a fourteen year old to start a journey into prog rock.

By the way, if you're fourteen years old and you love this anyway, then I'm in awe of your taste and I'll happily buy your first album when you make it.

Fortunately, I'm not fourteen any more and I'm not new to prog rock. A song like 9-Green remains original and intriguing, but isn't at all challenging now. A song like Citadel is a sheer delight and Nicholas Whittaker's sax is impeccable. Moving from that into The Spectrum Explodes is a wild exercise in contrast, starting out post-punk in a sort of Joy Division vein and then escalating into a blistering guitar solo in the same way that Fleetwood Mac did with The Chain. Oh, and it ends in a krautrock jam.

Everything here seems to be about tone and mood. Warning Flare moves from a gentle tone to that dense blistering guitar and back, amidst a whole host of exquisite sounds. There are maybe half a dozen different moments here where I almost squeed at individual notes Alex Crispin conjures up on the organ. I tend to do that more with solos or the unexpected results of layering sounds but hey, everything's built on notes and these are gorgeous notes.

That there's a lot of jazz on this prog album is obvious early, but Arc has a wandering nature that's all jazz. That leads into The Vital, which is all ambient, a synth cloud surrounding a light bass motif, that sax returning to flit around like a bird, lighter than air. And so to Celestia, which shifts us back to the folky feel of Stars Below, one part Simon & Garfunkel, three parts Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd.

I found myself in the odd position of liking most of the songs here but not feeling that they made for a particularly coherent album, especially when it happens to be the band's first in seven years. Musically, it's great but I'm not a huge fan of the vocals, which are likeable and delivered well but fit so well on this set of varied tracks because they're so close to generic.

I would like to track down Diagonal's previous two albums, as I've read that they play more in the traditional prog rock arena of the seventies, with a Canterbury feel to them. That's here but not as overtly as I'd expected.

Wednesday 22 January 2020

Val Tvoar - Today is Tomorrow's Yesterday (2020)

Country: Estonia
Style: Stoner Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Jan 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

Stoner rock comes in a lot of flavours, but this is the liveliest, sharpest and bounciest stoner rock I think I've ever heard, not to forget perhaps the most varied. It's the product of one man, because Val Tvoar is not Estonian slang for something illegal and intoxicating; it's his name and he does most everything here, writing the songs, performing every instrument and singing too. He didn't paint the cover and he didn't mix the album, but he may well have put the kettle on during the recording sessions.

His sense of humour is apparent as the album begins, with a voice counting down some sort of space launch and tripping over the numbers. Dark Sun is a up tempo rocker built from stoner riffs but without much fuzz on the guitar. Nothing here is laid back and it wraps up pretty quick, at just over three minutes, but that's fine. The Preacher continues in much the same vein, but with a more prominent bass. That's one benefit to being a one man band: you want to hear everything you play!

If those tracks sounded vaguely like Lenny Kravitz playing stoner rock, the next song, Hold on to Silence is far grungier. There's some Soundgarden in here, I think, though it bizarrely ends with a Raining Blood homage. That's unexpected but cool. Unchained brings in some more fuzz and gets jauntier. Eternity Ends Here adds a prog vibe. There are lots of sounds incorporated into this stoner rock framework without ever seeming out of place.

Perhaps inevitably, given its title, things get more traditional with Weird Painting with Skulls and the River Runs Thru, so impeccably stoner that the title doesn't even make sense unless you're under some sort of chemical influence. It plays a lot more psychedelic than anything else here, much more like stoner rock usually sounds like. Dancing with the Flames does too, but in a heavier way. I'd call this album stoner rock but this song is stoner metal for much of its running time, the guitars all crunched up and in our face.

The title track is another traditional stoner rock song with the fuzz turned up. The lyrics are pretty simple, being mostly the title and another single line repeated quite a lot. It's not the shortest song on the album, Dancing with the Flames clocking in at only two and a half minutes, but at merely a minute longer, it's surely the least substantial song on offer, making it a surprising choice for the title track.

Then again, this couldn't be mistaken for any other genre. Nobody is going to pick it up believing that it's jazz or death metal or trip hop or world music. Even if potential customers haven't even heard of stoner rock, they would still know that that's what this is. There isn't a lot of honesty in advertising nowadays but this is exactly that.

This isn't the sort of stoner rock I'm coming to relish. It features almost no psychedelic edge. There are no long drawn out instrumental jams. There's nothing that feels like a journey or a soundscape. But I liked it anyway. What Val Tvoar delivers on this album are a set of short and lively songs that are interesting and varied, with decent riffs and consistently strong instrumentation. Knowing that every instrument, including the vocals, is Tvoar himself makes it more impressive still. It's kind of what pop punk is to punk, but to stoner rock.

Smoulder - Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring (2019)

Country: Canada
Style: Epic Doom Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 26 Apr 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives

The problem with looking at published best of 2019 lists to see what I might have missed from last year is that almost everyone concentrates on American bands and ignores anything from outside those borders. That doesn't mean the albums they include aren't worthy: looking at them has highlighted bands to me like Blood Incantation, Baroness and Lingua Ignota, but it does mean that they're missing a whole heck of a lot of fantastic stuff from other places.

Fortunately, there are other lists. The guys over at MetalSucks seem to love Smoulder, who come from Toronto on the other side of one of those borders. I looked them up and found that lead vocalist Sarah Kitteringham also reviews metal, at Banger TV, and they have a special focus on international music as I do here. So hey, all credit to her and them for that and on to her band!

Smoulder play epic doom metal and this is their debut album, after a demo in 2018. Since this, they've also put out an EP which I ought to take a look at too, that features two new songs, a cover of Manilla Road's Cage of Mirrors and the three tracks from that demo. They aren't the most original band I've ever heard and they're more focused on passion than finesse, but wow, they frickin' rock! In a perfect world, they'd have been founded a decade earlier so that they could have supported Dio on tour.

The Michael Whelan cover and overblown title are more than a hint at what a wary traveller might find inside. This is unashamed fantasy, with songs set in the worlds of Michael Moorcock, George R. R. Martin and, best of all, the wonderful C. L. Moore. Yes indeed, there's a Jirel of Joiry song here! This is all conjured up in a style that will work very nicely for fans of Manilla Road, Cirith Ungol and Brocas Helm, not to forget Manowar, though this is a lot less cheesy and a lot more chunky, in large part because of an excellent mix job by Arthur Rizk.

Make no mistake, Smoulder have a huge sound anyway, with pounding drums and earthshattering riffs and real dedication in the vocals. This is old school metal to play as loud as it gets. I'd love to see this band live, partly to bury myself in their sound but also partly to if anyone has the balls to sit at the bar and shrug them off. I hope not. What Rizk does is make absolutely sure that they still sound huge on record and that's a whole other thing.

They simply storm into action here, with that Moorcock song, which is power incarnate. It's Ilian of Garathorm and it tells of the Eternal Champion in an appropriately mythic fashion. There's a universe where villagers recount stories, over flagons of ale, of an epic band who rode into town, destroyed with this one single song and promptly vanished into the mist, never to be seen again.

The Sword Woman slows things down a little, focusing a little more on doom while never losing the epic. Then Bastard Steel ramps it up faster, with a galloping drumbeat from Kevin Hester that makes us believe we're inside the world's largest mosh pit, which shimmers and becomes a battlefield. This is more epic and less doom, meaning that we've had all the combinations needed in the first three songs, with three more to come.

What follows doesn't vary that much, but it continues to rock, hard and in highly consistent fashion. There's a storm that heralds the Voyage of the Sunchaser, with a bass run from Adam Blake to set it on its way. And, after Shadowy Sisterhood, which is decent but unremarkable in this company, the album wraps up with a nine minute epic, Black God's Kiss, which tries hard but doesn't quite gel for me. It sounds good but it also feels long and it doesn't grab me the way that the earlier songs did, at least until it ramps up its tempo seven minutes in.

Given that I loved everything about the first half and at least enjoyed the second half, even if it felt a little lesser, this would be an easy 7/10 for me. However, rather ironically for something focused so strongly on fantasy, I'm going to give it another point for feeling so damn real. It's partly the production and partly the fact that this band obviously adores what they do and everyone involved pours themselves into this material. Horns ablaze!

Tuesday 21 January 2020

British Lion - The Burning (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 17 Jan 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | YouTube

It seems that this band is now called simply British Lion, as I think it was always intended to be and that's a good thing. On their previous album, back in 2012, they were Steve Harris' British Lion and the presence in that name of one of the most important rock musicians in British history both helped a lot with publicity and hindered a lot by skewing expectations. While I still haven't listened to that album, I have heard a lot of mixed reactions to it, much of the negativity stemming from the fact that British Lion weren't Iron Maiden.

They aren't Iron Maiden here either, at least not in general style. They do feel a little like Maiden in odd changes or runs here and there, the build on songs like Lightning and in the recognisable Harris bass that shows up in some of the quieter moments. Father Lucifer is the closest song to a Maiden sort of sound and, even there, it's very much Maiden Lite, every musician in the band more restrained and everything they play simpler and more direct.

While Father Lucifer may be ironically the best song here, there are others that are strong without sounding like Maiden in the slightest. The epitome of that may be Elysium, with a soaring emotional vocal from Richard Taylor that happily gets us past the inevitable comparisons to concentrate on what he does well in his own right. He's really not a bad singer at all if we're willing to stop comparing him to Bruce Dickinson.

The history of British Lion goes back to Taylor and guitarist Grahame Leslie reaching out to Harris back in 1982 to produce them. Nothing came of it, as the band split up before they could do much of anything, but they apparently kept in touch and revisited the project a few decades later, becoming a new band with Harris on bass in 2012. I don't believe they've ever been a Harris solo project, certainly not the way many expected, and they feel like a band to me here.

What's more, the music is good. It's clearly rock rather than metal and it's a mix of old and new schools. Harris's tastes are well known and it's hardly surprising to find Wishbone Ash in here, most obviously in the intro to Last Chance, but there's nowhere near as much prog as I expected. Both Leslie and drummer Simon Dawson used to be in the Outfield and there's definitely some eighties melodic rock in here too. Spit Fire sounds like something Magnum or Demon might conjure up and those bands aren't bad guides to the balance that British Lion find between heaviness and melody.

However, there's more variety here. The opening song, City of Fallen Angels, has a pop/punk urgency to it, though it's channelled into a hard rock feel. It means that this isn't just seventies and eighties in influence, it's the seventies all the way up to the present. At the other end of the album, the closer, Native Son, has a folky feel to it, again without ever leaving hard rock for a different genre.

Perhaps the best praise I can give this is that it doesn't feel long, though its eleven tracks nudge the running time over an hour. These are comfortable songs, consistent but with a little variety, full of decent riffs and decent hooks, with some decent solos too. Nothing here knocked my socks off, but if you asked for my favourite track, I might pick any one of half a dozen songs at any particular moment.

I should still check out that first album, but I'm warier now than I was, as I have a feeling that this is much better all around because the band aren't misrepresenting themselves and have a better idea of who they are.

Spirit Adrift - Divided by Darkness (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 10 May 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter

Spirit Adrift's third album made half a dozen of the best of 2019 lists I'm looking at, so the magic of statistics tells us that it's tied for the sixth best of last year. If that isn't enough of a reason for me to pay attention, I'll add that they're based right here in Phoenix, so I need to keep my eyes open for local gigs because I'd really like to see them live. I really like this sound, even if it's not remotely what I expected coming in.

When I've seen the name before, it's always come with a doom metal tag and I just don't buy that, even though there's certainly plenty of doom within the core of what Nate Garrett and his band do. This is heavy metal, too fast and too varied, in mood, style and tempo to simply count as doom. It starts out like Diamond Head, for a start, with a set of riffs and solos surrounding a memorably pounding drum rhythm. Also like Diamond Head, it's very eager to explore new ground.

It gets heavier, with an emphatic doom song in the title track, but it never loses its progressive edge, which takes over completely towards the end. For all that the vocals remind of Ozzy, it never quite feels like a Sabbath song and, by the time Angel & Abyss ends, it's obvious that Garrett's influences focus in as much on Ozzy solo as Ozzy in Sabbath. Four minutes in, it seems like the guitarist is auditioning to take over from Randy Rhoads in Blizzard of Ozz. There's even a patented Ozzy laugh to wrap things up.

There are wilder mixes here too. Born into Fire is another heavy song but it isn't doom. It's more like it was constructed from mosh parts borrowed from thrash songs, but without any of the faster material around it. There's also a contemporary feel in that the vocal emphases are rather like what I might expect from alternative rock or even nu metal, but applied to a traditional heavy metal style. It gets progressive late on too, so there are a heck of a lot of genres wrapped up in one song.

There's a lot running through the rest of the album too. Tortured by Time is a grower that slipped by me the first couple of times. It's nowhere near as catchy as Hear Her, which is another more overt, if up tempo doom song, but it's mature songwriting that weaves textures and, when it finally grabs our attention, it's impressive stuff. The album wraps with a prog instrumental, The Way of Return, which starts heavy but finds a Dave Gilmour solo sound, shifts to a very different but just as Floydian mellow guitar. Then it's a Tangerine Dream-esque synth section, before sounds combine to take us home.

For a band that really sound like a band, I'm surprised to find that it was one man for the longest time. He's Nate Garrett and he handles vocals, bass and guitar on this album, with Marcus Bryant on drums and Preston Bryant on keyboards (credited as synth and Wurlitzer). Kayla Dixon of Witch Mountain guests on Living Light, though not prominently. However, the first Spirit Adrift album, Chained to Oblivion, released only four years ago, appears to have featured Garrett on absolutely everything.

I haven't heard that yet but the word that springs out here is "mature". It's thoughtful and consistently interesting, moving from style to style in ways that are often surprising but still make agreeable sense. It's not the sort of thing that happens on debut albums but demonstrates that, by album three, the band is successfully growing and exploring their sound. That's a good thing.

Friday 17 January 2020

Magnum - The Serpent Rings (2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inculter - Fatal Visions (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 16 January 2020

Adrian Tăbăcaru - Lucifer: A Rock Opera (2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waste of Space Orchestra - Syntheosis (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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