Friday 28 February 2020

Demons & Wizards - III (2020)

Country: Germany/USA
Style: Power Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 21 Feb 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Wikipedia

It took me a while to get into this new Demons & Wizards, but I finally got there. Kinda. For my first couple of times through, I was left impressed as always by the vocals of Hansi Kürsch but underwhelmed by the instrumentation from Jon Schaffer which felt overly clinical and even overly repetitive on songs like Wolves in Winter. While I liked some of what I was hearing and some of the shorter songs, like Universal Truth, popped immediately, I just didn't feel the album the way I felt their 1999 debut.

However, while I wasn't feeling this throughout Friday, it suddenly clicked into place on Saturday for me. Why, I have little idea. I can safely assume that the longer songs needed time to take hold and there are three of them here, including the album's bookends. The longest song Demons & Wizards song up until now was six and a half minutes but the opener here is over eight on its own, with nine and ten minute epics still to come. Fifteen years can be a long time in musical development.

I think part of is is also that I had to get used to the drum sound because it feels oddly detached from everything else, like an artificial layer added onto everything else rather than a musician contributing along with everyone else. With enough listens, the importance of that thought lessens and I was able to concentrate more on the songwriting and so start to really feel what these songs are doing.

As you might imagine from the title, this is a third album, but it's so far adrift from the other two in time that I feel that I should introduce Demons & Wizards to those not around as the millennium turned. It's a side project for two major power metal names: Kürsch, the vocalist and main man in Blind Guardian, and Schaffer, rhythm guitarist and main man in Iced Earth. Having been friends for years, they got together to write a well received self-titled debut as a duo in 1999. They followed up with Touched by the Crimson King in 2005 and are finally back with their long awaited third.

In the studio, they're usually a duo and I'm not sure anyone else played on this album, though they bulk up to a full band when touring, of course. The voices are mostly Kürsch, even when he's backing himself or layering voices to overlap lines or to invoke choral mode. Schaffer is credited with backing vocals but I doubt they're prominent. His role here is to contribute all the instruments, mostly guitar and bass but also keyboards and even mandolin. I don't see drums listed, so maybe that disconnected feel comes courtesy of a drum machine. Maybe it's just the mix.

Everything is power, of course, with these two involved. Kürsch sounds epic here, perhaps reconnected to straight power metal after finally finishing up Legacy of the Dark Lands, the orchestral album he's been working on for over twenty years. That makes this his second full length release in four months. There's a tone to his voice that makes him quintessentially power metal and there are quite a few points here when he's achingly definitive. The entire genre could die and lie buried for decades but one new Hansi Kürsch release is all it would take to seem instantly alive and well.

This album works best when Schaffer finds a similar epic feel but that isn't anywhere near as often as I'd like. It's there on Timeless Spirit, the nine minute that gets goth and western and all sorts of other things as it trawls us in. It's a real grower: I didn't like it first time through but it's very possibly my favourite song now. It's immersive, easy for us to get lost in, contrasted with Dark Side of Her Majesty, which runs exactly half the length and carries much more urgency and impact. I like the latter song but, every time it ends now, I want to go back to Timeless Spirit again.

With nothing particularly fast, I shouldn't be as surprised as I am to find influences from bands like AC/DC and W.A.S.P., especially on Midas Disease, which at points feels like a duet between Kürsch and Blackie Lawless, who's not involved in the slightest. Maybe that's why Schaffer chugs so damn much, because this is one of the guiltiest numbers on that front. Wolves in Winter chugs and chugs and chugs. Split chugs and chugs and chugs, even though it's elevated by a really cool riff. So much of this is chug chug chugging and it gets old.

As you can probably tell, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship going on with this album. I didn't feel it, just enjoying some of the shorter songs; then I did, connecting with the longer material; but as a full album, and an hour-plus album at that, it still manages to drop out of entertaining me to annoy me and that's never good. I started out with a 5/10 and jumped up to a 7/10 but feel as guilty going that high as that low, so it's a 6/10 for now.

Collateral - Collateral (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 21 Feb 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

While the New Wave of Classic Rock mostly focuses on the seventies, with bands who want to explore their Led Zeppelin or Bad Company influences, that's no hard and fast rule. Case in point: Collateral, from Ramsgate in Kent. Their sound is eighties all the way and primarily rooted in Bon Jovi, especially through the vocals of Angelo Tristan, who's very high in the mix as if the band will be marketed to young ladies as a hot lead singer with a bunch of other guys.

Mr. Big Shot shows that Bon Jovi influence right out of the gate. What's odd is that the guitars vanish for much of the song, giving ground not just for the vocals and drums but even the playful bass of Jack Bentley Smith. It's a catchy number, an obvious single and a very radio friendly one but it points out early that Collateral aren't going to be the heaviest band who identify with the New Wave of Classic Rock. What's not Bon Jovi is maybe Journey.

There are heavier songs, but they're never a heavy band. Promiseland reminds of hair metal bands like Ratt and Fastway, one of that wave who were heavily influenced by Kiss at a point in time when MTV was all over that. If they do a video for this one, it ought to be knee deep in hairspray and mascara and not just decorating the compulsory set of scantily clad young ladies to be lusted over. Merry Go Round may be a little heavier but it's also slower and a little less lively. Lullaby may have the best balance of power chords and woah woah backing vocals.

And so we go. Collateral are never as overtly sleazy as early Mötley Crüe or Poison but they hint at it. However the other direction they hint is country and the unwritten rules of genre mean that you can't be country and sleazy at the same time. Country, especially when sung by men, is ruthlessly family friendly right wing tradition, which is one reason I find it so boring. When Collateral go there, they get less interesting to me.

Midnight Queen is a country song wearing rock clothes, while Get Back to You is a country song wearing country clothes. Neither are bad songs but, along with the tinges of Americana, there's a safety to them that ought to be seen as anathema to more rebellious rock music. They're more akin to the hunks in hats of modern cookie cutter arena country than the Eagles, just with decent guitar solos to punctuate the vocals. If this was 1986, I'd suggest that all the rock girls would love these songs while pretending that their boyfriends hadn't just discovered Metallica.

There are four guys in the band and they're all very good at what they do. I appreciate the craft they put into this album, because it's set up carefully to launch them to stardom, from the vocal builds to the piano tinkles. This is music to listen to in arenas rather than local bars. If that's your thing then Collateral ought to be right up your alley. They're ballsier than your average safe band but they're far safer than your average hard rock band.

I don't want to guess at their future, and I wish them well, but it wouldn't surprise me if the harder edges apparent on songs like Lullaby and Merry Go Round gradually smooth out over albums two and three until the default songs of future Collateral are more pop/country numbers like About This Boy and I'll tune out while millions of others tune in.

Thursday 27 February 2020

Anvil - Legal at Last (2020)

Country: Canada
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 14 Feb 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I have a lot of respect for Anvil, because they frankly epitomise the metal spirit of never giving up on what they believe. They were formed as far back as 1978 and this is their eighteenth studio album, with two members of this power trio being founder members, Steve "Lips" Kudlow on guitars and vocals and Robb "Robbo" Reiner on drums. Chris Robertson, who I presume is not also called Robbo, is the new fish on bass, having been with Anvil since 2014.

The flipside to all that admirable drive is that sticking so closely to the sound they wanted in 1978 means that those eighteen albums aren't far away from being completely interchangeable, just with riffs and hooks of varying quality. The good news here is that the riffs and hooks are generally solid and often pretty damn good. If you're an Anvil fan already, this is another reliable album from them.

If you're not, let me introduce you. While the album is clearly a thank you to the Canadian government for legalising marijuana, it promptly turns into a collection of protest songs until the band apparently fail to conjure up any more problems to protest and then get even more generic than usual. The title track kicks things off in style but a success north of the border is promptly contrasted with a failure south of it, its title Nabbed in Nebraska being self-explanatory.

From the failed drug war in the US we shift to Chemtrails, a catchy anthem for the paranoid conspiracy minded lunatic fringe. Then it's Gasoline, which rages against the fossil fuel industry. Talking to the Wall complains about all this raging having no effect. Glass House is about surveillance society and a lack of modern privacy. Plastic in Paradise is about, well, plastic. I lost track at that point. It's very possible that Bottom Line, Food for the Vulture and Said and Done rage against something too but I'd lost interest.

I should add here that I have no idea what the IQs of the respective members of the band happen to be, but they really play up that old stereotype of the dumb metalhead. Anvil recorded an album called Anvil is Anvil. There must be some level of self-aware irony going on here. Anyway, they manage to fit the word "decriminalisation" into the lyrics of Nabbed in Nebraska. How many so-called intelligent bands have fit seven syllable words into their lyrics? It doesn't help that Kudlow apparently can't pronounce "imbecile" though.

The plus points here are obvious from moment one. Legal at Last is a stormer of a song, a real heavy metal anthem. Chemtrails has another fantastic riff and there are more to come. Gasoline's is slower but still solid. I'm Alive has a glorious riff. There are no poncey ballads anywhere to be found here, so it's easy to lose ourselves in the quality riffage and a driving rhythm section. Food for the Vulture chugs magnificently. Bonus track No Time wraps things up in blistering fashion, like the band want to leave us with the knowledge that they can conjure up riffs like these without any apparent effort. It's just natural for them.

The minus points start with those lyrics. I can sympathise with many of the social concerns raised, but there are no arguments being made here, merely interchangeable lyrics railing against *insert problem here*. After half a dozen of these generic protest songs, I realised that the depth is akin to a game on Whose Line is It Anyway? "Hey folks, it's the protest song round. I want you to sing a protest song in..." *spins wheel* "...heavy metal style about..." *spins wheel*. These are the songs you'd get, assuming there were solid musicians on hand to back up the comedian writing his song on the fly.

Talking of vocals, Kudlow is a great guitarist but he's a generic vocalist so, when he starts to lose us with his buzzword loaded lyrics, we're going to just drift away from his voice entirely. It's not bad per se, more like the local singer on stage in your local club after you walk in early. What keeps Anvil above that local band are the riffs and hooks, pure and simple. I'm going with a 6/10 here because those are consistently strong here, even across a dozen tracks. If you want more than that, drop a point off because you're not going to find it on an Anvil album.

Hypnotic Floor - Foggy Bog Eyes (2020)

Country: Austria
Style: Stoner Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 14 Feb 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook

I'm not going to spend too much time trying to figure out what Flötenstrudl is all about. It's the intro to this experimental bluesy psychedelic stoner rock album and it's very strange, full of maracas, bees and violin tuning. I think it may translate to "whirlpool of flutes", because there are a lot of those too, but I think it's really a test. Are you willing to listen to two minutes of weirdness to get to the rest of the album? If you are, you're in for a treat.

It's largely instrumental music, though there are vocals every now and then. I can't find a line-up online, but it didn't surprise me to see pictures on the band's Facebook page that show that their singer also plays guitar. The band's approach tells me that he thinks of himself as a guitarist much more than a singer. His vocals aren't bad but nobody's going to be listening for his voice.

For the sake of throwing them into a box, I'd call them stoner rock and the usual influences are obvious. Static Wheel sounds to me like Black Sabbath at their most bluesy with an almost liquid guitar. Every so often, the band flick the heavy switch but they're bluesy far more often than they're heavy. Even here, though, there's something else going on. Is that a glockenspiel I hear at points?

It's Fall where things get really interesting and, having let this album run on repeat for a few listens, I'm thinking it's their definitive song. While Static Wheel is mostly laid back, Fall is almost dance music emphatic. That simple but forceful drumbeat is reminiscent of a Stone Roses song like I am the Resurrection and it never quits. But when the vocals show up, it becomes folky, which surprised me because it's English folk rather than the American folk that infused the San Francisco scene of the late sixties. I should add that Hypnotic Floor are Austrian, based in Vienna.

Fall is the sort of song that we don't want to end and it almost doesn't, an eleven minute opus that seems eager to keep going for eleven more, wrapping up only so that the band can move onto other material, including the title track which adds a prog feel to the psych folk jam for an even headier mix. That triple whammy of Static Wheel, Fall and Foggy Bog Eyes is an impressive run, especially as it continually ups the game for twenty plus minutes.

This gradual acquisition of genres makes me wonder if why I'm not as fond of the final two tracks is because they don't add much more to the mix. Oakman adds a progression in fits and starts and a neat transition into heavy mode. Woods adds a harmonica to underline that bluesy connection. I was expecting something wild at that point, like reggae or dubstep or African drummers but these songs are more like summaries of what's gone before. In other context, they're strong songs too but Hypnotic Floor set us up to expect more out of each successive number and they can't continue to deliver that forever.

I'm sure I'm not the only critic to categorise Hypnotic Floor as stoner rock and there's enough fuzz on the guitar to cement that. However, they're more of a psychedelic folk rave jam sort of band. Is that a thing? It should be, because it's very easy to get lost in songs like Fall or Foggy Bog Eyes. If you laced the Stone Roses' beer with acid and pushed them onto the Cropredy stage with instruments in their hands, they might just sound like this.

I wish I knew who the musicians are so I could give them appropriate credit. Let's just say they all do their job well, even the guitarist when he steps up to the mike because the vocals do drive some of this, especially Woods. I might suggest that this would be a strong instrumental album but, unlike a lot of stoner rock albums, this one would lose something without that folky voice. I like their music and will happily take it however they dish it out.

Wednesday 26 February 2020

Biff Byford - School of Hard Knocks (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 21 Feb 2020
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

We might be forgiven for thinking that Phil Campbell took a long time to get a solo album out, given that he was 58 years young when Old Lions Still Roar hit the streets last year. Well, he was a lot quicker off the mark than Biff Byford, lead singer with Saxon for over four decades, who has finally got a solo effort out at the Bill & Ted age of 69, dude. While it sounds different to Campbell's in many ways, even when Campbell is guesting here, it follows the same general approach, to let the solo star explore new musical ground.

Initially, it's very safe, opening up with two songs that could easily have been recorded by Saxon. Welcome to the Show is the sort of fourth wall song that was popular back in the day, a humble homage to the fans. It's more of a hard rock song than heavy metal, though the hard rock we would have called heavy metal back in 1983. The title track is even more overtly Saxon with a great riff duetting with Byford's ever-recognisable vocals. It's clearly an autobiographical song too and not the only one on offer here.

It's Inquisitor where things shake up completely. A Spanish acoustic guitar sets the scene while Byford narrates a story in a gruff voice. It sounds to me like he's reading something he didn't write but, if that's true, I don't know what it comes from. It serves two purposes, to allow Byford to explore his interest in history and to introduce The Pit and the Pendulum, which is a heavy metal song that leans towards power metal as it takes a lyrical look at the Spanish Inquisition. Most critics are citing this as a highlight but it underwhelmed me because it feels so subdued for something that aches for bombast and relish. Sure, it's suitably theatrical and Byford gets emotional at points but it mostly left me dry.

I was much more impressed by Worlds Collide, which is heavier still but not feeling out of place. For what is arguably a hard rock album, a few heavier tracks fight that label. Pedal to the Metal is another one, seemingly built entirely out of clichés from achingly similar metal songs. It sounds great, with the chorus more Judas Priest than Saxon, but the lyrics are awful. The other heavy song is Hearts of Steel, which could easily have been a clichéd mess too, being a quintessential Manowar song title, but it's another leap back in time to visit the days of knights and chivalry, albeit through the rose-tinted glasses of Victorian books for kids. It's another good song.

Against the odds, so is Scarborough Fair. I really wasn't expecting this to work in the slightest but it does, well beyond Biff's ability to pronounce Scarborough properly. There are folk songs that have balls but this is never going to be listed among them, though Byford surely comes closer than anyone else ever will. The other cover is surprisingly strong too. It's Throw Down the Sword from Wishbone Ash's pivotal Argus album, which I knew was a great influence on Iron Maiden's twin guitar sound but not that it was as much of an influence on Saxon too. It shouldn't surprise me. It works very well.

I wonder if it would have been better to wrap up the album there, over forty minutes in, because I'm not as sold on the last couple of tracks that nudge it over fifty. Me and You is a softer rock song, though not really a ballad like the title might suggest. It's fun, right down to the organ and saxophone. Black and White has the bombast I wanted from The Pit and the Pendulum. It's another song worthy of Saxon, if a little on the softer side. Then again, the point here is for Byford to do things that wouldn't necessarily work for Saxon and I enjoyed him mixing things up here.

Overall, perhaps inevitably for such an approach, it's a hit and miss affair but there are more hits than misses and the misses are still worthy. I don't believe there's a song here I'd skip on another repeat listen and the songs I thought I wouldn't like as much turned out to be some of my favourites. Is it a definitive album from a much respected elder statesman of rock? No, it isn't, but it's a good album that's occasionally great and that works for me.

Elcrost - Benighted & Unrequited (2020)

Country: Vietnam
Style: Black Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 13 Feb 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

I initially took a look at Elcrost because they play black metal in Vietnam, which is something new to me. However, the more I looked, the more I found myself diving into a rabbit hole. Everything at Apocalypse Later is grounded in discovery and I love bands who don't just impress me with their own music but introduce me to other bands in the process. Elcrost clearly craft their songs because they're exercises in contrast as overt as the black and white cover art on their releases, which are gorgeous (the artist is Raven-HD-Maverick). Even their logo is elegant.

Part of the reason that they're so interesting is because their influences are so diverse and that's clear from the top ten lists each band member put up on Elcrost's Facebook page of their favourite albums of 2019. I believe I've reviewed about half of them, but I'm enjoying exploring what I haven't heard (or heard of). There's black metal there, of course, but it's unusual black metal, bands like Alcest, White Ward and the Waste of Space Orchestra. Apparently I need to check out Véhémence and Cân Bardd.

More of it is prog or post-rock or metal, which is telling. Some such bands are well known, from Opeth and Wilderun to Leprous and Soen, but many aren't and I'm eagerly exploring the more obscure ones, like The Woods, Thank You Scientist and Drenge. The list also includes enticing pop music: electropop (Aurora), indie pop (Ngọt) and synthpop (Meadow Lane Park). Then there are more genre-defying bands like Concept Unification ("electronic/gothic/doom metal") and Lunar Haze ("avant garde/experimental classical/progressive"). I just spent a Sunday morning wandering through all this on YouTube and I feel enriched for the process. Thank you, Elcrost.

But back to their own music. There are six tracks here, on what I presume is their debut album and they're all immersive, from the woodland footsteps and circling crows that open up proceedings with The Derelict Piece of My Heart Lies Deep Beneath the Forest, as elegaic a title for a musical poem as I've heard in a long time. What follows is a peaceful but warm guitar duet, one finding a hypnotic groove and the other punctuating it as if eager to be heard. A part has that second guitar squeak and squeal as it changes notes and I'd usually see that as a negative aspect but it seems very deliberate, almost birdlike, because it doesn't last into the next section.

The Worm is where we launch into black metal and it sounds great, if muted a little. I had to turn this up further than usual to make it pop and I think the reason it never fully does is because Elcrost have no drummer and their drum machine sounds like it's performing inside a box that's suppressing its sound. The balance between instruments is fine and the spotlight moves well from vocals (both harsh and clean) to guitar (searing out of the background like a phoenix taking flight) and even bass (which gets a surprising subdued lead slot).

Everything is controlled. The pace seems comfortable, even when it ramps up, and the harsh vocals, while harsh enough for any black metal fan, are slower and more deliberate, more enunciated than I'm used to hearing. It also means that everything is contrast: harsh and clean, intense and ambient, fast and slow. Ox Blood starts out with a shriek but it's a nine minute song so we're always going to slow down at some point. That happens almost exactly halfway with a gorgeous transition to soft piano and acoustic guitar. We go back and forth once more before the song is done, ending on a rhythmic guitar.

Oddly, the album title comes from a song that doesn't go black metal at all, called Forevermore. It combines clean male and clean female voices with the harsh male hovering creepily behind to give a sort of goth/black/folk feel. Each song seems to flow into the next and the complexity only builds as the album runs on, the fantastic final eight minute track, The Mountain of Eternal Winter, easily containing the most shifts in tempo and style.

I liked this a lot, albeit more for its peaceful parts than its black metal. A drummer or a better mix for the drum machine may make all the difference there because Elcrost never stop being interesting, whatever style they work in. Unfortunately, this is all there is at this point, because the only two releases prior to this were singles that are included on this album. I want more and I want more of their diverse recommendations too.

Friday 21 February 2020

Ozzy Osbourne - Ordinary Man (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 5/10
Release Date: 21 Feb 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Every now and then, people play the musical what if game and I roll my eyes. Often it's the 27 club. What if Jimi Hendrix hadn't died at 27? Imagine what he would have achieved in those extra decades! What about Brian Jones, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison? It's not just that era either, because there's Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse, not to mention the original, Robert Johnson. What extra wonders would they have woven in sound had they lived?

Well, nowadays I listen to Ozzy Osbourne and think in reverse. What would we think of Ozzy had he died at 27? He would have released six groundbreaking albums with Black Sabbath, up to Sabotage, only the second Sabbath album to be critically acclaimed, so his place in the history of heavy metal would be secure. We would rightly see him as a legend and wonder about what else the future might have brought for him.

Would we have imagined his being fired from Sabbath but reinventing himself with the Blizzard of Ozz? Would we have imagined Randy Rhoads or Zakk Wylde? Would we imagined Crazy Train, Mr. Crowley or Bark at the Moon? There were some great years after he turned 27. I enjoyed him live earlier this decade, but I realise that much of that was nostalgia. The last good Ozzy album may be No More Tears in 1991 and the last great one may be The Ultimate Sin all the way back in 1986.

In other words, he's been putting out sub-par albums for longer now than any member of the 27 Club spent alive on this planet and this is another one. It has its moments, certainly, but even on a catchy, hook-laden single such as Straight to Hell, his voice is wildly overproduced, sounding like what an AI might create if fed the entirety of Ozzy's solo output. All right now! Ha ha ha ha ha! This is Ozzy as a catchphrase spouting cartoon.

The line-up on this album is a surprising one, given that it doesn't feature even one of the current touring band members, from Wylde on down, but it's a really impressive core four piece band, led by Andrew Watt. He's a renowned multi-instrumentalist who's the guitarist throughout this album, though both Slash and Tom Morello guest. Watt also produced. Duff McKagan, from Guns n' Roses and Velvet Revolver, plays bass on all but one track. The only drummer is Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Chickenfoot.

And they do a strong job, even if the production is sometimes a little bass heavy, providing a solid bedrock for Ozzy and a number of guests to do their thing over. The most obvious are Elton John, who plays piano and duets with Ozzy on the title track, and rapper Post Malone who appears on the final two songs. Take What You Want is truly awful, an unholy mess of autotuned vocals and programmed drums. It's a Raid could easly be called a mess too but it's an engaging one: vibrant, alive and the punkiest I've ever heard Ozzy, even if his vocals are still so overproduced that they're almost plastic.

For all its flaws, Straight to Hell is a catchy enough single to stick in my brain the way that all the best solo Ozzy songs do. The other highlight for me is Scary Little Green Men, which is stupid but fun and also catchy. That Jason Momoa preview is golden too. Add the fuzzy sample-laden riot of It's a Raid and that's three strong tracks out of eleven. Take What You Want is so abysmal that I couldn't even finish it. The other seven songs range from OK to poor, some of which I still can't remember after listening to the entire album twice through in succession.

Most of this is best described as Ozzy by numbers and, even if I still hold out a little hope that the Godfather of Metal will surprise us the way he's surprised us before and hurl a classic album out of nowhere, I'm not at all confident he has time left to do it. Ordinary Man comes ten years after the underwhelming Scream and it's only Ozzy's fifth solo album this millennium. I'm glad he's not a member of the 27 Club and he's still around to serve as the icon he is. I just wish he'd release an album that doesn't fundamentally disappoint.

Bernelius - Grave Dancer (2020)

Country: Norway
Style: Alternative/Stoner Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 14 Feb 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

Here's an album that fits two categories that seem to be coming up a lot of late. It's massively eclectic in its sound and so doesn't remotely fit into a single genre, alternative probably being the best bucket because of that. And it's the work of another one man band, the gentleman responsible going by Bob Felix Bernelius Hegdal, who I believe records in Oslo, the capital of Norway.

The opener is a perfect example of how broadly Bernelius paints with genres, reminiscent in many ways of a Mike Patton project because of that. It's Free Range Human and it's a perky indie track that frankly dances through lounge, rockabilly and surf to end up surprisingly haunting. The words are almost an afterthought, the way that Bernelius delivers them being more important. The Song on the Radio does the same thing in a completely different style, being a rather hypnotic song with darker vocals reminiscent of Nick Cave.

In between those two is perhaps my favourite song here, Arm the Cannon, and it takes the precise opposite approach with lyrics. Here, they're delivered in conversational fashion with a vocal style that reminded me of Cake. Maybe this is a little out there to be a college radio hit but then maybe not. It plays hypnotically to me, a simple riff hiding all sorts of neat complexity.

And the lyrics are as wild as the glorious way in which Bernelius acts them out. Within that one single song, we get line like "Where are your manners, human?", "Yes, conscience is an afterthought" and "Looking for me, looking for fresh kerfuffle." My favourite has to be "Ever-speaking, never-thinking clap dispenser; perpetual fool. Like you would know what love is! Now stop your lamentation and give me a smile; this is your final curtain."

Song after song continues to do something completely different while somehow remaining consistent enough to keep the album coherent. Lone Documentarian punctuates itself with claps as much as drums and the guitars dance between left and right speaker. Now our inventive one man band croons like he's alt rock Elvis holding court. Are we in Cramps territory now?

We're firmly in the world of stoner rock on Watch It Happen with a juiced up and amped up bass resonating with intent. It's patient though and the vocals are performance art, especially when Bernelius starts shrieking through the mic and the guitars completely ignore him. Yet Grave Dancer is effortlessly chill, while Tonight and Vaffunculo, Assassino are lively and playful but a great dealer calmer than avant screaming.

I knew by the end of Free Range Human that I was going to like this, but it kept on surprising me for another nine songs. What Bernelius does best is to continually invent but never invent too far beyond what we can cope with for now. I'm intrigued to see if his prior album, Space Drifter, did all this on a greater or lesser scale. Is he getting more varied or, perish the thought, calming down some. I really want to find out.

I know I'll keep on listening to this one though. Bernelius throws a lot of things at the wall here and not everything hits, but enough does to make it one of those rare albums that remain completely fresh however many times we listen to it.

Thursday 20 February 2020

Stone Temple Pilots - Perdida (2020)

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

The Stone Temple Pilots are one of those bands that I don't remember because they switched on at the point I was switching off but, going back to refresh myself on what they sounded like, I realise that I know their songs. Could I have told you that Interstate Love Song was theirs? No, but as soon as I hit play on YouTube, I knew it. The same goes for Vasoline, Plush, Big Empty and surely a bunch more that I didn't get round to.

The reason why I went to YouTube to check out older material is because what I heard here didn't sound like what I expected the Stone Temple Pilots to be like. Sure, they lost a couple of distinctive vocalists in Scott Weiland and Chester Bennington, but it wasn't new singer Jeff Gutt who surprised me. It was that, somewhere along their musical journey from grungy alternative rock beginnings to wherever they're going, they turned into the Eagles.

Now, while that sounds rather reactionary, it isn't entirely untrue. Opening song Fare Thee Well sounds like the Eagles in their later inoffensive radio-friendly soft rock mode. It's hard not to like it because it's built out of inherently likeable DNA but the older I get the more I have zero interest in inherently likeable music. It's telling that I went to get lunch after about half an hour of this album and shocked myself by realising that I'd paused it on track four. It had maybe been fifteen minutes.

The question isn't whether this is nice to listen to. It is. It's very nice. The question is whether it counts as the sort of music that's enjoyable as it enters our heads but, having done its job, promptly flutters off into the breeze to be forever forgotten. And there I'm not sure. It feels like it is, but I can't answer that until tomorrow or next week, so I'll dive in deeper to see what I can find.

The first thing to note is that the whole album is acoustic, so this is far from in your face music. Wikipedia lists alternative rock, grunge, hard rock and alternative metal as the band's genres. This is precisely none of those. Some of it is introspective, so may appeal to fans of singer/songwriters who focus on the words more than the music but don't ignore the latter. Much of it plays with instruments and writing styles that we wouldn't usually expect of a grunge band. Some of it could be recognisable if it was electric, amped up and delivered with a heck of a lot more emphasis than this.

Fare Thee Well is acoustic Eagles right down to the vocal harmonies, but the comparisons from there get even more surprising. There's Gordon Lightfoot on Three Wishes. There's Leonard Cohen on Perdida, which finds a Spanish guitar style that fits the language of the title (the song is still in English). It never quite makes it to Emmylou Harris but there's always the next album, as it isn't as far away from that as I'd have ever expected.

After those singer/songwriter openers, the album moves into flavouring sound with instruments unexpected if not unusual. There's a flute on I Didn't Know the Time, a saxophone on the Steely Dan sounding Years. The flute comes back with a vengeance on She's My Queen, which thinks about cutting loose but has no intention of doing so. There's a hint of bagpipes and another of gospel, but they're literally cut off. Miles Away is violin led café music. There's a nice piano moment on You Found Yourself While Losing Your Heart, but only one, which may be why this one drags where the previous seven didn't.

Sadly, it's one of the two longest songs on the album and the longest comes after it and follows in the same vein. Perdida wraps up with us drifting far away from it, wondering when the orchestra which gets the last half minute showed up, and that's never good. I'm all for a band reinventing its sound and trying something new. I'm all for a band going acoustic and recording on vintage instruments. I'm all for big transitions, even if they're rarely the sort of things the fans want. And this is all three. But is it any good?

Well, it's not as soporific as it starts out suggesting. I actually liked it for seven songs, before it lost me, but I doubt it'll stay with me. It's not inventive enough to be memorable, not folky enough to render this approach a viable one, not original enough in its choice of odd instruments. For such a departure from the band's regular sound, it just feels safe. It's for old school grunge fans who have turned into bank managers with a fondness for margaritas.

Bütcher - 666 Goats Carry My Chariot (2020)

Country: Belgium
Style: Black/Speed Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 31 Jan 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

I almost didn't try this second album from Belgium's Bütcher because they're clearly not taking this entirely seriously. Unnecessary umlaut in the band's name? Check. Overplayed album title? Check, though it's a step down from its predecessor, Bestial Fükkin' Warmachine. Misspelled songs? Check. Stupid intro? Double check, as it combines Flash Gordon synths with unintelligible narration. Über-metal pseudonyms? Check times four. I wonder who guitarist KK Ripper's favourite band might be? I'll give you one guess and I guarantee you won't need another. R Hellshrieker, AH Wrathchylde and LV Speedhämmer have names so descriptive that I don't need to tell you their roles. And is that cover art the most metal thing you've seen in years or what?

But forty or so seconds into that stupid intro, it shifts over to exquisite metal guitar, like it's a warm-up for a guitarist who knows he's going to be playing at hyperspeed for the next half an hour and doesn't plan on breaking his fingers launching into the first track proper. That track is Iron Bitch (yeah, I know) but it blisters and I knew that I'd found a perfect antidote to the Stone Temple Pilots album I'm reviewing after this.

The vocals of R Hellshrieker's vocals are certainly over the top, rarely not delivered at a scream. They threaten to be bigger than the studio the band's recording in and I salute the producer's efforts because he manages to keep him high in the mix but not so much that he spends half his time in the red. He has fun with enunciation like Martin Walkyier, and, on the basis of what he does with a scream in Iron Bitch, he has some serious pipes. He's easily half Rob Halford and a quarter each Eric Adams and King Diamond with a hint of an effective black metal rasp to boot.

Iron Bitch does exactly what speed metal is supposed to do: blister into our ears faster than we expect and clean us out from the inside. It's Manowar on speed, NWOBHM on a faster tempo, Judas Priest a little beyond their fastest, all the things you might expect. It's also pretty damn good. As over the top as Bütcher obviously are, they're clearly talented musicians and they play their socks off here. They're not joking with their music. I loved this one.

What surprised me most is how varied this album is. No, it's not bringing in anything unusual but, rather than just ramp up the tempo to ludicrous speed and stay there throughout, like the speed metal band I expected them to be, this is really a love letter to the early years of extreme metal, taking not only speed metal to heart but everything else that surrounded it, with songs or sections of songs bringing to mind Razor, Mercyful Fate and Celtic Frost.

Not all of it is entirely successful. 45 RPM Metal is less a tribute to old school metal singles and more a decent attempt to sound like a Judas Priest song recorded at 33 RPM and played back at 45 RPM. It might kick off with a Tom Araya style scream but it's more speed metal and Hellshrieker finds that recognisable John Cyriis pitch on a couple of screams. Oddly, it's Sentinels of Death that actually sounds like Bütcher may have actually done that 33/45 trick, with the second half shifting in pitch like someone flicked that speed switch on the record player.

If old school extreme metalheads aren't sold on this from those two openers, then you're just not paying attention. And the album only gets deeper. Just check out the nine minute title track. It has an acoustic intro and a choir to make it epic right out of the gate. It builds much slower than the album has done thus far but just as surely. It drops inoto a folky acoustic moment midway and there's an exquisite slowdown seven minutes in. There are Maiden riffs early and early Dio late. And Hellshrieker is versatile here, joining the song like Dani Filth, shifting into King Diamond and ending up as a sort of conversational Martin Walkyier.

If we were only paying attention to the speed, that song surely wakes us up and we notice all sorts of other things going on. AH Wrathchylde is clearly a big fan of Joey de Maio and he gets to shine on both Face the Bütcher and its intro, Metallström, but in different ways. While Sentinels of Dethe is a very fast song, there's experimentation going on. Hellshrieker spits out his vocals at double speed and Ripper's guitar paints atonal textures at points. Viking Funeral draws from the Bathory playbook. There's a Celtic Frost churn under the late parts of Brazen Serpent. And it ends with an acoustic outro that wraps things up like we've just experienced a pagan ritual.

I threw this on just because I needed something insanely fast to counter the Stone Temple Pilots album but I found a lot more than I expected. This band are at least a thousand times better than anyone might expect from all those things I mentioned in my opening paragraph. They might seem to be the Steel Panther of epic metal but they're really talented and well versed musicians who combine genres effortlessly to create something contemporary and utterly engaging. I so need to see this band live. I pity whoever who has to follow them on stage.

Wednesday 19 February 2020

Ihsahn - Telemark (2020)

Country: Norway
Style: Black/Progressive Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 14 Feb 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

At well under 15,000, the Norwegian city of Notodden has a population about the same as the house across the street from me but, when it comes to music, it punches insanely above its weight. It's apparently the blues capital of Europe, host to the annual Notodden Blues Festival, and it's also a pivotal location for black metal, as Ihsahn founded Emperor and wrote Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk there.

Mortiis, who was briefly in Emperor too, is also from Notodden, as are prog rock/metal band Leprous. Ihriel, who also records as Star of Ash and was a major part of avant metallers Peccatum, is yet another Notodden native; she is also Ihsahn's wife and the sister of Leprous main man Einar Solberg. This is my third review of a Notodden band in only fourteen months, which may be more than San Francisco or Seattle.

And, as tends to be the case with Ihsahn, it's a fascinating release, albeit a brief one because Telemark is a five track EP, two of which are covers. It will apparently be followed soon by another, this one more of a black metal-infused release and its successor more prog in nature. Of course, while the auteur behind these EPs may well shift along a line from one to the other, I seriously doubt that we won't hear both aspects on both releases.

There's the bleakness of black metal in opener Stridig even before it finds its legs and gallops onward at pace. Ihsahn sings in Norwegian here, and I'm assured by Google Translate that Stridig means "unconstitutional". It's more prog to me than black but it combines the harsh riffs and vocal shrieks with a melodic saxophone and martial drums. There's a real atmosphere to this one with much of the song dedicated to building that, the rest of its effort in finding arty and often jazzy tones within a vaguely black metal framework.

I don't need to translate Nord, which is more led by vocals than music for a while. There's torment in Ihsahn's voice here and melancholy in the backing vocals, which I presume he also provided, given that he's effectively a one man band in the studio nowadays. I like the sax here as well, because it's a darkly playful creature, always hinting at John Zorn-esque insanity but not once going there, instead adding an experimental tone.

Best of all is the title track, Telemark, another name that I don't need to translate because it's the region of Norway that contains Notodden. It does everything I've already mentioned but at longer length and with other sounds to elevate it further. I'm not sure what Ihsahn is actually playing early on but it sounds like bagpipes and a hurdy-gurdy. It gets proggy. It gets dark. It gets intricate. It's patient but eventually builds and delivers with wild density. At points, it almost seems to want to smother us but we're totally on board with that.

And then, having established a tone for this release, Ihsahn goes and shifts on a dime to throw us a couple of cover versions that we might not expect an immortal of black metal to take on. The first is Rock and Roll is Dead, one of the songs Lenny Kravitz was Grammy-nominated for. It's an odd selection I can't grasp. It isn't bad but it doesn't seem to add anything to the EP and I'm at a loss as to why Ihsahn chose to cover it. Maybe it's a message.

The second cover reminds us that the original black metal musicians couldn't be influenced by black metal because they were busy inventing it. They took their influences from bands like Iron Maiden, making Wrathchild an enticing song to take on. Ihsahn chooses to play it relatively straight, with the way he growls the vocals the biggest difference from the original. Well, and the sax. It feels odd to hear a sax on an Iron Maiden song, but it sounds pretty fine. Musically, this is close to the original, especially with the melodic guitar lines and the prowling Steve Harris style bass. It's fun.

I enjoyed this EP a lot. It runs under twenty-five minutes and a third of it points the way to what he's able to do nowadays apparently effortlessly. An entire album built on the ideas that sit behind the title track would be an album to camp out to buy the moment it's released. The other original songs are solid, if not quite up to the same level, and the covers, even Rock and Roll is Dead, are interesting. Bring on that second EP!

Coogans Bluff - Metronopolis (2020)

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

It took a whole eight seconds for Coogans Bluff to grab me. Sure, the guitar and kazoo (that is a kazoo, right?) sounded intriguing, but then an almighty crash kicks in like someone had taken an ancient gong outside and shot it to death. It's glorious and the rest of Gadfly continues to be interesting. It has a real urgency throughout most of the song but it still finds time for a mellow out saxophone section. Earlier sax over a weighty stoner riff is even more arresting.

Its so much fun that I was all set for an album of songs like this one but I have to point out that Coogans Bluff clearly aren't interested in revisiting old ground when they've covered it properly to begin with. At forty minutes, this isn't an incredibly long album but they do travel down a whole bunch of musical roads within that running time.

Sincerely Yours is loose psychedelic rock with a southern edge, kind of like what Lynyrd Skynyrd might have sounded like had they formed in San Francisco in 1967. I'd throw out Blind Melon as a comparison too but this is a little more soulful and a little less perky than No Rain. Hit and Run does much of the same, making this pair of bookends around Zephyr the only two songs here that really play in the same ballpark.

Zephyr is a jazzy workout introduced by that sax of Max Thum but which moves firmly into krautrock, with a searing Willi Paschen guitar solo, the driving bass of Clemens Marasus and more wailing sax as the track builds. It's seven minutes long but it's over before we blink, even with a quiet introspective section. There's a lot of King Crimson in here, quiet or loud, because while Coogans Bluff play in a lot of genres, prog is at the heart of what they do.

Soft Focus is a soft rock song but with depth, so think more Steely Dan than Jimmy Buffett. The organ behind the lively beats is delightfully subtle and there's a lot of keyboards here. Drummer Charlie Paschen also plays Farfisa and Mellotron, while Stefan Meinking is credited on Moog. It's another seven minute song but this one feels a little longer because it's far more relaxed instrumentally.

And that brings us to The Turn, in two parts, which announces its intent to be memorable from the very beginning. It turns out to be memorable, but not so overtly as the opening suggested. The first part is entirely instrumental and it's Marasus who shines again here on bass. As things progress, I'd add Meinking for special mention, not for his Moog work this time out but for an engaging trombone. Part two is a real tease of a vocal piece that builds the way a Joe Cocker song would but with different vocal tones. I love the drums on this one, partly for their patience and partly for releasing their energy in glorious fashion when the moment arises.

The obvious question at the end of this is whether it holds together as one album and I think it does. Whatever road the band are travelling, they don't ever lose track of being Coogans Bluff. The biggest problem the album has is that Zephyr has so much sheer intensity to it that it dominates that part of the album so firmly that it's easy to lose the peaceful material around it. It took me a couple of listens through to really register Hit and Run, as it feels so quietly inoffensive by comparison.

All in all, this is a strong prog rock album, worth highlighting at a point in time where strong prog rock albums seem to be bleeding out of the walls.

Tuesday 18 February 2020

God Dethroned - Illuminati (2020)

Country: Netherlands
Style: Blackened Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 7 Feb 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Twitter | Wikipedia

As I understand it, God Dethroned have called it quits twice but can't seem to stop putting out new material anyway. In 1993, that wasn't too notable as they were a new band with only one poorly promoted album to their name. In 2012, though, with nine studio releases behind them, it was a bigger deal. They'd done a lot over a couple of decades, including an important classic in Bloody Blasphemy. Fortunately they picked right up again in 2014 and this is their eleventh studio album.

It's a decent album, as melodic as blackened death metal gets, every crunchy riff adding more melody, though it doesn't help for the opening title track to remind so much in the verses of Slayer's Seasons in the Abyss. It's there in the vocal phrasing, stalking drums and even one of the riffs. It takes a different path in the chorus, layering the title in symphonic style and even cleverly rolling the word into being a beginning and end.

Broken Halo is everything Illuminati is without sounding familiar. It adds a black metal pace when it needs and an enjoyable solo. It's an urgent song to set the album in motion, though things certainly don't stay as urgent, most obviously in Book of Lies, which is content to chug along at a sedate tempo. With a different production job, this one could easily shift genre. There's a power metal undercurrent at points that manifests in Book of Lies and, in a different way, in Spirit of Beelzebub too. That's a patient choral chorus indeed.

The middle of the album carries on as is, explaining why this both works and doesn't work at the same time. None of these songs are bad. Every one has us paying attention and enjoying the melodic riffs and intelligible vocals. It all feels rather nice though. There are plenty of nods to the extremes that we might expect from a band who have released so much blackened death metal, but it's all so polite and friendly that we never feel a threat in the music that really ought to be there, especially for a band called God Dethroned.

The first song that really tries to be extreme is the final one, Blood Moon Eclipse, which tries to take us home with emphasis with mixed results. Until that song, the drums have no interest in punching us in the gut, the guitars don't want to slice into us and the vocals don't dare rip our throats out. I think the band tries to do that a little at the end but it still holds back. This is extreme metal that you can take home for tea with your mother. That one final song does enough to remind us why should ring a little odd.

Before Blood Moon Eclipse is Eye of Horus, the most interesting song on the album for me. It delves into Egyptian mythology, à la Nile, but does so in a very different way. There are points here where the drums play more tribal, the vocals shift to chants and the guitar moves to a very recognisably early Paradise Lost feel. I can't say I didn't enjoy this album, but nothing here felt interesting until Eye of Horus, an enticing doom/death black metal ritual.

And that makes me wonder how this is going to stay with me. For an album of melodic death metal that constantly entertained me, I have a strange feeling that, with the sole exception of Eye of Horus, it might not stay with me at all. Let's see. I've wondered a couple of times lately if I've rated albums too low, but here I wonder if I'm being too generous.

Blackwater Conspiracy - Two Tails & The Dirty Truth of Love & Revolution (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 14 Feb 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Influences are fascinating things. There are many bands who sound like other bands because their influences are narrow enough for one to dominate. That's good for listeners because we quickly understand what they're doing and have reference points to judge their quality. Personally, I tend to prefer bands like Blackwater Conspiracy, who have so many influences that it's harder to place them within a framework of our musical experience. They're challenging because it's hard to initially grasp their sound but, once we do, it's often very rewarding indeed.

They're from County Tyrone in Northern Ireland but their influences seem to be mostly American, if not always directly. The root of their sound is very much in the blues but there's country and rock 'n' roll in there as well. If there's anything Irish here, it's Rory Gallagher, especially on the opener, Goodbye to Yesterday. I'm not hearing any Thin Lizzy here at all, no Mama's Boys and no Gary Moore, who are the others I thought I might find.

All Wired Wrong has a Thunder vibe to it, but as the album ran on, I started to hear more and more of a looser Australian take on Americana. That's most obvious in the vocals. Sometimes there's a little Bon Scott, once in a while a little Angry Anderson and rather often some Jimmy Barnes. Part of this may be the piano too, because Kevy Brennan ensures that, however big their sound gets and however big they get as a band, they'll still sound like they could just unload into the back of a pub and rock the place and every great Aussie rock band fits that bill, from AC/DC on down.

He gets to shape some of these songs too. The band's About page on Facebook tells us that he's classically trained but brought more of Jerry Lee Lewis and Jon Lord to their melting pot sound. I caught some rock 'n' roll piano on the opener and Atlanta Smile has that Deep Purple heavy organ sound, but it's Elton John who shines out from this for me. Just Like a Silhouette is clearly Elton John to me, good rocking Elton from the seventies, of course, right down to the horn section. In Another Lifetime does this too, but it sits at the midpoint on a line between Elton John and Guns n' Roses that I never realised existed.

Mostly, it's Americana straight from America though; you don't need to hear more than a couple of bars of Take It on the Chin to hear that and when the slide guitar arrives, it's impossible to hear anything else. What I think I like most here is that, even here at their most American, they still aren't easy to define. There's some Black Crowes rock 'n' roll, because that's not far away at any point here, but there's country in the grounding and gospel in the chorus and southern rock in the gaps between everything else.

In other words, there's a heck of a lot here for a critic to unravel and I haven't even started in on the flute that kicks off Bird in a Coalmine and the violins that float it forward. This is the most overtly country song on the album (She Gets Me High might want to fight it for that), though that's a rock beat and there's a hint of Van Morrison in the vocals, albeit only a hint that's channelled through Steven Tyler. I haven't mentioned Aerosmith, as Blackwater Conspiracy aren't as wildly over-produced or as hook-laden but they're an obvious influence too.

What you need to know is that they sound damn good and gloriously deep. The songs may not be the most immediate or the most simple, but they're likely to seep into your soul. This works best as an album and you won't want it to drift too far away from your playlist. And now I need to dig backwards, not just to the previous Blackwater Conspiracy album but to the three they made before that as Million Dollar Reload.

Friday 14 February 2020

Pendragon - Love Over Fear (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 14 Feb 2020
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Prog Archives | Twitter | Wikipedia

I discovered rock music just a little late to notice the debut of Marillion but not too late to devour it in hindsight and follow their subsequent rise into and out of the mainstream. I knew they weren't alone and that neo-prog was something of a movement and, while Fish-era Marillion has always stayed my favourite neo-prog band, I discovered a host of others through the Friday Rock Show, like IQ, Twelfth Night and Pallas, that I enjoyed too.

Pendragon were another and they may be the earliest of them, as they formed back in 1977, before any of the others I've mentioned, but their debut album didn't show up until 1985 and The Jewel is still the one I remember best. I haven't kept up with the band but I see that they've stayed together with a pretty consistent line-up ever since. Two of its four founding members, lead vocalist and guitarist Nick Barrett and bass player Peter Gee, have now been with Pendragon for over four decades. Clive Nolan has racked up well over thirty years as keyboardist. Only the drummer keeps changing, the latest, Jan-Vincent Velazco, being the band's eighth.

This is only their eleventh studio album in that time but I enjoyed it a lot and maybe even more than last year's IQ album. It's lively and playful, with imaginative vocals from Barrett and some searing guitar solos too. It's over an hour in length, ignoring the bonus acoustic and instrumental discs, so it had every opportunity to drag, but it stays inventive throughout and doesn't drift away at any point.

It's enticing from the seaside organ that introduces Everything, but it does a lot in only a few tracks. Everything doesn't quite include everything, but it does often try. It's followed by a soft, introspective ballad in Starfish and the Moon; a real attention grabber in Truth and Lies; and an absolutely impossible to ignore track in 360 Degrees. That one is almost Runrig in the way it builds around a jig and I don't think anyone who enjoys prog enough to stay that long can fail to feel highly impressed by what Pendragon manage to conjure up here.

It's a very organic album, Nolan's keyboards surrounding already interesting songwriting so well that we sometimes feel like we're wrapped in a bubble on a journey through the elements. With song titles like Starfish and the Moon, Soul and the Sea, Water and Whirlwind, it should be no surprise to find that these lyrics are fundamentally connected to nature. The core influences here could be summed up by the opening words of Eternal Light: "Summer. Swallows and Amazons."

I'm surprised that there isn't more folk music in here, given that focus on nature, but this is emphatically prog, even with flutes and whatnot adding a texture or six all over the place. There's a breathy saxophone to finish up Whirlwind. I'm also surprised that it doesn't delve deeper into psychedelia, given how surreal the lyrics get. "Be conscious of daffodils," sings Barrett as if that's a routine line. "I don't care if I've got seaweed for hair," he points out. "Believe between the starfish and the moon." "Deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole", indeed. I don't have a lyric sheet but is one of the lines really, "Crouching praying mantis, a plaster on his arse"?

Sometimes these lyrics are conversational, most overtly in 360 Degrees, but they tend to lean towards the surreal as a matter of course, as if whoever's writing this material started that process by walking out to a field in the middle of nowhere and taking a heroic dose of acid. "Water is truth," we're told. "This is my element. Time is irrelevant." And, perhaps when the effect started to fade: "Can I tell you how much it means to see oystercatchers on some lonely beach in winter?"

All this makes sense, because everything here is organic. The keyboards aim to take us places and embellish them in our minds; they swirl like seagulls on Who Really Are We? Even the solos, which sear and soar on Eternal Light, Water or Soul and the Sea, feel like they're made of liquid or lightning or something more natural than plugging a guitar into manufactured equipment. I honestly feel that the tone is as important here as anything else and it's a delight.

I read that Pendragon heavied up over the last decade or two but that's not obvious here. The only track that even hints at metal is Who Really Are We? and it doesn't remotely get there. This is an old school neo-prog album and a very good one indeed, sitting in a clear lineage that starts clearly with Genesis and adds in other bands on the way: a little Pink Floyd here, some Marillion there. The resulting album is a full immersive hour of Pendragon and, frankly, it's better than I remember them ever being back in the day and I liked them back then.

Angellore - Rien na devait mourir (2020)

Country: France
Style: Atmospheric Doom Metal
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 14 Feb 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Wikipedia

Anyone who's spent more than five minutes listening to extreme metal knows that there are almost as many subgenres as there are bands. Angellore are a doom metal band, but they've attracted a few subgenres: atmospheric doom and romantic doom being just two. I'd suggest exquisite doom, because this third album for them is a beautifully constructed piece of art, achingly so.

Some albums prompt me to close my eyes so that I can be carried away by the music, some make me move like I'm being shaped by it and some carry so much energy that I need to find the nearest mosh pit and share it with the world. This album I want to put on a shelf and admire. I'm not even sure I want to tell anyone about it, because then it won't be mine any more. It feels very personal. My precious.

It's at once surprisingly accessible and ruthlessly non-commercial. Opening track A Romance of Thorns runs over twenty minutes on its own, taking us on an emotional journey from quiet sections, starring crisply clear vocals and polite instrumentation that sound like a pristine Alpine snowscape looks and feels, through atmospheric parts that feel rather like gothic mansions half lost behind swirling mist, all the way to frantic sections that are like an unloading of emotions in black metal style.

In short, there's a heck of a lot here, perhaps appropriately given that the album title translates to Nothing Should Die, which is elegantly simple but impeccably deep. It starts as a choral chant that adds a solo piano, moving to symphonic swirl and doomladen escalation. When it finds its first groove, it's a gothic one in the vein of Tristania (from a track by whom they found their name); Lucia's crystal vocals pairing with Rosarius's plaintive guitar to set a achingly beautiful mood. After all, while nothing should die, we're pretty sure someone or something just did.

There are so many vocalists at work here that it's easy to lose track. Lucia is surely the female voice, as Rosarius and Walran are both male, but these latter two are listed as both clean and harsh and I have no idea who is who. One of them is presumably the harsh voice that commands godlike from on high and one of them is surely the peaceful voice that sounds like it's singing poetry to a lover in a forest grove, but they could be the same person or a combination of the two either way around. I don't know.

I just know that both sound great and they're so wildly different from each other and from Lucia that they feel like characters in a play. This is great music to listen to but it's easy to wonder what it looks like. Add to them a pair of backing vocalists, because bassist Celin and drummer Ronnie provide their voices in here somewhere, and a choir, which is billed as the Funeral Choir. What's more, on top of the regular instruments, we hear oboe, cello, Celtic harp and flute. At least one of those musicians adds another voice, which may well be the distraught one or the whispering one or...

While Angellore are French, they sing in English, at least on this song, but I completely failed to get past how this sounds to what it actually says. I should add that the lyrics are acutely intelligible for the most part, only some of the more extreme sections harder to figure out. It's just that it's easy to get so caught up in the depth of these sonic pictures that it's hard to focus on the words that sit within them.

This is running long already and I'm sure you've got the point, so I'll just mention that Angellore are a combination of the gothic tastes of Rosarius and the folk leanings of Walran into a doom project. A Romance of Thorns is full of the gothic, while Dreams (Along the Trail) drifts more acutely into folk. Later songs continue to find their own individual balances between the two, adding death growls and black metal blitzkriegs as the songwriters see fit, styles duetting on Drowned Divine. There's even a potential single in Blood for Lavinia, a more straightforward gothic rock song.

The album, coming five years after its predecessor, La latinie des cendres, is also highly generous. There's over an hour of immersive music here, just in the regular version of the album, spread over a mere six songs. There are highlights everywhere, each song finding new textures. Arguably, they leave the most exquisitely mournful song until last, Que les lueurs se dispersent. A pair of bonus tracks on the double vinyl edition add almost twenty further minutes. This is a must if you're into both goth and doom and it's seriously recommended even if you're merely interested.

Thursday 13 February 2020

Assassin - Bestia Immundis (2020)

Country: Germany
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 7 Feb 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Oh, I remember Assassin! Actually, I remember two different Assassins in the late eighties who even appeared on consecutive editions of The Friday Rock Show, but I preferred the thrash band from Düsseldorf over the Irish melodic rock outfit from Eire. While they never reached the heights of Destruction, Sodom and Kreator, I regarded them as one of the truest thrash bands at the time, very fast but accurate music with rough and ready vocals, perfect for those moments when you want music to just take you away and clean you out.

I remember enjoying their debut, The Upcoming Terror, a great deal and their follow-up, Interstellar Experience, a little less. I also remember that they broke up for a sad reason: their equipment got stolen and they weren't able to replace it. What I didn't remember, because I didn't know it, is that the band got back together in 2002 and have continued to release new product. It seems that the original members have gradually slipped away again, though, with only one remaining: guitarist Jürgen Scholz, better known as Scholli.

Realising all this now, I'm eager to catch up and this fourth album from the new Assassin era starts off well with a no nonsense pit starter of a song in The Swamp Thing. It blisters along wonderfully without giving us a chance to catch our breath. It's quintessential Teutonic thrash, with Ingo Bajonczak's urgent vocals in slightly accented English and a vicious guitar attack from Scholli and Frank Blackfire, who spent the eighties with Sodom, the nineties with Kreator and is now back in Sodom again in addition to Assassin.

The good news is that The Swamp Thing is a really strong opener, doing what Assassin did so well on The Upcoming Terror. The bad is that it's probably the best track on the album, but that fortunately doesn't mean that the rest takes a dive in quality. How Much Can I Take? is a little more anthemic but it still blisters along, even finding an atmospheric way to wrap up. And so we go, with a consistent sound throughout. These songs are built from solid riffs and a pace that ought to keep the pits lively, but there's melody here too in that rough Motörhead-inspired style that resembles Kreator.

So that's the upside. What's the downside? Sadly, there are a few. The one I found most annoying was the drum sound, which favours a couple of drums over the others so that there's a constant emphatic beat but we struggle to catch everything else that Björn Sondermann is doing. Less annoying but clear for anyone paying attention is that the lyrics are hardly stellar. I have every sympathy for the subject matter of songs like The Wall, which rails against the Trump era, but its lyrics are clumsily over-written and they're far from alone on this album. The words for Shark Attack were never going to win any awards.

There's another attribute to this album that I'm sure will count as another downside for some people and that's that Assassin fail to find the identity they need to thrive. I have sympathy for that, because it's fair to say that this is generic Teutonic thrash, but I don't buy into that necessarily being the calamity that some might.

Sure, it means that we're never going to see Assassin headline a tour over a Kreator or a Destruction, as it'll always be the other way around. However, I'd still be there early to see Assassin open and I would be right there at the front banging my head and enjoying the show, waiting as much for worthy new songs like The Swamp Thing, Hell's Work is Done and The Killing Light as old favourites like the glorious instrumental, Speed of Light, from the 1987 debut.

Your expectations will shape how much you enjoy this. If you're a fan of the classic German thrash style, this is a strong but unsurprising new album to make your day a better one. However, if you've never dug that scene, there's absolutely nothing here that will change your mind and you can safely drop a point off my rating. I am a classic German thrash fan and this made me happy, even if it won't do the same for you.

The most inventive song here is Chemtrails, Pt. 1, which feels like a heavy Alan Parsons, but it's easily the least and most unrepresentative track on offer. It's only really there to be an interlude before Chemtrails, Pt. 2, which firmly believes that it's going to wrap up the album in classic style. It doesn't, because it's just a decent thrasher to keep the pit moving. And, well, that kind of sums up the album.

Major Kong - Off the Scale (2020)

Country: Poland
Style: Stoner Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 Jan 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

On Robots Building Robots Building Robots, the opening track of their fourth album, Major Kong are a pretty straightforward stoner rock trio. They create riff after riff and plug them together like a box of Lego blocks to generate a quality instrumental. And, as a relatively clean power trio, it's easy to hear every band member's contribution, with Michał "Jamioł" Skuła's guitar a highly obvious lead, but Dominik "Domel" Stachyra's fuzzy bass roaming about behind it and Paweł "Bolek" Zmarlak's drums up front and almost riffing too by the end of the song.

It feels like they've been playing together for a while and they have. These three musicians have been around since 2007 as the core of Fifty Foot Woman. When their vocalist left them after a self-titled album in 2010, they chose to continue on as an instrumental trio under a new name, selected I presume from Slim Pickens's role in Dr. Strangelove. Four albums, three EPs and two split releases later, I think they made the right choice.

They stay stoner rock after that opener with riffs so consistent that we're left with the impression that they don't actually need to write songs; they could just climb on stage, pick up their instruments and jam for an hour to the same effect. I'm sure that's not what they did or we'd be seeing half a dozen albums a year but they seem that confident and secure in their style. They do veer a little into space rock at times, but keep riffs at the heart of everything they do, never getting wildly psychedelic.

They also find something interesting to do in each song to keep the core of their sound fresh. Fading Memory of the Planet Earth starts out in standard fashion but shifts from heavy to jaunty and back and that jaunty section is a delight. Radical Droid adds some effects and more quieter sections; I love the build back after the last one. Bionic Revolution, even at a skimpy three minutes, sees Skuła brighten up his guitar tone, finding an Iron Maiden-like guitar style for the second half while the swirly spacy effects take us home.

The Takeover is punky in its riffing, almost like another punk cover of a TV theme song for a while, but it builds really well. Stachyra gets moments in the spotlight here to riff on his bass. Stoner rock is all about riffs but I don't think I've heard a band so relentlessly focused on them. There are few moments here that aren't riffs, because nobody really wants to solo; they're happy just moving from riff to riff to riff to riff.

The influences they list on their Facebook About page are interesting to me, because they're heavier than Major Kong are. The obvious one, of course, is Black Sabbath because, duh, stoner rock and there are overt Sabbath moments on The Takeover and also in bass runs on Night Out in Absorbia, but they're not everywhere here. The Melvins make sense too, though I don't know them as well as the others.

But then there's Rush, which is surprising because there's very little prog here, and an unusual trio of extreme metal bands: doom metallers Candlemass, avant-garde thrash/prog outfit Voivod and technical thrashers Coroner. Those are great bands but I'm hardly hearing any of them here. Sure, there's some Candlemass on the doomy sections in One Step from the Void, but not overtly and not throughout. Voivod and Coroner? I'm not hearing them at all.

Those names do make me wonder if Major Kong's sound has evolved quite a bit during the last decade. Metal Archives lists them as stoner/doom metal and their first two albums feature the word "doom" in their titles: Doom for the Black Sun and Doom Machine. Until the heavier last song, I'd call this rock rather than metal but it sounds good whatever name we give it. Never mind a half hour running time, I could listen to them for hours at a time churning through their endless repertoire of quality riffs.

Wednesday 12 February 2020

Divlje Jagode - Jukebox (2020)

Country: Croatia
Style: Hard Rock/Heavy Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 31 Jan 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Nowadays, with the benefit of the internet, it's easy to hear bands from all over the world, but back in the eighties, when I discovered rock music, that was far from the case. Germany seemed to be a busy rock country, with Accept and Warlock and the Scorpions and the rest, but it was rare to hear anything from countries we take for granted today like Sweden and Finland, let alone a band like Divlje Jagode from Zagreb, then part of Yugoslavia.

What made this band different was that they deliberately pushed for western acceptance. I remember their 1987 album, released under the English name of Wild Strawberries, but it wasn't their first. They'd formed in 1977 and put out five earlier albums before moving to London and switching to an English language approach. They sounded good then, though I'm remembering them being a little softer than this. It didn't work out and they returned home, which is Croatia nowadays, where they're now forty plus years into their history.

I haven't heard them at all since 1987 but this is really good melodic hard rock/heavy metal, driven by sole founder member Zele Lipovača's guitar but led nowadays by the memorably lived in voice of Livio Berak. It couldn't be mistaken for anything but a hard rock voice but it belongs to an old school soulful style reminiscent of David Coverdale and Robert Plant. I think he's as natural and rich, equally capable of belting on rockers and crooning on less impactful numbers, whether they're ballads or not.

Lipovača refuses to leave all the melody to Berak though. There's melody in his guitar, even outside overtly melodic songs like Zauvijek tvoj. It's in the keyboards of Damjan Deurić too, who elevates already strong songs like Sama si, which has a real Rainbow feel to it. I wondered if the strings and other orchestrations were Deurić's work too but I'm not convinced. I think there must be a bunch of guest slots here, even if I don't know who by. And this incessant use of melody is one reason why the album is as short as it is.

I don't mean that it's short, because it runs almost fifty minutes, but it's short for a twelve track album. Only two songs here last past the four and a half minute mark and they only do it by four seconds each. The shortest song is under three minutes, a guitar version of Beethoven's Für Elise called, in Croatian, Za Elizu, that's done in a very different way to Accept's version. The songs are short because they hit the melody immediately so don't need to add bridges and extra choruses in to make anything memorable.

What else struck me here is how Lipovača is so economical a guitarist. When he plays a riff, it's simple and no nonsense, but very effective. When he's in his overtly bluesy mode, like early on Sarajevo ti i ja, he employs a lot less notes on his guitar that most guitarists would, but to no less effect. Zvijezda sjevera is as notable for what isn't in it as what is. The absence of long solos is another reason why these songs last for only three or four minutes each.

Also, for all the traditional hard rock approach, this is modern music, most obvious in the rap section on Dug je bio put but also in the orchestrations, which are integrated more like, say, Rage than the Moody Blues. It's also in the patience with which these songs unfold. Whether they're slow ones, like Sama si, or faster ones, like Nemam ništa protiv, they never feel urgent. It isn't about energy any more, it's about melody, musicianship and mastery of songwriting.

And I think that's why this is a grower of an album. I enjoyed it first time through but there are no standout tracks because everything's up to the same high standard and that only starts to become clear on a third or fourth time through. I've had it on repeat for most of a day now and it continues to get better and better. Sure, seven of these are old songs re-recorded by the present band, with four completely new ones and that Beethoven cover, but it plays very consistently.

Corona Nimbus - Corona Nimbus (2020)

Country: Brazil
Style: Alternative
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 7 Feb 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram

I seem to be reviewing rather a lot of Brazilian albums lately: three last week and one more today. I don't know much about Corona Nimbus but they're an alternative rock band from Teresina in northeastern Brazil. Júlio Baros and Junior Vieira founded the group and may or may not play all instruments here as I'm unable to find a band roster; certainly they both sing. This is their debut album and it was preceded by a pair of singles, both of which are represented here, so this is their entire output.

Most importantly, their material is highly varied, as deep and interesting as the gloriously immersive cover art by Wildner Lima. Cosmic Brew opens up the album with a heady brew of genres, starting proggy but shifting through NDH into a grungy alternate rock song: Vangelis into Rammstein into Nirvana. The riffs are solid and the hooks are decent, but it's the little touches I like most here: the way the keyboards elevate the song and especially how a prominent bass makes me grin at points.

There's so much in that one, apparently effortless, song that Corona Nimbus feel the need to throw in an interlude after it. It's called Abyss and it's a very warm and beautiful string led piece to prompt us to lower our guards before they heavy up for Throw Me at Sea. For thirty seconds, the latter is stoner metal but then it goes a little nu with shouty vocals and distorted guitars. I say a little because it remains thoughtful rather than angry and it isn't likely to piss off true metalheads. I can see the band really cutting loose on stage to this one.

And so we go, most of these songs taking us to new places. Paradise turns a brief Yes-style intro into a bouncy stoner rock song. Clash of Titans seems angry but restrained, kind of like the polite bile of The Wall-era Floyd. I don't really know how to describe Lights Out: a dark Radiohead for a while, I guess, but then indie rock for which I have no comparison. Beyond Chaos is elevated by some nice experimental slide. Uterearth is space rock, as if the band wants to turn into Hawkwind, especially with artificial vinyl pops.

Everything here is interesting at the very least but I think it gets better as it runs on. My favourite tracks come late in the album, with Flying Lamp and The Fallen, a killer double bill at eight and nine on the track listing.

Flying Lamp has some fantastic dynamics, mixing elegant piano work with hard stoner riffs, kicking off with electronica until it heavies up. There's that wonderful roaming bass again behind pleasant guitar chords and everything is layered really nicely. It's the longest instrumental piece here but it tells a story nonetheless.

The Fallen immediately wants to match it, but with vocals. It features some exquisite tones, even when it kicks into gear. The bass is prominent again, especially in a quiet section midway. Like Flying Lamp, it knows when to be quiet and when to be loud and when to kind of mix the two together to create something thoroughly original.

Surprisingly, the song I like least is the last one, Path to Self, which was one of those singles. I prefer it here as audio than on video, because there's nothing to distract from what the musicians are doing. I'm not sure what the lovely ladies are doing in the video but they do distract! This song is notable for adding a death growl at one point, among mostly clean vocals, because they don't do that anywhere else on this album, but the song still left me dry.

I don't know what they're putting in the water down in Brazil nowadays but I like the variety I'm hearing. Bands like Atomic Time, Candeiia and Sepultura have nothing in common except their nationality and their quality and others like Tuatha de Danann, Decimator and Corona Nimbus flesh out that diversity really well. I can't help but wonder what Brazilian gem I'm going to find in another week or two.