Friday, 14 February 2020

Pendragon - Love Over Fear (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
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 caught up in the depth of these sonic pictures 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 tates 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.

Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Mono Inc. - The Book of Fire (2020)

Country: Germany
Style: Gothic Rock/Metal
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 24 Jan 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Pinterest | Tumblr | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Sometimes perseverance is everything. Mono Inc. are a gothic rock/metal band from Hamburg who were formed in 2000 and seem to have been building a steady following ever since. This is their eleventh studio album and their first to top the German charts; their five albums since 2012 all made the top ten but a number one continued to elude them until now with Welcome to Hell peaking a slot lower in 2018.

They're an interesting band because they have a kind of power metal approach to gothic rock. While they list bands like the Sisters of Mercy, the Smiths and Depeche Mode as influences, I'm frankly not hearing any of them here on the opening title track. I'm hearing Clannad taking on an extra happy Power Quest song and removing half the notes; it's slower but just as melodic and many of those melodies feel Celtic. Drummer Katha Mia's vocals help that as well and it's the happiest damn goth music I've ever heard.

It stays happy but other songs do feel a lot more goth and it's when we get to The Last Crusade six tracks in that I realise why. It starts with choral harmonies and quickly finds a Sisters of Mercy groove. It's This Corrosion heavied up to fit on Vision Thing and with an actual human being providing an incessant drive like we expect from Doctor Avalanche. I suddenly dig the Sisters as power metal and a lot of the rest starts to make sense.

Louder Than Hell, for instance, felt goth the first time I heard it but I hadn't realised why until The Last Crusade. Katha Mia isn't a drum machine but she's as reliable as one on this song, just keeping a strong perpetual beat without doing anything flash at all. The melodies fit Andrew Eldritch as a power metal vocalist and the song ends up so gloriously catchy that I found myself singing along with it on my first listen.

While the Sisters are clearly a key grounding to Mono Inc.'s sound, they're not the only one in play. The single is Warriors and it's a sort of Manowar power ballad with Martin Engler's resonant vocals crooning over piano chords that eventually become guitars. The chorus, like so many here, features all four band members layering their voices for effect and it's a fantastic one, especially as Mia's female voice is instantly recognisable because of pitch. It's like a duet when this happens but more so and it almost commands us to singalong because it's welcoming us into a crowd.

And, as I start to imagine these Euro goths in animal skin loinclothes in a Ken Kelly painting, things get even more epic on Where the Raven Flies. It's full of glorious dynamics, ranging from quiet parts where whatever effect is on Engler's voice makes him sound like he's singing to us from the Victorian era to loud and galloping ones that are close to symphonic metal. There's a female voice that I presume is Mia's that soars around Engler like any Dutch soprano would soar.

There are another half dozen songs here because that's merely the first half and The Book of Fire runs a generous hour, even without the bonus song (the single version of the title track) and a second disc that features the whole album again in instrumental form. Mono Inc. don't skimp on this release and, amazingly, they keep up this level of quality throughout. That's impressive. I haven't even mentioned Nemesis yet and that's a ballad that's soaked into my bones already.

So I'll pause to point out that there's a concept in play here. We're in the dark ages where the mystical tome of the title chooses a young healer by the name of Aellin to be its new owner. This prompts a "persecution, sorrow and suffering" story, in which she fights for freedom. I have to admit that I'm apparently completely unable to focus on the words, even though Engler has a very clear voice. I'm just too caught up in the hooks.

I haven't heard Mono Inc. before but I've read that they aren't usually this heavy. I have ten albums to wander back through to find that out, because I really like this music. It's an odd combination, not just of rock and metal but of folk, goth and power and it's catchy as all get out. Congratulations, Mono Inc., on your first German number one album. May it be merely the first of many!

Anoushbard - Mithra (2020)

Country: Iran
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 5/10
Release Date: 7 Jan 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

I've heard a lot of interesting metal coming out of the unlikely country of Iran of late and here's another such album. It isn't the usual one man band as there are two this time out, but they're both guitarists which seems odd to me, even if one also sings. I enjoyed their work, but I didn't like the drums much, which I presume are programmed with a drum machine. They mostly seem glitchy to me, especially in scattershot mode.

What Anoushbard do best is to alternate between heavy and light sections. I wouldn't call it complex dynamic work because there don't always seem to be reasons for doing it, but I enjoyed both sides of that coin throughout.

The opener, for instance, Gates of Ctesiphon, starts out heavy like a death metal Iron Maiden (even if I can't place where I know that riff from) but, after a couple of minutes, it drops into an instrumental break that's middle eastern and neatly intricate. This alternation continues throughout the song until the odd ending, which I don't understand. It sounds like some sort of fireside interview, which makes little sense. I'm sure there's a good reason for it but I have no idea what that is.

Life Lady (Green Temple) alternates even more. Opening like a ritual with a refrain that sounds really metal ("I flayed his demons") but isn't really (I think it's actually "Life Lady's demons"), it goes all death metal, but then drops into a quiet section with clean vocals and intricate acoustic guitar (or is that some sort of Persian lute?). I have to say that the drumming at this point is glorious, sounding like someone's beating a wall with rushes.

And so we go. The heavier sections feel a little flat, because I don't think there's a bass in there at all and the drums are weird, but they're capable enough. The quieter ones are even better. I really dig the rhythmic approach to these sections. Many of them feature almost hypnotic repetition, as this band apparently never met a riff they liked that they weren't happy to use a dozen times for effect.

That sounds really negative, as if it sounds like I'm playing this on vinyl and it keeps skipping, but I'm thinking positively because I enjoyed it. To me, it's like a musician creating a sound and then looping it while he adds more layers to create a more complex piece of music. I don't believe that's what Anoushbard are doing but it feels like it often.

The Ward ditches the extreme metal sound for a NWOBHM style clean vocal, not early Maiden but a more generic approach that reminded me of Elixir. There's a lot more of that hypnotic repetition, though there's less alternation with only one quieter section which has some interesting effects layered over it. The alternation comes back on Inevitable Death which, as the title suggests, takes us back to an extreme sound. Again, it feels too clean, as if there's no bass at all, even if the vocals are death growls and the drums get extra fast.

I have no problem with the vocals here, though my favourite track may be the instrumental Haoma. The scattershot drums are annoying but the music behind them, whether it's acoustic and ethnic or electric and driving, has a lot to be said for it. I hope that Siavash Motalebi and Sherwin Baradaran, who are the musicians behind Anoushbard, get the opportunity to record this and the other material with an actual drummer at some point. Ironically, given that this is the shortest song on the album, I really didn't want it to end.

It did and it gave way to The Man Who Rides Through the Fire, which is more NWOBHM but much heavier and with some interesting backing vocals. Again, this would be a much better song with a real drummer and that's the problem with this album in a nutshell. Rather than enjoying the talented musicians, their intricate guitarwork and the interesting ideas they conjure up, I find myself hating the drum machine more and that makes this sadly feel more like a concept demo than a final work. There has to be a great drummer somewhere in Tehran. I hope Anoushbard find him.

Note: I'm rating this 5/10, which is low enough that I wouldn't usually post but those drums cost it at least a point, maybe another. The band's name is borrowed from a political prison in the Sasanian empire a millennium and a half ago, a place where people disappeared forever. I don't want this band to disappear so, while I'm not recommending this sound, I'm recommending the band behind it. I just want to hear them as they ought to be heard.

Monday, 10 February 2020

Those Damn Crows - Point of No Return (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 7 Feb 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

In New Wave of Classic Rock circles, it's hard to last a few days without a mention of Those Damn Crows. They're building a serious following in the old way: playing live as often as they can, including what sometimes seems like every festival in the country, and doing so with as much energy as they can muster. Back in the day, they called it paying your dues, but I shouldn't throw that many clichés into a single sentence.

They're from Bridgend in South Wales, a small town of 50,000 people that has punched above its musical weight, generating trendy bands like Funeral for a Friend and Bullet for My Valentine. In fact, the brother of Those Damn Crows guitarist Ian Thomas was the drummer for Bullet for My Valentine for nearly two decades. Surely there's something in the water because this band has the promise to be just as big as their more established peers.

They play clean hook-laden hard rock that has moments where the riffs think about being metal but never quite make it. King of Second Chances features an opening riff that reminds me of Megadeth, while Go Get It is driven by a dirty groove metal crunch. However, both are clearly rock songs rather than metal, with vocalist Shane Greenhall top in the mix and apparently unable to sing anything that isn't a hook.

There's such a high energy here that a comparison to Airbourne would be fair but they're a little lighter in tone, with Greenhall more influenced by the soulful side of rock vocals, from Paul Rodgers to Danny Bowes. In fact, I'd throw out Thunder as a good comparison too, though Those Damn Crows are more contemporary in their sound, pulling from a few eras of rock, metal and even a little pop punk.

This second album features a generous thirteen tracks that play consistently in quality, style and length, not one of them reaching the four minute mark. Who Did It kicks things off simply but effectively, going for energy without any frills. It's an obvious single, in the gimme territory for a few formats of rock radio. Set in Stone and Sin on Skin add levels though and may be my two favourite songs here. They're just as catchy as the opener but there are depths to them. Sin on Skin in particular lets Ronnie Huxford's drums shine at the gallop and the backing vocals add so much.

It also features a glorious riff that teases us from the background. This is rock that's driven by its vocals and its energy levels, but David Winchurch and Ian Thomas deserve a lot of credit here for playing so many deceptively simple riffs. Much of this works with power chords or pop punk chugging but when the riffs come out, they're as catchy as Greenhall's vocals and they're the foundation of these songs. They're not complex at all; check out Set in Stone, Send the Reaper or Go Get It and gasp at how simple but effective they are.

Those Damn Crows even pass the litmus test of hard rock albums, because the inevitable ballad doesn't piss me off and make me want to skip it every time through. Here, that's Never Win and, even though it's piano-driven with an overly sentimental orchestral swell behind it all, it sounds good and seems heartfelt without becoming saccharine. Most importantly, like every single song here, it doesn't outstay its welcome, doing its job and handing on to the next song in line.

I seem to be throwing out 8/10s like confetti this month, but this warrants a rating that high. There's not a single song here that even approaches the average and there are a whole bunch of standouts, including a few that I'd want to rewind the radio to hear again. Sure, it's a ruthlessly commercial release and it isn't the most original album I've ever heard, but hey, it's just damn good.

Snorlax - II (2020)

Country: Australia
Style: Blackened Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 3 Jan 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

I would tend to doubt anyone who names their one man blackened death metal project after a pokémon but Snorlax is the heaviest damn pokémon of them all and that kinda fits this album. This is no nonsense stuff from Brendan Auld, who no intention of pandering to commerciality but who also has the pride to actually produce this music properly so that we can hear it. That's far from as common a scenario as it ought to be in a world where production sometimes means commercial and diehards feel the need to sabotage their own sound for reasons of authenticity.

This is Auld's debut album as Snorlax, even though it's confusingly titled II. He did issue a demo in 2018 and one song (not included here) on a split single with fellow Australian black metal outfit Drugoth last year. Giving both bands a listen, I much prefer Snorlax, who combine a slow guitar with hyperspeed blastbeats and mix up the vocals between the genres.

The opener, Infernal Devourment, ably sets the stage for what's to come with such frequent alternation between demonic growls and unholy shrieks that it almost feels like a duet between genres. The Bandcamp page says that guests do appear: Mathew Budge (of Consumed and Siberian Hell Sounds) on The Resin Tomb and Anthony Oliver (of Descent) on Impending Abysmal Wretchedness. It's worth mentioning that all three of those bands also feature one Brendan Auld in some fashion. If these are the only guests, Auld does a damn fine job of duetting with himself on other tracks.

Nothing here sounds pretty, each song rolling into the next with feedback or effects, but it all sounds dark and evocative. The opening couple of tracks are short, but The Chaos ov Iron Oppression shows that Snorlax are better at some length. Five minutes gives Auld room to set up a song, gradually deepen it by adding layers and then, after a minute and a half, pull out the stops and escalate with major effect. There's a lot of dynamic change here and it just hits the spot for me.

Mind ov Maggots follows suit, with a feedback-laden guitar intro echoing up quietly as a drone from the depths transitioning in a heartbeat to the full volume and full speed. There's despair and pain in this song and it's bitter but tasty. That intro alone is longer than The Resin Tomb, which is over as soon as it's begun but not in the condensed fashion of grindcore. It's just short. These longer songs have much more substance.

And it's that substance that makes the album for me. There are points, like the first half of Encapsulated Apocalypse, where we can just sit back so the music can wash over us like a tsunami wave and half the effect is from that impact, but it shines brightest (if that isn't an inappropriate way to talk about blackened death metal) when the assault lessens and we realise all the things that generated it to begin with.

It ends as roughly as it gets with Impending Abysmal Wretchedness, Anthony Oliver's voice even more evil than Auld's. It's not just the tone, which is agreeably disagreeable, but the way that his words drip venom and may often not be words at all but random demonic noises of dissatisfaction. Clearly I should check out Descent, for whom Auld is one of two guitarists. They put out an album, Towers of Grandiosity, a couple of years ago.

I've heard good things about Snorlax but also good things about the extreme underground in Australia, especially on the side of black metal. Clearly in my copious amounts of spare time (ha), I ought to be following up on more of the bands that Kelly Tee posts about on Facebook on a regular basis. Let's see how much more is up to this level of quality!

Friday, 7 February 2020

Sepultura - Quadra (2020)

Country: Brazil
Style: Groove Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 7 Feb 2020
Sites: Facebook | Flickr | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

The older I get, the more I appreciate Sepultura. They've continued to grow and evolve over three and a half decades and I have respect for that even if they didn't always evolve into places I liked. They got more respect from me when I saw them live in a dive bar on their thirtieth anniversary tour and they performed as hard as they would have done at a festival. The audience was energised and the pit was lively. It was a good night.

And this is a good album, their fifteenth studio release and, in many ways, a conglomeration of all the styles they've worked through, like Medusa was for Paradise Lost. The most prominent is groove metal, of course, but it's no difficult task to find thrash, industrial and experimental, not to forget the tribal drumming they've become known for. That really comes out to play at the beginning of Capital Enslavement.

Isolation kicks things off at high speed. It's an out and out thrash number, with less hints of groove than symphonic metal, of all things, there being a few sections with choral backing. As thrash should be, it's pure energy and I dug it a lot. Means to an End maintains the energy but shifts it over to a groove metal framework, Derrick Green's vocals not changing much but enough to matter; instead of gruff clean thrash vocals, these are hardcore shouts. This song even finds time to get experimental in the middle.

Last Time does all the above within one song. Capital Enslavement does too, adding that tribal drumming intro and some electronica for good measure. It starts to feel like they band is continually adding layers to each further song. Ali firmly shifts to industrial with effects added early onto Green's voice and Eloy Casagrande's drums finding a neat, emphatic rhythm halfway through. However, it still finds its groove sections and its thrash moments, even an early Sepultura death growl towards the end.

The catch to this, of course, is that, while Sepultura have played in a lot of sandpits in their career, we aren't even halfway through the album yet so they're going to run out pretty damn quick if they continue this approach. I wonder if that's why Raging Void goes the way it does, being more of a scary loud pop song with a rambling solo. I wasn't sold on this one and maybe it's representative of one of those albums in the middle of their career that I'm not familiar with but, even though I kinda liked it, it feels rather like a roadblock to the album's build.

Fortunately, it promptly picks up again with Guardians of Earth, perhaps the most symphonic track on the album. It's almost Sepultura covering Tristania and that's not a combination I ever thought I'd write. The Pentagram buzzes rapidly through melodies kind of like it's an insane medley of imaginary TV theme tunes. I actually liked this instrumental a lot, not least because it gives the musicians, especially Andreas Kisser, opportunities to show off.

The song that really allows people to show off, though, is Agony of Defeat, which throws everything but the kitchen sink into one six minute song. It's heavy and it's soft; it's fast and it's slow. It features strings and middle eastern textures. It allows Derrick Green to flex his vocal cords in quite a few different directions. And the song really builds in layers until a fade on a single low piano note. It's the best thing I've heard from Sepultura in a long, long time and easily the best thing I've ever heard from Green.

What I haven't mentioned much is the experimental side to this album, which does a little during a lot of songs and a lot during a few of them. Autem is one of the more experimental tracks on offer, but Raging Void is up there as well and Fear, Pain, Chaos, Suffering does interesting things too, with guest vocals from Emmily Barreto of Brazilian alt rock band Far from Alaska.

All in all, there's a heck of a lot to work through here and it's well worth the effort. I haven't been too impressed with a bunch of Sepultura's recent albums, but this one is destined to be described as "the best since..." but with critics debating how far back we should go to find something better. It has to be the nineties at least, but there's a strong case for Arise or even Beneath the Remains. Now I really want to go see them live again!

Fleeting Arms - Fleeting Arms (2020)

Country: Canada
Style: Stoner/Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 17 Jan 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook

This is a really interesting album but it takes a while to realise just how interesting it is. For instance, it opens up with a song called On the Way Down that initially sounds like the sort of decent but unremarkable music on any number of alt rock stations nationwide. But then it hooks you in because your ears catch something and you realise that it's a little bit alternative rock, a little bit stoner rock, a little bit southern rock and every bit of it heavily rooted in the blues. I only took a few relistens to go from blah to dancing in my chair.

This melting pot approach makes it difficult to throw out decent comparisons and, even when they're overt, they're not particularly useful. For instance, a song like Soulless is so obviously inspired by quieter Black Sabbath songs like Planet Caravan or Solitude that it's hard to hear anything else. Singer Coal Riepma even follows Ozzy's vocal patterns, rising, diving or stretching just as he would. However, it doesn't remotely have that recognisable Black Sabbath doomladen tone, even when the crunch kicks in. Sabbath fans not dig this without that tone.

Fleeting Arms just refuse to fit in one easy bucket. On Day Trippin', which starts out playful with a jaunty bass riff setting the scene, Riepma ends up roaring like Angry Anderson but the song doesn't sound at all like Rose Tattoo. There's lots of Diamond Head on songs like Into the Sun and Demons Within but it's unfair to call either a Diamond Head song. Rust goes back to that quiet Sabbath groove but a few minutes later it turns into a hard rock Metallica. And, you guessed it, the song wouldn't fit with either band.

It's almost like this Edmonton band thought about strange combinations then wrote songs that met them as some sort of intellectual songwriting exercise. What would Bad Company sound like if they covered Black Sabbath? What would Diamond Head sound like if they arrived half a decade earlier and spent the entire time in the studio stoned out of their minds? How would ZZ Top sound with Eddie Vedder on lead vocals? What if Lynyrd Skynyrd had formed in 1989 in Seattle? All these scenarios and more came to mind at points during this album, like it's some weird game of musical mad libs.

But, most importantly, it all sounds great. It's good music to listen to at the bar, six drinks in, but it's also good music to lose yourself in a few feet from the stage, closing your eyes and letting your body move however it wants. It's surface music to listen to in the background, but it's also deep and engrossing music to explore with headphones. What's more, the songs are so varied, even within themselves, that there's plenty to keep us engrossed as we navigate what sometimes feels like the whole last half century of rock condensed into fifty minutes.

Fleeting Arms call what they play "hard blues stoner rock from the depths of oblivion" and I'm not going to argue with that. The blues is everywhere here but it's rocked up even when it's playing possum. The stoner mindset isn't a long way from anything they do, but comes out overtly at points, both mellow and wailing. Rock is a rather simple word for the breadth of influence that the band has, but the depths of oblivion ably captures that obvious fondness for early Sabbath.

I'd love to see this band live in an Edmonton bar, not only to hear them do this justice in a live setting but to watch how they immerse themselves in their own music. Rust is eight minutes long on this album but it's probably a fifteen minute jam on stage. How heavy does Demons Within get in front of people? How playful will Day Trippin' get with an audience to respond to it? Inquiring minds want to know.

Thursday, 6 February 2020

Os Mutantes - Zzyzx (2020)

Country: Brazil
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 24 Jan 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Prog Archives | Wikipedia

Genres are wonderfully flexible creatures. I've reviewed lots of psychedelic rock over the last year, from all over the world and ranging in style from Mooner to The Neptune Power Federation, from Ed Wynne to Uluru, from Children of the Sün to Superlynx. Surprisingly, many of those names are new but not all, the list also including Gong and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown.

Here's one more for the older psychedelic rock list: a legendary Brazilian outfit by the name of Os Mutantes who formed in São Paulo way back in 1966, when playing live with Caetano Veloso was deemed a revolutionary act. Twelve wild and greatly important years later, they split up, but the two brothers who founded the band, Sérgio Dias and Arnaldo Baptista, reformed it for the fortieth anniversary in 2006, albeit without original singer Rita Lee. Dias still leads the band tody almost 55 years on.

The songs on this album are fascinating, lively and engaging pieces, but it falls very much on the soft side, even if we don't compare to the blistering Vengeful Spectre album I also reviewed today. There's exotica in here, bossa nova, lounge music. You could even call it easy listening, though it's much too active a listen for that to be fair. And I think it's delightful, though overly safe. Os Mutantes spent a while playing prog rock but this isn't that Os Mutantes, as they're mostly content to play with psychedelic pop.

I don't know enough about Brazilian pop music to suggest comparisons, but I do hear a lot of western pop, most obviously the Beatles. The opening song, Beyond, reminds of the Beatles in psychedelic pop mode and Dias's voice has a plaintive take on John Lennon's. The Last Silver Bird is similar and, late songs emphasise the comparison. Window Mirrors is the Beatles with a bluesy mood. We Love You is the Beatles if they ever got funky. Void, at least for a while, is the Beatles in their trancendental meditation era.

Two of those hint at prog, The Last Silver Bird featuring vocal harmonies at one point that sound proggy and Void being easily the most prog this album gets, with experimental sounds and even a scat vocal section. Maybe we could add Mutant's Lonely Night there too, the longest song on the album (at only four and a half minutes) exploring some light seventies darkness. However, I should emphasise "light" there, because Os Mutantes don't seem to want to go to those experimental places much any more.

Instead, they shift more towards being a sort of Brazilian version of Austin Lounge Lizards, a musically and lyrically talented band who write fantastic parodies and other humorous songs, but sometimes getting serious. This comes out most here on the playful Candy, with its doo wop chorus, and the comedic songs. Gay Matters turns the usual lovey dovey subject matter onto its head: "I want to make you mine but you're gay." And the title track, named for the real last town in the American atlas, is a fun, if not particularly original look at Area 51: "They have sexual encounters of third kind."

While Os Mutantes are Brazilian, they chose to sing this album primarily in English, perhaps because they're based in Las Vegas nowadays, which explains that and the Area 51 song. There are only two songs in Portugese, showing up next to each other late on the album, and they do add a little more exotic flavour. Sadly, one loses some of its impact because its chorus of "por que não" will be heard by English-speaking audiences as "Pooky, no!" Of course, that's the sort of thing that this playful band might actually do by choice.

It's difficult not to like this, because it's so contagious, but it's hardly essential stuff. The most interesting song is the last one, Void, and that's over before it even gets to three minutes; at thirteen, it might have had a lot more to say. Quite a few major musical names, like Beck, Flea and David Byrne, are confirmed fans of Os Mutantes. I wonder if they'd be disappointed at how relentlessly safe this album is or happy that the band are back with a new studio album after seven years.

Vengeful Spectre - Vengeful Spectre (2020)

Country: China
Style: Black/Folk Metal
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 15 Jan 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Weibo

I wasn't expecting it but here's something special. Vengeful Spectre play an impressive combination of black and folk metal that works on both fronts. I just wish that I could praise the individual band members but there isn't a lot of core information on Vengeful Spectre's Bandcamp or Facebook pages and I won't trust Google Translate to attempt a page on the Chinese social media network Weibo.

This truly blisters as black metal, with strong riffs, decent solos, frantic blastbeats and a glorious lead vocal shriek that ably plays into the torment and pain of the album's war-based concept. I have no idea what the story is, but it unfolds over the six tracks on offer. It's much more black than it is folk, but there are Chinese folk instruments in play too, sometimes during the actual songs and frequently between them. In fact, the whole album opens peacefully but darkly as plaintive flutes waft over a landscape that surely resembles the cover art. The job's done but it took a serious toll.

The first song, The Expendables, is thoroughly enjoyable with what I believe is a pipa punctuating certain parts. I adore pipa and remember how much fun it was to get hold of a Wu Man album I'd been introduced to on the BBC World Service before the internet made it easy. However, as solid as this song is, Desperate War ups the game considerably. This is a real peach of a piece of music, everything that was good about the opener doubled in power, intensity and impact. This could be the single best black metal track I've heard in years.

Wailing Wrath starts and ends with a wind instrument that I can't place, but it sounds delightfully like a versatile conch shell and it gets a lead role in the brief interlude called Hermit. Wailing Wrath settles down a lot more than its predecessor, content for the most part to find a strong groove for ethnic instruments to dance around, but there are impressive bits here too.

And, at this point, I realised that I was well over twenty minutes in even though I felt like the album had only just begun. I was so immersed that I'd lost track of time completely. The only reason that I noticed at this point is because Hermit (and the subsequent long intro to Rainy Night Carnage) is a brief eye to the raging storm that is this album, allowing us a moment to gather ourselves before moving back into the fray.

If nothing here is up to the sheer majesty of Desperate War, then Rainy Day Carnage does at least come very close. While it's also more black than folk, it's the song where the folk instruments come out to play more and it's much more balanced as a black/folk song. There's more pipa and some flute and I'd love to know what else. That level adds strong atmosphere to this and other songs just as much as the constant rain and other sounds of battle that are often audible.

That leaves Despair and Resentment, which wraps up this story "of eastern swordsmen concerning war, conspiracy, betrayal and revenge". It opens calmly as if we're in the aftermath of everything but then everything kicks in, at a slower but just as heavy pace. There's acknowledgement of inevitability in this song, dealing with what everyone knew would come even as they hoped it wouldn't. That lead voice feels even more pained and that's exquisite.

I grabbed the opportunity to listen to this album more from the folk aspect than the black, so I ought to be disappointed that it's more focused on the latter than the former. I'm not. I adored this, because it blisters the way that black metal so often fails to do and the folk instrumentation is added into the mix effectively. I believe this is a debut album, which makes it an even more stunning achievement.

It's not perfect, even without knowing the story that's being told. There's a jagged transition from calm intro to full steam ahead on The Expendables that's only underlined by how smoothly the intros transition on later tracks like Rainy Night Carnage. I didn't feel the album ended with enough emphasis either, though again understanding the story might help a little. Those are far from big problems though and they hardly lessen the impact of a special album. This is fantastic stuff. Can we have the sequel next week?

Wednesday, 5 February 2020

...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead - X: The Godless Void and Other Stories (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Alternative Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 17 Jan 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

George Bernard Shaw famously noted that the UK and the US are two countries separated by a common language. Well, music is a sort of language too and I never feel so separated than when trying to understand American alternative rock. It all comes down to a lack of grounding because I've heard a heck of a lot more of the British equivalent and understand where it all came from. Pre-widespread internet, we just never heard bands like Fugazi, the Pixies, the Melvins, Sonic Youth, Black Flag, the Butthole Surfers and more, as the indie scenes had evolved differently over there.

What that means is that this tenth album from the joyously named Texan band, ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead (it's taken from a Mayan ritual chant), is as inexplicable to me as it is enjoyable. I feel uncomfortable placing this in a meaningful context, but I know that I like it, whatever it is. Their website goes with art-rock punk 'mothertruckers' now and, frankly, that's as good a definition as any. To me, it's interesting pop music.

While I would expect this American band to be influenced mostly by American music, there's much here that's familiar. A lot of this is alternative pop, all with a darker tinge than would normally be heard in the charts and with interesting instrumentation that sets this apart. I fell wildly in love with the drums on Gone only for me to ruthlessly leave them a song later because they're even better still on Children of the Sky. Through the Sunlit Door is driven what sounds like an electronic hurdy gurdy.

A few early songs, such as All Who Wander and Something Like This, remind me of the Cure but with darker overtones that don't come from goth. The slight mumbling approach to singing comes out of grunge, but the vocal melodies are far from that. Some later songs, like Children of the Sky and Gravity, are more like Britpop with the vocals almost acquiring the requisite Manchester accent.

Often the songs shift partway, so Gravity reaches Britpop only after a while as dark dream pop. Gone starts out with whispery vocals over piano and some eerie sounds presumably conjured up from a slide guitar, but it builds with glitch electronica and wild drumming into a sort of Iggy Pop song. Blade of Wind is hook laden pop that ends up in Tangerine Dream territory as if the entire band had left the studio except for the keyboard player who decided to stay and have fun with synths for a while.

Add to all this the sort of experimentation found on Bowie's Berlin trilogy, especially Low, and there are hooks aplenty placed into territory unfamiliar to them. There are post-rock soundscapes here, mostly conjured out of drums or keyboards, but sometimes vocals too. There's anger on the post-punk Into the Godless Void. Eyes of the Overworld is all atmosphere and it's helped by humming. Who Haunts the Haunter is evocative dark poetry, like a psychedelic Nick Cave.

Let's sum that up by saying that it's a really interesting and diverse sound that darkens pop music for a rock audience. ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead once toured with Dethklok and, while it's hard to imagine the fans of the latter going for post-punk or post-rock or whatever this is, it does maintain a darkness that they might dig.

I was interested in what this would sound like and it didn't disappoint me in the slightest. While so much of it is reminiscent of other artists, it's highly original put together in this form and I'm intrigued to go back and see how the band's prior nine albums work. Kudos to Conrad Keely and Jason Reece, the two core members of the band who alternate vocal duties as well as guitars and drums.

Lovebites - Electric Pentagram (2020)

Country: Japan
Style: Heavy/Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 29 Jan 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Lovebites certainly know how to give themselves a little edge in the crowded world of heavy metal. They're an all-female band from Japan who deliberately wear white, as a contrast to the traditional black of the genre, and they're including a wolf on the cover of every release to highlight their status as a lone wolf in a male dominated industry. At the end of the day, though, an edge can help get attention but the music has to back it up, and I'm finding here that, in their instance, it very much does.

On the basis of this, their third album, we can remove the slash from "heavy/power metal band" because this is power metal ramped up to thrash speeds but without ever becoming thrash because the style is very different. I believe that Rage was a key influence on Lovebites, but they've outstripped the pace of of the Germans. Given the intricacy of the music and the fact that every one of the dozen songs on offer runs between five and seven minutes, it's an easy shift to Dragonforce as the most obvious comparison, albeit with fewer show off moments.

It's crazy wicked fast out of the gate with a sonic onslaught called Thunder Vengeance and it doesn't really slow down until the atmospheric introduction to Today is the Day. That's over twenty minutes before we even get a chance to catch our breath and that's not a long intro. The first song to slow down to a different tempo is A Frozen Serenade well over half an hour in. It has a bluesy intro that escalates into a song that's heavy but much slower than the norm here right down to a flamenco like guitar section in the middle. Of course, it eventually ramps up a lot, but it still stands apart.

This is amazingly European for a Japanese band, though the influences there are more varied than we might expect. Sure, there's plenty of Rage and early Blind Guardian on every track, but this goes far beyond that. That's a very prominent Steve Harris bass on Golden Destination. There's plenty of Yngwie J. Malmsteen on a whole bunch of tracks, most obviously Swan Song, and lots of Randy Rhoads on much of the rest. I'd be interested in hearing who Midori and Miyako, the two guitarists here, have been most influenced by.

And those are Girlschool shouts on Raise Some Hell. That reminds that a lot of these songs would feel more recognisable if they weren't so relentlessly fast. Girlschool on speed would seem a fair description of Raise Some Hell, just as quite a few other songs could be seen as the Michael Schenker Group on speed or early Ozzy on speed. There's plenty of NWOBHM on The Unbroken, though it's not obviously one band, so maybe generic NWOBHM on speed.

All told, there are lots of bands on speed here, but what I'm not hearing that much at all are speed metal bands who don't need speeding up to match this sort of frantic tempo. Maybe there's a little Razor or Exciter here and there, like in Set the World on Fire, but there's never much. This is too European and too fundamentally power metal.

The other obvious thing to mention here is that this is a long album and I'd be surprised if some people don't bring that up as a problem. With the sole exception of A Frozen Serenade, this album stays in high gear for its entire seventy minute running time and that's a long time indeed to maintain such a pace. Personally, I enjoyed how incessant this was, because it takes on the benefits of the best thrash albums as a way to clean out our systems. Others may enjoy it for a while but throw their hands up, exhausted before the end of the album, which ends with a soft piano section as if to say that it's OK for us to breathe now.

This is the third album for Lovebites, who have boasted the same line-up all the way since bassist Miho and drummer Haruna founded the band in 2016. I'm impressed with the work ethic that knocks out three albums in four years and doesn't skimp on the live work. I haven't yet heard the first two, Awakening from Abyss and Clockwork Immortality, but I'm highly intrigued. I'm reading that the first is a classic and the second softens up a little but, if that holds up, they upped their game here because this isn't soft at all. It's a blistering album and it bodes well for the lone wolf of Japanese metal.

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Annihilator - Ballistic, Sadistic (2020)

Country: Canada
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 24 Jan 2020
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I've been a fan of Annihilator since they released their debut album, Alice in Hell, way back in 1989, but not so much a fan as many critics. This band were press darlings for a while and, as good as they were, they fell into an odd gap in my tastes. For good old heads down thrash, I preferred a batch of the more straightforward American second wave bands like Testament and Death Angel, while for more experimental thrash, I preferred wilder European bands like Sieges Even or Coroner.

I was eager to try out a new Annihilator album in 2020, not realising that the band hadn't actually ceased to be back in 1994 and this is their, count 'em, seventeenth studio album. Apparently main man Jeff Waters kept the band going practically solo, playing all the instruments on studio albums himself and recruiting session musicians for tours. This may be the primary reason why he's been in Annihilator since 1984 but no other musician in the "band" dates back to earlier than 2015.

What they've created here is an excellent thrash album that's built out of a more straightforward set of sounds than I expected. For example, the opener, Armed to to the Teeth, rattles along like a mix of Megadeth and Metal Church, hardly a bad combination, with NWOBHM riffs in between the vocal parts. For those fans who keep wishing that Dave Mustaine stayed on guitar for Megadeth and hired a singer, this isn't too far off what you might end up with. When you get to Lip Service, it's exactly what you'd get.

That Megadeth meets Metal Church sound underpins much of this, but it varies as the songs require. For instance, The Attitude, maybe appropriately given its title and chorus, is a punkier affair throughout, adding Anthrax to the Megadeth base. Psycho Ward is almost like an Alice Cooper song, even Mötley Crüe at points, just faster and heavier than the fastest and heaviest Alice or the Crüe ever got. Lip Service gets to twin guitar sections straight out of Iron Maiden.

If I'm reading correctly, Waters is responsible for everything heard on this album except for the drums, which are the work of Fabio Alessandrini. I have to say that I'm very impressed with Alessandrini. He stays utterly reliable whatever the tempo, right up to very fast indeed, and whatever the changes, which are often tricky, this being technical thrash. He even stays reliable when playing something we've heard before, Out with the Garbage being about as fast and tricky as this album gets but featuring the highly recognisable riff from Metal Church's Psycho.

Of course, that leaves the rest of the praise for Waters, who takes care of the lead vocals, lead and rhythm guitar and bass. He has plenty of solos and they often shift from one instrument to another, usually guitar to bass, in seamless fashion. He even plays with what the instruments can do too, like a number of more experimental sounds on solos in Dressed Up for Evil. Best of all, though, is surely the guitarwork on The End of the Lie, which sounds a lot like a battle squadron of fae hovering on frantic beating wings and then launching off when they hear the order for attack. It's a fantastic buzzsaw guitar sound.

What all this means is that, even though I expected to enjoy this, I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. It's a great balance between sheer speed and melody, as many hooks as riffs, and with all the technical genius that Jeff Waters is known for. I should clearly go back to Alice in Hell and try out a bunch of the albums I didn't know existed. I do see some wildly different ratings on them, though, so I'll tread carefully. I'd expect this one to get consistently high ratings.

Candeiia - O Medo (2020)

Country: Brazil
Style: Progressive Rock/Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 17 Jan 2020
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Every time I feel slightly guilty about only giving Dream Theater a 6/10 for their Distance Over Time album last year, the universe throws me yet another prog album that I like more. This time it's from Candeiia, a Brazilian band who walk that tenuous boundary between rock and metal really well. It would be fair to see them as a prog rock band who like it heavier or a prog metal band who soften up a lot. Either way, they're very good indeed.

While I liked opener Páo da Vida from its soft piano intro, I wasn't sold on the song for a few minutes. It takes a while to really move, as if it isn't sure where it wants to end up, and I wasn't convinced by the vocals, Txiago Emanoel finding a sort of falsetto croon while the backing singers seem not to be entirely convinced themselves. I'm not sure when it hooked me, but by the five minute mark I was utterly engrossed by the soloing and soon after, they ramp up the tempo for a delightful finalé with unusual vocals. There's a lot here and it took me a while to acclimatise.

And, by the end of that track, I was totally onboard. I don't have much info on the band but they're based in Parnamirim, close to as far east as Brazil gets, and they've been around since 2013, though this looks like their debut album. That makes the achievement even more impressive because this doesn't remotely sound like a debut. Every song here is complex in construction and impeccable in execution, clearly not something that the band just jammed in the studio. This took a lot of work and that work paid off.

The other thing I know is that they're a Christian band. I figured that out from the lyrics, even though I don't speak Portuguese; it doesn't take much to understand "Jesús, salve-me". Clearly that croon was singing about Jesus too and easily understandable words about saints and other terms emerge here and there to put a picture together. When I put the track listing in Google Translate, that became even more clear, and I presume the band's name ties to this too. Candeiia means "lamp" but I would expect "light of the world" would be closer in spirit.

White metal has had a fascinating history and I'm out of date about current state. The only Christian prog band that I'm aware of are Theocracy, who are a lot more power metal than this. Candeiia surely take their influences from secular bands like Dream Theater, the bedrock of their sound strong crunchy riffs, notably aided by Israel Feitosa's double bass when that kicks in, but with swirling, unpredictable keyboards out of the second wave. Check out the midsection of Salve-Me, which sees Rafael Linhares generate a fantastic riff so that Rafael Rodrigues can dance all over it with his keyboards.

There are only six tracks here, all mid-length efforts running between five and a half and seven minutes. They're short enough to do their job and move on, but long enough to allow for all sorts of musical experimentation, with something interesting showing up on every song even though the overall style is consistent. That variety makes it very hard to pick a favourite. I liked the flirtation with extreme vocals on the title track, which means The Fear so may be playing with characters, but surprisingly also the guest rapper on Saia das 4 Paredes, a title I don't understand in translation.

I found myself wondering more about my favourite instrument, for perhaps the first time. It's the voice that stands out on Páo da Vida, with my initial trepidation banished on a second listen, but every instrument in play takes the spotlight at some point, explaining why this band are lucky to have the talents of Feitosa or Linhares or whoever is foremost at that point. Edson is the one I haven't mentioned yet, but his bass stands out just as much as everyone else, like during the verses on Salve-Me or quiet moments on Posso Crer.

In the end, I think it's Rodrigues's keyboards that might just do the most to shape Candeiia's sound. They'd be a lesser band if they lost any one of these musicians but he contributes so much admirable variety to this album that it would seem especially difficult to replace him. He gets intros and outros, as we might expect, like the delightful piano run that starts Posso Crer, but he refuses to stay in the background and he often solos alongside the guitar to create an enticing double layer.

I'm on my third time through this album and it keeps getting better. I look forward to a few more and I hope it doesn't take another seven years for the band to share a second album with us. And, hey, maybe Dream Theater can take note. If they want to shrink their songs down in length but keep both hooks and complexity, this is the template to follow.

Monday, 3 February 2020

Lordi - Killection (2020)

Country: Finland
Style: Hard Rock/Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date:
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Lordi will never lose their association with the Eurovision Song Contest, a synonym in Europe for embarrassing pop music until, well, Lordi won it with a tasty slab of hard rock bombast that blew everyone away. If they're known outside that, it's probably for their outrageous monster costumes, which are reminiscent of GWAR but should remind of Kiss instead and this concept album serves to underline that.

Yes, concept album. The concept here is to pretend that Lordi, who formed in Finland back in 1992, have were really as established then as they are now, and this is a greatest hits collection covering that earlier fictional era. If we were around at the time, the choice of songs is going to sound eerily familiar, highlighting how trends changed and how bands navigated them, with varying degrees of success and failure.

If we imagine Lordi (referred to here as the Monster Squad) as being founded in, say, 1974, we ought to place the start of their chronology with Blow My Fuse, an early Kiss song with prominent bass and strong riffs. There's more Kiss on the way too, Zombimbo being the token embarrassing disco number and another actually composed by Paul Stanley and Jean Beauvoir, Like a Bee to the Honey, a set of double entendres wild enough to be worthy of Spinal Tap, complete with Michael Monroe on sax. Let me dip into your fruit jar, honey!

The later seventies are covered by Apollyon, an AOR ballad, before we shift into the eighties, apparently the heyday of the Monster Squad. Beyond Like a Bee to the Honey, there's a generic schoolboy rebellion song, Up to No Good, that's a composite of half a dozen bands; an unwise bid for commerciality in Cutterfly, which is driven by keyboard chords more than riffs; and the token Desmond Child-produced horror movie soundtrack song, Scream Demon. It's the film's main theme and the video, on heavy MTV rotation, would place the band into the movie that they otherwise aren't in at all.

As the eighties roll into the nineties, with the last big hit, I Dug a Hole in the Yard for You in their rear view mirror, the Monster Squad apparently realised that following the many trends of the last couple of decades wasn't the right way to go and maybe they should just play what they want instead. Shake the Baby Silent is a pitch to a new generation, a Rob Zombie song done very well indeed. Evil is the real comeback, a faster and heavier European power metal song that brings in Pantera and verges on thrash. Remember how Painkiller shook things up for Judas Priest in 1990 after Turbo and Ram It Down? That's Evil for the Monster Squad.

Every one of the songs I've mentioned does its job well. Some are fantastic songs, some not so much but they all do what they're supposed to do as part of the overall concept. The only one that didn't seem to fit in the puzzle was Horror for Hire; maybe it's just the routine song that shouldn't be on the greatest hits album.

And if all that isn't enough, the album is broken up into four song blocks by an equally imaginary American DJ, the Mad Rager, Rockin' Ruiz, and these remain fun after a few listens through, which is surprising. The first is a preview, with takes on AC/DC, Judas Priest, Ozzy Osbourne, Mercyful Fate, a band I don't remotely recognise and Guns n' Roses. The others play with the phone, a set of dubious callers leading us through a live horror story with backward masking and Satanic panic and all that jazz.

Lordi may never shake the Eurovision tag, but they've always been a quality band and their albums are stronger than we might expect. This one isn't the best they've ever made but it highlights how good they are at a wider set of styles than they've generally had the opportunity to play. There has always been Alice Cooper and Kiss in their sound, but Evil is the heaviest thing I have ever heard them do and Shake the Baby Silent is up there with anything Rob Zombie has recorded in this millennium. Long live the Monster Squad and long live Lordi!

Loserfur - Born Pissed (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Stoner Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 6 Jan 2020
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Here's another local band here in Phoenix, though this one isn't as famous as Spirit Adrift, let alone Sacred Reich or Flotsam and Jetsam. However, I did catch Loserfur live last year in a, shall we say, intimate venue called the Lunchbox and, while it was Smokey Mirror who blew me away that night, I enjoyed the other bands too, including the headliners, Loserfur, who played so loud for that size a place that it was almost uncomfortable. Apparently, that isn't uncommon for them.

They play instrumental stoner metal with particular fondness for huge riffs and feedback and both are well exhibited here on what I'm seeing described as an EP but which runs almost half an hour, longer than some of the actual full length albums I've reviewed. Check out The Shit That Killed Elvis as a great example of both. The use of feedback is obvious from the start and it gives the song a real urgency. The riff is, well the whole thing is more of a riff than it is a song, really, with a solo in the middle, but it really hits high gear and is one of my favourite pieces on the album.

Unfortunately, it starts with White Horse instead. I'm not sure what's going on at the beginning of this one with what sounds like a voice sample playing behind it that's only partially intelligible and really doesn't help anyone. It and its partner, Black Horse, which ends the album, are the weakest songs on offer and it seems strange to bookend a release with lesser material.

Fortunately, the five songs in between are much better. To Be Gutted starts out almost mellow with a lovely bass riff that's soon echoed by guitar. It's another song that's more of a riff than a song but it's a great riff and the dynamics of how it's handled make it another highlight. There's a nice riff in Fugal Worship too and an even more brutal one on Fuck Y'all that feels so live in the studio that I imagined the band practically playing on my desk.

The heart of the album, though, is Satan's Throne Room, a slow Black Sabbath homage with extra feedback. It plays out with a similar tempo profile to To Be Gutted but there's a lot more going on here. Loserfur do like the simpler songs in their repertoire but it's the more complex ones that tend to end up more memorable. The Shit That Killed Elvis might initially grab us with its riff but its the transitions and psychedelic midsection that cement it as a favourite.

Satan's Throne Room feels loose, as always defined by its riffs but with so much use of feedback that it never seems repetitive. By the end of the song, that feedback is swirling from right speaker to left and back like it's some sort of avant-garde soundscape. It makes for a raw and visceral sound that's not going to be for everyone, but it's a good demonstration of what Loserfur stand for musically and it's impossible to ignore.

To me it identifies them as the ugly younger brother to *insert any random stoner band here*, a snot-nosed little bastard who churns out riffs with a middle finger firmly extended to the industry. Loserfur are as subtle as a brick to the face and they like it that way. They're all about generating a killer riff, turning it up so loud that your ears will bleed and hammering it into our skulls until we submit. The sound is as rough and ready as the cover and I don't think Loserfur would have it any other way.