Thursday 30 April 2020

Mogwai - ZeroZeroZero (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Post-Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 24 Apr 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Following Ulcerate was never going to be an easy task so I plumped for some utterly different soundscapes in the form of the new Mogwai album, which is instrumental soundtrack music they wrote for the Amazon Prime series, ZeroZeroZero, which is an Italian crime drama, based on a novel by Roberto Saviano, who has been under police protection since 2006 because he writes about organised crime.

As you might expect for a series that follows a large shipment of cocaine on its journey from Mexico to Italy, there's a sense of danger here throughout, but the dark tones conjured into play are light years from the otherworldly darkness of Ulcerate. These are soundscapes to look at from afar and wonder what the heck's going on over there. Even on a track like Nose Pints, which pulses like a living being, it feels like a warning. Surprisingly, that does change somewhat with some of the later songs feeling almost mellow.

Soundtracks are inherently created to support some sort of visual element, a show or a movie or whatever. With a few notable exceptions, where the music transcends its status as soundtrack, I tend to enjoy such things when I come into them effectively blindfolded because I haven't seen what they accompany and so have to conjure it up for myself. I haven't seen ZeroZeroZero, so I'm able to do that here and it's evocative stuff.

However, I don't think I'm likely to listen to this often, mostly because it feels like many of these songs are fragments of what they could have become had they served a purpose other than accompaniment. That's OK sometimes; I'm still a fan of Coil's Unreleased Themes for Hellraiser even though they're fragments, but I wanted more from the early pieces here. There are 21 tracks on offer, as short as a 1:21 snippet called Space Annual. Nine of those are under three minutes. They all cut off too soon, sometimes rather abruptly.

The best are the longer ones that were allowed time to breathe, which means that for me the album really kicked in around the halfway mark, maybe with a fantastic piece called Lesser Glasgow eleven tracks in. From there, this is worth listening to on its own merits, with each piece taking a simple theme and developing it a little. Lesser Glasgow is followed by Frog Marching and El Dante, both of which have their own enjoyable vibes to them.

These compositions mostly feel too bleak to be fairly compared to Tangerine Dream, Summon the Sacred Beast perhaps coming closest, but they occasionally feel a little like Tangerine Dream covering Jean-Michel Jarre without much, if any, embellishment. There's Coil in a track like Rivers Wanted too with its piano riff serving as foundation for the piece and a swirling of synths and escalation of drums taking on the lead role. The Wife Was Touched has a Coil feel as well, with its dissonance and drone. Modern Trolls sounds like the sort of lazy jazz that might appear on a David Lynch soundtrack.

If you're a fan of the show, then I'm guessing this is an integral part of its success that you'll want to pick up. If you're not, this isn't going to be particularly essential unless you're a Mogwai completist. It sounds good, but it has trouble escaping its roots as soundtrack, especially early on. As I'm listening blind, I'd give the first half a 5/10 and, perhaps generously, the second a 7/10 for an average of 6/10. If you're a ZeroZeroZero fan, add at least a point to that.

Ulcerate - Stare into Death and Be Still (2020)

Country: New Zealand
Style: Technical Death Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 24 Apr 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Wikipedia

Most of my recommendations come from bands themselves, or their labels, as a part of their promotional push. Here's one from a reader, so thanks, Jo from Castelldefels, which suddenly makes me miss all the glorious food I devoured while in Barcelona way too long ago now. This is a fantastic album from down under, the first Kiwi death metal I've reviewed since Fall of Them just over a year ago. Jo calls it his album of the year and I do expect it to show up

It's a highly immersive album that's impossible to ignore. Listening is like being dragged into the underground by some eldritch creature that's allergic to light so that it can force its art upon us for an hour before letting us go, slithering away into the darkness while we wonder what just happened but remain somehow nostalgic for the surreal experience and hope for the rest of our lives that it'll happen again.

Amazingly, Ulcerate are only a trio because they generate quite a versatile soundscape with so few instruments. Paul Kelland is the man on double duty, his bass a dangerous texture lurking under whatever else is going on and his vocal arguably the lead instrument.

That bass sets a tone that I'd call dank if that hadn't been appropriated by stoners and rendered into meaningless cool. I think of it as a texture that engages multiple senses, like slime dripping off the walls of an underground cavern. It makes this feel dangerous. The vocals are deep and emotional, as if Kelland is that ageless creature railing against its confinement. He's a musical equivalent to Swamp Thing, looming and lost but ever magnetic.

Surprisingly, Kelland isn't the founder of Ulcerate. In fact, he's the new fish, having taken over from Phil Kusabs on bass in 2005 and Ben Read at the mike in 2008. Both his bandmates were there in the beginning in 2002, when a band of theirs called Bloodwreath renamed and set a new era into motion.

The guitarist is Michael Hoggard and he's wildly unusual. This isn't music built from riffs, let alone hooks. There are points where he crunches along in a complex riff but mostly he flits around above the music like a will o' the wisp, hurling out notes and melodic line almost with a hope that they'll have an effect, which of course they do. We might not recognise what he has in mind but he knows exactly what he's doing and that effect is massive.

And that leaves Jamie Saint Merat on drums, who must be a demon octopus. His contribution is just as unusual because he refuses to just keep the beat; he plays the drums like a lead instrument much of the time, generating melodies out of his fills and runs. I can't reconcile how accessible this seems given that it's so complex that we struggle to realise any semblance of structure. However many times I listen to this, I'm always stuck in the moment while it all washes over me.

I certainly couldn't pull out a favourite track. This album plays to me like a single hour long slab of art, an experience as much as a recording. Sure, its core is in death metal but it's often much slower than I expected it to be, not merely flirting with sludge and doom because atmosphere is king here and both those words are applicable as words as well as genres. It speeds up too, creating a wall of sound remiscent of black metal, even if the drums do not comply with that genre's standards. It's that dense.

Just in case it felt the need to elicit more praise, it's a generous slab of virtual vinyl. There are eight boulders of music here, the shortest of which is almost six minutes and the longest three over eight. It can't be easy to play live, given how long these pieces are, how untraditionally they are in structure and how complex every component part of the music is. However, the studio recording captures it all magnificently. It's raw emotion in extreme metal form. What an experience!

Wednesday 29 April 2020

Axel Rudi Pell - Sign of the Times (2020)

Country: Germany
Style: Heavy/Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 Apr 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website | Wikipedia

Axel Rudi Pell has been a busy man since he left Steeler back in, holy crap, 1989. If I'm counting right, this is his nineteenth studio album since then, over thirty years into a career as a solo artist. I'm way out of touch but, from what I can tell, he's remained pretty consistent in quality all the way through, even though his line-up has shifted a little here and there, Johnny Gioeli being his fifth lead singer.

As this as is heavy metal with a commercial edge, I should highlight that he does the job very well indeed, as he has since 1998, when he took over from Jeff Scott Soto. His biggest problem is that his voice is so close to being the archetypal commercial heavy metal voice that he has to struggle to find his own identity. But hey, quite frankly, I have the same problem with Axel Rudi Pell himself, who is just as close to the archetypal commercial heavy metal guitarist.

In other words, if you're into this style of music, you're almost guaranteed to enjoy what these guys do, both because they're so good at it and because they're so good at it together. However, in a few days you may find that you start to remember this as a worthy commercial heavy metal album rather than a worthy Axel Rudi Pell album with Johnny Gioeli singing. It's going to blur far more than it deserves to.

There are a few moments where the band does something a little different but they tend to come late in the album. Living in a Dream starts out all reggae before rocking out with a Uriah Heep style organ. Into the Fire wraps up the album with Led Zeppelin style with a stalking guitar from Pell and a patient beat from Bobby Rondinelli, the band's drummer since 2013, who elevates this album in the same the way that he's elevated albums by an apparently endless string of legends, from Black Sabbath to Blue Öyster Cult via Quiet Riot and Doro.

Mostly, though, they stick to the tried and tested formula of slick melodies and riffs that have served them so well for so long, starting with the solid opener that is Gunfire with Rondinelli energetic and Pell firmly in Ritchie Blackmore territory for his solo. Bad Reputation keeps up the quality and so does Sign of the Times and on we go for most of an hour without ever dipping to something less worthy. Most of the songs here could be singles, though some would need to be cropped down for radio play.

I can't quite decide whether my favourite song here is Waiting for Your Call or The End of the Line. With everything so consistent and nothing that lets the side down, even on the inevitable power ballad, As Blind as a Fool Can Be, these are the special songs that up the game for me. They have melodies that are even catchier, riffs that are even crisper, grooves that are even better. Close behind those two is album closer Into the Fire.

If you've heard Axel Rudi Pell before, this is another great example of what he and his band do, so you'll want to pick it up to add to your collection. He's nothing if not reliable. If you haven't heard him before, check out the highlights I mentioned and, if they're your sort of thing, welcome to a new cycle where you'll be buying another one every two years. He's getting to be as regular as clockwork.

Chronus - Idols (2020)

Country: Sweden
Style: Hard Rock/Heavy Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 24 Apr 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Holy crap, Chronus know how to build intensity into a hard rock song! I say hard rock, even though they're usually billed as heavy metal, because that's how they play to me. Really they're on the boundary of the two genres and I could see them finding fans from either side. This is their second album and I haven't heard the first, a self-titled release from 2017. They formed back in 2012 and also put out an EP in 2014, so they've been at this a while.

I liked this album from the beginning, the hooks and vocals in Mountains of Madness reminding me of Diamond Head, even if it's only three minutes long and the riffing during the verses isn't as legendary (though the core riff certainly is). That feeling never went away over nine further tracks, some of which get more imaginative with their riffs even if the hooks seem more important to the band and solos are less commonplace. Clearly the band have their Sean Harris in Sebastian Axelsson.

Shepherd three songs in is the point where I wondered if they already have their Brian Tatler too and My Heart is Longing for You one more in is quite the answer to that question. By this point, I was totally hooked. It builds magnificently, aided by a keyboard layer. Ghosts promptly does the same and I realised that I was listening to something special. The most overt Tatler riff comes on Pharos and everything's suddenly there. The lead guitarist's name is Svante Furevi.

The main difference between Chronus and Diamond Head is that there isn't a song here over four and a half minutes. Even if we treat Sun as an intro to Pharos, that still only means five and a half and that's like the bones of a Diamond Head song, ready to expand and develop, building slower but just as surely over a couple of minutes more to even more intensity.

So Chronus aren't Diamond Head. They want to do many of the same things but they also want to keep their songs lean and radio friendly. Every one of the ten songs here, except for Sun, could be a viable single without stretching station policy on song length. I wonder if their songwriting process started with longer material and they went through each song to decide what to trim. We don't need that solo. That bass intro could be shorter. We can do without that extra verse. Cut them all down to their essence.

While I'd have liked this songs to breathe more, I thoroughly enjoyed every one of them. Everything is a hook, whether it's a chorus or a verse. Melody is paramount here, however heavy the band get, and it's not something that they feel they have to reserve for certain parts of a song. The guitars are melodic too, even when they're crunching a riff. This is heavy for a melodic rock album but lighter than expected for one calling itself heavy metal.

And where that leaves us is an album that wins out over last year's Diamond Head because of its consistency, but fails to boast highlights of the level of The Coffin Train, Belly of the Beast or The Sleeper, because it has zero interest in being that ambitious. The closest here is Pharos, which boasts a killer riff and a solid build, along with a worthy intro in Sun. The others don't want the same depth.

I'll be picking up the previous Chronus album because I want to hear how the band has evolved thus far, but I'm really interested in seeing where they're going over the next few years. This is a highlight for me in a month full of great albums.

Tuesday 28 April 2020

Elder - Omens (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 Apr 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Wikipedia

Elder's roots are heavy enough that they have a page on Metal Archives, but their sound has been evolving with every release, this fifth studio release being no exception. Sure, it features the usual handful of long tracks with long instrumental passages, only one wrapping up within ten minutes and that only by seven seconds. However, there's very little metal to be found at all this time out, just the occasional power chords and crunchy guitar.

And while I've labeled it psychedelic rock, fairly I think, this ventures so far into prog rock and even krautrock that it's highly genre fluid. It will appeal as much to seventies prog rock fans who have never heard Elder before as stoner metal fans who have followed them throughout. The most obvious nod to that old fanbase is the vocals, but they're frankly starting to seem out of place in the soundscapes that the band are now conjuring up.

Maybe I'm spoiled after last year's generous EP, The Gold & Silver Sessions. It was entirely instrumental and much quieter than Elder usually play, as a sort of challenge to do something different. It seems to have taken, because this gets as close to that EP in style as it does to the band's earlier and more traditional stoner/doom albums. And, while I didn't dislike the vocals of Nicholas DiSalvo at all, they're easily my least favourite aspect here, even though they show up a lot less often than they could.

What tended to happen here, especially as the album ran on, was that I'd get lost in the music, only for his voice to bring me back to a firm realisation that I was listening to a song again. For instance, on Halcyon, we're almost six fabulous minutes in before we get any words and they're a little jarring at that point. Of course, this is a concept album that looks at the lifespan of an entire civilisation so there have be lyrics somewhere or we won't get any of that.

One part of this change towards krautrock soundscapes is surely partly due to the addition of a lot more keyboards. On the previous full length album, 2017's Reflections of a Floating World, Elder were a trio, but, since then, they've added Michael Risberg to the band on guitar and keyboards. Also, on this album, they've brought in multi-instrumentalist Fabio Cuomo as a guest and his work is known for its experimentation with prog and jazz. These new musicians are all over this album from moment one, which is synths only for over half a minute and rarely without them ongoing.

I like this album a lot and, frankly, while I enjoy earlier Elder, I enjoy this more. I think this is a good and natural musical evolution for them and they're ably equipped to move into this sort of territory. I've always liked the overlap between psych and prog and krautrock is a fabulous place to work in that territory, especially when it doesn't get over-experimental.

What's more, I'd suggest that the quieter and more introspective material on offer here works better than the louder, more overt songs. The first couple of tracks, Omens and In Procession, have a heavier mindset, even if they're reticent to remain there throughout. Halcyon lessens that and becomes neatly immersive, while Embers and One Light Retreating continue in that vein all the way home, making the last thirty-five minutes even better than the first twenty.

Survival Zero - The Ascension (2020)

Country: France
Style: Groove Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 Apr 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

The guys in Survival Zero, who hail from Troyes, southeast from Paris, kindly sent me a copy of this, which I believe is their debut album. They're a five piece band led by twin guitars but they play their take on groove metal in a traditional way, achieving agreeable heaviness without losing their sense of melody. And that's good, because the the further a groove metal band shifts into nu metal, the less I tend to appreciate them. The closest Survival Zero get to nu metal is the backing vocal on Ascension, which still works well.

I certainly enjoyed this album, which is all the things you expect from the genre but with more besides. Those twin guitars, courtesy of Régis Bernard and Benoit Raguin are downtuned but go to a lot of interesting places. Lost in Eri is a really good intro, for something under two minutes, because it's a definition of sound, telling us what this is going to be and what it isn't going to be at all. It starts with an echoing pulse, like a depth reading, a surprising note over a rumbling that builds into a statement of intent, with the guitar line supreme. So many times here I was enjoying a song, only for a guitarist to add another melodic layer over the top and deepen the sound.

The rhythm section is fantastic. Pierre Touzanne's bass is a serious anchor here, often mirroring the rhythm guitar but sometimes rumbling beyond it, as on Degeneration and especially early in The Otherverse. I liked the drums of Thibaut Gugger perhaps more than anything else here, especially on the songs with more unusual rhythms for a metal drummer, such as The Coldspot and The Otherverse. These play in tribal territory, raising a Sepultura comparison that isn't otherwise particularly apparent.

That leaves vocalist Pierre Lebaillif, who I left for last because it's the vocals that often determine whether I'm going to like a groove metal band or really not. I like his contribution because he manages to find the agreeable midpoints needed to make his style work with this band. For instance, he has a clean but raspy shout and a sort of light death growl, both of which give him much more opportunity to enunciate and intonate than he would be able to manage with either approach full on.

The result of all this is that The Ascension is a notably deep groove metal album. I don't mean depth of tone because I could seriously throw a rock in Phoenix and hit a more downtuned band. I mean in depth of sound because the final element here that makes all this work so well is a progressive edge. I wouldn't call Survival Zero a prog metal band any more than I'd call them a reggae band, as they emphatically play groove metal, but there's a lot more focus on instrumental sections than I'd expect and there's a prog nature in the songwriting, even when Lebaillif is singing.

I had no conception, before listening to this, how prog and groove could mix but I like what Survival Zero have conjured up here. Sure, they're heavy, as you'd expect for a groove metal band, but there's a lot of dynamic play here to highlight the heaviness through contrasts with much lighter, more melodic material. It's cleverly written stuff and it's very tightly played.

I've talked a lot here about what I like on The Ascension. There isn't much that I didn't like, even though groove metal is hardly my go to subgenre. I liked the aspects I usually like in groove metal and I liked the aspects I'm usually more turned off by. Frankly, to highlight what I didn't like, I'd be forced to call out whatever that fluttery guitar is early on Foundation that made me wonder, every damn time, whether there was a sheep behind me wanting to be fed. And I'm listening in my home office.

Oh, and if I'm researching properly, Survival Zero have only been around for a year? That adds an extra level of impressive. What's the next album going to sound like once they've had a chance to play live together for a while?

Monday 27 April 2020

Warbringer - Weapons of Tomorrow (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 Apr 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Most of the thrash groups I belong to on Facebook abruptly stopped bickering last week to present a united front about how great the new Warbringer album happens to be. I was looking forward to it anyway but that added emphasis to the wait. And... well, I feel a little underwhelmed after all that hype. It is not the greatest thing since sliced bread. I listened through a few extra times just in case I'd missed an element of unadulterated genius, but no, it isn't the start of a new era in thrash either.

But hey, if the worst thing I can say about a record is that it doesn't live up to its unrealistic hype, then it's a damn good album. And this is really good stuff. It's thrash with a strong side of heavy/power metal in the vein of Metal Church. It's played clean and technical with pauses for effect, as needed. It's paced primarily at mid tempo with some faster sections, even if Carlos Cruz surprisingly holds back with his drums, suggesting that he wants to stay mid tempo throughout.

He convinces the band for most of the first half. The first four tracks all start out at a midpace and some, like The Black Hand Reaches Out, stay there throughout. That Metal Church vibe is notable in those early sections, often through the prominent bass of Chase Bryant and tasty riffs from Chase Becker and Adam Carroll. However, John Kevill's voice doesn't fit this slower, more elegant approach and I wonder if that's why this album didn't knock me out.

Kevill's voice pleads for the music to speed up and, when it does, he's the man for the job. He kicks the opener, Firepower Kills, into motion with a go scream and Unraveling, the first song to start fast, is where this becomes a special album for me. Unfortunately that's the fifth track and, while I did enjoy the first four, I'd have enjoyed them more if either the band had sped up to match Kevill's urgency or he'd sung cleaner to go with their approach. Either way would have worked.

Unraveling is a great example of the former. It's fast from the very outset and it gets faster, even Cruz getting in on that mindset. Here, the guitars are appropriately wild, with some great solos, and Kevill's voice just works like a vicious dream.

It's a rough and violent voice, taking hardcore shouts and shifting them to a metal scream somewhere between Schmier of Destruction and John Connelly of Nuclear Assault, with a dash of Martin Walkyier added in for good measure. I heard some Walkyier in Outer Reaches and a lot in Notre Dame (King of Fools) because of the theatricality. His influence is all over Glorious End, which sounds like Sabbat covering a Manowar song I've never heard before.

If Unraveling remains the best, fastest and most ruthless song here, which I have to believe generates a crazy pit when performed live, the album remains at a high level for the second half, even if the band don't always stay that fast. Kevill's vocals fit the theatrics of Heart of Darkness, screaming "the horror, the horror" into the void. The riffing on Outer Reaches is fabulous, especially when the bass joins in; it has a lot of early Metallica crunch to it. Notre Dame's shift into high gear is fantastic and there are some superb sections later too.

And Glorious End is indeed a glorious end, another strong song with an intro that sounds rather like the one to Metallica's Blackened played in reverse. It knows that it's glorious too, because it's right there in the guitar tone and the narration, not to mention the epic nature of the piece. It's a great way to wrap up an excellent album.

So, don't get me wrong, folks. I dug this a lot. I don't know Warbringer as well as I should, so I'll be revisiting their back catalogue, but this is a very welcome slab of modern American thrash, especially arriving hot on the heels of the latest Testament. However, it doesn't entirely grasp what the band do best and, a strong opener apart, takes quite a while to get moving. Now, let's get past the COVID lockdowns so I can see this band live!

Mantric - False Negative (2020)

Country: Norway
Style: Progressive Rock/Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 Apr 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Prog Archives | Wikipedia

Mantric have an interesting sound. They're clearly prog, but they're on the boundary between prog rock and prog metal, both of which have an alternative edge too, as if prog could be trendy. They're Norwegian, but outside of some Scandinavian accents evident in quieter sections like early on Itching Soul, they sound more like an American band, one that constantly tours, playing a long line of small venues, sitting too low on bills because they're far too adventurous for the mainstream but continually picking up new die hard fans because they do their own thing and they're very good at it.

The other label that comes out a lot for Mantric is post-metal, which makes a lot of sense to me. When I think prog metal, I think of bands who followed in the wake of others like Queensrÿche, Mekong Delta or Opeth. I don't think of what I'm hearing here. Just check out Queen Fatigue, which is much closer to Sonic Youth, the Velvet Underground or Swans than any of those bands. The sound on this one comes out of early punk with a layer of grunge but applies touches of electronica and even black metal in the way the band uses wall of sound.

The question is how the band can reconcile Queen Fatigue with the songs that sit around it. Its bookends have pop sensibilities. Itching Soul explores a lot of the same new wave and synth pop influences that Paradise Lost played with on albums like One Second but dirties them up considerably. Norwegian Dastard is a psychedelic pop song with a stoner bass, rather like you might find if early Nirvana covered the Beatles or, later in the song, Pearl Jam covered Pink Floyd.

It might seem like songs like these are going in different directions. What links them is how dirty the sound is on all of them, as if Mantric serve as a filter, taking all sorts of influences you wouldn't expect to hear from a Seattle band and applying a filter to them to create something new. Whether you fall in love with them will depend on whether you appreciate the idea of that filter or not.

Just thinking about Mantric as filter makes this stranger. Blame the Beggar, for instance, is a perky synth pop song at heart, just dirtied up a bit with that fuzzy bass and a guitar that heavies things up when needed. It reminded me of a song like Safety Dance, just with the Mantric filter applied, and if Men without Hats aren't the last band I ever expected to bring up in a metal review, I have no idea who would be more unlikely.

What this led to me to wonder is how Mantric's sound has changed over time. They aren't new, having formed back in 2007, but they're hardly prolific, as this is only their third album since then. I haven't heard The Descent and Sin, but I'm guessing from what I read that they were heavier albums than this, as they were reviewed by metal magazines who pointed out that the prog core ventured into black and death metal territories on them.

There's little extreme here to be found at all and I'd call this album rock over metal, even if the band do get faster and heavier on songs such as The Towering Mountain and Darling Demon. Even there, the heaviness is less from a death or black metal perspective and more from metalcore, with the shouty vocals you'd expect from that genre. I'm not a big -core fan and the latter song is probably my least favourite here, even with a cool guitar buzz that sounds like a swarm of bees flew through the studio, but it's still a really interesting and sonically diverse track.

Mantric certainly aren't going to be for everyone, but they seem to me to be one of those bands who are appreciated either not at all or absolutely. They might make no impact on you at all or they're going to become your favourite band of all time and you'll follow them on tour. As a regular listener, I'm much more the former. As a critic, though, I find this sound fascinating. I want to hear more and I want to see how they've grown already and where they will grow to over time. Interesting band.

Friday 24 April 2020

Cirith Ungol - Forever Black (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 Apr 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter | Wikipedia

There was an odd conversation on Facebook recently, when Metal Hammer shared the cover of their June issue, featuring Lamb of God, and pointed out that their album is the most anticipated of the year. One commenter took special umbrage because the Cirith Ungol album was about to come out and it's their first in almost three decades, their last, Paradise Lost, seeing the light back in 1991. While I remember their early eighties albums fondly, I hadn't realised that Cirith Ungol date all the way back to 1971, the year that Lamb of God's Randy Blythe was born. So was I, come to that, because he's only a month older than me. Cirith Ungol is as old as the both of us.

I'll be reviewing the Lamb of God album when it comes out because they're an important band but I'm reviewing the Cirith Ungol album right now because it ought to be seen as important too. They were a pioneering band, a solid link between the prog and hard rock of the seventies and the early extreme metal of the eighties. By the time they started issuing albums in 1981, they were helping to define not just the heavy metal of the era but where power metal and doom metal would go as well. I don't think this has the same prescience, but you never know. There's stuff here that's insanely heavy for something I wouldn't describe as extreme at all.

A good part of that comes from how rough the album sounds, though I do feel that this was a deliberate decision. The mix is strong enough for us to hear the bass throughout, so hints at early eighties production must be a choice. Mostly it's because of the wild and free vocal delivery from Tim Baker, who often reminds of Cronos from Venom, a comparison that won't leave me alone. It's there on Nightmare (not the Venom song) and The Fire Divine.

It's most overt on what is easily the album's heaviest track, Stormbringer, surely named for Elric of Melniboné's soul-eating sword, represented on the cover art. Baker is utterly raucous here, almost screeching himself hoarse as he belts out the chorus like nothing else I can think of but Warhead, the song by Venom. The point is that this isn't extreme in the modern sense that we use in the term "extreme metal", but it's absolutely extreme and the vast majority of that is due to Baker.

For a great example of how much he contributes to the impact of this album, check out The Fire Divine. These aren't extreme riffs or solos; a different guitar tone and this could be a Kiss song. Downtuned, though not so much as a modern American band would do, it's far heavier, but Baker's contribution sends it way over the edge, as if he's being burned alive by the song title. He takes it from Kiss to Venom, making this the first album that I've heard in a long while that sounds like it might scare your sister. It's hilarious that it isn't "extreme metal".

Cirith Ungol have been gone for a long time, splitting up in 1992 and taking until 2016 to reform, so I should highlight the line-up. Two founder members are here: drummer Robert Garven and guitarist Greg Lindstrom, who used to be the bass player way back. Baker came later but still joined five years ahead of their debut album. The second guitarist, Jim Barraza, showed up in 1988, so only appeared on one album before the band split, but that does mean that four out the five musicians are former members. Bass player Jarvis Leatherby only joined in 2016, when the band reformed, so he's the new fish by twenty-eight years.

I like this a lot. It's old school, with riffs and solos that I might expect from an album three or four decades ago. There's a lot of seventies here in the hard rock base of most of this material, but the sheer power is eighties through and through. This feels like proto-extreme metal, promising a future that's heavier and scarier than ever, just not necessarily in the directions that extreme metal went. Most of all, it feels honest. This band aren't on a nostalgia kick, they really feel this anger, energy and aggression and, hey, I'm feeling it too. Forever Black makes that Black Dahlia Murder album seem about as heavy as Taylor Swift. Welcome back!

Illutia - Un sitio sin lugar (2020)

Country: Argentina
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 10 Apr 2020
Sites: Facebook

Here's a very tasty prog rock album with a strong side of melodic rock. It's the first release from Illutia, who hail from Buenos Aires in Argentina, and it's very mature for a debut. I see that two of the four members used to be in another band together called Eden Khatru, who were highly regarded, even though they never released anything. Maybe this has been a long time coming, especially as Illutia formed in 2012.

It's mostly light in tone, though not light in substance at all. There are a couple of dark moments on the opener, Pretexto silencioso (Silent Pretext), but they're not heavy, just textured a little darker than the upbeat nature of the music would allow. Even if this has the patience of a Pink Floyd and the ingenuity of a Genesis, it still feels far more eighties than seventies. The obvious comparisons are to neoprog and AOR, with each of the seven songs here radio friendly if not for running times that only start at four minutes and run up to almost nine and the proggier elements that are responsible for that.

In particular, I'm thinking Genesis and Marillion but not at the points that most people try to emulate. The Genesis influence is from the early Collins era; Gabriel has left and the band are moving towards a poppier sound but it isn't poppy enough yet to translate into chart success. The Marillion sound is post-Fish but not really Hogarth yet. Again it's a point of transition, a prog band liking the idea of pop success but not wanting to ditch the proggy elements that they love so much.

It would be interesting to see whether listeners think of Illutia as a pop band dabbling in prog or a prog band dabbling in pop. I'd generally go with the latter, but it may depend on the song. Both En el hielo (On the Ice) and Máscaras que caen (Masks That Fall) are most obviously prog tracks first and foremost, but Ojos de espectador (Spectator's Eyes) starts out so perky that it becomes hard not to think of it as pop first.

Both the link between Genesis and Marillion and the boundary between a prog mindset and a pop one is most overt in the keyboards, which probably means that the key player here is keyboard player Marcelo Chipont, who's credited on piano, synths and sequencers. However, Leandro Calello, who contributes guitar and bass, also did some sequencing work. It's telling that these are the two members who used to be in the Genesis-influenced Eden Khatru.

The result is that this is very easy on the ears, though not so much that it fades into becoming background music. I listened to this a few times while I ran reports at work and the melodies, however gentle, kept me from drifting away from the music. Another factor in that is the fact that the guitar is a surprisingly low element in the mix, coming out to shine during gorgeous solos (just check out the title track for one of those!) but at other times oddly less prominent than Calello's bass, which surely takes the lead role here after the vocals of Leondro Ejarque on a number of tracks. It certainly leads us into the album on Pretexto silencioso.

The most obvious exception, because nothing is a firm rule with Illutia, is Eterno otoño (Eternal Autumn), which is a delightful instrumental piece, at heart a duet between guitar and synths. That it's easily my favourite track here doesn't for one moment mean that I don't enjoy the vocals. Máscaras que caen isn't too far behind in the grand scheme of things, not least because a nine minute song like this really knows how to breathe. The title track is a great choice too and, frankly, so is everything else here.

The worst thing about the album is that it ends and that there isn't a back catalogue that I can go and explore. This is it for Illutia for now and so I really hope we see another album soon. It may be deceptively light, but this is a stellar debut from a band who deserve a long and distinguished career. The more I listen to it, the more I like it and I liked it from moment one.

Thursday 23 April 2020

The Project Hate MCMXCIX - Purgatory (2020)

Country: Sweden
Style: Industrial Death Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 17 Apr 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I may or may not have heard the Project Hate MCMXCIX (that's 1999 in Roman numerals, the year the band was founded) before but I'm happy I've finally found them now on what I believe is their lucky thirteenth studio album. The band seem to be labelled as industrial metal, with most sources mentioning a strong use of EDM. What I'm hearing here, though, is death metal with a firm industrial edge. Has the band changed over time? I have no idea but I plan to find out by delving into their back catalogue.

The guitars are heavy, the bass prominent, the drums fast. The female vocals of Ellinor Asp are clean but in traditional heavy metal style, which aims at power or symphonic metal at points. The male vocals of Jörgen Sandström, one of two founder members still with the project, are emphatically death growls and the band follow him into clear death metal territory often. Just check out the start of Atonement; a couple of minutes of that did a lot to cleanse my palate from reviewing the new Black Dahlia Murder album yesterday.

The other real surprise here for me is that the songs here are all epics in length. There are a mere half a dozen on offer but every one of them exceeds twelve minutes. Looking back at their last four albums, all released on the band's own imprint, Mouth of Belial, because they wanted nothing more to do with the record industry at all, we'd have to go back to the very earliest, The Cadaverous Retaliation Agenda in 2012, to find one that clocks in under the ten minute mark, though it also sports a bunch of minute long tracks I expect are interludes.

All of these long songs are theatrical in feel, as if this is death metal or industrial metal or whatever metal as performance art like opera. Throughout most of this, I felt like I was listening to a video, which sounded engaging but but which was missing all the visuals. That goes double for the quieter sections midway through the songs, when the intensity ratchets way down for a while but that EDM sound joins the fray in a limited fashion. With heavy, usually death metal most prominent, that's where we find a majority of the industrial sound.

It looks like Project Hate is primarily the vision of Lord K. Philipson, the other founder member, who contributes bass, keyboards and backing vocals and the majority of the guitarwork. Key collaborators include Asp and Sandström on vocals, with Dirk Verbeuren on drums and Lasse Johansson, credited as the guitar soloist. A host of others apparently guest in various ways at various points but I'm not sure who they are and what they do. There's a clean male vocal on Diatribe Cult, and I presume that's Johan Längqvist, current singer for Candlemass, but that's about it.

This grabbed me on a first listen. I hadn't even got far into Kill Everyone, the opening track, before I knew that I was a a Project Hate fan. The added intensity on Atonement didn't hurt either, but the biggest factor was surely the fact that this never got old or boring for me, even as I got lost within twelve or thirteen minute epics. I enjoyed them all even without an overview of any of the songs. They're too big to be grasped on a first listen. I need to listen through a few more times to fully visualise what they're doing.

Certainly, much of this success has to come from the mix of styles in these songs. They're all rooted in death metal with a rhythmic industrial bass as a driving force, but there's heavy metal here, power metal, symphonic metal, doom metal, you name it. This variety keeps everything fresh. I appreciated the quiet bits as much as the heavy ones as well, with one section late in Diatribe Cult wildly inventive.

My biggest problem here is in picking standouts. Every song here features at least a couple of sections that each contribute to the whole but is somehow also just a section of the whole that is the Purgatory album. That means I'm thinking of the album as one coherent eighty minute epic but also focusing a little on parts of individual songs, like the first halves of Diatribe Cult and Greatness. Somehow, I think the album actually keeps on getting better, so my favourite may be the last track, Birth, with its vocal effects. Let's see if it stays that way after a few more listens.

The VillainZ - Sexy & Arrogant (2020)

Country: France
Style: Garage Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 5 Apr 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | YouTube

All that I can find online suggests that the VillainZ (they capitalise the Z at the end for some reason) really want to be in a Quentin Tarantino movie (I'd say Robert Rodriguez, but they're from France). Everything is attitude, their flavour of garage rock riddled with punk and psychedelia, and the very first song they released (the opener on their 2017 self titled EP) is called Fuck You, We are the VillainZ! That's an emphatic statement. And just look at that album cover by Pedro Delort!

I don't even know who does what because the roles given to the band members are "sexy bitch", "arrogant asshole", "sober hippie" and "weed eater". Jess K. is clearly the singer, her whiskey drenched voice twenty per cent poison and eighty per cent sex. But who's providing those machine gun guitars, that prowling bass and those staccato drumbeats? The line up includes Nic K., Tom C. and Kris C., but I have zero clue who's responsible for what.

I wish I did because they're all enjoyable and I like to give credit. I like those guitars because they tend to be jaunty and add a dark edge behind the vocals. They actually do quite a lot across this album, punctuating urgency into Bloody Milk but providing texture to Kill the Light. Everything here is sex and violence, so when Jess K. gets bubblegum sexy on that latter track, even singing the chorus, the guitar gets more dangerous to back it up.

The bass is highly obvious and always delightful. With the guitar working as texture on songs like Nobody and Kill the Light, the bass effectively plays lead and it works really well. Heavily distorted, it sets the scene for Pink Inside like we're walking into a velvet walled sex club then rumbles with a real purpose as if it took a blue pill on the way in. It introduces many of the songs, grounding them, and duets with the guitar on Me & Him Against the World when the guitar isn't duetting with itself.

And I really like the drums. The drummer is very reliable and doesn't really do anything fancy, but delivers real character on every track in addition to the bounce that drives the whole album. How perky are the drums on Kill the Light, which match the vocals. This song is like a bubblegum pop band taking on a Joy Division song and it's gorgeous. Have you guessed that it's my very favourite here yet?

Talking of stylistic clashes, there are quite a few here and they're usually delightful. You Make Me Hot is Transvision Vamp jamming with Twisted Sister in a European club. No Apologies plays like the theme tune to a imaginary TV show that I'm convinced could never be shown on American TV. Sometimes punk here means Blondie and sometimes it means the Misfits, occasionally both at once. Bloody Milk is oddly like a continental garage rock take on Madness that we ought to hear in a club scene in an R rated movie.

I like this a lot and I'm surprised that the band are currently unsigned. I would love to see them live because the energy levels here suggest that they would absolutely kill. The venue ought to be tiny but packed, the stage low with no security in front of it and the ceiling sweating as much as the band and the crowd. I get the impression that a VillainZ show would be a purge of the system and it should be compulsory for everyone who gets out of COVID-19 lockdown alive.

Wednesday 22 April 2020

The Black Dahlia Murder - Verminous (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 17 Apr 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Holy crap, it's been fourteen years since I saw The Black Dahlia Murder live in Tempe, which means they only had a couple of albums out at the time. I'm not sure quite how that warranted a slot on the bill above Exodus and Napalm Death, the bands that I was there to see, but they were clearly doing very well for themselves back then and have continued to thrive ever since. This is their ninth studio album and it's topping charts. Good for them.

Only two of the five members in the current line-up were with the band when I saw them: guitarist Brian Eschbach and vocalist Trevor Strnad, who are two of the founder members. And here's where I have to point out that I really, seriously, emphatically dislike Strnad's vocals and they're the reason why I can't call myself a fan of the band. If you happen to be one of their many fans, you should know that, without some major shift in his vocal approach, I was never going to like this.

Now, he does what he does well, but what he does is a hybrid of death growl and hardcore shout that ends up being more like a black metal shriek and it just grates on me like fingernails being dragged down a blackboard creates all the wrong shivers for other people. I've always thought of him as being like Martin Walkyier if the latter didn't bother with his amazingly vicious intonation and just settled for a monotone shriek. It doesn't feel right to me for such a limited vocal approach to sit on top of such intricate music.

While I don't like Strnad's vocals at all, I quite like the band behind him from a musical standpoint. They're all highly capable musicians and they've been able to carve out a rather unique place in the genre that's a lot more brutal than most melodic death bands but more melodic than most brutal death bands. I can't say that they'd be my favourite death metal band even if they ditched Strnad and elevated one of the guitarists who sing backup to a lead vocal slot—I presume one of that pair is responsible for the deeper, more traditional death growl on Child of Night and The Leather Apron's Scorn—but I would enjoy them a lot more than I do now and I still appreciate that they managed to find a unique place of their own on the death metal spectrum.

Joining Eschbach on guitar is Brandon Ellis, the new fish in the band, who's been with them since 2016, and this pair are easily the best thing about the album for me. They excel both in quiet and introspective moments—which are admittedly mostly confined to the brief instrumental interlude called A Womb in Dark Chrysalis—and fast and heavy ones, especially when they find a real groove like on The Wereworm's Feast. Max Lavelle's bass gets a few moments in the spotlight too, on songs like Dawn of Rats, as the mix is excellent.

That leaves Alan Cassidy behind the drumkit and, like Strnad, he's very good at what he does but what he does is something I don't enjoy very much. He's less interested in keeping a beat, whatever he might do to embellish it, and more interested in throwing out fill after fill as if that's all that a song might need. This takes away a lot of the coherence of the songs for me, so I hear whatever's playing at any particular time rather than a logical part of a song. A more traditional drummer would bring the songs more into focus for me, as indeed Cassidy does on songs like the title track.

And as most that surely sounds rather negative, I should underline that the Black Dahlia Murder do what they do very well and any rating that I give is reliant on my personal taste. At the end of this morning's review of the new Badge album, I recommended that anyone much younger than me drop a point off my rating. Similarly here, anyone without have my particular problems about this band can safely add another point on.

Badge - Supernova (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock/Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Apr 2020
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives

Wow, here's a blast from the past! I remember Badge from a single that they put out back in 1981 called Silver Woman. It was a decent NWOBHM song that's shown up on a number of bootlegs of the era, often alongside other bands who only put out a notable single and then vanished. Well, apparently they have been back for a while, even if vocalist Graham Waudby is the sole member who dates back to that single. They finally issued their debut album in 2012, no less than 32 years into their career and two tracks from Stormrider show up here as bookends, though both songs were written back to the eighties.

The first is Blizzard, which hints at being an homage to Ozzy Osbourne even though I don't think it is, and it sets the stage well, because it's decent if not spectacular NWOBHM style hard and heavy stuff. The other is Finding My Way and it's even better, a smooth song that isn't afraid to get mellow even as it rocks. Listening to the two is like we're standing in 1980 with Finding My Way looking backwards to the seventies and Blizzard looking ahead towards what's on the horizon.

In between are nine other songs, all presumably new or at least new-ish and all just as decent if not spectacular NWOBHM style hard and heavy stuff. If it wasn't for a 21st century mix, any one of these eleven tracks could have been the flipside to Silver Woman almost four decades ago. The sound really isn't that different, which means to 2020 ears that it's refreshing but far from original. That's perhaps the best and worst thing about this album.

Thinking from the perspective that it's the best, this is a real journey of nostalgia. Frankly, we forget the modern mixing technology pretty quickly, a deep sound that couldn't have happened on early eighties equipment, and this becomes an old NWOBHM era album that we've just never heard before. I'm not unhappy about that at all and there's a big scene out there that still loves that old sound who will lap this up like, well, Cream, from which band Badge got their name.

Unlike a few recent albums from name NWOBHM bands who seem to have forgotten what made them great back in the day, there isn't a bad song here. Every one of them does its job and does it well and there's almost fifty minutes here to enjoy. The old songs (and they are old: Blizzard was originally recorded on the band's 1980 demo and Finding My Way dates back at least as far as the demo they recorded in 1988) feel pretty consistent with the new material.

Thinking, however, from the perspective that it's the worst, there's nothing here that you haven't heard before, even if it wasn't on an album by Badge. Outside of nostalgia, this is still decent stuff but it isn't going to feel particularly relevant to an audience that doesn't even know what NWOBHM was. To those who only know it because Metallica cover it a lot, this is going to seem tame and uninspired.

In other words, your response to this and your likelihood to buy it is going to revolve around what you think when you hear that a band who were founded in 1980 have just released only their second full length album and it sounds like they recorded it four decades ago. That's it. Nothing else I can say is going to change your mind.

I could try, of course. I could say that the guitars on See Me Gone are neat and Supernova gets a bit proggy with keyboards and narration. I could point out that Valkyrie is built on a Status Quo-esque riff and Rock Chicks is as dated as its title suggests but is just as catchy. Really, though, the track you should check out it you haven't made up your mind already is Cry in the Night. Maybe it's on YouTube.

Cry in the Night is the entire album in miniature, from its uninspired title on down. It's built on top of a good riff and simple but effective drumming. It has a decent guitar solo in the middle. It has rough but effective vocals singing straightforward lyrics. And it's done by the four minute mark so we can move on to the next song, happy but not blown away.

I would certainly go to see this band live if they played anywhere near me. I liked every song here, even if I didn't really love any of them, and they seem like they'd put on a reliable show as solid support for a more stellar band from the era like, say, Diamond Head or the Tygers of Pan Tang, both of whom put out fantastic material last year. But hey, I'm also old. Drop a point off this rating if you aren't old too.

Tuesday 21 April 2020

Me and That Man - New Man, New Songs, Same Shit, Vol. I (2020)

Country: Poland
Style: Folk Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 Mar 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | YouTube

Here's something of a curiosity but there are plenty of reasons why it's an appropriate one to review here. For one, this is the second album by a side project of Adam Darski, best known as Nergal, the main man in Polish extreme metal band Behemoth. It's released on Napalm Records. Guests include members of Mastodon, Emperor, Trivium, Slipknot, Volbeat and two different Shinings, the Norwegian and the Swedish. And, assuming that a restrictions lift, they are booked for a whole slew of European rock and metal festivals, including Wacken Open Air.

Given all that, it would seem to be a gimme to review here, except that it's not metal or even rock. It's actually dark roots music: a blend of country, blues, gospel and folk, with melancholy gothic flavours infused throughout. The overall tone is alt country, even when the songs aren't murder ballads, but that's a versatile genre and the sound ends up running from Nick Cave to the Mavericks. It's fascinating to hear these musicians taken on this style.

Listening to the second track, Coming Home, I could have sworn blind that I was hearing Nick Cave himself but the singer is actually Sivert Høyem, who's best known as the frontman for an Norwegian alt rock band called Madrugada. He's an aural mirror of Cave and the lyrics he sings fit too, such as, "She came on like a cyclone kiss; she brought both suffering and bliss." This is a real highlight here, but it's not the only one.

For instance, it's followed by Burning Churches and By the River, two wildly different takes on Americana but two very memorable pieces. The former has a singalong gospel chorus that would become a standard if only gospel singers would sing about burning churches. The latter is an spiritual explosion for Ihsahn, who gets emotionally intense with his voice and then his guitar, as the song evolves into a guitar solo.

These songs are notable for who performs on them in more than one way. It's weird in good ways to hear trendy metal singers like Matt Heafy of Trivium approach a dark country lament, with lines like "Soon you will be mine or you'll be dead" but it's even more fascinating to explore the sheer variety in styles that Nergal trawled in here.

For instance, the lead on Burning Churches is by Mat McNerney, who usually sings post-punk with Grave Pleasures; the delightfully menacing delivery on Man of the Cross is from Jérôme Reuter, a former oi singer who tends to play in the neofolk genre with his band Rome; and the final track, which at heart is a suicide note in confessional form, is delivered by Kvarforth, a black/doom metal performer known for the Swedish band called Shining. Ironically, the opener, Run with the Devil, is sung by Jørgen Munkeby of the Norwegian band of the same name, a hard rock outfit. He even adds saxophone for good measure.

I like this variety and it propagates throughout the album. Surrender is an agreeably lively gospel stomp. Męstwo, as its title suggests, is in Polish, which is another level of weird for an American roots song. Deep Down South is female led, both through the banjo of Sasha Boole and by the vocals that she and Johanna Sadonis provide. Boole also wrote a couple of late songs, as the album finally moves towards rock. How Come? is still alt country but Rob Caggiano and Brent Hinds, guitarists for Volbeat and Mastodon respectively, strut their stuff in solos. And, even though the final track begins with the rich cello of Weronika Kulpa, it ramps up into black metal intensity.

I have no idea how this will play to the rock and metal audience that Nergal seems to be pitching it to, but I liked it. Then again, it's the second such album, after 2017's Songs of Love and Death, so it sounds like he's already found an audience. As a fan of rock, metal and roots music, I'm now totally on board for whatever Me and That Man does in the future.

Kolossus - The Line of the Border (2020)

Country: Italy
Style: Black Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 19 Mar 2020
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | YouTube

The kind folks at Satanath Records in Russia sent me a virtual stack of new releases, which I'll happily dip into over the next few weeks. I've already reviewed one, a Cuban black metal album from Skjult, and it ended up on my Highly Recommended List with an 8/10. Let's see if that was a fluke or if there's a whole lot of other quality underground extreme metal on their schedule.

This one from Italy is pretty good though it's no Skjult. Kolossus is a one man band from Genoa, that one man going by Helliminator, and his particular brand of black metal is supposed to come with a Viking metal flavour but I'm getting a gothic sound out of it. When he's at full tilt, which is the vast majority of the time, the sound is rather like the Sisters of Mercy at about quadruple speed.

And that's an interesting sound. The drums are fast but surprisingly varied. The guitars are an abrasive sonic wall. The bass comes out to play in slower sections but it's just part of that same sonic wall in the faster ones. The vocals are deep in the mix, so deep that they're not far off just being part of the same increasingly layered wall. What's left to keep a sense of melody is another guitar over the top throwing notes out surprisingly slowly, as if the player isn't even part of the same recording session (though he follows the time), which is even more odd for a one man band.

I like that sound but I need more on an album that runs three quarters of an hour. The quieter or slower sections are important to keep a variety and add a contrast to the release. They work very well in this regard, because they aren't the usual quieter or slower sections on black metal records. This one features a lot of ambience in the form of whispers, hints at choral backdrop and what might be spoken word poetry, sometimes accompanied by vinyl pops.

The more I listen to this, the more I feel the density of that sound and the more I find myself moving into it. This is far from a one listen album. The uninitiated are going to find this impenetrable, but black metal aficionados who listen a few times will feel it dragging them inexorably into its sound, almost like a quicksand bog. As long as we don't struggle, we can enjoy the majesty of it. If we struggle, though, we'll become yet another victim, like the girl who keeps whispering at us in French, I think, not Italian.

Maybe my quicksand metaphor is a bad one. Sometimes, especially on Journey, it feels more like a tornado, where it throws us up instead of dragging us down and, as we're whirled around in a maelstrom of noise, we keep catching glimpses of interesting things that have been snatched up along with us. It feels like pieces of the song come into focus before being whirled away once more to be replaced by others. In this context, the guitar solo is somewhat ghostly.

I liked this and, looking at my favourites, I see that I prefer my Kolossus at length. Fog and Sin are two of the three songs on offer that exceed seven minutes and they're two of my three top picks here. Journey, on the hand, is a mere five and a half, plenty more than the three interludes that run for a minute and change but much shorter than the longer songs.

Helliminator founded Kolossus in 2014 and this is his debut release at full length, following a split with Manon, another one man black metal band from Genoa, a couple of years ago. Of the two Kolussus tracks proper on that, one shows up here too, so I presume Norge is the oldest song on offer. It's also the most tortured, with Helliminator's vocals more present and more overt. I guess he's moving more into black metal soundscapes, though without actually slowing down and turning into atmospheric black metal.

If that's the direction he's taking, I'm really interested in hearing what's coming next. Hopefully the reuse of Norge doesn't mean that Helliminator is an extra-slow songwriter and Satanath can put out another album sometime in the next couple of years.

Monday 20 April 2020

Metal Church - From the Vault (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy/Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 10 Apr 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter |Wikipedia

Metal Church's 2018 album Damned if You Do was my first music review here at Apocalypse Later because it was my favourite album of the prior month. I've been waiting for a new album and, for a moment, thought this was it. It sort of is, because there's plenty of new material here, but it's categorised as a compilation for good reason too. In its way, it's a full length equivalent to the recent Candlemass EP but with a bit more versatility.

So let's break it down. The first four tracks are new recordings, but one is of an old song, Conductor, originally released on the Hanging in the Balance album from 1993. The next five are songs that didn't make it onto the Damned if You Do album, for one reason or another. Then there are three covers, not expected ones either. Finally, for the regular edition, there are two tracks recorded live in Japan. Other editions might include a pair of remixes from the XI album and a couple of songs that only made the deluxe edition of that one.

My first impressions of the opening four songs weren't of the music at all, because there's so much sibilance that I had to tweak my equaliser to render it all listenable. I went back to re-listen and enjoyed myself, because the songs are strong, especially the first and last. On the face of it, Dead on the Vine is the runaway highlight of these new songs but Above the Madness is seriously growing on me. The redux of Conductor is worthy too, spat out like it's an Overkill song. For No Reason is decent too, if not of the same standard as the others.

And that leads us nicely in to the Damned if You Do session rejects, because they're all decent, if not of the same standard of the others that made the album. Again, the first one, Mind Thief, appears to be the best, though the instrumentals are interesting. Insta Mental finds a nice groove, while 432hz is so wild a departure from the typical Metal Church track that I wonder if it was the groundwork for a song or just an intro that got rather out of hand. While all five are worth listening to, it's clear that the songs proper were left off Damned if You Do because other songs were more worthy and it's fair to say that the quality bar was set very high on that on album.

The most interesting songs here for me turned out to be the covers. I would have never guessed that Nazareth were an influence on Metal Church, but Mike Howe has a fantastic heavy take on the rasp of Dan McCafferty on their cover of Please Don't Judas Me, from Nazareth's 1975 album Hair of the Dog. Older still are the 1970 Sugarloaf single, Green Eyed Lady, which feels a natural choice for Steve Unger's bass, and Black Betty, which dates back at least as far as Lead Belly in 1939. This is more a take on the famous Ram Jam version from 1977, albeit notably de-glammed.

The live songs seem out of place, though they're of serious quality. They're older and more patient songs: Agent Green, originally on the 1991 album The Human Factor, and a nine minute epic, Anthem to the Estranged, from Blessing in Disguise in 1989. The crowd noise is mostly kept to the bookends, with a little during quiet moments, so these feel more like studio recordings than we might expect. My lesson here is to go back to Blessing in Disguise, which I wasn't as fond of back in 1989, after the killer prior album, The Dark. It might play differently to me nowadays.

All in all, this is an interesting set of songs. The overall feel isn't too cohesive, which kind of makes sense, but the songs themselves are worth the price of admission. My highlights are two new tracks, two covers and a live number, so they're fairly distributed. It's not up to the standards set last time out on Damned if You Do but I found it more interesting. It's certainly not your usual compilation.

Young Lust - Alright (2020)

Country: Mexico
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 10 Apr 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

Given that they released Alright as a single a couple of years ago, it's odd to see Young Lust have it lead off such a short album in 2020. I presume the last two years carry some history for the band but I have no idea what that might be. Whatever the reasons, this album features only seven tracks and so runs three minutes shorter than Reign in Blood, my go to yardstick for short albums.

Alright forgives some of that by being such a lively single. It, like Young Lust generally, is hard rock with a hint of sleaze, and it strongly reminds of early Girlschool, just with different accents on the vocals. The band are from Monterrey in Mexico, a couple of hours from the Texas border, although they sing in English. Perhaps not coincidentally, they would also be an all female band, if not for the presence of Peter Reyes on lead guitar.

He's good and his and Mayra Benavides's guitars are a good reason why songs like Alright and Tennessee are so bouncy. The jaunty beats of Alo Gzz are an important factor too and it's telling that the less jaunty she gets, the less interesting the song becomes. Prayer in Vain really drags, for instance, but the very moment her cymbals and Caro Lara's bass start in on Tennessee, we find ourselves already perked right back up again.

The focal point for this band, though, is Mavi Azul, whose name hints at an influence from the Runaways too, which makes sense given the way the chorus on Alright sounds, though this is generally rooted in early eighties NWOBHM far more than seventies glam rock. They also feel more like a band, whatever gender its members are, than a product manufactured with sex appeal. Azul's vocals are more nasal than those of Kim McAuliffe, or Cherie Currie for that matter, but they sound good anyway, especially on those more up tempo songs.

And that's the big lesson here. When Young Lust try to be a commercial hard rock band livening up a small club after the previous band let the audience down, they're more than up to the task. I'd certainly be down the front for adrenaline shots like Alright and Tennessee and I'd hang around for some of the other lively songs too, like Until I Find My Revenge and Let Me See You too. Rebel Heart really gets going halfway through and blisters like nothing else here. An album full of songs like these would be a lot of fun.

However, when Young Lust ditch the party vibe and try to be serious, like on Prayer in Vain, the mood vanishes completely. They just aren't that sort of band and I hope they're not seeing this song as the heart of the album. As a line at the beginning of Rebel Heart goes, "Sometimes you have to go crazy to remember who you really are." That's good advice for this band, because a song like Prayer in Vain turns them into that previous band on the club bill who let the audience down and needed Young Lust to liven things back up.

And here's where I'd talk about the second half of the album, but there just isn't one. I hope the band are treating this as a generous mini-album and a full length studio effort will come later. After all, with the exception of the one down track, the worst thing about this is the fact that it wraps up so quickly. In a way, that's a compliment as much a criticism. I hope I get to hear more from this band soon.

Friday 17 April 2020

Glass Hammer - Dreaming City (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 17 Apr 2020
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Prog Archives | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I've seen a lot of prog bands lately come out with their best work in years and Glass Hammer are no exception. Where they become an exception is in how they've grown up to this point. The golden years of most of these bands was a long time ago, probably when they started out, and they lapsed in quality over time before rediscovering what they did so well and doing it better. I may only have heard the first couple of Glass Hammer albums, from the first half of the nineties, but I don't remember being impressed at all. It seems that they found themselves in the new millennium and keep on getting better, which means that I have a lot of catching up to do.

I'd love to hear how they came to this sound because it feels to me like an acculumation of the history of prog poured out in the form of new songs. It isn't difficult to find influences because they're everywhere here, but they have a habit of morphing into different ones, so that songs aren't just like this band or that; they're what would happen if these three bands decided to jam in the studio on new material, bringing their own styles with them.

For instance, The Dreaming City, which kicks off the album, maintains almost a Hawkwind vibe with a heavy bass and an effect layered onto the vocals. It feels a bit more modern though, with verses that attempt a rap but are more like spoken word poetry. The overt seventies organ in the second half isn't Hawkwind at all but Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

Cold Star retains the ELP feel but adds Deep Purple riffs; some Jethro Tull in the use of flute and pastoral mindset; and the vocal playfulness of Yes. There's even some Led Zeppelin swagger towards the close. This Lonely World sounds like solo Peter Gabriel and there's Gabriel era Genesis in songs like The Watchman on the Walls, which merges acoustic Genesis with electric Rush.

The Lurker Beneath brings in another key influence, namely Tangerine Dream, in what's only the first of a number of instrumentals to create a pulsing soundscape mostly or entirely with synthesisers. At the Threshold of Dreams is another, but it adds samples and so trawls in some Pink Floyd. Talking of Pink Floyd samples, there's a great deal of Alan Parsons here too. Pagarna may be the first song to feel highly reminiscent of the Alan Parsons Project but it's certainly not the last.

In other words, you'll hear a lot of different bands here but what the band does so well is to merge their sounds into something that's both new and far more consistent than the last few paragraphs might suggest. That may well be the greatest success of this album, because it doesn't feel like we tuned in to a classic prog radio station in an alternate universe or threw on a comp of unheard songs from seventies prog bands we otherwise know. It feels like an actual album, written and performed consistently, wherever the style play happens to go.

The core of Glass Hammer is in Fred Schendel and Steve Babb, who founded the band back in 1992 and haven't left it during the nearly three decades since. Both of them sing and play keyboards, but Schendel also provides guitars to the mix and Babb the bass. Aaron Raulston has provided drums since 2013 but everyone else involved comes in as a session musician and there tend to be a lot of those, eight of them on this album alone.

That's perhaps highlighted best by October Ballad, eight songs in, which has a female lead vocal from Susie Bogdanowicz, a regular collaborator. Prior to this song, the vocal was always male, even if we completely failed to notice that it was provided by three different people. A fourth shows up on The Key and we still can't really tell the difference. Maybe one of the reasons that I heard so much Alan Parsons Project here is because those different singers are all archetypal commercial prog rock vocalists, just like the six on Eye in the Sky. A female lead shakes that up completely.

I'd be hard pressed to choose my favourite piece, because of the variety on offer, but I loved the Tangerine Dream style pieces, like At the Threshold of Dreams and The Tower, as well as the longer ones like The Dreaming City, Cold Star and The Watchman on the Walls. The more commercial songs left me a little drier but they're still good. The oddest song here is surely The Key, which adds a little sleaze into its riffs. It's really not an Aerosmith song any more than it's a Boston song, but it's like those bands transformed into an Alan Parsons Project song.

My last note is that this is a generous slab of music. By the time we get to The Watchman on the Walls, we've already heard fifty minutes of it, but this one adds eleven and a half more, almost as a substantial reprise, summing up all the different influences in play thus far and adding that 2112-era Rush for good measure. If you're into all these influences, this may well be your favourite album of the year, whether you care about the loose Lovecraftian concept in play or not.

Khemmis - Doomed Heavy Metal (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Doom Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 17 Apr 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

I haven't heard Khemmis before, but this mini album was recommended to me so I was happy to give it a shot. I have to thank Chris for the recommendation, because I liked this a lot, even though it opens with a cover that, frankly, doesn't need to be covered. It's Dio's Rainbow in the Dark and I was wary of how a doom metal band from Denver were going to sound on something as iconic as that. Fortunately, they treat it with all due respect and it sounds very good indeed, surprisingly so.

And, while Khemmis are certainly a doom metal band from Denver, the flavour of doom they play has as strong a side of heavy metal to it as the title of this release suggests. There's almost as much Iron Maiden in these songs as there is Black Sabbath, though I'd guess that their strongest influences are American rather than British. Whatever, this is relatively up tempo doom, at points even perky doom, located at whatever the other end of the spectrum is from funeral doom.

The doomiest this gets is a cover of a gospel standard, A Conversation with Death, written by a Free Will Baptist preacher and Appalachian folk musician called Lloyd Chandler back in 1916, though most of us will know it primarily from the a capella Ralph Stanley version from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack under the name of O, Death. Again, this is such an iconic piece of music that a radical departure like this is a risky one, but Khemmis pull it off well. It's a real highlight.

I should emphasise that those are the only two covers out of the six tracks on offer. In between them is an original and then there are three live songs after them, one each from the band's three studio albums and it suggests the band has undergone quite the evolution over that time. The new song is Empty Throne, a patient song with a clean and confident vocal over solid riffing. If this points where they're going, they're on a good road.

The live set goes backward in time, beginning with Bloodletting, originally on the 2018 album Desolation. It's my favourite of the live trio, not being wildly dissimilar to Empty Throne but with a proggier edge and a real gallop five minutes in that ought to have got the pit really churning. Three Gates, from 2016's Hunted, is more death/doom just from the music, not least a bass that prowls around under the guitars, but certainly in the way that it adds a harsh voice to duet with the clean one. It ditches the death for quite a while too.

My least favourite song is the last one, The Bereaved, but I enjoyed that as well. It's from the band's debut album, Absolution, in 2015, and it's a more epic track with a proggy instrumental section leading in from Three Gates. I assume it was on this one originally. The Bereaved reminded me of a doomier Budgie and that's hardly a bad thing. I just think that this song outstayed its welcome before the nine minute mark that it reaches.

I presume that this EP is aimed at keeping fans happy in between full album releases. It ought to do that but it's not just a fan release like, say, the Candlemass EP a month ago. It's a much better comparison to the Smoulder EP from March in that it continues things on from full length releases while it also serves as an impressive introduction to the band for anyone not already in the know. This is my introduction and I couldn't be happier.

Thursday 16 April 2020

Ossian - Csak a jót (2020)

Country: Hungary
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 17 Apr 2020
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website

One of the greatest joys I've had out of these music reviews is discovering a bunch of bands who have been around for decades, given that I'd never even heard of them before. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they've tended to be bands who only sing in their native language and whose success has been confined to an area in or around their native country, though that's not a given as there's a Lucifer's Friend or a Dice for every Ningen-Isu or Metalium.

Ossian are another of these, given that they're entirely new to me but they were formed in Hungary as far back as 1986 after vocalist Endre Paksi left a band called Pokolgép and put a new one of his own together. This is the 25th studio album for Ossian and, as Pokolgép have gone on to release fourteen of their own, there's clearly quite the scene in Budapest and it's been there for a long while.

While the opening title track is reasonably heavy and heavy moments continue throughout the album, this is more hard rock than heavy metal. The songs are all built out of traditional elements: steady and reliable beats, simple but effective riffs and plenty of vocal hooks. Ossian's speciality seems to be a surprising amount of singalong choruses. They ought to get a lot of response and involvement from the audience in the larger venues they play.

Some might accuse them of being unimaginative because there's clearly a sort of template in play here. The dozen tracks here all progress in similar ways and last for about the same amount of time. Almost all of them run for three minutes with a couple of verses, a few choruses and maybe a couple of guitar solos. I can't deny that there's a sameness to the structure of these songs and that, with a consistent quality too, makes it tough to call any of them out as highlights. If you like one of these songs, you'll like them all.

However, I wasn't ever bored listening to this album, even a few times in a row. Those hooks are all impressive ones that make me want to sing along but for my complete lack of knowledge of the Hungarian language. Ossian vary the formula here and there and throw in little touches like the acoustic guitar outro to Akiröl álmodtál that keep things varied enough.

And I'd also call out some highlights. Köszöntés is a peach of a song, with a top notch riff and an excellent chorus. This is the most obvious single of many, appropriate enough too as it translates to Greeting. That arrives nine tracks in and I like the tenth too, at the point where most albums would be tailing off. That one's Ami nyomot hagy, or Which Leaves a Mark. Perhaps the most telling to me point is the fact that I even enjoy the ballads; Követem vakon (I Follow Blindly) keeps on growing on me.

So, maybe it's an album with a dozen similar tracks that blur together even after a few listens. Maybe it's an album with a dozen worthy tracks, each of which could be viably released as a single. In reality, it's kinda both and that's not necessarily a bad thing. I just wish I'd heard any of those prior 24 albums to be able to put this one into perspective, but for now I'll just say that I enjoyed it a lot.