Friday 22 May 2020

FM - Synchronized (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Melodic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 22 May 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

I remember FM from the mid eighties, but not incredibly well. I liked songs like That Girl, which opened their debut album and which was covered by no less a name than Iron Maiden. However, it was 1986 and I was caught up in a golden year, arguably the golden year for thrash metal. In the wake of a gamechanger like Master of Puppets and two blinks away from Reign in Blood, suddenly FM seemed like something my sister the a-ha fan would listen to and I drifted away into the pit.

Of course, they did what they did incredibly well and, with the exception of one decade long hiatus at the turn of the millennium, they've kept on doing it ever since. This looks like their twelfth studio album and their seventh with a consistent line-up. If you haven't heard FM before, they play on the soft side of the melodic rock spectrum, firmly rooted in the radio-friendly melodies of American AOR but with a decent side of soul. This is a band who have covered Marvin Gaye's I Heard It Through the Grapevine and done it well enough to count.

For the former, check out the title track that opens up the album. It's so quintessentially AOR that, if they played it now on your local classic rock station, you'd argue with your wife all the way through it about who it is because it sounds so damn familiar but you can't quite place who did it. Did the Eagles cover it? It was great, whoever it was! And then the DJ will tell you it's a new FM song and you'll think, "Who?" but hopefully go out and buy this album because it's worthy.

For the latter, go for Best of Times, which amps up the soul side. It sounds absolutely like a modern white rock band covering a seventies soul standard, but I'd be surprised if it isn't another new song. To be fair, they nail the soul sound well, unlike so many wannabe stars nowadays. Pray starts out like full blown soul, like an evangelical church service in Alabama. Scream Amen for me, Long Beach! It goes for a bluesy vibe after that but rocks hard too. It's a good mix.

This is another generous album, running only a few seconds short of an hour, and there are twelve songs on offer to choose from. What's more, all of them are good ones, to some degree or other. That means plenty of clean cut AOR tunes, many of them feeling like they jumped through a portal in time from 1982. Just check out Walk Through the Fire, with its keyboards, clap samples and heartfelt vocals. It's a rock song but it would play to a pop audience, shorn as it is the guitar that decorates many of its peers, at least until a couple of brief solos late in the song.

This is always rock music, but it walks on the boundaries of a lot of other genres. Most obviously, there's the boundary with soul that's overt on Best of Times, Pray and Angels Cried. There's the boundary with pop that's there on Walk Through the Fire and Ghosts of You and I. There's even the boundary with modern country music, which it never quite crosses but hints that it'll do so often. After all, the Eagles are a country music template now.

My biggest surprise, though, is how quintessentially American this feels. I remember FM as being a British version of American AOR, doing all the same things but with enough of a British accent that they were always a British band rather than American one. Now, they've lost their British accents, as is obvious on songs like Angels Cried. American classic rock radio seems to be a thoroughly American affair but half the bands are actually British and the audience never rumbled that they're not locals. FM sound exactly like a British band who Americans think is American.

I liked this, but then it's really difficult music not to like. Maybe if I'd heard Synchronized or Broken all summer long on heavy rotation, I'd want to write to the station and have them switch in Bryan Adams or the Cutting Crew or someone instead. Right now, after a few listens through, this just sounds like decent AOR of the most radio-friendly type and, on occasion, like with Synchronized, excellent AOR of the most radio-friendly type. You'd do a lot worse in 2020 than turning your dial to FM.

Die Kreatur - Panoptikum (2020)

Country: Germany
Style: NDH
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 22 May 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website

While I've enjoyed Rammstein since the late nineties, I wasn't aware of the wider world of NDH until very recently. Last year, I discovered Oomph!, who technically created that genre back in 1994 with their second album, Sperm, so I was only a quarter of a century late to the party. Die Kreatur are new, so I'm in at the beginning this time, but the two key players, Dero Goi and Chris Harms, have been around the scene for a very long time.

Dero Goi is also the lead vocalist and drummer for Oomph! and, as with every other member of that band, he's been there since their founding in 1989. His musical partner here is Chris Harms, the lead vocalist and cellist in gothic metal band Lord of the Lost, a band that he founded in 2007 and has fronted every since. Both these bands are currently signed to Napalm Records, so it can't be too surprising to find this side project there too.

Now, I'm only one album into Oomph!'s back catalogue and I don't believe I'd heard any Lord of the Lost until I went wandering around YouTube today, so I can't remotely be sure here, but it seems to me that this album starts out a lot like Oomph! and gradually moves towards a Lord of the Lost sound. Maybe, when I come back to this review in ten years with better knowledge, I might have to Gibbs slap my younger self, but that's what I'm hearing now.

Early tracks, for instance, are often punchy and crushing, clearly NDM songs but with gothic piano and dark electronica, all driven by fast drum machine beats and eerie keyboard work. The best is surely Die Kreatur, appropriately for a song named for its band. I love the quiet parts as much as the heavy ones and there's a lot of variety within them that I like. Unzertrennlich is another stormer that erupts out of darkwave keyboards and beats, but it's a notch down on the crunchy metal guitar. Zwei 100% does much the same, which makes three out of the first five.

However, as the album runs on, the songs become a little less in your face, while retaining a similar mindset. Some, such as Mensch/Maschine, are highly regimented with slower, fixed tempos and fewer quirky moments. Others, like Was Mir am Wichtigsten Ist, which maybe tellingly translates to What is Most Important to Me, has quirky rhythms but still features much less in the way of crunchy metal. Untergang and Benutz Mich kind of fit here too, as they're mostly songs playing in this middle ground but which also amp up at points to pump metal.

In and amongst are songs that do something different and these grow towards the end of the album. Some lean more towards straight darkwave, eschewing a heavy approach for a keyboard-driven pop mentality with a strong beat. The first is early, Durch die Nacht, but Gott Verdammt and Goldener Reiter come at the end to wrap up the album. The other odd pair are Schlafes Braut and Glück Auf!, which are almost folk ditties played darkwave. The former is a deliciously dark waltz with glorious bass notes and deep vocals, while the latter is more laid back and friendly.

However it's structured, it's a generous album, running almost an hour and, with a pair of bonus pop-oriented remixes, over an hour. I'm not quite sure if this mixture of sounds works as a coherent long term project, but it does sound good and the highlights are excellent. For now, I'm thinking that Die Kreatur are at once a combination of its leaders' main bands and a hesitant departure from them. Let's see if a second album takes a wilder leap.

Thursday 21 May 2020

Firewind - Firewind (2020)

Country: Greece
Style: Power Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 15 May 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I've heard Firewind songs off and on for years on online radio shows such as the Wyrd Ways Rock Show and I've always liked their music. However, this may be the first time I've sat down and listened to an entire album. I still dig it. This is clean but strong, in your face power metal, led of course by the guitar virtuosity of Gus G. but with a solid lead vocal from new fish Herbie Langhans, the fifth singer Firewind have had over nine albums.

Welcome to the Empire is a great way to kick things off because it's a great example of what Firewind do so well. The riffs are heavy and urgent and the solos are intricate. The vocals are powerful and battle their way up through the instruments to stake their claim for dominance in the hook-laden chorus. The rhythm section is relentless but feels as effortless at this pace as the rest of the band. That's Petros Christo on bass, who's been in Firewind for seventeen years now, and Jo Nunez on drums, who's now in Lords of Black too.

The good news for me is that it isn't a one off. Only hearing great songs by a particular band on a radio show doesn't mean that their albums live up to that promise, but Devour may be even more fun than Welcome to the Empire, as the core riff is a memorable one and Gus G. is on fire, pun not intended, in the middle of the song. Sure, he can shred, but he tends to not go over the top the way that some (many? most?) shredders do. While this is his band, he knows that it really is a band rather than just a bunch of musicians who sit behind his fretwork flair.

Eleven songs with the impact of those two would be seriously impressive, so I can't be too surprised when Rising Fire and Break Away soften up a little, though only a little. They're still solid, hard hitting songs, but with less unyielding edges and more soft moments where the band can ease the intensity for a moment and Langhans can relax a little more.

I really do like how well Langhans's voice fits the music here. Sure, he's a talented and experienced singer but there are a lot of those out there. It's how the texture of his voice fits with that of Gus G.'s guitars that renders him such a perfect choice for Firewind. It's as if the vocals and riffs are partners in a joint assault and the rhythm section line up perfectly behind them both. It all feels right and natural like they've been playing together for years.

Eventually, Firewind soften up a lot, but they wait until the very middle of the album to throw out a power ballad. It's Longing to Know You and it's not bad at all. I'm not a big power ballad fan and I resist orchestral keyboard swells out of instinct. It's telling that, while this is my least favourite song on the album by a long way, it doesn't annoy me. Gus G. does well here and Langhans shows his range well too.

Having enjoyed everything else, I was concerned about the second half of the album, but it may be even better than the first. All My Life is a real gem, yet another slab of effortlessly classy melodic power metal. Space Cowboy is superb too, with a slightly more hard rock approach behind it. And Kill the Pain wraps things up with the most impact since the two openers. It kicks in like Motörhead, progresses into Accept riffage and ends up as quintessential Firewind.

As I mentioned, I've liked Firewind for a long time but I've never sat down and listened to a full album. I'm now very happy that I have. This is great stuff indeed and I'll happily spring for an 8/10 even with that power ballad.

Kanaan - Double Sun (2020)

Country: Norway
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 Apr 2020
Sites: Facebook | Prog Archives

Kanaan are a relatively new band, formed in Norway in 2018, but they're not unafraid to put out material. They issued their first album, Windborne, that year, and have followed up with another two this year, Odense Sessions and Double Sun. I haven't heard the former yet but I've enjoyed this one, which is rather like Pink Floyd had known what stoner rock was in 1975 and kept a closer focus on their spacier explorations of the past.

A combination of A Saucerful of Secrets and Wish You Were Here is a decent place to start and that's Worlds Together. It has the calm pace of Wish You Were Here but a psychedelic layer of je ne sais quoi that takes the result somewhere else entirely. The band are more than able to recreate that sparse beauty but they clearly decided that they wanted to play music that isn't as clean or as nice. The guitar here starts soft and acoustic and ends up like a building site tool.

Not clean or nice is where we really go once the couple of minutes of Worlds Together wrap and we move into Mountain. Ingvald André's drums keep a simple beat as Eskild Myrvoll bass explores an echo chamber like it's on the prowl for a fight and Ask Vatn Strøm's guitar solos around oblivion. After five or six minutes of sheer emphasis, it goes all introspective like it was aiming for the stratosphere and finally burst through into space, where we float in contemplation and under the influence of acid.

The sound is heavier here and could easily be described as stoner rock, but I'd stay with psychedelic rock instead. These are instrumental trips rather than songs and they're less interested in big fuzzy riffs and more in where they can go during these jams. Mountain is appropriately named because it's a behemoth of a jam but it's a jam nonetheless. And, as we move into a more grounded Oresund, we realise that they're playing with jazz here as much as rock. You can always tell from the drums at the start of a track.

The jazz background of these musicians, who apparently met at the Norwegian Academy of Music, is most obvious early in Oresund but it's there throughout the album if we pay attention, even when André finds some ruthless rhythms. The way Oresund builds is just as complex as the first half of Mountain was simple. Worlds Apart finds that complexity from moment one, a jazz eruption of a piece of music that bursts into activity like a new star, only to burn itself out in three minutes, like a celestial herald tasked with announcing the arrival of the title tracks.

There are two of them, almost appropriately given the title. Double Sun I is as calm as Worlds Apart is frantic, at least until the guitar gets heavy in the second half. Double Sun II is another exercise in escalation, throwing a basic idea out there as a riff then continuing to build it for eight minutes until it's far from basic. While it isn't the most ambitious piece of music on this album, I think it's my favourite.

I'd love to be able to explain the sound to you better, but Kanaan do a good job of escaping their influences for the most part. There's certainly a lot of Pink Floyd here, from way back in their Set the Controls era, but there's also a lot of Hawkwind too, not just in the spacey sound effects but also in the sheer drive of Double Sun II, which wouldn't seem out of place on Space Ritual alongside songs like Brainstorm, even if it has no words or bridges. Take those influences and jazz them up and you'll have an idea of where the band are playing in the stratosphere.

I liked this a lot and it got better on repeat listens. Now I need to track down Odense Sessions, which the band released a couple of months earlier in February. It features only four songs, all of them long, and adds the guest guitar of Jonas Munk.

Wednesday 20 May 2020

Dennis DeYoung - 26 East: Volume 1 (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Melodic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 May 2020
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Wikipedia

Dennis DeYoung is a name you may not have heard but I'd be shocked indeed if you haven't heard his voice but wouldn't instantly recognise it if given the chance. Trivia fans will chime in here that he was the lead singer for Styx for almost thirty years and it's his voice that you'll hear on most of their songs, including the most famous ones. What people may not know is that he's released a bunch of solo albums since leaving Styx and this is the first one he's put out in thirteen years.

I'm in two minds about it for reasons I'll get to but, when it works for me, it really works for me, which especially means the first three songs.

The opener, for example, East of Midnight, is easily as slick and catchy as any top ten Styx hit. They had eight of those and it isn't any coincidence that he wrote seven of them. This one is up there with any of them and, if it hasn't been released as a single already, I really couldn't explain why. They don't make commercial AOR any better than this. The only rule it breaks is to be a sliver over five minutes long. That's a radio station no no for a song like this, which ought to wrap up in four at the most.

With All Due Respect is sassy. A quirky intro leads into some real attitude, of the sort that we might not expect from a melodic rocker in his seventies who can't be hurting in the wallet. It's an acerbic and mildly profane look at the state of US politics today without ever being partisan. "With all due respect, you don't deserve no damn respect," he tells American politicians of both political parties and the pundits who prop them up too. It's clever and appropriate and it amused me to realise that the main melody is Unskinny Bop by Poison, as vapid a song as could be compared to this.

Frankly, though, it's A Kingdom Ablaze that grabbed me first and hardest, as it's a gift that keeps on giving. There's a lot to unpack in this song. It's not as immediate or as catchy as East of Midnight and it doesn't grab us by the balls like With All Due Respect, but it's surely the real masterpiece on this album. It takes everything DeYoung has done in the past and brings it neatly up to date without losing any of what worked.

The inevitable catch, as you might be expecting now, is that songs like You My Love and Run for the Roses inherently fade in comparison. Both are good songs, mixing melodic rock with a theatrical mindset that could see them in a Broadway show, but they're simpler and more straightforward and A Kingdom Ablaze is a lot more than that without ever once seeming like it's being too ambitious.

And, frankly, the rest of the album follows suit. There isn't a bad song on this album, but the only song outside the first three that isn't as tethered to the Broadway stage as to a rock album is Damn That Dream. This is another punchy potential single, even before the fingersnaps show up. DeYoung gives an eighties AOR vocal but his band are playing seventies glam rock and that mix works really well.

But, as appropriate as DeYoung would be as a Broadway show songwriter, that just isn't my thing. When The Promise of This Land starts like a showtune, I have to acknowledge how well he performs to piano accompaniment with swells from the orchestra, but it's not my thing. My thing is when the band arrives well over a minute in and gets prog, just to confuse us, with keyboards and guitars and the works.

So this is good stuff and it's often incredibly good stuff, but only half of it is really what I want to hear. But that's me and it might not be you. I'm giving this a 7/10 because the four songs I dig are fantastic and I realise the quality of the rest but, if you love Styx and you dig showtunes too, you need to add at least another point to that, if not two.

Mekong Delta - Tales of a Future Past (2020)

Country: Germany
Style: Progressive Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 May 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Ah, Mekong Delta! This is the band who, odd as it may seem, refused to tell the press or the public who they were when they started out, presumably with the goal of allowing their pioneering mix of prog elements into an energetic but hardly subtle thrash metal sound in the eighties to take the focus. When they had four albums out and prog metal wasn't unusual any more, they gave up the pretense and it turned out that the main man was Ralf Hubert, who ran a record label called Aaarrg. He's still the main man today.

Technically, Mekong Delta have never split up, though they've gone a decade without any new music before and this is their first new album in six years. While Hubert has been the only founder member since 1991 and Martin LeMar is the band's fifth lead vocalist, the line-up seems to have found a semblance of stability. Everyone current has been there since at least 2008 except for new second guitarist Peter Lake, who rejoined in 2018 for a second stint.

Now, while I remember Mekong Delta from back in the day, I may not actually have heard them since then. I remember them as avant garde thrashers, a mix of up tempo thrash, classical nods and experimental weirdness, meaning that they were intricate and progressive but not as accessible as, say, Hexenhaus or Sieges Even. They're still doing that but they're less extreme nowadays, if more varied. The fast and heavy does happen on a song like Mindeater but then there's A Farewell to Eternity, a song that isn't even really metal at all, more prog rock rooted in folk.

It took me a while to get back into Mekong Delta. For a few listens, I found myself struggling with the opener, Mental Entropy, but I did get there. Much of it is its complex rhythms, which keep drummer Alex Landenburg on the hop and everyone else with him. However, the vocals are pretty accessible, LeMar doing his best Bruce Dickinson impression at points. Really, it's prog metal that just happens to be pretty complex. It isn't wildly different any more, the way it was back in the eighties when nobody was doing this.

The more interesting material is still to come and it manifests itself first in A Colony of Liar Men, which occupies a vibrant place somewhere in between Voivod and Queensrÿche. It's what else is going on in this one that makes it shine, though: there's a recurring choral part that's quintessential Yes and the seamless way the band roll in and back out of it is joyous.

These are the first two songs of six, each of which is paired and separated from the others by an instrumental Landscape. There are four of these, which also provide the bookends, and they make me wonder if there's a concept that I'm not seeing. Certainly part of my problem with the beginning of the album is that the first Landscape is an inconsequential waste of a minute, but the others are fascinating.

Waste Land is the second and it's a substantial symphonic piece that almost reaches the seven minute mark. The third is Inharent, just as long but more tentative and atmospheric in its build. Both of these are enjoyable and they break up the vocal songs well, even though it isn't the vocals that makes us need interludes. That leaves Pleasant Ground to wrap up the album and that's the wildest, most overtly classical of the four. I could swear that I know a lot of this but I'm sure that it's not actually another Mussorgsky cover, just the product of people who listen to and channel a lot of classical music.

I wondered how relevant Mekong Delta might seem in 2020, decades after metal caught up to what they invented out of whole cloth so long ago. What I found is that they're absolutely relevant, even if they don't own the cutting edge any more. There are little touches here that elevate them from the bands who grew up learning Dream Theater songs, as their musical knowledge extends not just to Rush and Iron Maiden but to Voivod and Celtic Frost too. To me, that is what elevates songs like Mindeater and The Hollow Men over what most prog metal bands are putting out nowadays.

I know you technically haven't been away, Mekong Delta, but I have. Welcome back!

Tuesday 19 May 2020

Canedy - Warrior (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 8 May 2020
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website

Paul Shortino isn't the only American rock legend to be putting out an album under his surname in 2020. Here's one from Carl Canedy, drummer and vocalist for the traditional heavy metal band, the Rods, who put out their debut back in 1980. Their rise, fall and rise is ably detailed within the title track's lyrics: "I fought the Heavy Metal Wars until the Grunge King came and shut my heavy metal doors." But later: "From as far away as Europe, we have heard the cry. It seems their love for what we did then, it never really died."

And, while this is American heavy metal, tried and true, it may well play to the European audience better. I actually like it more than The Rods album I reviewed mid-last year, perhaps partly because it doesn't feel as cheesy and on the occasions that it does, it feels heartfelt, like the title track: "I see my brothers coming, axes gleaming, tuned and true. Once more, I hear the drum beat, and I find my way to you."

It also feels like a real band release, unlike the Shortino album. And that somehow holds true even though Canedy remains the drummer in the Rods, while the other musicians here used to be a band of their own, Totally Lost Cause, presumably with a different drummer. What's more, Canedy's new lead vocalist is Mike Santarsiero, who is also now the lead vocalist with the Rods. It's a tortuous web but the result sounds great here. I hope the recent changes are good ones for the Rods too.

I haven't heard Totally Lost Cause, but this is heavier than it sounds like they ever were and not just because of Charles Russello's crunchy guitar sound and Canedy's thunderous and ever-reliable drums. I particularly enjoyed the evil bass of Tony Garuba on the opener, Do It Now. This is a good mix, which isn't surprising from Canedy, but a staccato drum approach to parts of the song gives Garuba some great moments. It's far from the fastest track I've ever heard Canedy play but it works well as a statement of intent.

Some of the remaining songs add a more commercial edge than I remember from the Rods, Not Even Love and Attia springing quickly to mind, but they're not light because of it. They're still heavy, just with an extra coat of polish, manifested through thoughtful riffing, imaginative drumming and a versatile vocal performance from Santarsiero. He simply has more range than the three members of the Rods, who divvied up vocal duties on last year's album while also playing their own instruments. That said, Garuba does a fantastic vocal job on Hellride, even if it's a more limited, almost rap-based approach than Santarsiero's wider voice.

Most importantly, it feels like the band really cared about this album, one of the gimmes that has to be in place to make a good one. I didn't feel that last year with the Rods's Brotherhood of Metal, which did contain some good material but felt like a retread of old ground rather than a burning desire to create something new. This feels much more like what that could have been and it gets better on repeat listens.

While little bits of this stand out immediately, like the fantastic intro to Hellride, each song elevates itself on a second listen. Lies in particular I glossed over a little on a first time through but couldn't fail to notice it on a second. It's a peach of a track, more complex than many here but never overly so. And, like Lies, these songs don't have high price of entry but do have a fantastic return on investment. After one listen, this was obviously good stuff but, after two, I was hooked.

As Santarsiero sings on Warrior, "But the wise men all say, 'Everything that was gone will be coming around, one more time, again at last!'" I'm glad to see Canedy back on top form, playing traditional heavy music that once more has an audience, and I'm looking forward not only to his next solo album but the new Rods record too. It looks like it'll be called Shockwave and it's on the way.

Shortino - Make a Wish (2020)

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

My Ron Keel Band review raised a few eyebrows as Keel is one of those names that so many know but haven't heard in a long time. So here's another: Paul Shortino. He also seemed to be everywhere in the eighties, not just as the singer of Rough Cutt, but as Kevin Dubrow's replacement in Quiet Riot and as one of the singers on the Hear 'n Aid single. Since I last heard the name, I see that he had a stint in the reformed King Kobra, singing on two albums, and a slew of solo or collaborative albums. This is his first solo effort in just over a decade, preceded by the Shortino album Chasing My Dream in 2009.

While it's only Shortino in the band name this time too, this seems to be a collaboration with Japanese guitarist Nozomu Wakai, who's best known for his power metal band Destinia. If I'm reading it correctly, he's the only actual member of Destinia, so he solicits the help of guests like Ronnie Romero of Rainbow, Marco Mendoza of Thin Lizzy and Tommy Aldridge of pretty much every rock and metal band ever. Shortino and Wakai took the same approach here, as everyone but them here is a guest.

The guests here are also major names. For instance, the opening cover of the old Stephen Sondheim standard, Send in the Clowns, features Mendoza on bass and Pantera's Vinnie Paul on drums, the song recorded shortly before he died in 2018. It's a tricky song because of the metre and it's hardly a hard rock song to begin with but this works really well, not least through Shortino's memorable vocal fry. This is a great way to remind us of what he can do.

Shout and Pride is also a great way to escalate from that into a blistering heavy rock song. This is a hard rock album but it dabbles in heavy metal at points and this is one of the most overt, featuring some serious shred from Wakai. This time, the bass comes courtesy of Uriah Duffy, ex of Whitesnake, and Ryuichi Nishida of Loudness provides the lively drums. This is powerful stuff, very eighties in style but with a neat 21st century production job.

Nishida does a fantastic job here, though he's not the only drummer. I love Feeling Lucky CU in LV too, for many of the same reasons as Shout and Pride, and that's another of his. The bass player there is Peter Baltes of Accept and they make for such a killer rhythm section that I found myself following them instead of Shortino's vocals. It doesn't hurt that Baltes is given many opportunities to shine and the mix helps him to no small degree too.

Another solid rhythm section here is the combination of Phil Soussan on bass and Jay Schellen on drums, which shows up on three songs; the former used to play for Ozzy and the latter plays for Yes live. They're a good pairing too, even if my least favourite song here is surely one of theirs; it's the power ballad of a title track and, while it's not sickly sweet, it's still plenty sugary and it feels out of place amongst heavy rock numbers and almost power metal songs.

One wild factor is how the guests affect the style of the songs and I wonder how much of it was deliberate. Schellen's involvement doesn't make any song here sound remotely like Yes but Baltes carries an Accept vibe with him to Feeling Lucky CU in LV and it isn't just Rowan Robertson's presence on Eyes of the Wizard that makes it sound like a Dio song. Even the title advertises that; were you to look at the track listing and guess at which was the Dio-esque song, you'd pick that one without hesitation. When Doug Aldrich, who used to be in Whitesnake, shows up to play guitar on Beat of My Heart, even Shortino himself starts to sound like David Coverdale.

On one hand, this makes some of these songs interesting and diverse but, on the other, it threatens to change this from a coherent rock album to a game in which we shuffle musicians around in our minds and wonder how they might sound in different combinations. How would Baltes have worked with Schellen? How would Rise Up and Be Strong and Beat of My Heart have changed if they'd swapped guitarists, so Carlos Cavazo took on the Whitesnake song but Aldrich the more straightforward heavy rock number?

And, to my mind, that distracts from the music. This tells me that Shortino still sounds great and he has a lot of talented friends, but he isn't quite sure what he wants to do musically right now. I like this album and it's at least predominantly new music, unlike the Ron Keel Band album, but it seems to me that Shortino ought to figure out who he wants in his band along with Wakai and sit down with them to write a new album. For all the great touches here from varied musicians, I'd wish for Baltes and Nishida.

Monday 18 May 2020

In Extremo - Kompass zur Sonne (2020)

Country: Germany
Style: Medieval/Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 May 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | VK | Wikipedia | YouTube

The last "medieval metal" band I reviewed, Cantus Levitas, are from Germany, and so's this band, because it's a big genre there. In Extremo weren't the first such band, as they were preceded by both Corvus Corax and Subway to Sally, but they've been around for a quarter of a century now and I'm a little shocked that I haven't noticed them until now.

While they started out with acoustic albums, this is high energy folk metal kind of like your favourite Renaissance Faire troupe covered by Rammstein. I remember the Mediæval Bæbes doing a great version of Salva Nos but it didn't sound remotely like the one here. I have no idea how many of these songs are originals and how many centuries old compositions, but it's telling that, if it's a wild combination of both, they fit very well together here.

Maybe I need to dive deeper into the languages used, because while it might seem that the songs are all in German, they likely span a slew of languages. According to Wikipedia, In Extremo have sung in at least sixteen others and not just the obvious ones like English, Latin and French, but others that I haven't even heard of like Ladino and Occitan, not to mention Old High and Middle High German. Salva Nos certainly isn't in German, being in Latin.

Similarly, they also play a wild range of exotic instruments in addition to those you might expect from a metal band. I'm not unversed in folk music so I'm well aware of citterns, hurdy-gurdys and shawms. However, lead vocalist Michael Rhein, usually known as the Last Unicorn, also plays darbuka, davul and binioù, amongst others, and I had to explore Wikipedia to find out what they are. The former two are drums and the latter is a bagpipe.

The early songs here are powerful folk metal songs with strong melodies and they're drive by Florian Speckardt's decidely not mediaeval drumkit and the crunchy metal guitars of Rhein and Sebastian Lange, but with bagpipes alive behind them. There are currently seven members of In Extremo, four at least  playing Germany bagpipes and those of other countries. The first two songs are fantastic, Troja and the title track, but Lügenpack and Gogiya upstage them both.

Both up the energy levels even more, especially the latter. There's a lot of gypsy punk in here and I wasn't too shocked to find that Napalm labelmates Russkaja, who guest on Gogiya, are a Viennese band who describe what they do as "Russian turbo polka metal". Salva Nos is energetic too, if not to those degrees, but it's also the only song I knew before listening to this album, so it stood out for me alongside them.

Not everything is this up tempo, because it would be a wild album indeed if it was, and the songs that slow down and allow us to catch our breaths don't catch my heart in the same way. Biersegen comes really close but high energy just isn't everything that In Extremo do and there's a lot more to be found on this album.

Schenk nochmal ein gets neatly plaintive and Saigon und Bagdad gets quirky. Narrenschiff has a catchy backing chant of a vocal and Wer kann segeln ohne Wind features a severe but still beautiful harp, as well as a deep and dark guest vocal from Amon Amarth's Johan Hegg. Reiht euch ein ihr Lumpen has a Celtic groove to it, even though it's in German, and there's throat singing to kick off Biersegen.

In short, there's a lot here to enjoy and there's a lot behind it too, given that this is their twelfth studio album, four with this line-up. Discovery is a wonderful thing.

Karfagen - Birds of Passage (2020)

Country: Ukraine
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 3 Jan 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website | Prog Archives | YouTube

Even a mere five months in, this year has already been a stellar one for the genre of prog rock and I've only just discovered Karfagen, a Ukrainian band, who have put out a new album and a box set in 2020 already. Founded in 1997 by Antony Kalugin, they ddn't get round to actually releasing an album until 2006 because he was at school when he put the band together. This counts as their eleventh studio album and its Prog Archives rating ranks second only to its predecessor, last year's Echoes from Within Dragon Island.

Antony Kalugin may actually be the only primary member in the band nowadays, and he wears a lot of hats. He plays the keyboards that dominate the album, provides vocals and percussion, composed and arranged the whole thing, mixed it and co-produced it to boot. Others appear to come in when requested and I believe the guests here are the same as on the prior album, providing vocals and the usual instrumentation, plus flute, bassoon and violin.

I found the result a sheer delight, because it's as instrumentally varied as we hope any prog album will be but much lighter than most of what I've been hearing lately. The mix lets the keyboards lead with the drums and bass back a level or two, clear but not as overt as most producers would make them in 2020. The feel is as bright and weirdly pastoral as the fantastic cover art might suggest, with its fairytale buildings and anthropomorphic birds. It's a trip to a quiet and different fantasy world, through what Kalugin calls a "symphonic art rock suite".

There are five songs on offer here, but the vast majority of the album finds itself taken up by the first two, halves of the larger title track that runs almost forty-four minutes. After that, there are three further short pieces to wrap things up, which last less than fifteen minutes between them. These betray a set of influences a lot more overtly than Birds of Passage, which is more of a journey through a few of them to somewhere new and enticing.

Given my mention of the word "pastoral", you can be sure that there's a lot of Genesis here but I'd suggest that there's more Camel and quite a bit from Jethro Tull. Certainly the vocals on Birds of Passage (Part 1) remind of a lighter Ian Anderson in the way they're delivered. I don't know if it's Tim Sobolev or Kalugin himself, but the soft female voice is Olho Rostovska's. I felt very comfortable in their presence, even though both sing in English. The lyrics appear to be poetry, from Longfellow and Blake.

It's very easy to get caught up in the music here and totally lose track of time. The title track doesn't feel like it runs on for three quarters of an hour and the album as a whole doesn't feel like it takes up an hour. For my part, I was too busy being carried along through this fairyland countryside enjoying the delights on offer through the windows. I felt calm and patient as the carriage ran on, knowing that I was safe and we'd arrive wherever we might be supposed to at some point. The album is me enjoying the ride.

Kalugin isn't credited for guitar, so it's someone else providing the intro to Birds of Passage (Part 2). It's a flowing solo guitar, part Steve Hackett and part classical guitarist, and it's as playful and delightful as anything else here. Eventually, the band join in and find a groove. This second part is easily less experimental than the first, but it still has its moments of more ambitious composition. This time it's flavoured Camel and King Crimson, with maybe some instrumental Boston added in for extra taste.

With so much of the album taken up by the excellent two parts of the title track, it almost seems unnecessary to mention the three short pieces that it eventually hands over to. Spring (Birds Delight) is neoprog, its intricate vocal delivery and clean but powerful guitarwork worthy of comparison to an early Marillion. Sunrise is drenched in world music so comes off more like Dead Can Dance. That leaves Birds Short Introduction to wrap things up in a smooth way. Maybe it's introducing us to the next album.

I don't want to overdo the word "delightful" but a lot of the music crossing my path is dark and even the prog rock I explore is much darker than this. I know what I'm putting on next time the world wants to tread on me and I need a pickup. It will be hard to come into this with a bad mood but not leave in a good one.

Friday 15 May 2020

Paradise Lost - Obsidian (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Gothic Doom/Death Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 15 May 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I've had a lot of favourite bands in my time, from Adam and the Ants to Iron Maiden, Nuclear Assault to Celtic Frost, but Paradise Lost have surely been my favourite band for longer than anyone else. It can't have hurt that I was a seventeen year old metalhead in Halifax in 1988 when they formed, but part of it is surely that I like bands to evolve over time and few have evolved more than Paradise Lost, and in such influential ways too.

Gothic utterly blew my mind when it came out and, quite frankly, it's still doing that today. Draconian Times is utterly fantastic and I've never sung myself so raw as the secret Paradise Lost gig in Bradford as The Painless a heartbeat before that came out. One Second could well be the most ambitious and influential a change in style as I've ever heard. Those are three of my favourite albums of all time and they're all by one band, but they're wildly different musically.

I did lose track a little in the new millennium, but I've been fascinated to see a resurgent Paradise Lost bringing all their sounds together into one, a heady mix of doom/death, gothic metal and new wave that's unmistakably them. This isn't consistently as heavy as Medusa three years ago, not by any leap of the imagination, though it does find those levels at points. However, it finds a more delightfully varied mix.

Oddly, the opener Darker Thoughts didn't grab me, even with such a versatile dynamic play, but Fall from Grace and Ghosts did and they help to define the album to come. The former is old school doom/death done to perfection, while the latter is fundamentally gothic, an Andrew Eldritch style vocal laid over that recognisable Gregor Mackintosh guitar. Two songs later, Forsaken may be the quintessential new Paradise Lost, mixing everything into a coherent song and making it work.

As a Paradise Lost fan going back to the demo days, it's great to hear those different eras manifesting themselves within the same songs. Forsaken makes that easy and so do Serenity and Hope Dies Young, all these songs catchy but heavy, crushing but melodic, synthpop but metal. What's perhaps most telling is that we can imagine these as well as metal songs synthed up or pop songs heavied up. Whichever way they evolved, they work and they work consistently within the framework of the album.

Perhaps the best example is the way Ravenghast builds. It starts out synths all the way, raindrop keyboards against swirling mist, but power chords set up a dark side and a fretboard slide segues into a achingly heavy slow riff. It's one of the heaviest songs here and one of the slowest, but not once is it forgetful of those synthpop years. Even as vocalist Nick Holmes lets out a death roar for emphasis, Mackintosh's keyboards keep delicately tinkling around him.

I like this new Paradise Lost. This doesn't blow my mind the way that Gothic did, or even Draconian Times for that matter, but it's a strong album with a host of highlights, pun not intended. Even lesser songs, like The Devil Embraced and Ending Days, are growing on me. And, who knows, while this band's helped to create at least two genres already, this combination of styles might just make it three. That wouldn't be a bad thing.

Ron Keel Band - South x South Dakota (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Southern Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 24 Apr 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

Most people know the name of Ron Keel from the hard rock band Keel, who sold a couple of million albums during the eighties. Some might remember a little further back when his band Steeler featured a new in the US guitarist called Yngwie Malmsteen. He's actually explored a lot more territory than that. If an album carries the Ron Keel Band moniker, it's likely to be southern rock, and if the band are IronHorse, they're going to be country. He even sang in a Brooks & Dunn tribute band in Las Vegas.

This isn't just a southern rock album, it's a southern rock covers album and not of particularly surprising songs either, though fortunately not the most obvious. You're not going to hear an attempt at Freebird here, not Whipping Post and not Green Grass and High Tides, though frankly the best versions of those songs would be longer than this entire album. You will, however, hear a selection of songs another level down in fame, including five from number 16 to number 22 on Swampland's list of the the Top 25 Songs of the Southern Rock Era.

They're not bad versions, played a little closer to Keel's traditional hard rock than any of the original bands got. The first highlight is probably a late Lynyrd Skynyrd song, Red White & Blue, which they wrote after 9/11, so hardly a gimme from their old days. It runs over six minutes, which gives it time for Dave Cothern to play some wild southern guitar. It's a strong cover and Keel's voice fits it well. He does well on Don't Misunderstand Me, the Rossington Collins Band song, with the welcome aid of singer Jasmine Cain.

It has more trouble with songs that we know by heart. For instance, he's not bad on songs like Rockin' into the Night or Flirtin' with Disaster, songs so iconic that I wouldn't have to tell any southern rock fan that the originals were by 38 Special and Molly Hatchet. However, he doesn't bring anything to them that wasn't there already, so they're inherently lesser versions. Songs this iconic have to be completely reinvented the way that, say, Johnny Cash did to be worth the effort. These don't do that.

And that knowledge makes me wonder why he chose some of these songs. So many bands have covered the Allman Brothers Band's Ramblin' Man that a close take like this is pointless. Once COVID-19 is gone, you'll be able to waltz into any bar in the deepsouth on a Friday night and hear a local band playing it just as well. The same goes for Ghost Riders in the Sky, a 1948 song by Stan Jones that's covered by someone else every year, most obviously for Ron Keel by the Outlaws, and Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys, which was originally an Ed Bruce song before Waylon & Willie got hold of it.

And that means that this is a fun album, sung and played well, but an almost entirely disposable one. I'm not remotely going to suggest that you're going to get this quality out of any random cowboy-booted karaoke singer in a dive bar in Jacksonville but the overall effect is pretty much the same. This was clearly fun for Ron Keel but, to us, it's always going to be a set of songs that we've heard for years done almost but not quite like the originals and that's never the best thing to take away from a covers album.

I'm all for Ron Keel becoming the "Metal Cowboy" that he's calling himself nowadays. He does it well and his band are clearly very talented musicians, especially evident on rockers like Flirtin' with Disaster and the Atlanta Rhythm Section's Homesick. However, if he's going to do more than front a tribute band or play all his gigs at Alabama wedding receptions, he needs to write a heck of a lot of new songs and find a way to reinvent the old ones that he's covering.

Thursday 14 May 2020

Tokyo Blade - Dark Revolution (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 15 May 2020
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

I was in bliss to discover a couple of years that Tokyo Blade aren't merely back, but they've been back, everyone in the band has been with them a long time (even if some have taken breaks) and they still sound damn good. I gave their 2018 album, Unbroken, an 8/10 and I think I'm going to have to follow suit with this one, if mostly for a different reason.

While Unbroken was a solid album elevated by a few standout tracks, this one is an completely reliable creature, so consistently good that maybe only the opener, Story of a Nobody, manages to stand out. That's a classic, from its riffs to its hooks and everything in between. It's a real anthem too, a song that feels like it could, under the right circumstances, change a life for the better. Nothing else here matches it, but every song is still worthy and they warm the soul like an old friend we haven't seen in forever.

Like Unbroken, this is so traditional that it feels like it could have been written back in the eighties. The production is modern, amping up the bass end far more than could have been done back then, but songs like The Fastest Gun in Town, Crack in the Glass and The Lights of Soho are so quintessential for that era that my brain segued from them into Friday Rock Show incidental music so Tommy Vance could tell us what they were.

It's rooted, of course, in the NWOBHM sound, with the vocals clean and the guitars heavy but melodic. The band's standard routine is to kick in with a solid riff, then add vocals with the guitars chugging along in support under them. I like the mix, but I'd have preferred it to not be quite so driven by the bass. The guitars and vocals could have been a little higher.

Tokyo Blade flirted with a lot of genres back in the day, not all of them a good call. This is mostly mid paced heavy metal with few attempts to add an extra element into the mix. The only song that feels a little different from the rest is Perfect Enemy, which is a little more recent in style and with a hint of glam in the vocal. It reminded me of Saigon Kick, which is far from a bad thing.

Crack in the Glass marks Tokyo Blade at their fastest, something I remember from their heyday of Night of the Blade, on which four of the five current band members played; the only one missing from that classic album is singer Alan Marsh, though he was in the band before and after it. However, even if it's the fastest song on the album, it also features the most introspective midsection, which is a delight.

What impresses most here is what impressed me most back in the mid eighties, namely the way that Tokyo Blade can be so powerful in delivery but find such reliable hooks. The riff on Story of a Nobody that opens the album is heavy stuff indeed, like a fast oncoming brick wall. Yet there's still melody and Marsh finds a memorable hook for the chorus. The only other band I can think of that can merge power and hooks this well is Metal Church and there are a few points where that comparison does manifest, even if this is very British in outlook.

Outside of Story of a Nobody, which keeps on getting better and better every time through, I'd be hard pressed to pick a favourite as different ones leap out with each listen. The title track was an early favourite of mine, until The Lights of Soho took over. I'm five or six listens in now and The Fastest Gun in Town is really impressing me, as is Voices of the Damned. This is the sort of album where every track might end up my favourite at some point.

Kudos to the band for staying so strong across so many years. Alan Marsh may deliver those solid hooks, but it's the twin guitar assault of Andy Boulton and John Wiggins that really underpins this album. They're focusing more on riffs than solos here, though I enjoyed the latter too. However much great material is behind them, maybe the night of the Blade is still to come.

Trivium - What the Dead Men Say (2020)

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

I find that I want to avoid most trendy modern American "metal" bands, as I don't buy into them being anything of the sort, but Trivium are surely the exception that proves the rule. Sure, they're trendy, modern and American, but I don't have any problem in calling them metal.

Now, there are plenty of metalcore trappings still in their sound, perhaps most overtly on Amongst the Shadows & the Stones, even if it's also surely the fastest song on the album, with a pace that outstrips most of the songs on the last few American thrash albums I've reviewed. However, plenty of the also instrumental passages here made me forget I wasn't listening to an Iron Maiden album and some vocal ones move firmly into Pantera territory. Either way, that's metal.

It helps that Matt Heafy's vocals are clean as often than they're shouty, if not more so. The album's bookends, the title track at the beginning and The Ones We Leave Behind at the end, are probably my favourite songs here, with Heafy singing clean for most of both of them. Even on songs with more shouty vocals, such as Catastrophist, the majority of those vocals are still clean and the shouty parts are used as contrast.

Those bookends do what all metal songs want to do: they gallop and they rock and they soar, with a twin guitar assault bringing in melodies. It shocks me that people complained when Heafy ditched screams for clean vocals, because the latter sound so much better and, what's more, give him a heck of a lot more opportunity to bring nuance to his songs.

Bleed to Me may not gallop as much but it rocks and soars too, while somehow sounding like it would fit well alongside all those trendy modern bands on a trendy modern ClearChannel radio station. The Defiant follows suit, with the most Maiden-esque backing of anything here but with shouty aggression in the vocals. It also builds rather strongly towards its end, most courtesy of new fish Alex Bent, who's been the band's drummer for four years now.

I rather like the mixture that Trivium are playing with here, a traditional metal sound that I've enjoyed for three and a half decades and change mixed with that nu American sound that I usually prefer to avoid. They've managed to find a palatable balance that I can enjoy and, by my third time through, it wasn't just the bookends that I was digging but the songs in the middle that explore that palatable balance.

Both Bleed into Me and Sickness unto You are catchy and commercial songs I'd have no problem seeing as singles (which the former was), but they're never weak. The Defiant is more brutal. Scattering the Ashes even adds a slight gothic tinge to its vocal line. I won't suggest that this is the most varied release of the year but it's a lot more varied than I was expecting it to be.

I should add that the melodeath part of the trivium, along with thrash metal and metalcore, is still here, flavouring most of these songs. The most overt may be Bending the Arc to Fear but it's there throughout the album. However, Trivium has clearly turned into more of a straightforward heavy metal band with some metalcore influences and that's no bad thing. Frankly, the more I hear them evolve in that direction, the more I like them.

Wednesday 13 May 2020

Ryders Creed - Lost Souls (2020)

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

Ryders Creed are a relatively new band but they've made quite the impact in just a few years. This is only their second album but their debut was voted the best of the year by the New Wave of Classic Rock community in 2018 and, only a year later, they won the Young Blood award at Hard Rock Hell. What's surprising to me is how mature this all feels for something from such a new band.

Now, young bands can put out insanely good debuts. I heard Diamond Head and Guns n' Roses in the Ryders Creed sound and both their debuts are legendary, but this doesn't sound like early work from those bands; it sounds like more mature work. Think To the Devil His Due instead of Lightning to the Nations. Think Civil War instead of Paradise City. It's no accident that, while there are three minute songs here, there are three more over six.

I listened to this a lot and let it sit with me and soak into my brain. I'm able to conjure up a lot of bands from whom Ryders Creed have clearly taken influence, but they don't sound like any of them. The Diamond Head, to cite one example, is evident often in the songwriting decisions and the riffing of guitarist Myles Cooper, but Ryders Creed don't sound like Diamond Head any more than any of their other influences. Cooper gets a two minute solo interlude in New Beginnings and it's the most unlike NWOBHM that he gets on the album.

Mentioning Diamond Head and Guns n' Roses may have raised an eighties sound in your brain and that's unfair. There's a lot of the seventies here, again in the songwriting but also in a lot of the quieter moments, where they hint at Barclay James Harvest and Wishbone Ash. There's much from later decades too. While vocalist Ryan Antony doesn't sound much like Eddie Vedder, there is a lot of Pearl Jam in his delivery. There's even a hint at stoner rock, though nowhere near as much as Baleful Creed. The result is a contemporary sound. Had this been released in 1975 or 1985, it would have been very out of place.

It's notable that many of the bands I could cite are metal bands, right down to the Metallica section midway through Memories, but Ryders Creed aren't a metal band at all. They're emphatically a hard rock band, but one confident enough to trawl in metal sounds. While this is more hard rock than Metallica ever got, that part in Memories hints at a song as old as Fade to Black and it feels natural in this material.

If there's an overt flaw, it's in how deep this is. While none of the eleven songs leap out as obvious singles because the band are more interested in a deep development of themes than radio friendly hooks, this still sounds good on a first listen. There are points that are clearly fantastic, as different as the guitar solo on Memories, the funky intro for Chasing Dreams and the epic last minute of Believer, but every one of these songs sounds better on a second listen and a third and so on and so on.

The catch is that I had trouble taking them away with me. I enjoyed them and appreciated what they were doing as I was listening to them. This is almost designed for critics who want to dive into the material and explore beneath its surface. It's a great album for me. Put any of these songs next to those of any currently popular band and they're going to stand out as superior.

It even feels catchy, again while I listen, as there's no lack of melodies, hooks and memorable riffs. However, these songs didn't play in my head after I put the album down. They certainly weren't playing there in the mornings when I woke up. And I still wonder why. Unleashed is a great song, featuring a strong vocal melodic line over a strong riff and it builds wonderfully to a strong chorus. Why is it not stuck in my head?

And that's why I dropped my rating from the expected 8/10 to a still worthy 7/10. The talent here is palpable and I want to hear more. If they can nail the earworm thing, they'll be unstoppable.

...and Oceans - Cosmic World Mother (2020)

Country: Finland
Style: Symphonic Black Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 8 May 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Wikipedia | YouTube

I remember ...and Oceans from the late nineties when I was exploring EMusic during its unlimited downloads period. They were a symphonic metal band at a time when there were a lot of such creatures but, unlike many of them, they continued to evolve their sound, so far that they ended up changing name to Havoc Unit to reflect just how far that sound had shifted into an industrial vein. In fact, ...and Oceans was a rename too, because they were previously a death metal band called Festerday. They returned to Festerday in 2013 and now are back to being ...and Oceans, at least for this album, their first under that name in eighteen years.

It's very mature material, highlighting that this return to an early phase in their musical development comes with newfound knowledge. I don't remember those earlier albums incredibly well, but I know that they didn't strike me either as quickly or as fully as this one did. Even on a first listen, this is clearly another strong step forward even during a stylistic look back.

A good part of the joy is in the mix, which is exactly right for this sound. It's a fast and heavy album for the most part, the drums galloping and the vocals blistering, but with neither ever too high in the mix. There's menace in the guitars, from the very beginning, but even at their most menacing, a constant attention to melody is evident. Everything is built in layers and a subtle synth layer that first becomes obvious on Vigilance and Atrophy, then builds with the album, emphasises those melodies.

Those layers add up to a wall of sound, as is so often the case in the black metal genre, and the result is sometimes a glorious cacophony, so much going on at the same time that, even though we delight in being bludgeoned by the melodies, we have to take a step back to fully appreciate what the band are doing. It's not as musically dense as, say, Fleshgod Apocalypse, but there are songs here where I found myself following half a dozen different things at once playing together in strange harmony. It's mature on Five of Swords, but most obvious in the beginning of The Flickering Lights, as it rolls into motion like an orchestra tuning up and evolving into a piece of actual music.

In Abhorrence upon Meadows is easily the most atypical track here, being an almost entirely solo piano piece, but there are hints of synth swell and an artificial aging is applied, along with a few sound effects. It's the most overt nod to steampunk, which shows up in quieter moments here and there. I shouldn't be too surprised. Even though this consistently exceeds the speed levels at which Victorians thought women might explode, there's also polite elegance, a quiet confidence and a pride in creation, all routine steampunk attributes. I wasn't expecting that on a Finnish black metal record.

What I was expecting was a lot more overt industrial and electronica touches but they're few and far between, showing up nicely on the title track and in the abrasion that kicks off Helminthiasis. Just because the band know how to use those sounds, it doesn't follow that they're all applicable here, but I thought this would be notably more of a merger of symphonic black metal with industrial than it is.

I'll be listening to this a lot more and doubt I'll figure out which tracks will abide as my favourites, but depths of the title track surely ensure it will be among them. Five of Swords, As the After Becomes the Before and the slightly calmer The Flickering Lights may follow, I believe, but there's so much here that I can imagine songs rising and falling in my esteem with the majesty of icebergs shearing off a host continent to be all the more overtly noticed.

I have no idea what this band will do next, whether they'll follow this up with more ...and Oceans material or whether they'll choose instead to revert back to Havoc Unit for a second time or even Festerday for a third. Whatever they end up doing, it's going to be interesting because they've never failed to move forward musically, whatever genre they happen to drift into.

Tuesday 12 May 2020

Vader - Solitude in Madness (2020)

Country: Poland
Style: Death/Thrash Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 1 May 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

There's an urgency that pervades this album by Poland's finest purveyors of death/thrash, their twelfth of original material. It gets down to business immediately and stays there throughout without too many points for us to sit back and breathe. Even though it includes eleven songs, it's short, clocking in at just under half an hour, which means that those tracks aren't exactly long either.

The longest is the closer, Bones, which almost reaches the four minute mark. Seven of the eleven wrap up under three and a couple don't even reach two. I had to compare that to the last true Vader studio album, 2016's The Empire, a lean and mean album with three of ten songs over four minutes, or the one before that, 2014's Tibi et Igni, with half of its tracks lasting over four minutes, one of them over five and even one over six. Vader keep on getting leaner and meaner, however lean and mean they were last time.

The sound here is just right for me. It's thrash metal at heart, but with a consistently applied layer of death metal that deepens the impact. It's not particularly evil, though lead vocalist Peter does aim for that a little as he rolls from Dancing in the Slaughterhouse into Stigma of Divinity, but it is deeper and growlier than thrash tends to get, while not getting as deep or growly as death usually wants. It ought to appeal to fans of both genres without feeling like it's a watered down version of either.

As I've reviewed the latest crop of American thrash albums, from Testament, Warbringer and Havok, I've watched the discussions in Facebook thrash groups about which is the best. All of those are truer thrash than this, but, as an old school thrash fan, I'd take this any day. It wants to kick my ass and it wants to do it in the pit. James Stewart's drums rarely leave full tilt but, when they do, there's good reason, like the jaunty parts of Into Oblivion. I haven't felt this energized by drums this year.

That's not to say that the rest of the band are letting him carry the weight of this album. The riffs are strong and unrelenting and Hal's bass (no, not mine) rumbles along underneath everything with menace, while Peter's voice rolls over the top with ominous power. He's found a balancing point where he can growl with intent but still apply intonation and remain intelligible, a point that's not often found in anything with death in its genre.

As I mentioned when reviewing Vader's EP from last year, Thy Messenger, they manage to cram far more into these short songs than we expect. Shock and Awe and Into Oblivion don't amount to five minutes between them, but they still feature verses, choruses, guitar solos, the works. Despair is done in under eighty seconds and there's still time in there for a guitar solo. One key result of listening to this on repeat is that time seems to slow down as we try to adjust and catch everything that's going on.

I couldn't find a poor track here, though I do have favourites. Incineration of the Gods, four songs in, stretches out a little and chugs just as well as it blisters. Sanctification Denied does the same thing, with an even better midsection. While they're slower songs on this album, they're still fast and generate thoughts of Possessed covering Kreator.

Emptiness is a shorter song but it spends the first 20% of its running time with a pristine guitar solo. Final Declaration is shorter still and blisters magnificently. Dancing in the Slaughterhouse is a glorious invitation to the pit, a sort of thrash/ metal take on Anthrax. Stigma of Divinity doesn't let up for a moment and those drums get thunderous, as they do to such effect in the midsection of Bones.

I enjoyed Thy Messenger a lot last year but it was an extra-skimpy release, its four original songs filling less than ten minutes. Only Emptiness and Despair made it onto the full album but at least there's enough here to get our teeth into. And with so many highlights and zero downsides, this is a must.

Danzig - Danzig Sings Elvis (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Pop/Rockabilly
Rating: 5/10
Release Date: 24 Apr 2020
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The opening song on this album asks "Is It So Strange" and, for anyone who's been paying attention over the last few decades, it really isn't so strange that Glenn Danzig, the controversial lead vocalist for the Misfits, Samhain and Danzig, would release an all Elvis cover album. What's surprising is how traditionally he handles it. This really is an Elvis cover album rather than a Satanic Elvis cover album, however much reverb Danzig layers on.

Five years ago, Danzig released Skeletons, his take on David Bowie's Pinups covers album and, even though that focused almost entirely on songs from the sixties and seventies, there was also one Elvis number, Let Yourself Go. I'd bet that he's been aching to do more ever since, if not long before, and the result isn't bad at all, more than the novelty record it looks like, if not something we're likely to pull back out anywhere near as regularly as Legacy of Brutality or Danzig 4.

What's impressive right out of the door is that few of these selections are of expected songs. Whether you're an Elvis fan or not, I'm sure you'll know a whole slew of his hit singles, from Heartbreak Hotel to Suspicious Minds via Love Me Tender, Hound Dog and Jailhouse Rock, among so many others that have become infused into modern pop culture. None of those are covered here. The only two songs that I recognised in the line-up are Fever and Always on My Mind, both songs already famously covered by others.

Instead, Danzig takes on a dozen much more obscure songs, most of them from the fifties and none of which I've either heard or heard of before. Lonely Blue Blue, for instance, was made famous not by Elvis but by Conway Twitty, though the King did record it first. It was called Danny then and would have been included in the King Creole movie if it hadn't been cut. It didn't see the light of day until the re-release of the soundtrack in 1997.

Some of them are probably obscure because they deserve to be. One Night and First in Line are routine crooners that I forgot as soon as they were over. There are a lot of crooners here, where the band does almost nothing and it all lives or dies on Danzig's vocal performance. I didn't mind Love Me, from the second Elvis album in 1956, though this parody of country music had been previously recorded as an R&B song by Willy & Ruth. Most of these songs left me dry though, all the way to the last few, which let the album peter out.

Others sound like they're ready for rediscovery. Baby Let's Play House is a rockabilly stomper that was originally released in 1955 as the B side of a song called I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone. It's five songs in but the first song to really try to kick it musically. Like everything else here, it feels soaked in reverb and it's the most evil number here. I dug the quirky sound of Pocket Full of Rainbows, taken from the G.I. Blues movie.

Fever is a highlight, as you might expect. Like Pocket Full of Rainbows, it unfolds through voice and gimmick, here fingersnaps. The band is so subdued that it could be recording in the next studio over with the doors open, even if it sounds neatly menacing, especially because of the bass. I wasn't quite as sold on Always on My Mind, even though it probably marks the closest that Danzig gets to Elvis. It's a more traditional song but still downtuned with a lot of reverb, though it does feature the only guitar solo on the album.

I wonder how well this will sell. If you work back through Danzig's career, an Elvis fetish is pretty obvious throughout, even on faster Misfits songs, but I'm not sure how much of his regular audience is going to dig this. I'd have thought they'd have been more interested if more songs rocked out like Baby Let's Play House, but there's not much here that has energy. And if an Elvis fan picks this up without having any notion who Danzig is, I'm unsure as to whether they'd even make it through it.

Monday 11 May 2020

Witchcraft - Black Metal (2020)

Country: Sweden
Style: Folk
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 1 May 2020
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The award for the most misleading album title of the year, if not the whole decade, surely goes to Witchcraft. The same title has proved troublesome for Venom and the genre didn't even exist when they released their album of this name. Magnus Pelander, founder of Witchcraft, ought to know better, because this is as far away from black metal as it is from their traditional sounds of psychedelic doom. I have no idea why it has this title.

So what is it? Well, it's an entirely acoustic album for a start, one that's restricted to voice and guitar (and a very sparse piano on Sad Dog), meaning that it's also apparently a solo effort from Pelander, even though it bears the Witchcraft name. There's no doom, and indeed no metal, to be found here at all, though there is some psychedelia on songs like Elegantly Expressed Depression and a plaintive, melancholy tone.

At heart, it's an introspective piece of musical poetry, a folk album that hearkens back to the sixties. I don't mean folk metal, folk rock or even a sort of neofolk that's an ally to pagan metal. I mean old school, sit on a stool in a folk club and peacefully sing out your soul over your acoustic guitar folk music that some engineer just happened to get down on tape for posterity.

The heart of the album is Grow, the song in its middle and the longest one on offer, and it's built off the same rhythmic use of guitar repetition that Leonard Cohen used to such great effect on his first couple of albums. That mindset is here from moment one and it drives the whole thing. Some songs, like Free Country, lean a little closer to Americana, a hint at blues and a lot more at country or what's become known as singer/songwriter music.

The other obvious aspect to mention is that this is very loose. The closer, Take Him Away, is so loose that it's hardly there, with what seem like more gaps between the notes than there are notes. Other songs are loose vocally, like Jolie Holland on Catalpa, the product of a band not a single artist, but still recorded in a living room like a personal gig. This could easily have been recorded somewhere in Pelander's house, in dim light and without anyone else listening, maybe in one go.

I can't say that I don't like this. It's hard not to like something with a tone that's somehow both depressing and soothing, but it isn't ever going to come off well when compared to a singer/songwriter of the stature of Cohen, even early Cohen when he recorded alone. It's poetry but it isn't poetry at that level of art. I certainly appreciated Pelander's music here more than I did his poetry. The best song is surely Elegantly Expressed Depression and, even there, I found myself caught up by the guitar but treating the vocal as texture.

What's more, these songs aren't ever going to get under my skin. They're not going to change how I think or give me something new to think about. I'm not going wake up one morning with a new grasp of one of these songs because my brain figured something out in my sleep. Those are things that I expect from singer/songwriter music, even if only the best achieve it. I couldn't even ascertain an overall purpose, as this is less an album and more just a bunch of songs.

So, while I enjoyed this and you might too, if any of the above caught your fancy. Just don't expect a Witchcraft album or a black metal album, because this is light years away from either of those things.

Alestorm - The Treasure Chest EP (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Folk/Power Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 30 Apr 2020
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Every time Alestorm put out a new record, I wonder if it's going to mark the moment when their particular shtick becomes old. I wondered that when their second album, Black Sails at Midnight, came out in 2009, because, in its way, their debut, Captain Morgan's Revenge, was a novelty record and such things are not known for lasting past their respective sell by dates. Somehow, I'm still wondering it over a decade on, but I'm still enjoying their new songs even if my eyes roll at the same time. They're not scraping the barrel yet.

This EP is a teaser for the new album, Curse of the Crystal Coconut, due out on 29th May and that title does give me pause, as do the two original songs here, both of which had previously been issued as singles. The running time nudges over twenty minutes through the inclusion of three further songs that we know, but show up in live versions from 2019, presumably from the Tilburg show that was released in full on YouTube.

The original material is interesting because it's recognisably Alestorm but isn't afraid to be a little different. Treasure Chest Party Quest is mostly what we expect: a deliberately over the top song that manages to be catchier than most pop songs. "We're only here to have fun," sings the irrepressible Christopher Bowes, "get drunk and make loads of money." However, mention of pop music is appropriate because there are clear pop sensibilities creeping into the chorus of this song and they're even more obvious on Tortuga.

That's not necessarily a bad thing and, while we've got used to metal bands covering pop songs for the sheer hell of it, it would be hilarious if a pop band in the vein of, say, the Spice Girls, recorded a pop cover of Treasure Chest Party Quest. In fact, that could be a gimmick for a bonus disc on the album, in a similar way to how No Grave But the Sea was released in a double disc edition that replaced Bowes with samples of dogs barking.

Tortuga is the more ambitious pop song and, if a parallel universe Alestorm went with that bonus disc of pop covers, this would probably be a highlight, with a boy band singing most of it and a guest rapper showing up when needed for extra texture. It feels like a rap song even during the first verse when Bowes snarls in his usual Scottish brogue, but it becomes more overt when a guest, Captain Yarrface of fellow Scottish pirate metal band Rumahoy, joins in. Yes, this is apparently a movement nowadays.

The live songs are varied. Drink and Fucked with an Anchor are as lively as they ought to be with just as much audience participation. The former is an insanely catchy singalong song that I remember being particularly infectious in a live environment. The latter, which hadn't come out last time I saw the band live, is the same to the nth. It's surely the most ridiculous accordion driven pirate metal singalong ever recorded and I would love to see Alestorm outdo that one. In between is a early classic, Nancy the Tavern Wench, but it feels a little tired here.

At the end of the day, Alestorm remain as much over the top fun as ever and I'm a little more eager to see if the new album follows suit. I will drop a point off the 7/10 I was going to go with, though, because this was released so close to the album, which will feature both new songs, which fans already have from the single releases, and the live material is previously available too. It's a bit of a cheap move but then these are pirates, right?

Friday 8 May 2020

Green Carnation - Leaves of Yesteryear (2020)

Country: Norway
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 8 May 2020
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I could have sworn that I'd heard a Green Carnation album, out of the blue, and liked it, but long enough ago that I can't remember what or when it was. What I know for sure is that I haven't kept up with what the band is doing, because, even if I heard Journey to the End of the Night or Light of Day, Day of Darkness almost two decades ago, I didn't follow the band through their next few releases until their split in 2007. I've heard more from the other bands that current members of Green Carnation have played for, like Tristania and Trail of Tears.

This is their first studio album in the fourteen years since 2006's Acoustic Verses, and it's a joy. It does seem a little odd, given that its five songs include a cover version and a re-recording of a track from their 2000 debut, those two amounting to almost half the running time, but it feels consistent and appropriate. And hey, Green Carnation have never done anything in the traditional way.

For those who haven't encountered them before, Terje Vik Schei founded them back in 1990 before joining black metal legends Emperor as Tchort in time to play bass on In the Nightside Eclipse. He went back to Green Carnation, but also joined Carpathian Forest and Blood Red Throne, the result being that he was active in black metal and death metal bands at the same time he evolved Green Carnation through doom, gothic and prog phases, often all at once, and wrapped up with an entirely acoustic album.

This return for the band includes pretty much everything they've done in the past, all wrapped up into a new coherent sound. The title track opens things up as prog, mostly just on the metal side of the border with rock, though it heavies up later on. There are doomy gothic sections and a highly effective use of keyboards. Kjetil Nordhus's vocals are clean and help to underline an elegance at the heart of this music. It's prog metal that's a lot closer to later Opeth than to Dream Theater.

And so we go. Sentinels has many of the same ideas but explores them with a heavier sound that's rooted a lot more in doom metal, even when it perks up and goes a galloping. There's My Dying Bride here and Candlemass and a whole slew of other hints, even tinges of folk at points. I found myself so caught up in the music that I neglected the lyrics, but snippets leapt out to tell me that I should pay attention to gems like, "This is the source code of God himself."

The other new song is Hounds, a ten minute delight that explores much of the same ground as Sentinels but with a quiet folk-tinged intro and with a shift from doom towards prog. Those sentinels are sentinels of chaos while these hounds are hounds of existence, so you'll notice the abstract territory the lyrics occupy. I don't have any ideaw what "We live among time thieves in a scarlet night" means, but I love how evocative it is. The flow of the song's just as evocative, from the folk to the doom to the emotion of quieter parts late on. "At the end of the world, we'll find a shore."

In between Sentinels and Hounds is the heart of the album, perhaps the root from which everything else here was built. It's that re-recording, the song being My Dark Reflections of Life and Death, which was originally released on Journey to the End of the Night. It ran an excellent eighteen minutes in 2000, but it's trimmed a little to fifteen and a half here, though still an epic. Compared to the original, it's cleaner, smoother and brighter, with a lot less krautrock in the intro and a little less goth in the rest, with no guest female vocal this time out. It's rare to say so, but I think this new take is the better and more epic version.

That leaves the cover, which is of Black Sabbath's Solitude and wraps up the album. It's almost passé to cover Sabbath nowadays, because that's been done so often and for so long, but this is a delicate and darkly beautiful take, mostly told with piano and voice but with a whole slew of subtle adornments in there too, from keyboards and strings and whatever else.

I adored this album. While it didn't capture me to quite the degree that the latest Hexvessel did, it certainly captured me and I could easily have found myself listening to it for a few days. Now I need to seek out the prior five Green Carnation albums, because they're another new favourite band.