Wednesday, 13 May 2020

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

Country: Finland
Style: Symphonic Black Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 8 May 2020

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
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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.

Baleful Creed - The Lowdown (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Stoner/Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 May 2020
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I may have started thinking about filters when Shania Twain released Up! in 2002 in three different versions. Each featured the exact same songs but was done in a different genre, resulting in a pop album, a country album and a world music album. It was like her producer had just applied a genre filter in the studio to change the base into other styles. I thought about filters again here because this sounds precisely like a stoner rock album but really kind of isn't. It's a hard rock album with a stoner rock filter applied.

I haven't heard Baleful Creed before but I have seen that name come up often in New Wave of Classic Rock circles so I was eager to check this third album out. It's really interesting stuff, once we get used to the sound. It looks like they're calling it "doom blues boogie", which is an intriguing take and an oddly fair one. A easier to grasp description would be Kyuss Plays Danzig and for a lot of reasons.

Just check out the opener, Mr. Grim, a title which would work gloriously as a description of Glenn Danzig. For one, it's stubbornly paced, so that it's upbeat without being fast. There's as much value in not playing some of the notes as playing others, as it all contributes to the feel. For another, the verses chug behind the vocals and build to catchy, escalated choruses that are still somehow deliberately subdued. And, for the most obvious, vocalist Fin Finlay has that satanic croon down pat, not just in the control but the phrasing. He just applies that stoner rock filter.

Now, that doesn't mean that Danzig is everything here. Mr. Grim's riffs have a grounding in Black Sabbath, which shouldn't surprise, and the chorus is a little bit Clutch and a little bit Scorpions, which might. The Phoenix, with its highly audible bass, finds moments to channel the Cult, both through the guitars and the vocals. End Game does that even more. There's a psychedelic guitar solo from John Allen in Tramalamapam along with a bass solo from Davy Greer too.

Riled Up, perhaps appropriately given its title, has a bit more urgency to it, again like Clutch and that name keeps cropping up too on this album. In fact that Kyuss Plays Danzig elevator pitch starts to change because of it. Baleful Creed seem to work on a scale that has Clutch at one end and Danzig at the other and move back and forth as they choose. Songs like Riled Up or Confused are more towards the Kyuss Plays Clutch end, while other songs like Mr. Grim and The Phoenix stay more at the Kyuss Plays Danzig end.

I rather like this sound, though it felt odd for a while for what could have been perky rock songs to be weighted down so much by the stoner rock filter. I think the point I really adapted to that additional gravity was on Line of Trouble, which is a ballad. Sure, it's so much heavier than it seems like it ought to be, but it sounds damn good and the ever-present bass of Davy Greer elevates it like it did so many other songs here.

It didn't hurt that perhaps my favourite song on the album comes right after Line of Trouble. That's Southgate of Heaven, another song at the Danzig end of that scale but with the addition of some absolutely sublime keyboards, a layer of heavy organ right out of the seventies, and even a harmonica too, a further contribution by David Jeffers, who otherwise handles the drums here. Both add a whole extra dimension that suddenly the rest of the album seems to be missing.

Yet, going back to start again with Mr. Grim that features neither of those extras, it still sounds great. That's how we know this is a strong album.

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Havok - V (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 May 2020
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It's not a bad time for American thrash, with Testament, Warbringer and now Havok releasing their new albums in the span of less than a month. The genre groups on Facebook are busy arguing about which is better, but they kind of all are in their way. The Testament is the most accomplished, without a real debate being viable there; but the Warbringer arguably reaches the highest peaks and this is surely the most consistently up tempo and energetic, with the most manic solos.

That's not to say that all of these albums have flaws and this one's show up early. Post-Truth Era has the second intro in a week for me to be obviously borrowed from Blackened and then Ritual of the Mind kicks off like Harvester of Sorrow. It seems almost weird that the rest of the album doesn't plan to be ...And Justice for All for a new generation. While it's hard for a thrash band not to show an influence in early Metallica, it's nowhere near as overt as we might imagine from those intros.

Ritual of the Mind is the most obviously Metallica influenced, because it's a slower song than the first three tracks and it cares more about a stalking feel and careful composition than just blistering along with energy. There's a machine gun guitar section late on that reminds of the late section in One as well. Interface with the Infinite is another midpace song, though it has some neat guitarwork to create texture that moves it away from Metallica.

To me, this feels more like early Megadeth musically but with David Sanchez channelling Bobby Blitzer from Overkill vocally. Perhaps this higher scream is partly why I'm not a big fan of the mix. I do like how crystal clean the drums sound and how the bass is so easy to track, especially on tracks like Betrayed by Technology and Panpsychism, but I had to play around quite a bit with the equaliser to calm down the top end.

Of course, this isn't Megadeth and other influences creep in now and again. Cosmetic Surgery has a Slayer feel to it, especially early on before vocals show up and late on when they're done. In between it has a bounce that's far more east coast. There's a more progressive feel to a song like Panpsychism, though it never quite makes it to the level of, say, a Hexenhaus. Merchants of Death kicks like an Overkill song beyond just Sanchez's vocals, though it still reminds of Megadeth, back when they were fast and energetic.

Following that peach of a speed workout is an eight minute epic called Don't Do It, easily the longest track on the album and a song that combines those two approaches into one song. It's technical prog thrash for a long time and even the intro sounds original, but it kicks in hard six minutes in for what is by far the best couple of minutes of the album, ending with a neat outro.

So Havok aim for quite a lot here and they capture a good chunk of what they aim for. It starts fast and ends fast, but plays with some different sounds in between. I think I'm happier with the heads down no nonsense songs, like Phantom Force and Merchants of Death, and the more imaginative ones, such as Panpsychism and Don't Do It, not to forget that guitar texture on Interface with the Infinite.

While those Facebook thrash groups rave about this holy trinity of brand new American thrash albums, I'm just enjoying them. There's some great stuff on each of them, but I'm finding problems with each too. The best thrash album for me this year is still Annihilator and they're a Canadian band. This is a decent and welcome album featuring a few songs that'll surely get those pits moving when gigs open up, and I say the same about Testament and Warbringer, but I seem to be wanting a lot more from my thrash nowadays and I'm wondering where I'll find it next.

Fren - Where Do You Want Ghosts to Reside (2020)

Country: Poland
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 6 Mar 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website | Prog Archives

While I never expected it, prog isn't just alive and well in 2020, it's at a peak. Major prog bands are putting out their best work in years and a lot of new bands are springing up with quality material. Case in point: Fren, from Kraków in Poland, for whom this is a debut. It's brilliant stuff, shockingly mature for a first album, combining krautrock experimentation with some more traditional composition, conjuring up a simple theme and then running with it across multiple instruments and levels of complexity.

Fren's sound is drawn primarily, if not entirely, from the seventies, though had this been released in, say, 1975, it would have been regarded as rather heavy for the era, especially through riffs like the one on Surge. That fits its name really well, as Michał Chalota's goes looking for trouble from the outset and promptly enlisting Andrew Shamanov's bass, which plays a prowling monster from moment one. There's a calmer section midway but it's the eye of the storm because everything surges into dangerous action again before it's done.

Not everything here is heavy. In fact most of it isn't, as it's keyboard led for the most part, the man responsible for most of that being Oskar Cenkier. I couldn't suggest a single influence, but there's a lot of Pink Floyd here, along with jazz prog rockers like Focus or King Crimson. I should emphasise that all these songs are instrumental, so imagine bands like those in a jam session with any vocalists away from the mike.

Add in synths from Van der Graaf Generator or, on occasion, Tangerine Dream, as well as a Jethro Tull flute and you have a heady mix. Some sections on Heavy Matter remind of a long Boston intro before the song moves into David Gilmour solo territory. The first half of Time to Take Stones Away takes the Elton John, from, say, Funeral for a Friend, and combines it with a rhythmic Philip Glass approach, which is an interesting sound indeed.

I've been playing this album to death on repeat and there are no parts that I've ever wanted to skip over. I really can't say whether I prefer Fren in their more emphatic moments, like on Surge or in the urgent parts in others, or in a gentle mode, in piano-led sections like the intro to Pleonasm or by the soft swirling synths on opener Twin Peaks. They travel a lot of musical territory here and it's all good.

Certainly, Pleonasm is my favourite piece here, because it does so much in a mere twelve minutes, all of it apparently effortlessly. It kicks off gently, with a rippling brook of a piano that springs into broader life soon enough, unfolding in the form of a jazzy workout that's utterly delightful. Cenkier is at his very best here and, gradually, after letting him do his thing for a while, the rest of the band join in to shine with their own contributions too.

There's a serious maturity in an approach like that, as well as patience and a strong view of the bigger picture. This doesn't remotely sound like it's a debut album, just as Cenkier doesn't remotely sound like he's just starting out. I have no idea if any of these four musicians have prior histories with other bands in Poland but it sounds like they all did and they each brought a different set of influences to the table.

Part of that maturity also lies in how long these songs are, because they're each as long as they need to be, whether that's the three minutes of Gorąca Linia or the twelve of Pleonasm. Ironically, the word "pleonasm" is an exact opposite to what I'm hearing here; it means linguistic overredundancy, using more words than are necessary in description, like "burning fire". In other words, Pleonasm is definitely not pleonasm and neither is anything else on this stunning debut album.

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Mike Tramp - Second Time Around (2020)

Country: Denmark
Style: Melodic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 May 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

I remember Danish singer Mike Tramp from his time with melodic hard rockers White Lion, but I don't believe I've heard any of his solo albums, which he started to release after disbanding Freak of Nature in the late nineties. I see that this new album isn't exactly a new album, being ten tracks from an earlier thirteen track album, the self-titled release from Mike Tramp & The Rock 'n' Roll Circuz in 2009, recorded afresh with almost the same line-up. Why I'm not entirely sure, but that earlier album may only have seen release in Denmark.

I haven't heard that Rock 'n' Roll Circuz album, so can't speak to why this second crack at it, but Second Time Around certainly sounds good. The mix is excellent, the instruments vibrant and Tramp's voice clearly elevated above them all. And the songs are pretty good too. Some of these, especially the opener, All of My Life, could play on my local classic rock station without seeming remotely out of place.

All of My Life is a first person story song that puts Tramp emphatically in traditional American rock territory. It's a little like Jon Bon Jovi and a little like Bruce Springsteen, but the vocal is more emphatic than either, so I'd call out John Cougar Mellencamp as the most obvious comparison, just with lines that actually rhyme.

The new order of tracks adds in the other common elements early on. The Road has less working man rasp and more alternative rock, so it reminds a little of REM, especially through one familiar melody. Anymore, which title should have been two words back in 2009 and highlights just how much Tramp's time in America has gone to his brain, is a softer song, bringing in an acoustic guitar, a broken relationship and a country vibe.

Come On mixes all of those ingredients together, which recipe ends up being rather like a heavier Bryan Adams song, and that becomes the default sound for the album, with songs varying the formula by adding little touches here and there: a la la la chorus on Lay Down Your Guns, an AC/DC riff on Back to You, a piano on Highway. If you liked Bryan Adams albums like Reckless and Cuts Like a Knife, you'll dig this album too.

The songs that shone out for me are the ones that attempted to do something different, with All of My Life the exception because it's just a damn good melodic rock story song. Between Good and Bad is the first one to not sound American because the bedrock is clearly Thin Lizzy, right down to a notably confident bass and a staccato Jailbreak-style riff. No More Tomorrow is the other one I'd call out, because it's a lot more lively, led by an intricate riff and backed throughout by a cloud of keyboards that set an ambience.

My least favourite song is easily the ballad that closes out the album. It's called When She Cries and, while it isn't much softer than the other tracks on this album, it's the only one that doesn't seem to be fully formed. It's more like a rehearsal that shows promise but needs more work before it would be ready to share outside the band. It feels odd that a song like that would make a released album but even more so when it's over a decade old and this is the second time it's been on a "new album".

It's the only poor song here though, to my thinking, though there were three other songs on The Rock 'n' Roll Circuz that didn't make this redux. All in all, it's good to hear Tramp's voice again, even if it's on older material.

Setoml - Reincarnation (2020)

Country: Ukraine
Style: Melodic Black Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 Apr 2020
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives

Here's another black metal album from Satanath Records, who are putting out a lot of interesting material nowadays, mostly in that genre. This time, the band is Setoml, from Kyiv in the Ukraine, who are just two people: Serge Krivoviaz on vocals and Anton Semenenko, who goes by DeMort and plays all the instruments. The genre is nominally melodic black metal, which seems fair, but Krivoviaz's voice is often as close to a death growl as a black shriek and slower sections are as reminiscent of death/doom as ambient black.

The opening songs, Flames and In the Cold Eyes, set the pace. The drums are fast, as you might expect, though the tempo varies considerably because of double bass fills. The guitars often run as slowly as the drums go fast and have an icy tone to them that helps invoke the frozen wastes of the north, even though Kyiv is as close to the deserts of Iraq as it is to the fjords of Norway. The vocals are an odd mix of styles, as Krivoviaz sings with an expected hoarse shriek but one that's surprisingly deep and growly.

I'm not sure what instruments Semenenko actually plays, beyond the obvious guitar, bass and drums, but it sounds like there's an organ in there too on quite a few tracks. I first heard it on In the Gray Field of Hope but it's particularly strong on Night Dance and Their Wings are Gray Like Spirits. I really like that sound, whether it's keyboard-driven or just a guitar tone. It certainly moves slowly but surely, like the guitars do, providing melody over the wall of sound drums.

While Flames defines the sound that the band follow pretty much throughout, they do add some interesting touches to later songs. The first to grab me in a way that went beyond the core sound was Thousands Shimmering Souls, which stalks gloriously for a while, building slowly with a guitar that sounds as if it shimmers as much as the souls of the title. The drums are inventive at the midpoint too, before the vocals turn into a goblin chorus chattering at the base of the giant trees that the music become.

At over eight minutes, it's the longest song here and maybe it's the longer songs that impress me most. Their Wings are Gray Like Spirits almost reaches eight minutes too and that's in my top three as well, with the organ adding a wonderful extra layer. Best of all, though, is Night Dance, clocking in at just under six minutes. It kicks off with some really unusual rhythms for a black metal album, but quickly settles into a memorable groove. The organ on both those tracks is a delight, adding simple but creepy and very effective melodies over the top of everything else.

While the four or five minute songs are decent too, they feel like they're a level of complexity shy of the longer ones, as if they're missing an element that would elevate them too. That doesn't mean that they're not interesting, as they still have their moments. By the Dark Lake unfolds much slower until it ramps back up to full speed and blisters, and Setoml are more interesting when they slow down than when they shift into high gear.

I didn't catch any of the lyrics, but apparently these songs follow a common theme, as given away by the album title. Each explores the reincarnation of the soul after death, presumably in a different way. The press release talks about the nocturnal butterfly, as some belief systems suggest that departed souls reincarnate as such creatures. It's certainly a neat idea to build an album around but I can't say how successfully it manages that without seeing the lyrics.

This is the first album for Setoml, which was only formed in 2018, but both members play in other bands too. DeMort played guitar in Amily, a doom/death band, and handles everything in Luna, a symphonic funeral doom project. Both have albums out, as does I Miss My Death, a symphonic doom/death outfit with gothic flavour for which Serge Krivoviaz, credited as Sergiy Kryvoyaz, sings and plays guitar. I'm especially interested in the latter but ought to check out the former too.

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Katatonia - City Burials (2020)

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

I haven't heard all of Katatonia's albums by any means, but I've heard ones from each of their very different eras. I liked them as a doom/death band in the early nineties; I liked them as they moved away from the extremes; and I kind of still like them now that they're a prog band who are as much rock as metal. This eleventh album is thoughtful, carefully constructed post-metal that I needed repeat listens to really grasp. Patience can be a virtue. But unlike other bands who have similarly transformed, I kind of miss the early days.

It's pleasant enough stuff even on a first listen, but nothing particularly grabbed me that time. Over a couple more, the songs started to soak into my brain and the melodies took hold. Everything Jonas Renkse does nowadays is melody, but it's mostly subtle stuff, hardly grand vocal hooks. The solos do much the same thing and the backing alternates between quieter parts where the bass is very noticeable to emphatic sections with staccato riffs.

Overall, the sound is very nice, which is frankly meant both as a compliment and a putdown. The vocals are always pleasant, melodious, occasionally even soothing. At their most emphatic, the instruments are never vicious, just a bit louder and more lively than in quieter moments, where they're sometimes mellow and sometimes elegant, at some points both.

For instance, Lacquer begins with a backing of strings punctuated by a sort of riff that resembles water drops. The beat sounds electronic and the band add a layer of distortion at points to make it all feel a touch more gritty. The vocals float on a cloud of melody, especially when the harmonies join in. It's a thoroughly nice song. You could take it home to your grandma.

And, sure, that may be as quiet and restrained as this album gets, but that doesn't mean it's alone. Vanishers follows a similar path but is surely even more laid back, especially with a guest female vocal. Lachesis is extra laid back as well, but it's really just an interlude. That's telling, though: the peaceful interlude sounds similar to a few of the actual songs.

And, even when the songs aren't quiet and restrained, that mindset still has hold. It's there on City Glaciers, a much bouncier and catchier song, mostly because of the rhythm section, led by the drums of Daniel Moilanen. It's in there on Behind the Blood too, which does the same but with a much heavier guitar. Rein is perhaps the heaviest and most emphatic song on the album and it's there as well.

Often these heavier songs are like Tool but without the overtly experimental edge. They're certainly progressive but not wildly experimental. Maybe we're better off going with Soen, as they're also Swedish, and more consistent to my thinking. It's hard to listen to songs like Flicker or Neon Epitaph, with Niklas Sandin's bass building the groove and the guitar working alongside it, without thinking of Tool or Soen.

It's hard not to like this album because it's so inherently likeable. It's a safe space, somewhere we can sit down and relax in the company of something enjoyable but not too challenging. However, even after four runs through and some more cherrypicking of favourite songs, it's not connecting with me on a level deeper than that. Of course, as they say, your mileage may vary. If it engages for you, add at least another point to my rating.

Hexvessel - Kindred (2020)

Country: Finland
Style: Psychedelic Folk Rock
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 17 Apr 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Tumblr | Twitter | YouTube

Here's something utterly sublime! I've been listening to this over and over for a few days now and it's still as fresh now as on my first time through, when I wanted to join in because it felt ritualistic and inviting. I didn't know what they were doing, but it felt like I should be part of it, because it would help to achieve something worthy. What I have no idea, but it feels right, because, even if this is often dark, it's never destructive.

Hexvessel describe what they do as "wyrd folk" and that's as appropriate as anything else I can come up with. The base is clearly in folk, mostly of the traditional English nature, though occasionally this sounds like the Mamas and the Papas on acid. While the band are Finnish, its leader is British, a gentleman called Mathew McNerney who sings and plays guitar. From his lead, they venture politely and confidently into occult rock, alt rock, prog rock, psychedelic rock, even roots rock, all with consistent success.

Every song here resonated with me and almost every song here, at one point during the last few days, was my favourite. I'm not sure that an order has settled into place yet and it may never. It may depend on my particular mood at any particular time. I've already woken up in the morning with different songs playing in my head, so I'll run through them all.

Billion Year Old Being blew me away. It's seven minutes, easily the longest song on the album but it does so much and it does it all effortlessly. It's a song of two halves. The first is rather like a theatrical occult rock band of the early seventies, with chanting, heavy organ and staccato riffs. After it's built to an instrumental crescendo, it transitions to the second half, which is folk, gentle even when the drums kick back in and a darkness hangs over it all.

Demian continues that but with a whole slew of layers and effects applied to render it much darker. It's much harder to be gentle while playing with fuzz and distortion and walls of urgency, but there are moments, even if they're hiding on the other side of a cloud peeking through on occasion.

Fire of the Mind goes back to gentle, with crystal clear picking and a viola that aches like a hurdy gurdy. This one's a vocal track, with McNerney at his most free but plaintive, almost bleeding out emotion. It's a cover of a song by Coil, but it's completely at home here and, like Johnny Cash did so often, they've frankly taken ownership. They may not have written it but it may be their song now.

Bog Bodies is gentle in a completely different way, like occult rock played as smooth jazz. Kimmo Helén, who contributed the viola on Fire of the Mind, brings in a gloriously smoky trumpet here. This is so laid back that it has almost no weight. I felt like I could easily balance it on a fingertip like a butterfly and, like a butterfly, it eventually catches a breath and floats off into the sky.

Phaedra sits at the heart of the album, with an ominous drum echoing a real power in the vocal. McNerney isn't gentle here; he's commanding, rather like a doomladen Nick Cave. "I have strength," he begins. "I fear nothing." What an opening statement! The sheer emphasis in play is helped by the song being bookended by very different instrumental interludes. Sic Luceat Lux is wild and experimental, mixing Jandek with Coil. Is that a bicycle bell? We should ask Antti Haapapuro, who's credited on "found sounds". However, Family, is a sliver of light in the darkness, peaceful acoustic folk guitar.

And that leads us into the final three songs, which play with gentleness in different ways. Kindred Moon, the title track, I guess, is elevated by what sounds like reeds thrashing a steel barn for percussion. McNerney croons as if that's the most natural sound in the world. The chorus is almost syrupy, soothing us as we "pray to your light, kindred moon". There's darkness here too, but it's epic darkness and the song is a ritual ward against it.

If I had to pick a favourite, which I really don't want to do, it's likely to be Magical & Damned. It's another gentle song that's ever as dark as it is light. It has a late Nick Cave piano-driven vibe, but with a far softer vocal than Phaedra, subtly teasing its dark truth rather than flaunting it, through a lyric that could have been written by Leonard Cohen.

Again McNerney captures us early. I couldn't quite grab the entire opening lines, but it's about hurricanes with female names being the deadliest and when swept away by you, "it feels good to die". It's achingly beautiful, especially when the chorus highlights a lament. "She's so beautiful and so magical... and damned." This song so calmly eviscerates me every time. It's seeped into my soul.

Given the unenviable task of following it and also wrapping up the album is Joy of Sacrifice, which title capably sums up the dualistic light and dark sounds of this album. It's another gentle song and another beautiful one, a backing vocal layering over the lead with incredible effect, reminiscent of Linda Perhacs. It's heartfelt and hypnotic and it's a suitably haunting way to leave us.

I hadn't heard of Hexvessel before, though McNerney did contribute a great guest vocal to the Me and That Man album I reviewed recently. I'll surely be picking up their back catalogue after this experience, though. The band were formed in 2009 and this is their sixth album, so there's plenty for me still to discover. I'm totally hooked, enough that I'll be utterly shocked if this doesn't turn out to be my album of the year.

Frankly, this is as close as I've come to giving a 10/10, which I refuse to do out of principle; I believe that a maximum can only fairly be given after at least five years of still sounding this damn good and remaining relevant. It may well get there, but I'm sure that I'll be adding it to my frequently replayed list, where it will fit well alongside the first couple of Leonard Cohen albums, as well as Joy Division and Susanna and the Magical Orchestra.

Now I just need to figure out how to stop listening to it so I can move on to review something else.

Monday, 4 May 2020

Cherie Currie - Blvds of Splendor (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 28 Apr 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

It looks like Cherie Currie, best known as the lead vocalist and pianist for the legendary Runaways, got busy last year. Even though her first solo album came out as far back as 1978, it took her until 2015 to issue a follow up, a few albums with her twin sister Marie during that period notwithstanding. It seems strange that she'd suddenly reappear with not one but two new albums, but I'm happy to see new material.

In the absence of information to the contrary, these two albums technically came out last year, but this one only as a limited edition for Record Store Day in April. I'm reviewing it on its wide release, which features another three tracks, meaning fifteen on offer instead of twelve. The other album, for those eager to hear it, is The Motivator, recorded as a partnership with Brie Darling, known for her work with Fanny and American Girls, and it did see a full release in August of last year.

To complicate that further, it seems that this album was recorded quite some time ago, with a host of major collaborators, and was originally slotted for a release in 2010, soon after the film adaptation of her autobiography, Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway, but that never happened and it got bounced on down the road. I could easily see the goal as being to capitalise on a good moment in time and mount a long overdue comeback, but it seems that Currie's pretty happy with a different life as an award-winning chainsaw artist.

At fifteen tracks, this is a generous release, not just because it runs over fifty minutes but because it covers the musical spectrum, presumably to give new fans and old a good idea of just how versatile she can get. The opener, Mr. X is a rocker that gets our adrenaline pumping from moment one, but then we dip into classic glam rock with Roxy Roller, move into pop punk with You Wreck Me and add electronica for Black Magic. There's a soft rock ballad, a country pop cover and a full on grunge song. Eventually there's even a bit of reggae on What Do All the People Know?

I don't have details on which musicians Currie has to back her, but I do see a number of guests. The album opener, for instance, Mr. X, does a solid job at getting our adrenaline pumping immediately, an urgent guitar leading into a perky song. I believe the band behind her is pretty much Guns n' Roses, at least Slash, Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum, and the latter produced the album too. Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins shows up on the title track. The closer, a cover of the Runaways classic, Queen of Noise, apparently features Australian singer/songwriter Brody Dalle, the Veronicas and, of all people, Juliette Lewis.

I also don't have details on just how many songs here are covers. Some are pretty obvious, though maybe not for listeners who might be a generation or two younger than me. Queen of Noise was the title track of the second album from the Runaways, which came out in 1977. Draggin' the Line is even older, as it's the Tommy James song from 1971. The Air That I Breathe may well be the most recognisable cover, originally recorded by Albert Hammond in 1972, but best known from the huge hit the Hollies had with it a couple of years later. Apparently Roxy Roller is a Sweeney Todd song (the Canadian band not the musical) and What Do All the People Know? is an eighties song by a band called the Monroes.

I wonder why Currie chose to cover so many songs, given that what I presume are originals sound fine, and why she chose to cover these. I wonder if her take on Draggin' the Line is a personal statement, given lyrics like "I feel fine. I'm talking peace of mind. I'm gonna take my time. I'm getting to good times." Neon Angel talks about a lot of what she went through. The Air That I Breathe is the oddest, because Allan Clarke's vocal on the Hollies version is so iconic. This is well done but it doesn't add anything.

Frankly, I prefer the originals, whether they're rockers like Mr. X; ballads like Shades, which she wrote with her son, Jake Hays; or unexpected grunge songs like Force to Be Reckoned With. It kicks in just as powerfully and in a rather similar way to Nirvana but gets quieter during the verses. Then again, Nirvana did that too. It's no rip-off, but it's another musical direction taken on an album full of them. I wonder who guested that time.

I quite liked this album and I appreciated Currie's versatility, though it's a little overdone. It surely does enough to warrant that potential comeback earlier in the decade, but I doubt that's the goal now and there's no movie in 2020 to tie it into. Now, it's a welcome release from a pioneer who has a surprisingly skimpy discography. She clearly still has what it takes and I'd have said the same thing even if none of the megastars she knows had showed up to help her out.

Atkins May Project - The Final Cut (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 28 May 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

For those who don't know the name, Al Atkins was the original lead vocalist in Judas Priest, singing for them from 1969 until 1973 when he had to get a nine to five job to pay bills. He left before the recording of Rocka Rolla, so there are no albums for us to hear what the band sounded like with Atkins singing instead of his replacement, some dude called Rob Halford, but, much later, he recorded a solo version of Victim of Changes, which he co-wrote, and it sounds very good, different in many ways but still very good.

While he was gone from the world of music for a long while, he's been busy since returning in 1990. He put out a bunch of solo albums with a band named A.N.D. as his backing; sang for a band called Holy Rage, which featured ex-Al Atkins musicians; and teamed up with Paul May, guitarist for both A.N.D. and Al Atkins, for this band. This is their fourth album, but it comes six years after its predecessor, Empire of Destruction in 2014.

It sounds pretty good to me, but it also took me a little while to get into it. That's mostly because Atkins sounds old here, his voice filled with rasp and experience and hinting that he needs more breath. It's a highly lived in voice, which is no bad thing when it fits the material. On the title track, which opens up the album, I wasn't sure that it did, but as the album rolled on, I found myself more and more on board with it.

That's because he's at his best on slower, heavier songs where his voice is a stalking beast. On Buried Alive, he's utterly commanding and it's not hard to imagine him prowling the stage, owning the performance. What makes songs like these work so well is that Paul May does the same thing as a guitarist. Sure, the riff on Buried Alive is half inched from Iron Maiden's Wrathchild, merely played more like Black Sabbath, but he owns it. Most importantly, the two of them complement rather than clash when they both dominate at once.

I'd raise Iron Maiden for another reason too. Atkins is someone who owns an important spot in rock history but he was never an international superstar, putting him in a similar category to Paul Di'Anno. Clearly both had to deal with the fact that history moved on without them, but they both settled into making good music and I'm happy that both of them did so. The difference is that Di'Anno staked his sound in the NWOBHM era of the early eighties while Atkins is taking the heavy blues of the early seventies and looking forward from there.

There are a lot of seventies sounds here, from towering riffs reminiscent of Sabbath, Priest and often Saxon, to delicate guitarwork that reminds more of Wishbone Ash. How far is the intro to The Final Cut from the storming metal drive of Dead Mens Bones? The former would have fit on Wishbone Ash albums like Pilgrimage or Argus, while the latter, had it been released in the mid seventies, would have sat alongside Exciter and Overkill as a pioneer, paving the way for the speed and thrash metal of the early eighties.

Some of these songs sound great on a first listen, but every one of them is a grower. Perhaps the best is Stranger in a Strange Land, one more of those stalking songs where both Atkins and May dominate at the same time without a moment of treading on each other's toes. That applies to Masquerade too, the sheer power in these slower numbers that have a foot in heavy blues but are still completely and unashamedly metal leaving me with a huge smile.

It's great to see old school metal thriving right now. This was released on 28th April, only four days after new Cirith Ungol and Cloven Hoof albums, an unholy trio of worthy old school heavy metal releases, each of them doing a solid job in a very different way. And old school fans still talk about all modern music being crap? Listen to these three, folks, and hush your noise.

Friday, 1 May 2020

Cloven Hoof - Age of Steel (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Heavy/Power Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 24 Apr 2020
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter

I'm always up for a new Cloven Hoof album, even if the band has had trouble keeping any semblance of consistency over a lot of years. This is only their seventh studio album in a career spanning over forty years, yet those seven albums feature five different lead vocalists. Sure, they split up for ten of those forty, but still. George Call here becomes just the second lead singer to make it to a second album and he's only been with the band since 2015.

The changes this time are to introduce new fish Ash Baker on lead guitar and Mark Bristow on drums. Both joined last year, recently enough that Wikipedia hasn't added them to the band's timeline yet, but they fit well. Chris Coss has stuck around since 2011 on rhythm guitar, which may make him the longest serving member except for Lee Payne, who co-founded the band in 1979 and has been a constant on bass ever since.

So how good are the new Cloven Hoof? Pretty damn good, I'd say, even if I'm not as enthused by this as a Facebook friend who pronounced it the album of the decade. I haven't heard them this good since Dominator in 1988, though I have to admit that I haven't heard anything since the band reformed in 2001. There's a lot here, ten songs over fifty minutes, and all of them are catchy on a first listen but deep enough to get better on further runs through.

The most obvious comparison here is to Iron Maiden. Alderley Edge (hey, I've been there) is very Maiden, as if they'd recorded Seventh Son of a Seventh Son a few years earlier without guitar synths. Call does a pretty good Bruce Dickinson impression, right down to the intonation, and there's some gallop behind him too that's straight out of the Maiden songbook, especially on the drums.

There's also a solid European power metal influence, though, of course, that mostly originated with Maiden too, but is distinguishable. Gods of War has a Helloween sound and there's ambition in the songwriting, if not as much as I remember on Keeper of the Seven Keys. There's a lot of twin guitarwork here between Baker and Coss, but not always in the way that Maiden do it. There's harmonic layering too that sounds really cool in ways I haven't heard a lot since Crimson Glory.

If there's an American influence, it's in the vocals. There are points where Call channels Eric Adams for a scream or Ronnie James Dio for more resonant moments, like on the title track, which oddly is my least favourite song on the album, even though it's still pretty solid. I don't hear much at all in the music that might be American; it's all European, from Maiden and Priest on in time.

Perhaps most importantly, there's a lot of character in the performance. The band aren't just recording music here, they're performing songs, and each of them finds its own groove within the broader defined sound. Bedlam is surely the most obviously theatrical song this time out, with a fantastic layering of vocals to highlight how Bedlam was a mental instution. Call does a great job at both singing a song and giving us the impression that he's suffering from schizophrenia at the same time. Alderley Edge isn't far behind in that theatrical style either.

I like this a lot. Maybe the drums are a little crisp in the mix, but that's nothing to do with the drummer and it hardly spoils the effect of the album. I'll be listening to this a few more times before I move on to something new because it's that good. No, not album of the decade level of good, but good enough to make my Highly Recommended List with an 8/10. Now, let's just keep this line-up in place for the next album to allow this band to achieve some of the success they've been due for decades.

Vilivant - Never Again (2020)

Country: Canada
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 Apr 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | YouTube

Here's an interesting debut EP from a young lady somewhere in Ontario with a single name, Vilivant. It's probably best described as hard rock, but that's perhaps misleading. Her sound is very focused on her vocals, which are tough but melodic, and that leads to comparisons to artists I wouldn't describe as hard rock at all. Insert your favourite pop singer/songwriter here. I heard Natalie Imbruglia, especially on the regular version of Take Me Home and the acoustic version of Stabilized, but you may well hear someone else.

Her given influences are singers like Lzzy Hale and Taylor Momsen, which is hardly surprising. The intensity level of both the music and her voice is in between the two, easily lighter than Halestorm but quite a bit heavier than the Pretty Reckless. It's a good midpoint to find, because it allows her a lot of opportunity for contrast, quietening down to ballad softness and then ramping up for emphasis, even if she never gets into shouty territory, thank goodness. Her vocals remain clean throughout, whatever the emphasis.

The six tracks on offer boil down to four songs, as both Stabilized and Take Me Home appear twice, the duplicates respectively an acoustic version and an alternate take that's longer and much heavier than what I'm thinking of as a single version, even though it's Never Again and Stabilized that made it to separate release. Frankly, the other two could easily follow suit.

And this seems odd to me. It's hardly unusual to issue an EP before a studio album, especially for a debuting artist, but all four of these songs are top notch and it would seem strange for Vilivant to have four solid songs in her repertoire but nothing else. There are successful albums out there with much more filler than would be needed to pad this up to full length. And if she's got more material like this waiting for release, who says filler is needed?

I find it difficult not to like these songs. They're not particularly deep, but they're all catchy pop/alt rock anthems that are set up right and built well. And, while Vilivant is clearly a dominant focus throughout, the music behind her does a good job of supporting her. There are even good solos to take a brief moment away from the front lady. The lyrical themes don't particularly connect with me as an Englishman coming up on, crap, half a century, but I'm not the target audience. She's pitching to teenage girls worrying about self worth and they should lap this up. I'm not one of them and I still like what Vilivant does.

However, I'm going to have to talk about her exclusively here as I'm unable to find a single slice of information on anyone else in what I presume is a band. There are photos out there with her playing bass, but her music videos have a full band behind her: a guitarist, a bass player and a drummer, just as you might expect. I have no idea who any of them are or even whether they count as actual band members or just session musicians hired for a video.

Whoever's in the band and whether there is a band or just Vilivant the solo artist, this sounds good. I'd like to hear a lot more. How about that album?