Friday 12 June 2020

BPMD - American Made (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy Metal
Release Date: 12 Jun 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter

Having recently reviewed an album of all original music from what used to be a tribute band (Fragile, in case you're wondering), here's a counter: some major names teaming up to cover a bunch of American rock classics from the seventies. The project started with bass player Mark Menghi of the groove/thrash supergroup, Metal Allegiance, and he created another tight side band here with an accomplished set of musicians.

The band name is the initials you might expect, with Menghi the M. The B is Bobby 'Blitz' Ellsworth, lead vocalist of New Jersey thrash outfit Overkill; the P is Mike Portnoy, former drummer of Dream Theater; and the D is former Machine Head guitarist Phil Demmel, who's now with Violence. For a line-up of mostly thrash musicians, they treat these songs as rock songs, heavying them up a little but rarely speeding them up. This wasn't about reinventing them in a thrash style.

Apparently, each member of the band chose two songs to cover, with the final two being group decisions and it's interesting to see who picked what.

Mike Portnoy's two choices show up first and they're a fantastic way to kick things off. They're well known songs, so everyone can sing along: Wang Dang Sweet Poontang, originally by Ted Nugent, and Aerosmith's Toys in the Attic. The former gives Ellsworth a great opportunity to introduce the band in the sort of rapid fire rhyme that Nugent used to famously introduce the song on Double Live Gonzo! My favourite of these two is the latter, though, because it's similar to the Aerosmith original but more vicious and in your face.

Menghi's choices are iconic numbers too, including the one that sparked the band and album to begin with, Lynyrd Skynyrd's Saturday Night Special. The other is ZZ Top's Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers and it was here that I realised how true to the original tempos BPMD were being. There may be a couple of extra notes in Saturday Night Special to give it a little more emphatic crunch but the band don't attempt to reinvent the song, just give it more urgency.

Ellsworth and Demmel plumped for deeper cuts, especially to my British ears, given that my seventies rock education was from bands that Overkill acknowledged on their Coverkill album: Black Sabbath, Motörhead and Deep Purple more than Cactus, Mountain and the James Gang. Overall, my favourites here were the more obscure numbers, with the exception of We're an American Band, the Grand Funk Railroad standard. That's a song everyone knows and the one that I looked forward to least here, but BPMD do a superb job of making it seem new and filling it with fresh life.

Ellsworth's choices were Evil, the Cactus version of the Willie Dixon blues number and Never in My Life, a Mountain song that I don't know. Strangely, I would call the former the least successful choice here but the latter one of the most successful and for much the same reason. I don't think the band are able to catch the groove in the former and Ellsworth's vocals overwhelm it, but they absolutely nail the groove in the latter and Ellsworth shines, his snarl really fitting the style.

That leaves Demmel, who to my way of thinking is the backbone of this album, as utterly reliable as Portnoy and the others are but let loose to shine on a more frequent basis. He gets to play in quite a number of styles, provide both the lead and rhythm and to do the job of two guitarists on his own. His contribution to Toys in the Attic sounds very different from what he brings to Never in My Life or his own choices, which are Blue Öyster Cult's Tattoo Vampire and Van Halen's D.O.A., but he's excellent on each.

Both could be called deep cuts, even though the originals were on albums as famous as Agents of Fortune and Van Halen II, and, while other songs on them spring quickly to mind, these didn't for me, perhaps making these versions a bit fresher inherently. BPMD really dive into both songs though, with a wild guitar from Demmel. Tattoo Vampire feels like such a gimme for a thrash band that I'm surprised I've not heard it covered by one before and the latter is so quintessentially Van Halen that anyone not knowing the original would not be in doubt as to who originated it. Both are real highlights here.

That leaves a couple of bonus tracks, selected by the band as a whole, with We're an American Band the closer that leaves us happy but wanting more, as indeed all closers should. The other is another deep cut that's a highlight for me, the James Gang's Walk Away, which everyone shines on, including some slightly less sneering vocals than usual from Ellsworth.

I really dug this album, a lot more than the last covers album I reviewed, a much more predictable affair from the Ron Keel Band. This is just as fun and even better performed but it's not remotely as disposable. Beyond bringing fresh life to a few songs so well known that it's difficult for anyone to do a good job in the modern day, they also shed new light on a bunch of lesser known songs that listeners are absolutely going to seek out now.

I think part of the success is the clear passion this band has for this sort of material but part of it also is that, whoever chose a particular song, it took the whole band to bring it life and, with the one exception of Evil, I would say that everyone shines on everything. I've listened to this through a few times and whatever instrument I focus on, it's heartfelt and strong. I would love to see a follow up to this album whenever the guys are ready for it.

Shakedown Suzies - A Business Doin' Pleasure (2020)

Country: Sweden
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Jun 2020
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Twitter

I love exploring subgenres old and new to see where bands are taking sounds in new directions. Sometimes, though, I just like to sit back so that a back to basics, no frills, good old fashioned rock 'n' roll band can kick my ass and Shakedown Suzies definitely fit in that category. There's nothing new in their sound at all, outside the cool carnival music that bookends Delicious Vice, but they do what they do very well indeed and, what's more, they do it with an infectious energy that's hard to resist.

They play hard rock with a emphatic glam edge, that approach led by the lead singer who goes by Ricki Rascal, but it knocks on the door of metal rather a lot. Jonathan Mortensen's guitar is metal through and through, so much that I should probably call it an axe. It slices through the air far more deeply than a regular hard rock guitar would. There's also metal in the energy and the pace and the sheer wall of sound.

Much of this reminds of Dr. Feelgood era Mötley Crüe, Mads Mattsson's drums pounding away like thunderbolts as the rest of the band parade a solid array of riffs and hooks past us. Best of Me is probably the closest to that sound but it's riddled throughout the album. However, when the band kick into high gear, they end up in Motörhead territory. Check out the beginning of Savage Hearts or the end of Alibi, let alone the whole of Hair of the Dog.

All this makes for an energetic sound that's both more raw and more vicious than the pure energy of, say, Airbourne. If I had been played this blind, I would have conjured up a telling line-up in my imagination. The vocals feel like a fifty fifty mix of Michael Monroe and Sebastian Bach. The guitars are an alternating combo of 'Fast' Eddie Clarke and Dave Murray. The back end is the gritty, ever-reliable pairing of Duff McKagan and Tommy Lee. And that's a supergroup in my mind.

Most importantly, the Suzies don't let up. This isn't the longest album I've ever heard, its eleven songs running just over forty minutes, but they don't let up at any point. Even a brief intro suggests that we might be in for the inevitable power ballad, like Rascal Remedy, the band quickly kick it up and find a tougher vibe, in this case ending up as an interesting cross between Thin Lizzy and Asomvel. The closest to a ballad that the band get has to be the closer, I Don't Do Regrets, and that's still no ballad. It merely avoids high gear and lets Mortensen and bassist Agust Ahlberg strut their stuff in Guns n' Roses style.

While the mix gets the instrument levels right, this material demands to be played loud but, when I turn it way up, it distorts a little at the top end and that's not good when each new song just wants me to turn it up further. That distortion is the worst thing about this album, which speaks volumes on the band's consistency.

I should emphasise that I'm a fan of how raw and energetic this sounds and, like all the best rock 'n' roll, it stamps a reminder onto the inside of our eyeballs that we have to see this band live. I haven't because they're from Jönköping in Sweden, so I don't know how they are on stage, but they leave the impression that they'll dominate so much that a good chunk of the guys who never ever leave the bar will find their legs and move up front to join everyone else.

It's also worth mentioning that glam metal often sounds great the first time through, as the hooks catch us, but gets old after we've heard them far too often. I've had this album on repeat for a few days and I haven't tired of a single song yet. In fact, the album just more and more consistent. My choice of a favourite has changed so often that I'm not even going to give you one to go on. Just buy the album. I promise you won't do regrets.

Thursday 11 June 2020

Centinex - Death in Pieces (2020)

Country: Sweden
Style: Death Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 29 May 2020
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Wikipedia | YouTube

Here's another old school death metal band who were formed around the point where I was getting bored of old school death metal. They're Centinex, from Sweden and they had what looks like an impressive run from 1990 to 2006, at which point they split up. With eight albums behind them, they reformed in 2014 and have added three more since. On the basis of this one, I'm a fan but...

To be fair, the present Centinex isn't remotely the original Centinex. Bass player Martin Schulman seems to be the heart of the band; he's not just the only original member, continuing with them throughout, he's the only member who's been in the band more than about five minutes. Drummer Florian Rehn is the new fish, having only joined this year, while vocalist Henrik Andersson and guitarist Jörgen Kristensen came on board last year.

While I doubt there's a heck of a lot of past consistency when Andersson is the band's seventh lead singer and Kristensen the seventh lead guitarist, I like the current sound and, for right now, that's all that matters.

They get right down to business, each of the eleven songs on offer a short, sharp shock. Not one of them exceeds four minutes and five clock in at under three, but the style really suits that length. It's lively death: up tempo but never full speed, dark but never outrageously downtuned, deep and growly but never so far to strip Andersson of the ability to intonate. It's heavy anyway and it's even heavier because of an excellent mix.

There isn't much space in this sound for intros or outros or much in the way of dynamic play. I could call Pieces a song featuring a rare intro for this album, but, to be brutally honest, it's nothing more than an intro. Sure, it happens to be a really good one but, by the time it's ready to kick into top gear, it's over and we're into Cauterized, which happens to be a relentless highlight. Centinex just knuckle right down and deliver the goods, over and over again.

What that means is that, while I like this a lot, I'd probably only like it a lot in certain circumstances. For instance, each time I've thrown this on for a listen, it's been after something completely different: prog rock and garage rock, nothing extreme. This worked well as a counter and I enjoyed an hour or so each time of being hammered into submission by listening through a couple of times. I think I'd dig this band as a reliable top support band live, focusing in after all the local guys that had gone before and getting us firmly in the mood for the headliner.

However, I don't ever think I'd throw the Centinex back catalogue on loop as I'd probably get bored pretty quickly. I'd love to listen to the band's next album but I probably won't throw this one on again. They're tight enough and consistent enough to kill live but, if the band in the top support slot did anything unusual at all, they'd probably be the one I'd leave reflecting on rather than this bigger name band at the top of the bill.

And that lack of variety is why I'm dropping this down to 6/10. I enjoyed it a great deal but, outside of perhaps the chorus in Cauterized and the core riff in Sacrifice, if you asked me for the best track or my favourite song or any other moment for special mention, I'd have to ask you to pick a card, any card. They're all simultaneously the best and the worst, because they're interchangeable and whether you see that as a good thing or not will shape your appreciation of the band and this album. If you're a Centinex fan, add at least one point back on.

Clavicule - Garage is Dead (2020)

Country: France
Style: Psychedelic Garage Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Jun 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | YouTube

Garage is dead, say Clavicule, releasing what is really a psychedelic garage rock album. The results tell me that garage is far from dead and nobody has even nailed it to the perch. It's clearly alive and well in Rennes, up there in the northwest of France, where Clavicule have mixed it with an intriguing array of sounds. There's Hawkwind in here but Danzig too and Dick Dale and, quite frankly, I never expected to write those names in the same sentence.

This looks like their debut album, though it features the three tracks made previously available on a self-titled EP last year, including the opener, a sensitive little ditty entitled Asshole. This starts out with some surf rock in the guitar but restrained surf against a lofi garage rock backdrop. As it hits full stride and the vocals come in, they're punky in the vein of Glenn Danzig. That's an odd mix but it works really well and it hooked me.

There's no Danzig in the second song, Special Trip, because there's a layer on top of the vocals that gives it a spacy effect. With the vibe generated a hallucinogenic one and the beat an emphatic one, it's not difficult to hear some old school Hawkwind in the song and hey, that works really well too. It shows some neat versatility in the band, even though the two songs aren't as far away from each other sonically as I may have suggested.

Today feels more like garage pop, just as emphatic and just as raw but with a slower Beatles vibe in the construction. There's indie rock in here too, a genre I don't know well enough to highlight comparisons to, but that's where garage rock usually fits so it shouldn't be too surprising. The rhythm is an emphatic old school dance rhythm and the middle eastern sounds in the solos help it to sound almost flamenco.

If that's a wide set of influences, it's a tasty one and Clavicule mix them up over the rest of the album. My Time might start out like an Adam Ant demo but, when it speeds up, it does so with a wild garage flamenco transition. I live for moments like that one. CAB has a flamenco rhythm too, but goes deep into the surf sound three minutes in, which becomes neatly intense, and that sound gets even more delightful when the riffs shift over to keyboards. I'm a big fan of the bass too when the song breaks down towards the end.

Garage bands don't tend to play long songs, but there are two here, with CAB being the first. At 7:19, it's double the average length of the rest, but it never outstays its welcome because it's constructed in phases. Strangely, if CAB is one of my highlights here, my least favourite song is the other long song on offer, Jericho, which closes out the album with an uncharacteristic patience for 6:25. It's the only piece of music here that doesn't take me anywhere, except during its ethnic sections.

I know next to nothing about the band, though Facebook tells me that they're a four piece, with two guitars. Marius plays one and also takes care of the vocals, while Kamil plays the other. Ian handles an occasionally funky bass and Alexis brings an often punky vibe to the drums, or more appropriately in French, the batterie. I have no idea who's responsible for the castanets in the second half of Vertigo, when everything goes garage flamenco again.

While my favourite songs, like My Time and CAB, can be found at the heart of the album, moments like the beginning and end of Vertigo are also highlights and there are plenty more of those. The Race has a particularly epic ending, while The Monkey starts out like Mark Knopfler has stepped in on guitar. I'd given up by that point on any expectation that Clavicule wouldn't just keep on surprising me. I don't think their styles work as well on a ballad, but I won't complain, especially given that The Monkey goes suitably nuts to close.

I really dug this, because it sounds both accessible and highly inventive, a mixture of styles I hadn't heard before that suddenly sound natural together and ought to be mixed more often. Now I really want to hear Clavicule live, maybe alongside a band like The Villainz. That would make for a particularly wild night, hopefully in a tiny but utterly packed club, especially if they join forces at the end of the evening to jam.

Wednesday 10 June 2020

Shok Paris - Full Metal Jacket (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 10 Jun 2020
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website

Here's yet another band returning from completely out of the blue, cementing 2020 as following in the footsteps of 2019 for surprising resurrections. The old band with new life this time are Shok Paris, who I remember from a 1987 album called Steel and Starlight, though not only for the music; it featured a highly memorable album cover. That was their second eighties album of three and this is album four, because the only studio album they've released since 1989 was a reissue of Steel and Starlight with its heavier original mix.

I actually listened to this back earlier in the year because it was due out at the beginning of February but it got delayed, so I'm returning to it now. My thoughts in July are pretty much what they were in January, namely that I like this but took a while to get used to it, because of the vocals; that it has every bit of the life and energy that a first album in 31 years ought to have; and that it gets better as it moves along.

Maybe Shok Paris never went away but merely hopped through a portal in time from 1987, because the title does indeed refer to the Stanley Kubrick movie. There's an intro called The Creed, which, if you've seen the movie, is what you think it is, merely recreated musically rather than sampled. That leads into the title track, which is decent anthemic hard and heavy stuff that's a throwback to the band's heyday without ever sounding like they don't mean it just as much today.

I should introduce the band, who are led by original guitarist Ken Erb, who co-founded Shok Paris back in 1982 and has been them throughout, except for the two decade gap that ended with reformation in 2009. The other musicians joined in 2010, after the other former members promptly soured on the idea of getting the band back together again. Ed Stephens is the name, because I think he's played bass in every rock band in Cleveland since the James Gang. Well, except Nine Inch Nails. The reliable drummer is Donovan Kenaga and the second guitarist who weaves solos so well with Erb on songs like Fall from Grace is John Korzekwa.

That leaves vocalist Vic Hix, who joined in 1984 and, like Erb, has remained with the band throughout. Unlike Erb, he did release other music during that two decade hiatus, putting out some albums with Philly-based Aftershok. He's the hardest aspect of this album to get used to, though I did get there. He has old school air raid siren vocals with an odd accent and what sounds like a frequent difficulty in catching breath. He has a distinctive enuncation, a trademark that gets overt on These Eyes with its Crimson Glory vibe.

The first half of the album is decent stuff, songs like Nature of the Beast, Metal on Metal and Brothers in Arms enjoyable if never outstanding. It's at the halfway mark that things start to really reach full gear, initially with Black Boots and especially with Hell Day, which reminds of the late eighties when heavy metal bands had sped up in response to the speed metal bands and often found a really cool balance point between power and speed.

I like the second half in general more than the first but the other gem is a power shanty called Symphony of the Sea. The wild vocals of Vic Hix keep it away from pirate metal bands like Alestorm but the melodies flow in much the same way. After that is only the closer, Up the Hammers, which may not mean the same thing in Ohio that it does to Steve Harris. With Stephen's bass on the gallop during the opening, I presume it's a knowing nod to Iron Maiden, for whom 7:14 wouldn't seem particularly long. Hail to the gods, indeed.

This is a decent album, not the impossible to miss comeback album the band's members might have hoped it would be but a very palatable return that makes me look forward to the next one. The current line-up has been stable now for a decade, even with this being its first release, so I presume they're both getting on as a band and getting a good response from the Cleveland audience which is not a minor one. Let's see where they go from here!

Fragile - Golden Fragments (2020)

Country: Germany
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 16 May 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook

I have a love/hate relationship with tribute bands. I understand the draw of being able to see the equivalent of bands live at a fraction of the cost of the real thing and in a much smaller venue, especially when the originals no longer exist, at least in the form that we might want. AC/DC with Bon Scott in your local club for ten bucks? A tribute band's your only option. My big problem is that many of these bands nowadays feature musicians who are damn good at what they do and I'd love to hear their own music instead of another take on someone else's.

Case in point: Fragile, who have evolved from their origins as a Yes tribute band to be an "original band paying tribute to Yes in our own unique way". I see that they've been around since 1998 but this is their debut release with original music and I'm really happy that they've evolved to that point, even if it also means that they're no longer playing live.

These musicians also aren't nobodies. For instance, the female vocals come courtesy of Claire Hamill, who's sung for Fragile since 2013. She may not be a household name, but she's guested on albums by Wishbone Ash, Steve Howe and Jon and Vangelis. As a solo artist, she was signed by Ray Davies of the Kinks as far back as 1973 and her solo career has lasted just as many years as I've been alive. Eva Cassidy covered her.

The others may not have Wikipedia pages of their own, but they're clearly as able as they'd need to be to play in a Yes tribute band. There are also some guest vocals from Clive Bayley, who formed Mabel Greer's Toyshop way back in 1966, the band which gradually hired Chris Squire, Peter Banks, Jon Anderson and the other musicians who would soon rename the band to Yes.

While this is clearly music inspired by Yes, mostly from the classic era you might expect from the band's name, Fragile have found their own sound too. I believe having a female lead vocalist helps, especially given that her voice is mostly pitched a little lower than Jon Anderson's. With both Bayley and a regular male vocalist, Max Hunt, of course, even lower, there's little fear of us mistaking the bands.

The Yes influence does extend to the structure of many of these songs. Four of seven are actually pairs of songs that last for up to twelve minutes and change, with a wide use of dynamics and an even wider profusion of lengthy instrumental passages. The closest song to Yes may be Time to Dream/Now We are Sunlight, but aspects of the Yes style can be found throughout, whether through quiet guitar interludes like Open Space or fullblown imagination in musical form like the second half of Surely All I Need.

The latter is itself the second half of a song pair with When are Wars Won? and it opens the album in very lively form. At its most imaginative, it's an instrumental attempt to take us into a landscape such as the cover art might hint at. Put yourself in that position with that point of view and then turn around 360° and imagine what you see. That's Surely All I Need, even if the delightful lyrics suggest at a different vista, and it's easily my favourite piece of music on this album.

While Hamill sings the first two pairs of songs, Five Senses shifts Hunt up to the mike to sing lead and it's telling that the song doesn't feel at all like a different band. Sure, Hunt's voice is in an echoey lower register and his songs hint at space rock, but Fragile never turn into Hawkwind, even on Heaven's Core. The earlier songs are all exuberant pieces of music, with the band building layers of sound until they're unstoppable forces.

I listened to this a lot because it's highly immersive stuff and I came to a few realisations. The obvious one is that, while the guitar of Oliver Day is notable, this is driven a lot more by its keyboards than it is guitars and those are a further contribution by Max Hunt. As he also plays the bass and dabbles in guitar and percussion, along with being the primary male voice, I assume that he's the band's driving force nowadays, even though I don't see his name listed as a founding member.

Others are less obvious. The album, which runs a decent fifty minutes, moves throughout from exuberance to introspection, so that we're initially caught up by the rush of it all and conditioned to that by the time Open Space and Time to Dream come around and the folky vibe of Old Worlds and Kingdoms. I love Claire Hamill's vocals but only gradually realised that, while she's an outstanding lead vocalist, she's also an outstanding backing vocalist, which I ought to have assumed once I realised where I've heard her before. Now I'm intrigued as to where she is on The Friends of Mr. Cairo.

I know this isn't the first tribute band to release a strong studio album of original music, because I reviewed Stripwired last year and I'm sure they were far from the first, but I do wonder how prevalent the approach is nowadays. I hope I see it more.

Tuesday 9 June 2020

Vandenberg - 2020 (2020)

Country: The Netherlands
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 29 May 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

It seems weird to suggest that an album called 2020 is a surprising release in 2020, but this one's by Vandenberg, the band led by Dutch guitar wizard Adrian Vandenberg, and the last one we saw was Alibi way back in 1985. That was a good album, but we've got used to Vandenberg the person playing for a slew of other bands, not least Whitesnake, so hardly expected Vandenberg the band to resurface after thirty-five years for album number four.

It's a really good album made by a really good new line-up and those of you who still play Whitesnake's album 1987 often will really dig it. Vandenberg was responsible for the solo on Here I Go Again '87 and that's a good template for what's on this album. Just add slick 21st century production that keeps everything punchy, drop the overt ballads and forget the cheesy eighties MTV videos. This stands on its own merits and it kicks ass.

While it all sounds thoroughly American, I should emphasise that only one of the current band is American and that's drummer Brian Tichy, the name that I didn't know, even though ten seconds of research highlights that I've heard him often, from his work with Foreigner, Billy Idol, Gilby Clarke, the Dead Daisies, Sass Jordan and others, including Whitesnake. Here I must point out that I'm not sure if Tichy is actually in the band or just guesting on the album. Some sources suggest the former, but the Vandenberg band site states the latter, as the actual drummer is Koen Herfst, of Epica fame.

The same goes for the bass player, which Wikipedia says is Rudy Sarzo, who's played for everyone. Where you know him from may depend on your age. For me, it's Quiet Riot, but you may know him best from his work with Ozzy Osbourne, Dio, Queensrÿche or, inevitably, Whitesnake. However, again the Vandenberg site says that he's also guesting while the real bassist is Randy van der Elsen, best known for his work with Tank.

How this resolves, I have no idea. Maybe the band members are van der Elsen and Herfst while Sarzo and Tichy recorded the album. Answers on the back of a postcard please. What we know for sure is that the new vocalist is Ronnie Romero, who's surely the busiest singer in rock nowadays. He's best known at this point for Lords of Black and the reformed Rainbow, but he does a great job whoever he's singing for and this album is no exception.

You'd be insane if you thought there wasn't a lot of Whitesnake in the sound but the best material here, which to my mind is Hell and High Water, merges it with Rainbow. It's obvious in Romero's vocals, in Vandenberg's guitar and especially in the keyboards that underpin the second half of the song. It's not Stargazer but it's a heck of a lot closer to it than you expected before reading this. It's a real peach of a song.

I really like Let It Rain too, which follows it on the album, even though it starts out teasingly like a power ballad. Just as we're imagining hairspray budgets and Tawny Kitaen, it kicks into a neat groove, a worthy contemporary take on eighties hair metal that effortlessly avoids cliché. There's enough grit in the mix and Romero's vocals to make this feel right for 2020 and not just 1987. The inevitable exception may be Shout, which is so eighties hair metal that we almost cringe. Almost.

While Romero is so good at this sort of thing that it's easy to focus on him to the detriment of everything else, Vandenberg has always been a fantastic guitarist and he seems to have a lot of fun creating an album under his own name again. The guitars are just right in the mix and he gets quite as many opportunities to shine as you might expect, without ever overdoing it. This band may bear his name but it's still a band not a solo performance. Perhaps his brightest guitar moments come on the opener, Shadows of the Night, but I could have thrown out a half dozen other choices without much hardship.

The biggest catch to the album is that it doesn't attempt anything remotely new at all but it's fair to say that anyone into this sort of music won't be too worried about that. It's unashamedly what it is, melodic hard rock with a direct line back to hair metal. The riffs work, the hooks work and Romero and Vandenberg both shine, while whoever happens to be backing them does the reliable jobs expected of them. Now, let's hope the next album isn't called 2055.

Alligator - Direct Heart Massage (2020)

Country: Ukraine or Russia (depending on which country you're reading from)
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Jun 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Metal Archives | VK

It's been a good year for thrash metal but it hasn't been a great one, with a lot of the big names releasing albums that are worthy but not outstanding. Annihilator still have the edge for me thus far in 2020 and I've never been a particularly big Annihilator fan. So I've been wandering virtually around the globe looking for more good stuff in the hope of finding great stuff. I expect to be looking all year but here's another good album from Sevastopol in the Ukraine (or is it Russia now?), courtesy of Alligator.

Instrumentally, they're excellent, and they stay that way during long intros on many of these tracks. A Chisel, which opens the album, runs on for a full minute and a half before vocals show up and the song only lasts a couple of minutes longer. The intro for Dying For takes a full minute of the three and half that the song runs. And these are far from acoustic intros intended to set a mood, they feature the whole band riffing away at full pelt. Ditch the long intro and you get songs like So Fear is Born, which is a blitzkrieg at under two minutes in the vein of Destruction.

Most of the first half is fast, beginning with A Chisel, which is enough to get the blood pumping without any of the manual intervention depicted on the cover art. It's not breakneck though, because this is technical thrash and it lives or dies on its riffs and changes rather than its sheer speed. It's consistently fast enough to keep me happy as I do like fast thrash bands so much more than those who stay relentlessly at mid-pace. Shake up the tempos, like Alligator do on the title track and indeed much of the second half, but don't ignore the speed completely.

It seems that Alligator have been around for a long time, originally getting together back in 1992 but giving up the ghost only four years later without having recorded anything. Clearly they didn't get serious until reforming in 2015. Since then, they've released two EPs and three studio albums, this one being the most recent. Maybe Believe in Yourself is a musical take on their new work ethic: "Your time will come," they tell themselves and I hope that happens.

Alligator are a power trio and the main man is Vladimir Ternovskoy. The best thing about this album is his guitar and he's the only guitarist in play. I adore his guitar tone and I adore how he puts it to use. There's no messing around here. He just gets right down to business and bludgeons us with riffs for the twenty-six minutes the album lasts. That's the worst thing about the album, by the way: that's shorter than Reign in Blood and that's noticeable in 2020.

Talking of Slayer, they're clearly a primary influence and there are points where this sounds like Schmier singing for Slayer. The voice also belongs to Ternovskoy because he does double duty in this band and, while I enjoyed his vocals, I enjoyed them less than his guitarwork. It's a rough voice, with an accent obvious even in the faster sections, and it makes the tone set by the guitar even grittier.

Backing him in Alligator are Nikolay Chechin on a solid and audible bass and Evgeny Tikhomirov on very reliable drums. They're clearly backing Ternovskoy rather than leading the music anywhere; I didn't catch any solo moments for the bass to shine or points where the drums set the direction forward. That said, they don't mess around either. Even at midpace, this is pure thrash. I could imagine walking into a gig late with Alligator on stage and instantly finding myself in the mood to leap into the pit.

Interestingly, my favourite songs here are a mix of fast and slow. I dug the speed of So Fear is Born and the in your face attitude of Street Guys, but I also appreciated the closer, Father's Tears, which is slower and, at under four minutes, still happy to ditch the vocals before the halfway point and wrap up things instrumentally.

If I wanted more than Alligator were willing to give me, that's entirely a comment about the length of the album and I feel I have to dock a point for that. The music, however, is glorious, and it's a lot more consistent than anything the American bands people are raving about have released this year.

Monday 8 June 2020

Grave Digger - Fields of Blood (2020)

Country: Germany
Style: Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 29 May 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I remember Grave Digger from the eighties when they were a heavy/speed metal band and a decent one too. When they toured in 1985 to promote Witch Hunter, their second album, the support band was Helloween. After War Games in 1986, they co-headlined with Helloween and Celtic Frost. However, I also remember them briefly going commercial under the shortened name of Digger, which was ill-advised and a complete failure.

I lost track after that, but apparently they turned into a heavy/power metal band and this double milestone release (their twentieth studio album put out in their fortieth year as a band) certainly walks in Sabaton territory. It's a concept album about the struggles of the Scottish against the English and it isn't their first either. It marks the third in a thematic trilogy, after 1996's Tunes of War and 2010's The Clans Will Rise Again.

Concepts are a big deal to Grave Digger, it appears, as Tunes of War is also the first album in a trilogy of albums exploring history in the middle ages, to be followed by Knights of the Cross and Excalibur, the subject matter of those two being the Crusades and King Arthur respectively. Maybe that's part of why they turned into a power metal band. Concept albums fall naturally in that genre, where they don't to speed metal bands.

I liked this, though that's not too surprising given that it kicks off with a bombastic bagpipe-driven intro. Those of you who know me in person know I wear a kilt every day in my clan's tartan; I'm a Robinson, so sept into Clan Gunn. What connection this band from Gladbeck in North Rhine-Westphalia has to Scotland, I don't know, but I'm happy that they're treating this material with respect and having fun with it in the process.

A few observations leapt out immediately. One is that the obvious comparison is to Sabaton, who weren't even formed until three years after Tunes of War, so perhaps the comparison should be the other way round. Another is that the lyrics are much less specific than Sabaton, who delight in overdoing detail. Songs here may mention Clan Maclean, Bannockburn and the fields of Culloden, but the lyrics don't read like encyclopaedia entries because they dig into a deeper emotional truth rather than recite facts. I really appreciated that.

A third is that, for all the easy Sabaton references, this a German band and it doesn't take long for Accept to come up as a comparison. The first proper track is All for the Kingdom and its guitar solo is all classical nods. Much later, Barbarian kicks off just like an Accept song. Keeping with Germany, I have to say that Freedom often sounds like the Grave Digger of old, with the tempo ramped up, even if it's still power metal rather than speed metal.

As much as I might miss that old speed metal style, Grave Digger play power metal very well indeed and this is likely a better album than the ones that I recall from the eighties. The style works for the subject matter and there are hooks a plenty with a slight symphonic ring to them that fits the fields of blood to a tee. I've seen photos of the band not just in kilts but full getup and there were points here where I could have imagined them going all the way and recording the album live on the site of a highland battle.

Even a few times through, I have no idea which songs to call out as the best or even my favourites. There's a lot of variety within the framework of the style they've picked, so fast songs like Freedom sit well next to slow ones like The Heart of Scotland. I do really like how well the pipes incorporated into the latter and not just for the expected intro. They play well midway through Gathering of the Clans too and underpin sections of Thousand Tears, which is also elevated by the guest vocal of Noora Louhimo of Battle Beast. That's another power ballad I didn't hate and actually rather enjoyed. With all that said, I'd probably plump for All for the Kingdom and Barbarian.

Outside that brief commercial stint as Digger (and as Hawaii), Grave Digger have kept going for four decades without splitting up. The main man nowadays is lead singer Chris Boltendahl, whose voice fits this material so well it's hard to imagine that he ever sang a different style. Jens Becker has played bass for the band for over two decades, Axel Ritt guitar for eleven years. The new fish is Marcus Kniep, who joined on keyboards in 2014 but shifted to drums in 2018. They all fit this style as well as Boltendahl.

Clearly I need to catch up on Grave Digger. When they've spent three decades forging a career in a genre I don't remember them playing at all, I'm wildly behind.

Stone Rebel - Hole in the Sun (2020)

Country: France
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 1 Jun 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook

Hole in the Sun appears to be Stone Rebel's fourteenth studio album, so I'd usually be asking forgiveness at this point for not having heard of them. I won't this time, though, because they're a lot more prolific than old, this also being their fourth album this year. Given that we're not halfway yet, I would call that surprisingly prolific. They knocked out six albums last year and four more in 2018.

Now, prolificity like that is inherently suspicious. Surely, nobody will be able to maintain a reasonable level of quality over that volume of releases? After all, while there are gems in Buckethead's catalogue, there's a lot of, shall we say, lesser material too. However, I thoroughly enjoyed this album, which is of laid back instrumental rock, driven by noodling guitarwork that often continues at length. Of seven tracks on offer, two of them extend past the ten minute mark and a third well past eight.

I have no idea who's in the band or even if there is a band. This could well be a tight group of musicians who spend all their spare time jamming on new material. I'm hearing at least four instruments here: two guitars, plus bass and drums. Maybe there are four musicians going uncredited on Bandcamp and I wish they'd identify themselves so I can dole it appropriate praise.

However, it's well within the bounds of possibility that Stone Rebel is just one musician whose jam is to live in the studio and improvise new music. It has to be said that it's easier to make band practice when you are the band. If this is a solo project, though, I would have to express surprise at that musician's restraint, as I'm not hearing any keyboards here, let alone the exotic array of instrumentation that solo artists often layer in. Maybe it's all computer generated, though I doubt it.

Even though the song titles often suggest some sort of conflict (Hole in the Sun, Crashing Light, Psycho Monkey and others), this is fundamentally upbeat music. Sure, every track is introspective (somehow I know that the drummer's not the only musician sitting down), but there's a contentment and a comfort inherent in the music, even if that stems from an Escape from Reality. This is 2020, after all, and we've collectively only reached level six of Jumanji thus far.

The Bandcamp page for Stone Rebel states that the style is psychedelic rock, and that's fine by me, but thats a wide genre and this is light years from space rock or stoner rock as we tend to imagine them. I'd place this halfway between a Grateful Dead jam session and whatever New Age CDs show up at your local dollar store for a buck a piece. It's certainly good relaxation music: pop this on and feel your mood improve. However, it's worth a lot more than to just let it slide away into the background while you work because much of the fun is actively listening to those guitars.

Surely the most pleasant album I've heard all year, the question is whether it's likely to stay with me. I don't think I'm going to wake up with any of these tunes playing in my head tomorrow. The most obvious criticism would be that each of the seven pieces of music sounds relatively similar. The drums and bass are there primarily for support purposes, so they don't get to put their own mark on this. In fact, Dreamers does without drums entirely and I wouldn't say they were particularly missed.

It's all about the guitars and, if you're in the mood for soft and pleasing guitar and you want something with a lot more substance than New Age, then I would recommend this highly. I'm sure I'll be coming back to it when I next feel the need to be cheered up. Of course, by then, Stone Rebel may have released another half dozen albums...

Friday 5 June 2020

Tyrant - Hereafter (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Doom/Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 15 May 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter

Here's another return from out of the blue, this time from the left side of the pond. This particular Tyrant, for there are many, hail from Pasadena in California and they play old school chugging heavy metal with an emphasis on heavy, the standard Judas Priest influence being heavied up even further by new fish Robert Lowe who used to sing lead for doom metal legends Solitude Aeturnus and Candlemass.

It all makes for a sound like the Priest at the turn of the seventies into eighties might have found if Rob Halford sang low instead of high. I'd call the sound heavy metal rather than doom, but they're often so close to the latter that they'll often be confused for it, even by fans like me.

The core of the band is founder member Greg May on bass and guitarist Rocky Rockwell, who showed up in 1980, early enough to feature on everything the band has recorded. I remember their eighties albums, Legions of the Dead and Too Late to Pray, but only vaguely. I may have picked them up used back in the day and given them a few spins, but not enough to really take root in my skull. They apparently stuck around long enough to release a third album in 1996, King of Kings, but this is their first in the twenty-four years since. Welcome back, folks.

Hereafter is a daunting album, because it has no pretensions and gets right down to business in ways we're not really used to any more. What constitutes "heavy" has changed a lot over the years and this is heavy in the seventies sense, long before it had to take on other attributes to stay heavy, such as "fast" and "extreme". It's more Priest than Sabbath, but you simply can't be seventies heavy with the Sabbs not showing up as an influence and the middle of Pieces of Mine, to name just one part, is quintessential Sabbath.

This isn't just not fast, in fact it's often almost painfully slow, but it's even heavier than the new Cirith Ungol and that's saying something. Like the Cirith Ungol, this feels like proto-extreme, as if we'll suddenly realise it was actually released way back in 1978, when it was wildly out of sync with everything around it, and so became a pivotal influence on Venom and Celtic Frost and so helped to pave the way for everything we know as extreme metal today.

Until the Day, for instance, really contains no elements that weren't around in 1978, but nobody, not even Black Sabbath, was putting them together quite like this. It arguably took until Candlemass defined a genre and Saint Vitus and Pentagram and others realised what they were playing for this to acquire a name. This often sounds like another band at that point finding their true calling but refusing to ditch their core Judas Priest influence.

That refusal meant that it took me a while to get used to this. If we think of it as a heavy metal album, it's too doomladen; but if we think of it as a doom metal album, it's never really pure enough. With crushingly heavy non-extreme albums like this from Cirith Ungol and Tyrant in quick succession, I wonder if a new genre will rise with a foundation in doom but with guitars that come right out of old school Priest. As I get used to it, I really dig it.

A first listen is like a bludgeoning assault by a band refusing to sound how we expect them to, but we do get used to it and we focus in on the intricacy of the music on a second listen. It still stuns me that Rocky Rockwell is on his own here, as his work often sounds like the twin guitars that we expect from a Priest-influenced band. How many of these riffs are actually the work of Greg May's bass?

This also meant that I tend to think of this as a generous fifty-plus minute slab of heavy metal rather than a set of eleven songs but, the more I listen to it, the more certain of them leap out. Until the Day is one, but the best of them may be Bucolic. It has plenty of intricate guitarwork and it finds a neat groove that speaks to me; Lowe's voice is doomy, grungy and eastern all at once and I love it. In fact, the album wraps up really well, with Beacon the Light and From the Tower both highlights too.

But, after three listens, I'm pretty sure that Hereafter is still growing on me and my list of favourites is likely to change over time. For now, let me just say that it's yet another welcome return for a band we haven't heard in far too long.

Tremendous - Relentless (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Glam Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 15 May 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | YouTube

It's only been a couple of months since I heard the Beau Bowen debut and it blew me away with its throwback to the glam rock of the early seventies, not least David Bowie. Now here comes another British throwback to that era with another notable debut album. Tremendous, which is a ballsy name indeed for a young band (though they are conversely on Horrendous Records), sound totally different to Bowen but they'd make for a great double bill when gigs start back up again.

What's especially interesting to me here is that the list of influences that Tremendous channel isn't remotely confined to early seventies glam rock but that's what they end up sounding like. I'd bring up the Kinks first and most often, but with Mott the Hoople almost as often and others from Oasis to the Sex Pistols fleshing out a working class singer/songwriter sound. Everything here is short and down to earth, like glam rock as garage rock and with only two of ten songs on offer lasting past the three minute mark.

With most of the songs running only two minutes and change, as singles used to be back in the day, there's hardly any time to develop musically, so the band get down to business immediately and focus closely on the central hook. Every song is built around that vocal hook and I was almost surprised when a guitar solo showed up on Like Dreamers Do. There aren't too many of those on this album.

Opener Don't Leave Our Love (Open for Closing) is a fantastic example as it starts out with solo voice, then layers in a heck of a lot before the chorus hits only twenty-four seconds in. That's a grand and impressive ramp up for a first album and it highlights just how much sheer confidence this band has in spades. By comparison, Like Dreamers Do plays it quiet one time through, then builds as they run through again. "We dream of a million things, me and you, as we stare outside and dream like dreamers do," sings Mark Dudzinski, but as he has less than three minutes to play with, he really dreams of one verse twice, a quick solo and a repeating chorus until he's out of time.

These songs are so short that Rock 'n' Roll Satellite is the unusually long song here at a breath over four minutes. It starts out like Def Leppard but quickly shifts into the Lep's key influence, Mott the Hoople. Tremendous may only be a trio but they have enough swagger to sell this song gloriously. It seems surprising that only three musicians can create such a dense sound and that's never so obvious as on Bag of Nails, once we get past the first verse which is quintessential Oasis. Then the wall of sound kicks in and we wonder how anyone can play this quietly. It's raucous and it needs serious ampage.

By this point, only four songs in, I was sold by the music and how mature it all seemed. The downside is easily the lack of lyrics, the standard approach being to repeat one verse a couple of times and let the chorus dominate the rest of the time. It's unashamedly lo-fi and as ballsy as the band name, as if they knew that they could spend time to grow these songs, write a second or third verse here and there, add a guitar solo or three and show off a bit with some clever musicality, but they just couldn't be bothered, so instead they showed up to a studio, knocked out the core of ten songs in an hour and went down the pub for a pint while the label slapped a cover on their work.

I like this band and I like this album, which seems like an effortless slab of punchy garage glam anthems. Dudzinski displays almost no polish here as a singer, his deceptively soft Donovan meets Marc Bolan take on Hell is Only a Blessing Away the most obvious, but he's insanely effective and songwriters will be jealous of how he can turn anything into a solid hook. He's also the band's guitarist and, well, the same could be said there. If he's the heart of the band, then Ryan Jee and David Lee are its backbone, handling bass and drums respectively.

I'm fascinated to see where this band go on future albums. They could shift their sound a little heavier and turn into the next Killers or deepen their sound and go pretty much anywhere they want.

Thursday 4 June 2020

Oz - Forced Commandments (2020)

Country: Sweden
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 22 May 2020
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | YouTube

Here's another metal band from back in the day that I've completely missed out on. They're Oz, who were founded in Nakkila, Finland way back in 1977 and put out some albums during the NWOBHM era, including a poorly received debut in Heavy Metal Heroes but a well received follow up called Fire in the Brain. By that time they'd moved to Sweden, where they remain, and I don't remember seeing their name in the eighties at all but they must surely have been covered in Metal Hammer at least. After five albums, they split up in 1991 and stayed gone until 2010.

This is the third album from the reformed Oz and it sounds great to me, the sound taken from the eighties but eighties but delivered through fresh songs that benefit from the 21st century production. Pekka Mark, who goes by Mark Ruffneck, is the only musician left from the old days, everyone else's time in the band dating back only as far as 2015 or 2016.

It's upbeat stuff, led by Ruffneck's drums, with vibrant twin guitars and a clean operatic vocal. It's old school stuff, rooted in European power metal of the early sort spawned from the NWOBHM. And it's patient stuff, because I could imagine this a lot faster than it is without fundamentally changing it into another genre. The only time they really ramp up is on Liar, which ends the album with a sheer burst of energy. It kicks off with guitar histrionics and then gets faster than anything else on the album. It's never speed metal but there are points where it thinks about it.

What's more, it's consistent stuff. There are eight songs proper here and I would be hard pressed to pick either the best or the worst of them. I'd put their sound somewhere in between the sheer chugging power of Accept and the incessant melodies of Gamma Ray, with Judas Priest style twin guitars and a commerical grounding like Divlje Jagoda that applies to every one of these songs without any exceptions.

My highlights tend to be within songs. Switchblade Alley starts out with an agreeably prowling bass intro from Peppi Peltola. The twin guitar workouts on The Ritual shine, courtesy of Juzzy Kangas and Johnny Gross, as do those at the start of Liar, among others. Those guitars nod at classical in Accept style on Spiders, which gets neatly theatrical late on.

And there's Long and Lonely Road. This is a power ballad and regular readers will know what I tend to think about those. I tend to mention them either as the lowest points of albums or as ones that surprisingly don't annoy me. I'd go a lot further here and state that I actively enjoyed this one as much as anything around it. That's a rarity for me and it speaks volumes about this band and their admirable consistency.

In short, this is classy stuff and that continues into the bonus tracks. I'm not seeing why these three are marked as such at all, as they don't seem to be B-sides, covers or re-recordings or any of the other usual reasons for tracks to get labelled as bonus (though Kingdom of War is a live recording). The album runs a fair 38 minutes without them so, if they're just more new songs, then why not just call this a 55 minute album?

And they're certainly not also rans. In fact, I'd suggest that Diving into the Darkness, the longest song on offer and emphatically the most epic, is also the best. Lead vocalist Vince Koivula is excellent throughout, but he's outstanding here and everyone else in the band matches him. The riffing and transitions are joyous and the last minute and a half is exquisite. With the sheer power that emanates from Kingdom of War, I'd almost hint at the bonus tracks being a step up from the rest of what's already a quality album. And they're why this goes up from a 7/10 to an 8/10.

Dätcha Mandala - Hara (2020)

Country: France
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 5 Jun 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter

I first saw French band Dätcha Mandala described as stoner/desert rock, but that's not strictly true, even with the fuzz on Jérémy Saigne's lead guitar that makes the stoner side of that believable. It's not remotely based in a jam mindset, so I'm not buying desert rock at all. The band describe their sound simply as heavy blues and that feels fair to me, even before Missing Blues shows up to be completely overt, though other tags on their Bandcamp page ring true too, such as hard rock and psychedelic rock.

I'd add a few labels of my own too, as there's plenty of southern rock to be found in songs like Mother God, even before the slide guitar shows up, and a majority of the album plays in mildly psychedelic pop territory. The result is that, even though Stick It Out kicks off the album like a punchy stoner rock anthem, the next few songs continue to add influences until we realise just what the band's scope is.

Mother God brings in the blues, right down to a harmonica, but adds T. Rex pop sensibilities too. With that southern rock sound that extends to slide guitar, they sound like the Black Crowes covering seventies glam rock. Who You Are is heavy blues in the way that Status Quo used to be heavy blues in their heyday but the high pitched Nicolas Sauvey adds a Budgie feel as well. Missing Blues is pure blues, drenched in harmonica, kick drum and distorted vocals.

The band's sound palette is wrapped up with Morning Song, which sounds more like the Beatles with a side of Queen. Imagine if, after Freddy died, Brian and the boys had brought in Paul McCartney to take his place. Once this sound is in place, that aspect never really vanishes from the album. Sick Machine may have strong nods to electronica and even disco but it's the Beatles at heart with dashes of Queen everywhere. Moha is looser, with Indian instrumentation like hand drums and what sounds like a sitar but probably isn't.

Even Tit's, which returns to overt blues, stays in psychedelic pop territory and it takes really heavying back up to shift more to the Budgie vibe, like On the Road. That's done with emphasis on Pavot, which closes the album out with urgent and tortured punk attitude, and on Eht Bup, which is easily my favourite song here. It has a driving riff that's as close to stoner rock as anything since the opener, but the vocals remain ever light and playful, whether they soar like Burke Shelley or harmonise right out of the Beatles textbook. It's like the album in microcosm.

Dätcha Mandala are a trio, so they have fewer musicians than the Beatles or Queen had voices but, like Budgie, they're able to generate serious power as and when they need it and always seem like there are more people than there are making their music. Sauvey is a fine lead singer who shines particularly brightly in the second half of Tit's, but he also provides harmonica, bass and acoustic guitar. Saigne handles the electric guitar while JB Mallet sits behind the drumkit, not just keeping everything lively but shifting tempo on a dime when needed.

This is the band's second album, following 2017's Rokh, which I'll now seek out eagerly. While Eht Bup is easily my favourite song here, with Tit's and Who You Are not too far behind, pretty much all the rest aren't far off the pace, making this a highly consistent and enjoyable album. I'm intrigued by what its predecessor sounded like.

Wednesday 3 June 2020

Alestorm - Curse of the Crystal Coconut (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Folk/Power Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 30 Apr 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

Following hot on the heels of the teaser that was The Treasure Chest EP, the new Alestorm album is as fun as it ought to be and frankly has to be for the band to remain fresh and not the novelty act they so often threaten to be. I have to admit that Treasure Chest Party Quest has soaked into my skin and a bunch of songs here may well end up do the same thing. The album is riddled through with silliness but Christopher Bowes and his crew continue to play a straight game with a wink and it's still working for the most part.

Fannybaws is a silly song about a legendary pirate who's done everything and everybody, including your mum. Chomp Chomp is a silly shanty, fast and heavy and about a giant alligator, because of course it is. Zombies Ate My Pirate Ship is a silly song about, well, you know precisely what it's about because the title gives it away, just as Pirate Metal Drinking Crew does. All these tracks are decent but they're also mostly what anyone who's ever heard even part of an Alestorm album will have expected from this one.

To be fair, Alestorm occasionally mix things up even within the confines of their own tried and tested formula. Sure, they still play power metal with a heavy side of folk, not least through the violin of Ally Storch of Subway to Sally, who guests throughout. Sure, it's all still driven by shanty melodies and a glorious sense for hooks, if that's remotely appropriate terminology for a pirate metal band. Sure, Bowes still delivers his sneering piratical vocals and his own particular brand of dark humour.

Tortuga is the most obviously different song here and I'm surprised to find that it's grown on me like a fungus since I first heard it last month on The Treasure Chest EP. It has an overt pop sensibility to it, sometimes sounding like a boy band gone folk metal with a guest rap section, and that's not the Alestorm I thought I'd be drawn to, but it's done very well and it's a welcome diversion from the norm.

The other songs that do something different are Zombies Ate My Pirate Ship and Wooden Leg Part 2 (The Woodening). The former veers into symphonic metal waters, down to a guest female vocal that works really well. The latter has a chiptune section that's just as pop in its way as Tortuga. It's also epic in nature, running over eight minutes, even if the story it tells isn't deep enough to warrant that.

If Wooden Leg Part 2 is problematic in a few ways, not least a cheap stretch of a chorus, it's not the worst song here because it is at least fun and, by the end, endearingly ridiculous. That accolade surely has to go to Shit Boat (No Fans), which is a wasted minute and change of pointless profanity. Now, Alestorm can be both profane and funny, as in Fucked by an Anchor, possibly their catchiest track ever, but this loses the funny so just sounds awkward.

If you're already an Alestorm fan, this is going to be another fun release for you but, if you aren't, this is less likely to convert you than earlier albums. Check out Black Sails at Midnight first or Captain Morgan's Revenge.

Manifesto - The Pills for Blindness (2020)

Country: Russia
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 Apr 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | VK | YouTube

Manifesto are a prog rock band from Moscow and they do exactly what all the best prog rock bands do: keep me on my toes. This album, which runs half an hour even though it only features two tracks was constantly unexpected and I appreciated that considerably. I like hearing things that I have never heard before and this falls into that

The first of those is The Last Grand Manifesto, a telling title for a group called Manifesto, and it tells us quickly and clearly that they're huge Pink Floyd fans. This is so akin to classic Floyd that I wondered at one point if I'd actually popped on a Roger Waters solo concert instead, where he changed things up on Shine On You Crazy Diamond and then segued into some alternate universe combination of Time, Money and Welcome to the Machine.

But then those sound effects grow. What initially appears to be a set of the sampled embellishments that Alan Parsons pioneered on Dark Side of the Moon just keeps on going for the last half of the song. And given that the song's fourteen minutes long and this starts around the four minute mark, that's a heck of a lot of samples and a lot of non-music to sit on a music album. It becomes a journey and it captivated me like a radio drama.

Where it took me, I'm still not entirely sure, but through a few centuries of history is a good place to start. There's war here and peace, the advent of technology, cultural shifts, you name it. It's wildly ambitious and it's more reminiscent of the sound collage work of artists like Corporal Blossom than any actual band, whether prog or not. Pink Floyd have never been quite this experimental, even on something as unusual as Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave And Grooving with a Pict.

The title track, split into two parts, has the unenviable task of following that opener and it does so by changing completely. Part 1 is wavery strings against piano until a voice shows up to take over from a cello. We're still in Floyd territory, with that voice moving from calm and soft and enticing to angry and vicious and reactionary. The production here is particularly fascinating because what's so obviously traditional, a song with voice and guitar and drums, is deliberately rendered a lot less traditional.

Sometimes it feels like we're listening to a vinyl album someone transferred to cassette and then left in a box in a hot shed for a couple of decades so that the tape's a little warped but still plays. Sometimes it feels like the band are performing underwater. And then things clean up and the band punch through the overlay with an urgent funk metal beat that might have come out of King Crimson. Manifesto never totally lose the Floyd influence here, but they add so much to it that they're something else entirely.

Part 1 only lasts seven minutes but it seems longer. Part 2 runs ten but it feels shorter, more timeless. There's more David Gilmour guitar and swathes of phrasing that's clearly taken from Floyd, but it all plays out more like a jazzy instrumental Steely Dan, even with Hammond organ swells in a funky first half and serious builds halfway through. The dynamics are glorious on this one and we shouldn't be surprised when we seem to finish up at a dinner party. What can they get me? More of that guitar, please. Thank you!

Sadly I have no idea which musicians to praise. The band have a group rather than a page on Facebook, so About doesn't tell me much. Instagram really has no interest in telling anyone anything and I'm still figuring VK out. So all I can say is that Manifesto hail from Moscow and I do mean the one in Russia not Idaho. I don't know how many people there are in the band or how long it has been making music or what else they might have done. However, I would be very happy to find out the answers to any or all of those questions. This is ambitious and original work and I want to hear more.

Tuesday 2 June 2020

House of Lords - New World, New Eyes (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 May 2020
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I remember House of Lords from their debut, which made quite an impact back in 1988. It was a major effort, the band built around Angel's Gregg Giuffria and musicians of the calibre of Quiet Riot's Chuck Wright and Fifth Angel's Ken Mary. Jeff Scott Soto sang backing vocals throughout and the songs were written or co-written by names like Stan Bush and Rick Nielsen. It was a big deal but, given how the musical landscape changed soon afterwards, it's not surprising to find that House of Lords called it quits in 1993.

However, they reformed in 2000 and they're still going, with vocalist James Christian the main man nowadays. Giuffria left in 2004 and the other three founding members followed in 2005, but current lead guitarist Jimi Bell and drummer B. J. Zampa have been with House of Lords longer than each of them, making this kind of their band now. Bassist Chris Tristram is the new fish, having joined in 2016. This makes a dozen studio albums for House of Lords and two thirds of those have come since Christian took the reins.

I liked this one on a first listen, even with the inevitable power ballad in Perfectly (Just You and I). However, it got better, albeit oddly in phases. The title track was the most immediate song, a straight ahead melodic hard rock number with hints of glam rock and southern rock. Christian has a very clean voice and, given trends, it wouldn't shock me if he decided to record a solo country album at some point instead of a straight AOR album.

The Both of Us also stood out immediately and, again, it's a catchy straight melodic hard rock song. A second time through and other similar songs leapt up to join it, like Chemical Rush and One More. They're a little more subtle but not by much. The refrains on Chemical Rush and We're All That We Got are acutely infectious and some of the lively guitarwork follows suit.

On a third listen, the less straightforward songs made their presence really known. Change (What's It Gonna Take) starts out like Boston with a long and imaginative keyboard intro, then turns into a mature Bon Jovi and bizarrely ends up in Owner of a Lonely Heart era Yes with overlays everywhere we might look. The Summit starts out like a perkier Led Zeppelin, complete with some requisite middle eastern bits.

However, none of those are the primary influence here, which seems to me to be Aerosmith. That influence shows up on One More but really gets overt on The Chase, which features a horn section and a slide guitar and sounds like Aerosmith rocking up a Robert Palmer pop hit. By this point, at four or five times through, The Chase leaps out as perhaps the best song here, but then I let it replay once more and get caught up in other songs all over again.

While this was a 6/10 on my first listen with some highlights that elevated it, it's become an album I'm tempted to give an 8/10. It grows that much. On consideration, I think I'll stay with a 7/10 because some of this is generic and some of it is overly derivative. I'd have been more sold on the Yes and Led Zep bits if they were integrated better into the album as a whole rather than their own individual songs. Also, while the power ballad is pretty good for its type, I'm not a big fan. I'm a much bigger fan of the rest of this.

Satan's Empire - Hail the Empire (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock/Heavy Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 20 Mar 2020
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I've been reviewing a lot of albums lately by bands who were active back in the era of NWOBHM, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, that was such a key step in the transformation of the hard rock of the seventies into the heavy metal subgenres of the eighties and on. It's a special era for me and I have absolutely loved hearing new material from bands like Weapon UK, Angel Witch and the Tygers of Pan Tang. I'm especially buzzed to see new albums from the bands who never really got going back then, like Badge and Satan's Empire.

Badge were known only for a single, Silver Woman, released in 1981. Satan's Empire didn't even get that far, only managing to get one track released on the pivotal first album on Neat Records. It was a compilation entitled Lead Weight and it introduced the world to Venom, Blitzkrieg, Raven, Bitches Sin, Fist, White Spirit and others. Satan's Empire wrapped up that album with its longest song, Soldiers of War.

And then they vanished for almost forty years, even though they'd moved from Dundee to London to make it big. They finally got round to a debut album in 2018, which I haven't heard yet but, only two years on, they're back with a second and I have to say that I'm mightily impressed. As that 37 year delay might suggest, this is patient music. It's heavy but it's not fast and these songs are carefully constructed. Just check out Empire Rising, a six minute song with plenty of musical decisions that remind me of Diamond Head.

There are ten songs on offer here and not one of them wraps up in under four minutes. Six run over five with the longest the closer, New World, at almost nine and, while Diamond Head are clearly a major influence, they're far from the only one. The most obvious is Saxon, who are overt in the opening track, Warriors and continue to be important throughout. Vocalist Derek Lyon, who'd stepped down last year because of ill health but is apparently recovered and back in the band, doesn't sound exactly like Biff Byford but he's never that far away as a comparison.

There's also a lot of Judas Priest here, most obviously in Secrets, which is a song deliberately built in the late seventies Priest style, right down to the echo on the vocals that returns on other songs. Perhaps the best song on the album is Hail the Empire, which starts out acoustic and grows like Biff (and oddly at points, Neil Young) singing for Wishbone Ash. Inevitably, with that title, it also ventures into Manowar territory, but it returns to Wishbone Ash for the solos. There's an overt nod to Radar Love in Storm on the Airwaves and All Hallows Eve is the band's attempt at a Mercyful Fate song, even if they wrote it themselves.

Oddly, the only one of those bands that I know recorded for Neat Records was Wishbone Ash and that was much later on. Neat bands had a certain vibe and I kept waiting for it to show up here. Eventually it did on Black eight songs in. It's nastier and more evil, reminding in some ways of bands like Warfare though more metal and less punk. Magpie's drums get quicker and Lyon's voice gets wilder. It's a lot of fun.

One thing I couldn't get out of my head was just how NWOBHM this sounds and I know that sounds obvious but let me explain. NWOBHM was a movement rather than a genre, a label applied to those bands steadfastly making heavy metal albums in the face of punk. When I've reviewed new albums from NWOBHM bands, I've been labelling them "heavy metal" because that's what they are.

This is too, but it's also the closest I've heard to sounding like it could have been written in 1981, even more so than the Badge album which actually partly was. There's no acknowledgement here of how Metallica took the NWOBHM era and used it as a launchpad for whole new subgenres of metal. A song like Shadowmaker is an obvious candidate for Metallica to cover but there's not a hint of Metallica in it. It's Wishbone Ash and Diamond Head again.

I like this a lot and I'll try not to bemoan the fact that we've lost out on decades worth of Satan's Empire albums. At least not too much. I'll stick to being happy that at least they're getting round to that discography now.

Monday 1 June 2020

Sinister - Deformation of the Holy Realm (2020)

Country: The Netherlands
Style: Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 29 May 2020
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While Dutch death metal band Sinister were founded as far back as 1988, they didn't issue their highly regarded debut until 1992, as I was drifting away from what I felt was becoming a stale genre, mostly because of the limiting factor of the vocals. Nowadays, I'm finding a fresh appreciation for the old school form of death metal, the one that doesn't need any prefixes, and I'm happy to say that Sinister are a fantastic example of that.

I've managed to miss out entirely on a long career. This is their fourteenth album and I'm interested in working backwards to see where their sound came from. It's death at its fastest and thrashiest, driven by strong rhythms and intricate guitars. The riffs are frantic and incessant, but they're built on melody without this ever turning into melodic death. The tone is a dirty and demonic one, which I really like, that being only one reason why I'm hearing a Possessed influence.

Where Sinister depart from that Possessed sound is in the vocal style of Aad Kloosterwaard, his deep growl a guttural demonic outburst. I really like how it contributes to the dark texture, but it's a style that doesn't allow him a lot of variety in delivery. It's a limiting factor even across this album, let alone over multiples. He's a founding member, the only one currently in the band, but he shifted over from drums to vocals after they briefly split up and reformed in 2005, making this their eighth album with his voice.

Fortunately, his roar isn't the only vocal sound here and the best songs are able to find variety. The monks who chant us into Oasis of Peace (Blood from the Chalice) show up buried in the mix on Apostles of the Weak and Unbounded Sacrilege. There are some backing vocals under Kloosterwaard's for emphasis, like on Unique Death Experience, but I'm surprised they don't show up as a counter more often, because that's an effective approach on Apostles of the Weak, surely the best song here. There's also what sounds like narration on a few tracks. Variety is the spice of death.

I enjoyed Kloosterwaard's demonic delivery, but I enjoyed the backing music a lot more. Even though the tempo is almost entirely fast, it still varies a great deal and I'm massively impressed by Toep Duin's drumming. There are a pair of guitars here and Michael Grall and Walter Tjwa are imaginative about how they can both combine and play off each other. I enjoyed their soloing a lot on this album too. That leaves Ghislain van der Stel on a reliable bass and praise for the brief instrumentals that play in symphonic territory and still fit on the album, like this is a demonic opera.

I liked this album, just as much on a third listen as a first, and I want to hear more from Sinister. I did a little reading up and see that their albums have had varied reception, a bunch of them being rated very highly, not only the early ones, but a bunch being rated a lot lower. I wonder how much this ties to the line up at the time, given that there's a lot of turnover in the band.

Of the five current members, only two played on the prior album, Syncretism in 2017, and it can't be promising when a band who have been around for over three decades are unable to boast more than two members who have lasted more than a decade. If I'm counting properly, at least thirty musicians have been part of Sinister. That seems like a lot, but I should emphasise the flipside that they can turn out an album this solid with mostly new members.

DeVicious - Phase Three (2020)

Country: Germany
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 8 May 2020
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I seem to be have been reviewing a lot of melodic rock lately and plenty of albums from Germany, so it seems like an easy choice to kick off June with a melodic rock album from Germany. This is the third album from the Karlsruhe band known as DeVicious and it's as catchy as all get out, located musically somewhere in between the radio-friendly hooks of FM and the riff-laden power of Firewind. It helps that these songs are delivered in English without too much accent.

I haven't heard either of the first two DeVicious albums, but I've seen the name banded around on Facebook and I've heard odd songs here and there, like on the ever-reliable Chris Franklin's Raised on Rock radio show. It's pretty hard to think of a more likely band to feature on his show, because this is the most hook-laden set of songs that I've heard in a long time. Everything is driven by melody, whether it's a verse or a chorus, a riff or the lively bass that opens Calling My Name. Even the drums feel catchy.

In fact, for quite a while, the name of the game seems to be to one-up the previous song on that front. Firefly is obvious single material. Mysterious is even more obvious single material. Pouring Rain may not match those two, but, by the time we get to Walk Through Fire, I frankly gave up wondering if anything could be more obvious single material. I was singing along to this one on my first listen, even though I didn't know the words yet.

The approach is pretty straightforward. DeVicious are a five piece band with a dedicated lead singer in Antonio Calanna, the third such in three albums, and the usual instruments behind him. Radivoj Petrovic is the only guitarist nowadays but Denis Kunz gets a lot to do on keyboards. I'd call what they do hard rock rather than heavy metal, but it has a metallic edge. It's kind of like power metal if you toned down both the power and the metal but not so far with either as to reach AOR softness.

There are eleven songs on offer, plus a brief keyboard interlude, with the first ten following a reasonably like mindset. While the most overt singles are stacked early, the album doesn't get weaker after they're done, at least until the ballad that closes it out. It's easily my least favourite song on this album and I'm happy that it wasn't placed earlier on the album where it would have broken up the flow.

Some of the later songs could be described as the sort that keep on growing on you until they're playing in your head the moment that you wake up in the morning. Every time I listen through, Higher feels a little less worthy than the early standouts but it just won't leave me alone. It may be because it's missing that je ne sais quoi to elevate it over the others, but it's so damn good at what it does that it ends up elevating itself anyway.

Some of them are deeper musically. Clearly these musicians are capable but I don't think they're particularly pushing themselves, because this album is a lot more interested in riffs and hooks than solos. They're just not showing off. However, there are little moments here and there where they mix it up a bit more, like You Can't Stop Now and especially Calling My Name, which may well be my favourite of these songs, with a kind of Dr. Feelgood-esque tease to it.

If this was 1984, DeVicious would be everywhere, with four or five of these songs big hits in multiple countries. Even in 2020, they really ought to be all over the radio because it could work to a pop, rock or metal audience.