Wednesday 26 August 2020

Night in Gales - Dawnlight Garden (2020)

Country: Germany
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 24 Jul 2020
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I struggled with this new Night in Gales album for a while. Certainly, part of it is that I'm not a big fan of Christian Müller's vocals, which seem to me to be overly emotional for the material, a cross between hardcore shouts, death growls and emo pouts. He was the band's original vocalist back in the nineties but he handed over to Björn Gooßes in 1996 and it's Gooßes on their first five albums. Müller rejoined in 2016 and this is his second album with the band since, after 2018's The Last Sunsets.

I'm much happier with the music but it still didn't grab me off the bat. It wasn't until the eighth track, A Spark in the Crimson Eclipse, that I got on the right wavelength. That felt like an old Dark Tranquillity song to me and that's no bad thing. Through Dark Decades sounded great too following it and my favourite piece of music here is surely The Bonebed, which closes out the album instrumentally. And that's not just because of the absence of vocals, but because of its slower feel that's closer to doom/death.

Listening through again, I found that there are doom/death notes throughout, especially in the guitar solos, though the pace continues to be far too fast to qualify as doom/death until The Bonebed. A song like Winterspawn could be easily slowed down to half speed and its excellent riff might even have more impact that way. I also found that I was even getting conditioned to Müller. I still much prefer Gooßes's more traditional delivery but my second listen brought Müller's stronger growl into focus. He isn't always overemotional.

Maybe I just needed to get inside this music. Maybe Müller's wailing put me at a distance and I couldn't get closer until A Spark in the Crimson Eclipse pulled me in with its more inspired dynamics. Certainly, even on another run through, the second half seems stronger than the first, even with that riff on Winterspawn, some very cool bass work on Beyond the Light and relentless pacing on Beasts Leave Tombs Again.

Ignoring the brief dissonant intro that is Atrocity Kings, which doesn't do anything for the album, there are ten songs here, making Kingdom technically the end of the first half. It's certainly the heart of the album, right in the middle of it and almost two minutes longer than anything else. It has an intricate intro and a fantastic breakdown in its midsection, the latter featuring the best vocal work on the album. It's here that Night in Gales really start to shine.

Then, after the decent The Spectre Dead, come A Spark in the Crimson Eclipse and Through Dark Decades, which both shine. The former is a tour de force, a complex song with constantly shifting tempos and no end of dynamic play. The shoutier end of Müller's delivery actually works here, as it's energetic and raw. The most annoying thing about this song is that it isn't new, being the A side of the Razor single back in 1996. Through Dark Decades continues that well, albeit more predictably and with a steadier pace. Choir of Unlight has a tasty guitar solo, almost a setup for The Bonebed.

For German melodeath, this is emphatically done in the Swedish style. At its best, it reminds of early Dark Tranquillity. At its worst, it reminds of the most average At the Gates. I originally had a 6/10 in mind, but it convinced me on that second listen to go up to a 7/10. I still want to listen to this at half speed just to see how near to doom/death it would sound like, but it does the job. It's good to see Night in Gales surviving the loss of its lead vocalist of sixteen years and moving forward, even if I'm not totally sold on his predecessor/replacement.

PS: I adore that cover by Costin Chioreanu!

Tommy Grasley aka Tommy Gunn - I Believe in Love (2020)

Country: Canada
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 14 Feb 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter

Tommy Grasley, who sent me a copy of this album for review, seems like he's a nice guy. He's bubbly and charming and full of life, an impression backed up by the quirky lyrical content and the broad smile that decorates his face in every photo I can find of him (except, ironically, the one on the cover). It looks like there was plenty of darkness in his past but he's survived and moved forward and his vibrancy is engraved in every virtual groove on this album. Quite frankly, it's infectious.

Now, I'm here to review an album rather than a person but the two seem to be intrinsically linked. This feels good in large part because Grasley clearly felt good when he recorded it. Certainly its character is his character and its identity is his identity. He doesn't have the widest range and he wisely doesn't try anything flash, beyond a neat metal scream on the heaviest song, Jct 66. He just sings (well sings and writes and produces, but doesn't play any of the instruments) in his own characterful style.

I love voices that revel in sounding different and Grasley's certainly fits that bill. In some ways, his voice reminded me of Robin George's guitar, in that neither really does anything out of the ordinary but somehow finds its own groove to become instantly recognisable. I haven't heard Grasley's prior album but, if someone threw it on six months from now, I'm sure I'd be able to perk up my ears and recognise him.

The best song here is surely Love Conquers All, which kicks off rather like a cheeky Beatles track and only gets funkier. The opening riffs aren't from Greg Godovitz's guitar but the bass of Mike King, occasionally echoed by the saxophone of Grasley's dad, Sonny Del Rio, who's showcased on Sonnyfoxdale, the instrumental interlude before it. There's some Beatles on Baby XO too, a fundamental melodic line always Grasley's primary goal.

Rather than just turn out Love Conquers All in nine different guises, there are a lot of different sounds on this album, which thus occasionally becomes a little schizophrenic at points. For instance, Jct 66 is much heavier than anything else here, almost a grunge song on a melodic rock album. It's not a bad song at all, but it feels out of place. Then there's Richard, a tribute to Richard Newell, best known as King Biscuit Boy, whom Grasley met when his dad was performing with Newell's band, Crowbar (no, not that one). This song is emphatically a blues song, which would have felt less out of place had it not followed Jct 66.

Earlier songs are more consistent but with their own quirks that bring them quite a lot of life, often in Grasley's songwriting as much as, if not more than, his singing. There's some quirky harmonising on Haterz that I dig and Strange finds a particularly neat groove. This one's almost like an eighties song hauled out for a timely revamp to comment on just how much has changed in the decades since then. Dale Harrison provides some memorable drums here and he's reliable across much of the album. A number of guitarists add good solos too.

By the way, I like Strange just as it is, but I could totally see it become a hit for someone else, in precisely the same way that Tom Waits is known by so many through the songs of others more palatable to the mainstream, like the Eagles or Rod Stewart, who's incidentally related to Grasley through his mother. I expect to see Grasley's Strange on YouTube in future years with a host of comments from people who found the original from a indie movie after it had become famous in a version by someone else.

It might take you a couple of songs to get into this, but listen through a few times and it'll take root in your skull as a set of melodic rock songs that don't sound like anyone else. And I see that as a good thing.

Tuesday 25 August 2020

Kansas - The Absence of Presence (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 26 Jun 2020
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There's a lot in this latest Kansas album to unpack but it seems clear that the band has no interest at all in resting on their laurels or just trading their name for a big money trawl through the hits tour. This isn't just new music, it's carefully constructed new music that sounds good and highlights just how much they're looking forward. In fact, the band has found a strong balance between a solid core of four old faithfuls and a busy duo of newer faces.

Those old faithfuls are Rich Williams and Phil Ehart, the only two founding members left, on guitars and drums respectively; bassist Billy Greer, who's been a consistent face since 1985; and violinist David Ragsdale, who joined in 1991 and rejoined after a decade break. When Steve Walsh, the heart of the band, decided to focus on playing live, those three recorded an album on the side under the name of Native Window. After Walsh left Kansas in 2014, they brought in new blood and started a new era.

New lead vocalist Ronnie Platt and new guitarist Zak Rizvi were in place for The Prelude Implicit in 2016, their first studio album in sixteen years. Its ten songs were written by ten different combinations of the seven members of the band, plus others, so there was little consistent vision. This time out, just four years on, the music for each of nine songs was composed by either Rizvi or new keyboardist Tom Brislin, who joined in 2018 and is now one of three lead singers. Brislin wrote many of the lyrics too, often with Ehart, and Platt contributed as well. It looks like they've found what works.

It's certainly ambitious, if not catchy. I've listened through a few times now and there are no obvious singles, let alone one that might outsell Dust in the Wind. In fact, the only piece of music running under four and a half minutes is an instrumental, albeit a very good one, Propulsion 1. These are often complex compositions, drenched in both guitars and keyboards, and the title track kicks off the album at the uncommercial length of 8:22. I'd say that the catchiest thing here is the closer, The Song the River Sang, which often resembles a funky Yes with a teasing riff and wild drum rhythms, even though it's also the most experimental song on offer.

What that means is that it's an immersive album. I need to throw this onto headphones and listen in the dark because it feels like it would just come alive in that setting. There's plenty going on in The Absence of Presence, though it unpacks well over time to feel less busier. It's full of dynamic play in Yes style, quiet moments with a voice over piano giving way to lush instrumental passages full of complexity and vice versa. And that goes for both the title track and the album it gives its name to.

That opener is certainly one of my favourites here, because there's so much going on within it that it's a sort of gift that keeps on giving. Throwing Mountains has an edge to it; there are guitars here that are both faster and heavier than I expected on a Kansas album, though this firmly remains prog rock and has no interest in flirting too closely with metal. Propulsion 1 is a joy that ends too quickly; the vocals are always enjoyable here, but I ached for more instrumentals. Never is softer but still memorable. Eventually there's The Song the River Sang, which may have been my favourite song on a first listen and certainly grabs me every time through. It's easily the most adventurous piece here and it's a great way to wrap things up.

I enjoyed this a lot and will give it a few more spins before I'm done with it for now. I may well come back to it periodically too. It's not an album to throw on once and move on from. It's an album to explore, leisurely and often. So much great prog nowadays, so little time.

Satanica - Resurrection of Devil's Spirit (2020)

Country: Japan
Style: Heavy/Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 Jul 2020
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With their corpse paint, Satanica could be mistaken for a black metal band, but their poses suggest that they took their look directly from Kiss. Black Widow certainly feels like a Kiss song in pretty much every way and it isn't too difficult to find their influence elsewhere either. The first Satanica album, after all, was called Knights in Satanic Service, as a nod to the old PMRC explanation of KISS as an acronym. Nice.

Mostly, they're a little heavier than Kiss, with a riff-driven sound right out of the Judas Priest playbook, often as filtered through the NWOBHM era and power metal from a little later. The most Priest influenced song here is the instrumental, Kamikaze, which is a decent workout for the twin guitars of Ozzie Alastor and Shee Lipps. The influence is there throughout, though, from beginning to end, starting with the opening track, Resurrection.

The NWOBHM feel is most obvious in Dark Star, which could have been a song from the Midlands in 1981; it almost sounds familiar. Deal with the Devil starts out heavy in ways I'd associate more with later Metallica or Pantera, but ends up back in NWOBHM territory. Thunderstorm sounds like a Tokyo Blade song and, while Satanica hail from Japan, Tokyo Blade, their eastern name and image notwithstanding, don't. They're British through and through.

There's some Accept in Thunderstorm too, but those Teutonic riffs show up a lot here. Liar is the most obviously Accept-influenced song, with its strong and relentless pace and its effortless power. I half expected it to become Princess of the Dawn. Like a Fire nails that quintessential Accept drive as well, especially with guitars soloing all over it.

Satanica aren't a new band but they don't date back to the heyday of bands like Bow Wow and Loudness. They were formed in 2002 and put out that debut a couple of years later. This is only their fourth album, coming a full decade after its predecessor, so we might expect a more modern sound than this. It certainly sounds like a 2020 album because of the production, which is heavy at the back end, but the band are looking backwards throughout.

And the result sounds pretty good to me. It's a decent mix: memorable NWOBHM song structures that are full of reliable Teutonic riffs, Priestly solos and Kiss melodies. The voice of Ritti Danger somehow fits all those components, not even attempting the high notes we might expect at points but managing to do a good job regardless, even if he's keeping the beat throughout because he's also the band's drummer.

This is a long way the most original album I've heard in 2020 but it's clear that Satanica aren't particularly interested in original. They just do what they do as well as they can, influences worn on their sleeves. It's telling that, while I can pick my favourites here pretty easily, such as Dark Star, Kamikaze and Liar, there's nothing beneath a second tier of enjoyable songs. I'd be happy to hear any one of these on a metal radio show.

Let's hope the satanic name, look and album titles don't distract potential listeners from checking them out, because this will be right up the alley of old and new school NWOBHM fans everywhere.

Monday 24 August 2020

Massive Wagons - House of Noise (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 17 Jul 2020
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I thoroughly enjoyed Full Nelson, the fourth Massive Wagons album, which was one of the first to fall under the banner of New Wave of Classic Rock that I reviewed here at Apocalypse Later. I thoroughly enjoyed this one too but I'm in two minds as to whether it's better or not.

It's certainly just as energetic, if not more so, with my personal highlight of Pressure punkier and extra lively. It finds the singalong Status Quo vibe that Back to the Stack did last time out and I think this one's even better. I'd call the production easily better too, which especially serves the first few upbeat rockers really well. It's one of those albums you always want to turn up, even if you're at maximum volume already and the neighbours are on the phone with the cops.

I'd say that the first half is even more consistent too, In It Together and Bangin in Your Stereo stonking openers but the title track able to add just a little something more to the mix. There's some Thin Lizzy in that one but it's never derivative. Looking back over the last couple of years, it's fair to say that Massive Wagons still sound like Massive Wagons, even against the growing roster of New Wave of Classic Rock acts.

I think it's because their set of influences are completely different from all those bands who are looking back at Led Zeppelin and Bad Company. Their sound comes from Quo and Terrorvision, with a dash of Lizzy here and another of AC/DC there and maybe a little bit of pop punk to keep it all bouncing so well.

Certainly Hero tries to be an AC/DC song but, while I do rather like it, it isn't very successful at that. The opening Bon Scott prowl is beyond Baz Mills, who finds better success as the song shifts towards and away from Brian Johnson, and a steady drone isn't a good replacement for what aches to be a rumbling bass line. However, there is a really nice guitar solo here from either Adam Thistlethwaite or Stevie Holl and there's a really nice vibe behind it too.

I'm less enthused about the second half of the album than the first, even if it starts off so well with Pressure. The Curry Song is capable but even more stupid than the stupidest song on the prior album, even if it has quite the decent mosh part, and I can't quite get into Glorious and Hallescrewya, even though I rather want to. As fun as they are, especially with the Lizzy-esque dual solo on the former, they're still distant.

One obvious change from last time is the song lengths. While most songs here continue to sit in the three to four minute range, easily worthy of airplay, there are longer songs here. Hallescrewya takes the place of Northern Boy as the one that nudges past five minutes, but Hero makes it past six and Matter of Time, which closes out the album, runs a full eight.

It's definitely worthy of mention because it's a slower, bluesier song with plenty of opportunity for solos, which are excellent. The guitarists stay a little restrained throughout the album, presumably for the sake of commercial appeal, the Randy Rhoads-esque intro to Sad Sad Song notwithstanding, but a longer song or three do give them the opportunity to shine and I appreciated that. Energetic radio friendly hard rock songs are great and all but sometimes I just want sit back and enjoy the hell out of a good guitar solo.

So this is at once a greater and a lesser album than Full Nelson and, after a few listens, I think I'm going to rate it slightly lower. It's still a must for New Wave of Classic Rock fans though.

Lapsus Dei - Sea of Deep Reflections (2020)

Country: Chile
Style: Progressive Doom Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 16 Jun 2020
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I came to this album believing that Chilean band Lapsus Dei play doom/death metal, and yeah, there's some of that in here, but it seems like it's a long way back in their history. They've been around since 1998 and this is their fourth studio album, their first since In Our Sacred Places five years ago. It plays more as progressive metal to me, with predominantly clean vocals, a strong sense of perky doom and at least one leg in the hard/prog rock era of the seventies.

For instance, The Call of Sirens feels fundamentally rooted in doom but far forward in the band's evolution, as if Messiah Marcolin's era in Candlemass had evolved into a prog band, adding folky keyboards, Led Zeppelin riffs and a David Gilmour solo, even enhancing the latter with a little Fleetwood Mac edge from The Chain.

It does make for an interesting sound and the result is highly Scandinavian, so much so that it's hard to reconcile that this is a band from Chile. Were I listening to this blind, I might imagine someone like Amorphis, circa the point with Am Universum that they moved away from their original sound into something more progressive and hard rock in nature, but newer, less overtly catchy and with a tinge of a band like Soen.

Only one song is sung in Spanish and it's Naufragos, the longest song on the album and another one that feels like it came out of doom but got faster and perkier. The swirling keyboards are so light that, however demonstrative the beats, I was too uplifted to feel doomy. Given that the title translates to Shipwrecks, that ought to feel a little odd. Somehow I left it wanting to be shipwrecked.

Naufragos pretty much finishes halfway through and goes instrumental. That means a fresh Gilmour-esque solo and it's very confidently delivered. I like this sound a lot but I have to admit that I found myself anticipating where it was going at points, as if I'd heard these particular changes before. Was Rodrigo Poblete drifting into Shine On You Crazy Diamond or did he just nail the underlying sound behind it?

The Last Trip is the first song to feature death growls and, by this point, we're almost halfway into the album, so we can't see it as one of the band's primary focuses any more. However, The Last Trip, and Colossal which follows it, are excellent slabs of atmospheric doom/death, if still brighter than we might expect.

The doomiest song on offer here may be Alone I Break, not because it ditches any of the keyboards but because they float so achingly over a neat dirge of a riff. Like so many of the songs here, it finds its mood and milks it well, even if half of it features clean vocals and the other half harsh.

It's all extrapolated forward so far that it's hard to imagine where Lapsus Dei started out. I look forward to working through their back catalogue to find that out. For much of the album, I'd suggest a Paradise Lost influence, as there's much in Alejandro Giusti's voice to suggest that he's listened to a lot of Nick Holmes, across multiple eras, but the music often suggests My Dying Bride instead, especially during the second half of the album.

Either way, I like this a great deal. Every album I hear from South America adds to my wish to hear more. This is very different from the prog I've been reviewing from there lately, but it's just as welcome.

Thursday 13 August 2020

Bob Dylan - Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Folk/Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 19 Jun 2020
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I have to say up front that I was wary going into this album. I've enjoyed Dylan's work for decades but, the more I hear it, the more I find I prefer his earlier work. The Times They are a-Changin' is one of my top ten albums of all time, not because of how catchy the title track is but because of how deep that album goes. Now, I'm no folk purist. I love electric Dylan too and Hurricane plays in my head at all sorts of random moments. I haven't enjoyed the deterioration of his voice over the years, though, and I haven't found myself grabbed by more recent albums.

And, on my first time through this one, his 39th studio album and his first made up of original material in eight years, I wasn't grabbed at all. It's a quintessentially laid back Dylan album, False Prophet notwithstanding. It's easily the most laid back I've ever heard him, about as far from rough and rowdy as it gets, and it was offputting. I lost a few songs in the middle of the album because I just tuned out.

Sure, it's laid back (I've Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You is so laid back it's almost horizontal) and the music is emphatically a backdrop to his lyrics and, rather surprisingly for me, his vocal delivery, which was much more intonated than I expected. It's varied in style but almost deliberately inoffensive so we never actually lose a focus on the words. If we heard this as instrumentals, it would be safer than your average soft jazz album.

However, some of it comes from a less ambitious structure to songwriting. I caught plenty of cleverness in the lyrics, as we might fairly expect from a poet who has become a Nobel laureate. However, each sentence seems delivered in short and easily digestable chunks for a modern ADHD audience and some of the rhymes are cheap and scan awkwardly, right from the opening lines of the opening song, I Contain Multitudes.

But I kept listening, perhaps spurred into attention by the two long songs that wrap up the album, Key West (Philosopher Pirate) and Murder Most Foul. Every listen saw the album burrow deeper into my brain. Those songs close to the heart of the album started to grab my attention. Songs that seemed to be overly simple started to find serious depths. And I started to realise just how good this album is. It's just Dylan reinventing himself yet again, at 79 years young and almost 60 years into his recording career.

There's something of a growl on False Prophet, the most in your face song on this album, and it almost finds a Tom Waits vibe, albeit not so avant-garde. Mother of Muses reminds of Leonard Cohen. But most of this is quintessential Dylan, just in a different form. It's introspective and personal. It takes a long look at how American culture has moved forward, phrased in unusual ways like Murder Most Foul being a sort of ongoing wake for JFK in the form of a string of musical requests for Wolfman Jack to play on the radio. It's hard not to see it as Dylan's American Pie; it's just as cryptic but it's a lot deeper. Even the album title is a riff on Jimmie Rodgers.

That song is almost seventeen minutes long, dwarfing Key West's skimpy nine and a half, but they're quiet but quietly commanding and they contain a heck of a lot to unpack. Suddenly we realise just how much Dylan was sifting his way through American history through its music on songs like Goodbye Jimmy Reed and Mother of Muses. There are themes here, woven throughout the album, and it takes a little while to realise just how clever that is. Dylan plays with our attention spans on songs like I Contain Multitudes, but suckers us into consuming a heck of a lot more than we think we did.

This isn't a short album, running over fifty minutes even without that long final song that comes on its own disc. I'm half a dozen listens through and I'm still finding new things every single time. The Dylan of 1962 is in here waiting to be found when we look for him but he's inside the Dylan of 2020, who's an older, wiser and far more patient voice of reason in a crazy world. It's timeless but also very timely indeed.

Wednesday 12 August 2020

Vicious Vision - Aïn (2020)

Country: Morocco
Style: Groove/Thrash Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 13 Jun 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Twitter | YouTube

When I noticed a new thrash album from a band from Morocco, I knew I had to take a listen and, while it's not quite as culturally wild as I hoped it might be or quite as vicious as the band's name might suggest, it does sound good and interesting to me and I'm happy to have learned a little more about African metal. The band have been around since 2006 but have roots in the golden age of Moroccan metal, which I'd love to hear more about.

Vicious Vision hail from Casablanca and Aïn is a letter of the Perso-Arabic alphabet. I wonder why they used it as the title for this album, given that much of it is sung in English and there are even samples of English news to introduce BodyFence. That does make it more accessible to me but I'm sure a cultural or linguistic detail is eluding me.

They play their thrash very much on the groove metal side of that subgenre, so they've surely been listening to a lot of Pantera. Surely they've paid a lot of attention to Sepultura too, both because of the ethnic sounds that a bunch of these songs overlay at points and because of the emphatic vocals of Joao Paulo Esteves which are clearly influenced by punk but still sound more metal than anything I hear in hardcore nowadays.

By the way, I should emphasise that the ethnic sounds sit under these songs, absorbed into them as background, because they rarely quite seem to actually be part of them. It's like the band happened to be rocking out on the street while a selection of other musicians happened by and they tailored what they were doing to match them, rather than the other way around. It makes for an interesting approach and, while it was a little offputting at first, I soon got used to it and dug it too.

I tend to prefer straight thrash to groove/thrash hybrid bands, but that's a lot to do with the more groove oriented bands being less imaginative on the whole. I still dig the more diverse groove bands, Sepultura surely being the most obvious, and Vicious Vision definitely on that list. I like that every song has common elements, helping to define the sound of the band, but each song still has overt differences and travels a different road.

Check out Burst into Chaos, for an example. The first half is straight ahead groove metal, decent but not outstanding, but then it shifts into a bluesy guitar solo halfway and then builds quickly into a fantastic sprint to the finish. I love how it kept me on its toes. Free of Mind does that too, as a staccato groove metal song until it isn't, with tribal drumming, some funky riffs, a lovely ethnic vocal midway during a breakdown, some excellent bass work from Hamza Chiaou and even a thoroughly unusual punk chant to wrap up. Oh yeah, these guys have imagination!

As a thrash album, this might not satisfy, because it rarely speeds up to a point where thrash really applies. This isn't a clean out your system album. As a groove album, it fares much better, always interesting and ready to add other sounds where they'll help, whether they be the ethnic underlays or an abiding habit to get down and bluesy. Bleeding Alone is like bluesy Pantera and I really like that.

I believe this is Vicious Vision's debut album, though they did release one of its songs as a single six years earlier. That's Sir 3allah, which feels both more vicious and more primitive than other songs here. It doesn't end so much as it deteriorates into static. El3ar is more primitive too and it gets really shrill vocally. I'm guessing these are older songs representing where the band came from rather than where they're going to. If so, I look forward to seeing how they'll develop further in the future.

Tuesday 11 August 2020

Deep Purple - Whoosh! (2020)

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

For an album that begins with a funky riff, this is surprisingly free of the iconic guitar riffs that tend to define Deep Purple in the eyes of many. It isn't free of them, of course, and Steve Morse, who I'm surprised to realise has been Purple's guitarist for twenty-six years, does the expected fine job but this seems to be driven as much by Don Airey's keyboards.

In particular, there are a couple of points where this brought the Perfect Strangers album to mind and its couple of instantly recognisable classics, but instead of the guitar defining No Need to Shout and Remission Possible, it's those keyboards with vehement held chords, even if the former promptly kicks in with cool guitarwork as well. It's that more songs seem to kick off with keyboards than guitars, with Nothing at All perhaps the epitome, and a reluctance on the part of the keyboards to stay in the background.

But, quite frankly, this isn't a bad thing and it makes me want to go back to see how the previous four studio albums from Purple Mark VIII sound with that in mind. It gives this longest running incarnation of the band a real identity to distinguish it from Mark II and Mark IV. It's a proggier Purple but one in which melody is still key and the tracks are kept short, Nothing at All feeling the most indulgent and only two songs exceeding five minutes, so ADHD radio-friendly blips compared to the excesses of the seventies.

To be fair, the longest song isn't really The Long Way Round at five and a half, it's the suite that surrounds Man Alive, which really stands out from everything else as the most imaginative and unusual song here. It feels like the title track it kind of is, given that "Whoosh!" is featured within its lyrics. This interesting suite begins with the brief proggy instrumental jam of Remission Possible, patiently explores the end of the human race in Man Alive proper, an unusual song on its own, and then wraps up with a further instrumental, And the Address, which is a redux of the jazzy opening piece of Shades of Deep Purple, the band's debut, which was released over half a century ago now.

That's an interesting choice, in many ways. This album is a solid release, a strong set of nine songs before this point. Then we get the standout track, the title track, the most unusual track on the album, introduced by a brief instrumental. It explores the demise of civilisation and then washes up one man on a beach. Whoosh! And the next thing we hear is the first Deep Purple song anyone ever heard, as if Purple is going to replace humanity. I'm sure some will also highlight that after that is only a bonus track, Dancing in My Sleep, with some programming work from Saam Hashemi. A new direction? No, I'm not going to dig that deep.

Above everything else, this is an enjoyable album. There are no duff songs and most are memorable enough to stand out after we move on to other albums by other bands. Some, like Throw My Bones and Step by Step really stand out, even amongst the enviable back catalogue of a band like Purple. I especially enjoyed the diversity of these songs with the delightful groove of Step by Step and its backing vocals right out of gospel rolling right into the good old fashioned rock 'n' roll honky tonk of What the What. Almost all these songs have something to distinguish them from each other and that's rare in this modern era.

The band sound like they're having fun too, albeit with a patient mindset that's obvious from the outset with Throw My Bones. Gillan sounds good, even if he's a long way from the manic genius of Child in Time or No Laughing in Heaven. It feels like like a safe album for him, even if he's recognisable like always. His most unusual moment, on Man Alive, comes through providing narration rather than any wild use of his substantial vocal talents. Steve Morse is as reliable as we might expect too, surprising mostly by how rarely he launches into a guitar solo. Roger Glover and Ian Paice are reliability personified too, Glover's bass audible and distinguishable throughout. Paice is the only musician to play on every Purple album and we aren't surprised.

But this is Don Airey's album for me. He introduces songs like Nothing at All and The Power of the Moon and its his keyboards that primarily make the former lively and the latter bouncy. He has great solos on Drop the Weapon and Remission Possible. He defines No Need to Shout with a single note. I'm happy enough with Bob Ezrin's mix that I can track every musician here on a fresh runthrough but it's always Airey that returns to focus for me.

GoneZilla - Sang Noir (2020)

Country: France
Style: Gothic Doom Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 19 Jun 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Given all the other Apocalypse Later things I've been doing recently to cut into my music review time, I've had this on repeat for so long that I don't need to actually press play any more for it to rattle around my skull.

It's an EP from France, sent to me by GoneZilla bassist Clément Fau, and it features doom/death with that balance weighted more towards the former than the latter. It reminds me a lot of early Paradise Lost, not least because of a heavy gothic influence, but with a layer of atmospheric texture that rings of a different French band, Winds of Sirius.

The vocals are primarily female and clean, melancholy and emotional, full of gothic splendour. I liked this from my first listen, but when lead vocalist Céline Revol injects an extra level of emphasis into her voice a minute into the opening title track, I knew this was going to be for me. She doesn't do that unless she needs to, but when she needs to she can always turn it up an extra notch and that's a real benefit here.

Two minutes and change into that seven minute opener, the band add an extra voice, a harsh male growl from guitarist Florent Petit that works well as a counter, especially during darker sections. Sometimes it feels like there's an ongoing battle between the elegant gothic doom side of this band and its twisted death sibling. Revol leads the former while Petit brings the latter to the battleground.

This is generally lush rather than sparse, but there's a breakdown a minute or so from the end of Antitaktai that highlights how they sound with all the atmosphere turned off, especially as the response to that breakdown is to go right into an atmospheric section with textured layers. Check out the intro to Dexter-ity II, because many bands might feature a cool guitar like that, but it's the spectral keyboards floating around it here that help to define the GoneZilla sound.

In instrumental sections, that Gothic era Paradise Lost sound springs to the fore, not that it's ever far away. That's especially the case in the second half of Dexter-ity II when the vocals give way to instrumentation. It has a more intense Gregor Mackintosh-style lead guitar, but I have to call out the rhythm section for praise here because, while I was enjoying Julien Babot's solo, I was also adoring the vicious bite of Petit's guitar and Fau's bass, not to forget the admirable patience of Florent Olivier. Babot gets more and more intense and Olivier steadfastly resists the urge to follow him.

While I like Sang Noir and Antitaktai, they're relatively immediate songs. I can't remember how many times I've listened through this EP but there was a point where I realised that Dexter-ity III is easily my favourite. It simply took longer to let me know that, growing and growing on me until I couldn't ignore it any more. The same happened with Amor Tenebris but not to the same extent.

The only negative comment I'd throw in here, beyond this being an EP rather than a full length album (and I want more, dammit), is that the best song is presumably a reworking of a song on their debut album, which came out a few years ago in 2016 and was called Chimères. Now, that's hardly a major issue and it just makes me want to track that debut down even more, but hopefully GoneZilla are keeping safe over there in Lyon and working on a new album to release in the not too distant future.

Monday 10 August 2020

Cro-Mags - In the Beginning (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Crossover
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 19 Jun 2020
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website

So many bands have emerged out of the shadows over the last couple of years, if not from completely out of the blue, but I shouldn't be too surprised to see the Cro-Mags among them, given how often they've split up over the years and how often they've got back together again, in one form or another. They have something of a reputation for internecine feuds, as if all the clichéd New York gang movies are somehow true to life.

This, however, marks an official shift of the band away from its incarnation under John Joseph Bloodclot, who led the Cro-Mags for the last decade in his fifth stint in the band, and to the band's founder, Harley Flanagan, who is now on his fourth. It was Flanagan who sang on Revenge, the band's previous album, which was released only three weeks into the year 2000. They've been gone from the studio, if not the stage, for a long time.

While some of the folk in Joseph's new incarnation of the band, Cro-Mags JM, have decades of service in it, everyone in the current line-up has time with the Cro-Mags dating back at least three stints going back to the nineties. I see Rocky George from Suicidal Tendencies on guitar; he was on that previous Cro-Mags album too. With Flanagan on bass as well as vocal duty, that leaves Gabby Abularach on the other guitar and Garry Sullivan on drums.

I first heard the Cro-Mags in 1986 when my favourite band had changed from Iron Maiden to Nuclear Assault and I'd become fascinated by the new merger of thrash metal with American punk. I'd dug deep into thrash but knew almost nothing about punk at that point. What I quickly discovered was that I was a metalhead not a punk but I did like a lot of the pioneering crossover bands, including the Cro-Mags, D.R.I. and Bad Brains.

In the Beginning is more of a metal album than The Age of Quarrel was back in 1986, with Flanagan's vocals deeper, more controlled and far more mature, and the two guitarists providing a real crunch. The punk side of the band is more obvious in the rhythm section. Just check out the energetic bass intro to No One's Coming, which is possibly the best song on the album and surely the most important too.

For instance, it's at that point that we realise that we haven't even been listening for ten minutes yet, but we're already onto track five. The band simply blister through the first four songs, none of which make it past the three minute mark and one of which only just sneaks past half that. Over the album as a whole, fully half a dozen songs wrap up in fewer than two and a half minutes. The entire run of thirteen is done and dusted in under forty.

It also shows some real imagination. Not only does it last long enough for a guitar solo in the middle, which doesn't remotely slow the blitzkrieg riffs and bludgeoning drums that drive the song forward, but it adds another sound later on. We start to hear more beats than G-Man ought to be able to provide and we realise that they're not his. It sounds like the band are rocking out in an underground garage and the audience is joining in by banging whatever they can find against the wall. As it wraps up, we realise that this is all in effective ethnic rhythms.

There is one longer song and that's also interesting, because it ditches the vocals. It's Between Wars and it's entirely instrumental for its almost six minutes. It's not really rooted in thrash at all and it's the drums that are most obvious, shining far brighter than the guitars, G-Man doing a glorious job as the apparent octopus behind the kit.

So that's two highlight songs that I've praised the drums in. I should point out that the guitars are generally everywhere here, providing ever-reliable crunch and riffage. The more we focus on them, the more we realise just how tight this band is. PTSD is absolutely textbook crossover—no nonsense, balls to the wall, bludgeoning energy—and so is The Final Test, with its fantastic speed up at the halfway mark; only its vocals do somewhere different, being surprisingly subdued for a not remotely subdued genre. I like.

The most punk song is probably Two Hours, which is vehemently up front and threatening. It's less a song and more an angry musical punch in the face, the lyrics preached rather than sung or shouted and the music slower as if it's background texture to something visual than the backing to a song. Is there a video to this one? If there isn't, there ought to be.

Not everything holds up to the best songs here, but nothing lets the album done. It's a powerful statement of intent for a band who haven't released a studio album in twenty years. Welcome back, folks.

Nighthawker - From Wither to Bloom (2020)

Country: Netherlands
Style: Southern Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 Jun 2020
Sites: Facebook | Official Website

I got caught by surprise by this second album by Dutch rockers Nighthawker and I've been listening to it a lot to figure out what's happening in their sound. It's clearly rooted in southern rock, but it's quieter and much more subdued than the usual Lynyrd Skynyrd or Molly Hatchet influences. They're surely there, but there's as much Crosby, Stills and Nash to lighten it all. There's easily as much late sixties here as seventies and on.

Instead, the guitars carry some unmistakeable fuzz with them. As bluesy as a song like Dishwasher Blues gets, with Mischa van Dalsen providing some tasty harmonica licks, there's always a connection to more modern stoner pop/rock and that's even more obvious on ongs like Night of the Hunter. The Moonlight Rider takes us back to the late sixties but it sports a psychedelic vibe not a hippie one. I could imagine this played by a band supporting the Doors at the Fillmore.

This versatility impresses me but it's really pretty straightforward. While we're used to bands going back to a point in time and playing everything in the style of that time, Nighthawker are a great example of a band who don't stop at that point in time but work forward from it in a direction that's a logical one for them, creating their music from that thin slice of influence going back through the decades. I just love bands who explore those slices.

The core of the band is four musicians, two male and two female, the latter not being relegated to the roles you might expect. I don't think any of them shine over any of their colleagues, but that's because they work so well as a cohesive band. While the songs here are created by four people, they sound like they're really created instead by a single unit with eight arms and the requisite other bodyparts to do the job right. That helps provide a sort of live feel, as if the various instruments can't be separated and can only be performed together.

There are guests too, with a saxophone on this track and congas on those two but it's the guest vocals that stand out most. Three of the band members are credited with vocals: guitarist Steven van der Vegt on male lead and drummer Kiki Beemer on female lead, with Brandon Spies adding backing vocals to his bass duties. Only guitarist Gwen Ummels doesn't sing, but she provided that gorgeous cover art, so I ain't complaining.

The two songs featuring guest vocals are The Rabbit Hole and Sundown. The former features the talents of singer/songwriter CelineShanice, which I believe is one word not two, and she does a fine job as a complement to van der Vegt. She's even better singing lead for Nighthawker on a cover of Led Zeppelin's What Is and What Should Never Be, which can be found on the band's website. It was the unique voice of Edith Spies-Wawrowska on the latter that really blew me away, though. Her main band is Violet's Tale, who are apparently an old time country outfit for whom she sings lead, and I simply must find out what they sound like, but she fits superbly here as well, even if her voice stands out enough to make it obvious that she's a guest.

It does feel odd talking about vocals here, because Nighthawker are a guitar band, just with subtle guitars for folk with such an overt love for southern rock. There's only one real chicken scratching guitar jam, for instance, at the end of Leaps of Faith, though Mountain Bridge does think about it. Other songs highlight just how varied the guitarwork is here, from Ummels and van der Vegt. They both play acoustic and electric, while the latter also adds a real flavour to the closer, That Train Left the Station, on slide.

This appears to be Nighthawker's debut album, following a couple of 2018 EPs called Escape the Hornet's Nest, named for sides of an LP rather than parts of a continued release. I'll have to track them down along with my expected side journey into what Violet's Tale are doing. And I'll add this band to my "want to see live but probably never well" list. I'd love to experience the feel of a live Nighthawker gig because I have a feeling it might be special.