Monday 30 November 2020

Bruce Springsteen - Letter to You (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 23 Oct 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I see that Bruce Springsteen's twentieth studio album (and his first with the E Street Band since High Hopes in 2014) has been incredibly well received by critics and listeners both. And I like it, but not to that degree.

It's a personal album, which is good in my book. While I generally like Springsteen's rock albums, I'm a sucker for his roots stuff. Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad are frequent plays here at Apocalypse Later and the opening track, One Minute You're Here, fits right alongside them. It's a stripped down and touching piece of music. The rest of the album is made up of more expected rock, with three songs that date way back to before Springsteen's debut, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. I'll turn fifty next year but Bruce released that when I was two years old. He's been around and so has this trio of songs.

Janey Needs a Shooter sounds pretty good in and amongst the modern material, though it runs long. Springsteen's harmonica and Charles Giordano's organ sell this one for me. If I Was the Priest has an abiding Bob Dylan vibe to it and Springsteen really gets himself behind its vocal. Song for Orphans is clearly another Dylanesque song, even before the harmonica kicks in, so underlining where the Boss came from musically. It's telling that these three old songs are easily the longest three on the album.

It's a lo-fi album too, which is also good in my book. This was recorded live in the studio, in a way that simply isn't done nowadays, and it sounds urgent and vibrant. Then again, the E Street Band is hardly made up of nobodies. That's Little Steven and Nils Lofgren on guitar alongside the Boss. I'm a big fan of Patty Scialfa, who's less Springsteen's wife to me and more the singular artist behind Rumble Doll, a fantastic 1993 album. She's been with the E Street Band since 1984 and the others are regulars too. It goes without saying how tight they are as a musical unit, so live in the studio is a gift for these folk. I would prefer it if they only ever recorded this way.

My problem is with the songs, because I'm just not buying that they're all of consistent quality.

There's some really good stuff. I love the groove of Burnin' Train, which rolls along in as unstoppable a fashion as the title suggests. I like the intimacy of the title track, which is poetically vague but hits the mark as if it was written for each and every one of us. Springsteen was always a voice of the people and this song cements that. He may have 71 years and 150 million albums behind him, but he's one of us and he hasn't felt so much so in a long while. Ghosts may be my favourite piece here: another song about songs and one that feels really true to the musician's mindset.

But there's some less good stuff too. How repetitive is House of a Thousand Guitars, for instance? It's got a strong rhythm and it's neatly catchy but if I had to take a shot every time Bruce sings the words "thousand guitars", I'd be dead before the song ends. There are more thousand guitars here than the number of times the Eagles took it to the limit. And it doesn't even scan right: "guitars" should have one syllable for this to work properly. My OCD hated it.

And there's material in between. Songs like The Power of Prayer sound fine until we realise that Bruce and the band can hit this level of quality in their sleep. I'll enjoy this one any time it comes on, right down to the saxophone of Jake Clemons, nephew of the late Clarence, but I'll forget it too as soon as the next song comes on. The good news is that most of the in between songs are pretty good and they may grow on further listens. Burnin' Train and Ghosts were immediate for me, but I'll See You in My Dreams keeps growing with each listen.

And so I'll rate this a notch below most of the critics, but still positively for the most part. It's really good to hear an artist of this profile and calibre recording something live in the studio with a set of musicians of serious quality who know each other inside out. This may be the most alive Springsteen album I've ever heard and I like that.

Hexx - Entangled in Sin (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 25 Sep 2020
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | YouTube

The latest band back from beyond are Hexx, the San Francisco power metallers, with their fifth album since their founding as far back as 1978 under the name of Paradox. No, that's hardly prolific, but the band did break up in 1995 and it took them until 2013 to get back together again. Technically, this is the second album from the new Hexx, following 2017's Wrath of the Reaper, and there's only been one line-up change since, Don Wood replacing Mike Horn on bass.

I remember them from the mid eighties, though not well. I just remember them playing power/thrash rather than the death metal they dallied with for a few years into the nineties. The style here goes all the way back to their early days, though I think I prefer new vocalist Eddy Vega, whose voice is similar to Dan Bryant's but stands out more because it's edgier and thrashier while staying clean. He reminds me in many ways of David Wayne of Metal Church, with a strong side of early speed metal singers.

Metal Church leap out quickly for comparison too, but Hexx are thrashier, even if they stay at a pretty consistent mid to fast pace throughout. It takes them until Over But the Bleeding to slow down to a heavier, doomier speed and that's ten tracks in as the last non-bonus song here. Until then, any slower parts are just dynamic play because they'll speed back up again within the same songs.

There's a patience here that surprised me. Hexx seem happy to be back but they're not leaping all over the place in joy that they have new material out. There's energy here, because this is energetic music, but it's very much controlled energy. I wonder how much of that is that sixty per cent of this band are relatively new, Vega joining in 2015 along with second guitarist Bob Wright, and Wood arriving three years later. Dan Watson is the only founder member here, though drummer John Schafer joined as far back as 1986. In other words, most of these guys aren't trawling in the nostalgia of the early days.

While that may lose some vibrancy in proceedings, it makes for a patient and confident release, with a succession of quality riffs that do their job capably without trying to be the best thing ever. I dug the back and forth handovers between Watson and Wright a lot, the solos good but the rhythm work spot on. Vultures Gather Round is all about that, the pair of them trading solos while the other keeps up a solid, strong riff. This is the sort of deceptively simple song that sounds good but inconsequential on a first listen but really starts to burrow into our brains more with each time through.

And perhaps the best and worst aspects to this album are that it does that consistently. The negative is that some people may listen to this, like it and promptly move on because it doesn't really seem to do anything special or flash, with the possible exception of the title track's catchy rap of a chorus. But the positive is that anyone who does start it over again will start to realise just how effective this all is and how capably it's done. Entangled in Sin was a good immediate song, but I sort of slid through a lot of what followed until I started it again and Vultures Gather Round, Beautiful Lies and Power Mad suddenly felt like old friends.

Perhaps it's still a little long, but ditching the three bonus tracks solves that. I rather like the first of them, Signal 30 I-5, but Night of Pain must contain the cheesiest metal lyrics I've heard in a long time. Is this a cover of something from 1984 that I've carefully managed to forget? It seems appropriate for the album to end with Over But the Bleeding, its slower pace preparing us for the end.

I wonder what impact this will have in 2020, because Hexx are from the Bay Area but this feels like the sort of album that would do much better in Europe. I'm not particularly surprised to find the band on Wikipedia only in German. This ought to play really well over there and in the UK as well, given that I hear the old Judas Priest and Black Sabbath influences combined much in the same way that Toranaga did so well. Back home, it may have a harder sell. I hope not. I want to hear the next Hexx album right now.

Friday 27 November 2020

Mad Max - Stormchild Rising (2020)

Country: Germany
Style: Hard & Heavy
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 21 Aug 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Wikipedia

A lot of bands get lumped into the category of hard and heavy, but few fit it as well as Mad Max. This is often clearly hard rock, a song like Eyes of Love playing like a mix of Europe and the Scorpions with a guest vocal from John Parr. There's a Rough Cutt cover here, Take Her, which says plenty. However, it is just as often clearly heavy metal, the opener, Hurricaned, seeming like Tokyo Blade covering Accept, even if those vocals are still softer than the song calls for. Hard and heavy it is. Talk to the Moon kicks in hard and fast like the opener of an early Dio album, though Ladies and Gentlemen starts out rather like Don't Talk to Strangers.

That voice belongs to Michael Voss, who's been the lead singer of Mad Max since 1983 and through a trio of eras: the early one that ran to 1989 with four albums, including Stormchild, to which this must be a spiritual sequel; the brief second one that only lasted long enough in 1999 to put out album five; and the prolific current one, which has seen nine albums now since the band's reunion in 2005.

Voss is also Mad Max's lead guitarist and has been since 1985, so it's easy to see him as the core of the band, though that's not strictly true. The only founder member is rhythm guitarist Jürgen Breforth, as Mad Max were around for a couple of years and put out a debut before Voss joined. Drummer Axel Kruse hasn't stayed the course throughout the band's history, but his time with the band goes back to 1984. That just leaves one overt new fish, Thomas Bauer, who joined on bass in 2015.

I haven't heard Mad Max in forever, perhaps since they covered the Sweet on Night of Passion late in the eighties, so I'd kind of forgotten what they sounded like. I like this, as old school as it is, with its mixture of melodic rock and power metal. There's real energy here, driving songs like Hurricaned and Rain Rain, but everything's melody, just as it used to be back in the days of Saxon and Dio and Ozzy as a great solo artist. Voss's soft voice emphasises that more than most singers would. If Ronnie James was still around and singing for them, Mad Max would be a few notches heavier.

But I really dig this. In a world where it sometimes seems that bands aren't allowed to call themselves heavy unless they feature harsh vocals or downtuned guitars, this is unashamedly hard and heavy and it took me back to the eighties in a very different way to the bands with deliberately retro sounds. It isn't just the excellent clear production that makes this feel as new as it is, it has almost a subversive approach that's timely.

Maybe I'm projecting, but in our increasingly polarised world, this deliberately aims to be all things for all people: hard riffs but sing-along melodies, fast pace but commercial tones. It's possible to be a heavy band without adopting harsh vocals, just as it's possible to be radio friendly without wimping out. This is both, with a song like Gemini perhaps the epitome of that. Maybe this really is the album we need right now. I certainly felt better for listening to it and part of something bigger.

It's a reasonably long album, the single edit of Ladies and Gentlemen nestling it past the fifty minute mark, and perhaps it's a little too long. There are no poor songs here, but a couple could maybe have shifted into being single B-sides without the album missing them. It's not that they're unworthy, just that they do the job other songs have already done, especially in the second half of the album. I have my eyes mostly on the Rough Cutt cover with its nod to Hall of the Mountain King, but even a couple of later highlights, like the bombastic Kingdom Fall and the slide-driven The Blues Ain't No Stranger, start to merge a little.

I clearly have some catching up to do. When Mad Max got back together in 2005, they raced out of the gate with six albums in eight years. They've slowed down a little since then, but they're still putting out a new one every couple of years and, based on this one, the quality clearly isn't suffering.

Waqas Ahmed - Doomsday Astronaut (2020)

Country: Romania
Style: Shred/Progressive Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 14 Nov 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram

I don't review many shred albums, but here's one that does a bit more than just showcase how nimble the fingers of the lead guitarist happen to be. This is worth listening to from the usual standpoint of admiring virtuoso technique, but it seems like it also wants to be listened to just as music, and I feel that it does a little more than usual on that front. This elevates Waqas Ahmed past the norm, even if he's not up there with Tony MacAlpine and Vinnie Moore yet.

He's based in Sibiu, Romania, where he works as a guitar teacher, but he hails from Lahore, Pakistan, a combination that surprises me but hey, why not? Unless there's a burgeoning Pakistani community of musicians in Sibiu, I'm guessing that this album was recorded remotely, with the various musicians in different places, as the other names credited don't look remotely Romanian. To be fair, the backing is primarily there for Ahmed to solo over rather than jam with, but most songs seem to feature at least a little of both.

The style is progressive metal, played at a mid to fast pace, and everyone settles in for the flow. Many songs give the illusion of motion, as if the music is a river and they're just telling us in musical terms what the rapids are like. Given the titles, I doubt that was particularly intended, but it's there anyway, even on songs that bring in electronic decoration, like The Great Impostor or Supremacy. Both turn a little more abrasive, but they still sound like flows to me, even if they happen to be of molten iron or lava rather than water.

I'd have liked a little more slower material but Aniroc, at the heart of the album, and Blue Lemonade, towards the end, will have to do. The former is a slower and softer piece compared to the majority of the album and it highlights how smooth Ahmed's guitar tone can be, even if it powers up at points to roar rather than ooze. There's more dynamic play on this one too, with a quiet moment in the middle for solo piano and hints of strings, before Ahmed takes the helm again. As much as I enjoy the frantic opener, Arise Temujin, Aniroc is surely my favourite here and I wish there had been more tracks in this sort of vein.

Blue Lemonade is even softer but it takes a very different tack. I think it works really well for Ahmed, who gets to showcase another side of his playing, but I wasn't as thrilled with the rest of the "band", because the tinny electronic drums sound really cheap and the R&B stylings don't seem to fit. There's a demo after it to close out the album and, while the production is lesser quality than the album as a whole, the style of the backing fits Ahmed's guitar much better.

I feel odd calling out a different style of backing as a negative, as what else I'd have liked that I didn't find here pretty much at all is an ethnic flavour. After all, Ahmed is a Pakistani living in Romania; he's surely heard a lot of very different music, but there's a distinct lack of world music here. Outside the hand drums opening The Great Impostor, I can't place any.

And that's fine, because it clearly wasn't something Ahmed wanted to explore here, but this is still an instrumental metal album with guitar front and centre, so texture is an important factor. If he wants to be heard outside a niche world of guitar students, varying those textures is crucial and elements of world music would have made this a lot more accessible than it is. It's good stuff for sure but its hints at wanting to fill more than just one niche don't really pan out.

Thursday 26 November 2020

Guided by Voices - Mirrored Aztec (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Garage Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 21 Aug 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Wikipedia | YouTube

I'm an Englishman living in Arizona and today is Thanksgiving, one of the big holidays of the year but one I never quite grasped. It's a remembrance of a historical moment but the history is wildly skewed; it's an opportunity to be thankful for everything that we have, but it's followed by the national greed day, Black Friday; and it's an excuse to gorge on turkey and pass out from the tryptophane, hardly my idea of how to spend a holiday. So, it seems appropriate to review an album by a major American band that I struggle to understand.

Guided by Voices have been around since 1983 and they're firmly in the indie rock genre, if that's one single thing. Their earliest releases were self-financed, self-pressed and circulated mostly amongst the family and friends of the band. They've always been prolific, but they've been outdoing themselves of late. They've issued no fewer than ten albums since reforming for the second time in 2016 and this one is one of three from 2020 alone, with Surrender Your Poppy Field and Styles We Paid For.

As you might imagine, such prolificity means that quality may not be the band's primary concern, but there's a strong sense of consistency here. No song seems more essential or more throwaway than any other and, especially with titles like Easier Not Charming, A Whale is Top Notch and Haircut Sphinx, I could easily imagine this being the result of a single day in the studio improvising songs from a slew of random words held up in the sound engineer's booth. "OK, the next pair of words are... 'nest' and... 'biker'. Go!" I do salute the band's creativity.

Actually, I rather like Biker's Nest and quite a few other songs, because it stands out from the crowd a little. It kicks in with a simple punk riff and I could have imagined any one of Iggy Pop, Pete Shelley or Nina Hagen jumping in for a guest vocal slot. None of those do, of course, so we stay with Robert Pollard, who's often uncannily reminiscent of David Bowie, especially on songs like Haircut Sphinx or Bunco Men, which sound like newly discovered lost BBC sessions from seventies Bowie.

The overall sound of Mirrored Aztec is kind of like the middle ground between Bowie and Cake, which is apparently in a garage somewhere in Dayton, OH. Whether the dominant sound of any song is Cake in the nineties or Bowie in the seventies, almost everything sounds like lo-fi garage rock recorded on an antique four track with no overdubs.

The songs are blink and you'll miss 'em quick, as you might expect from garage rock. Let's just say that the album only just nudges its way past forty minutes but it boasts no fewer than eighteen songs. I'm counting seven that don't even make it to two minutes and A Whale is Top Notch only just manages a minute. Maybe "whale" and "notch" didn't spark many ideas. Length appears to be a concern too; I haven't heard quite so many songs on a single album fade out in forever. Please Don't Be Honest is just reaching full speed when it fades out because, apparently, 2:29 is a long song for this album. Thank You Jane ends so abruptly that the tape might have run out.

And, while I'm probably sounding rather dismissive here, I liked quite a lot of this album. It's merely difficult to keep up. By the time one song's groove starts to sit well, that song's over and we're onto a fresh one before we can really acknowledge what it was. I like Bunco Men and Biker's Nest and even an apparent joke of a song called Math Rock. I liked some others too, but I kept losing track of which. In a year in which Guided by Voices have issued 48 new songs over three albums, that's easy to do.

Scardust - Strangers (2020)

Country: Israel
Style: Symphonic Progressive Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 30 Oct 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | YouTube

Wow, did this one take me aback! I only got a few songs in and had to start again just to take stock of what I'd just heard. Scardust are an Israeli band who began life in 2013 as Somnia but changed name a couple of years later. They play symphonic progressive metal, but that doesn't remotely cover all that they do.

For instance, this starts out really operatic, with presumably the entire band providing a choral backing for lead vocalist Noa Gruman. Then the music joins, very technically, with violins and crunchy guitars and who knows what else. Remember the beginning of Yes's Roundabout with all its careful interplay between instruments? Well, Overture for the Estranged is kind of like that. For its entire six minutes. There's a spotlight moment for every member of the band both forwards and backwards and a further one later on at length. It's like a demo reel: everything Scardust can do, all wrapped up in one easy to consume bundle. And that's just track one.

Things settle down a bit from there, but not a lot. This is technical stuff all the way through, with all the band members trading solos often, not just guitarist Yadin Moyal and keyboardist Itai Portugaly. The bass of Yanai Avnet blew me away more than once. It's going to take multiple listens of every song to just to fully grasp what these folk are doing. There are plenty of hints at the versatility of Queen, but each song is like Queen squared. Complexity and technical ability clearly matter here and just as much as melody and groove.

Break the Ice, for instance, shifts quickly through Queen harmonies to purest theatrics. This could be a song from a Broadway musical and Gruman's voice would be up to that on its worst day. She's crystal clear but versatile enough to move from kid-friendly Disney saccharine to soaring Phantom operatic and still wrap up with some serious R&B runs. The musical theatre feel is echoed by the fact that the music seems inherently there to support her on this one, with only the solos excepted. This darts and weaves whenever her voice needs it to, but always at her bidding.

The biggest problem Strangers has is that there's just so much here that it's easy to get overwhelmed. A song like Concrete Cages, for instance, is an obvious highlight with its often dominant hurdy gurdy, it's soaring Robert Plant style vocals and a singalong chorus. But there's so much to unpack from this song that it would be viable to write a review this length about that one song alone.

Focusing only on that one would miss out the way that Scardust can shift from Queen to Therion in a single line. It would miss the fact that not all the vocals here are clean, with Gruman going effectively harsh on Over for a while; given that I think everyone contributes backing vocals, I have no idea who does that in harsh fashion in songs like Tantibus II, but's thoroughly effective. It would only skirt the fact that this whole album is wildly theatrical. While Gruman isn't the most accomplished singer in a harsh style that I've ever heard, it's a rare one that gets so much emotional range out of it and I can't name another one that can shift from harsh growls to soaring opera in a heartbeat.

It would also miss the other genres that are trawled in here. The folk music in Concrete Cages is only one sound there, just as metalcore is only one sound in Over and smooth jazz only one sound in that song's flipside, Under. The backing on the latter sounds like an inner city church choir from a random underdog feelgood movie, which would make the segue into rapped vocals natural, except that these rapped vocals are angry and end up verging on hardcore shouts. Oh yeah, this album is versatile. The choir on Huts sounds like a younger one from a high school but it doesn't turn the song cutesy.

At this point, after a couple of listens, I couldn't even hazard a guess at my favourites here. Overture for the Estranged is a gimme and so's Concrete Cages. I might thow out Addicted as a third, but I can easily imagine every song here waxing or waning in my esteem on further listens. There's just so much to discover within them. One key note would be that I especially adore the interaction of instruments when Noa Gruman takes a well deserved break for a while, but she's arguably the most critical piece in this puzzle and she takes the band in so many directions. It's hard to truly comprehend that the voice on Break the Ice and Mist is the same one on Over and Under.

Quite seriously, the most emphatic negative I can hurl out about is that this album will simply be too much for some potential listeners: too much of everything. They'll get lost and give up. Of course, it's fair to say that the most emphatic positive I can hurl out is exactly the same thing, because this is an album that can be explored for a long, long time without finding all its treasure. I may well up this to a 9/10 but I need more listens. And I need more words.

Wednesday 25 November 2020

Motorpsycho - The All is One (2020)

Country: Norway
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 28 Aug 2020
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Prog Archives | Wikipedia

I may not have delved as far into Norwegian prog rock as I'd hoped but I learned enough last year to jump all over a new Motorpsycho album when it shows up. As is often the case, this is a generous one. It's a double album containing thirteen tracks that last almost eighty-five minutes. Its heart is a song called N.O.X., which runs almost three quarters of an hour on its own across five parts, with most of it instrumental.

While we might expect N.O.X. to cover one disc and everything else another, this breaks down quite a bit differently: four tracks before N.O.X. and four after it, with that dominant track broken up across the two discs. It's unfair generalisation, but the opening four seem a lot more experimental and less soft than the closing four. The album closes on Like Chrome, which is rather like Steely Dan on verses and Steely Dan attempting a Bond theme when it heats up.

Now, there's quiet material at the beginning of the album, but it isn't really soft. One of my favourite pieces here is The Same Old Rock (One Must Imagine Sisyphus Happy), which is very much like a Peter Gabriel-era Genesis track. It's quiet until it isn't and it isn't until it is again. One minute it's flute and other little decorations, the next the drums and emphasis kick in suddenly and infectiously. There's a lot of impeccable dynamic play in this one.

One thing I really like about this album, and especially that track because of what it does, is how lo-fi the drums sound. The whole album is carefully and expertly produced, but the drums are simply good old fashioned down to earth one man beating the crap out of the kit drums. There's absolutely no aim of overproduction at all and that makes Tomas Järmyr's work here wildly engaging, often a tribal call to action.

I also really like the first four tracks here. They veer in and out of Genesis, King Crimson and whoever else, delivering intricate guitar, delicate melodies and those thumping drums. I'm less fond of the closing four, though they're decent enough. There isn't a poor song here, let alone a bad one, and which will leap out at you may come down to personal taste as much as quality.

The most obvious track, of course, is N.O.X., in between all of the two minute interludes and eight or nine minute complexities. This is a seriously ambitious song and it's the heart of the album. It's a lot more King Crimson and a lot more Genesis, but with some Mike Oldfield too, I think, to add an emulsion of commerciality to something often psychedelic and experimental.

The first part, Circles Around the Sun, Pt. 1, is the wildest this album gets, which of course means that it has the most overt King Crimson influence, especially in the jazzier sections. There's Hawkwind here too, not least in the vocal distortions and the psychedelic flow of things. Where the earlier violin and what occasionally sounds like a brass section come in, I have no idea, but they fit really nicely. This is a trippy nine minute opening section, catching us up in a maelstrom to keep us captive for the rest.

The fourth part, Night of Pan, is the most commercial, at least in its long instrumental sections, but a lot of the second part, Ouroboros (Strange Loop) works in a similar manner. These are hypnotic pieces that never get old however long they run on (the former for fifteen minutes, the latter for eight). The whole album ought to play really nicely on headphones in the dark, but these instrumental stretches of N.O.X. especially with their hypnotic rhythms and swirling decorations. The third part, Ascension, makes me feel like I'm floating, because the more overt pulsing of the earlier parts calms to a soothing level, before building back up for the rest. I'm keen to see how this plays on headphones.

I gave The Crucible, my Motorpsycho review from last year, a 7/10 as a splitting the difference attempt between two songs I adored and one, twice as long, that I didn't care for as much. This is twice as long an album but it's more consistent and I think I have to split between a bunch of 9/10 songs and some 7/10s, with much of the album in between. I'm going to be playing this one a lot.

Voyage in Solitude - Through the Mist with Courage and Sorrow (2020)

Country: Hong Kong
Style: Post-Black Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 18 Sep 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Voyage in Solitude is a post-black metal project from Hong Kong created by one man, Derrick Lin. He's not just responsible for playing every instrument here, but also for the songwriting, the production, everything it seems except the evocative photo on the cover. I'd joke that he probably kept the kettle boiling, made lunch and switched the lights off at night, but then he did record this album at home.

It's Lin's first studio album under the Voyage in Solitude name, though I see a slew of EPs and singles prior to it. There's such a consistency to the material here that I could easily see this becoming quite a prolific project.

As you might expect for anything featuring post- in front of its genre, it's all about soundscapes and these are dark and lonely ones, windswept and barren and bleak. The project's page on Bandcamp says that Lin aims "to express the loneliness, helplessness, frustration of people in the city I am living in". It depicts those emotions effectively and, while I'm imagining rural weather-beaten soundscapes like the cover art, I rather like the idea of using the blastbeats of black metal as a metaphor for the sheer overwhelming feeling of living in one of the densest populated cities on the planet. This isn't merely about being alone, it's about being alone in a crowd.

The more I thought about that concept, the more I started to see how well this might play when laid over the expressionistic chase scenes in Chungking Express with Christopher Doyle's camera blurring magnificently through the busy marketplace. Presumably that's what Lin wants us to imagine: a zoom in from the city level through the chaos and the bustle all the way to a close up of one single person, at which point the world shuts out and we see how alone they truly are, however many thousands are jostling around them like a giant sized demonstration of Brownian motion.

There are seven tracks on offer here, all of them new, I believe, except for Incoming Transition, which was Lin's contribution to a split release called Sounds of Melancholy last year. Each plays in a similar fashion, with one exception that I'll get to, and that's to conjure up a soundscape from slow, majestic keyboards and rapid-fire blastbeats, with calmer sections to serve as contrasts. Incoming Transition is the longest, at almost ten minutes, but I wouldn't say that it does a particularly different job to Veil of Mist, at under four, other than with its application of depth.

When vocals show up, they're appropriately buried in the mix, as if serving as unheard cries for help. They're mostly black metal shrieks, of course, but there are sections that are spoken and at least one that's an ephemeral, almost disembodied voice. That's in Despair, where the effects on it surely tell a story. I'd be interested in knowing what that story is.

And to that exception, which is the album's closer. In Between does many of the same things as earlier songs, but the tone is completely different. It feels hopeful to me, at least, if not outright happy, with bells to underline that. The keyboards aren't concealing here, hiding someone from the world; they're highlighting like a ray of sunshine beaming down into a crowd to pick out a single person. The vocals here are clean, for the most part, and I couldn't help but hear new wave in this song. It sounds like a Joy Division song to me.

Now, that's a statement in itself! When your song that sounds like Joy Division is the happy one, you know that you have a dark tone indeed to your album. Placing that at the end is telling too. It means that, as deep as this gets into isolation, there's hope and this becomes somehow an uplifting album. I didn't expect that going in, especially given the rumbling bass and patient beat that start out Veil of Mist, but I appreciate it. This is good stuff.

Tuesday 24 November 2020

Fates Warning - Long Day Good Night (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 6 Nov 2020
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There are a few bands that I've consistently struggled with for reasons other than their quality, Fates Warning being one. I heard them early, courtesy of Tommy Vance and the Friday Rock Show and rather liked their Night on Bröcken album, even if they were a dollar store Iron Maiden knockoff back then. That was 1984, though, and they grew and expanded their sound, becoming major pioneers in the US prog metal scene, along with Queensrÿche and Dream Theater. I don't know when I stopped listening to Fates Warning or why, but they somehow drifted away from me and stayed elusive any time I tried afresh. They've long been really good at what they do, but I haven't managed to connect with that.

This is their lucky thirteenth album, showing up four years after Theories of Flight and with the same line-up. Guitarist Jim Matheos is a founder member and singer Ray Alder has been at their mike since 1987; he's been on every album except the quick first three. Armored Saint's Joey Vera has played bass for them since 1996 and even new fish Bobby Jarzombek has occupied their drum stool for over twelve years. They clearly know each other well and they complement each other's styles impeccably without thinking.

So, can I get into this album when I struggled with earlier ones? Actually, that seemed likely for quite a while, because it opens pretty well for me. The Destination Onward is ambitious but seemingly easy in this band's hands; at eight minutes, it's one of a pair of long songs here, though long is a relative term when you've released an album containing only one fifty plus minute track. This is a good one, a neat sense of dynamic play keeping it vibrant. Shuttered World and Alone We Walk are shorter but I'd say they succeed in similar ways. I especially like the intricate rhythms on the latter, which ends with a real snap.

Unfortunately, while there are other points to praise, there's little consistency and the album is much too long. It clocks in close to the limit of a CD, but ditching three blah songs, and another better one that would seem out of place without them, would leave it close to fifty minutes. The good one is Now Comes the Rain, an easy on the ear melodic rock song with effective backing vocals, and it deserves to be heard. Maybe it might work alongside When Snow Falls, the soft song here that really works, never failing to be interesting when its fellow soft songs are just bland.

How bland? Well, Under the Sun is mildly elegant, with a lonely violin and cello, but its seems to be a lot more inspired by the Eagles than Iron Maiden. It's nice. And inoffensive. The Last Song is nothing more than, well, the last song. The Way Home is the real turkey though, spending half its time as such a soft ballad that it answers the unasked question of which Fates Warning song we'd choose to play at a widowed parent's second wedding.

Fortunately, much of the rest is far from bland. In fact, when Scars kicks in, we realise just how soft it had all got for well over a quarter of an hour. That was quite the shock. Scars has some soft edges too but it's harder and more vibrant and intricate and it also ends snappily. Begin Again and Liar have some punch to them as well and they show that Fates Warning can still play metal. The Longest Shadow of the Day, at eleven and a half minutes appropriately enough also the longest song, rocks out and well too, even if it starts out as jazz fusion for a few minutes. It has an excellent solo in the middle too.

And, after praising The Sunrise for trawling in a whole slew of different genres, I find that I don't like it when Fates Warning do the same thing. It's not that there's jazz fusion there and yacht rock there, it's that there doesn't seem to be any purpose to it. This works when the band are playing prog metal, whether it's with power and emphasis or with intricacy in quieter moments. It doesn't work when they apparently transform into a completely different band for a while.

And so this is maybe half an hour of an excellent album, with another fifteen minutes of a decent one, but half an hour that I just don't get at all. Fates Warning continue to elude me.

The Sunrise - Brand New Disorder (2020)

Country: Italy
Style: Melodic Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 4 Sep 2020
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I like how the Sunrise want us to figure out what they do. At first listen, Brand New Disorder hints at prog rock, but 432Hz is just an intro and, even if we think we're about to launch into The Dark Side of the Moon, we move instead into Storm, a melodic rock number with guitars that are initially heavier and then more abrasive than we expect for melodic rock. I guess that puts us in alternative territory but, by the time we start to figure out the band's sound, Storm is over. This isn't a long album, at just a blink over half an hour, but that's a pretty quick opener at a mere two and a half minutes.

Gasoline clearly tells us that the Sunrise are from somewhere in the deepsouth, with its southern rock swagger, alt rock punch and Memphis blues organ. Did they move from Tennessee to Jacksonville or the other way around? Well, if I point out that the patient guitarwork in this old school riff-driven rock comes courtesy of Elia Tommaso and the omnipresent bass is played by Giuriato Giulio, we begin to realise that the Sunrise hail from somewhere rather a long way from the deepsouth, namely Venice, Italy.

The standout song on the album is surely Run, which cements their background on the heavier side of rock music in the seventies, however melodic and alternative they often sound. It's a textbook in how to build a song, starting out soft and calm but adding in a second voice to both contrast with and add texture behind that of Chiereghin Giorgia, then ramping up from almost a capella verse to emphatic chorus. What really elevates this one is that, after a couple of rounds, it builds again with Tommaso's guitar taking over behind Giorgia's voice, soloing wildly.

And, because there's so much here, I find myself wanting to talk about every song. Wake Up is vibrant hard rock but with a soul underlay. This could have been an old Deep Purple song, had the band hired a very different lead singer, and there's a recurrent transition here that sounds eerily familiar. Ghosts is the wildest card on the album, at once the poppiest song with its "woah-woah" intro, the proggiest with a bunch of keyboard swirls from Marchesan Andrea and the punkiest with its "1-2-3-4" call and its incessant beat. Instead of Purple, this could have been a Blondie song.

And there, I think is the key. Once I got Blondie into my head, it was clear that they're everywhere on this album. Sure, it's a melodic rock album. Sure, it's a hard rock album at points too. A band like the Heartless Bastards wouldn't be an unfair comparison, with their ability of infusing melody into every song, whether it's lighter or heavier or whatever. But the overall approach feels just like a Blondie album where that band took music from a whole bunch of different places, sometimes highly surprising ones, and merged those styles into a singular vision of who they are, creating something that's consistent but also ever-changing.

I find that a lot of pop albums are deceptively shallow. They sound fine but they end and we move on. Brand New Disorder felt that way on my first listen. It sounded good but it didn't seem likely to be an album I'd play over and over, especially as Giorgia's voice doesn't leap out as anything special. But I'm fond of listening to albums I review at least twice, so I put this on again and it started to grab me. So I listened to it a third time and a fourth and I kept finding new things in it that I hadn't grasped until then. By this point I was well and truly hooked and, yes, Giorgia's voice is a good part of that. It does precisely what it needs to do, even when, like at the end of Run, the song is screaming at it to change and it stubbornly refuses, to glorious effect.

I don't know how many times I've listened to it now, but I do need to move on. I'll end by saying that, even though Run is my favourite song here, Lady Shame has seeped into my bloodstream. Whatever I've got up to over the last week or so, Lady Shame has kept on popping back into my head when I least expect it. It just won't let me be and I'm kind of happy about that.

Monday 23 November 2020

Messiah - Fracmont (2020)

Country: Switzerland
Style: Thrash/Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 11 Sep 2020
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The latest arrival in the "out of the woodwork" file are Messiah, a Swiss thrash/death metal outfit who were formed as long ago as 1984 but who haven't put out a studio album since 1994. This is their sixth such and I'm happy that they're back.

They take an odd approach to the genre, which is to combine a roughness in tone and vocal style with real elegance in the songwriting and the guitarwork. Sacrosanctus primitivus kicks off the album as a dark but dense layered soundscape worthy of a film soundtrack. Then it's the title track, reminding to no small degree of old school Celtic Frost: cavernous riffs, demonic but often intelligible vocals and a pace that shifts all over the place. Fracmont is almost ten minutes long and it keeps itself busy for the whole time: mid-pace death, fast paced thrash and even a thoughtful multi-layered breakdown during the midsection that suggests that the gap between Venom's At War with Satan and Lord of the Rings is a lot smaller than we might have previously guessed.

The good news is that this epic title track is reason enough to buy this album. You don't need to hear any more from me. The bad news is that it's easily the best track on offer, though the quality doesn't dip particularly far as we move on. What's more, the styles in play develop nicely, making this quite a varied album.

For instance, Morte al dente features almost a groove metal rhythm for a while and features a pair of harsh voices in duet that I dig quite a lot, even though this is definitely one of those extreme albums where I prefer the music to the singing. There are plenty of points where Andy Kaina's voice plays well with the music behind him, grounding all this in demonic realms. If I ever get to drive the Highway to Hell, I'd expect Messiah, fronted by Kaina, to be the one and only station that the radio will tune into, especially playing faster, more emphatic songs like Singularity.

However, whenever proceedings drift into progressive metal and Brögi's guitar explores a much wider swathe of textures, Kaina doesn't prove as versatile. I think it's partly because his guttural voice is so warm and the bass of Patrick Hersche, aka Frugi, plays so well with it. This means that, whichever song is playing, we're paddling along the lake of fire with the band at the other end of the boat. Maybe it's really Brögi that's the odd man out, because sometimes he jams along with them but, at other times, he takes us to all sorts of other places too. He's just not as confined.

And yeah, I'm getting deeper than I need to get. I like the tone and I like the music. I especially like a lot of the riffs, which are inspired by Iron Maiden as much as Venom or Celtic Frost, with a handful of other, more surprising names occasionally showing up too; for instance, Urbi et orbi feels oddly like a combination of Slayer and Suicidal Tendencies! And I really like when choral and other elements enter the fray to mix things up completely.

Fracmont may be the epitome of that, but I dig the album's closer, with its Ave Maria bookends, a lot too. It's Throne of Diabolic Heretics and it does a heck of a lot in six minutes. Sometimes it's right up there with anything else here in speed and vibrancy but, halfway through, it takes a wild left turn and becomes a doom/death song. It took me a while to get used to that, but it's this one that I go back to. It's surely my favourite song here that isn't named for the album and the second half of it is where I'd suggest Kaina's voice fits the most exactly.

Welcome back, folks. Twenty-six years has been too long.

Orianthi - O (2020)

Country: Australia
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 6 Nov 2020
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Australian guitarist Orianthi is back with a new album, this one a solo effort to follow a collaboration with Richie Sambora known as RSO, and I was eager to see how diverse it got. After all, she jammed on stage with Carlos Santana at eighteen and moved on to work in multiple genres, playing the Grammy Awards with Carrie Underwood, performing in Michael Jackson's This is It show and touring with Alice Cooper for a few years. This ought to be interesting!

And that it is. While it's often heavy, with searing solos over solid riffs, and it features soul, funk, pop and other genres on top of a hard rock base, the overriding feeling I got was alternative rock. In fact, I often got a Sheryl Crow vibe, that stripped down melodic rock mindset from her Tuesday Night Music Club days, but often half buried under a few layers of amped up power and digital programming, like Crow jamming with Lenny Kravitz.

If I'm reading this properly, there are only three musicians involved: Orianthi herself, on both guitar and vocals, plus some of the programming, and a couple of brothers called Evan & Marti Frederiksen. The former handles bass and drums, while the latter plays percussion and handles the programming that Orianthi doesn't do herself. You might imagine quite the electronic album from that, but this is definitely rooted in rock, however jazzed up it might get with decoration.

That decoration may make or break this for a lot of people, of course, but the more open minded will get a blast out of this. Contagious is emphatic, with an incessant rhythm assault, Orianthi in a full on Steve Vai mode and even some Dio-era Rainbow vocal changes. It knows how exactly how to groove.

And this album carries on in reasonably similar vein for a while from there, those effects and rhythms changing, the funk or soul creeping in and out and the odd influences shifting up constantly. Sinners Hymn starts to hint at Hendrix before suddenly taking a left turn into pop territory instead, ahead of the crunch kicking back in. Impulsive is a glam rock anthem. Rescue Me is the most overt Sheryl Crow number, but there's R&B in that voice too, powerfully so. It's clear from the far quieter, Adele-esque song, Crawling Out of the Dark, that Orianthi's mad guitar skills apart, her voice could have made her a name in this industry on its own.

It's weird to listen to a song like Rescue Me, realising that, with a wildly different approach, it could have become a dancefloor hit but instead went for a song that mixes up Adele with Eddie Van Halen. It really is a good weird though, even if I could see someone covering this on a talent show because it allows them to showcase their voice but also go wild with emphasis to win over the audience. Sorry is the same sort of song without quite as much oomph. Moonwalker is clearly a homage to Jackson and it has a quirky beat that it's easy to see him dancing to.

I was looking for diversity in genre and I found that, albeit not to the degree that I expected. What I ended up being surprised by was the way in which Orianthi's guitar is used to such broad effect. Even on the poppier songs, she rocks out at some point with a solo because, as confident she is as a singer, she's a guitarist first and foremost. But it gradually became clear to me that many of the effects that I initially thought were programming tricks are her doing interesting things with her guitar. Steve Vai casts a long shadow over this album and I'm almost more impressed by her textures and effects than I am her excellent solos.

And that makes this a deep album that rewards further listens. Frankly, the people who pick this up in expectation of an Alice Cooper album or a Richie Sambora album are likely to put it back down again pretty quickly. It's the people open to something rooted in decades of genres but very contemporary in its approach who will listen again and again and find new things in the music as they do so. This is going to seriously grow.

Friday 20 November 2020

AC/DC - Power Up (2020)

Country: Australia
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 13 Nov 2020
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We can't just listen to a new AC/DC album and know how good it is. We have to invite it into our lives and spend time with it to determine if we want it to move in and stay or shift on down the block a way in favour of one its many excellent predecessors. That's partly because their sound is so recognisably theirs and partly because they do what they do so well that even their low bar is still easily listenable. Everything's good, so it comes down to just how good. How are these songs going to fit into a live set and to posterity?

And, on my first listen, this sounded really good. I didn't hear any songs that wowed me from moment one the way that Back in Black, Thunderstruck or pretty much any late Bon Scott song the first time I heard them, but quite a few songs thought about approaching that, clearly elevating this album over the last few. And I'm not just talking about the initial single, Shot in the Dark, which is supposed to be immediate, but Through the Mists of Time and Witch's Spell and others. After a few listens, the big one is Through the Mists of Time. It feels timeless and would have played well even on the biggest of AC/DC's albums.

What's most obvious is that there's a real energy here, as if the band are just aching to make the best tribute to the late Malcolm Young, who's posthumously credited as co-writing every one of the dozen songs on offer with brother Angus, as they can. Brian Johnson swaggers and snarls with more vigour than I remember him having in years, Angus has all the urgency I remember from the early days and I still swear blind that AC/DC has the tightest rhythm section in all of rock 'n' roll.

How tight is Demon Fire, for instance? That one is so thoroughly alive that it feels like it tried to leap out of my speakers to dance and strut on my desk. I found myself grinning at just how on the button this band remains. I have to note here, without attempting to be ageist, that the youngest member of the band, Stevie Young, who's Malcolm's nephew and replacement, is 63 years young, but they seem to have the energy of most twenty year olds. It's obvious that Power Up is a pivotal release to them and, looking at the recent histories of each member of the band, it's easy to see why.

The downside is that the second half, as listenable as it is, feels weaker than the first, though it does grow with each time through. Demon Fire is a great way to start side two but Wild Reputation seems like it's so simple and straightforward that it must be filler. After a few repeats, it starts to become an archetypal AC/DC song, one that many bands would give their second guitarists to have written. That feeling continues until Code Red wraps things up, decent songs that feel worse than they are because they're so quintessentially AC/DC and we've heard so many others like them.

That's made all the more obvious by letting the album repeat on a loop. If Code Red is a step up on a four song set, then Realize, starting the album over, is a step up from Code Red and the album is at its peak a few songs later, with a five song streak from Shot in the Dark back to Demon Fire. Even with the second half getting better, the first half remains better still.

In summary, there's absolutely nothing new here but you fully expected that when you saw the AC/DC logo ahead of this review. However, it's clearly a good album, with the band feeling really good again and infusing that into a new set of songs. The first half is easily up there past anything that they've released since The Razor's Edge thirty years ago. When things open up after COVID, this band will be slaying it live. They're as urgent as they've been in forty years.

Gwydion - Gwydion (2020)

Country: Portugal
Style: Epic Black/Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 13 Nov 2020
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Now, here's an interesting mix of genres! The band's Facebook page suggests that they play epic/folk metal. Metal Archives calls them a symphonic folk/Viking metal band. In truth, I can hear all of those things and more. Pedro Dias's vocals take a lot of forms here, but one of them is clearly a black metal goblin approach and it's surely the most prominent. Unless there's a string of guests to back him up, I also heard him tackle melodic folk lines, death growls, even a traditional operatic heavy/power metal style, often at the same time. How many singers are on this album?

Certainly everything's epic. The opening track, Stand Alone, begins like the calm before a battle, with martial drums and swirling textured keyboards. It's a very visual intro and the mists are swirling too, perhaps somewhere in the Scottish highlands or the island that is Ireland, back a number of centuries. I see that the band's previous album was all about Vikings, but this is Celtic all the way through, from the band's name on down. After that intro, everything kicks off and we get bloody. Epic metal indeed.

Certainly, symphonic metal makes sense too. The keyboards of Daniel César, the sole band member to have been there at the beginning when Gwydion were founded, are omnipresent and they often take the role of strings. The band are more epic than symphonic and there are no female sopranos joining the fray, except on the final song, A Roda, but the two genres live in the same bucket and, beyond its being acoustic, that song plays well with everything else here.

At their core, though, they're a folk metal band and that's never more overt than in Battle of Alclud Ford. It's fast and frenetic, but it's led by folk melodies and sing-a-long lyrics. At points, it sounds like an Alestorm song but with a variety of different voices. I have no idea if they're all Dias or if the rest of the band are joining in on what is often a sing-along song. Was that Michael Kiske? Was that Bruce Dickinson? I doubt it but someone's trying to be both of them and not doing a bad job of it either. If the goal was to sound like everyone in a pub joining in over their pints, they nailed it. Unsurprisingly enough, Ale Mead and Wine is another drinking song but it features fewer voices and reminds more of Korpiklaani than Alestorm.

I like this music and it's easy to see that Gwydion kind of dig it too. This is their fifth studio album in a quarter of a century, though their debut, Ŷnys Mön, didn't come until a dozen years ago, but it's the first to be self-titled, which is usually a statement. Are they affirming that this is the true identity of the band at last, even though guitarist João Paulo left after recording it? Is it a new beginning or the summing up of their history thus far? It's certainly a generous album, with fourteen songs taking it a way past an hour in length. I never got bored, even across a few listens, but it could have been shorter without losing anything of substance.

Whatever Gwydion feel that it is, it's good stuff, notably varied because of all those voices, and neatly produced by Fernando Matias. I can easily hear Bruno Ezz's bass not because that end of the spectrum is pumped up but because the production is just so clear. I love production when I can listen multiple times and follow different instruments instead of just the vocals and the lead guitar.

I'm enjoying what I'm hearing coming out of Portugal, especially now I'm finding bands other than an excellent array of psychedelic rock outfits. Gwydion are very well established and yet they still have a sound that's not commonplace. I'm thinking of it as a mixture of Cradle of Filth and Korpiklaani, with whatever else they believe ought to add to a particular song, and even a few listens in, that still feels fascinating to me.

Thursday 19 November 2020

Pig Destroyer - The Octagonal Stairway (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Grindcore
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 28 Aug 2020
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Variety is the spice of life, I say, not that you hadn't figured out by looking at what I review here. I've listened to a lot of quieter music lately, relatively speaking, prog rock and post-rock and the elegant end of symphonic metal. I felt like a shift into high gear, even further than yesterday's Virus album gave me. So here's Pig Destroyer.

I like grindcore and not only because I was there early-ish trying to fathom out what the heck this new extreme genre was in 1988. Let's just say that my gig list that year started with a-ha and Gypsy Queen, progressed through Rick Wakeman to Metallica and ended up with an indoor festival headlined by a Carcass fresh from their first album release. It was Intense Degree who blew me away on that day (well, them and Paradise Lost, still in their demo days) and I started tuning into John Peel as well as Tommy Vance.

That said, I also know that grindcore is a relatively limited genre and so it's a periodic thing for me. I like getting my system cleaned out by a good grindcore album, but then I'll dive back into traditional genres that are more varied. So, my wishlist here was for something intense enough to really clean my clock after midnight. And, well, I don't think this really delivered, at least on that front.

Sure, it's loud and it's fast and it's heavy, but all grindcore is those things. This is slower than I really expected it to be, with the opening trio of songs a lot closer to later Napalm Death than early. Yeah, I hear punky vocals rather than death growls from J. R. Hayes, but I wanted a blur of speed and I didn't get that, except for about a minute of the opening title track.

This is a truck on a hill without brakes, which is heavy and powerful and destructive, but it isn't close to a rocketship. What's more, these three songs, the others being The Cavalry and Cameraman, total a skimpy ten minutes between them. The final track is longer than that on its own and it isn't remotely like this.

That's because the second half of this 25 minute EP isn't grindcore in the slightest. It comes from the experimental end of industrial, full of static and samples, something I might expect on an old album from Nurse with Wound or Current 93. News Channel 6 is an abrasive intro to Head Cage and they're a mere teaser to Sound Walker, the eleven minute epic that closes this EP out with an industrial drone. Igor Cavalera apparently guests on this one and I wouldn't have recognised that in a hundred years. I couldn't even tell you if he's guesting on drums or vocals or synths or what.

I should praise Pig Destroyer for surprising me. This isn't anything I expected from them and, frankly, it sounds like this is really a split EP with someone else. What's really odd is that the first half plays a lot closer to what I was aiming for, but the second half is what will stay with me. Those slow grindcore songs are decent but they didn't blow me away, though Cameraman is growing on me. Sound Walker, while it's not remotely for everyone, is a piece of music that grabbed my attention and refused to let go. That's a good thing.

And, having sought this out for a whirlwind of energy that I didn't find, I now find myself wondering if there's anything else like Sound Walker in Pig Destroyer's back catalogue. This isn't remotely what I remember from them early on, but they've kept busy since their formation in 1997 and I see an album a couple of years ago named Head Cage, even though there isn't a song of that title on it (though there is here). Maybe that tells me something. Maybe not. I should find out.

I am Waiting for You Last Summer - Self-Defense (2020)

Country: Russia
Style: Post-Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Jun 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | VK

In the mood for some unusual post-rock before I listened to the new Pig Destroyer, I sampled a bunch of albums before I found anything particularly interesting. Then this one showed up and I knew it was the one. I am Waiting for You Last Summer (talk about a band name designed for post-rock!) hail from Ryazan, three hours outside Moscow, and I don't know a heck of a lot about them. They appear to have three members, one of whom is Sasha Sokolov (not the Canadian-born Russian writer) and this is their third album. Sokolov also keeps himself busy with side projects and work for Hollywood trailers.

That latter makes a lot of sense, because this is highly cinematic but in a schizophrenic way. Certainly the album doesn't tell a coherent story, but I'm not convinced that many of the individual tracks do either. It's like they tell parts of separate much longer stories, broken up into highlights to hint at a bigger picture, while remaining engaging and dynamic. Boiling Point, for instance, sounds rather like the good five minutes of a Michael Bay movie but with the boring two and a half hours stripped away.

There is an overarching concept, the album's Bandcamp page tells us. It's "about what happens inside the mind of a person living in a big city in the era of ubiquitous digitalization." Or, as if to highlight the cinematic nature of the music: "The person is by themselves, surrounded by digital avatars." This suggests to me a world in which we pay little attention to the physical world surrounding us because our connections are virtual instead, making for crowds full of people who never interact in person. By extension, that suggests a barer, more fragmented world in which what we're used to seeing in shared spaces has been gradually shifted to individual digital overlays.

That's pretty damn cyberpunk and the music that follows does a pretty good job of detailing that, not least because it's almost entirely instrumental. The introduction, Brave New World, is calm and warm and empty, as if we're in our safe space. Then In Circles hits us from a dozen directions at once, like the flavours in the air if we stand in the middle of a food court and close our eyes. But in Neo-Tokyo.

Listening to In Circles is like travelling at speed through a thriving metropolis, with ambient sounds around us waxing and waning, erupting and vanishing, according to a whole host of external factors. The pulsing beat suggests we're not walking but riding in a vehicle with the windows open through a city that seems alive but only when we look down on it from above with timelapse photography so we appear as merely one streak of light of many. There's so much to unpack from this song. I heard bits of Tangerine Dream and Gary Numan and a host of others I don't recognise.

In Circles is only one of a few highlights here, and there's more Tangerine Dream to find on the closer, Renascence, but it's a fantastic place to start because it takes us out there, somewhere, anywhere, and we don't really return to ourselves until the album's over. It's a hard task for a band to do that when the listener is on headphones in a dark room, let alone on speakers in an office, but I am Waiting for You Last Summer manage it here with ease. No hallucinogenics needed.

Je Me Demande deserves mention too, not only because it's the only piece of music here to feature a vocal track, presumably courtesy of Gdeto, who's the guest on it. It's dreamy stuff from the outset and her voice adds to that feel. While there's rock all through this album, there's plenty of pop here too and this moves from the latter to the former with panache, dreampop to searing guitar solo.

Everything Ends takes a little while to build, but it's well worth the wait for it to get there because it functions as its own crescendo. It feels not only apocalyptic but inexorable, yet somehow not final, as it's not cut off at its peak. It does end but there are a couple more pieces of music to come, so it's only a temporary end. And the first of those is Boiling Point, my favourite piece here, a heavier one but an ethnic one too. The drumming occasionally reminded me of the Geinoh Yamashirogumi soundtrack to Akira, but it's industrialised up and with other melodies overlaid. It's interweaving layers and they're fascinating.

In short, there's a lot here and I look forward to shifting this one onto earphones in the dark.

Wednesday 18 November 2020

Virus - Evilution Apocalypse (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 14 Aug 2020
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Oh hey, here's another blast from my past. I remember British thrash outfit Virus well from their first two albums and their Friday Rock Show session, though I never managed to catch them live. Somehow, I managed to miss a third LP in 1989 before the band split up a year later. They were on the rough side of thrash, with a dirty guitar sound, punky vocals and riffs that were designed for the pit. They played their thrash in high gear too and with surprisingly technical changes, so they reminded me of Nuclear Assault, an one of my favourite bands back then.

Well, it seems that Coke McFinlay, who was both the band's vocalist and lead guitarist, decided to try again in 2008, but struggled to keep a consistent line-up. This is the first new Virus studio album since 1989, though I see compilations and a couple of EPs, and given what's dominated the news this year, it seems highly appropriate for a welcome return of new Virus material. My initial thought is that Coke is picking up exactly where he left off.

These are fast thrash songs, with the band barrelling along with production thats just muddy enough to keep that old school punk feel. When they slow down to midpace, the riffs are good ones, with Rob Edwards working alongside McFinlay well. He's been with Virus since 2018 but Will Sheils on bass and Liam Hastie on drums are new fish this year. They've picked things up quickly, especially the latter, as recognisably Virus drums are more of a feel than a technique. It's not just about keeping the beat, it's also about keeping ahead of it. Virus drums are rarely slow, even when the rest of the band take it to a less vehement pace for a while.

Certainly this band seem to enjoy letting rip instrumentally. There are long stretches where McFinlay shuts his mouth and puts his guitar into serious action. I love these sections, such as the beginning of the title track, the end of Basement Conversion and much of Goat (Father, Scum, and Unholy). Perhaps it's these instrumental sections that led to my surprise.

That rougher, punkier edge led Virus to write shorter songs for the most part, not as a rule per se but just because that's how they came out. Here, everything's just a little longer, none of these ten songs clocking in at under four minutes and only two at under five. These songs are five minute songs or six minute songs, so they're hardly epics, but that's a notable change from the old days. It makes this the old Virus but a little more mature.

Well, sorta. If the cheeky wordplay obvious in titles like Goat (Father, Scum, and Unholy) and Multiple Wargasms isn't enough to highlight the humour at play throughout this album, let alone some of the lyrics, then surely Defective Detective has to. It isn't just a cover of the Inspector Gadget theme, because it's a whole song written from the perspective, I think, of the character's arch-villain, Doctor Claw, and, get this, it's the longest song on this album, but it's still a cover of the Inspector Gadget theme. Virus may be getting serious but they're still serious fun.

I've listened through this album a few times now and I'm still having a blast. I have a feeling that the lyrics to Thrashville explain its existence and the Cliff Notes version of that is that they miss that old school thrash feel so they decided to rekindle it. I'm behind that a thousand per cent and dearly hope that Virus get the opportunity to deliver this on stage and in future albums, taking over from COVID as the Virus to pay attention to.

This isn't the greatest album they'll ever release, not least because there are two songs here reworked from their 1988 album Force Recon, presumably as a bonus, but it's a good album nonetheless and I'm looking forward to the next one. It's not as good as the new Acid Reign, their first since 1990, but I think it's better than the Xentrix, their first since 1996. Now, who's going to come out of the woodwork next?

Qüassi - Mareas (2020)

Country: Argentina
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 9 Oct 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram

One of the standard things we critics often do when reviewing music is to compare a particular album to other bands that you're likely to have heard, in order to give you a reference point. I'd do that here but I have no idea who to bring up.

Sure, there's a lot of prog rock here, but Qüassi, from Mendoza, Argentina, don't sound at all like Yes, Genesis or King Crimson, let alone anyone newer. They play entirely instrumental music, but that's not enough to suddenly bring ELP into the mix. There's a lot of psychedelic rock here, so maybe the comparisons should be to bands who mix those two genres, but I didn't hear early Floyd, Hawkwind or even someone like Ozric Tentacles. Perhaps the latter are the closest, but Qüassi aren't as organic and they're nowhere near as reliant on electronics, even on their spacier pieces.

There's a huge amount of jazz here as well, enough of it that I could understand them being described as a jazz band with firm prog influences rather than vice versa, though I don't get the impression that all these songs are improvised jams in the studio, though some songs are looser than others, such as Solitario Spider and Marea. I'm not suggesting that these pieces were planned out meticulously, but I tend to expect pure improvisation to have that recognisable jazz drum sound and the drums here are very confident in where things are going. I often wish I had a deeper grounding in jazz fusion and this is another of those times; I'm sure there are comparisons to be made there.

What I can say is that there are other sounds here, trawled in as needed for a particular song. Vortice could be defined as jazz prog but it's really a sliding scale that veers from lounge music at one end to space rock at the other. Trashilvania has a krautrock feel to it, combining drones and pulses, some of them harsh, into something musical, only for what I presume is a vibraphone to suddenly infuse it all with warmth. That makes for another wild contrast, something that Qüassi handle very well.

Solitario Spider, surely my favourite track here, is led by a melodious guitar that I'd expect to hear in Caribbean music. It repeatedly throws out a melody for the rest of the band to respond to in an array of different ways, which vary wildly. That guitar returns on Matematicofrustrado, which I expected to be a lot more complex given the name (it translates to Frustrated Mathematician), but is still one of my highlights here.

Amapolas is an exotic track, with Egyptian and Indian sounds in the hand drums (and sitar?), though it also finds recognisable melodies. Was that Ravel's Bolero? I think it was. It's an oddity that, given the presence of lounge here, this isn't remotely exotica, merely elements of world music brought into the jazz prog.

I have no idea who any of the musicians are in this band, though their Facebook band photo suggests that there are four of them. While they're all clearly capable, I want to praise whoever's playing vibes because they're a constant gamechanger on an already interesting album. The drummer also deserves special mention for ramping into an outrageous solo on Reverbi, almost without the rest of the band noticing, which is surreal. I like the bass here a lot too, especially on songs like Solitario Spider, when it prowls carefully but confidently.

I liked this a lot, even if it's not remotely easy to pigeonhole. If you like the idea of prog jazz psych, I doubt I need to say much more. If you have no idea what that might sound like and the cover art isn't enough to give you an idea, I recommend checking this album out to see.

Tuesday 17 November 2020

Powerman 5000 - The Noble Rot (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Alternative/Industrial Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date:
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

It's been fantastic to see a host of new releases over the last couple of years from bands that I thought were long gone, whether because they split up years ago or because they epitomise an era that's long gone. Powerman 5000 firmly sit in the latter category, as they've never split up since their founding in 1991, but they're so close to what I think of as the sound of the US in 1999 that I'm surprised to find a constant stream of albums to their name. This is their tenth album and they've never had more than a three year gap between any of them.

This starts well, with a song called Cannibal Killers That Kill Everyone. It's precisely is what I expect of Powerman 5000: a Sisters of Mercy groove dirtied up with industrial texture but never losing its sheer catchiness. Even lyrically, it does just what I expect, with a chorus that runs "Cannibal rising, cannibal roar, cannibal pimps and cannibal whores, cannibal daughters, cannibal sons, cannibal killers that kill everyone." It's short and simple but it does its job well and suddenly I remember that MTV used to play music videos. Could this be the December level of our 2020 Jumanji game?

Then they shift into a trendier, more industrial sound. Brave New World features a stop/start beat, an array of electronic sounds in lieu of standard riffs and almost rapped vocals. Play God or Play Dead is similar sans the rap. Special Effects restores an incessant beat and plays with samples to end up oddly like Max Headroom covering Billy Idol. We Got the Beat is a Go-Go's cover, of all things, but it works in this much darker industrial metal context, if not as well as it could.

The other common sound here is old school goth/new wave. Black Lipstick is an overt homage to that era of the early eighties, namechecking Bauhaus. Let the Insects Rule plays with darkwave in the way that Adam Ant might have done, had his later solo career found an influence from Nine Inch Nails rather than Prince. Strange People Doing Strange Things reminds of Adam Ant too, but much earlier when he was coming out of the punk era and creating something new in that vibrant British indie scene of 1979 and 1980. Another name obvious from Strange People and Movie Blood is Gary Numan, a primary influence on Trent Reznor and clearly Spider One of Powerman 5000.

This is surprisingly strong and consistent and it ably explains to me why this band still exists. It may not be my genre of choice, but this is dark and energetic material that's impossible to ignore. It's well within the bounds of possibility that I'll wake up tomorrow morning with one of a half dozen of these songs playing in my head. They're about as infectious as the COVID-19 virus and I know which of those choices I'd prefer to take over society.

I've reviewed a lot of albums lately that look back at the eighties and that's not too surprising, given the current nostalgia point, but it does seem weird to find a band so identified with the late nineties to do the same thing. Play these songs to someone in isolation and they'd never guess that they were released in 2020; only strong modern production tells us that they belong in the 21st century. But it's a great reminder that, however often musicians look backward, music moves on when they do that and combine sounds and this album connected quite a few dots for me. Surprisingly recommended!

H2Ocean - The Horned Goddess (2020)

Country: Greece
Style: Groove Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 25 Sep 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives

I haven't reviewed much from Greece this year, which state of affairs I should remedy because I found so many good albums from there in 2019. H2Ocean primarily play groove metal, with the harsh vocals we expect, but their particularly flavour of groove is a lot closer to the thrash that birthed the genre than most American bands, which fits my taste better. Some songs, such as Primeape, are thrash songs with a groove influence rather than the other way around. The vocals are angry and the bass is high in the mix, but those are thrash riffs and changes.

Frankly, the worst thing about this album is the fact that the colourful cover art might get me into a spot of bother when I share it on Facebook. Musically, it's strong, with nine songs doing much of the same thing with different riffs and vibes, and Makis Makoulas finds a good balance with his vocals. If you follow my reviews, you'll know that I'm not generally a fan of the shouty singing style that found its way into metal from hardcore. Makoulas primarily works in that style, rough and vitriolic, but he does it well and I'm good with it.

My problems with shouty vocals are twofold. One is that such singers often sound like they're trying to sound tough for the sake of sounding tough, rather than to fit with the music. Makoulas is on the right side of that, because it feels right with these riffs. The other is that it often means a monotone delivery, which just makes things boring. He partly avoids that, managing to get enough intonation into some of these songs to matter, especially The Chain and Absolution Through Demise. At points on these, especially on the latter, he almost finds an Icon-era Nick Holmes style.

Another aspect that I'd recommend H2Ocean adopt more often is the inclusion of a female vocal that mixes things up completely. Dehumanized isn't strong here just because of that approach, but it may well be what makes it the highlight of the album. I don't know who that voice belongs to, but it kicks in with a sort of gothic feel and becomes more world music later. This adds layers and Makoulas roars his way through the rest of the song as if he has twice the air in his lungs than the rest of us. It's neat contrast.

Behind him are only three musicians. George Katsamakis contributes guitar and he impresses a lot by infusing a style that's often just about brutality with plenty of technical thrash and plenty of slower old-school metal as well, a song like Change of Heart featuring almost NWOBHM era riffs. On bass is the gloriously named Herc Booze and he's very prominent, not just deepening the sound but echoing beyond it. That leaves Giorgos Kalavrezos on drum programming, though that isn't as electronic as it might seem. It sounds like a real drumkit to me and the rhythms remains interesting throughout.

And that leaves a song called My Everything to highlight. It's a groove metal ballad, which seems like an odd concept to begin with, even if the lyrics are dark with lines like "my love turns into hate". I'm finding that my tolerance for ballads is decreasing with each year that passes and, when this began, I really wasn't sure what to expect. However, this works surprisingly well. Katsamakis goes acoustic with style and Makoulas adapts his voice magnificently to a very different sound. This isn't just a ballad to tolerate, it's one to seek out and, on an album like this, that rather shocked me.

So, it's good to be virtually back in Greece. Unlike other surprising countries where I've found a scene that revolves around a particular style, like psychedelic rock in Peru and Portugal, Greek bands seem to be nailing whatever style they happen to adopt. Clearly I need to keep checking out what's coming out and telling you about it.

[Update: guitarist George Katsamakis kindly let me know that the female vocal on Dehumanized is by Mary Kay and the voice on My Everything doesn't belong to regular singer Makis Makoulas but to a guest vocalist, Fotis Benardo, the former drummer for Septic Flesh and now drummer for Necromentia and singer in SixforNine.]

Monday 16 November 2020

Silentium - Motiva (2020)

Country: Finland
Style: Symphonic Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 28 Aug 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Wikipedia | YouTube

It's been twelve years since Finland's Silentium have released a studio album, but this one, their sixth, has finally arrived and it's a tasty offering indeed that hopefully points a way forward. Another dozen years would mean 2032 and that's too far away to even imagine.

They call themselves a gothic metal band but there are clear symphonic elements, not unusual for the land of Nightwish, and I think the symphonic metal takes over from the gothic here. There are plenty of recognisable aspects from a few other genres too; there's prog rock here and melodic rock as well, some world melodies on Circle, even some hints at death growls here and there, but what really struck me wasn't the heavy stuff at all.

What impressed me most on the opener, Truth, wasn't that lead singer Riina Rinkinen can handle the standard powerful vocals with apparently no effort, it was that she was also able to ratchet the power way down for quieter sections and even sound delicate in the process. The evocative cover art looks as if it features water, but Finland can be damn cold and in these quieter moments, I pictured icicles on a cold but crisp day with stunning resolution. I like power but power balanced with peace is even better.

And what impressed me most about the rest of the album is that Silentium keep doing this. There are similar sections on Vow and Safer/Easier is delicate from moment one, slowly but inexorably building into something just as elegant but far less delicate, until it bounces back down to the whisper during the midsection. This song feels exquisitely crafted, as if the band has been polishing it for the twelve years since Amortean and only now decided that it's ready to be heard. Some songs conjure up visuals for me, whether still or moving. This may be the first time I've seen a ballet in a song.

By the time Safer/Easier gave way to Vortex, another song to start peacefully, initially with solo piano and then what I presume is a cello, I realised just how impactful these quiet parts were. I found myself breathing shallower so as not to interrupt the delicacy. Of course, that's the point where Silentium do the exact opposite and ramp way up into high gear for the most frantic part of the album. It's here as well that keyboardist Sami Boman provides a rough but intelligible vocal as a counter to the soaring clarity of Rinkinen. Her voice becomes almost a keyboard line for Boman to chant over as the drums of Janne Ojala get ever faster and more theatrically devilish.

Vortex sits at the heart of the album, the fifth song of nine and it's a nine minute epic. These songs do trend towards length, the peak of that the eleven minute Tide, but there are a bunch of four minuters here too, so it's not a must for Silentium. I like songs that are short sharp shocks and I like songs that know that they need to breathe. None of these felt inappropriately short or long and, while the songs I see as standouts are the longer ones, I rather enjoyed Unchained with its choral backing too.

Tide is seriously ambitious. It's entirely capella for a minute and change, before piano and strings add to the effect. When it gets serious, it does so with real character, Ojala setting jagged rhythms in play for the band to mimic. It ebbs and it flows and it does rather a lot within those eleven minutes. It's a true epic, dwarfing Vortex and never feeling uncomfortable.

Friend is the only song that feels uncomfortable and that's because it's meant to. These titles give us precious little to go in with and this particular title ought to offer the most comfort anywhere here, but it's harsh and quietly industrial throughout its first half. Maybe our friend shows up to rescue us in the second half. If so, our friend is a neatly amorphous blob that expands and contracts at will. The visuals on this album do get strange and there are no lyrics to help us on this one.

This is a generous album, at almost a hour in length, but then there are twelve years to fill here. What I took away from it after a first listen was a strong sense of dynamic play, with the quieter segments as important, if not more so, than the louder, heavier ones. It's a very patient album. It's a careful album too and repeated listens deepen it. There's so much great and interesting symphonic metal out there at the moment. If you're into that sort of material, this is another treat for you.