Thursday, 31 December 2020

Nick Mason's Saucerful of Secrets - Live at the Roundhouse (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 18 Sep 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

In many ways, this is a quintessential example of what I don't review at Apocalypse Later but it's New Years Eve and 2020 is about to go the way of the dinosaurs so I'm going to indulge myself. This is new music, as the album was released in September 2020, but the newest song on here dates back to when I was only two years old. What's more, it's a live album, something else that I've tended to avoid. And, finally, I never thought in a million years that I'd review a band with Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet on guitar and lead vocals.

But hey, here we are! Nick Mason, for those of you living under a rock, is the drummer with Pink Floyd and he has been since my mother was a teenager. If that makes him seem old, then that's nothing new, because he formed this band after helping set up a Pink Floyd museum exhibition in 2017, realising it was a long, long time since their early days and he wanted to revisit that. After all, the Floyd released seven albums in the six years before The Dark Side of the Moon, which is precisely as many as they've released in the forty-seven years since. It's shocking to realise that Arnold Layne came out before Sgt. Pepper, when Pink Floyd were still The Pink Floyd.

This project deliberately returns to those early days, so nothing here was written later than Obscured by Clouds in 1972. Frankly, it's a blast listening to these old psychedelic pop and prog rock songs with 21st century production values and, because this is a double album running over an hour and a half, it features no fewer than twenty-two songs for our edification and pleasure. A few songs are notable for being absent, like Careful with That Axe, Eugene, especially given that Mason wrote it, but most of my early favourites are here, but most of my early favourites are here: Astronomy Domine, One of These Days and Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.

What surprised me, given that I've surely heard everything Pink Floyd have ever recorded, including a BBC session version of the most obscure song here, Vegetable Man, it's been so long that I've actually forgotten some of these songs. How cool is the riff on Lucifer Sam, for instance, originally released on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn? Why haven't I gone back to Atom Heart Mother the way I've gone back to Meddle or Ummagumma? There are only seven minutes of Atom Heart Mother here, bookended by three more of If, but those are ten minutes of highlights for me.

The material is taken from across the Floyd's early career. Beyond Zabriskie Point, the only album not represented here is the studio half of Ummagumma, which isn't surprising. There are three non-album singles, four songs from each of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and A Saucerful of Secrets, including a twelve minute take on Set the Controls that gives Mason plenty to do. More and Meddle provide two songs each, while Atom Heart Mother and Obscured by Clouds provide three. Then there's Vegetable Man, which was recorded for A Saucerful of Secrets but didn't see an official release until 2016.

The band are obviously enjoying themselves and that's especially obvious if you watch the version on DVD because they're literally bouncing around. The idea for the band came from Lee Harris, formerly of the Blockheads (of Ian Dury fame) and prolific session bassist Guy Pratt, who's performed with Pink Floyd. Keyboardist Dom Beken used to be in the Transit Kings with Pratt. And, after Mason of course, that leaves Gary Kemp, who I now discover founded his first band after witnessing the Sex Pistols live in 1976 (there's a nod here to Holidays in the Sun on The Nile Song).

They run through this long set without almost any inter-song banter. They clearly assume that anyone going to see Nick Mason's Saucerful of Secrets knows all this material and so it doesn't need them to introduce it. There's also not a lot of audience noise, though this feels live because it has that energy to it. When both show up, in between Green is the Colour and Let There Be More Light, it's surprising to hear. Whoever's talking also sounds oddly like John Peel, which is even more surprising. So is that song, because I'd forgotten that one too. Shame on me.

2020 seemed to be all about setting our controls for the heart of the sun. 2021 promises to be better. I hope that you, wherever you are around this fascinating globe of ours, have a very Happy New Year to cleanse your palate from the last one.

Iron Savior - Skycrest (2020)

Country: Germany
Style: Heavy/Power Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 4 Dec 2020
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Wikipedia

Hopefully this will be a lucky thirteenth album for Iron Savior, only a year after their previous effort, Kill or Get Killed. In fact, it's their sixth in seven years, 2018 being the only year since 2013 when they didn't release a new studio album (though, to be fair, one was a redux). They seem to have a real thirst nowadays and next year will mark a silver anniversary for them, at least under this name. They really go even further back to a cover band called Gentry to which lead vocalist Piet Sielck and guitarist Kai Hansen had belonged in school. The line-up here is as it was last time out and the time before that, so there's consistency here. There have actually only been two line-up changes since 2003.

Anyone who enjoyed Kill or Get Killed will enjoy this too, because it does much of the same thing, at a similar sort of generous length and with similar effect. As with that album, the consistency is both a positive and a negative aspect because, while there are no poor tracks here, the lesser ones can fade in the shadow of the greater ones. It's power metal with plenty of heavy and plenty of speed, but always melody. Almost all these songs are up tempo and in your face, but with that German flair for melody that we remember from classic Helloween and all the bands who came in their wake.

Overall, I think this is an improvement on that one, which I thought was strong already. The melodies feel a little catchier and the riffs a little meatier. Some of the songs here even started to get stuck in my head before I finished listening to them a first time, such as End of the Rainbow, whose infectious chorus should be all over rock radio, the title track and Ode to the Brave, which open and close the album in style.

Oddly, End of the Rainbow is bookended by the two songs that stand out as different from the norm. Raise the Flag lowers the pace, making it sound more like a straight heavy metal song without all the usual power metal elements or maybe even a hard rock number with metal guitars. It's not a bad song at all, but it's the only one here to take that approach, so it seems rather out of place. Ease Your Pain is a power ballad and a surprisingly good one to my ears, being well aware that my pain threshold for power ballads has increased with age.

This album felt like a palate cleanser on a first listen. Whatever crap was going on in my head, I felt a bit happier and a bit more focused after playing this through. Initial highlights were the title track, which opens up proceedings after a surprisingly electronic intro; Our Time Has Come, which kicks into high gear and just barrels along from the outset like the faster songs that used to begin Dio albums; and that magnificently catchy number, End of the Rainbow.

A second listen underlines all that but ensures that we realise that many of the other tracks are pretty fine too. This is definitely a catchier album than the prior one, with Hellbreaker, Welcome to the New World and Silver Bullet all staking their claims not far behind those other highlights. And the more I listen, the better this album feels. At some point during my first time through, I wondered if it would deserve an 8/10. At some point during my second, I realised that I'd marked half the dozen tracks down as highlights. So yeah, 8/10 is a gimme.

This is a great way to wrap up a year. Here's to next year's Iron Savior album in advance!

Wednesday, 30 December 2020

Snowy White and the White Flames - Something on Me (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Blues Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 9 Oct 2020
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Wikipedia | YouTube

I remember Snowy White from his 1983 hit single, Bird of Paradise, as well as the pair of albums that he made with Thin Lizzy. He was the permanent replacement for Gary Moore (talk about big shoes to fill) and he appeared on Chinatown and Renegade, before giving way to John Sykes. I thought he had spent his time since working with Pink Floyd, with whom he'd been involved before Lizzy. While that's true in large part, as he's a regular part of Roger Waters's band, he's also been releasing rather a heck of a lot of solo material, under various monikers like Snowy White's Blues Agency, Snowy White Blues Project and Snowy White & The White Flames, named for his first solo album.

As you might imagine, this is blues rock in the British style and it's mostly laid back stuff that often reminds of another of his collaborators, Peter Green. The opening track, Something on Me, an almost eight minute epic that doesn't ever overstay its welcome, is one part Peter Green and one part Mark Knopfler, with a few more parts of his own style. It's gorgeous, though it highlights how much better White is as a guitarist than he is as a singer. He has a very pleasant voice, so I'm not complaining, but the result is that absolutely everyone will listen to this for the guitarwork and nobody for the vocals.

It was the next song that confused me and it wasn't the only one. I knew that I recognised something but I couldn't tell what and it drove me nuts for a while. It took me a second listen to figure some of this out and I surprised myself with the revelations. Another Blue Night is just like a Rory Gallagher song, as is the playful I Wish I Could later on, except that they're played with a soft and laid back feel rather than hard and in your face. It's their phrasing that's recognisably Gallagher because he'd never play either of them like this. Like the other nine songs, they're Snowy White compositions, as none of these songs are covers and only one has co-writers.

Another example is Cool Down, which I now realise reminds me of Iggy Pop's The Passenger, should it be slowed down, stripped of all its punk nature and played with a new vocal as a soft blues number. It sounded eerily reminiscent of something on a first listen and now it sounds odd because I've worked out why. It still sounds though and it invokes the same feel that almost everything here does, namely a bitter sweet sort of loss. Hey, it's the blues, so it has to be about loss, but here it's a faded loss from a long time ago, one that we've come to terms with and now sits alongside the good memories before it.

Nothing seems particularly deep lyrically. One of my favourite songs, for example, goes by the name of It's Only the Blues. It's another White composition but I'm sure half the bluesmen out there have written a song called It's Only the Blues and they'll all be as lyrically generic as this one. Guitarwork elevates it, along with a more memorable chorus.

While everything is generic lyrically, I think, not everything is generic musically. Beyond the soaring but polite solos, which are relentlessly enjoyable, the approaches to the theme vary. One of the most interesting songs is Commercial Suicide, an instrumental that starts out with an alt country vibe and grows into an even darker song because of Thomas White really mixing up the drums. Eventually, it's jazzy and exploratory.

The song that might get old Snowy White fans particularly interested, not that they wouldn't enjoy a new hour of his songs, is Whiteflames Chill, because it changes up the personnel. Most of this is done with Rowan Bassett on bass and Thomas White on drums, backing Snowy White on guitar and vocals. However, Whiteflames Chill brings in his old compatriots, Walter Latupeirissa on bass and Juan van Emmerloot on drums, who go back to his 1994 album, Highway to the Sun, as well as keyboardist Max Middleton, who goes back to 1987's That Certain Thing. It's a playful song, namechecking all of them in the friendly lyrics before the liveliest solo on the album. It's still the blues but life is good.

The final song has the most poignant lyrics, because it may be telling us something. White is getting old, not an unusual situation for a bluesman, but he gave up touring in 2019 because of health issues at the age of 71. "One day I will be moving on," he sings here, "like so many gone before." Hopefully, that day won't be any time soon and, touring or not, he'll continue to put out albums this consistent, this long and this often for plenty more years to come.

Børeal - Las Mariposas Agitan Sus Alas (2020)

Country: Colombia
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 15 Oct 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook

Many thanks to Milo Rodríguez, Børeal's lead vocalist and lyricist, for sending me a copy of this, their debut EP. I believe my most surprising revelation from two years of diving deep into a rock and metal community that's become truly global is just how much great stuff is coming out of South America of late. This is my sixteenth review this year of a South American band and I've been stunned by the wild variety of styles and the consistent quality, not to forget just how many progressive elements feature across the genres.

It's a broad musical sweep from Argentina's Illutia to Peru's Necrofagore, via Brazil's Corona Nimbus and Chile's Lapsus Dei, but Columbia's Børeal introduce another angle with their odd combination of prog rock and modern metal. The former seems to me to be the band's priority because there are a lot of moments here where the production could have gone with crunchy guitars, a downtuned bass and a powerful drum sound but apparently chose not to. All the instruments are clearly audible, but they're more interested in the details of what they're doing than the punch of a thicker sound.

There are four songs here and they're all interesting in their way. The most interesting is Boreal, only because it's two minutes longer than the others and so has more time to do interesting things, right down to a harsh vocal from Rodríguez, who's been mostly clean throughout. It's no bad thing to start out a career with a release that doesn't have a single letdown track.

Origen starts things out in alternate metal territory, jangly and jarring but with commercial intent. I love the drums of Diego Vargas here, not just because of what they do but because of what they don't. Sure, he demonstrates both how fast and accurately he can hit those drums but also how effective not drumming at all can be. I'm used to the drums setting the pace and the guitars taking it up, but here the guitars set the pace and the drums are often colour and decoration over them. That's unusual, but very effective.

I think my favourite song may be Homo Homini Lupus, which kicks in with a heartbeat that's taken up seamlessly by those drums. The title is a Latin proverb to highlight that "Man is wolf to man" and the song is an agreeably predatory number with enthusiastic backing vocals. As you might imagine, there are points where Rodríguez goes harsh here, though he's clean for most of the song. It's a faster piece generally, but there's a really nice slowdown midway. Børeal are big Coheed and Cambria fans, so the dynamic play is as unsurprising as it's welcome.

I haven't translated the lyrics, but these songs do seem to play very closely to their titles. Anhedonia is the inability to feel pleasure (it was the original title of Woody Allen's Annie Hall) and Rodríguez is a lot sadder here, even though the drum runs over the guitar solo are joyous. An impressive riff perks him up halfway and highlights once more how the production could have been so much chunkier. That really is my only negative here and, given how audible the subtleties of songs like Boreal are, I'm very aware that bulking up the sound may spoil it completely.

Boreal gets theatrical. Some parts early on remind of Fish in the early days of Marillion and the song grows in similar ways to something like Chelsea Monday, with whispers and dramatics, though it's all wearing alternative clothing rather than neo-prog. There's a lot going on here, from its soft opening with atmospheric keyboards to what almost reaches black metal, immediately after a fluid guitar solo from one of the two guitarists. Kudos to the band for songwriting here as much as their performance.

This all bodes really well for a full length album from Børeal. South America strikes again and from a sixth different country for me in 2020. Clearly I need to make a conscious effort to review more South American releases in 2021. Thanks, Milo.

Tuesday, 29 December 2020

Enslaved - Utgard (2020)

Country: Norway
Style: Progressive Black/Viking Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 2 Oct 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

I'd think that it's fair to say that Enslaved have become one of the most interesting black metal bands nowadays, but they've moved so far away from the genre that they're gradually losing a lot of the old school fanbase they've been building since 1991. This is their fifteenth album and there's not a heck of a lot of black metal left in their sound, though it's still there if you pay attention.

Jettegrytta starts out in black metal style, with fast guitars, faster drums and the recognisable harsh vocal of Grutle Kjellson. Homebound does the same, as does Flight of Thought and Memory, but each of these songs drops away from black metal at some point into some flavour of prog rock. Maybe the key point to make here is that, even in black metal assault mode, this feels a little subdued. It's not a traditional wall of sound to bludgeon us, it's a filter of the black metal style that's compatible with a proggier and often jazzier section to come. The opening of Jettegryta may be about as traditional as this gets, but I kept turning up the volume and it still refused to punch me in the throat.

Whether you're going to dig this album or not may depend on your reaction to that last paragraph. I like raw and bleak black metal on occasion, because it seems to me the most extreme metal out there. However, I'm nowhere near die hard enough to restrict my listening to that end of a subgenre. I really like bands like Enslaved who take extreme metal and mix it with non-extreme genres to make it learn new tricks. There's a heck of a lot going on in this album and that's one of the reasons that I like it so much. Storms of Utgard is Celtic Frost, Mekong Delta and maybe Radiohead.

Fires in the Dark opens the album with Viking chants and atmospheric guitar. Somehow a riff arrives and Kjellson's harsh vocals duet clean equivalents from Håkon Vinje and Iver Sandøy. A later riff feels almost Middle Eastern. Jettegryta, after the hard black metal, drops into avant jazz. Sequence starts out commercially with a bouncy riff in the vein of Satyricon's K.I.N.G., but finds its way into complex jazz, before dropping into an oasis of calm generated by an acoustic guitar and supporting keyboards. It ends up reminding more of Voivod, or maybe Voivod doing Pink Floyd. The most Floydian song has the honour of wrapping up the album and that's Distant Seasons.

It's the longer songs like Sequence and Flights of Thought and Memory that best highlight what this band is doing nowadays though. The latter starts out black metal again, but drops into prog and then ratchets up to a serious pace. Kjellson's vocals here are black, but the music behind them almost feels like speed metal for a moment. The melodious sounds in the later jazzy section could almost be called lounge, except there are busy drums and a dramatic voice overlaying them. These are deep songs and their various components are woven together tightly. They're all part of a natural whole, not there to jar us with wild contrasts like a band like Mr. Bungle.

What I should point out here is that these are the natural next step in a journey they've been taking for some time. They shouldn't seem surprising in any way. This is what Enslaved have been becoming for a decade and a half and they're getting better and better at it each time out. What's surprising to me is the double shot of Utgarðr and Urjotun. The former is really an interlude right at the heart of the album, all swirling keyboards and spoken word. The latter could easily be called post punk with a firm embrace of electronica. It's like Joy Division at their fastest and perkiest. That I wasn't expecting but it's good stuff.

Where that leaves us is that you may hate this for the same reasons I love it. If you're looking for an old school black metal album from one of the pioneers of the genre, this sure ain't it. If you're open to an evolving sound almost thirty years in the making, however, then this may be right up your alley.

Enuff Z'Nuff - Brainwashed Generation (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Power Pop
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 10 Jul 2020
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I've always had a soft spot for Enuff Z'nuff, who are still struggling three decades on against many of us thinking that they're a hair metal band. They aren't and never really were, however it seemed back in 1989 when they put out their first album. They prefer us to call what they do power pop and it's not easy to disagree with that because it's getting completely obvious. The bands that spring to mind as I listen to this aren't Poison, Guns n' Roses or Faster Pussycat, even if they'll be touring with the latter next yer. They're Cheap Trick, ELO, Queen and, at the root of the band's sound, the Beatles.

The hardest rocker here is Drugland Weekend, which chugs along nicely and features a powerful solo I believe comes courtesy of Ace Frehley. He's certainly here somewhere, as are drummers Mike Portnoy and Daxx Nielsen, son of Rick and touring member of Cheap Trick in his own right. Original guitarist Donnie Vie is here too, albeit only on one song, which I believe is Strangers in My Head, so this really isn't a reunion for the fans to leap too hard towards, even if it's a start.

The band nowadays are founder member Chip Z'nuff on bass and, as of 2016, lead vocals, with a trio of other musicians who are much more recent acquisitions. Lead guitarist Tory Stoffregen has a decade with the band, albeit in two stints. Drummer Dan Hill joined in 2016. Alex Kane only joined last year, on rhythm guitar and keyboards, so wasn't on 2018's Diamond Boy, but a long time ago, back in 1987 before the first album, he spent a year on lead guitar.

The whole album is solid, because Chip Z'nuff has always written catchy songs and the nine songs here are no exception. The only forgettable piece is the forty second intro. Once we're in Fatal Distraction, we realise that nobody else writes songs this catchy nowadays and how good they are needs to factor in how they stay in our heads. This one could be up there with Cheap Trick classics, though Z'nuff isn't remotely as emphatic a vocalist as Robin Zander. I Got My Money Where My Mouth Is follows suit and we're off and running in style.

While there isn't a huge gap between Cheap Trick, ELO and Queen, differing uses of vocal harmonies being a good part of it, Enuff Z'Nuff do explore that gap. It's All in Vain, which I believe is the song to feature Portnoy on drums, plays out differently to the Cheap Trick-infused earlier tracks. This one is a Saigon Kick kind of take on ELO for most of its running time but there are quintessential Beatles bits and it ends up very much like Queen. Most of the later songs also play in ELO/Beatles territory, with Queen never too far behind.

All in all, this is very likeable material. It's soft and melodic and catchy, with enough of a back end to mean that it's still rock music rather than straight pop. That's a neat riff on Winding Road to wrap up the album, but however seventies rock it seems, what plays around it is softer. Imagine Joe Walsh in a guest guitarist slot for the Beatles. Drugland Weekend rocks. The only valid thing I can throw out on the negative side is that these songs might bite more with a dedicated vocalist. Chip Z'nuff was the bass player and songwriter long before he ever stepped up to the mike and he has a passive voice for a lead singer.

Depending on how you count, this is either Enuff Z'Nuff's tenth studio album or their fifteenth. Yeah, that's a big difference. It's because they put out a lot of archive material that was technically new and relabelled at least one non-Enuff Z'Nuff album under that name. It's not been a smooth ride for them, even though they ought to be much better known than they are. Somehow I know that this album will not suddenly catapult them to superstardom, but it really ought to.

Monday, 28 December 2020

Kraan - Sandglass (2020)

Country: Germany
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 2 Oct 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website | Wikipedia

I hadn't previously heard of Kraan, but they've been a band for longer than I've been alive and I turn fifty in three months. They've also kept a pretty consistent line-up over the years, with guitarist Peter Wolbrandt and bassist Helmut Hattler being founder members who never left the band. Drummer Jan Fride did, for a few years between 1978 and 1984, but otherwise he's been there throughout too. That's the core band, though there are a few guests here and there too.

They apparently started out playing krautrock, but gradually morphed into a jazz fusion take on prog rock. This is their fourteenth studio album, arriving a full decade after its predecessor, Diamonds, and it's a thoroughly enjoyable one, even if it feels a little safe. There are no extended jams here, though many of the thirteen songs on offer are instrumentals and some run neatly into others. Gleis 10 into Pick Peat means eleven minutes without any voice, and those are the longest two songs here.

The most experimental they get is perhaps on the title track that opens the album but, oddly, it's the most commercial they get too. The vocals are distorted and pleasantly robotic, while the music plays along with that, melodic and melodious but with effects and colours and distortions here and there. There are hints at world music, only hints but enough to bring solo Peter Gabriel to mind. It isn't his voice in the slightest, but it sounds like something he might do as a single.

I really like Sandglass and Funky Blue too, which follows it. This is a mostly instrumental piece, with a prog guitar over what often feels like a reggae beat. It's part Alan Parsons Project and part the Police, but this is jazzier and perkier and a little less electronic. None of these songs are long, with only one reaching the five minute mark, but this is one that I wished was a lot longer; it's one of a trio of songs to wrap up in under three minutes.

My other highlight right now is Hallo Kante, which again mixes up Alan Parsons but this time with an Eric Clapton guitar at his most mellow and melodies straight out of sixties psychedelic pop. There are a lot of pieces of music here that could be seen as highlights, but I believe it's an album to grow with. The title track may be a catchy single and a few other songs get there at points, but this isn't the sort of album that stamps itself on your brain. It floats around you and you gradually focus in on the bits that speak to you.

Everything here is upbeat, even a song like Solitude, whose very title suggests it won't be but a guest tambourinist, Juergen Schlachter, has other ideas. Almost everything is smooth too, so letting it just wash over you will improve your mood without you realising it. Wolbrandt's guitar especially avoids abrasion; it's easy to just dismiss him as easy listening until we realise what he's actually doing. That one note smooth guitar is actually doing a heck of a lot of things: funky things, soulful things, bluesy things, jazzy things. It just takes a while to reconcile what he does on Solitude or Funky Blue with the Hippie Jam that closes out the album.

And the album follows his lead. It's immediately enjoyable, but it takes time for everything to sink in and realise just how much is here behind such a bright and inoffensive veneer.

Falconer - From a Dying Ember (2020)

Country: Sweden
Style: Folk/Power Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 26 Jun 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

I'm all for bringing unrelated genres together and many of my favourite albums of all time fit into an unlikely such combination. Somehow I've never quite been able to buy into Falconer's combining folk music and heavy/power metal into something that clearly isn't what we tend to think of as folk metal. They've announced that this is their final album, so it's a last chance for me to get on board.

The band are heavy, but clean. The drums are often fast, though the guitars rarely follow suit, content to play along with power chords and slower riffs. The vocals are clean too, notably so. Mathias Blad is deliberately as clear as he can be, his enunciation right out of musical theatre where the vocalist tells a story and it's important to follow his every word. However, with the exception of sections where he's accompanied by solo piano, like the ballad Rejoice the Adorned or the intro to Fool's Crusade, which are musical theatre through and through, what Blad sings is more akin to mediaeval folk music.

As such, I've often thought of them less as folk metal and more as minstrel metal. Songs like Redeem and Repent or Bland Sump Och Dy drop into wandering minstrel territory so deeply that I visualised individual artisans in the background. This is unmistakably folk music, but it's just as distant from a Korpiklaani drinking song as it is from a a Fairport Convention ballad. What's more, because Falconer tend not to follow the typical folk metal approach of incorporating traditional instrumentation into their sound, they're arguably closer to the Mediæval Bæbes than the mediaeval metal of In Extremo or Saltatio Mortis.

I should emphasise that they don't eschew them entirely, but everyone in the regular line-up plays a traditional rock instrument and the guests are used sparingly. Sure, it's hard to miss Pontus Nilsson's bagpipes on Thrust the Dagger Deep or Mathias Gyllengahm's fiddle on Rapture, but they're not lead instruments and it's a rare instrumental, like Garnets and a Gilded Rose, that even attempts to fully integrate them. And so it's a strange sound to me, like the wandering troubadours at any Renaissance Festival if only Les Paul had gone electric in the fifteenth century and Tony Iommi had joined him.

It didn't help that the most catchy power metal song here, the opener, Kings and Queens, is hindered by some clumsy scansion, and I've never been much of a fan of musical theatre vocals. It could be said that I'm really not the target audience for what Blad does, but he does it so well that it's hard not to be won over in the end. I can acknowledge that, scansion in one song aside, Falconer do what they do very well indeed and yet I can still not be a big fan of the style they've created.

Redeem and Repent moves back and forth capably between mediaeval folk and heavy metal and it's my highlight here, I think. I particularly like when it drops out the latter to a capella former, because it's always a surprise for me, however often I replay it. I also dig the Shakespearean theatrics of Thrust the Dagger Deep, backed with simple riffs, Deep Purple organ and a frequent backdrop of bagpipes, plus a fresh drop out of metal into a capella folk.

Even if this isn't my folk metal, I can respect that Falconer do something that nobody else does and they do it very well. If you're a fan, add another point to my rating.

Thursday, 24 December 2020

Leaves' Eyes - The Last Viking (2020)

Country: Germany
Style: Symphonic Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 23 Oct 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Leaves' Eyes are one of the more surprising bands to survive for almost two decades, for a number of reasons, but they're thankfully still around and they're still releasing new material. This is the eighth studio album for them in sixteen years, so they've kept up an impressive release schedule. It's also the second album with Elina Siirala at the mike and she sounds completely at home here.

One of those reasons is that the band was conceived and founded by her predecessor, Liv Kristine, one of the pioneers of the genre through the Norwegian gothic metal band Theatre of Tragedy, which she also founded. She created Leaves' Eyes with her new husband, Alexander Krull, the lead vocalist in the German outfit Atrocity, who had evolved by that point from grindcore to death metal. Given that Liv Kristine's backing band in Leaves' Eyes was the entire line-up of Atrocity, it could easily be forgiven if we see it as a side project for them, but that consistency has remained; even when Atrocity changes its own members, they change in Leaves' Eyes too.

If they ever saw it as a side project, it's one that's lasted longer than that marriage, as Liv Kristine left or was fired from her own band the same year that she divorced Krull. I don't know which of those two events came first, but it really doesn't seem like a pleasant time for any of them. Rather than end this band, though, Krull chose instead to hire a new lead vocalist, Elina Siirala of Angel Nation, meaning that a German band swapped a Norwegian for a Finn, and, while I never disliked the previous era, the result sounds excellent. Clearly I should check out the previous album too, Sign of the Dragonhead a couple of years ago.

The sound is symphonic metal with a frequent choral flavour. Krull provides harsh vocals to contrast Siirala's pure but powerful voice, but every other band member chimes in to build a choral effect, an approach that's there throughout but which occasionally comes to the fore so strongly that Therion become a worthy comparison. Serpents and Dragons fits that, as does For Victory. There are guests to help out with the choir too, though far fewer than last time, it seems.

There are two other genres flavouring this symphonic metal and neither is gothic, though there are a few hints to be found. One is death metal, especially with Krull's harsh vocals and songs like the title track that feature them at length, but sometimes in the music too. The other is folk, which is here in a few different forms. It's in the delicate intro and keyboards behind parts of Black Butterfly, which feel Celtic rather than Norse; it's in the melodies and nyckelharpa of For Victory; and it's especially in the drinking song that is Varangians.

Leaves' Eyes have always had a fixation on the Norse, which is a little odd now that the band has zero Norwegians left in it, but battles and drinking about battles are always good material for folk songs. The title track is about Harald Hardrada, or Harald III of Norway, remembering his life before he dies; that's a fantastic way to stage an epic song. And it really is an epic. It shows up thirteen songs in and almost fifty minutes, only to run for ten more, twice the length of any other song. Next longest is the next song, because we're still not done.

And, while this is an enjoyable album, which I've played through a few times today, this is its problem. Because there's nothing new here, however well it's performed, it becomes too much. A dozen songs, plus an introduction and an interlude rack up over an hour between them and some of them got lost in the mix. When this is good, it is really good: the bombastic Chain of the Golden Horn; the swaying catchiness and gothic lushness of Dark Love Empress; the emphatic and folky For Victory. But not all these songs are up to that standard and some drift away. This would have been better shorn of maybe half a dozen tracks.

Ellesmere - Wyrd (2020)

Country: Italy
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 4 Dec 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website | Prog Archives

Adding "symphonic" to a genre nowadays often translates to a band having a lead vocalist who sings in an operatic style, but that really subverts the original meaning. I haven't heard a better album to highlight that original meaning than this one in a long time, because it feels exactly like someone, in this case multi-instrumentalist Roberto Vitelli, didn't merely "write" this music but "composed" it. It feels like Ellesmere is less a band and more an orchestra working with rock instrumentation and led by its composer.

The core of the band seems to be Vitelli on guitar and bass, plus Fabio Bonuglia on keyboards and the drummer of Norwegian symphonic prog rock band White Willow, Mattias Olsson, on drums. However, there are at least three other name keyboardists here: Tony Pagliuca of Le Orme, Fabio Liberatori of a varitey of groups, including Stadio, and Tomas Bodin of the Flower Kings. Other musicians who make their presence felt are violinist David Cross, of King Crimson fame; saxophonist David Jackson of Van der Graaf Generator and flautist John Hackett, brother of Steve and contributor to his solo records.

A couple of vocalists, Luciano Regoli and Giorgio Pizzala, complete the line-up but this is primarily an instrumental album with their voices treated as further instruments in the orchestra rather than the leads we might expect. When they contribute, it's sometimes with words but sometimes through scat singing, on a number of tracks, or almost dramatic spoken word instead, on Ajar. What's more, they're also low enough in the mix that I couldn't even tell if they're delivered in English or Italian. That spoken word section sounds like it's actually delivered backwards.

The keyboards are certainly at the heart of this album. However the four keyboardists divvy up across the five pieces of music, they generate a lush and dense landscape for others to play against. This is an inviting landscape but one that's very easy to get lost in. There are multiple things happening pretty much all the way through, so that it's often hard to tell what to focus on and that results in the music washing over us like a tsunami. It works as an experience, but it also prompts us to keep replaying to explore deeper and figure out what's going on.

I like this as a synth-driven jazz album, with its layers of keyboards, but it really shines for me on the occasions when others sprinkle a different flavour over the top. On Challenge, that's both the violin of Cross and the scat singing of either Regoli or Pizzala. On The Eary Manor, presumably a mistake in the spelling, it's the atmospheric flute of Hackett. On Endeavour, it's the crazed sax of Jackson. These can play with or against the keyboards, depending on the need, so both duetting and duelling.

The downside for me is the transitions, because there are a few points where a song is busy and happy doing this but suddenly decides to do that instead. Some of the transitions work, but some jar. I'd see this as a composition issue rather than a performance issue, because the musicians are insanely tight here, as they need to be for some of the more ambitious sections to work. Not everything is played in routine time signatures and sometimes, such as the midsection of Endeavour, it finds itself deep into experimental territory.

That's a section highly reminiscent of King Crimson and the old British names do come up here for a lot of comparison. There's Genesis here and Yes, as well as the Italian bands I'm not as familiar with. I definitely caught some Banco del Mutuo Soccorso and it would seem entirely appropriate, given the musicians taking part, for there to be elements of bands such as Le Orme, Osanna and Raccomandata Ricevuta Ritorno. I just don't know them well enough to say.

What I can say is that this is immersive and often delightful symphonic prog. I'm four listens in thus far and I'm still finding plenty of new aspects every time through. I'm sure that will only double when I shift this to headphones in the dark rather than speakers in my office while I work. It's also the third album for Ellesmere and apparently a jazzy and symphonic evolution from Les Châteaux de la Loire in 2015, because, according to Ellesmere's Bandcamp page, that was "acoustic and pastoral".

Wednesday, 23 December 2020

Unleash the Archers - Abyss (2020)

Country: Canada
Style: Power Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 21 Aug 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

It never ceases to amaze me how popular Unleash the Archers seem to be with the trendy magazines. I don't question the band's quality, because this fifth album is brilliant stuff, but they're hardly doing what any of the other media darlings are doing. There's no -core to be found anywhere in their sound and I can't find a single way to mention Slipknot outside of this context. But the mags love them and I'm happy for that because it'll only help bring new listeners not just to one particular fantastic band but to an entire subgenre of music they might have previously dismissed.

Unleash the Archers are primarily a power metal band in the European style, even if they hail from as far west as you can get in Canada, in Vancouver. Just check out the first couple of songs on this album to see how they work. You'll initially be slammed by the vocal talent of Brittney Hayes (a.k.a. Brittney Slayes). Listen to her delicacy at the beginning of Waking Dream, then the sheer power in her voice a couple of minutes in. Then hear her ratchet it up another level on the title track, which features some apparently effortless breath control and technique. She nails this one early but the final half minute is magnificent.

And that's all you need, frankly, but I should add that, after a couple of listens, you'll realise that the rest of the band is right up there with her. She has the sort of voice that can dominate a band, but the band she has are so damn good that they keep up with her just as effortlessly as she soars. And, at this point, you'll realise that they're heavier than a lot of power metal bands too. They're more Iced Earth than Iron Maiden and there's a melodic death metal layer alongside the power metal that comes out at points to seriously play, like on Return to Me, with its more prominent backing vocals and a rather frantic pace, or on Faster Than Light.

That pace was introduced on Legacy, which is a fantastic exercise in contrast. It's initially a gear shift upwards to a tempo that would be worthy of a speed metal band but which is so inherently wrapped in keyboards and melody that it's still emphatically power metal. Then it slows down to give Hayes a chance to play in what's almost pop music territory with some gloriously layered vocals. It's melodic pop music set over a seriously fast and powerful backing and it just works. OK, she's more rock at her poppiest than the kawaii girls in Babymetal, but the contrast works in a similar way.

The most overt contrast is probably on The Wind That Shapes the Land, which shifts all the way from an almost balladlike opening to full on melodic death and a long way back again. Sure, it has eight and a half minutes to do that, so it's not rushed, but that's a lot of ground to cover. What's more, the band gets as soft as they get here on the next song, Carry the Flame, which isn't a ballad but brings a host of AOR bands to mind as much as, say, Blind Guardian. There's a lot going on in Afterlife too, the song that wraps up the album, again going from full on melodic death to a calming Celtic-infused outro.

I haven't delved into the lyrics, but this is a continuation (maybe a completion) of the story that was introduced in the band's previous album, Apex. You might think that going from Apex to Abyss means a serious fall but, while that may happen to some of the characters in this saga, it thankfully doesn't happen to the quality of the music and musicianship to be found here. I've only caught odd snippets of Unleash the Archers thus far, maybe a video or two on YouTube, but I'll be searching out a lot more on the basis of the quality of this album.

The Atomic Bitchwax - Scorpio (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Stoner/Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 29 Jun 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Wikipedia

I still haven't gone back to ground myself in the stoner/hard rock genre because, hey, so many albums, so little time. However, in reading up on it, I see names like the Atomic Bitchwax and Monster Magnet often. The two seem to be inextricably linked, given that everyone currently in the former either is or used to be also in the latter. The Atomic Bitchwax are the newer band, having formed in 1992, and this is their eighth studio album.

It sounds pretty close to the definition of what I expect stoner/hard rock to be: high energy riff-laden seventies hard rock from a power trio that's often instrumental but also featuring rough hewn vocals, as the band deem necessary. The only real variation from that template here is that there's very little fuzz in the tone of Garrett Sweeny's guitar.

Ninja is a great example of what the Atomic Bitchwax do instrumentally. It's a four minute blitzkrieg of riffs, with Sweeny delivering searing solos over a reliable rhythm section that's clearly channelling bands like Budgie and Black Sabbath at their most energetic. It sounds great on a studio release but I have come to learn that this sort of approach is best heard live.

There are other bands here, though they're mostly other heavy bands from the seventies rather than psychedelic ones from the sixties, the latter being most obvious on Super Sonic, which sounds rather like the former turned into the latter. The title track reminds of wall of sound Hawkwind even before the trippy effects show up around the vocals and underline the comparison. It's obvious in the chord progressions and the melodies. Sure, it ends on a Sabbath guitar note but it's Hawkwind through and through. It's my favourite vocal song here.

I certainly prefer the instrumental Atomic Bitchwax to the vocal Atomic Bitchwax, but I like both and they've clearly prioritised the former for a long while, as the opening track, Hope You Die, is a rework of a song from their debut album, to celebrate its twentieth anniversary. While it's vocal, it's really an instrumental piece that happens to have a few points where the instruments stop to be punctuated by an assault of a vocal line. While there are vocals and instruments, its rare for both of them to happen at the same. It's a really punchy song, a perfect way to kickstart a live audience.

I should add that I'd call the band stoner/hard rock, but they do veer on heavy metal at points, such as You Got It, whose music would have been called metal in the early eighties. That's a NWOBHM guitar, though it would have been a little more prominent and the bass a little less so on a proper NWOBHM track. The clean vocal and handclaps lend it a punky edge, but that was an inherent part of the sound back then.

Betting Man is a similar sort of throwback. Its guitar sounds even more like Fast Eddie than You Got It and Chris Kosnik's bass rumbles along just like Lemmy's would. Sure, that's no Philthy rhythm but it's so obviously influenced by Motörhead that I kept expecting Lemmy to start singing. And this is a great way to highlight how this would play pretty well to early eighties metalheads, even if they see stoner rock as modern alternative crap from the nineties. Give this a go, folks. You'll probably love it.

Tuesday, 22 December 2020

Carcass - Despicable (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 30 Oct 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Every time I listen to Carcass, they surprise me and that fact has held true for over thirty years now. I can't imagine that my seventeen year old self, listening to Reek of Putrefaction in my rural Yorkshire bedroom in 1988, would believe that the almost fifty year old me would find himself reviewing a new Carcass release on a different continent at the tail end of 2020. The goregrind genre that they created on that album blew me away and I probably played that album more than the first two Napalm Death releases, but it didn't seem like a genre that could last. But hey, what did I know?

Fast forward over three decades and Carcass have seriously evolved. They didn't just create goregrind, they also helped to create melodic death metal and the various band members have explored a broad swathe of the musical map with other bands and other projects. In turn, that's informed more change within Carcass's sound, enough that I had to stop this after the opening track, The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue, and start it again. This isn't patchwork music like Mr. Bungle, but there's a heck of a lot to unpack from this song.

It starts out as relatively standard melodic death, with gorgeous guitar tones and growling vocals. A couple of minutes in, it adds some serious urgency and pace. Another half a minute and those guitars are alternately launching into speed metal and stopping on a dime for an almost hard rock section. I recently described Dark Tranquillity as becoming the Eagles of melodic death metal, because the new album is so smooth. This refuses to be mainstream, even as it's channelling seventies hard rock.

Talking of hard rock, The Long and Winding Bier Road is a hard rock song in melodic death clothing, with a bouncy core riff that reminds as much of Thin Lizzy as it does extreme metal and slow and fluid harmonic solos that are like Dave Murray at half speed. Under the Scalpel Blade chugs along nicely in a fashion that sometimes feels like sped up doom. Daniel Wilding provides an oddly upbeat rhythm and the guitars play along with a perky sort of melancholy. I heard a lot of Cathedral on Slaughtered in Soho, merely with a very different vocal style.

All this feels inherently contradictory but it sounds damn good. It's commercial but it requires us to pay attention. It's doomy but it's upbeat. It's all over the place musically but it's incredibly tight. It's surprisingly slow except when it's goddamn fast. It's extreme metal but it's often just hard rock with a filter on it. And, while there are so many points that sound like this band or that band, the entirety is as unlike anything I've ever heard as Reek of Putrefaction was in 1987. I couldn't stop listening, to the point that I had difficulty doing anything else at the same time.

Carcass have a new album coming out in January, called Torn Arteries, their first since 2013's Surgical Steel and that came seventeen years after its predecessor, Swansong in 1996, so they're hardly prolific. Then again, they did take an eleven year break. This four track EP may or may not be a taster for what we'll hear next month, because I believe that none of these songs will appear on it. They're clearly of sufficient quality, so are they stylistically different? I have no idea but I'm eager to find out. For now, this is fascinating stuff.

Acid Moon and the Pregnant Sun - Speakin' of the Devil (2020)

Country: Israel
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 9 Jul 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook

Here's something agreeably different that only grows over its seven songs. The gorgeous cover art, by Branca Studio, might look like an occult paperback thriller from the seventies, but Acid Moon and the Pregnant Sun are an eight piece psychedelic rock band from Tel Aviv and this debut album sounds like a cross between Jefferson Airplane and John Kongos, with Oasis and the Rolling Stones on the side. If that means we can't even place a logical decade for the sound, so be it.

As you might expect from a hippie-infused summer of love sound, the opener is called I Love You, but it mixes its handclaps with jangly guitar and fuzz, making this a a darker journey worthy of the album title. Speakin' of Speakin' of the Devil, that's up next and it finds that John Kongos sort of groove, an underlining riff that carries everything else along with it. The vocals fit Kongos too, rough and raspy but always driven by melody and building to a singalong chorus big enough for us all to join in on. It isn't as catchy a chorus as Kongos tended to find but it's still in the same vein, as is the wild and funky breakdown six and a half minutes in.

And, if we haven't noticed the psychedelia yet, which we really should have done, we can't miss it on a real acid trip of a song called Creatures of the Abyss. It starts out with handheld tribal drums, adding guitars that chime so fluidly that I wondered if they're deliberately mimicking koras. There are words here, albeit presented in the offbeat way that Frank Zappa might, but most of the vocals aren't at all intelligible because they're manipulated in weird ways, sped up but also chopped up and reassembled just out of phase. The result is rather like Gong jamming with Ballaké Sissoko at a Zappa soirée. With everyone on LSD. It even morphs into Golden Brown at one point, as the backdrop to our sightseeing trip into the abyss. What a strange and wonderful song!

Creatures of the Abyss is such an acid trip that I don't think I acknowledged the next two songs at all, being drawn back out of my stunned reverie when Save Me unfolded like a funky Rolling Stones track. Going back deliberately to them, Wide is a heavy and emphatic Jefferson Airplane while Bright Sky at Night goes back further to the folk musicians who influenced them, but under a voice that's so rough and deep that it's like Lou Reed singing alt country. Even at only three minutes, the latter sounds like it wants to put us into a trance state, foreshadowing the album's closer, Sparrow.

First, though, there's Save Me, which is right out of the Stones songbook, but with even more drugs fuelling the recording session. There are at least four singers on this album, so I don't generally know which broken voice is singing what, but the voice on this one is Yoel Chajes, as he's a guest with just that one credit. I would put money on the fact that he's impersonated Mick Jagger before, because surely that's why he got asked to front a song with such a Stones backing. He's a little over the top but that fits this album.

And, having been livened up by Save Me, we're promptly calmed down again with Sparrow, which is so calm that's almost Hawaiian. Its evocation of lapping waves reminds of Fleetwood Mac's Albatross and that gives us the opportunity to think about where Acid Moon and the Pregnant Sun have taken us in the previous six tracks: counterculture San Francisco, a busy market in Bamoko, the innerspace of an acid trip and swinging London. Now we're in hammocks on a Caribbean beach, sipping rum as the sun sets over the ocean. Someone down the way is playing Dylan on a portable radio but we're not paying attention to anything but the soothing rhythm.

Yeah, it's that sort of album. You dig?

Monday, 21 December 2020

Sodom - Genesis XIX (2020)

Country: Germany
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 27 Nov 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Oh, I like this! Once Sodom have got their slowly chugging intro out of the way and they launch into Sodom & Gomorrah, I thought I was listening to an extreme album from the early eighties. This isn't late eighties thrash heyday material. It's early eighties heavy metal from the era when those extreme genres we know and love were still being defined. This reminds of early Sodom and satanic era Slayer too, but also the holy trinity of Venom, Bathory and Celtic Frost. It's fast but it's rough and dirty and evil and it isn't hard to see why this album is getting a heck of a lot praise.

Sodom has been Tom Angelripper for the longest time. He co-founded the band way back in 1982, when he was just the bass player. He also took over lead vocals in 1984 and he's fulfilled those two roles ever since, even if he still embarks on strange side projects, like his schlager band, Onkel Tom Angelripper, and his spaghetti Western themed band, the Desperados. However, this also marks the return of one Frank Blackfire on guitar, whose previous Sodom album was Agent Orange way back as 1989.

And, if that's what's making the difference here, I'm all for it. Maybe it's the fact that they've become a quartet for the first time on record, after almost four decades as a trio. Whatever it is, it's working wonderfully.

I've always liked Sodom but they've also always sat behind Destruction and Kreator in my mind. Even back in 1986, when I was devouring the second Speed Kills compilation, their contribution, Sepulchral Voice from the In the Sign of Evil EP, was hindered by the drummer failing utterly to keep up with the rest of the band. They got better, a lot better, but I was a big Destruction fan from their initial album and became a big Kreator fan after seeing them live when they toured Extreme Aggression. Sodom in my book were always third. This may change that.

Wow, this takes me back. There's a lot of proto-black metal in Sodom & Gomorrah, but Euthanasia is straight ahead thrash with bare bones production and a vocal style that reminds more of Hell Awaits-era Slayer than Bathory. It's the sort of song that we'd have believed was recklessly fast in 1984 before our expectations were changed forever by Reign in Blood. Now it impresses as much for a dirty feel as for its pace. It sounds like it was recorded on a four track in a shed but recorded well, given the crazy technical limitations of the time.

This sort of proto-extreme exploration continues throughout. The title track kicks off with feedback and distortion reminiscent of Hellhammer but then becomes a slow rendition of the Inspector Gadget theme tune, as if channelling Destruction's sense of humour. When it gets moving, it reminds of early Onslaught. Indoctrination starts out like Motörhead and adds Discharge, who are quite the common thread here. The speedy Glock 'n' Roll is early Slayer with a firm side of Discharge. Occult Perpetrator merges Discharge with Celtic Frost. For a while, Friendly Fire is pure Discharge but it adds Bathory.

Sodom & Gomorrah was always going to be my favourite song here, from the moment it kicked in, but there are quite a few others that I adored from my first listen. I particularly liked Occult Perpetrator, Euthanasia and the way Waldo & Pigpen begins with real delicacy but also heaviness that steadfastly refuses to get on with things. When it finally does, it doesn't warn us that the unbearably slow will be suddenly ramped up to evil Venom territory musically and Sodom's incessant war theme lyrically. The Harpooneer is particularly strong too, even at over seven minutes.

I really dig this album. It's yet another one to look back from 2020 to the fertile eighties but not to a usual spot. This is an unusual nostalgic album and it's right up my alley. If you remember those proto-extreme metal years with fondness, it's probably right up your alley too.

Alien - Into the Future (2020)

Country: Sweden
Style: Melodic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 Nov 2020
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Wikipedia

Swedish AOR band Alien have been around long enough to have seen a song of theirs played over the end credits of The Blob. Yeah, yeah, it was the remake, but that's still 1988 and everyone in the line-up today, I believe, was in the line-up at that point thirty some years ago. That includes a pair of founder members—guitarist Tony Borg and drummer Toby Tarrach—plus lead vocalist Jim Jidhed, who joined only a year later, in 1987. I'm not sure who's playing bass or who's handling the various keyboards.

All these folk have spent time away from the band over the years, with only Borg playing on all seven of their studio albums. This first stable line-up reformed in 2010 and this is their second album since then after 2014's Eternity. I like it, because it's clearly melodic rock but Borg's guitar has quite a bite to it and there's a real energy to what they do. The up tempo opener, You Still Burn, works primarily because of Borg's riff but there's some neat interplay between vocals and keyboards and that's a nice catchy chorus too.

The same happens on Night of Fire, which is opened by thirty seconds of guitar solo. Everything here comes from melody and there are points where it gets soft but, however soft it gets, Borg is never far away with another biting riff. Tarrach's drums are jaunty, almost a summoning call. Jidhed is catchier still and those keyboards pop in even more often to underpin and emphasise his melodies. There's an audible bass too, especially during the spoken word part in the middle of the song.

In other words, this is soft for hard music but hard for soft music and I kind of dig that mild rebellion a lot. I think the album benefits from the band doing that consistently too, far more so than the new Stryper album that does the same thing on occasion but not throughout. This is almost a best of both worlds album: for stereotypical girls who like melody, singalong choruses and obvious keyboards, but also for their stereotypical boyfriends who hate wimpy crap like that and want music that kicks their ass. Or, if you're happy to fight stereotypes, vice versa. Either way, it meets both needs.

When this album mixes it up, it does it for part of a song and then gets back to regular business. The most obvious example is the exotic vocal intro to Into the Future, which promptly gets about as fast and heavy as the album ever allows. Diversions are more common in the intros, like the guitar solo at the outset of Night of Fire, but they can come later too, like the delightful outro to In Her Eyes that's more than the last minute of a sub-five minute song.

The biggest departure, as you might be expecting for a melodic rock album, is the ballad. Fortunately, Alien leave that to the very end so that it doesn't impact the flow of the ten tracks and forty minutes that came before it. This one's called Children and it's voice over solo piano with a little atmospheric keyboards to underpin it. It's actually rather pleasant, even staying that way when it decides to add a solo three minutes in.

Depending on your edition (I'm listening to a Japanese release), there might also be another song, an emotional vocal over folky acoustic guitar piece (plus those inevitable keyboards and, eventually, the rest of the band). It's called Something's Wrong and it feels odd because the guitar could be taken off an early Leonard Cohen song while the vocal sounds more like something Bruce Springsteen might be interested in. Is this a cover? I really don't know, but it plays well to me, as does this album, even if I'd call the bookends the highlights and the rest maybe half a nudge lesser.

Friday, 18 December 2020

Stryper - Even the Devil Believes (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 4 Sep 2020
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

The origins of Stryper are well documented. They were metal fans who loved the sound of bands such as Van Halen but didn't like their party all the time message, so they started up their own metal band to preach the gospel of Jesus. In the US, where Christian music is a huge industry, that seems to be an almost inevitable approach. However, I didn't grow up in the US. I grew up in England in the eighties, when metal was deeply unfashionable. Stryper, therefore had an odd sort of street cred, because they saw deeply unfashionable and raised, adding a whole other layer of unfashionable in Christianity.

I rather liked their early albums, but they got cheesier with time and I lost track of them by the time the eighties became the nineties. However, their name kept floating around, usually in a positive way, and so I checked out lead vocalist Michael Sweet's solo album at the tail end of last year. Not all of it worked for me but some of it worked very well indeed and I was similarly intrigued when I saw a new album by the whole band. And I'm similarly surprised, because this is easily heavier than I remember Stryper ever being.

They're still pushing the gospel, though they've found odd detractors lately; even Walmart refused to stock copies of their last album, God Damn Evil, which took the band aback. America is a strange place lately. Sweet's voice still has plenty of power and range and the choruses he sings are just as catchy as ever. Oz Fox is perhaps the most obvious reason why this is so heavy; just check out his riff on a song called Divider. Drummer Robert Sweet helps build this one but it's Fox's riff that punches us in the gut, like an early Twisted Sister number from Under the Blade. He gets a blistering solo too.

Older fans will recognise all three of those names. The Sweet brothers are founder members who have been with the band whenever there's been a band, except for a blip when Michael Sweet started a solo career. Fox isn't, but he joined in 1983 and never left, even taking over lead vocal duties from Sweet in that blip. Only the bass slot keeps changing and this is one of Tim Gaines's weeks off, so the bass here comes courtesy of Perry Richardson, the band's sixth bass player.

The impact of these songs varies. If Divider is the heaviest song, opener Blood from Above may be the fastest, really making a statement about what's to come. The softest may be This I Pray, a ballad with a southern rock edge and an awkward lyric; I have no problem with Christian bands singing in religious metaphor, but this sounds like a confession of guilt about performing oral sex and I really don't think it's supposed to. Fox is the saviour of this track, with another searing solo. I always thought Matthew Sweet led this band but I've changed my mind. It's Oz Fox's band now and Sweet sings for it.

The most interesting song lyrically is surely Make Love Great Again, which I'm interpreting as a dig at Donald Trump and his followers from a Christian band we might expect to support him. It's refreshing to see Christians in this country put their beliefs over party politics and, while I'm surprised, I have a little more respect for Stryper than I did coming into this one. Maybe we can make love great again if other Christians jump on board that message.

With Middle Finger Messiah wrapping things up like a mid tempo Judas Priest, I have to say that this was a lot better than I expected. It's heavier and often much heavier than I expected. I did expect it to be less cheesy than I remember Stryper being in the late eighties but it was even less cheesy than that and, while it's still overtly Christian, it's not annoying on that front at all. It's not entirely consistent but it's more consistent than the solo Michael Sweet album from last year. That received a lot of good press but Sweet impressed me more here, even if Oz Fox was the standout for me.

I probably shouldn't say horns ablaze on a Christian metal album review, even if the devil horns were to drive out the devil not to beckon him in. If I knew what the Christian equivalent was, I'd wish them that instead. This is decent stuff.

Mark Kelly's Marathon - Mark Kelly's Marathon (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 Nov 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Wikipedia

There's apparently an overall concept behind this debut solo album from Marillion's keyboard player, Mark Kelly, that's somehow tied to humankind reaching for the skies but finding itself suffering from the inability to communicate. I keep trying to make myself pay enough attention to the lyrics to find out how that evolves from the initial multi-part song about Amelia Earhart to the final and still more ambitious equivalent, Twenty Fifty One, so named because it's set in that year, but I keep focusing on the music instead.

Part of that is because the vocals of Oliver Smith are very soft. They're also very capable indeed and I have no complaints about his talents, but he becomes a texture here for me. I hear words, sung clearly and effectively, but they mostly translate in my brain to just another instrument making sounds that layer into pieces of music. The surprising exception is the longest track, Twenty Fifty One, in which he remains obvious throughout, leading the story. Elsewhere, he was supporting the music, but, on this song, the music seems to support him.

Smith sounds older than he looks, perhaps because he's had quite the unusual and versatile career in music (not everyone has topped the Russian charts with an album written in Uzbekistan and few have performed at Glastonbury at fifteen). There are points here where he channels solo Peter Gabriel but there's an alternative feel in there too. I'm not well versed enough in modern alternative bands to be able to throw out comparisons, but while his voice sounds older than he looks, his style doesn't.

Partly, though, it's because the music is constantly changing. This isn't about riffs and choruses, even though both those things are here and these are vocal songs rather than a synth-driven instrumental epic. It all flows for me, like the colourful ocean on in the evocative cover art. Even with sound effects and spoken word sections showing up, on the first part of Twenty Fifty One, this feels like it's ebbing and flowing so much that I began to sway in my office chair with the constant motion. For all that it's an album of five different songs, each drenched in dynamic play, and the overriding concept has to be dug for, this still plays to me like a 44m suite.

Sure, there's a lot of Marillion here, which shouldn't surprise us, but this felt like a Vangelis album to me rather often, Kelly's keyboards obviously leading this band even with a pair of capable guitarists in play in Pete Wood and John Cordy. That's because he clearly sees his job here as not to accompany musicians but to create worlds for them to flesh out and us to explore. His keyboards are immersive, painting not just the ocean but the sky, the birds flitting across it and the sun shining down. I think he's trying to be the cover art and he's doing a damn good job of it.

I like the two long multi-part songs, but I think I prefer the shorter ones in between. When I Fell may start out soft and a little old fashioned, but it continually builds and the second instrumental half is joyous, courtesy of Kelly's keyboards. Puppets is probably my favourite track here, not least because of a delightful guest solo from Marillion's Steve Rothery. Here, the instrumental section comes in the middle of the song, but it's just as joyous. That leaves the shortest piece here at sub-four minutes. It's an obvious single called This Time, easily the most commercial song here and the one where Smith is perhaps most at home.

Twenty Fifty One explores first contact, referencing 2001: A Space Odyssey (and Stanley Kubrick), Mars Attacks! and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but it begins with a neat narration. "We think you'd like our planet. We have Richard Strauss, the Beatles and Scooby Doo. Who else can say that?" Well, I can happily add that we also have Marillion and a growing number of side projects and solo efforts. I think this is a worthy addition to that ouevre and one to which I might return more often than most.

Thursday, 17 December 2020

Primal Fear - Metal Commando (2020)

Country: Germany
Style: Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 Jul 2020
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Here's another album that slipped past me earlier this year, as it came out at the tail end of July. It's a hopefully lucky thirteenth studio album for Primal Fear, the band formed in 1997 when Ralf Scheepers left Gamma Ray to try out for Rob Halford's spot in Judas Priest. He didn't get the job so formed this band with a bunch of the guys from Sinner. Mat Sinner and Tom Naumann are still in both bands, but Alex Beyrodt only used to be. Also, while Scheepers never went back to Gamma Ray, he's still hiring in that area, because new drummer Michael Ehré has been with Gamma Ray since 2012.

I like Primal Fear a lot, though I keep seeing them listed as speed metal and that makes me want them to play faster, because they're fundamentally power metal and that's what we hear on this album. Ralf Scheepers deploys his rasp on opener I am Alive, though he also exercises his well regarded range on the chorus as well. It's a strong, no nonsense way to kick off a Primal Fear album, though I might have expected them to go with the initial single Along Came the Devil and its overt Judas Priest influence that underpins most of what the band do.

I didn't need that much screaming from Scheepers on that one, but the music's solid and stalking, and I liked the opener. Halo is even better to my thinking, not least because it ramps up in tempo. It feels a lot more urgent and everyone delivers, so there's rapid fire drumming, vibrant soloing and a decent set of melodies from both vocals and guitars. This is exactly the sort of song I want on my Primal Fear albums, but I'm happy to hear a slower and mellower song like Hear Me Calling too with Scheepers on a Geoff Tate kick when it gets moving. I'm also eager for the mini album they're going to release next year in collaboration with Tarja Turunen.

What we get here is a collection of songs that generally fit in between Halo and Hear Me Calling, but with plenty of variety. The Lost & The Forgotten fits in this company well, but there are points where I could imagine Rammstein covering it, because it has that incessant a drive and that sort of NDH vocal chant backing Scheepers on the chorus. My Name is Fear is a singalong in the classic Gamma Ray style. Raise Your Fists is absolutely as clichéd as the title suggests, but it's still a strong power metal song otherwise, as is Howl of the Banshee, with its twin guitar harmonies. If that makes you think of Judas Priest again, Afterlife goes right back to their style.

There are really two other songs to highlight, but for different reasons. On the lesser side, there's an oddly out of place song that doesn't remotely fit between Halo and Hear Me Calling, which is a power ballad called I Will Be Gone. There's some neatly intricate guitarwork late on but it's a cruise control song on an album that's been barrelling along very nicely. On the greater side, there's an epic to wrap up the album, because, while the first ten songs all fit within about a minute of each other, Infinity is, well not quite infinity long but thirteen minutes, or triple the length of the average song here.

It doesn't feel like an epic for a while, because the first four or five minutes play out as usual, with an impressive slower section ramping up majestically, but the song just doesn't stop. It moves on into an extended guitar solo, then calms down for a quiet midsection and ramps back up again to that catchy chorus. Just shy of ten minutes, it drops into tolling bells and plainchant, before getting all jaunty with strings to take us home. It's an interesting song, that's for sure, and I should add that it wasn't needed to pad out the album, because that ran a respectable three quarters of an hour even before it. If Metal Commando is an enjoyable sundae, then Infinity is a welcome cherry on top.

I'm tempted to go 8/10 here because this is thoroughly enjoyable stuff, but I think I'm going to keep it at 7/10 for two reasons, I Will Be Gone being one and a lack of originality across much of the album for the other, not least with Scheepers's screeching on Along Came the Devil. Infinity does a good job of countering that, but I think it more earlier. Anyway, 7/10 means still very much recommended.

Unruly Child - Our Glass House (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Melodic/Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 4 Dec 2020
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I remember the first Unruly Child album, released in 1992, the second year of a two year existence for this band. Back then, the lead vocalist was Mark Free, who had previously led two King Kobra albums and one by Signal. Unruly Child got back together in 1998 and released another couple of albums, the singer changing for each, before they called it quits again in 2003. However, in 2010, the original line-up reformed and that's stuck, with this being their fifth album in the ten years since.

Nowadays, the lead vocalist is Marcie Free, because she transitioned in 1993, and that actually makes a lot of sense. Going back to that debut after listening to this, I realise that her voice hasn't changed to any great degree. Maybe there's a little more feminine persuasion, but it was always there. Had I been unfamiliar with that band, I wouldn't have been surprised to find that the lead singer was female. I'm not sure I can stretch to the point of saying that she feels more natural now but I can easily believe it, especially on a song like Glass House.

The most overt change in the band's sound in those intervening three decades is that there's less hair metal in the sound. They came along after that genre had been bludgeoned to death by grunge and it was always only one aspect of their sound, but it couldn't be avoided on a song such as Take Me Down Nasty. Compare that to the similarly upbeat Poison Ivy here and it's obvious that this Unruly Child is a more mature band with more mature songwriting and a more mature musical approach. Given that that debut is a favourite album for a lot of people, that in itself is a big recommendation for this one.

It's a strong lead song and both Free and guitarist Bruce Gowdy shine on it. Somehow it feels patient and urgent at the same time, which is a neat trick to master. It has a catchy escalating chorus for Free to get a snarl around and backing vocals that feel like an aura around her. I wouldn't have declined a longer solo from Gowdy but it's a good one and he jangles well throughout. This has a deeper sound than I remember from that first album, the band painting textures with their instruments for Free to soar above, and that only grows into later songs. It's Guy Allison's keyboards that take us home and I really like those too.

Say What You Want is as heavy as I remember this band ever being, though I'm admittedly a bunch of albums behind. Free finds a lower pitch here and Larry Antonino's bass is more prominent. I honestly can't name another melodic rock song that has drums faster than Jay Schellen reaches at points here. Frankly, while they're clearly an excellent melodic rock band, it would be easy to just call them a hard rock band nowadays. There's some serious power here and some attitude too.

And then we get Glass House, which is easily my favourite song here. It's a little more alternative than those earlier numbers, but it plays well alongside them. It feels like an unjustly obscure British indie single from the mid-eighties that Unruly Child resurrected and breathed new life into. It isn't, having been written for this album, but it has that sort of vibe. And, quite frankly, that opening trio alone is enough to recommend that you go out and buy this.

However, it doesn't stop there, of course. There are another seven new songs and a couple of reworked ones from that debut, To Be Your Everything and Let's Talk About Love, and there's more in them for a discerning listener to find. Everyone Loves You When You're Dead has a lovely dark groove. The subtle guitar is delightful on Catch Up to Yesterday and even more so on the intro for Freedom is a Fight, as Gowdy channels his inner tocaor or flamenco guitarist. I dig the exotic keyboards that start up We are Here to Stay and continue to make it jaunty throughout. That's the closest of these songs to compare to the quality of the openers, but they all sound good to me.

Now, I have some homework to do because I have four prior albums to find by this line-up.

Wednesday, 16 December 2020

Dark Tranquillity - Moment (2020)

Country: Sweden
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Nov 2020
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We may well have been witnessing the birth of a new Dark Tranquillity over the last few years but this is the first studio evidence of it. One of the pioneers of the Gothenburg style of melodic death metal, they've kept a relatively consistent line-up over three decades that's just been shaken up. Until 2016, they featured four founder members, with Martin Brändström also a constant ever since they added keyboards in 1999 too. Now it's two and the guitar assault of Niklas Sundin and Martin Henriksson is officially gone.

In its place is a new pairing, one that's been there on stage since 2017 but is now on record too. That's Johan Reinholdz, who replaced Henriksson in 2017, and Christopher Amott, who effectively replaced Sundin around the same time, even though Sundin didn't technically leave until this year. This is the studio debut for both of them as members of Dark Tranquillity and they sound like they've never not been there. Of course, these aren't nobodies. Reinholdz has a substantial discography with a bunch of bands and he's still with Andromeda, Nonexist and Skyfire. Amott, of course, co-founded Arch Enemy with his brother Michael, and Armageddon too.

Now, I haven't kept up with Dark Tranquillity all the way through, but I became a fan back when Sid at Groové Records in Halifax gave me a promo CD of Skydancer in 1993. It isn't merely the fact that there are keyboards here that makes this a much smoother listen than the product of their early years, and Mikael Stanne's clean vocal on In Truth Divided underlines that too, but it's recognisable as the same band and I enjoyed this for many of the same reasons that I did Skydancer. It's just the work of a more mature band, with the raw energy of their early years focused and channelled.

And that's where this may gain or lose fans. It's really hard not to like this album, with every track on it a polished slice of melodic death with fluid guitars, melodies and atmosphere. However, I'd suggest its very likeability isn't just the album's best aspect; it's also its worst. While this may be as accessible as melodic death metal ever gets and that might open up their fanbase to a much broader audience, some older fans may wonder why it's all so safe. Are Dark Tranquillity now the Eagles of melodic death metal?

The songs are all enjoyable, but in a relatively consistent manner. The atmospheres generated in each are very similar. Stanne's harsh vocals are about as smooth as harsh vocals get, as if he's aware that he can't switch entirely to a clean voice and get away with it, so shimmying us towards that by including a clean song in In Truth Divided, alternating between clean and harsh in Remain in the Unknown and softening up his harsh voice everywhere else. The music behind him kind of does the same thing. It's accomplished work but it doesn't want to bludgeon us or push us up against a wall. It's music to put on headphones and enjoy. It's not really music to mosh to any more.

So I wonder where the band are going to go from here. It's worth mentioning that Stanne has quite a melancholy aspect to his voice. It's not there when he's singing harsh but, when he goes clean, like on In Truth Divided, the result is a gothic feel like we might expect in darkwave. And it's that song that's standing out, because it's the only one that tries something different. I liked this album my first time through and I liked it a little more on my second, but I couldn't call out any one song as a highlight, because they all blend together so well. The question is whether that's a good thing or a bad thing. I don't think we're going to know that until we get another album to see where the next changes will be.