Thursday, 14 January 2021

Alex Beyrodt's Voodoo Circle - Locked & Loaded (2021)

Country: Germany
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 15 Jan 2021
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Wikipedia

If you don't know the name, Alex Beyrodt is the current guitarist in German power metal band Primal Fear, as he's been since 2011, but he founded Voodoo Circle three years before that with Primal Fear's bass player, Mat Sinner, who's also still the main man in Sinner, a band that's now forty years young. I should emphasise that, if you're expecting a similar heavy sound to those two, you'll be disappointed, as this is their side band which allows them explore their hard rock influences.

This is their sixth album and it's a reunion of sorts, as it marks a return for David Readman, the band's original vocalist, who left in 2016 but came back to the fold this year, as did Markus Kullmann, after a six year gap as their drummer. All these folks are busy elsewhere, Readman best known for singing for Pink Cream 69 since 1994 and Kullmann the current drummer in Sinner. I'm starting to get the feeling that there's a massive house somewhere in Esslingen shared by twenty musicians who, between them, comprise about thirty different bands in many permutations.

I have to wonder what Voodoo Circle would sound like without Readman, because he puts on his very best David Coverdale impression throughout. Wikipedia tells me that Beyrodt's hard rock influences included Deep Purple, Rainbow and Yngwie Malmsteen, in addition to the one that simply cannot be avoided, which is Whitesnake. Almost everything here is Whitesnake, though it's a neat cross between the old bluesy Whitesnake and the later slick multi-platinum Whitesnake.

The guitars are metallic, far more like Adrian Vandenberg than Bernie Marsden, except on This Song is for You, which is the other way around (with some Carlos Santana for good measure). The vocals are bluesier, though, and the flow is melodic and commercial without feeling like it's always pandering to American radio. I like the balance, especially on songs like Magic Woman Chile, with an quiet and overtly bluesy section and the overlay of gospel-infused backing vocals that wrap it up. Only occasionally do the band ramp up a MTV video vibe and knock out songs like Straight for the Heart or Trouble in the Moonlight.

The band seem like they're having a lot of fun here and they'd be fantastic in a small venue, especially playing funky rockers like the title track that, at points, brings to mind both artists as diverse as Vow Wow and Lenny Kravitz. These are momentary, though, as there's only one song that doesn't end up a candidate for a Whitesnake album and that's Devil's Cross, which sounds like Coverdale guesting on a keyboards heavy nineties Black Sabbath track. Well OK, there's also a Purple-esque intro to Children of the Revolution, but then it goes back to Whitesnake.

There are no poor songs here, though a few of them do play far too happily in the hall of clichés. Eyes Full of Tears is full of clichés and Straight for the Heart is as unoriginal lyrically as the title suggests. It wasn't difficult to visualise Tawny Kitaen in the video for Trouble in the Moonlight when Readman sings, "Bad girls keeping out of trouble in the moonlight." Then again, it's hard to find a Whitesnake song that doesn't feel lyrically clichéd, so I should praise the songwriters for coming up with variants like Magic Woman Chile and Devil with an Angel Smile.

At the end of the day, this is what is. These musicians are consummate professionals and they do their job very well indeed but, if you're not looking for veteran European power metallers channelling the Whitesnake obsession of their youth into a side band, they're not going to convince you. If you're on board with the idea, this is pretty damn good.

Pallbearer - Forgotten Days (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Doom Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 23 Oct 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter

Doom metal doesn't tend to be a particularly fashionable subgenre when it comes to critics who write year end lists, but Pallbearer were all over them in 2020 like a rash. They didn't just make six lists that I'm tracking, they made two top fives, including a #4 at Consequence of Sound, just above AC/DC. This is their fourth album and it initially took me aback because it didn't sound like how I expected it to.

I'm used to doom metal being slow, heavy and clean. From the opening title track, Pallbearer clearly have slow and heavy down, but Joseph D. Rowland plays a dirty bass and it all grows out of feedback. This is doom with nods to stoner rock and doom/death, genres that I've never seen mentioned in the vicinity of the Pallbearer name. Maybe that's because there's no attempt whatsoever to venture into the psychedelia that stoner rock so often flirts with and Brett Campbell's vocals remain stubbornly clean and plaintive and never attempt anything harsh.

The dirty sound persists though, so much so that a minute into Riverbed, when it vanishes for effect, Pallbearer sound like a completely different band, only Campbell's unchanged vocals linking us back to what came before. Initially, I thought he was being a little overwhelmed by the music, but the mix favours him more as the album runs on. Overall, he does a fantastic job at making his presence known and, in fact, his sustained notes are a major part of why this sounds epic. Maybe the title track is just that anomalous a Pallbearer song.

It took me a while to get into this album, perhaps because of how abrasive that first song is. I have no issue with abrasive, but being abrasive on an opener that also happens to be a title track sets a sort of expectation that simply isn't met by everything else here. Riverbed was more engaging, but Stasis is perhaps the weakest song here, so I wasn't impressed by the time I got to Silver Wings, the only track here to match an epic style with an epic length—it exceeds twelve minutes but the average otherwise is under half that.

Silver Wings made me pay attention, as it has a lot of time to breathe. The first minute and a half fare well enough but it really kicks in at that point, dropping into a minimalist section but transitioning back to heavy in a simply gorgeous manner. This is as slow as this album gets and the melancholy just drips off the amplifiers. There's doom/death here too, as there's an early Paradise Lost feel to some of the instrumental sections.

It's after that that I really found myself on board the Pallbearer train. The Quicksand of Existing has a real weight to it. It's not just heavy in the traditional sense of downtuned instruments and a crushing taste in riffs. It's heavy in the sense that the song feels like a leaden overcoat; I had to force myself to sit up straight while I was listening to this one! It's a bouncy sort of doom as well, Campbell refusing to be lost under the weight of the fuzzy backdrop. Vengeance & Ruination is bouncy doom too, again without ever losing its brutal weight. Can we call it doom 'n' roll? I'm sure I wouldn't be the first.

Those two songs, accessible but emphatically heavy, would be my favourites here if Pallbearer hadn't finished up with Caledonia, which is a lovely song. It starts out deceptively soft, with a bass shorn of its fuzz and infused with liquid, and some delightfully patient guitarwork from Devon Holt and Brett Campbell. Those guitars continue to delight throughout, highlighting how bluesy the band can get, not just how heavy. I'd say that this one walks a more conscious balancing beam between delicacy and doom. It's the highlight of the album for me.

So, yet again, I'm a little disappointed in an album that made multiple end of year lists, but I'm still happy that I've now heard this and I look forward to Pallbearer's fifth. It promises much.

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

Juggernaut - La Bestia (2021)

Country: Brazil
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 10 Jan 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | YouTube

What should I review after something as deep and immersive as Neptunian Maximalism? How about a thrash album from Brazil, especially one that gets wacky enough to cover something as deeply uncool and safe as Starship's We Built This City to wrap it all up? Yeah, I'll go with Juggernaut's third album, their first in a decade and only their third since they got together in 2005. By the way, We Built This City doesn't work like this, though it does work much better than many of the other thrash covers of pop songs I've been hearing lately. I can't fault them for being ambitious!

Fortunately, the rest of it is much better and there's half an hour or so of original music before we get to the cover. Juggernaut play their thrash fast and vicious with a Teutonic flavour to it that goes well beyond Cicero's raspy voice and heavily accented English. Célio Jr.'s riffs and guitar tone remind very much of Destruction, though there's perhaps inevitably some old Sepultura here too. It seems clear to me that they've been paying a lot more attention to German bands than American ones and I'll never see that as a bad thing. It tends to leave a more evil feel to proceedings and it does that here.

It also means that Célio Jr. plays in a technical style, without ever seeming to show off. Hollow Surface may feature the most dominant guitar I've heard in a long while that isn't soloing. His riffs are always rooted in melody and they're full of those patented Destruction flourishes. Also, just like Schmier, the bass of Fabricio Duwe is audible and easily trackable throughout the album and there are moments to shine for him; he's very obvious on Man of a Thousand Faces, for a start. Alefer Reinert completes the line-up behind a very reliable drum kit. However fast he gets, it always feels comfortable, suggesting a ramp up from crazy fast to crazier fast wouldn't be a problem for him.

While the album title is in Portuguese, Cicero sings in English throughout, though I didn't catch too many of the lyrics. From the titles, it looks like they follow the usual social commentary approach for thrash; nothing stood out for me except the title of the opener, which in Cicero's accented English is more like Terror Isis Squid than Terror Isis Squad, giving it a surreal nature. No doubt it'll turn into a new Alestorm album title! There is an exception, the title track, delivered in the band's native tongue of Portuguese. Apparently, the band have never done that before and have wanted to for a long time. It works well for me and it certainly feels a little more natural for them.

The most obvious downside to this album is that the seven original tracks all unfold in the same style with similar success. I might favour Puppets of Society and Hollow Surface right now, but I might shift my favour to Man of a Thousand Faces and La Bestia on another listen. Consistency is never a negative but it doesn't have to preclude variety and there's not a lot of that here.

Of course, the most obvious upside to this album is that all seven of those tracks are delivered with a passion and energy that's infectious, even through speakers on my desk. I'd love to see these guys live to see how crazy their pit gets. Given that Blumenau apparently celebrates Oktoberfest and features a Beer Museum (now I get the German connection!), even though it's in southern Brazil, halfway up the coast from Porto Alegre to São Paulo, I'd guess that the fans tend to knock a few back and then hit the pit to burn off their energy. I'm sure it's a heck of a show.

I liked this a lot, but it apparently took COVID-19 to force Juggernaut into the studio to record their third album; I haven't heard the previous two—though I'll be searching them out now—but they say that the production and technical quality has improved since then. I just hope that it doesn't require another global catastrophe to get them back into the studio again in a couple of years time. I may be a little premature but I want to hear more from this band.

Neptunian Maximalism - Éons (2020)

Country: Belgium
Style: Jazz Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 26 Jun 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook

Neptunian Maximalism only made two end of year lists that I'm looking at, at Pop Matters and Treble Zine, but they were high in both of them and they sounded so wild that I had to check them out (and a record label that they record for too—I, Voidhanger—named for a Darkthrone track, who release what they describe as "obscure, unique, and uncompromising visions from the metal underground.") That does fit this release, which is metal, I think, though it's jazz first and foremost.

It's a rather daunting release, a triple album of experimental music from Belgium running two hours and ten minutes and covers Bandcamp tags as wildly diverse as "dark ambient", "drone metal", "free jazz", "heavy psych", "stoner metal" and "tribal", among others. The band include two drummers and one saxophonist, with Guillaume Cazalet covering everything else: bass, guitar, sitar, flute, trumpet... whatever he can find, it seems. Its press claims that it's the "quintessential mystical and psychedelic journey of 2020." Even having already reviewed the Oranssi Pazuzu album, I'm not going to argue.

What I will say is that, as wild as this is, and it does indeed dip deep into free jazz, it felt surprisingly accessible to me. Tribal drumming and pixie-like saxophone render the first two pieces of music lively, engaging and shockingly organic. Sure, Lamasthu slows things down to paint a sonic picture of a trip through Hell itself, dark and eerie from the outset but all the more eerie as the layers peel away with us left in near silence, punctuated only by demonic voices. At least that's what I heard. Its full title is translated from the French to Lamasthu: Seeder of the Primordial Fungal Kingdom and Infanticide of Neogene Monkeys. And yes, there's definitely some Ummagumma weirdness here, but this is heavier and freer and jazzier.

These titles do offer clues as to what's going on, or at least to what we ought to be thinking about as they play. These opening songs comprise a six track cycle called To the Earth. The full title of part one is To the Earth: Daiitoku-Myōō no ōdaiko 大威徳明王 鼓童—L'Impact de Théia durant l’Éon Hadéen, which includes three languages and two scripts: English, Japanese and French. So let's figure out what all that means.

The "odaiko" is the largest drum in a taiko performance of Japanese drumming; this one belongs to Daiitoku Myōō, one of the five Great Light Kings of Esoteric Buddhism. Google Translate tells me the kanji translate from the Japanese to Yamantaka Kodo, but Yamantaka happens to be a Sanskrit name for Daiitoku Myōō. Kodo has a double meaning: both "children of the drum" and "heartbeat", which is the primal source of all rhythm. The French means "The Impact of Théia during the Hadean Aeon", referring to an ancient planet that may have collided with the Earth 4.5 billion years ago, so creating our moon.

So we're delving into Japanese mythology and archeoastronomy. Nganga brings in African culture in primal times, the title belonging to a spiritual healer, and Lamasthu Mesopotamian, as she's the most terrible of all female demons. Ptah Sokar Osiris is an Egyptian composite funerary deity, while Enūma Eliš is the Babylonian creation myth. Clearly, there's a lot of birth and death here. We're also running through billions of years: two supereons, at least five eons and mere periods like the Carboniferous. What are Neptunian Maximalism telling us in this grand sweep of history and mythology?

Well, I'm glad you asked! "By exploring the evolution of the human species," the band "question the future of the living on Earth, propitiating a feeling of acceptance for the conclusion of the so called 'anthropocene' era and preparing us for the incoming 'probocene' era, imagining our planet ruled by superior intelligent elephants after the end of humanity." So there you have it. I think I need notes. It's all ritual, but it's heavily researched, multi-cultural, multi-mythological ritual that's explored in fascinating style.

To the Moon encompasses the next six pieces of music, with three of those being about Vajrabhairava, a third name for Daiitoku Myōō/Yamantaka, this time the name used in Tibetan Buddism. The reason why Yamantaka is important is because he destroyed Yama, the God of Death, thus stopping samsara, the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, which is the goal of the journey towards enlightenment. I guess if you're going to go with a concept, it's worth making it a deep one. I couldn't name one deeper than this.

Oddly for such a desirable goal, Zâr is doomier in nature with a lot more cymbals in play, aspects that continue throughout this suite. While much of this feels theatrical, the initial part of Vajrabhairava, The Summoning, is especially evocative. It seems like it should be performed live while demons roam the stage, speaking to us in dark voices. The final part, Oi Sonuf Vaoresaji!, is thoroughly theatrical as well, initially an assault of percussion, mostly sticks banging against each other rather than drums. It feels like there's an associated dance that I'm missing. Even when it calms down, it still feels like it's a soundtrack to something visual.

The third part of Vajrabhairava is the one that spoke to me, The Great Wars of Quaternary Era Against Ego. It's chaotic free jazz for a while, until the emergency of a driving trance-inducing riff that sounds like it's played on bass and emphasised by percussion. It persists but so does the chaos, like we're here to witness the age-old battle between chaos and order in microcosm.

That leaves four pieces of music to constitute To the Sun and they're generally longer and much more patient. With the sole exception of the previous track, Oi Sonuf Vaoresaji!, Eôs, the first part of To the Sun, is twice as long as anything thus far, at eighteen and a half minutes. It takes its time, pitting that exploratory saxophone of Jean Jacques Duerinckx against a set of dark textures, sans any percussion, and, when it evolves, it does so into a commanding presence, as if this were an avant-garde opera. The latter part of the song gets all trippy and psychedelic.

I'm not as fond of To the Sun generally. It doesn't seem to have as much purpose to it, Heliozoapolis a fifteen minute jumble of hesitant jazz drumming, sitar noodling and ambient spirituality. It does end well for me, but it's easily my least favourite piece of music here and the rest of To the Sun pales when compared to To the Moon and especially To the Earth.

But hey, given how generous this release is, it's still at least a full album more originality than most albums can boast and I'm comfortable giving it a solid 8/10. The best music here is easily worthy of the highest ratings I give out. Now, I need to come back down to Earth for whatever I can follow this with.

Tuesday, 12 January 2021

Karma Sutra - Karmasutrized (2021)

Country: France
Style: Stoner Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 11 Jan 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram

Only just released yesterday, I see that this debut album by French trio Karma Sutra was recorded four years ago in January 2017. Why it took so long for something of this quality to reach the light of day, I really can't say, but I'm happy that it's finally out there.

It hooked me from its very outset, through a song appropriately named Shiva's Chant, given that it's driven initially by a memorable chant, even if it ramps up halfway and lets loose a blistering solo for a very tight and very memorable second half. Its sound can be pinpointed somewhere around the line where heavy blues and stoner rock meet and that's echoed across the rest of this album.

The four tracks of the first half all feature vocals but, with the exception of that chant, they're never a primary concern. All these songs live or die on their riffs and the other things the guitars are doing, a job we can credit to Edouard Reynaert. I didn't really notice until my second time through the album that the vocals vanish after Bastard Children, as they hardly matter, except for that memorable chant, of course, which is as much voice as instrument as an actual vocal, finding a throat singing drone at points. The final five pieces of music are all instrumental.

While Shiva's Chant may be the best of those early songs, I can't skip past the fantastic riff on Mind's Eye, which is quintessential heavy psych. It's relatively simple, but it's instantly catchy and I love how it's explored by the guitar but handed over to the bass to mimic it during the verses. While this band can get balls to the wall heavy, there's a lot of softer material here too and it's just as capable, so the big heavy riffs like this one are moments to cherish.

What's odd thus far is how lo-fi this seems. The band are tight, even when pretending to be loose like on Bastard Children, another heavy psych standout. The recordings haven't been tidied up though, as if they were all recorded live in succession and piped straight onto Bandcamp with the only post work done being to put a gap between each song. Even there, that's rough; it takes a full sixteen seconds to start Karmasutrized #2 to start and there are rough edges before and after a number of tracks. It (and I mean the production here, not the performance) feels honest but very unpolished.

The instrumental pieces are interesting because they feature more dynamic play than the vocal songs. Oddly, though, three of the five are called the same thing. Karmasutrized initially comes in two parts, both really exploring mood, getting particularly mellow towards the end of part. 1 and for a majority of part. 2. I like these slower and softer pieces, which still ramp up at points, but my favourite of these instrumentals is Karmasutrized #2, which is unrelated to Karmasutrized part. 1 and part. 2, in all but a name.

What I realised during Karmasutrized #2 and the second half of Shiva's Chant is that this band remind me just as much of a classic heavy blues outfit like Aeroblus as the usual proto-stoner rock bands like Black Sabbath or Blue Cheer. Karma Sutra could cover Vamos a buscar la luz and it wouldn't feel at all out of place next following Shiva's Chant in a live set. Now, let's hope that whatever back end issues the band had with getting this album out won't affect the next one.

Eternal Champion - Ravening Iron (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Epic Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 6 Nov 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

One of the most surprising entries on year end lists, not to me but the people who chose it, was Texan traditionalists Eternal Champion. "I’ll be honest, wrote Aaron Lariviere, "I wouldn’t have guessed my favorite album of 2020 would come with not one but two topless ladies on the cover." He's talking of a painting by Ken Kelly, famed for his epic cover art for Kiss and Manowar, among others. In addition to those two ladies, whose bust sizes are above impressive, there's a mountain of skulls and a dragon and a giant snake. It's the sort of thing we expected in the mid eighties and what makes this album work is that the music, which is rooted in that era, does not sound like it was written then.

This is the second studio album for Eternal Champion and word is that it's deeper but not as catchy as the first, 2016's The Armor of Ire. I haven't heard that album, but that word rings true anyway. This is a fundamentally melodic album, but it's short on anthemic choruses. It feels like Jason Tarpey is always as interested in telling a story as singing a song, which inevitably lends every word equal importance and choruses distract from that. His voice, which is clean and effective, but not the emphatic operatic one we might expect, also plays up the guitars, which rule this album.

There are two guitarists here, John Powers and Arthur Rizk, the latter of whom is primarily the band's drummer, and they are constantly enjoyable. They're not just about conjuring up a riff and milking it for a while to give Tarpey the spotlight until it's time for a solo, though there are examples of that in songs like Skullseeker. Each of these riffs tends to lead to another one, then another, with a swathe of fills and solos dotted throughout, even if they're notably brief. As much as Tarpey's vocals fit well on top of this music, it feels like it was written instrumentally and would work that way too.

I enjoyed this from the outset, but not to the degree that I expected from an album that made six end of year lists, including a #1 at Stereogum and a #2 at Decibel. While songs like Ravening Iron and War at the Edge of the End were impressive, the album didn't grab me by the throat until it made it to the halfway mark. Coward's Keep is the highlight for me, a full step up on every level from anything that's ahead of it, and Worms of the Earth isn't far behind.

Coward's Keep kicks off with a vaguely exotic intro that leads into the best riffs of the album and the most overtly catchy vocals. If I wake up in the morning with Eternal Champion playing in my head, it's probably going to be this song, albeit more likely its riffs and the deliciously staccato drums from its midsection than its echoed chorus. That's also seeping into my soul though.

It feels just as epic as the album is supposed to, not least because of the those staccato drums return to pummel us all the way to the mediaeval acoustic outro, but, while it's the longest song here, it's a short longest song at under six minutes. To feel epic at under six minutes is impressive, but Worms of the Earth does the same thing at four and a half. The riffs here are faster and more vicious and Rizk is more than up to the task of driving them. His drum sound on this one is glorious.

The least worthy track here is The Godblade, which is just a two minute synth interlude before the final track, but it does remind us that there's a sword and sorcery novel accompanying the album. It's also titled The Godblade and it's by J. Christopher Tarpey, who's better known here as lead vocalist Jason Tarpey. It looks to be as influenced by the fantasy novels of Michael Moorcock as a band named for one of his primary characters, the Eternal Champion.

I certainly liked this album, which bodes well for the vibrant New Wave of Traditional Heavy Metal or whatever we're calling it this week. It's solid throughout, deep and intricate without advertising it, a reliable set of songs. However, Coward's Keep and Worms of the Earth demonstrate just what the band can do and they couldn't match those songs on the other three quarters of the album. So, I'll happily recommend this but I won't rave about it. I might just rave about their next one though.

Monday, 11 January 2021

Blind Golem - A Dream of Fantasy (2021)

Country: Italy
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 4 Jan 2021
Sites: Facebook

Here's an album to bring a nostalgic smile to fans of legendary British hard/prog rockers, Uriah Heep, not least because it features their late keyboardist Ken Hensley, on a new song called The Day is Gone, not only playing Hammond organ but apparently slide guitar as well. Blind Golem's sound is overtly seventies and overtly English, as the Rodney Matthews cover art suggests, but it's not confined to the Heep, even though the band appear to have grown out of a tribute outfit called Forever Heep, who are present day and Italian, hailing from the city of Verona.

Heep are obvious on the opener, Devil in a Dream, which barrels along with consummate ease. It starts memorably in the way that all the classic rock songs we know by heart do and then finds its groove. It remains bouncy and upbeat throughout, though I think it'll sound even better when played faster on stage. The other obvious Heep track is Star of the Darkest Night, which brings Gypsy to mind early on, though it does evolve away from that is the song grows.

There are proto-doom songs here that would sound more like Black Sabbath if the vocals had tried to emulate Ozzy. They don't, so it's the music behind them that evokes Sabbath. Screaming to the Stars is the best of them, though The Ghost of Eveline fits in this world too. I wasn't that impressed with the first half, which is decent but growing on me, but the second half is fantastic, as great as anything to be found anywhere on this album, which some deliciously organic bass and guitar.

Scarlet Eyes plays up the heavy seventies organ sound but in a different way. Instead of delivering the Ken Hensley/Uriah Heep approach throughout, Simone Bistaffa channels some Jon Lord too, as this is reminiscent of early Mark II Deep Purple, especially in its heavier moments. Of course, I use heavy in a very seventies hard rock sense here, because this doesn't approach metal at any point. These are songs that could have been released in 1975 but without any Judas Priest pointers to the decade to come.

The first half of the album is excellent. This is such a generous release, running a hair's breadth under seventy minutes, that it would have been a double album in 1975, making that first half the first disc. In addition to Devil in a Dream, Screaming to the Stars and Scarlet Eyes, all of which are highlights, as is the second half of The Ghost of Eveline. Also in the first half are Sunbreaker, which is a classic hard rock belter, almost like a Y&T song recorded five or six years earlier, the solid Bright Light and the big one to look for, The Day is Gone.

It feels like a cheat to suggest that it's the best song here, given that it's the only one to feature Ken Hensley, but it's also true. It feels epic, even though, at just over five minutes, it's actually shorter by a minute than the previous song and by two than the following one. Hensley may not sing, but he's a constant star on this one, front and centre throughout, and he endows the song with a timeless feel. I love the tone he pulls out of his guitar. It's a worthy epitaph to a stellar career. RIP.

The biggest problem the album has is that the second half can't touch the first. The final seven songs are all decent, but the best of them is a step down from the worst in the first half. There's a neat piano on Night of Broken Dreams, which is a power ballad. There's an odd German feel to Pegasus, not only because of the accented vocals. A Spell and a Charm features some strong acoustic guitar work, but it isn't the instrumental outro I thought it would be.

So yeah, what would have been the second slab of vinyl is decent and worth pulling it once in a while, before putting it back in its sleeve and running a few more times through the first. If the first half is a 9/10 but the second is a 7/10, then this ends up as a still highly recommended 8/10.

I don't know how long Forever Heep explored this sort of territory through covers and I do see that a few members of the band have played with others in Italy who write original material, but a running time of seventy minutes suggests that they've been simply burning to get their own ideas down. I for one am very happy that they did so, because the first half of this (which still runs over 36 minutes) is surely the best 1975 album I've ever heard that wasn't remotely written or recorded in 1975.

Boris - NO (2020)

Country: Japan
Style: Stoner Metal/Punk
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 3 Jul 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Tumblr | Twitter | Wikipedia

Boris have been around for a long while and they've released a lot of music across a much wider set of genres than most bands even listen to, but this one garnered more praise in 2020 than anything they have released since Pink in 2005. While much of their work is experimental, including collaborations with Merzbow and Sunn O))), this is much more accessible, though still notably varied. The final track feels like it's on a completely different album to everything else but this is a band who veer between dream pop and drone metal, via pretty much everything in between.

My favourite track may be the first one, Genesis, which is a slow and heavy sludge metal instrumental, as controlled as most of the rest of the album isn't. It could easily have been intensely boring but it's full of feedback that's ridden like a bucking bronco and refuses to let my attention wander. Anti-Gone starts out that way but soon ramps up into a punk onslaught and is over in three minutes. I've seen a lot of descriptions of this album as hardcore and I'm not seeing it, because the vocals aren't shouts. A punk sound doesn't have to mean hardcore.

In fact, with all three members of the band now contributing their voices as well as their instruments, the vocals encompass a number of styles, as is very obvious on Non Blood Lore. Mostly the vocals are clean on this one with a neat echo that I presume is a second simultaneous voice, but there are angry vocals too and some wilder stuff during a slower but impatient section. I like this one too, because of how the guitars threaten to be wall of sound but the bass can still almost solo over them. Everything here works, from the energy to the tone, via the solos.

So far, so good but I don't like everything here. My least favourite song is Zerkalo, which slows down a vast amount from the Misfits-esque blitzkrieg of Temple of Hatred to find sludge metal territory with the drums stubbornly slow and the vocals as raw as anything else here. I'm not very fond of HxCxHxC Parforation Line, which eventually feels like the band are performing on a runway as a convoy of jets land behind them.

It really is an odd combination of songs, but then this is a Boris album and we shouldn't expect them to care about consistency, especially on an album written relatively quickly and recorded in isolation during lockdown for COVID-19. One minute there's a frantic cover of nineties Japanese band Gudon's Fundamental Error, which is a blast, especially when it drops into punk pop melodies but without any pandering to commerciality at all. The next there's Interlude, a strange title for the final song on any album but appropriate here given that it's a shoegazy post-rock song with clean and whispery female vocals.

It's almost a love letter to American punk, ripping its way through the various genres, some extreme but others conventional. For every Temple of Hatred, easily the loosest song here and one that wraps a while before its two minutes are up, there's a Kiki no Ue, a fascinating piece that starts drum heavy but eventually lets the bass take over and define it. I like a lot of this, but I don't like all of it and, as energetic and fun as it gets, it just feels like a good and varied album, and one that's more accessible than the double album they released with Merzbow in December.

However, it doesn't feel like best of year list material, even though it made five of those I'm tracking thus far, including two top tens and a top five, which was a third place in Treble Zine's list right after the Oranssi Pazuzu album that blew me away. I'd just call it a generally enjoyable release that's more appropriate as an entry point to Boris's discography than pretty much anything they've released in a decade and a half. If you want to find out what all the fuss is about, this is as good a choice as any.

Friday, 8 January 2021

Mission Control - Mission Control (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Funk Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 5 Jan 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

The problem with starting a day with the new Oranssi Pazuzu album is that I also have to find a way to follow it. The only way I could think of credibly doing that is to shift to something as wildly different as I could find and this funky jazz rock album fit the bill, while featuring cover art that in a less kawaii translation could actually describe Oranssi Pazuzu. Mission Control hail from New Jersey, a notably musical state but not one known for this style of music, unless I'm very much mistaken. This is their debut album.

It starts its mission to get our bodies moving in impeccable style, because it's impossible not to react physically to Conquest. I was bouncing in my office chair, which is as close as you want to see me to dancing. The whole song is the definition of perky, the keyboards of Ryan Gavin adding enough lightness that we'd be forgiven for being surprised when it ends and we're not floating around in the sky. I haven't heard a riff that funky on a soft rock song since the heyday of Herbie Hancock.

Mission Control, by Mission Control, from Mission Control, does much the same thing but with a bit more jaggedness, as if it wants us to do the robot. I got a Red Hot Chili Peppers vibe from the vocals, especially during the chorus, and the song is easily funky enough for them, but it still has at least one foot in the synthpop world of the eighties synth world. Out the Window almost sounds like Toto as a dance band, but the chorus almost sounds Dylan-esque. I'd be hearing the drums echoing in the night if only the drummers weren't too busy sipping margaritas on the beach. I guess this means that there are a lot of influences at play in this musical blender.

There are only six songs on offer, but it's not a short album at forty-two minutes. The average breaker is Moonfly, the seventeen minute jam that wraps up the album while never quite feeling like a jam, as this band are just so smooth. I got seriously caught up in this one, which only feels odd because I felt that a couple of the shorter songs, like the five minute Conquest and the six minute Out the Window might have been just a little longer than they should have been. The seventeen minute Moonfly? Nah, that one's good. Go figure.

Maybe part of it is that it sums up the rest of the album in one song. It's oddly perky and laid back, as Player 2 is, and the guitar/keyboard combo gets as melodious at points. It's an indie pop songwriting challenge, wanting us not just to move our feet but listen to the words that we never quite get round to doing, just like Commuter. It has the jazzy drumming of Kevin O'Neill, just like everything here, an abiding reminder that this is improvisational at heart, even if they wrote these songs and didn't just perform them. It has the funky bass of Mission Control, Sam Luba perhaps even more notable for that than his lead vocal.

But it also has time for a guitar solo and a sample and, before we know it, we've just lost a quarter of an hour in their jam. I didn't have a problem with Luba's vocals at any point here and they're easily a highlight of a song like Mission Control, but, when they show up sixteen minutes into Moonfly as the band decides to wrap things up, we're suddenly confused as to why they want to be a vocal group.

As a wannabe chart success, they should trim down their catchy as all get out songs like Conquest and Out the Window, so they can infect the airwaves like a virus. As a set of musicians, they should switch off the mike and just jam for an hour at a time. What makes them so good is that they can be great at both approaches. I eagerly await a second album!

Oranssi Pazuzu - Mestarin Kynsi (2020)

Country: Finland
Style: Psychedelic Black Metal
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 17 Apr 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Here's a 2020 catch up album that I really should have caught in 2020, as Oranssi Pazuzu were half of a pair of groups who combined ranks to create the ritual piece of music at the Roadburn Festival in the Netherlands under the name of Waste of Space Orchestra. I reviewed that last January and loved it, as unusual a combination of space rock and doom metal as it was. This is different, more like a combo of space rock and black metal, but I love it just as much.

There are six songs on offer here, the shortest lasting for over seven minutes and the longest ten, and the commonality is in how well they find grooves and grow them. What's odd is that they build these grooves out of bizarre building blocks, strange sounds and odd time signatures, components that are more likely to alienate us than entice us, but they capture us immediately.

These rhythms are not the rhythms that we know but they're clearly rhythms and they're emphatically repeated so that we can't ignore them. What surreality is woven around those rhythms is like nothing we've heard before either, but it does follow internal logic. It's mathematical, reminding both of King Crimson and Philip Glass, and it makes everything here very calculated, however experimental it feels.

Ilmestys is the first of those six songs and it sets the stage well because it's a real trip. For most of its running time, it's a trance state decorated by dramatic vocals and electronic experimentation. It feels like we've been trapped in a parallel dimension and we're being berated by a disgruntled demon, one who doesn't care how we feel in this warm, organic environment and rants at us anyway. Of course, the Pazuzu of the band's name is a demon, in Babylonian mythology the king of the wind demons, and the one that possesses Regan in The Exorcist. Oranssu means orange.

Tyhjyyden sakramentti is quieter noodling, but in an interesting time signature. It's a few minutes in when it suddenly escalates—and escalate it truly does. Suddenly we're stuck in some space maelstrom with that infectious odd beat etching itself onto the inside of our skull. The vocals are just as twisted but more sung than spoken. Ever shaking things up, the band bring in a flute, of all instruments, for a contrast against another space maelstrom and angry lesson from the demon on Uusi teknokratia.

In and amongst all this, there are some gloriously wild moments. There's a mad elephant at the end of Ilmestys and, a few minutes into Uusi teknokratia, we drop into a clockwork nightmare, with multiple instruments, including female voice, beating time. These are underlines to the thought that it's often acutely dramatic, as if there's a simultaneous performance art element to interpret it that I'm missing because I only have the audio. Sure, it's out there stuff, an enticing psychedelic space metal painting, but it ought to move and I want to see what it looks like.

The primary reason to set this aside from King Crimson and Philip Glass and other musicians who are on this world to experiment is that it gets a lot heavier than any of them. Oranssi Pazuzu go beyond, taking their space rock shenanigans all the way up to full on black metal at points. Sometimes, like on Taivaan portti, they kick off with a black metal wall of sound and pretty much stay there, but, on most songs, they play with dynamics and contrast, merely doing so with a broader intensity palette than an army of regular experimenters put together.

So, while this is absolutely a black metal album, it's also a space rock album and an electronica album and a whole bunch of other things, all woven together into a heady and innovative mix. I haven't yet explored Oranssu Pazuzu's back catalogue but this emphasises why I need to do that Real Soon Now. I hear that they reinvent themselves on every release, so their work is always fresh.

I was disappointed yesterday with the latest Hum album, a year end list topper. I'm not disappointed with this, which made five end of year lists I'm tracking thus far, including three top tens and one top five, a second in Jeff Terich's list at Treble Zine. I like it a lot more than the release ahead of it in that list, the collaboration between Thou and Emma Ruth Rundle, but I see a lot of interesting albums on that list, including a bunch on I, Voidhanger Records, whose catalogue I expect to dive into deeply.

Thursday, 7 January 2021

Gridiron - The Other Side of Suffering (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Groove/Thrash Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 1 Jan 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

After being dragged down by Hum, I wanted something fast and heavy to wake me up and kick my ass, so I ran through a bunch of thrash metal albums and EPs, most of which left me dry. The one to break through my ennui was this one, by Texan band Gridiron, even though it's not quite the sort of thing I was looking for.

Metal Archives call what they do thrash/groove metal, which isn't unfair, but Gridiron themselves call it metalcore. What won me over was the sheer ferocity when they're seriously shifting, because they carry some serious power and energy. Become is strong out of the gate, for instance, and then gets truly ferocious. Where's my socially distanced mosh pit?

Now, I'm an old school thrash fan—that's always been my go to genre—but I prefer it without groove on the side and with its vocals some degree of clean. The most overt metalcore elements here can be found in Zack Knight's vocal delivery, a mostly monotone shout that's easily my least favourite aspect to this album, but it sometimes gets closer to a death growl, especially when he's roaring, and he also sings clean, so there is some variety here.

He's also one of two guitarists in Gridiron and, without attempting to shift any credit away from the rhythm section which is admirably reliable, it's the guitars that dominate this band and the longer I listened, the more they stood out. I may not like Knight as a singer, but I'm a big fan of him and Josh Cross as guitarists. While I prefer the faster, more energetic sections in any song here, there are slow parts that I really like too, because of the way they merge a crushing heaviness with a strong sense of melody. In fact, while the fast sections got me on board, it could be fair to say the slower ones made me all the more interested.

Lazarus moves back and forth between faster and slower sections and it all works magnificently. Eyes Wide Shut and Afterlife shine because of the guitars and Blame It on the Fire is all about the guitars, with some uncharacteristic keyboards floating over them that at times hint at being a choir. This one is an instrumental, the only one on the album if we ignore the minute long intro, and I'd call it a fine example of what the rest of it could have been, if it didn't seem like a different genre. It's symphonic power metal, really, on a groove/thrash album, an approach telegraphed in A Sight to Behold.

Things shift back to normal with Wretched Earth and stay there. I kept on hating Knight's vocals but loving his guitars. I don't know how he and Cross divvy up their work, so I have no idea who deserves praise for what, but they both clearly deserve plenty of it. Eventually, I freed myself from their thrall long enough to also appreciate Rhannon Knight's drumming. I should have been caught up by it on A Sight to Behold, but I was certainly there by the last song, Of Blood & Bone, which is just as intricate. The bassist stuck in between these forces of nature is Mike Elsner.

I'd also love to know where Gridiron's influences are. They're clearly Pantera fans and I caught various American thrash bands too, but there are older sounds here as well and I'm not just talking about the inevitable Black Sabbath. I don't buy into them only listening to the obvious bands for their genres, Exhorder and Sepultura. I'm not up enough on the metalcore side to suggest comparisons, but Jesse Zaraska from Misery Signals guests here. It all sounds to me like they're pretty well read musically; in moments where I expected X, I often got Y and I appreciated that, especially on Eyes Wide Shut.

You may not be entirely my cup of tea and you weren't quite what I was looking for today, but thanks for improving my day, Gridiron. Oh, and I'd go 7/10 if it wasn't for the vocals. If you're into that style, add that lost point back on.

Hum - Inlet (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Shoegaze
Rating: 5/10
Release Date: 23 Jun 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | Wikipedia

Crosschecking end of year lists fascinates me. The album that shows up on most lists that I've trawled in thus far is Ulcerate's superb Stare into Death and Be Still. It made three top tens and one top five, as well as getting a highly recommended 8/10 from me, but nobody yet has listed it as their Album of the Year. Of the fifteen lists I'm looking at, nothing tops more than one. Two 2019 albums topped a pair of lists—Blood Incantation and Wilderun—and, in 2018, Yob topped four. So far, I've only reviewed four #1s from 2020, so I have catchup to do. Let's start with Hum's Inlet, which made four lists and was Andrew Sacher's Album of the Year at Invisible Oranges.

Hum are an alternative rock band from Champaign, IL whose four shoegaze albums in the nineties had a lot of other bands paying attention, not least the Deftones, whose 2020 album Ohms made five lists. However, they've done very little since, splitting up in 2000, reuniting for a one-off festival, reuniting fully in 2011 and playing a few odd gigs here and there. So when they dropped a fifth album with zero warning in June, it took everyone aback.

And it took me a while to figure this out, so I do wonder how much of the praise is just gratitude that an important band to many simply released new material for the first time in twenty-two years. Sure, I have almost no grounding in shoegaze, though I'm enjoying one of its successors, blackgaze, through bands like Alcest. I think my initial problem was in reconciling the heavy backdrop, which is more of a texture than a musical accompaniment, with the relentlessly slow drums and the clean but apparently only mildly interested vocals. It feels like it wants to crush but just can't be bothered.

I still can't get into the opener, Waves, but In the Den found me more receptive and the nine minutes of Desert Rambler got me on board. The former features a subtle and almost trancelike riff, a livelier voice that appears to have something to say and keyboards swirling around everything. It's like Gary Numan, covered by a band who don't want a hit single. For a quintessentially nineties band, it seemed very eighties to me, rooted in the New Romantic era but with all the fashion and other accoutrements ripped away and played in a garage at half speed.

All that stands for Desert Rambler but doubled because it's slower and the heaviness sometimes takes a break so that the guitar that's been chiming in over the wall of sound can get a word in edgeways. It feels like a weird hybrid of David Bowie, Joy Division and the Swans, but with that Gary Numan vibe a constant in the voice of Matt Talbott. Hum are clearly one of those bands who will go down in history as more influential to other musicians than regular people on the street. I think you need to be in the right mindspace to enjoy their music too but, once you find it, they can really trawl you in.

They seem to be very good at what they do, but what they do seems to not be for me. There are points where this caught my attention but I found myself drifting away from it often, to the degree that the song I thought I was listening to was over ten minutes earlier and I was two further into the album. Is it bad for losing me? Not necessarily, but if Hum see their job as conjuring up a soundscape the way a post-rock band does, then it's pretty important to make that soundscape evocative enough to drag us in and immersive enough to keep us. This apparently does that for some people, but not me.

Wednesday, 6 January 2021

Furtherial - Liberation Path (2021)

Country: Turkey
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 1 Jan 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | YouTube

I've been enjoying the diversity of Turkish music here at Apocalypse Later, with bands like Forgotten, Uluru and Metalium alike only in nationality and quality, given that they play doom/death metal, a hybrid of psychedelic/space rock and thrash metal respectively. Here's another style played with some real panache, melodic death metal, courtesy of Istanbul's Furtherial, though there are other elements here too, most overtly progressive metal but also some thrash and power metal. Liberation is their third studio album, though they also put out a two part EP in 2017 and 2018 that could easily count as another.

Including a few years as Extinction, they've been around since 2007 and they've only had a single line-up change in that entire time, Önder Işkın replacing Ozan Murat Özfen on bass in 2014. They're just as tight as that history suggests, which is essential because songs with as much staccato riffing as Dusk Above and Back to the Ocean kind of require it. Had they been less tight, this wouldn't remotely have worked. That it does speaks volumes.

I liked the opener, Tailor of Dreams, which boasts a neat intro, but it was Dusk Above that sold me on the band. Lethean follows it and may be even better. These songs are technical and complex, but they have a bounce to them that's infectious. Başer Çelebi's voice even ventures into power metal for the chorus. Estranged is bouncier still and its insanely simple three note rising riff reminded me a lot of Toranaga. They slayed live and I'd love to see if Furtherial do too.

I'm not quite as sold on the slower, deeper section, because it feels like Furtherial always want to keep the pedal down unless they're getting soft and introspective. Going for a doomy vibe doesn't work as well, but it's capably performed and Çelebi's vocal tone stays as rich as the guitars, just a tad deeper. He covers a lot more ground on the next song, Clashing Stories, including a section where he shifts to a clean voice. He does that particularly well midway through The Old Man too, so it's fair to say that he certainly doesn't feel married to one particular style and that's always promising.

Surely the best thing about this album is that the standard never drops across eight tracks and forty minutes of music, even if my favourite tracks tend to be early ones. The eight and a half minute song, Truth in Existence, doesn't feel longer than anything else, even if the average song here merely runs four or five. There are parts that elevate each song, many of them softer, intricate guitar passages. To prove the exception to every rule, I love the build to a crescendo late in Back to the Ocean, as well as the final thrashy blitz to the finish, which is over too soon.

I should point out that Çelebi isn't just the vocalist in this band, he also contributes a rhythm guitar to back up Bora İnce's lead. They complement each other well, so it rarely seems like one is taking care of the riffs while the other solos. Işkın's bass is perfectly placed in the excellent mix, making it easy to follow, which I always appreciate. Versatile drummer Berkay Yıldırım fills out the line-up but is really the backbone to this band. It was obvious that he was reliable, just listening to a couple of songs, but finishing up the album and especially playing it through again highlights just how much he does.

It's not even a week into the new year, but I think I've found my first 8/10 for 2021 and I think it's fair to say, given the rise of prog rock over the last year, that I wasn't expecting it to be a Turkish melodic death metal album. But hey, discovery is what Apocalypse Later is all about. My highly recommended list for 2021 is now one album long. Let's see how much and how soon it grows!

Tuatha de Danann - In Nomine Éireann (2020)

Country: Brazil
Style: Folk Rock/Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 25 Nov 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | YouTube

While most of the 2020 albums I'll be reviewing in January show up often or prominently enough for me to see that I've been missing out, this is one that I'm reviewing because I've only just noticed that it was released, either last November or December, depending on where you look. I reviewed an EP by Tuatha de Danann last March after being intrigued by the very idea of a Celtic folk metal band hailing from as far from the Emerald Isle as Varginha in the southern Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. I left it as a confirmed fan of the band and, of course, I want to check out their new album, their fifth.

It's as blatant a tribute to Ireland as they could conjure up. While they're generally and fairly called a Celtic folk metal band, that's not all they are. They dug deeper into Irish music on that EP, The Tribes of Witching Souls, than a single genre can do justice to and that's even more obvious here. It's folk or folk rock just as often as it is metal, though there are points where it's all the above, like their sublime take on The Wind That Shakes the Barley.

I know the song, so I know it's not a Tuatha de Danann original—it'll be 160 years old this year—and it made me wonder if any of this material is original, because it all sounds like it could well come out of great Irish songbook. I know that I've heard Molly Maguires before, in a version by the Dubliners and Newry Highwayman too, by a variety of artists. It seems that one of Tuatha de Danann's key influences is Solas, a traditional Irish folk group based in Philadelphia. This version of The Wind That Shakes the Barley is done to their arrangement and John Doyle, from that band, is supposedly here somewhere.

However, Nick Gwerk's Jigs ought to be easily findable in searches and I'm finding nothing except the opener to this album, so maybe some of this is original music. It opens things up in lively traditional style, with the fiddle of Kane O'Rourke and the uilleann pipes of Alex Navar leading some jigs. If they get us dancing, then we're warmed up enough for Molly Maguires, done in Celtic punk fashion, with a guest vocal from Keith Fay of Irish folk metallers Cruachan. Guns and Pikes is the first song to feature a metal crunch behind it, perhaps appropriately given that it's a rebel song, though it takes a minute to show up.

As you may guess, the only consistency here is that everything is obviously Irish, with only one piece of music sounding otherwise to me, that being the closer, King, which seems a little more like English folk music to me, like a Fairport Convention story song. Irish music doesn't come in only one flavour though, so this is a wildly varied set of songs.

There are instrumentals you might hear down the pub. Some are dances like Nick Gwerk's Jigs and The Dream One Dreamt, a dance number driven by fiddle and mandolin. This one's a rocker too but not to the degree we might expect from a folk metal band. It's progressive too, easily being my favourite of these songs, excepting only The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Some are more plaintive folk melodies without additional emphasis, like Moytura and The Master Reels. I could imagine The Calling in a pub too, but it's a vocal song with clean male and female voices singing alongside each other.

There are heavier songs too, but they're thin enough on the ground to make this seem like a folk rock album rather than folk metal. That crunch that kicks in behind Guns and Pikes shows up on The Wind That Shakes the Barley too, not a usual approach to this song but a worthy one. It's sung by a female voice, that of Daísa Munhoz who sings for São Paulo power metal band Vandroya, and it's glorious. It alone makes me want to check out her band. The Devil Drink Cider is likely the heaviest piece of music here though, being a folk metal drinking song. Once more, the crunch doesn't start with the song but joins in once it's moving.

So, as a folk metal album, this is surprisingly lacking in actual folk metal, so be warned. As an homage to Irish music, it's heartfelt and effective. As music, pure and simple, it's a delight and recommended. My goal at Apocalypse Later Music has always been to cover the entire rock/metal spectrum. I merely wasn't expecting to cover quite this much on just one forty-five minute album. It's a folk album, a folk rock album and, on occasions, a folk metal album. If you like Celtic folk, that's all you need to know.

Tuesday, 5 January 2021

Anna Pest - Dark Arms Reach Skyward with Bone White Fingers (2021)

Country: Canada
Style: Progressive Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Jan 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives

Here's something wild and wonderful. Anna Pest is one woman whose name is not Anna Pest but April Hutchins and she hails from Montreal. She plays all the instruments here and provides the vocals too, with the exception of a few guest appearances. Jason Evans of British death metallers Ingested, sings on one song; Duncan Bentley of the similar South African band Vulvodynia sings on another; and the mysterious d.are sings on a third. A couple of others also provide spoken word.

Initially, I thought it was completely out of control but I didn't want to stop listening. Gradually, the songs started to coalesce into something fascinating and I can't help but wonder about the influences that Hutchins brought to bear. Certainly, they're not all what we might expect because this is appears to be a concept album, based for the most part on the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion. And if that has you picturing kawaii pop music, you couldn't be more wrong. This is... well, I'm really not sure what to call it.

There's certainly death metal on the opener, Nadira, though the bass is low in the mix and the drums are high. There's a dissonance that suggests a lot of industrial too, though you're not going to hear this on a dancefloor any time soon. The rhythms are not all straightforward, so I'd throw progressive metal in there too, a mid-period Voivod feel coming out of slower sections. The vocals are interesting too, because I caught three different voices but it seems that they all belong to Hutchins.

I should also mention that Nadira runs four and a half minutes, a standard sort of length for the Anna Pest album that came out five years ago. That was entitled Forlorn and its eight similarly one worded songs ran pretty consistently from four to six minutes. Not so this time around! This second album is only a little longer overall but it boasts fifteen tracks, seven of which are under two minutes and one that wraps in only forty-one seconds, lengths that suggest grindcore and deliver it too. After Nadira, only Of the Black Moon and the Red Earth exceeds four minutes and that runs over eleven.

I wish I had a clue how the concept plays out, because Thundering Angel won't leave me alone. It's an overt industrial death metal song that seems to fall apart completely about half a minute in but still makes it through another fifty seconds, even with a dramatic shift in tempo from near grindcore to almost funeral doom. It makes no sense at all, but it seems to bring its title to life magnificently. It's one of those songs that might be garbage but also might be genius. I loved it.

Skyward follows it with another dramatic shift, moving from the routine industrial death metal to a sweet pop melody. Twice. This time it only threatens to fall apart completely but never does. This is a dangerous form of extreme metal, in the sense that it feels like it was performed in a junkyard amidst piles of metal so tall that the machine gun drums will surely prompt the whole thing to collapse. It's appropriate because, even though the style here seems futuristic, because I can easily believe that the drummer is a killer robot who's beating the shit out of lesser killer robots instead of drums, it's just as out there on the edge as Hellhammer or Bathory were forty years ago.

In lesser hands, this could have been a truly awful album. The core sound that combines death growls, a schizophrenic bass and that insane killer robot drum machine would outstay its welcome in no time flat if the songwriting wasn't versatile enough to keep things interesting. And I think it does. There's a consistency here at the heart of it all, but also a mad genius flicking a radio dial to see what else can be added into the mix. What are those first two seconds of Pathetic Consummation?

At points, this almost becomes a traditional brutal death metal album but, every time it does, there's something new to wake us up from that dream. It might be a military call to arms or a catchy alt rock bridge or a bit of electronic manipulation, maybe even the band who booked the studio space before Hutchins being fed through a woodchipper as she records her next song. Whatever you can say about this, and surely a lot of people will absolutely hate it, not one of you can call it boring.

I should talk about that long song. It's surely the most calculated piece of music here, emphatically a prog metal epic. There are fast sections, slow sections and slower sections, getting downright doomy on occasion. There are clean vocals as well as harsh ones, and there's a gloriously prowling bass that's often a replacement for guitars that are so downtuned they sometimes vanish entirely, only to show back up with emphasis. Yet this song never feels long, even after so many short numbers before it; it lasts a couple minutes longer than the previous five songs put together and arguably does a lot more.

This certainly isn't going to be for everyone, but it's a fantastic reminder that extreme metal can play just as progressively as folk, rock or regular heavy metal.

Twister - Cursed & Corrected (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Alternative/Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 13 Nov 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | YouTube

The New Wave of Classic Rock continues on unabated and the admins of the Facebook group with that name have posted their top thirty for the year. I've reviewed the top three and six of the top ten but I seem to have missed most of the rest. Those Damn Crows topped that chart with Massive Wagons and Collateral behind them, making Twister the top band I haven't listened to yet, so it's time to catch up with them and their debut album that's been five years in the making.

Twister have an interesting sound for a NWoCR band, because it's difficult to figure out their primary influences. To me, they sound like an alternative rock band like Third Eye Blind moving into hard rock territory without necessarily having the expected bedrock to build the traditional sound from. Sure, I caught some Thin Lizzy here and there and they play well alongside the other NWoCR bands, but they don't sound like any of them to me.

Young & Affected isn't light years away from Massive Wagons when it gets to a punky hard rock punch of a chorus, but the song has to get there and I'm taken aback by the verses because, while the drums and vocals do what's expected, the guitars don't. There's no driving riff and the chiming harmonies in there behind the vocal reminds me not of Zeppelin or Sabbath but West African kora music and, given everything else, I don't buy into that being a deliberate influence, even if it keeps showing up, like on Trees and Wild & Lonely. Does that come from Third Eye Blind's autoharp or Blind Melon's melodious guitar?

To my ears, which are admittedly not well versed in alternative rock, it sounds just like they're merely putting the building blocks of rock music together in ways that I don't quite expect. That often works really well. As I get used to this album, and it is taking its time to sink in, however enjoyable it plays on a first listen, it's always the guitars keeping me on the hop.

Stevie Stoker's vocals aren't unusual; he's a solid front man and his voice does exactly what this band needs, but he doesn't show off at any point and it isn't the the style of voice that's going to win a TV talent show. He's here to be part of a band, not to steal the limelight from them. Jack Corbett is just as reliable on drums and he mixes up his rhythms in interesting ways. I'm mostly hearing Ryan Lee's bass when the band ramp up to a chorus and he does the job too.

There are two guitars here, one played by Stoker and the other by Jake Grimes. I don't know how they divvy up lead and rhythm or who's soloing where, but they always catch the ear, as much for me as the hook-laden choruses. Every time I think I've figured out what they're doing and why, they change it to something else. There's a bit of pop punk here, some mainstream band like U2 over there and always a wildcard thrown in to keep it interesting. If that sounds like I'm getting frustrated, I'm not. It's just a grower of an album, so a couple of listens through thus far aren't doing it justice.

It certainly isn't as immediate for me as some of the other albums on that top thirty list. Bands such as Those Damn Crows, Blackwater Conspiracy and even Ryders Creed grabbed me immediately, even if the latter also grew considerably on repeat listens. This sounds good from the outset but it sounds a little disposable too. The more I listened, the more that feeling faded away, leaving just good music. A couple of times through, this is a solid 7/10 and I think it may gain another point with a few more.

Monday, 4 January 2021

Mark Haze - Authentic (2021)

Country: South Africa
Style: Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Jan 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

From right here in Phoenix, let's travel somewhere far away for my second album today. Mark Haze is a singer in Cape Town, South Africa who seems to be well known over there, enough to be a regular on daytime television. Part of that is because he's been around for a while: his band, 12th Avenue put out four albums, got extensive radio airplay and supported Seether on their Homecoming Tour. Part of it is that he was the runner up on Idols, the South African edition of Pop Idol, in 2011. This looks like at least his fifth album since then, though some of those are covers albums.

I believe this one is all originals and it sounds good to me. It's very fresh and upbeat, mixing in funk, pop, blues and other styles into a rock framework. It's easy to see how he did well on Idols singing not only songs by Aerosmith, Queen and Journey but others by Bruno Mars, Lady Gaga and Marvin Gaye. The shortest song, Can't Forgive You, runs just shy of three minutes, while the longest is under five, a clear decision to make them all viable for radio play.

That's Walk on the Water, which is a strong opener. It's a rocker, albeit one that seems written for the female voice, and it steams along nicely with catchy verses and an even catchier chorus. Monkey isn't a lot shorter and it's even catchier, working with a funky Lenny Kravitz sort of vibe. Anjee & Me ups that bar once more, sounding like a Rick Springfield ditty but with a chorus borrowed from the Backstreet Boys, right down to an infectious "do do do do do" refrain. This is such a bouncy song that it's rather hard not bouncing along with it.

What gets me is that I just referenced the Backstreet Boys in that last paragraph with positive intent. Anjee & Me includes what they do well without bringing in any of the things that make me cringe and there are plenty of those. I'm less sure about Starchild, a far more overt pop song that dips much too deeply into modern day R&B for my tastes, even if I quite dig the drums when they get going and the rock guitar too. Haze has a habit of crafting catchy pop songs then rocking them up with a guitar.

I tend to prefer the soft rock songs like the brass-infused Hearts on Fire and the prowling Faking Heaven to the poppier numbers like Starchild and ILYSB (I Love You So Bad), but Haze is just as good at both. Frankly, it may be the songs that do both at once, like Can't Forgive You and Monster, not to forget Monkey, that are the real highlights on this album. I can imagine quite a few of these songs showing up in episodes of TV shows but Monster may be the most overt candidate for that with its dynamics, groove and lyrics.

Whether I like all these songs or not, what impresses me is how seamlessly Haze can shift in intensity. Losing My Mind is a real rocker, fighting with Walk on the Water to be the most intense song (which on this album translates to the heaviest Bryan Adams gets), but it rolls into Star, with its electronica and almost new wave groove. And yet it feels totally natural. Perhaps the linking factor between the catchy pop ditties and the tougher rockers is that all of them feel like they could be sung on a talent show. It doesn't matter if a song is soft or hard, it's accessible to a wide television audience.

Spirit Adrift - Enlightened in Eternity (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy/Doom Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 16 Oct 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives

As with the past couple of years, I'll spend January alternating a new 2021 release with an album from 2020 that I should have got round to but didn't. I'll kick that off with the fourth Spirit Adrift, which is showing up on a bunch of best of year lists, just as their previous effort, Divided by Darkness, did last time around. I reviewed that in January 2020 as a catch up, so I should clearly pay attention in 2021 to catch the next album when it comes out.

The band, which is primarily Phoenix's own Nate Garrett on everything except drums, the territory of Marcus Bryant, used to play doom metal but had moved almost entirely to a more traditional heavy metal style by the last album. Initially, this follows suit, with clean vocals, fast and lively guitars and a reliable beat on the opener, Ride into the Light. It's imaginative as well, being both progressive and commercial, accessible and deep, recognisably Spirit Adrift but wearing its influences on its sleeve.

The second song, however, Astral Levitation, highlights that doom heritage. It's still too upbeat to be truly called doom but it definitely plays more in a Black Sabbath style, especially with strong Heaven and Hell era riffs, than the Iron Maiden or Judas Priest styles I'm more used to from Spirit Adrift. The vibe was so overt that it was surprising to not hear Ronnie James Dio's voice kick in. Now, the solos in the middle of the song are definitely Maiden rather than Sabbath, but the push to doom strengthens as the album runs on, meaning that the further you get through it, the doomier it gets.

Cosmic Conquest isn't doomy, the exquisitely catchy initial riff rising not falling and the drums perky enough to work for a Billy Idol song, but the vocals obviously come from the Ozzy school. Screaming from Beyond kicks off like an AC/DC song but moves back to Sabbath and ends in neat doomy fashion. Harmony of the Spheres barrels out of the gate like it has somewhere else to be and urgently at that, like high energy power metal, but it settles into a doomier groove, the music almost Blizzard of Ozz-era Ozzy with an ever-eager lead guitarist. Battle High is old school American doom, but with perkier guitarwork.

The doomiest this gets, though, is the final track, an epic at almost eleven minutes called Reunited in the Void. It opens at half the speed of anything thus far, the first twenty-five seconds being a building guitar note, and it really milks that. There's a real aching in this, a stubbornness driven by keyboards and riffs, but, with heroic effort, it draws itself up out of the morass and takes it home in style. It's an excellent example of just how far Spirit Adrift have moved stylistically, because it's hard to reconcile a song like this with a song like Ride into the Light. They seem like the product of different bands.

I like this album, but I don't like it as much as the last one. Much of what it does right is what Divided by Darkness did right. Everything is instantly enjoyable, for one, and the guitarwork is glorious, from the riffs to the solos via all sorts of little touches here and there. Individually, the songs are all good and I enjoy the variety with them, like the way Harmony of the Spheres slows down and Stronger Than Your Pain speeds up at points. However, while I like the songs individually, they don't sit particularly well together in the form of this album, especially because the vocal style changes so much.

Rather than showcase a variety of styles as a declaration of how versatile this band has got, it feels as if Garrett is having second thoughts about the direction he's taken Spirit Adrift. Divided by Darkness sounded united in approach, while Enlighted in Eternity doesn't sound that enlightened.

Now, there are options here. Garrett could return to doom and the band would sound great, as indeed they do on Reunited in the Void. He could ditch the doom entirely and the band would also sound great, as they do on Ride into the Light. Or he could combine the two like he does on Astral Levitation and arguably sound even better. But choose one of those options, not all three.