Monday, 16 August 2021

Belle Morte - Crime of Passion (2021)

Country: Belarus
Style: Symphonic Gothic Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 25 Jun 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | VK | YouTube

It seems that Belle Morte isn't only the name of a symphonic gothic metal band from Minsk, it's also the stage name of its lead singer, who writes the lyrics and music too. Now, she certainly isn't the only musician here, because My Little Demon is a duet with a male voice, but I can't find anything to detail who else is here. Metal Archives only lists Belle herself, but she's not alone in the band photo. Looking at the Belle Morte website, I find pictures of two people, five people and six people, along with a note that she's collaborated with the Norwegian melodic death metal band Addendum, which is a one man project. So, I have no idea who's on this, but I'm guessing that it's the lady known as Belle Morte and a gentleman called Priest who is also Addendum.

From that rich cello and flute in the introductory piece, we know that this is going to be dramatic. Yes, it has a very similar sweeping refrain to Adele's theme for Skyfall, but it rolls neatly into the opening song proper, Who are You, which is at once heavy and delicate, that neat balancing act that's up there with my primary reasons for listening to gothic metal. It's a good opener and If Only You Knew isn't a bad follow up, a little more modern and a little more industrial, but To Get Her is easily the standout here and Belle clearly knows that because there's an acoustic version of it included at the end of the album.

Circumstances have led to me listening to this over and over for a couple of weeks, as I get other work done that's prevented me knocking album reviews out, and, every single time I enjoy this album just a little more, but To Get Her always stands out from everything else. Mostly it's the vocal line, but it's a peach of a track from an instrumental standpoint too. It's notable to me that it's just as effective in a bonus acoustic form, something that rarely happens. The piano and violin stand out nicely in this take and a male counterpart behind Belle's voice works too.

I should add that other songs do get close, especially in the middle of the album. I love how the music escalates at the beginning of Beauty and the Beast and that whole song has a wonderful flow to it. My Broken Things is an elegant dance of a track. It felt strange sitting still in a chair, because it felt like I was being whirled around a dancefloor at a gothic ball, a memorable experience given a few shifts in tempo. Beauty Meant to Kill plays out like a mediaeval folk song. Also, the closer, My Legacy, may well be the catchiest number here, just to take us home right.

I liked this on a first listen, but it didn't really pop for me until a second time through. Over two more weeks, it's improved a little more without becoming an undying favourite. However, I can't underline enough how rare it is for me to be able to listen to an album, any album, this much without it tiring on me at some point. This works as an album to dive into and actively explore, but it also works in passive mode, as background. That's another reason it took me so long to write this one up, because it turned into an old friend and it's always hard to stay objective at that point. Let's just say it's one of the good ones, whoever's playing on it.

Friday, 16 July 2021

Styx - Crash of the Crown (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 18 Jun 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

"We will not give in," sing however many vocalists Styx have harmonising on the opener, The Fight of Our Lives, and this album feels like they mean it. I knew Styx were still going, because I saw them live at a corporate event I was working back in 2005, right after they released Big Bang Theory, which was a covers album. However, I hadn't noticed any further studio output from them since until now. A dozen years on, they did release a concept album called The Mission and I'm not convinced that this, which is their seventeenth studio release, isn't another one.

Certainly it feels like one, even if I couldn't follow anything more than a vague theme. I found myself focusing far more on the melodies than the words they carry, and the general pomp behind the music. The fact that a song like Hold Back the Darkness is bookended by sound effects, like it's a visual piece, and that it's followed by Winston Churchill's recognisable voice in samples on Save Us from Ourselves, helps that epic feel. The former has a Pink Floyd feel to it too, which doesn't stop us thinking concept.

I've read that their chief influence was the Beatles this time out, the approach being to conjure up an album like Abbey Road where every song was complete in itself and didn't repeat anything, but which felt as a whole like a single entity. The Beatles weren't my initial thought, though they certainly leap to mind quickly on songs like Our Wonderful Lives, not only because of the vocal melodies but through a neat use of brass. Mostly the styles here are more rock than pop and they're often reminiscent of an early Queen album, but I think that they nailed their Abbey Road idea. The more I listen to it, the more I hear the Beatles, especially in the melodies and especially because Styx have more than one lead vocalist too.

This isn't as varied as something like Sheer Heart Attack (then again, what is?) but a neatly consistent variety lends it an almost ironic coherence. Oddly, for an album that's riddled through with old school prog, albeit commercial prog, everything is notably short. The album only runs a mere whisker over 43 minutes but it contains fifteen songs, the longest reaching exactly four minutes; the shortest doesn't even reach half a minute.

That longest song is Common Ground and it does some serious building, but it's the title track that I'd call the most epic here. It's also the most Queen of all these songs, albeit with an overt Styx keyboard solo. Let's not forget that Styx have been around for a very long time indeed. By the time they got to The Grand Illusion in 1977, their first multi-platinum album, they had already put out six others, three by the end of 1973, by which point Queen only had one. It's easy to see how the two bands fed ideas to each other back then, before either was truly famous.

As you might expect from everything I've said thus far, this feels less like a new Styx album and more like an old one that we merely haven't heard before. It's primarily the crisp production that's holding me back from wondering if I really did listen to this back in the mid eighties when I was catching up on a couple of decades of music that I'd suddenly stumbled onto. However, there some modern sounds in here too. Long Live the King kicks off with an almost Tool-like riff and Coming Out the Other Side may begin with a sitar, like it's the Summer of Love, but it moves quickly into a more modern beat.

I should probably emphasise here that I like how this sounds like an old album that's just new to me. It feels vibrant and lively, as if it was made by a young Styx, even though guitarist Tommy Shaw joined as long ago as 1975 and both bassist Chuck Panozzo and guitarist James Young both have three years on him with the band. Drummer Todd Sucherman and keyboard player Ricky Phillips didn't show up until the nineties but have still been in Styx since the prior millennium. Ricky Phillips, the full time bassist (Panozzo is a part timer nowadays and only played here on Our Wonderful Lives and Lost at Sea) joined in 2003, leaving Will Evankovich, guitarist and soundscape creator as a very new fish, brought on in 2021.

At the end of the day, if you like Styx, you ought to like this, and if you like really old Styx, you may well like it even more.

Sorcières - Empoisonné (2021)

Country: France
Style: Black/Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 21 Jun 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

It took me a few songs to get into this album, which is the debut full length from the French black/folk metallers Sorcières after a 2019 EP, but I got there eventually and it continues to grow on me. I've had it on repeat for a few days now to try to figure out what my problems with it were.

One is that they launch into action with Anciennes lueurs as if they're a full on black metal band but it isn't true. They're billed as black/folk metal and the folk metal aspect gets more important as it runs on, starting close to the end of this opener. Oddly, it became a folk metal album for me but eventually came back to being more of a black metal album. That makes it more and more interesting over time.

A side point here is that Anciennes lueurs slows down considerably over its running time until there's almost as much doom as black and it feels jarring. Once we get used to it, it sounds great but it took a while and the doom constantly shapes everything, becoming the most important factor to me in the Sorcières sound.

Certainly it's there on the second song too, L'auberge des corps perdus, and it's even more awkward a presence there because this is a folk metal song that plays with black rather than a black metal song that plays with folk. Folk metal, whatever country it's from and whatever cultural heritage it trawls in, is at heart a lively genre, rooted in dances and drinking songs. Adding a doomy sense of darkness to it deepens the sound but it also has the side effect of depressing that lively feel.

During my first few listens, I thought those two songs played out too mechanically, all the cool things that are going on in them outweighed by a lack of energy that suggested that the band were playing rather than performing, but gradually I realised that isn't fair at all. It's that odd layer of doom that's tamping down the energy and the life shows back up whenever the doom is turned down, like on the title track which feels far more alive. The drums get there first and the rest of the band join in, right down to a violin that's much more lively than it was one the previous track.

Les yeux verts keeps that up, getting downright sassy at points, even if they never truly cut loose and fly free. What could have been a gypsy punk sort of feel, playful and wild, becomes more classical, the composition fascinating but carefully orchestrated. And it's all because of that doom layer that never quite goes away, which is why this sometimes seems better to listen to as impressive music than to get up and dance with stein a-sloshin' as a spiritual force that moves my bones. Les yeux verts is still one of my favourite songs here, but I'm listening to it rather than moving to it.

Technically, Sorcières have everything they need and they feel bigger than the five piece they seem to be. I could have sworn there were two guitars here but there's apparently just one, that of Thibaut Marlard. The bass and drums show up courtesy of David Hubert and Antoine Ricci. Marie Derancourt provides the violin, as often plucked, I believe, as bowed, which is unusual and fascinating. And Pierre Alain Devaux adds a harsh voice to the mix, which isn't as bleak as you might expect for a band with at least one foot in black metal. It's often rather warm, more of a death growl to my thinking but with a black edge.

I've reviewed black/folk metal at Apocalypse Later before, but this feels different. It's nothing at all like Saor, because this doesn't go for atmosphere; like Burden of Ymir, because it blends the genres a lot more than highlighting each separately; or like Vengeful Spectre, who are far more extreme with both their black and folk elements. Again, it's that extra doom layer which ends up shaping it; even if it's a smaller part of the Sorcières sound, it turns out to be the pivotal one, whether the song is more black, such as Ordalie, or more folk, like Dans ces eaux.

So, after three days of listening to this album, I've got used to its intriguing mix and I like it a lot, but I took a while to come around to it. What's perhaps most important is that I wanted to understand this. Usually, if I don't get an album after a couple of listens, I know that it's not for me. This one always felt like it was my sort of album and it is, but I had to work with it. Now I need to figure out how unique the plucking approach Derancourt has to her violin really is. It really works here but I can't think of other examples where violinists do that in metal, at least to this degree.

Thursday, 15 July 2021

Within Temptation - Shed My Skin (2021)

Country: The Netherlands
Style: Symphonic Metal
Rating: 5/10
Release Date: 25 Jun 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Pinterest | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I was surprised by how much I liked Within Temptation's most recent album, Resist. I know the band as a symphonic gothic metal outfit, but there wasn't much of that on offer in 2019 with songs owing a lot more to modern western pop music, merely with a heavier, more bombastic industrial beat behind it. I would say that this EP continues that musical shift but the songs aren't as interesting as highlights on that album like Endless War or Holy Ground. There's less dynamic play on offer, Sharon den Adel is less adventurous and the songs just feel more sedate. The best thing about it is the cover art.

Shed My Skin is the best of the three songs here, the other two being the band's previous two singles, The Purge and Entertain You. Shed My Skin is lively and driven by its vocals and a Paradise Lost-esque shift in its chorus. As the cover suggests, this song is a collaboration with the German metalcore band Annisokay, but it's not that metalcore in its sound. The industrial beat from Resist is still here but the drums are cleaner, almost serving as the lead instrument. The others are a little buried, except for a resonant metalcore section early in the second half that's actually pretty cool.

I'm far less fond of the other two songs, though Entertain You has its moments. It has a more stripped down and bass heavy sound when it starts, but it drops into a pop song in the diva style. Googling the song to find out that the male voice belongs to Daniel Gibson, I stumbled on an astute comment about den Adel needing to pull a Gwen Stefani and go full on pop diva. I can see that option and this is a song that sits firmly in between that and the symphonic metal that the band used to play.

What I like about Entertain You is even more applicable to Shed My Skin and what I don't like about it is even more applicable to The Purge. With the exception of the admirably clean drums and the poppy vocals, which feature that Irish lilt I noted on Resist a couple of years ago, it feels like everything else is blended into just a tone. It doesn't matter what any of the other instruments are doing and they're doing nothing more than a set of sustained notes on the keyboards would provide.

These three songs are pretty short, running only about a dozen minutes, so the band padded out the running time to EP length by adding instrumental versions of the songs. That's an odd move because, without the vocals, there's not a lot here. I find myself listening to a lot of instrumental albums lately with a set of drawn out twelve minute jams, but the twelve minutes here feel drawn out to double that because there's very little to hold our interest.

I'd give Shed My Skin a 6/10 on its own because it's enjoyable enough, even if it isn't up to the standard of Resist. However, the other tracks aren't up to the standard and the instrumentals drag it all down, so I'll have to drop to a 5/10 for the EP as a whole. That's quite the drop from a highly recommended 8 for Resist only two years ago. Hopefully the next album will be more interesting.

Ison - Aurora (2021)

Country: Sweden
Style: Post-Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 25 Jun 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

Continuing my exploration of post-rock, here's a whole bunch more people I haven't come across until now. Well mostly. Ison used to be a duo, combining the multi-instrumental talents of Daniel Änghede and the vocal talents of Heike Langhans on three prior albums. Änghede used to be in Crippled Black Phoenix, but wasn't last year when I chose their new album Ellengæst as my November 2020 Album of the Month. Langhans still sings for Draconian and was on their 2020 album, Under a Godless Veil, but she's no longer part of Ison, thus turning it into a solo project with guest vocalists. There are eight of them, each of them a female vocalist who's entirely new to me, even the one who's based right here in Tempe, Arizona.

What fascinates me is how so many of these musicians work in metal subgenres, given that this isn't a metal album. Crippled Black Phoenix are inveterate genre hoppers whose sound includes metal, while Draconian play gothic doom. Cammie Gilbert, from Texas, fronts prog metal band Oceans of Slumber. Gogo Melone, from Greece, sings for Aeonian Sorrow, who play a brand of funeral doom. Carline van Roos is the Belgian vocalist for French atmospheric doom band Lethian Dreams. Each of these three bands had releases out last year that I didn't know to check out. I won't make that mistake again.

This album is going to serve as a real rabbit hole for me, because all these singers are fascinating and prompt me to check out their other work, not just those above who usually sing metal. Lisa Cuthbert, who's Irish but based in Berlin, has been a backing vocalist for the Sisters of Mercy and has supported Marillion on tour. Sylvaine, who's Norwegian, has supported Alcest in South America. Tara VanFlower performs with Lycia, a darkwave outfit right here in Arizona. Vila is Finnish and has a bunch of albums out solo. That leaves circle&wind, which is the stage name of German artist Viola Petsch. I have a heck of a lot of material to explore.

But let's start with this. Vila is up first on a song called Jupiter and it sets the stage wonderfully. It's a chill piece from the outset, gentle synths and ambience suggesting that not only isn't this metal, it's a long way from rock too. However, it builds over its nine and a half minutes, a guitar showing up after a couple of them and a real escalation kicking in around halfway. Vila may be from Finland but she has a Celtic sound here, not singing so much as soaring majestically above the instrumentation. She does sing words but I'm not sure how often, because it really doesn't matter. We're not listening to a story, she's lending another instrument to those Änghede plays and that trend holds throughout the album.

Waves follows Jupiter a little too closely, right down to the five minute escalation and the nine minute build. Cammie Gilbert has a serious voice that's about three times bigger than she is, but she keeps it notably restrained during the first half, gradually building it during the second. Everything here feels like it ties to intensity play, but it's all done on both a grand scale and with incredible patience. This is not an album that's willing to indulge immediate need but it delivers inexorably in its own time, like it provides us with the connection to the universe that the sample in Retrograde promises to each of us.

The shortest piece here is just under seven minutes and the longest almost reaches twelve. The latter is Meridian, with an excellent vocal from Sylvaine, and it may be the most patient of them all. It's not flash at any point but it's delightful throughout. It's one of my favourites, that's for sure, though it's pipped by Celestial, which adds back intensity play, along with a subtly more overt delivery from Gogo Malone. In a similar way, circle&wind pierces through the music a little more with her soaring parts.

All these singers are lending their vocal instruments, even those far enough above the music that we can catch lyrics. I've listened through in entirety a few times now and I haven't once been able to focus on any of the words; the most obvious come from what I presume is are a variety of samples from an entirely science fictional self improvement guide but they're bland in their generic message. It's easy to tell Cammie Gilbert from Sylvaine and both from Vila, for instance, if we pay attention, but all their approaches are similar and, over the generous seventy minutes this album runs, they merge into one voice providing variations on an ethereal theme.

And that's where I keep ending up, a consistent album created by one man who sets the tone and lets eight intriguingly talented women interpret it without too much divergence. It's elegant and epochal and timeless and beautiful and it improves the quality of the day. Can that be a bad thing?

Wednesday, 14 July 2021

Buckcherry - Hellbound (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 25 Jun 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

Buckcherry are one of those reliable modern day rock bands whose albums are almost guaranteed to be worth listening to. This one certainly is. The question becomes less about whether it's good or not and more about how good it is. This one's good and I've enjoyed my way through it a few times but I'd be wary about calling it great. I think I need to wait to see if any of these songs are playing in my head when I wake up a few days from now. If they are, then that'll elevate this in my esteem.

I think the best candidate for that right now is Gun, because it has a unusual and memorable chorus, a simple but very sassy thing that I could imagine Steven Tyler singing. No More Lies is another decent possible, because it adds a neat groove that's as much Led Zeppelin as it is Aerosmith, combining a good old fashioned blues rock base during the verses, that would be more reminiscent of the Stones had Todd delivered a less party vocal, with a reggae guitar that comes out to play during the bridge, reminding very much of D'yer Mak'er.

There's certainly more here than just catchy rock songs. 54321 and So Hott open things up in a garage rock vein, stripped down and immediate, while Hellbound smooths things up and Gun sasses them up. After the reggae of No More Lies, Here I Come goes back to basics but with even more of a punky sort of alternative vibe. Junk goes back to basics in a different direction, bringing AC/DC into that alt rock attitude, as well as an Extreme-esque funk angle too. Wasting No More Time shifts towards southern rock.

The most interesting song to me is the last one, Barricade, because it feels more unusual and it would be far from fair for me to label it as simply as everything I did in the prior paragraph. It's constructed carefully and with definite intent but it feels loose, right down to the drums of Francis Ruiz not doing what we expect them to do. I like this one a lot, more than anything else here except those potential earworms, Gun and No More Lies. However, there's nothing I don't like.

The only time I was disappointed, it wasn't the fault of the band in the slightest. That's The Way, which is a decent enough ballad, even if it doesn't take hold emotionally the way I think they want it to. The problem I have is that Josh Todd, who attempts to comes across as sympathetic and honest, reminds a lot in this approach of Aussie pianist and comedian Tim Minchin, so I'm expecting clever lyrics, humour and misdirection, none of which this song intends to deliver. So, that's not a favourite track for me, but it might be for you because you might not have heard Tim Minchin yet, you poor soul.

So, this was good stuff immediately and it remains good stuff after a few listens. I'm interested in if it will grow over the next few days. Watch this space. In the meantime, if you like Buckcherry, you'll like this.

Dakat Doomia - A Hail from the End (2021)

Country: Israel
Style: Doom Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 30 Jun 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

One of the genre boundaries that I have the most trouble with is the one that lies between doom and sludge metal. It's a thin boundary but it often seems like the two genres approach it from completely different directions. Doom is traditional metal that's been slowed down, often considerably. Sludge is hardcore punk that's been rocked up but ends up in a similar place. It's dirtier, more dissonant and, in many instances, less elegant. Stoner metal also comes into play on the boundary between them, often by adding a psychedelic element, though that's more common with doom than sludge.

I mention all this because Dakat Doomia, who hail from Israel, have pitched their tent exactly on that boundary and it makes their sound fascinating. I get the impression, which may be completely wrong, that the band are more comfortable with doom and their go to texture is atmospheric and doomy, but they have wider tastes and they often trawl in sludge and psych for effect. The sludge mostly shows up in Yahav Zukin's guitarwork when there's a need for emphasis. Maor Movsovich's harsher vocals add a further level of darkness and dirt, but he's closer to a death growl than a hardcore shout.

I believe this is technically listed as an EP but, at half an hour, it's longer than some entire albums that I've reviewed lately and it kicks off with its longest song, a complex piece called Paranoia. At different points, it calms down and heavies up on a sort of wave, but it also shifts from an elegant doom sound, à la Candlemass, to a faster, more edgy one with more of a Trouble feel to it. The harsher vocals make it darker, though I should add that Movsovich doesn't stay harsh throughout. It's an interesting song.

And the album only gets more interesting from there. The approach taken in Paranoia of doom with a little sludge only builds with Meteor, but this one adds in a psychedelic edge too through clean vocals and more mellow guitar. And then, two and a half minutes in, it really starts rocking with a raw riff to grab our attention and a gorgeous pause to cement it in place. Then it finds an example of what is my favourite mode for Dakat Doomia, which is a bouncy riff combined with a wailing solo and that growl over it. It's gorgeous and the similar example halfway through Eternal March is even better.

Eternal March layers on the psych and, almost a minute in, throws in a very sludge guitar just oozing with distortion. This song really grows and may be the best one here. I may well always prefer doom to sludge, but to me this is what sludge was created for. It's elegant and smooth and organic until it has a yen to dirty everything up and wail out the blues. The Voids Call does some of the same thing, a lush psychedelic heavy blues song that's as often dark Hawkwind as it is Black Sabbath.

And that leaves Sight of Death, a seven and a half minute epic with a gloriously creeping atmosphere to kick things off. I wonder if the cover art is meant to illustrate this scene, because it feels cavernous, echoing and dark. It also feels different, because the voice, which I presume is Movsovich's, isn't using English at this point, though he does sing in English throughout. This is more of a spoken word section with a reprise later in the piece and I presume he's conjuring in Hebrew [Note: Maor Movsovich kindly let me know that it's actually in Russian]. Regardless of whoever does it and what language it's in, it's effective.

I like this album and I found that I liked it more the longer it ran. It's good when it's pure doom, or as close as it gets, but the sludge adds to it and the psychedelic stoner edge adds even more. Apart from Eternal March being released as a single, this is their first work since forming in 2018 and I'm keen to hear more.

Tuesday, 13 July 2021

Helloween - Helloween (2021)

Country: Germany
Style: Heavy/Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 18 Jun 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Vimeo | YouTube

I've been a fan of Helloween since I heard Metal Invaders on the Death Metal sampler that Noise put out back in 1984. Hellhammer and Helloween? Hell yeah. And Running Wild too! Whatever happened to Dark Avenger? Anyway, I followed them through Walls of Jericho and the Keeper of the Seven Keys albums, which just kept on getting better and better, but I wasn't as enthused by Pink Bubbles Go Ape, much preferring Heading for Tomorrow, the debut from Gamma Ray, formed by guitarist Kai Hansen when he left Helloween. When singer Michael Kiske left too in 1993, I drifted away and I can't say that I've heard any of the further dozen albums the band has put out.

Until now, that is, and I'm paying attention to this one not just because that's why I set up Apocalypse Later Music to begin with, but because, for the first time since Keeper of the Seven Keys Part II in 1988, both Hansen and Kiske are back in the band. That means two lead vocalists now, because Andi Deris, who replaced Kiske in 1994, is still in the line-up. Hansen sings too, as well as lending his guitar to the fray, alongside Sascha Gerstner, his replacement's replacement, who's been there since 2002, and, of course, founder member Michael Weikath, who never left the band. The prospect of Helloween with a pair of lead vocalists and a three-pronged guitar assault, is irresistible.

I don't believe that this album quite lives up to that set up, but it takes a damn good shot at doing so and its best moments are easily up there with the best they've ever done. Skyfall, the twelve minute epic that closes out the album, is a real peach and there are plenty of highlights before it shows up to take the running time over an hour. I've listened through three times thus far and know that I have to repeat at least as much to fully grasp what's going on here.

Out for the Glory and Fear of the Fallen kick things off as the band means to go on. They hearken back to the band's Keeper of the Seven Keys heyday with high, soaring melodies over speed metal backing. As you might expect from Helloween, there's also a lot of dynamic play going on in both, perhaps even more in Fear of the Fallen than Out for the Glory, which has over seven minutes to explore. It even has a narrative section courtesy of journalist Xavier Russell. "Come now, there's not a moment to waste," he states, and they don't. There's a glorious vocal back and forth midway through the song, the solos are fantastic and the choruses are quintessential Helloween.

Best Time is just as interesting, though it's slower and the verses are oddly often reminiscent of Billy Idol. Angels is slower still and much more introspective, but it ramps up impressively by the end. Rise without Chains kicks back into tempo and Indestructible adds the heaviest riff thus far. There are cool strings on Down in the Dumps. All these songs in the middle of the album are worthy, but none are up to the quality of the first two or, indeed, the last one. They're why this is a 7/10 review instead of 8 or 9 as the bookends deserve.

And to that final song. It's the epic of the album, but it's even more epic if we add in Orbit, which has a track number of its own but is really an interlude between the album and Skyfall, as well as an intro to that final track, so I'm seeing it as over thirteen minutes of glory that any heavy/power metal fan will revel in. Helloween have never really gone away since they were founded in Hamburg in 1983 but they are emphatically back nonetheless and the future is bright, as underlined by the fact that this is their first self-titled release since their excellent debut EP in 1985. "Yesterday is history," they sing on Best Time, "tomorrow is a mystery." I'm looking forward to it.

White Canyon & The 5th Dimension - Spectral Illusion (2021)

Country: Brazil
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 7 May 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

Of all the subgenres that I cover regularly at Apocalypse Later, psychedelic rock surely has to have the broadest sweep. It ranges from extended instrumental stoner metal jams to perky sixties pop ditties or wild pagan ritual. Nepal Death and Mooner are as different from King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard as they are from each other, but they're all pyschedelic rock. Here's a fantastic album from Brazil that feels endearingly unique even though I can put my finger on a bunch of the influences that prompted it.

The title track, for instance, that opens up the album in style, kicks off with Sabbath bells and Spanish chords, then sensuously waltzes into a sixties psych prog song that reminded me of early Pink Floyd. It thinks about Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun early on and Astronomy Domine late. It's dark, but also melodic and unstoppable. It's also submerged in atmosphere, not quite obscured by clouds—ha!—but everything's partially buried in the mix, as if we're somehow watching a TV show in a witch's cauldron and the swirling mist constantly threatens to hide our view.

That's quite the heady mix to kick us off, but Seven Kingdoms is heavier and more urgent. The sound is consistent with what's gone before, but there's a new gothic layer reminiscent of the Sisters of Mercy, albeit just as partially buried as before, except for a riff that almost manages to escape the cauldron at a couple of points. There's some Hawkwind here too, but it's never space rock. What this band take from Hawkwind is their uncanny ability to conjure up a unique sound and let it roll on effortlessly.

Electric Ghost adds an eighties electronic beat and guitars that think about that U2 jangle. There are more Andrew Eldritch style vocals, but they're still subdued. Sensitive Fate makes the female voice I'd caught earlier a lot more prominent. She's singing simultaneously with the male voice but leads it on this one. There's also a solo that reminds of Fleetwood Mac's The Chain in that it emerges out of a big sound but dominates it, searing but patient.

And then there's Endless Sea, which is a gem of a song that crests the nine minute mark. It's glorious from the outset, with more Floydian grandeur, as if they're not playing this in some Minas Gerais back street studio but to a vast audience from a stage that was built a couple of millennia ago. It's music that reaches us the way a haboob reaches us: we can see it coming, but it seems smaller than it is until it suddenly washes over us and we realise the true scale of what's going on. The goth angle is gone here, replaced with an atmospheric post-punk one, a Dead Can Dance sort of vibe.

There are two more songs to come, both of them worthy and Oroboros may be my favourite song here after Endless Sea, but if my raving about the album thus far is leaving you dry, then nothing I can say about those will make any difference at all. This may just not be for you and that's fine. It's definitely for me and I know I'm going to struggle to move on to review another album today. It's not going to be easy letting this run all day on repeat. I'll be listening to this one a lot and not just here in the office but in bed in the dark through headphones.

I have no idea who's in this band or how they divvy up instrumentation, but it seems to be a duo from the town of São Tomé das Letras, which is nestled in the middle of nowhere, seven hours from three of the biggest cities in Brazil. Given that most of the sounds I'm hearing here are British and they sing in English, I have to wonder what's going on in this part of Minas Gerais, given that Varginha isn't too far away and that's home to the excellent Brazilian Celtic rockers Tuatha de Danann. I'd like to know more about White Canyon & The 5th Dimension and if there's some local DJ who's triggering the wild bursts of unusual musical imagination coming out of their state. Answers on the back of a postcard please.

Monday, 12 July 2021

Holosade - Anastasis (2021)

Country: UK
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 28 May 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

While the British thrash scene was never as well known as its equivalents in the Bay Area, New York or even Germany, it was a busy and thriving scene in the late eighties and I remember Holosade well. It's fair to say, I think, that their session for the Friday Rock Show was much better produced than the one album they managed to release back in the day, 1988's Hell House, but I enjoyed it too. However, as so many other bands of that era did, they vanished when grunge took over and that was that.

Well, also like so many other bands of that era, they resurfaced much later, in 2011, and finally got to the point where they were ready to release their second album, no fewer than thirty-three years on from its predecessor. Now, I should explain that this isn't the traditional reunion, where most, if not all, of the heyday line up gets the band back together. The only original member is vocalist Philip de Sade, a powerful frontman who still sings in that late eighties clean and resonant but slightly shouty thrash style. But what matters most is that this is a damn good album.

Not only does it benefit immensely from the serious advances in both modern day production quality and the ready availability of that technology to bands or labels who may not have much money to hurl at that sort of thing, but it benefits from the presence of a pair of fantastic guitarists. They're Adam Ironside and Paul Trotter, who are also the guitarists in a far more recent Philip de Sade thrash band, Armortura, who were founded in 2016 and released one self-titled album in 2018. Needless to say that is now high on my priority list to catch up with.

Nobody here lets the side down, but Ironside and Trotter are surely the stars of this show. Whether a particular song needs them to churn, chug or blister, they're easily up to the task and the best parts of this album are when they just take over and weave their technical magic. De Sade does nothing wrong at all on Ascension from the Waves, for instance, but the guitars take over halfway and I couldn't have been happier.

The same happens on Abandoned on the Gates and that shows up after the fantastic Money to Burn, a song that allows for even more guitarwork because it lasts seven and a half minutes instead of merely four or five like most of these. The other longer song is Detonation to Oblivion, which almost reaches eleven minutes and it knows exactly what to do with them. That running time allows for delicate intro and outro, steady build, neat transitions into new sections, call and response, solo, instrumental part and reprise. This song really knows how to breathe and it's a gem.

Perhaps the best sign is that I'm posting review after listening to the whole album twice and a bunch of the songs a few more times and I don't believe I've even got my teeth into it yet. It feels like it will grow on further listens. That it's a better produced album than Hell House is a gimme. However, it's also a better album period and I'm eager to see where they go from here. Another album soon would be great, certainly before another thirty-three years go by. In the meantime, I wonder how soon I'll add another point to this rating. Welcome back, folks!

Charlie Benante - Silver Linings (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Alternative
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 14 May 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

Those of you who recognise Charlie Benante's name—and I hope that's most of you, given his 38 years and counting as the drummer for Anthrax—will probably be surprised by what's on this, his debut solo album. Sure, it's not surprising that each song was recorded virtually during the COVID pandemic and released initially online as videos, called Quarantine Jams, because everyone and their dog was doing that. However, even with other thrash luminaries joining in, there's nothing remotely thrash here. It's clearly Benante exploring musical territory that he wouldn't be able to explore with Anthrax.

The opening cover of U2's City of Blinding Lights sets the mood perfectly, even though the guests here are thrash legends too: Anthrax's Frank Bello (also Benante's nephew) on bass and Mark Osegueda of Death Angel on lead vocals. It's a mildly alternative rock song, as I'm sure the original was, and that's a style that epitomises much of this album. If I didn't know that Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns were by Mother Love Bone and Teardrop is a Massive Attack cover, I might have assumed they're U2 songs too. The closest this album ever gets to thrash is the early Iron Maiden instrumental Transylvania, which is hardly thrash but it is metal and it's hardly slow either.

I believe that only one of these songs is remotely new, a metal take on Billie Eilish's Bad Guy, which is mostly Benante, I think, because he occasionally contributes guitar here as well as drums. The bass is handled by Ra Diaz of Suicidal Tendencies, the most frequent collaborator here, as he plays on half of the fourteen songs. Benante's girlfriend, Carla Harvey, of the Butcher Babies, who spurred him to do this in the first place, only appears on two songs: Teardrop and a Tom Petty cover, Yer So Bad, with Ra Diaz again.

Benante mostly chose these songs himself and then reached out to whichever musicians he felt would make them interesting, which is how we shift neatly into other genres. There's a brief cover of a piece of music by UK called Presto Vivace and it's out and out prog, which is why technical wizards Jordan Rudess and Alex Skolnick are on it. Rudess is the keyboardist in Dream Theater and Liquid Tension Experiment; of course, Skolnick is still best known for Testament. There's a punk song here, Public Image Ltd's Public Image, so the guests are from bands like Turbonegro and Sum 41. Kiss get two songs, with P. J. Farley from Trixter on vocals. It's neither surprising to find a Run DMC medley here or to find DMC singing on it.

What I like most here is the variety. Going from U2 to Massive Attack to Run DMC in four songs is wild, but eventually getting to UK, Billy Eilish and Living Colour is wilder. Many of the song choices are deep cuts too, which helps. Sure, everyone knows Bad Guy and Rhiannon, which is quite the highlight due to an impressive lead vocal from Jennifer Cella, who's a backing singer for Trans-Siberian Orchestra. But I'm a Kiss fan and I had to dredge to remember All the Way and Mr. Speed, the two choices here. I had no trouble remembering Transylvania, but it's hardly the most famous Iron Maiden song ever written. I'd guess that few people picking up this album will know half the songs on it. That's a good thing. How well they're done is a bonus.

I should wrap by mentioning that these are not all the Quarantine Jams that Benante recorded over the past year. The first of them was YYZ but there's nothing by Rush here. That's partly because he'll be releasing a five track EP on Record Store Day in November that's all Rush covers. After this, I'll happily check that one out too. It's mostly not what you'll expect but it's well worth your attention.

Friday, 9 July 2021

Impaled Nazarene - Eight Headed Serpent (2021)

Country: Finland
Style: Black Metal,Hardcore Punk
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 28 May 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

This ought to be a lucky thirteenth album for Finland's black metal maestros, Impaled Nazarene, and I can't complain about how old school this sounds, but I find myself struggling a little with it. Usually, I'd be totally into something as retro as this, which takes us back to the proto-extreme metal of Bathory and Venom, but with Discharge as a third influence rather than the usual Celtic Frost (though there's an obvious Tom G. Warrior death grunt in Debauchery and Decay), and I won't say that I didn't enjoy this, because I did, but I enjoyed it more as an overall effect than as a set of songs. I kept turning the album up louder and louder and letting its relentless onslaught clean me out.

If I ignore the final track for now, there are a dozen songs here that strut rudely onto stage, do their thing with an obvious middle finger and then stalk back into the wings, in only twenty-seven minutes. Only two of them make it past three minutes and then only just. Human Cesspool wraps up in under a minute and four others fail to reach two. They're all very consistent in approach, enough that the first three take a few listens to distinguish themselves, other than the odd intro to Goat of Mendes, which I assume has to be a sample from a Nollywood religious horror movie.

The Nonconformists only changes things up in the sense that it underlines the punk influences, power chords taking over from fast riffing, as otherwise it has much the same effect. How much you'll enjoy this album may well come down to what you feel about variety, because there really isn't any here to be found and I don't know whether you, yes you, care about that or not. If you're into the punky proto-black metal sound that Impaled Nazarene have moved into, then you'll love this. I can only imagine it live, because the pit ought to be utterly alive. The band don't slow down to let us take a breath. They just kick in at high speed and stay there until we're either exhausted or revitalised.

In this, Eight Headed Serpent reminds me of the latest Cannibal Corpse album. I gave that a 7/10, as it did exactly what the band do best in a way that their fans would love. However, I couldn't avoid saying that it did absolutely nothing else. Every song was fast and technical and kicked our asses. The end. If I recall correctly, I listened to that album three or four times and still couldn't tell any of its songs from any of its other songs. This plays in a different extreme style and I could tell these songs apart, but the overall result isn't that different.

Now, I dig this style a bit more than I do that of Cannibal Corpse, so I'm far more likely to come back to this album than Violence Unimagined, but I'd have trouble picking out one song to, say, program into a radio show playlist. Maybe The Noncomformists is a little looser. Maybe Debauchery and Decay is a bit more over the top. Maybe Unholy Necromancy is both the most repetitive and the song with the most interesting range of vocals, from guttural grindcore to demon chorus. But I'd do just as well throwing a dart at the back cover and checking which song it skewered.

And, with the first dozen songs covered, then there's Foucault Pendulum to wrap up the album with a completely different approach. This one's five minutes long, so a true epic for Eight Headed Serpent, over double the length of two thirds of the other songs. It's also as slow as the rest are fast, taking an unlikely sidestep into doom metal, albeit without changing the vocal style at all. It comes utterly out of nowhere and I rather like it, with its cavernous power chords and playful bass fills, but it seems like it crept in from a different album during a strange studio mix-up.

It has to be a deliberate attempt at contrast, like Nick Cave writing nine songs about murder and then adding a cover of Bob Dylan's Death is Not the End to wrap them up. I can't see a reason for it, but it's a clear demonstration that a band that does almost exactly the same thing over and over for a dozen songs can do something different. Maybe that's all it is, an artistic statement to say, yeah, everything here is almost indistinguishable but that's only because we want it to be. And here's the exception to prove the rule.

Helium Station - Sanctuary (2021)

Country: France
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 21 May 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | YouTube

Here's an interesting album from Toulouse, not least because it's oddly schizophrenic. Helium Station is the one man project of multi-instrumentalist Fabrice Lacourt, who wrote everything on this and an earlier album, Flesh and Bone, and played all the instruments except the drums, those being the work of Benjamin Marmier. He then brought in a variety of guest vocalists to sing on songs I assume he felt fit their particular styles.

I haven't heard Flesh and Bone, but it seems notable that the songs were sung by two ladies, Marjorie Alias or Natacha Kanga, with a male vocal showing up only on the closer. This time out, there are five voices divvying up eleven songs and three of them are male, though that's not why it's schizophrenic. It's schizophrenic because Lacourt shifts into a completely different mindset when Kanga is singing to when anyone else is, enough that Helium Station becomes a different "band" entirely.

For the most part, he's a prog rocker. Sometimes, as on the opening pair of songs, he's inventive and lively, both in the way he structured his songs and in how he performed on them, especially on guitar. Sometimes he's notably intricate, clearly relishing the technical difficulty of a piece, and sometimes he's more sedate. Sometimes he heavies up a bit, crossing a boundary into metal, and sometimes he softens up a little, shifting towards melodic rock. However, he's most often playing some form of prog, whether it's a pure Yes or Mike Oldfield style or a more commercial Styx or Alan Parsons Project one.

Which form mostly depends on who's singing. Alias prompts him to get playful and intricate, which he does all the more on songs with Alexis Dimitriou up front. When Yann Rousseau or Yann Fabié step up to the mike, he lets the warmth of their voices drive the songs, whether he's playing heavier or softer behind them. My favourites are all more playful songs, as epitomised by the first two.

Simple Life is a tease of a piece, with Lacourt's fingers as fast here as anything on the album. Praying for Me grows on me every time I hear it but I believe Alias's voice is perfect for Simple Life and I enjoyed her ethnic section at the heart of the song greatly. In many ways, One Night Pain follows in this one's footsteps, even though it switches to male vocals, courtesy of Dimitriou. He's the most frequent voice here, singing four songs, and I would call this one out as the best, not least because, halfway through the piece, he shifts register, from his regular voice to something more akin to Jon Anderson, and it's like we're listening to someone else.

There's a lot to say about the prog album that Lacourt shares amongst four vocalists, but I'll point out that Cursed Writer is up there for me with the first two songs as its highlights and be done, because I want to talk about the completely separate EP that is bizarrely spread out betwixt the album.

This features the four songs led by Natacha Kanga, which aren't prog or even rock in the slightest and so feel rather out of place alongside the other songs, but which are also the other three highlights for me. Heaven's in Your Eyes shifts the album from intricate prog to patient blues. It's a really good song but it's an anomaly until we get to Be Yourself seven songs in and another wild shift to old school funk, even disco, and, while there's a proggy riff and some proggy soloing, this feels just as out of place on a prog album as a blues number.

If she's bluesy on her first song and funky on her second, Kanga digs deep into world music for a third, the album's closer, Piece of Mind, which is up there with Simple Life for me, even though it's different in almost every way. This one feels west African through and through, not just in Kanga's effortlessly powerful voice but the warm, cheerful guitar and the ethnic rhythms too. It's really hard not to get up and dance to this one but I mostly bounced in my chair a lot. Not moving didn't seem to be an option.

I'm a big fan of versatility and I applaud how varied this album gets, but it really does seem like there are two completely different things going on and I wonder how audiences will receive it. I enjoyed the two styles but felt like I ought to be listening to them separately. Give me a prog album with Alias and Dimitriou and whoever else. And definitely give me that roots album with Natacha Kanga. But maybe don't give them to me at the same time.

Thursday, 8 July 2021

Tanzwut - Die Tanzwut kehrt zurück (2021)

Country: Germany
Style: NDH/Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 28 May 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

The more I explore the joyous genre of folk metal, the more I learn how some countries take it in very different directions. Case in point: the Germans, who mix it with entirely home grown genres such as the medieval folk of Corvus Corax, the medieval metal of In Extremo and the NDH of Rammstein and Oomph!, which often leads it into industrial territory too. Tanzwut grew out of Corvus Corax, initially being a sort of side project from members of that band, but they're a heavier band most of the time.

They're certainly a heavier band on the title track which opens up the album, as they probably should be, given that Tanzwut means "dance rage" and so this one is The Dance Rage Returns. It's varied, the quiet moments featuring what sounds like a harpsichord, but mostly it's an up tempo romp that can't fail to get your toes tapping, at the very least, with the back end driving it forward, bagpipes lighting the way and Teufel's vocals ringleading the whole thing. There are seven members in Tanzwut at the moment and five of them contribute pipes at points. Two only play pipes and shawm.

Feine Menschen does an even more overt job of shifting between quiet moments and emphatic ones. This one goes electronic, pleasant keyboards noodling behind Teufel's rough but clean voice, but then it launches into high gear, everyone joins back in and we're back to heavy again. I like how they shift in intensity, but that's not their only mode.

I don't speak German, but Bis zum Meer, which Google Translate tells me means To the Sea, feels like a timeless singalong classic. It doesn't play with intensity much, but it feels right and I'm sure this is one that will seriously invoke audience participation when gigs open back up. Pack doubles down on what this brand of folk metal does, courtesy of fellow Germans Saltatio Mortis, who have their own brand of medieval metal. It starts out like it's going to be a western film soundtrack, though the bagpipes soon put paid to that idea and our toes get hyperactive once more.

That's four songs out of four that change up the sound at least a little and the fifth is different again. It's Die Geister die wir riefen, or The Spirits We Called, which is unusual in many respects. It's not rock at all, let alone metal. It's a folk song that delves into gypsy punk and cabaret, strongly featuring an accordion. It's another lively toe tapper but it's a complete departure, even though Teufel's voice has all the grounding the song needs to be identifable as Tanzwut. That's a heck of a range.

And, with that said, I don't need to run through everything else on the album. There are crunchy NDH numbers and quieter folky pieces. There are songs entirely driven by bagpipes and others that play in a more keyboard-driven vein. There's a lot here and, if anything here piques your interest, you should check it out. You'll find yourself diving into a rabbit hole that also contains their eleven albums, going back to 1999, and a whole slew of other bands too.

What I will highlight is Virus, which is the album's closer a dozen tracks in, because Tanzwut surely left the best for last. In some ways, it's the album in microcosm, because it crushes at the outset but then gets sassy, with some winking talk singing from Teufel. It's choral and it's orchestral. It gets retro with sections I'm used to in steampunk, where the song sounds like it's being played through a Victrola. It's heavy and tame and quirky and pretty much everything else. It's a grand way to wrap things up.

Orangotango - Kerintji: Sumatra Vol. II

Country: Portugal
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 May 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | YouTube

I've learned a lot since I reviewed Portugese band Orangotango's debut album, Sumatra, right at the beginning of this Apocalypse Later Music journey, in January 2019. I hadn't encountered the genres of desert rock or stoner rock, before, at least not knowingly, because it hadn't been created when I was deep diving into rock and metal in the the eighties and it wasn't anywhere I happened to be whenever I dipped back into the genres in the nineties and beyond. I guess I was looking for other things.

The first thing I learned is that I love this stuff, whether it's straight stoner rock, mellowed into desert rock, heavied up into the doom metal I already knew or weirded out into the modern day psychedelic rock genre. Most of the bands exploring these styles nowadays, especially those who do so without a singer to add to their instrumental jams, often move between those variants almost interchangeably and that makes for some fascinating trips.

Orangotango were one of the bands who hooked me onto the genre and they're back with a follow-up to Sumatra called Kerintji, an active volcano that's also the highest mountain in Sumatra, suggesting that the subtitle of Sumatra Vol. II really shouldn't be that surprising. I went back to that first album, because I gave it an 8/10 and this one was playing at the 7/10 level for me. Listening to the pair back to back, I do think this is the weaker album, but it's still a good one, doing much the same thing in fewer but longer tracks, Kerintji being half as long again as Sumatra.

They're a power trio from Portugal and they tend to alternate between two moods. Initially, as on the opener here, Hike, they start out gently, Carlos Jorge's bass exploring and Rui Loureiro's guitar slow and melodic. It's rich but relaxing, almost exactly what I think of when I hear "desert rock" nowadays. I expect I should be picturing the jungle, but I'm picturing the band on stage jamming away to a mellow audience, many of whom probably have their eyes shut and are letting Orangotango take them to the mountain or wherever they think they're going. And then, as with Hike a minute and a half in, they hit the power and heavy up on the turn of a dime.

I like the contrast between these two moods. Even though they're not that different melodically, the intensity shift is palpable. They're more much heavier and more powerful in their second mode, and a little quicker too, but they're still exploring the same sort of territory and maybe that helps to tie the two sides of the band's sound together for a more obvious contrast. Certainly, they need both moods, because they wouldn't be remotely the same band if they only played in one or the other.

The longer songs work for Orangotango, three of the four here effortlessly passing ten minutes, with the opener clocking in at eleven and a half and the closer, Aida, almost reaching fifteen. When they're in a groove, time stops having much meaning. I've listened to this album maybe a dozen times now, in focus and as background, and I'm always shocked when the weird sounds at the end of Aida kick in, as that tells me that three quarters of an hour have passed. It usually feels like about twenty minutes.

Now, while I've learned a lot about this genre covering everything I can at Apocalypse Later over the past few years, I'm still finding my feet in the burgeoning genre of stoner/desert rock and so it may be a little surprising that the most overt comparison that leapt out for me is Pink Floyd. Every time I get about two thirds of the way through Hike, I hear the Floyd. Those are very Floydian chords and I'd bet that Loureiro has listened to extended Floyd jams like Shine On You Crazy Diamond quite a lot. They're nowhere to be found when Orangotango heavy up, of course, but the cheap Black Sabbath comparison can only go so far. They're not as overtly Sabbath-influenced as many of these bands to my ears, even if the Sabbath sound does show up at points, especially in Zero.

Mostly, Orangotango sound like Orangotango to me, which is kind of a compliment, I think. They're an enjoyable desert rock band who heavy up without losing their identity. I get easily caught up in their songs. They never seem to overdo anything, happy with their two moods, but, if that sounds limiting, they never bore me, even on a tenth listen of another ten minute instrumental jam. They're timeless to my ears and it's almost surprising to realise that this is only their second album.

Wednesday, 7 July 2021

Billy F Gibbons - Hardware (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Blues Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 4 Jun 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

Yes, this Billy F. Gibbons is the Billy Gibbons you're thinking of, who formed ZZ Top as far back as 1969. This is his third solo album and it's a decent effort that sounds exactly like you're expecting. If there's anything surprising here, it's the presence of someone like Matt Sorum, best known for his work with Guns n' Roses, the Cult and Velvet Revolver. Sorum doesn't just co-produce, he's part of the band with long time Gibbons collaborator, guitarist Austin Hanks.

That production feels nicely stripped down. Those of you who prefer an album like Tres Hombres to an album like Eliminator ought to get a kick out of how stripped down and dirty this sounds, especially on highlights like My Lucky Card and Stackin' Bones, the former of which is all about Gibbon's guitar and the latter of which features a gorgeous rumbling bass too. It's the only song with guests, who are the blues rock outfit Larkin Poe. The best songs are the ones that go back to basics, with a strong riff, nice beat and catchy vocals.

That's not to suggest that this album sounds like it was recorded in 1973. More-More-More has all the post-production gimmickry that we know from later ZZ Top albums from Afterburner on and it's a good song too, but I definitely like my blues boogie as raw as is humanly possible. However, my fundamental problem with this album isn't with these variances in production. It's with the songwriting.

Of course, whatever Gibbons does will have me tapping my feet along, but there are songs here that I swear he could have written in his sleep and quite possibly did. A song like Vagabond Man, which has a Tom Waits vibe to it, is worthy not because it's a good song but because his guitarwork shines. I could listen to Gibbons play guitar for hours, whether he's delivering a searing solo or merely embellishing verses with all the right notes, both of which he does on this slow blues.

The worst song is surely Spanish Fly, but a good proportion of the dozen songs on offer here are really average pieces that happen to be elevated by what Gibbons does on them with his Les Paul. He has fun on Spanish Fly and, when I stopped listening to the song and focused on just his guitar, I had fun too. If you only care about that guitar, this is recommended. If, on the other hand, you want songs that camp out in your brain, there aren't many here to call home about.

Stackin' Bones is easily my favourite, with My Lucky Card and Shuffle, Step & Slide behind it. I also dug West Coast Junkie, which sees Gibbons layering his ZZ Top vocal over a surf rock song, a combination I could easily see populating an album on its own. Other songs to do something interesting include Hey Baby, Que Paso, a cover of a bilingual song by the Texas Tornados which has a serious Latin flavour to it, albeit not as much as the original, which features a prominent accordion; and the album's closer, a spoken word poem called Desert High.

Those are highlights because they're different and Gibbons doing something different is always worth checking out. The problem the album has is that much of it is Gibbons doing something he's done for a longer time than I've been alive and I'm half a century old. To retread ground that worn, he needed to find better material.

Esa Holopainen - Silver Lake (2021)

Country: Finland
Style: Progressive Rock/Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 28 May 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Wikipedia

In case you don't know the name, Esa Holopainen has been the lead guitarist, since their founding in 1990, for the appropriately named Finnish band Amorphis, who have morphed over the years from a doom/death infused progressive metal sound to melodic rock. This is a solo project, which may or may not be called Silver Lake by Esa Holopainen, just Silver Lake or Esa Holopainen with the album entitled Silver Lake. Whatever it's called, it's his debut as a solo artist and it allowed him to work with a plethora of talented European vocalists who cover quite a stylistic range themselves.

In fact, I've reviewed a lot of their bands' most recent albums and, between them, they've made a lot of very interesting modern rock and metal. There's Jonas Renkse from Katatonia, Einar Solberg from Leprous and Björn Strid from Soilwork and The Night Flight Orchestra, even Anneke van Giersbergen. Tomi Joutsen of Amorphis is here too and, had I started Apocalypse later Music a year earlier, I'd have reviewed the most recent Amorphis album. That leaves Håkan Hemlin of Nordman and a Finnish actor, Vesa-Matti Loiri, a huge star in Finland courtesy of his twenty Uuno Turhapuro movies, who provides the spoken word performance on Alkusointu, or Alliteration.

These voices are what drive the flavours of the album, because Holopainen is pretty consistent in his conjuration of atmospheres behind them. I don't know what instruments are in play, but they're all in a supporting role, avoiding riffs in favour of orchestral sweeps and sometimes ritual rhythms. I would think much of it is keyboard driven, but there's definitely a flute in there and, of course, the guitar we expect. What he varies is mostly the intensity, dialling it up for Ray of Light, over which Solberg soars like an eagle, and down for Storm, a more patient and exploratory piece for Hemlin's raspier voice to lead. Of course, Ray of Light calms at points and Storm rages too, but that's just further intensity play.

It's really interesting to see Hemlin and Solberg's contributions next to each other on this album, as it can't be missed that their voices are wildly different. Before them is Renkse, who delivers in a folkier rock style, and after them is that spoken word piece from Loiri, so Holopainen isn't trying to make the album flow from one extreme to the other; he's deliberately throwing the most different approaches right next to each other for effect and that works really well for me. In fact, the only vocalist with two songs to sing does so at opposite ends of the album, that being Renkse, who gets the first and last of the eight songs here.

Oddly, Alkusointu, the spoken word piece, also features a far more overt guitar, especially during the intro, even though the most overt guitar solo towards the end is done with keyboards. Holopainen is definitely enjoying flouting our expectations here. The most overt guitar on the album, however, is on In Her Solitude, as it's easily the heaviest track here, with Joutsen using a harsh voice as well as a clean one, with both working well as yet another contrast on an album that's full of them.

I liked everything here, including the instrumental opener, also called Silver Lake, though it's hard to call out favourites. Usually that happens when all the songs are too similar to separate them, but this time it's because they're so different vocally. It'll probably come down to personal taste as to which of the voices fit Holopainen's backing the best. I see a lot of people talking up Storm, understandably so, but I'd go with Ray of Light as the standout and maybe Apprentice, the closer with a brooding Renkse and another folky guitar, as the dark horse of the album. You may plump for two different songs and that's fine. It's a great sign that this is a worthy debut for solo Holopainen.

Tuesday, 6 July 2021

Flotsam and Jetsam - Blood in the Water (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 4 Jun 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I enjoyed Flotsam and Jetsam's 2019 album, The End of Chaos, which was a serious return to form for a band I enjoyed immensely back in the late eighties. This continues that form but changes the sound a little in ways that fit well with that album. It's fast and it's heavy but it's a little more progressive, an odd observation given that not a song here exceeds five minutes. I suggested in my review of The End of Chaos that every track on it was condensed down to its essence and that goes double here. This is a set of cleverly crafted songs that get down to business immediately and do everything they need to do before handing the baton on to the next one. What's amazing is how effortless they make that seem.

It would be difficult to mistake this band for anyone else, because of Eric A.K.'s memorable vocal style and Michael Gilbert's recognisable riffage. They're both on top form here, as is Ken Mary on drums, a massively experienced drummer who joined them soon before that 2019 album. I love the drum sound here, not just because it's hard hitting but because the toms are more prominent than the bass drum in a way that emphasises just how hard he's hitting them.

However, their influences are a little more obvious here than last time around. There's always been a lot of Iron Maiden in the Flot sound but there's more than usual here; it's especially obvious on songs like The Walls. There's a lot of Queensrÿche here too, their modern prog metal approach mixed into a thrash bedrock. Cry of the Dead sounds like Crimson Glory in its slower sections but, when it ramps up and Eric A.K. escalates his vocals, they're back in heavy Queensrÿche territory. There's some Dio in the slower sections of songs like Brace for Impact too, the way that his best always sounded crammed with power even in softer moments.

Another observation I made about The End of Chaos that's worth repeating is that this album feels as if it's being played by a young band, full of vim and vigour and oodles of energy. There's almost a punk urgency to the closer, Seven Seconds 'til the End of the World, even if it manages to slide in a moment of strings. However, Eric A.K. and Michael Gilbert were playing with Flot as far back as 1984 and, while Ken Mary wasn't, he's been in the business that long, as he was playing for Fifth Angel back then and Alice Cooper soon afterwards. This isn't a young band but they're doing a damn fine impression of one thirty-five years on from their debut.

I should mention Steve Conley on the other guitar, as he was on the last two albums, and new fish Bill Bodily, who joined on bass in 2020, replacing Michael Spencer when he left for the second time. I have to say that I heard the drums a lot more than I heard the bass here, but the back end is notably heavy and tight. Grey Dragon, in particular, leaps out of the gate like it has to be somewhere yesterday and, even if Eric A.K. stamps his authority on it with an unusual chorus, it's the rhythm section that owns it.

I like this a lot, maybe more than I expected to and The End of Chaos is on my highly recommended list for 2019. There's no doubt that this is just as good, but I think that it's even better, with its riffs just as meaty and the hooks even more memorable. It isn't really treading any new ground, but it's going to be hard to imagine this particular recipe brewed up any better. If you like your metal fast, heavy and tight with clean vocals that are as powerful as they are hook-laden, then this may be the best album you've heard in a few decades.

Kikimora - Dirty Nails (2021)

Country: Bulgaria
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 14 May 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | YouTube

A few things drew me to this album. The name is one, because it sounds great but also has a meaning that's pretty cool too. A kikimora is a Slavic house spirit, a darker equivalent to the domovoi, and was the original explanation for sleep paralysis in Russian folklore. Given that etymology, it shouldn't be too surprising to find that Kikimora are a hard rock band from Bulgaria, which is another reason that I'm reviewing it today. I'm not sure I've heard another Bulgarian hard rock band, but Kikimora are one I'm very happy to have found. I wonder who else are out there.

Kikimora have been around for a decade now and this appears to be their second album. Their driving force is guitarist Nikolo Kotsev, who has released a number of albums as a member of Baltimore and Brazen Abbot, featuring vocals by major names like Glenn Hughes, Göran Edman and Joe Lynn Turner. He also released a rock opera in 2001 called Nostradamus, with Turner behind the mike again. Given names like those, it probably shouldn't be too surprising to discover that Kikimora definitely explore a sort of Deep Purple/Rainbow kind of sound.

That's probably most obvious on King Rock 'n' Roll, which sounds more like Rainbow than some of the actual Rainbow material, but it's there right from the start in Bogeyman, an up tempo rock song that kicks off the album with a flash but not outrageous riff, an obvious underpinning heavy organ and the vocals of Nikola Zdravkov, who's apparently a big fan of Ronnie James Dio but has clearly listened to a lot of Joe Lynn Turner and Graham Bonnet too. And I don't blame him. The three Rainbow albums with Dio are as pivotal as rock albums get, but Down to Earth with Bonnet is a killer too.

There are eleven songs here and they're varied within those sort of stylistic boundaries. King Rock 'n Roll is like the later commercial Rainbow singles and others, like Bogeyman and The Hustler, have the barrelling All Night Long/Lost in Hollywood drive to them too. The Chosen One adds an epic feel and could easily be from another Kotsev rock opera. Free is a ballad that starts out like solo Ozzy Osbourne but plays through with some Bad Company simplicity. Zdravkov has obviously been listening to Paul Rodgers as well. The Endless Song is like Dio-era Rainbow but reworked with a more recent vocalist.

There isn't a duff track among them, though some are certainly more memorable than others. I'm not a big fan of Lost Soul, just because it's a musical theatre sort of ballad, which isn't my scene, though it is done well enough that it ought to impress people into that type of song. I much prefer Free, though it's the heavier numbers that get my blood moving that I like most, from the riffs of the opener to the more statuesque and mood driven closer, Liar.

What surprised me most is that, while I prefer Kotsev's guitar to Zdravkov's voice (relatively speaking, as both do exactly what they need to do), it was the melodies of the latter that grabbed me the most. It's the songwriting approach, especially during the first half of the album, that elevates Zdravkov, as Kotsev, who made his presence known immediately with Bogeyman, comes back to shine later on tracks like The Endless Song, King Rock 'n Roll and Cry, Baby, Cry!, very much in the Ritchie Blackmore style.

I like this a lot and will definitely try to track down the band's self-titled debut, released back in 2015. I should see what else is going on in Bulgaria too, as Kotslev isn't the only member of the band to have played with other bands. Zdravkov founded Tornado and keyboardist Antoniy Georgiev founded Ahat, while bass player Nikolai Tsvetkov played with FFH, Black Hole and Hangover. I don't know which have put out product, but I'm interested in finding out.

Monday, 5 July 2021

Van Canto - To the Power of Eight (2021)

Country: Germany
Style: Power Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 4 Jun 2021
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I like Van Canto. I've liked Van Canto ever since I heard them cover Metallica's Battery years ago, with only a drum kit and a whole heck of a lot of voices, and I've listened to them often since. The problem I have is a common one, namely that it's so easy to see their unique a cappella approach to hard rock or heavy metal as a gimmick, which, to be honest, it kind of is, and it's sometimes hard to take gimmickry seriously, especially on something as long as a full length album and without the benefit of visuals.

The good news is that they do what they do incredibly well and I often forgot that I was listening to an a cappella album here. Much of that has to do with the presence of Bastian Emig on an actual drum kit, as he instils all the underpinning power that this sort of music needs to work. You simply can't do power metal without power. A good part of it has to be due to the fact that, freed up by those drums from any need to beatbox, these vocalists can attempt other instruments, Ross Thompson and Stefan Schmidt doing a fantastic job of playing higher and lower guitars, or rakkatakka vocals, as they call it.

There are eleven songs on offer here, plus a two minute intro, and only four of them are covers. It's a good sign that I had to look that up. Sure, I recognised the four, but I honestly wondered if a song like Falling Down was a cover too, that I just didn't recognise. It isn't, though I'd love to hear a band with a full set of instruments cover it. That's a good sign too. Another is the fact that the band have enough confidence in their original material to let that build the album.

Hardrock Padlock is another one I had to look up, as it's so close to the Lordi template, right down to the stupid title, that I was surprised to find it was an original. As that might suggest, it's a hard rock song rather than the power metal of Dead by the Night or Falling Down. To highlight the versatility, I should point out that Turn Back Time is a folky number with very little contribution from Emig behind the drum kit.

The first cover is Raise Your Horns, the Amon Amarth song, which doesn't show up until track six. It's a decent cover, giving an opportunity for harsh vocals from whichever singer takes on that task. It's not easy to keep up, given that there are seven vocalists here, plus one guest (former lead vocalist Philip Schunke), who do nothing but sing. It isn't difficult to tell when Inga Scharf is singing, as she's the only female voice present, and that's Hagen Hirschman as her male equivalent and Schmidt handling solo guitar impersonation, or wah-wah vocals.

The other three are earlier classics: Iron Maiden's Run to the Hills, AC/DC's Thundersturck and Queen's I Want It All. They're all decent interpretations, but they're such iconic songs that any deviation from the originals is going to seem obvious, especially vocally, and there were moments on all of them that just seemed wrong, for no better reason than they're different. Of course, there's an irony in the fact that I finally figured out some lyrics to Thunderstruck in this European accent than I'd managed in the past few decades of listening to Brian Johnson.

The covers may be a necessary evil. This would be a better album without any of them, but they're the songs that are going to grab people's attention. Only when you know that Van Canto exist and they've just released their eighth album, will you be able to hear songs like Falling Down that really ought to be the standouts for anyone's attention. However, ditching them leaves just over half an hour of new music, and that would seem too short. That leaves Van Canto with the unenviable choice of pumping in covers to gain attention or turning out the best album they can without many noticing its existence. I can live with this compromise.

Lindbloom - Crazy Good Lookin' (2021)

Country: Sweden
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 21 May 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Here's another submission, from versatile guitarist Magnus Lindbloom in Sweden. Thank you, sir! I've previously reviewed what I now believe is the debut Lindbloom release, Lady Opium, back in early 2019 when Apocalypse Later Music was pretty new, and I enjoyed his cheerful take on jazz rock with plenty of psychedelic flavour. This three track EP is less jazzy and less funky, but it's even more psychedelic and it really knows how to rock too.

The three songs are very different in style, which makes it impossible to guess at where Lindbloom is likely to go next, which is a good thing in my book, as long as they don't jar, which they don't, even with such variety coming in such a small space; this would have been a 12" single rather than EP back in the day, as it doesn't reach sixteen minutes.

It kicks off firmly in hard rock territory. The title track is jaunty and upbeat, but with a real heaviness underpinning it that reminds a lot of seventies Deep Purple, just without the overt Hammond organ. However, Mats Levén's voice has an earthy attitude to it, more akin to a Zodiac Mindwarp. Lindbloom mixes it up at points too, getting psychedelic early and jazzy late, but never changing the mood from that driving blues-based hard rock. It feels like it should roll right into Space Truckin', but it rolls into Time and Space instead.

This one's a psychedelic journey from the outset. I initially thought Led Zeppelin because Lindbloom's guitar has No Quarter in mind as it begins, but he finds a Robin Trower vibe as much as a Jimmy Page. He does a great, echoey job with it and the song heavies up too, when Jonathan Olsson brings his bass into play, and almost finds an In a Gadda da Vida sound for a moment there. This one runs on nicely; it could have been a good three minute song but it's much better at seven minutes.

And, with heavy blues bands like those cited, Lindbloom then switches direction into a cover of Scarborough Fair. That's one of those timeless songs that's so well known that it's difficult to bring anything new to it. I tend to dread seeing that sort of song on any new release, but I really dug this version. It starts out as the folk song it always was, very much in the footsteps of Simon & Garfunkel's single, with a requisite layer of vocal harmony, but it develops into jazzy psychedelia, with an ably utilised string section and a tender solo from Lindbloom that doesn't remotely spring from anything Martin Carthy did first.

The biggest problem this EP has is that it ends. There's also the inevitable side effect of a short and varied release, namely that it has trouble defining what it is. There are common factors between the three songs, mostly through the jazz-tinged psychedelia, but there's not enough material to really make an identity clear. If these were three tracks on a full length album, Lindbloom could weave an identity out of the elements and I really hope he does that because I, for one, want to hear it.