Thursday, 15 April 2021

Blaze Bayley - War within Me (2021)

Country: UK
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 9 Apr 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

It seems odd to think of Blaze Bayley as a solo artist, but he's effectively been that since the previous millennium. I still think of him as the vocalist of Wolfsbane and Bruce Dickinson's replacement in Iron Maiden. The latter stint only lasted for five years and it ended over two decades ago, while I think of the former as a nineties thing, even though technically Wolfsbane reformed in 2007 with Bayley back on lead vocals. This is a solo album, though it's really Bayley effectively fronting Absolva, a band from Manchester who have five albums out with their own name on, plus another three under Bayley's, the Infinite Entanglement trilogy.

This is the first original album other than that trilogy that Bayley's put out as a solo artist in almost a decade, the previous album before them being 2012's The King of Metal. I haven't heard any of these solo albums, so I was interested to see what he sounds like nowadays. What I found is that he doesn't particularly sound like Wolfsbane at all but there's definitely some Iron Maiden here, not only in the musical approach of some songs but the lyrical approach too, most obviously when looking at the war (303 is about the 303 Squadron of the RAF, which was a Polish unit), but also in a look at the history of science, with songs about Alan Turing, Nikola Tesla and Stephen Hawking.

However, Maiden weren't the obvious influence for me, even if the title track comes out of the gates like a Maiden blitzkrieg. As the album ran on, I found that the Maiden influence could really be seen as a Wishbone Ash influence, they being the true source of the famous twin guitar Maiden sound. It's here in a lot of intros, but when it continues into songs, the sound more like Wishbone Ash than their most famous devotees. Warrior is a completely new song, not a cover of the one on Argus, but it still has a Wishbone Ash mindset to it.

The other obvious influence I heard is Saxon, which surprised me, but it's very clear in songs like Pull Yourself Up and 18 Flights, while The Unstoppable Stephen Hawking moves well from Wishbone Ash to Saxon as it runs on. Bayley's voice is more reminiscent of Biff Byford than Bruce Dickinson; he sounds more working class than the Air Raid Siren and his tone and intonation hint at the Saxon frontman. And hey, it's hard to not see 18 Flights as a sort of spiritual sequel to And the Bands Play On, detailing not a festival set but an entire South America tour, including a gig in Chile that was stopped because of an earthquake and a likely tsunami. It's dedicated to the people of Coquimbo.

I like this sound and not only as a form of alternate history, as if it had been Saxon rather than Maiden who had brought that Wishbone Ash twin guitar sound to the NWOBHM era. I was a little wary that a Blaze Bayley album might seem derivative of his former bands, as Paul Di'Anno's albums often tend to be, but I didn't get that feeling at all. He's doing his own thing, whether it be blistering metal in War within Me; hard and heavy chronicles like 18 Flights or a ballad like Every Storm Ends that rocks itself up in the middle. There's some prog in here too, perhaps most notably in Pull Yourself Up.

I do need to find a lyric sheet because, while Bayley is up front and clear in some songs, like 18 Flights, he's a little lower in the mix than I expected him to be on some others, especially when guitarist Chris Appleton is in full flight, like on the title track. That was a real surprise to me as, while War within Me is a fast and furious number, the band seems to be more energetic than its singer. That's not the case across the album and it's not due to any lacklustre performance by Bayley—it's just how the song was written—but that seems odd on something that presents itself as a solo album.

Now, I already knew coming in that Blaze Bayley was a talented singer. This doesn't dissuade me of a notion like that and he still sounds good but, had I known nothing about him, I might well have left in search more of Absolva than what he might have done elsewhere. They impressed me here and I have to wonder what they sound like without Bayley and with Appleton stepping up to the mike instead.

The Limit - Caveman Logic (2021)

Country: USA/Portugal
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 9 Apr 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook

Here's a new band full of musicians who aren't at all new and I have no idea how to categorise them. I labelled this hard rock as a very vague catchall, and that's one obvious ingredient, but you do need to know a lot more than that. There's a lot of punk in here, some psych, some blues, some garage, some psychobilly, some post-punk. If Lemmy was looking over my shoulder, he'd just call it rock 'n' roll. What it isn't is a metal album, even with sixty per cent of the band known for their work in a couple of metal bands. And, before I rabbit on any longer, I should really introduce those musicians.

Handling vocal duties is Bobby Liebling, who's fronted American doom metal pioneers Pentagram for half a century, since they were founded in 1971. Also from the world of doom metal are two members of a Portuguese band called Dawnrider. That's Hugo Conim on guitar, which he's played in Dawnrider since that band was founded in 2004, and Joao Pedro on drums, his responsibility there since 2014. The other guitarist is Sonny Vincent, a prolific solo artist who was in an early New York City punk band by the name of the Testors; he also spent nine years on the road with Moe Tucker and Sterling Morrison of the Velvet Underground. That leaves Jimmy Recca on bass, best known for being an early member of the Stooges.

There's a lot to note here. For one this has serious garage rock sensibilities. It's lo-fi, but it's also well produced. They didn't just show up, plug in and press record, but the album maintains that live in the studio feel, even though the sound engineer clearly worked hard to get everything just right and the producer knew exactly how to tweak things. It's one of the most immediate and urgent recordings I've heard in a long time and that's aided by a deliberate lack of frills. Nobody's messing around ao clever things in the studio. They're just playing the hell out of their instruments.

For another, the sound is punk but the mindset feels more hard rock. This follows the rules instead of breaking them, at least for the most part. It's clean and riff driven, with guitar solos everywhere. If a song isn't specifically doing something else, Vincent is slipping in a quick solo because he can. He's all over Kitty Gone like a rash. And this makes for a fascinating mixture of two related but very different styles, both of which require this to be played loud.

The most obvious influence may be the Stooges, even though Liebling doesn't always sound like Iggy. That's certainly there at points and he finds the right snarl when he needs to, but he's not channeling any single voice. He sings his own way and only hints at another voice when the song suggests it. He's Glenn Danzig on Over Rover, which is a bizarre take on the Misfits with a doomy riff that reminded me of Atomic Rooster. There's even a spoken word section over a creeping bass and weird guitar noises.

This play with genres is fascinating. There's some Adam and the Ants in Over Rover too and it's overt at the beginning of Fleeting Thoughts, one of the snarling songs for Liebling, which he delivers with a real relish. Human vs. Nature is quintessential garage rock but it has lots of psychobilly in there too, like the band overdosed on the Tommy Gunn Theme. Enough's Enough is straight up Cream, a bluesy performance from Vincent and a dense heavy blues rock sound. Death of My Soul takes the Doors into doom rock.

I liked this a lot, even though some of these songs are predictably short, down to Life's Last Night at a mere minute and a half, even though it features my favourite line: "Lots of rope and not much hope." Six others fail to reach three minutes and only one makes it past four. There's just not much intention for anything to do more than the core of what it's supposed to do. Nobody's indulgent, even in a solo-rich song like Kitty Gone, and nobody wants to spin out choruses ad infinitum, like the Eagles and the thoughts they had about limits. I think there's only one intro here that goes beyond a foreshadowing riff and that's six seconds long.

I have no idea what audience this will reach in 2021, but it deserves to find one. It seems very much to me that they should support Alice Cooper on his next tour. It might seem odd to suggest the godfather of theatrical rock should sign up a band who I can't believe have a stage show, but they fit nicely in his recent dabblings with garage rock. The Limit could easily cover Go Man Go without it seeming out of place amidst their own songs. Of course, I have no idea at all if they're planning to tour or even record again. I hope so.

Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Evanescence - The Bitter Truth (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Alternative Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 Mar 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I like Evanescence, even though it's not the fashionable thing to do among metal cognoscenti. What's important to note here is that I've never seen them as a metal band, even if they added some metallic crunch to their gothic tinged alternative rock sound, and that what pissed me off in their massive hit, Bring Me to Life, was the rap line they added to the chorus. Sure, it helped them crack the big time and I'm happy for that, but the demo version doesn't have that and it's better for that. Both these points have meaning here and I'll explain why.

While I've always been a little bitter that the trendy rap bit meant that Evanescence got the success that Lacuna Coil deserved, I'm not letting that thought define me for eighteen years. The reason that I mention it is because, once they broke the mainstream, they ditched that angle and it's nowhere to be found on this album. So anyone who doesn't want to hear that doesn't have to worry about it. This can safely stand or fall on its own merits, outside of any flirtations with trendiness.

Well, mostly. It became obvious pretty quickly that the best songs here are the more overt pop songs. Every time I hear Evanescence, they reinforce to me that they really don't need to the metal aspects, because it really isn't what they do. They're a damn good pop band who are still somehow pretending to be a metal band because, I don't know, it lends them street cred or something. Amy Lee has a voice that could sing metal, but that doesn't mean that they're a metal band. Don't look at them that way and they'll likely improve in your eyes.

It was Yeah Right that underlined that for me here. There are some interestingly powerful drums on Broken Pieces Shine, the first song proper after the decent intro, Artifact/The Turn, and some neatly resonant bass on The Game is Over, but these songs are heavy without ever being heavy metal. After those two, Yeah Right shone out for me with its teasing pop sensibilities. And other songs underlined it further. Wasted on You sounds to me like Emilie Autumn singing Creep by Radiohead and whatever crunch is there really doesn't matter. My brain was stripping it away and listening to the pop cover as it played.

And, as the album runs on, I found myself doing that often. Whenever a song brought in a quirky pop element, my brain automatically applied the de-crunch filter to hear what it would sound like deep in its essence. The clockwork that kicks off Better without You echoes Emilie Autumn's quirky steampop and the song should have carried on in that vein. Except the crunch shows up to hide it because that's what it's apparently supposed to do. There's a neat Kate Bush style backing vocal on Use My Voice, in different sections to the more routine woah woah one, and that should have helped shape the song, but it's mostly drowned out.

Now, there are points where the crunch works and points where the album doesn't even when it's not obvious. Far from Heaven is a musical theatre style ballad that only serves to highlight how much Amy Lee is far more comparable to someone like Lady Gaga than someone like Floor Jansen. And, after it, is Part of Me, with some decent doomy riffs that are perfect for Lee to soar over. So I wouldn't want to throw out any absolutes here, especially given that I enjoyed this album. I'm going with a 7/10 but it's worth mentioning that, as slick as this is and as obviously commercial, I still much prefer the Marianas Rest album I reviewed before this that also got a 7/10 from me. And I guess that's the bitter truth.

Marianas Rest - Fata Morgana (2021)

Country: Finland
Style: Melodic Doom/Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Mar 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

I like this album, the third from Finnish melodic doom/death metallers Marianas Rest, but I can't help but feel that I want to like it more than I do, and, after multiple listens, I'm trying to figure out why.

The band are certainly very comfortable in the genre, unsurprising given that they've been playing in it since 2013 and they're signed to Napalm Records. There are eight songs here, most of them patient and lengthy without ever becoming epics. With the exception of Horrokseen, which is a piano/cello interlude of sorts, there's only one piece here shorter than six minutes and only one other shorter than seven, but the longest, The Weight, only reaches nine and a half. That it's also the best is telling. Marianas Rest certainly know how to make a song breathe.

Initially, on opener Sacrificial with its long intro, they start out sounding like funeral doom. These are slow riffs and Jaakko Mäntymaa's voice doesn't show up for two minutes. Arguably, even though it's a clearly gothic doom/death release by that point, it doesn't really shift out of a funeral doom gear for two more, reminding even more of Paradise Lost when that happens. They do speed up at points, the shortest song, Pointless Tale, being the most obvious example, but there's a starkness to this that's a constant companion, even when at its most lushly gothic, with elegaic melodies and spoken word.

Oddly, given that I rather like this approach towards funeral doom/death, it's ironically Pointless Tale that, well, showed me the point. The music here is beautiful, if laden down with melancholy—it seems to have a lot fewer riffs than it actually does, as most of them are cunningly disguised as melodies—but Mäntymaa's voice is a little harsher than I expected, especially during his almost spoken section early in Pointless Tale and but also when he ramps up as the song runs on. There's a layer of keyboards behind him, that are enticing but utterly content to do their own thing and Mäntymaa doesn't seem too happy about it. The song feels like he's raging against a force he can't battle, like the sun coming up and that may be the key to the album.

My favourite song here is definitely The Weight. It's slow and soft and melancholy and, when it finds a crunch, it does so with a nice and achingly slow riff. Again the keyboards float around the music like a morning fog and the vocals battle it, fruitlessly in the context of the song, but with a strong effect on the overall sound of the album. I think I like The Weight the most because of the riffs. It doesn't really do anything else different to its peers here, but maybe that's enough for the intensity to build a little more effectively. It reminds a little of black metal at points, which this album mostly isn't.

There's majesty in the early build, somewhat like a processional, and Mäntymaa snarls effectively. It grows from there, with a palpable heaviness and a real sense of isolation, as if this music is echoing around the shell of an old cathedral, like the vibrato generated by a ghost choir. There's a strong timelessness to it that befits the longest song on the album. So it's a great song in a lot of ways, but maybe its riffs are what sell it. They're not disguised here, even though they're still melodic. They're out in the open and they're an anchor that I think much of the album does away with.

And so I like this a lot, but I want to like it more than I do. Every time The Weight comes around, it's an obvious 9/10 song for me but, as enjoyable as the rest is, those other songs don't do what The Weight does. Maybe it's the riffs and maybe it's something else but whatever it does they don't do and so I'm stuck with a 9/10 song on a 7/10 album that could have been 9/10. Maybe the next one will be. I want to hear it already. Fortunately, there are two previous albums, 2016's Horror Vacui and 2019's Ruins, that I can explore in the meantime.

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Ken Hensley - My Book of Answers (2021)

Country: UK
Style: Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 5 Mar 2021
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

While it's not without its flaws, this is an interesting album and not merely because it's the final one to be released during the lifetime of Ken Hensley, who died last year at the age of 75. I think I find it fascinating because I know Hensley best as a keyboard player, most obviously for Uriah Heep back in the seventies but also for Blackfoot in the eighties and a string of others in the decades since, up to the fantastic Blind Golem album earlier this year that was my Album of the Month for January. Yet, I would say that this album focuses more on his other talents, moving as it goes from a guitar album to a vocal album.

It starts with Lost (My Guardian), an unusual mix of sixties melodies and seventies guitar, that's at its best during the weeping Hensley guitar solo in the middle. The Cold Sacrifice starts out with guitar, a riff leading into a solo, and we wonder for a while if it's going to be an instrumental. For three out of the first four, The Silent Scream starts with guitar too, though not as obviously; we know that voice is going to come in pretty quickly. In between those, Right Here, Right Now kicks off as a keyboard piece, parping away like a Europe stormer, but it calms down, the music stepping aside so that we can listen to Hensley sing.

And that's what this becomes. As the album runs on, the keyboards make themselves scarce and the guitar follows suit, albeit without ever leaving. There are a quite a few points in later songs where I'd focused so much on Hensley's voice and the words that he's singing that I kind of forgot there was any music playing behind him. This starts with Cover Girl, still in the first half, as it's voice over piano and backing that sounds as carefully absent as a house band deliberately not trying to upstage the star in front of them. There is a solo here and it's a nice one but it's almost a token in between verses so the singer can grab a swig of water.

Light the Fire (in My Heart) continues this, as if Hensley is shifting into a Dan McCafferty ballad mode, and Stand (Chase the Beast Away) is the epitome of this. It's a great song, one that I'm sure vocalists will be queuing up to sing it themselves, from Bette Midler to Tom Waits. It has a real majesty to it, a patient motion, but the primary instrument is Kensley's voice and the secondary is the backing vocals swelling behind him. There are people playing things here, but they could frankly all go away and this would stand out as a stark but effective a capella piece.

It's almost a surprise when The Darkest Hour kicks off with more weeping guitar. I say weeping, as it's used far more as emotion here than it is an instrument to be explored on its own merits. The emotion here is usually melancholy. There's a deep sadness that infuses the album, perhaps because Hensley was feeling his own mortality. This is a posthumous release, after all, and it's difficult to listen to it in any other way than as a eulogy from his own hand. It's as if he knew and stripped these songs bare to leave a simple honesty, sung from the heart, that resonates to us.

I liked this album, even though it isn't what I wanted from the man who wrote organ-driven songs like July Morning, Easy Livin' and Stealin'. It's what he wanted to make at this late point in his life and it's poignant and emotional. Thank you for all the music, Ken, whether it's Heep or Blackfoot or the more obscure albums you made way back when, with bands like Toe Fat and Weed. There's a vast catalogue to explore beyond the obvious. This is a fair coda to it.

Iotunn - Access All Worlds (2021)

Country: Denmark
Style: Progressive Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 26 Feb 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

You might be forgiven for thinking, after a minute of the opening track, that Iotunn are a progressive rock band. The song is Voyage of the Garganey I and it sounds like they've been listening to a heck of a lot of Pink Floyd. Well, for that minute. You might also be forgiven for thinking, after another minute, that that was just an intro and they're really a melodic death metal band. Well, for that minute and a little more besides, until Jón Aldará's vocals switch completely, from death growl to clean and soaring and it's clear that they're all of these things at once and that means progressive metal above all.

Perhaps the key clue was in how clean they are when playing melodeath. They're clearly not trying for an evil death metal sound in any fashion and the result is never brutal. The production is crisp and the guitars aren't downtuned at all. There's death here, to be sure, but, if it was ever what drove Iotunn, they evolved past it. It's fair to suggest that this is a heavy album that doesn't actually feel heavy, as I was constantly drawn to the prog rock side of their sound and its constant melody often distracts from the heavinss.

Aldará has a warm death growl, so it's not too surprising to realise that his clean voice is rich too and it's effortless. He does a lot to impress with that clean voice here but he never seems to be trying too hard. He never has to stretch for notes that are sustained or comparatively high. I'd call out his voice as one of the highlights here, but another thing that's deceptive is how everyone else is a highlight as well. I listened through almost this entire album before I realised that the lack of standout moments on guitar was because the guitars, courtesy of brothers Jesper and Jens Nicolai Gräs stand out all the way through. Pick a random track and skip to a random place and their guitars will be doing something interesting.

And, once we've got past the introductory sections of Voyage of the Garganey I to get a grip on what this band actually do, their consistency takes over. Like the guitars, the songs don't tend to stand out from each other, not because they're not good enough to but because they're not bad enough too. It's quality throughout and only The Tower of Cosmic Nihility really emerged for me as a standout, even if I couldn't explain why. Going back and back, I think it's actually the riffing late on in the track that's so engaging for me, but that's not its own highlight.

These are dense songs with a lot going on in them and it's not easy to grasp what any of them do on a grand scale on a first listen. That applies for Laihem's Golden Pits, which is under five minutes long but it applies all the more as the song lengths expand. This is a generous album at over an hour and three of its seven songs exceed ten minutes: the title track, Waves Below at the heart of the album and Safe Across the Endless Night, which closes it out with almost fourteen minutes of epic composition. While I enjoyed the experience first time through, I enjoyed it a lot more on a second and each further listen has added to my understanding of what they're doing and how well they're doing it.

This is certainly a grower of an album, one to play and replay in order to fully appreciate it, but I'd say that a better way to appreciate it is to walk away for a little while, then come back and play just one of the songs. I did that with The Tower of Cosmic Nihility, being my favourite song from the outset, and it felt all the more vicious in its intro, more emphatic in its drumming and more complex in the way that it builds. It's a gem of a track. The reason this album is so good is that it's not alone. Try that with any of the other songs, especially Access All Worlds, The Weaver System and Safe Across the Endless Night and you'll get very similar results.

I have to go with an 8/10 for this, but it's still growing on me. I have to move on to other albums, but I'll be coming back to this one. They're Queensrÿche as an extreme metal band, with sides of Ultravox and My Dying Bride, and this may well end up with a 9/10.

Monday, 5 April 2021

Liquid Tension Experiment - LTE 3 (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 Mar 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Wikipedia

There are multiple meanings of the word "indulgent" that get thrown around a lot. One is applied to progressive rock or metal and involves talented musicians not even attempting to write songs but just to explore their talents in musical form (which some would suggest means getting lost in their music) Hello, Tales from Topographic Oceans. Another is applied to shred, sorry, neo-classical musicians and involves them playing as many notes as is humanly possibly in any given short amount of time. A third, not so musical, meaning tends to be applied to ice cream, because you have a right to indulge yourself once in a while and rack up those calories. Screw the diet. Splurge.

Liquid Tension Experiment has always kind of been all three of these meanings simultaneously, though your mileage may vary. When I heard their debut album, back in 1998, I was blown away by how in your face it started out. I realised that Paradigm Shift was as much a portfolio as a song, the sort of piece that I could imagine played in 1973 by musicians like these who got thrown a quarter of a century backwards through a time portal invented by bass played Tony Levin (because he just has to be a mad scientist) and found themselves worshipped as gods, kind of like Deep Purple but on steroids. Or maybe the portal took them a decade further back to a point where they failed to find an audience because nobody believed they were real but they still inspired Neil Peart and Yngwie J. Malmsteen to get into music.

This third album is something of a surprise, given that the first two were released a year apart, back in the last millennium. It's been twenty-two years now, if we ignore the Liquid Trio Experiment album in 2007 that omitted guitarist John Petrucci for family reasons. This is all four of them back together and they're a seriously talented bunch. Petrucci, of course is best known for Dream Theater, just like Jordan Rudess and Mike Portnoy, even though the latter left over a decade ago. Tony Levin has been part of King Crimson for forty years now and has worked with everyone, from Peter Gabriel to Buddy Rich via Tom Waits and David Bowie. These are the exact opposite of nobodies.

So what's the new album like? Well, it's like Liquid Tension Experiment.

It kicks off with Hypersonic, which is a fresh attempt to become even more in your face than Paradigm Shift. It's eight minutes of musical insanity that will have musicians soiling themselves because, while they've finished Guitar Hero twice, they'll never ascend to this level of virtuosity and they know it. It'll either knock your socks off or leave you utterly blah because there simply isn't middle ground to find. It is what it is and you'll either adore that or be instantly bored. Now, it doesn't stay at hyperspeed, I should add, but it's never simple music.

In other words, it's emphatically music for musicians. As a kid, I loved the Harper Hall trilogy by Anne McCaffrey, part of her Dragonriders of Pern fantasy series. It follows a young girl called Menolly who has great natural musical talent but has to flee her home because she isn't allowed to use it. Once at the Harper Hall, the teachers sit her down with sheet music of an insanely complex masterpiece that they can play together as a group, so they can gauge what she can do. She nails it absolutely and throughout, expressing her joy at how wonderful it is and can they play it again? And these teachers, highly talented themselves, just look at her because merely playing this piece, which they know, drained them and they're spent. I recount this because it's clear to me that, should Menolly find herself in the United States in 2021, Liquid Tension Experiment would become a quintet.

I like this album, as indulgent as it is. Hypersonic is so complex, we almost need to play it at half speed so our ears can keep up. Beating the Odds is slower and more emotional. Liquid Evolution is that high caloric ice cream, utterly decadent and lush, a mere three minutes long but a piece of joy, Levin's bass a warm comfort, Petrucci's guitar an exercise in restraint and the combination of drums and keyboards a jungle of sounds to envelop us. It's a magical piece, simultaneously the opposite of a song like Hypersonic and just as overtly part of what this band can do.

As different again, so's Chris & Kevin's Amazing Odyssey, which is experimental and avant-garde. Is the cello sound coming from Levin's bass or Petrucci's guitar? It's unusual, whatever instrument is making that sound. And then it's Rhapsody in Blue, the old Gershwin standard, that hasn't ever sounded quite like this before, but is explored for thirteen minutes in jaunty ways that Emerson, Lake & Powell might have taken. Shades of Hope revolves around some soaring Petrucci guitar, while Key to the Imagination is in many ways a thirteen minute version of the album in miniature.

I'm not sure exactly when you'll be able to hear this. I've had a copy for a while but usually wait until albums are released to review them. This was supposed to be out on my fiftieth birthday last month, but I'd heard it had been pushed forward because of leaks. Now, it seems that it's been pushed back again because of printing errors in manufacturing but I could swear I saw it live on Bandcamp (which it isn't now). So maybe it's out and maybe it isn't, but I had this review ready to go so here it is. If this is your sort of thing, this is a must. I may go up a point with my rating yet.

Aleph - Kairos (2021)

Country: Poland
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 Mar 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

Before I get into what this album does, I should point out that I believe the name of the band is simply Aleph. I'm seeing it listed a lot as Aleph א, but א is just the character aleph, the first letter in various Semitic languages, especially Hebrew. The cover only lists Aleph, so I presume the א is just decorative redundancy. While we're talking language, the album title is a Greek word for time, because they had two of them. Chronos meant the time through which we travel sequentially at the rate of a second per second. Kairos defines the right time, from the perspective of opportunity or advantage, like when a favourable omen dictates or the stars are right. I hope 8th March, 2021 is kairos for Kairos.

It's certainly a fascinating album. I came to it as psychedelic rock, which it is, but it's as often prog and even sludge metal, all woven into a heady mix that's as unusual as it is impressive. While there are an abundance of moments that conjure up comparisons, the overall feel of the album is like nothing I've heard before, which state of affairs always makes me happy. Sometimes it reminds of Ummagumma-era Pink Floyd, but it's always heavier, even at its most pastoral. There are moments when its strands drift into Hawkwind territory but it never stays there. There's sixties hippie psych experimentation in swathes but it's phrased more like a seventies hard rock album and sometimes a nineties alternative one, as a wild song like A Swarm of Dead Insects underlines.

This song is the most fascinating of all the fascinating songs here and there are seven to choose from, including the sub-minute long Intro. This one is sludgy and alternative, with staccato moments where things start and stop for effect. It has the most overtly harsh voice here, one that's partway between hardcore shout and death growl but more restrained than either. There are plenty of points where it sounds somewhat like Primus covering Pantera, which is a bizarre concept I find myself on board with. Maciej Janus's bass is very obvious, bringing Animals as Leaders to mind as well. A jazzy performance from drummer Kuba Grzywacz often finds unusual rhythms that conjure up ideas of ritual. I also love how it ends, like this swarm of dead insects devoured the Twilight Zone theme tune.

If that's the most fascinating track, the others aren't too far behind. Invert is a wonderful piece that's so vivid that what I'm imagining is probably way off the mark, but it feels to me like a race backwards in time until we find ourselves in a babbling brook as a flight of pterodactyls soar over us chattering. Quite what hunters we find ourselves running from, I have no idea. I couldn't quite see that much, but it is a very visual sort of song.

Doubt in between them is a sort of interlude before things get weird again. It's quieter and softer but organic and enticing with patterns sucking us in. That happens all the more on Whale, Pt II, the closer, which is magnificently mathematical, as if math rock was always supposed to sound like this. Patterns are everywhere here, woven together ever closer during an entirely instrumental piece that whispers past ten minutes. It's space rock and math rock in tandem and it makes me wonder just how much I've heard in the way of vocals up until now. Resistance certainly isn't instrumental, however much it feels initially like a space rock take on Tom Waits's In Shades.

This isn't an instrumental allbum but it somehow feels like it, once Whale, Pt. II wraps up. Those weird rhythms seem to mess with the passage of time, as in chronos rather than kairos, becoming bizarrely Lovecraftian. Is this what non-Euclidean means? We just had to translate it into musical terms? Where am I? I certainly feel like I've travelled to somewhere weird and wonderful and the journey was just as notable. This is refreshingly different and there's at least one previous album to explore too, even if it doesn't seem to include a Whale, Pt. I.

Tuesday, 30 March 2021

Ronnie Atkins - One Shot (2021)

Country: Denmark
Style: Melodic/Hard Rock
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 12 Mar 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram

This may be the growingest grower of an album I've heard since starting up Apocalypse Later. I liked it on a first listen. Real is smooth, commercial and engaging. Scorpio adds bubbly ,organic keyboards and some harder edges too when needed. Then the title track makes it even more interesting, kicking off with soft piano, atmospheric synths and ballad vocals, before erupting into Meat Loaf bombast as the chorus hits and eventually turning into a neat hard rock song. It's clearly good stuff.

Then I listened through the rest and let it automatically replay. After about half a dozen times, I knew that I just didn't want to press stop and move on to something else. I'd made some notes the first time through. Next up are Subjugated and Frequency of Love, which are two songs that do much the same thing in much the same way, and I found that I was subconsciously trying to sing along without actually knowing any of the words. That was telling.

I jotted down some obvious comparisons as well. Beyond the Meat Loaf in One Shot, there's a strong Whitesnake vibe in Miles Away and a Tom Petty feel to When Dreams are Not Enough. Mostly, though, this sounds like Ronnie Atkins, which is pretty appropriate given that it is Ronnie Atkins, rather a long way into his career since I first heard Red, Hot and Heavy by Pretty Maids back in 1984. This album is a lot slicker and more mature than that one and he's really grown into his voice but t's not going to be a great surprise to fans. This is what he does in well packaged three and four minute chunks.

And what's important here is that he does it really well. I gave up taking notes after my first listen so I could concentrate on just enjoying the album. After four or five times, I took my virtual pen back up to write down the best songs and my favourites. What's most telling is that I found myself writing down pretty much every track on the album. I just went back to Before the Rise of an Empire, not because it plays the best to me but because it's the only song title I didn't write down as a highlight. It's a pretty good song, bouncy and engaging and with a neat instrumental section in the middle. I like it a lot and yet I guess it's the weakest song on the album. That realisation was a real wake up call.

Another wake up call is the fact that Ronnie Atkins was diagnosed with lung cancer a couple of years ago, not a pleasant prospect for anyone but especially for a professional rock singer. By 2020, he had the added news that his cancer had developed into stage four, meaning that it had spread. Given that knowledge, it's amazing to me how this album feels so bright and cheerful. It's melodic rock with each song memorable even before it reaches its killer hook and some of these choruses are so catchy that I could imagine Abba covering them. I think my favourite is Picture Yourself, which is glorious, but it's a nudge only above Real and Subjugated.

Backing Atkins on guitar and keyboards is his current Pretty Maids cohort Chris Laney, with a couple of former Pretty Maids bandmates joining them on drums and keyboards: that's Allan Sørensen and Morten Sandager respectively. The only non-Pretty Maids alumnus is Pontus Egberg, who's the bass player in King Diamond's current band. Guesting on guitar here and there are a number of names of the quality of Europe's Kee Marcello, At Vance's Oliver Hartmann and HammerFall's Pontus Norgren. Between them, they stir up a vibrant and rich sound.

This is one of those albums that I don't want to stop listening to. It was obviously at least a 7/10 from my first time through, but it quickly rose to an 8/10 and I think I have to go with a 9/10 by this point. It just keeps on growing on me and it's already essential. Just don't ask me to pick a favourite. If I gave you one right now, it would change in five minutes when it rolls onto the next one. Just buy the thing already!

Heart Healer - The Metal Opera by Magnus Karlsson (2021)

Country: Sweden
Style: Symphonic Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Mar 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives

Magnus Karlsson has to be the busiest musician in Sweden right now. His day job is to play guitars in a German power metal band called Primal Fear and his six studio albums with them include one from last year that I liked a great deal, Metal Commando. He also has his own outfit, Magnus Karlsson's Free Fall, playing every instrument but the drums, and this also put out a studio album in 2020, a wild and frenetic affair which I did hear and enjoy, even if I didn't get round to reviewing it.

However, if I'm counting correctly, these are just two of nine active projects that he's associated with right now and they release albums too. The Ferrymen put one out in 2019 with him on guitar, bass and keyboards. He provided the same services on the Allen/Olzon album that I thoroughly enjoyed in 2020 and now, he's kicking off 2021 with an album from another new project, Heart Healer, obviously as the composer, given the title, but also as performer, once again on guitar, bass and keyboards. Does the man ever sleep?

This one is notable for featuring a number of guest vocalists in the fashion of Avantasia, though I wasn't able to discern a concept and the songs are less varied than Tobias Sammet tends to compose, a state of affairs not entirely due to all seven of these guests being female and very comfortable singing in a symphonic metal framework. Given the working relationship that Karlsson already has with his fellow Swede, Anette Olzon, formerly of Nightwish and now of the Dark Element, it isn't at all surprising to discover her here on three tracks, or indeed to find Allen/Olzon's drummer, Anders Köllerfors, on all of them, but the other singers are notable too.

Most prolific is Adrienne Cowan, who's on five tracks. She's American and I believe her primary band is Seven Spires, though I don't believe I've heard them. She gets the first song, Awake, which means that its her delivering the fantastic vocal escalation a couple of minutes in that's precisely what YouTube reactors and talent show judges love to hear. She sounds great to begin with, but she keeps taking an extended note higher and higher until she's past where any of us expect her to end up and she keeps on going. Her range is stellar and her breath control excellent.

Only three of the seven get a song all to themselves, Cowan receiving two and Olzon one. The other is Noora Louhimo of Finnish heavy metal band Battle Beast and she gets to strut her stuff on the wildly varied Into the Unknown. When I reviewed the most recent Battle Beast album in 2019, she was easily the best thing about it and it's good to hear her on a song where she doesn't dominate so much, even though she still shines. She's also on Evil's Around the Corner, which is one of my favourite songs here, with its cinematic opening swell, though she shares the mike there with Cowan.

The other songs team these singers up, in many combinations too, from pairings to all seven showing back up for the album's closer, tellingly titled This is Not the End. This suggests that these ladies play characters in the titular opera and those characters move and interact as the story goes, but I wasn't able to follow their shifts any more than the underling concept. I recognised different voices, though there isn't a particularly vast gulf between Cowan and Louhimo, to cite just one example, so the duet between them doesn't sound like a duet at all.

In fact, the only other name I recognise here, that of Ailyn Giménez, who recently moved from Sirenia to the new Trail of Tears, is kind of lost in the mix because her three songs always combine her with at least two others and these ladies, as great as they all sound, aren't able to delineate themselves too well in this context, at least until This is Not the End where it's impossible to miss that there are many different voices in play.

Oddly, I found myself impressed on the macro and micro scales, thoroughly enjoying the whole album and catching wonderful little touches here and there throughout, but glossing over all the individual performances and, for the most part, the individual songs too. Louhimo carved out her ground best, a blistering showing on the final track underlining that.

Much of that is because the style is so consistent throughout. Sure, Weaker, which ironically may well be the strongest song here, has a majestic sweep; This is Not the End gets even more symphonic with prominent violin and cello; and Awake highlights how much Rainbow still influence European metal with its exotic touches. There's a lot going on here musically, most of it due to Karlsson himself, and I enjoyed all of it, but there's not a heck of a lot of dynamics in play. He took a very different approach to metal opera than Tobias Sammet. This is more consistently heavy than Avantasia and it's easily as much fun, but it's not remotely as interesting.

Monday, 29 March 2021

Architects - For Those That Wish to Exist (2021)

Country: UK
Style: Alternative
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 Feb 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Over time, Architects, who formed in 2004 in Brighton, have moved through a number of genres. They started out as a metalcore band, shifted notably into post-hardcore, apparently pissing off a chunk of their core fanbase, moved back again and gradually evolved past those genres entirely. There's post-hardcore here and metalcore too, but this is neither a post-hardcore nor a metalcore album. So what is it? There, to quote the Bard, is the rub. I can't really define this outside of simply "alternative" and that would be misleading. Some people seem to be using "arena rock", which is even more misleading. REO Speedwagon they're not.

So let's just say that it's highly varied, whether we're talking about the vocals of Sam Carter and his colleagues or the music that the band brings into play behind them.

I'm not sure exactly which voice belongs to whom, but this is an interplay between three of them: one is clean, calm and introspective and perfect for smooth modern pop music, a more emphatic one that remains clean and is alternative rock through and through and a shouty one that takes the emphasis all the way to -core levels. Without history to bias a new listener, they might think of Architects as pop music that gets really edgy rather than a metalcore band who have become a lot more commercial.

Musically, the same applies. There's a lot that's introspective and the keyboards of Ali Dean are very obvious throughout, not always to provide depth, texture or atmosphere. Sometimes they serve as a primary instrument to lead the way for songs to follow. Dean has been with Architects since 2006, but that's as their bass player, a role he still fills; he's only been responsible for keyboards and a drum pad since 2016. Drummer Dan Searle, the one remaining founder member, also handles programming and that really has become two jobs now rather than one broad one.

All this means that the variety isn't merely between tracks but within them, most of these following multiple paths with a lot of dynamic play. An Ordinary Extinction starts out heavy but promptly turns into synthpop; then it adds a layer of unusual rhythms and evolves into a hardcore song that's driven by its electronica as much as its voice. Other songs feature sections of dreamy pop music with a prog mindset, akin to Radiohead, but also sections that are loud and overt and clearly -core, whether it's hardcore or, in songs like Goliath, clearly a full on metalcore vibe that the band started out playing, even if that one finishes up with the most overt strings to be found anywhere on the album.

Goliath is one of four songs to feature a guest performer, in this case Simon Neil, the lead singer and guitarist for Scottish alternative rockers Biffy Clyro. Other guests include Winston McCall of Parkway Drive, the Aussie metalcore band; Mike Kerr of rock genre-hoppers Royal Blood; and Liam Kearly, of prog rockers Black Peaks. What's odd here is that none of them are obvious. The songs they're on fit absolutely with others around them that are played entirely by Architects, so much so that all these guests seem to be have been completely subsumed into the band.

This isn't my choice of genre, but I liked this a lot. For a number of reasons, I've been playing it for the majority of the past week, while I do other things, and it only gets better. The shouty vocal style never did anything for me, but it works here, alongside similarly emphatic musical choices like an ultraheavy riff late in Black Lungs that doom metal bands would kill for, almost a bass line played on guitar. And then they're back to pop music again with a catchy hook and woah woah backing. As Carter sings, "It's enough to plague a saint."

Black Lungs is a real highlight here, but there are others. This is a generous album, running just shy of an hour with fourteen full songs plus a minute and a half intro that should count too. The consistency is high, even though Architects move from djent to post punk to Euro dance to metalcore and it's not just the heavier parts I appreciated. In fact, given that the heavier songs are more likely to go shouty, I'm actually fonder of softer and subtler pieces like Dead Butterflies. That's a lush texture to open up, mostly because of keyboards, and the unusual rhythms and orchestrations only underline that.

Other critics have talked about the lyrical content, I'm sure, given that it looks at the environment, as Architects often do, but I'll comment about how unusual this look is. It's very personal, looking not at what's happening but at what we can do about it and it's alternately optimistic and pessimistic. We're empowered to do what we can, but it might not be enough. I hear that internal argument throughout the album, because it's bouncy and perky and hopeful until it isn't and suddenly it's dark and broody and angry. And that's entirely fair.

This is a really good album. Please add a point if you're fonder of shouty vocals than I am. And maybe another one too.

Turbulence - Frontal (2021)

Country: Lebanon
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 12 Mar 2021
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Prog Archives | YouTube

Lebanon is not likely to be the first place on anyone's tongue when thinking about the cutting edge of progressive metal, but Turbulence are inventive and tight and honestly deserve to see mention along with any other names in the genre you can come up with. And yes, that includes Dream Theater, which surely has to be a favourite of the guys in Turbulence. I liked this a lot more than I did the 2019 Dream Theater.

It's a long album and, sure, there's something about the genre that leads to that sort of disease but it can be a fun disease. This runs five minutes over an hour, with eight songs that range from six and a half up past eleven, if we ignore the soft keyboard interlude called Dreamless that clocks in at under three. That isn't an instrumental but the vocals are as soft as the synths. It absolutely exists to break the mood set by Madness Unforeseen before we roll into Ignite. What's important to note is that it's not a long album that feels long. It doesn't feel short either, but I was never bored and never felt that it outstayed its welcome, even on a seventh or eighth listen.

As if to highlight the band's ambition, Frontal kicks off with that eleven minute piece, Inside the Cage, which is an extended instrumental workout between vocal bookends. It's intricate stuff but lively and engaging too, with Omar El Hajj singing in clear and not notably accented English. If there's anything odd here, it's that the keyboards aren't obvious until they get the lead for a section. There's a really interesting sequence at the midpoint, that's part Tool and part Dream Theater, two stylistic approaches I wasn't expecting to ever hear at the same time.

As you might imagine for a progressive metal band with a Dream Theater fetish, everyone here is on point throughout, however intricate this gets. Mood Yassin is that keyboard player and he starts out Madness Unforeseen with a wild keyboard solo. A number of these songs are elevated because of his work and he's rarely absent, though he does drift into the background at points, to allow the others their own moments to shine, which they do.

El Hajj's vocals are clean, but there's a section of more shouted vocals on Ignite, all the more abrasive for coming quickly in a song following a keyboard interlude. I'm guessing they belong to guitarist Alain Ibrahim, who also produced the album. He's more notable for his guitarwork though, even if some of that is surely Anthony Atwe's bass instead, such as during the middle of Perpetuity, where I think that has to be a bass rather than a downtuned guitar. The rhythm section's other half is Sayed Gereige on drums and Perpetuity is a great song for him too, because it's so utterly varied and off typical rhythm.

As for that guitar work, many of the riffs are emphatic and staccato, but there are also many quieter melodic sections and the solos are frequently delightfully restrained, unfolding with a Dave Gilmour mindset that less isn't just more but that the right note played exactly right is better than a hundred that aren't. There's a great solo in this vein seven minutes into Inside the Cage, where the stretching of notes sounds like a glassblower creating something artistic out of liquid glass. That isn't the only way they unfold, but they're the best ones. I dig the more effusive solo midway through Crowbar Case too, but it's nowhere near as memorable. There's a Floydian vibe early in Faceless Man too, though it would never be mistaken for Pink Floyd.

My favourite instrumental section may be late in A Place I Go to Hide, which is alternately heavy and funky, utterly intricate moments punctuating the simple ones. I wanted that to last longer but, hey, I mentioned that is a 65 minute long album already, right. They can't extend everything! What's telling to me on this front is that this feels like a well rounded album. There are prog metal albums where I'd really like it if the vocalist just went off for a pint so his colleagues could jam, while there are others where I'd like the extended instrumentals to quit for a while so the vocalist could sing. Frontal finds a very good balance between the two and that never seems strained.

Talking of types of progressive metal band, most of them are known for their technical chops (with a few who aren't and whose ambition easily outstrips their talent), but some have a commercial edge to them, ensuring that every song has a hook to it to which all the instrumental wizardry can tie, and some don't, hoping that the music itself is interesting enough to keep us even without hooks. I'd call Turbulence the latter but they're a rare example where I wonder if I've categorised them properly. I can't say that there are a lot of hooks here, but the music and the vocals above it are inventive and constantly interesting.

As I mentioned, this isn't a long 65 minutes, even on repeat listens, and I can't say that Frontal ever lost my attention. It's a real highlight for me this March.

Wednesday, 17 March 2021

King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard - L.W. (2021)

Country: Australia
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 Feb 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

Probably Australia's most famous psychedelic rock band and certainly the most prolific, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard are back with another album, which is their seventeenth. This one is said to be a sequel to K.G., which came out last year, and it's the third in their thematic series, Explorations into Microtonal Tuning, which began with Flying Microtonal Banana in 2017. As they release albums every time I blink, I missed K.G., though I did review the two before that. The initials, of course, refer to the band. They've done a lot more clever things in their time than that, which may mean that I'm missing something more subtle here.

I can't speak to the technical aspects of these microtonal shenanigans but the result does sound perky to me, whether it's the upbeat and funky opener, If Not Now, Then When?, the genre-hopping vibes of O.N.E. or the psychedelic folk music of Pleura. And that's just the first three songs of nine. I'm sure an array of musicologists will dissect what King Gizzard are doing here but, from the point of view of the listener, these songs don't sound remotely like each other, but they nonetheless play well together, so I assume there are plenty more connections that I'm hearing.

I appreciate the variety and how deep some of these songs go. Pleura, for instance, begins and ends as a stoner rock song, but that riff turns into intricate psychedelic folk that reminds a little of the first side of Pink Floyd's Ummagumma translated into the modern era. Next up is Supreme Ascendancy and that starts out sounding Japanese, moves to the subcontinent and ends up wound around what seems to be a crazy complex breakbeat.

In a way, Static Electricity continues that, but with a middle eastern sound rather than anything from further east. And, as if to underline how deliberate that all is, it's followed by East West Link, which is what a western band playing with microtones is, I guess. However, it does feel odd to call King Gizzard a western band, given that Australia is due south of Japan, the Koreas and eastern China, even if they happen to be part of the Commonwealth. This could be called North South Link with as much validity.

I've found that King Gizzard are so inventive and, of course, so prolific, that the quality of the music they release varies and some of it might speak more to some people than others. I loved their endless loop of an album, Nonagon Infinity, and I liked a lot of Fishing for Fishies but was left dry by a lot of Infest the Rats' Nest. I like this one enough that I'd put it above the two I've reviewed but a notch or three behind Nonagon Infinity because it's not as consistent.

While the earlier tracks are strong when heard in isolation, I think L.W. manages to find its vibe with Supreme Ascendancy and keeps that going for for the rest of the album. Well, I'd say at least as far as See Me, five songs in, because K.G.L.W. wraps things up with a much doomier and metallic tone, but it's a lot closer to the vibe of the middle of the album than the earlier songs had. This whole section mixes various ethnic sounds of the east (or north) with a flavour of hypnotic psychedelic rock that's familiar to us here in the west (or south).

I don't know what the instrumentation is, because I can't find it listed anywhere but I'm assuming it's both traditional rock instruments and traditional instruments from world music, like sitars, bells and hand drums. I don't think that's a koto on Supreme Ascendancy, unless it's sampled and manipulated, which is very possible. Are those steel drums on See Me? K.G. also featured a bağlama, a Turkish lute rather like a bouzouki, and it wouldn't surprise me if there was one in here too. There are surely a few different ethnic wind instruments as well and every one of these instruments adds another flavour to this multi-cultural soup.

And, at the end of the day, it all sounds excellent to me. Psychedelic rock is a surprisingly broad genre and it's bands like King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard who are continually expanding those boundaries. They just did that again on this album. Check out Static Electricity, which sits at the heart of it, for its standout track and, if you like that, just let the album play on. I may up my rating to an 8/10 yet.

Five the Hierophant - Through Aureate Void (2021)

Country: UK
Style: Post-Black Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 26 Feb 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

While it's not as broadly despised as nu metal, I see a lot of hate hurled at the black metal genre, as if even the guys listening to slamming brutal death metal see it as just noise. And, sure, black metal in its rawest form can often be an underproduced bleak and uncompromising wall of sound, but I believe that it has to be the most versatile extreme subgenre nowadays, as those intense aspects can merge so well with a variety of other genres, not all of which are metal. That black metal can tie so integrally to ambient and jazz and psychedelic rock fascinates me.

Case in point: Five the Hierophant, who play what is often described as post-black metal but could be dark jazz or even progressive rock. They hail from London, though not all their names are rendered in the Latin alphabet—महाकाली translates from the Nepali into Mahakali—and they conjure up what is an enticingly accessible avant-garde sound. It's utterly original even if it reminds of a slew of utterly original bands who play with black metal in unusual ways, like Katharos XIII, White Ward and Oranssi Pazuzu. The other point of comparison I found is to seventies prog bands like Van der Graaf Generator and King Crimson.

It's entirely instrumental in the sense that there's no vocalist, though there are narrative moments to be found, and it incorporates a lot of jazz and ethnic music, saxophone arguably the lead instrument and hand drums occasionally as obvious as any other instrument, such as on Pale Flare Over Marshes. The instrumentation gets strange from the sliding bells that kick off Leaf in the Current; while I knew what djembes are from listening to west African music, I hadn't the faintest idea what a rag-dung was, but it's apparently a long Tibetan trumpet, not something you'd usually hear in a derivative of black metal.

There are five pieces of music on offer here, all over eight minutes and averaging over ten, with Pale Flare Over Marshes only a second shy of fifteen, and I adored the first four.

Leaf in the Current is the majestic opener, Mitch's bass stirring up a dark atmosphere underlined by a deep groove and some urgent beats, then decorated in fascinating fashion by whoever's handling the saxophone. This is prowling dark jazz and it utterly stole my attention for twelve minutes. Fire from Frozen Cloud and Berceuse (for Magnetic Sleep) play in the same ballpark but mix things up a little. They're still dark jazz that nail their groove and overlaid with sax, not just soloing but with timeless drawn out long notes.

All these pieces are magnetic because their grooves are so immersive but they also feature subtleties deep in their backgrounds that are well worth exploring. Even while the sax is at its most prominent and especially when it isn't, I often found myself focused on the bass. I did that a lot on Berceuse, an old name for a particular type of lullaby and it does take the hypnotic nature of these pieces and turn it in that lulling direction, though I was engrossed throughout.

Pale Flare Over Marshes feels a lot looser to me, perhaps because it's longer. It does some of the same things but it feels jazzier and more experimental, breathing a lot more, even with the most overt riff to be found anywhere on the album. I didn't like it as much as the previous three pieces of music, but I still liked it a great deal. It was The Hierophant (II) that left me dry and that's a shame because I had this down as a solid 9/10, challenging Omination for Album of the Month, until that point.

This is a really strange piece to end the album. It reminded me a lot of King Crimson, but it's like the most out there improvisational section of Moonchild got moved to the end of the record instead of serving as an unusual introduction to the killer last track. Like Moonchild, this one does odd things with drums too, starting out with a very progressive slow drum solo, while the atmosphere builds so the saxophone can eventually join in. I didn't hate it but it felt like quite the letdown after the prior four pieces.

And so I guess this has to drop from that 9/10, but not far. This still gets a solid 8/10 from me and it's one more fascinating album in a month when I've aleady reviewed Nepal Death and Omination. Now I'm eager to check out the prior Five the Hierophant album, Over Phlegethon, which was their debut in 2017, and a couple of EPs that are longer than most albums, Magnetic Sleep Tapes Vols. I and II, especially if they sound like Berceuse.

Tuesday, 16 March 2021

Eisbrecher - Liebe Macht Monster (2021)

Country: Germany
Style: NDH
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Mar 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

It's been a while since I've reviewed any NDH here at Apocalypse Later but Eisbrecher are back with an eighth studio album and it's quintessential stuff for the genre. There's not a heck of a lot of variety in here, though the songs do start to delineate themselves on a second listen, but it hits every checkbox that an NDH fan will be looking for and it does that within every one of the fourteen songs that stack up to comprise this generous almost hour long album. There's even one song with a guest appearance from Dero Goi of Oomph! and Die Kreatur to tie to the wider NDH scene.

The vocals of Alexx Wesselsky are clean, deep and in your face. The guitarwork of Noel Pix and Jürgen Plangger follows suit, adding an industrial rhythm through their riffing, while the rhythm section is tasked with underlining all that, Achim Färber's beats often sounding as much like a rivet machine as a drumkit. Absolutely everything is told with emphasis but it's also melodic and with a strong EBM angle through the keyboards and programming of Maximilian Schauer.

It's the latter that provides the greatest variety here because that angle waxes and wanes through the album. Schauer is all over songs like Nein Danke, which is as obvious an NDH single as I've heard in a long time, and Systemsprenger, but steps back a little on the opening single, FAKK, which sounds just like what you think it does—"Fakk, ich fakk dein ding"—but also introduced me to some imaginative German words. If I'm understanding the translation properly, because everything here is naturally in German, even on High Society, their word for a Twitter troll is "hobbyhitler", which is just perfect.

I guess different people will have different opinions about how that balance should work in any NDH song, but I think my own taste has the title track as the perfect balance. Not only can we follow either the dancing electronic side or the crunching metal side throughout the song, but the two combine in ways that go beyond both happening at the same time. Oddly, it's a little slower than the average for this album and I'm usually all about the speed. Then again, Systemsprenger follows it at a slower and less emphatic pace, so everything's relative.

The slowest song here is the one that stands out the most from its peers for being different and that's Himmel, which turns the guitars down massively and so makes this sound a lot more poppy, even with such a powerful beat. I get the feeling that the second half of the album is a little lighter than the first, but not so much that it's obvious and not to the album's detriment. I think, after the title track, I'd call out late songs like Leiserdrehen and Es lebe der Tod as highlights along with early ones like Nein Danke and FAKK.

All in all, this is a strong release from a band who are a little behind their typical schedule. Eisbrecher formed in 2003, released their first album the following year and added another every two years after that. The only exception was 2015's Schock, which took three, and this one, which didn't show up until four years after 2017's Sturmfahrt. I don't believe I've heard any of those, but I'd be more than happy to check them out on the basis of this one. Liebe Macht Monster is long and it's consistent, but it never gets old.

Grande Fox - Empty Nest (2021)

Country: Greece
Style: Stoner/Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 19 Feb 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | YouTube

Next up in my exploration of the apparently thriving rock/metal scene in Greece is Grande Fox, whose Bandcamp page says they play "space psychedelic stoner heavy rock". That's fair but maybe a little bit misleading, as there's another element missing from that description and there's nothing to hint at a very American sound. Sure, stoner rock came from the U.S. but, whenever I see both "psychedelic" and "space" in a genre, I think Hawkwind and they're not where Grande Fox tend to go, except perhaps on Brainstorm.

The heart of their sound is hard rock with enough fuzz on the guitar and enough of a psychedelic edge to count as stoner rock. There are southern rock tinges here too, most obviously on Hangman, and an alternate Nick Cave-esque groove early in Route 99. However, that missing element is highlighted by a prominent bass and clean but angsty vocals and that's nu metal, especially when a second voice adds to the depth of Rottenness of Youth and raises System of a Down along with more expected bands.

Nikos Berzamanis is the lead vocalist here and it's obvious that he listens to a lot of trendy American bands, not just because of his general vocal style but because of the way in which he crafts melodies and fills space. There's clearly plenty of pop, rap and punk in his voice, but somehow he fits in a hard/stoner rock outfit and fits surprisingly well. He's easily the most nu metal aspect in this band but I'm happy to say that he sounds good here, doesn't piss me off in the slightest and makes me appreciate just how versatile he can be. He's never trying to be someone specific; he's always experimenting with what might make a song sound different and that's never a bad thing.

Given how much music I cover from Europe and South America and other countries outside the U.S., it can't come as much of a surprise to find that I'm one of those old school fans who regards nu metal as more of a loud American pop genre than a progression of rock music down a particular track. I'm not a fan, generally speaking, though there are bands I appreciate. I like System of a Down and Rage Against the Machine as much as I don't like Korn and Limp Bizkit. If that's me just appreciating originality, it shouldn't surprise that I kind of like Grande Fox even when I don't.

And not everything here is for me, Overdose probably being the most obvious song I don't like, but it still features elements I do, like that neat Sabbath-esque riff that kicks it into motion. It's safe to say that more songs are absolutely for me. I particularly like the opener, Backstab, with its late drift into psychedelia; the space rock freakout, Brainstorm; and the genre hopping trip that is Brutal Colors. It isn't the only song here to find a funky vibe, regardless of whatever else it's doing.

This is a second full length studio album from Grande Fox, following Space Nest in 2016 and an EP in 2018 called Kulning. I liked a lot of this and I appreciated all of it and it's a particularly great example of how much musical invention is coming out of Greece nowadays. This is a more versatile album than other American-influenced releases I've reviewed by bands like Skybinder, Soundtruck and Dendrites, but it underlines once more a surprising trend for Greek bands to take their influences not from the rest of Europe but from across the pond in the U.S.

Monday, 15 March 2021

Eyehategod - A History of Nomadic Behavior (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Punk/Sludge Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Mar 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I knew Eyehategod had been around a while, but I was surprised to find that they were founded all the way back in 1988. They've also had a pretty stable line-up, with two of the four members in place since their demo days; I'm sure drummer Joey LaCaze would still be there too had he not passed in 2014. It's only their release schedule that's fighting them. For a band formed the same year as Cannibal Corpse, Paradise Lost and Nine Inch Nails, it's surprising to realise that this is only their sixth studio album, given the healthy double digit output of those other examples.

I'm not sure I've ever heard Eyehategod before and I certainly can't say that this is my favourite style of all time, but they do what they do very well. Generally, they're regarded as sludge metal and there are certainly some huge riffs here, but there are few songs that really live or die on those. They have a confrontational style that's epitomised in the hardcore punk vocals of Mike Williams that sound very sarcastic indeed. He's not just singing with his audience, he's arguing with them and he has the mike.

That's only one reason why they sound very punk to me. There's a stop/start mindset to the music that makes their often already short songs feel even shorter. The Outer Banks, for example, with a creeping riff, only runs two and a half minutes but a big pause and tempo shift halfway makes it sound like two songs of a minute plus rather than one at double that. They often made me think of the Accüsed but with a serious pace drop. Even in the faster second half of that song, Eyehategod sound like an Accüsed EP played at 33rpm instead of 45rpm.

The other punk angle is that this is a deliberately rough around the edges recording, as if it's not the actual album but we've been made privy to an early rehearsal tape that would normally be polished in many ways before release. Nobody in this band cares about tidying up loose endings, presumably of a shared mindset that feedback is a crucial part of their sound. It works to my mind in Three Black Eyes, which is one of the most agreeably loose songs here, but not on Current Situation, which may actually feature more feedback than notes. Some of these three minute recordings are two minutes of song and another of plugging in instruments and checking that the guy in the booth is awake.

But, like I said, they do this well. I actually don't mind Mike Williams's vocals, because they really fit this sound. Jimmy Bower's riffs are as crushing as anything this loose can be and I liked the prowling bass of Garry Mader a lot. He's always plugging away as a reliable backdrop even when the rest of the band gives up on songs like Current Situation and The Day Felt Wrong to experiment with feedback. Sure, there's Discharge and Black Flag here, but there's some Swans too.

The last time I was this unenthused by an album that I actually reviewed (holy crap, there are plenty I don't review because there's way too much good stuff out there for me to haul the hatchet man critic persona out) was the Hum album from 2020 that did so well in the end of year lists. The big difference between the two is that, while this isn't my thing, I can easily get why it might be yours. I couldn't get why anyone would listen to, let alone like, that Hum album, but this is clearly good stuff and many of my punk friends would dig it.

Eyehategod are heavy and angry, but they're playful and inventive too. Even I got into songs like The Day Felt Wrong—"Who do you trust? Who do you trust?"—or Smoker's Piece, with its sleazy vibe and even sleazier bass, and this isn't my scene. If it's yours, then I recommend this even if I'm not likely to ever haul it out again. Well, you never know.

Chez Kane - Chez Kane (2021)

Country: UK
Style: Melodic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Mar 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | YouTube

Here's another artist who I first heard on Chris Franklin's ever-reliable Raised on Rock radio show. He played her single Too Late for Love, which is an absolutely brilliant melodic rock song, even if it feels like it came out before she was even born. Then again, I think she must be older than she looks, as she has apparently fronted the band Kane'd with her two sisters for the past decade. I'm not aware of what they sound like, but this could have fallen out of a time warp from the year 1987, right down to the na na na on Ball n' Chain. And that choice of punctuation.

Sadly, Too Late for Love is easily the best song here so my hopes for a dozen killers like that were soon dashed. However, this is still a pretty good album. There are ten songs on offer here and they're in the four minute range so there's a good three quarters of an hour of material. The worst of them are still decent while the best of them are lot better than that, even if they can't match that first single. Some do come close and they all grow a little on a second listen too.

What's notable to me is that somehow Kane has managed to distil all the different angles of eighties melodic rock into a sound that isn't derivative. Sure, Rocket on the Radio has a solid Poison vibe and Ball n' Chain is more than a little reminiscent of Living on a Prayer, but the rest of them don't really sound like anyone in particular, more an entire era, making this quite the nostalgia album. One of my friends who's still pissed that Nirvana changed the musical landscape would absolutely love this, as it would take him right back to his favourite era.

Kane's sound is radio friendly melodic rock with her voice always leading the way. It's a fantastic voice for this sort of material because it's strong and confident and knows how to soar but it has a softness to it too when it needs to be more tender. The keyboards are prominent but the guitars aren't too far back in the mix, so this is soft and melodic but also up tempo and driving. Danny Rexon, the Swedish vocalist for Crazy Lixx, plays every instrument here except for the saxophone of Jesse Molloy, which is a neat decoration on a couple of tracks.

I should emphasise that it's all up tempo, because there are no overt ballads to slow everything down. If the final song, Dead End Street, hints at it ballad territory for a while, it picks up and rocks out like the rest of the album. In fact, the one exception that proves the rule is in the other direction, because Midnight Rendezvous ratchets things up with the guitars front and centre and the vocals scorching. If most of the songs here are in the more lively Lisa Dominique ballpark, albeit with better production and a little less seventies glam rock, this one is a lot more like Lee Aaron the eighties Metal Queen.

I may like the single better than the album, but then it's an absolutely killer single and a pretty damn good album. Chez Kane may be endearingly down to earth but she has quite a career ahead of her and I for one look forward to watching it continue to grow.

Friday, 12 March 2021

Rob Zombie - The Lunar Injection Kool Aid Eclipse Conspiracy (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Industrial/Hard Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 12 Mar 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I was surprised last year to see that Powerman 5000 are still knocking out albums and, in fact, haven't stopped doing so since what I think of as their era. I'm even more surprised to see that Rob Zombie is doing the same thing because, unlike his brother, Spider One, who's primarily a musician, Zombie has become in my mind a filmmaker who used to put out music. Apparently, he's actually alternated these worlds pretty well over time and I completely missed albums like Venomous Rat Regeneration Vendor and The Electric Warlock Acid Witch Satanic Orgy Celebration Dispenser.

So, here's another word salad of a title that you'd know had to come from Rob Zombie's brain, even if he'd left his name and image off the front cover. And, of course, the sound is just as recognisable, as it really is just a brain dump of all the things that make him tick, hot rods and hillbillies and burlesque dancers and carnivals and exploitation movies and all that jazz, flavoured up with samples and a host of tracks that are just distractions from the music like we're in the middle of 42nd Street with theatre signs and posters everywhere and we can't decide what to see first.

Now, if you're in the mood for an ADHD trip through Rob Zombie's brain, this will do the job, perhaps more so than earlier albums from his heyday. There are songs with that sort of heavy urgency that we remember from back in the day, The Triumph of King Freak (A Crypt of Preservation and Superstition) kicking us off in that vein, but there are oodles of tiny samples and other details, like bongos, sirens and tearing metal to continually distract us. It veers away into funk and disco and who knows however many other genres at points, just to keep us even more on the hop.

The Ballad of Sleazy Rider is a little more focused and, whenever Zombie focuses in, we always realise just how overtly Alice Cooper influenced him. It's got to the point where I actually wonder if it's Rob Zombie sounding like Alice Cooper or whether he got Alice to guest on the album. I'm thinking that's Rob singing most of the song and also Shadow of the Cemetery Man or Get Loose, but I'm not convinced that isn't actually Alice in the quieter points of Sleazy Rider.

There's some interesting music here, but it's hard to listen to this album as a set of songs. It feels as if this is a forty-two minute ride instead and the songs are just background music to the visuals that we have to imagine on our own. Some of the songs even play into that, 18th Century Cannibals, Excitable Morlocks and a One-Way Ticket on the Ghost Train (that's only one song) being a hillbilly carnival of a song that's a country hoedown and barker monologue except for a few brief bursts of energy.

It doesn't help that some of the intermediary pieces are as long as some of the songs. I really like The Satanic Rites of Blacula for instance, which is a rough edged garage rock romp, but it arrives after The Much Talked of Metamorphosis which is a soft guitar interlude only twelve seconds shorter than this full song. By this point, I'd kind of given up listening to songs and just let the album flow over me as a sort of enjoyable tie die ambient nightmare trip. Which, I guess, is probably the point.

I'd say the band are really tight, not least because I keep watching John 5 videos on YouTube so I know how amazingly versatile this guitarist is but, even in the really tight sections, it never feels like these musicians are in the same place. Everything is so produced that I could believe that this is the sort of album becoming prevalent in the COVID era where each musician is in a different country recording a different track in a different Zoom window for Zombie to piece together in the studio afterwards and immerse in samples. Frankly, I could believe that the rest of the band isn't even real and Zombie just reanimated collected dead tissue into different forms and gave it drumsticks and a bass guitar.

And Now the Owls are Smiling - Dirges (2021)

Country: UK
Style: Atmospheric Black Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 29 Jan 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives

I've heard a lot of good things about And Now the Owls are Smiling, yet another one man atmospheric black metal project, this time from the wilds of Norfolk. The one man goes by Nre, so he probably has the same name as me, merely two counties up from where I was born. Of course, he's able to play a lot of different instruments, not least everything on this album, while I can only play the fool, so he has the edge on me there.

Nre plays his atmospheric black metal with a strong side of depression. The eight numbered dirges on this album apparently follow stages of depression, from initial grief all the way to death and beyond. I caught the depressive tone, not least because Nre's vocal approach is mostly to scream into the void at the unfairness of existence, but was unable to catch any sort of progression. Maybe it's there in the lyrics which are not just unintelligible but often buried so far beneath the instrumentation that I was sometimes trying to confirm to myself that vocals were happening.

I can buy into that approach, even if it seems odd. Maybe the character Nre is portraying through the cycle of depression feels that he's not being heard and that lack of acknowledgement of his suffering is fuelling further depression. I don't know if that's a deliberate decision on Nre's part or whether it's me rationalising it, but it seems to work on that level. I wonder how some of my friends who suffer from various forms of depression would see this.

What I struggled with was the fact that most of the music here sounds acutely similar. That howl into the void sits just underneath a sound that's almost entirely the same combo of hyperspeed blastbeats and full speed guitar, with a layer of oddly hopeful keyboards adding melody and texture. There's not much here that varies the tempo or indeed that sound. There are some atmospheric intros and outros and three of the dirges are short and peaceful interludes. That's the bookends, Grief, a strong opener which mixes waves with a drummed heartbeat and a choral drone, and Ascension, which is the ray of hope the album needed to end with, plus Lucidity, which is a welcome pause in the intensity.

In fact, this gets so samey that the standout tracks for me almost automatically become those with at least a little will to change things up a little. Much of Pointlessness throws out the same sound we've been listening to all along, but there are slower sections and, given the high emotional content here, that lends it some poignancy. Acceptance is slower, which is almost shocking at this point, but it's still of a consistent pace and sound throughout, so it's like the other songs but at a third of the tempo.

The twist to those rare moments of variety is that they also serve to highlight how little of it there is here, so those are double-edged swords of songs. I wonder how many times the critics who have raved about this album, the third from Nre and And Now the Owls are Smiling, have actually listened to it. I can't say I didn't like the sound that's conjured up here as it's a good sound, but I'd have appreciated the album more if there had been a second sound too and a third and a fourth.