Friday, 24 December 2021

Volbeat - Servant of the Mind (2021)

Country: Denmark
Style: Hard Rock/Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 3 Dec 2021
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Volbeat have been around for more than two decades now and this is their eighth studio album. I hadn't heard them before their previous effort, though, Rewind, Replay, Rebound, and it's fair to say that I was very surprised. What surprised me was their sound or, rather, that they don't have a single sound, instead shifting entirely unconcerned between three very different sounds, with an alternative rock voice singing over them throughout. I heard safe alternative rock, rockabilly and groove metal, not styles I'd usually expect to hear performed by one band on one album.

Well, it shouldn't be too surprising to find that they do the same thing here, though it's still more apparent when they shift from one style another during the same song, Mindlock starting out in chugging Metallica territory but turning gradually into the sort of safe alternative rock they play at bowling alleys. To be fair, there are some really interesting combinations on this one that look at new areas of rock music. The Passenger kicks off with a Motörhead rhythm section, but is sung more like punk pop. Step into Light is a soft pop song interpreted through a punky take on surf.

The most interesting song on the album is The Sacred Stones, which starts out as traditional heavy metal, threating to go full on doom but never quite taking that dare. It becomes a slow Dio track, but with Michael Poulsen's alt rock voice attempting to master Dio's recognisable intonation and breaks without changing too much. Parts of it remind very much of Heaven and Hell, but there are odd moments when I thought they were going to launch into The Final Countdown. It softens later but comes back to that chugging Metallica sound. There's a lot to reconcile on this one.

Mostly, though, we stay in those three core sounds.

The dominant one this time is groove metal, though the downtuned groove style is turned down in favour of mainstream Black-era Metallica alt metal. This is the sound of Shotgun Blues, Say No More (complete with lyrics that tellingly include the words "Jump in the Fire") and the final three tracks, especially Lasse's Birgitta, which wraps up the album. It fascinates me that Volbeat are an abiding lesson to old school Metallica fans who are convinced that The Black Album was a sellout. Shotgun Blues is what it would have sounded like with a real shift in vocal style to alt rock. I dug it as a commercial rock/metal song, but I also missed James Hetfield's recognisable vocals.

The rockabilly sound is sidelined this time out, though it's there early on Wait a Minute My Girl, a song that feels like Cheap Trick covering Elvis Presley, especially with the horn section at the end. The Devil Rages On heavies that up, with a very deliberate accent on the vocals and a much darker psychobilly flavour to it that reminds of the Cramps. Heaven's Descent is the only song to find the Michale Graves-era Misfits vibe, something that became the norm on the last album, and it's a highlight here.

The third, safe alternative rock, sound is here too but shimmied up a little. Dagen Før is the most obvious example, because it starts out like Bryan Adams, only to heavy up a little. There's a guest appearance here of Stine Bramsen, lead singer for the Danish pop group Alphabeat. However, an array of other songs feature the alt rock sound deeper than just Poulsen's voice. Mindlock ends up there, Step into Light plays there and Temple of Ekur, the album's opener, feels like it was built in layers and Abba vocal melodies were the layer that identify it to the world. Sure, the music under them is clearly rock and rather heavy too, but it's still an Abba song at heart.

And, as on the last album, I can't help but wonder how fans respond to this bizarre combination of styles. Volbeat do all three well, but it still seems odd to me that they do each of them so often. If fans showed up to see Bad Brains, they'd have probably expected a reggae song to show up amidst all the punk, and they generally didn't have a problem with that, but most of them might not have been happy if they found reggae filling the entire set. The Wedding Present played in two utterly distinct styles, but they tended to do either one or the other in entirety, either their typical indie rock or Ukrainian folk music, rather than mixing them together. Not so Volbeat.

Wayward Sons - Even Up the Score (2021)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 8 Oct 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter

Not to be confused with the '80s tribute band in LA featuring Hugh Jass on vocals and Lou Bido on guitar and keyboards, this Wayward Sons are a New Wave of Classic Rock outfit from the UK which was set up after an offer from the ever prolific Frontiers label to help Toby Jepson, of Little Angels fame, "get back on the horse". The band he put together in response includes old and new names, Nic Wastell the bass player for Chrome Molly and Dave Kemp an old Little Angels bandmate, so of quite the heritage, but drummer Phil Martini known for Joe Elliot's Down and Outz and guitarist Sam Wood from Treason Kings. This is their third album and they're a mainstay in NWoCR circles.

Unlike many of their notable peers, I haven't heard them yet. I wasn't paying attention when they put out Ghosts of Yet to Come in 2017 and somehow I let 2019's The Truth Ain't What It Used to Be slip past me, so I wanted to make sure I didn't let the same thing happen with this one. It really is good stuff and I can happily say that, for a change, you can believe all the hype. It's as urgent as a consistent cover art approach that pitches these albums like comic books might suggest, with the sound harder and more up tempo than I remember the excellent Little Angels being but closer to what I remember from Chrome Molly.

I liked the album from the outset, because Even Up the Score starts out with a riff reminiscent of Tank, then moves into a neat hook. It remains rock instead of metal, but it's vibrant and up tempo stuff that emphatically wants us to move. I found that my toes were tapping even before the first chorus and I was almost singing along on my first time through, without knowing the words. Most of the songs as the album runs on fit those comments too but, for a while, they do the same thing in much the same way, so I wondered if the downside would be variety.

It would likely be the only downside, because these are good riffs and good hooks and the entire band feels energetic and driven, however old some of these musicians must be now. I was buying Little Angels and Chrome Molly albums in the mid eighties, so Jepson and Wastell have to carry a few more years than me and I'm in my second half century now. And hey, consistency can't be that much of a bad thing, right? Maybe they'll mix it up later and they do a little with Bloody Typical, a song that pares the heaviness back quite a bit without losing energy and vibrancy. Don't worry, it comes back on Faith in Fools.

But it's fair to say that I was losing faith as the first half wrapped up with Fake, a sub-three minute song with a riff that initially sounds like Smoke on the Water played by an eight year old after two lessons on the guitar. But the second half grabbed me and grabbed me hard. Downfall starts with a bass line right out of Thin Lizzy and Jepson's voice is even more acerbic than usual, spitting out a host of neat rhymes. It builds to a strong chorus and there's an excellent solo from Sam Wood too. He's no slouch at all on this album, even if he doesn't have the experience of Jepson and Wastell.

If Downfall remains my favourite song here, Tip of My Tongue and the toe tapping Looking for a Reason aren't too far behind it and they're the next two on the album, underlining how strong side two is. Even with less to work with on Land of the Blind, they make it work anyway and there's yet another excellent bass line on They Know. And that leads us to This Party's Over, the closer, which is something again for Wayward Sons.

While the vibrancy of these songs might suggest that the band are all about emphasis and power, with lyrical content much further down their priority list, I ought to shoot that thought down now. Sure, some of the ideas are more routine than others, but Jepson has a good turn of phrase and it finds itself put to its best use on This Party's Over, almost a story song that certainly has the most poetry, the most substance and the most resonance. It, like the album as a whole, entertains first and foremost but also leaves us thinking a little about what Jepson is singing about.

I thought a lot about whether I should give this an 8/10 rather than just 7/10 and I'm still not sure I picked the right one. Every time I listen through, quite a few songs leap out as highlights, but I'm not convinced by everything here, especially Fake. In the end, I felt that there were just too many highlights to warrant staying at 7/10. Clearly, this is a good band, not just one featuring invigorated musicians after decades of waiting for this moment but a good one in 2022 regardless. Carry on!

Thursday, 23 December 2021

Trivium - In the Court of the Dragon (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Metalcore
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 Oct 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

It's only been a year and a half since the ninth Trivium studio album, What the Dead Men Say, and yet they're back already with their tenth, In the Court of the Dragon. Given that they've gradually shifted over the years from a metalcore sound to a more traditional heavy metal sound, I'm eager to see how much further down that road they've got this time out, now that they're closing in on a quarter of a century as a band. Yeah, it's been 23 years since they formed! We're getting old.

After a brief intro, simply called X, the title track kicks in just like we're back in 1999, Matt Heafy's vocals shouty and his and Corey Beaulieu's guitars distinctly djenty. However, as the song grows, it finds its way out of that. The tempo increases until we realise that we've got to progressive, even symphonic metal territory and the vocals shift into clean mode. It's not done quite like that, as it's a back and forth thing, but the difference in extremes is notable. There are points where this is an angry song, pure and simple, and points where it gets back to doing interesting things musically.

Like a Sword Over Damocles does something similar, but spends far more of its time on the heavy metal side of that pivot and, even when Heafy's screaming in the verses, the guitars are playing a more complex game than the inherently limited palm muting approach. There's still that nineties alternative metal sound, if you're looking for it, but far more of the song leaves it behind, finding anger more effectively through fast, vicious riffs instead of a simple vocal affectation. The chorus has a pretty decent melodic hook to it, but the instrumental sections just rip.

As the album runs on, it moves more and more towards traditional heavy metal, albeit often at a faster and more furious tempo than would have happened back in the day. When it looks back to a former era, it does so using the toolbox of modern metal, both mainstream or exteme. There are metalcore components, melodic death metal components, thrash metal components, progressive metal components and others.

What I found was that the longer songs are the ones that do it for me the most and that means a trio that exceed seven minutes. I noticed this on repeat listens, because, once we get past the two openers, Feast of Fire and A Crisis of Revelation are just there. There's nothing wrong with them, but I kept getting distracted away from them by the smallest nothings, only for my attention to be grabbed back by the intricate intro to The Shadow of the Abattoir.

The sub-four minute No Way Back Just Through is an excellent song by comparison to the two I can never quite notice, but Fall into Your Hands spirits it into oblivion because it's acutely interesting and agreeably complex. It kicks off with unusual rhythms, proceeds with odd but effective stylistic choices—at one point becoming pure thrash—and ends entirely orchestrally. Similarly, From Dawn to Decadence is strong but it finds itself vanished by the closer, The Phalanx. Maybe if I heard these shorter songs in isolation, I could appreciate them more, but they're all consistently overshadowed by the longer ones, each of which establishes itself effectively.

And all that makes this an interesting album. I'm not going to rate it higher than its predecessor, because I'm not convinced it's a better album, but I certainly enjoyed it more, and all the more as it ran on. I realise that what I'm liking most of all is their progression away from their trendy roots as an early 21st century band doing something interesting with metalcore. I'm liking that they're gradually moving away from the more limiting angles to their sound, without quite ditching them entirely, and adding in more traditional elements without ever going backwards. They're still on a forward road, just with a better tricked out vehicle. I like that.

Counterline - One (2021)

Country: Colombia
Style: Melodic Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 22 Dec 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram

Counterline may hail from Bogotá, Colombia, but they sound a lot more like they ought to be from Denmark, where their label, Lions Pride, is based. This is very European sounding melodic rock, an approach that surely reflects where their primary influences come from. When they're good, and they're good quickly here with opener If You're Clear with Your Words and single The One, they're up there with some of the better Scandinavian melodic rock I've heard this year, if not at the level of Ronnie Atkins or W.E.T.

The bad news is that they can't maintain that level of quality across the entire running time. This is a debut album, I believe, and, even if it isn't, it sounds like one, even if the band members aren't new to the industry. Harold Waller, for instance, who handles the lead vocals, keyboards and bass, as well as chipping in on guitar, used to be in a band called Supremacy that released an album and played some major gigs. Drummer GG Andreas also played for Supremacy and while pianist Rubio Res didn't, he did play for Waller's solo project, Fandiño. None of them are new.

The good news is that there isn't anything that's obviously broken and so needs to be fixed before the band can move forward. I see this album as a beginning, a promising one but still a beginning, with a lot of the right steps taken already but a lot more still to come. They need to figure out the identity they want Counterline to have and maybe settle on a line-up, because the guitarist guest list is a long one. I'm guessing that neither Waller nor Andreas think of themselves primarily as a guitarist and the band doesn't have one otherwise, so that job's split up between the two of them and no fewer than seven other musicians, who play on one, two, three or even four songs each.

Don't get me wrong, there's some cool guitarwork here. I felt that Spell of Love stood out on that front, though I don't know if it's because of Paul Alfery's contribution or not. It probably is, as he's not on anything else, but I can't tell which guitar section is played by whom. There are certainly a lot of different guitar styles and tones on offer, though they all fall somewhere into the hard and heavy melodic rock spectrum, all melodic but some a bit more emphatic than others. And that's a bad thing here because I couldn't figure out what the Counterline sound was, given that it kept on shifting from song to song, sometimes even within a song.

Researching the band, I saw people calling out Waller's vocals as a weak point and I don't buy that except at odd points, like on Angel, which makes him feel clumsy. He has a decent voice, a soft and melodic one that's perfect for this sort of material. Does he have limits? Absolutely. He can't soar so far that it shocks us into amazement but, to give him credit, he doesn't try to do that here. He's always within his range and he doesn't remotely have the most limited range I've heard. My main complaint about his voice is that it can get too saccharine if the song lets it and there are quite a few ballads here that do exactly that.

That's partly why the first half of this album is so much stronger than the second. Both standouts arrive in the first three and they both rock, with strong riffs, excellent hooks and decent keyboard flourishes. Maybe they're not as polished as they could be, but they sound damn good to me. Spell of Love is surely next on the list and that wraps up a strong first half that doesn't have a bad song on it, just some that are better than others. The second half, however, is primarily made up of the ballads and some filler tracks that sound fair enough but don't stay in the mind past the gap until the next one starts.

I wish Counterline all the best and hope that they find a permanent guitarist to help flesh out the identity they so sorely need. I'd love to hear a second album. I have every expectation that it'll be this but better and, with a solid line-up, more consistent too.

Wednesday, 22 December 2021

Hypocrisy - Worship (2021)

Country: Sweden
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 Nov 2021
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I've been reviewing so many albums lately by established bands who broke up every time the wind changed that it seems almost surprising to find one that's never called it quits, though I believe it came close for Hypocrisy in 1997. They were formed back in 1991 and guitarist Peter Tägtgren (and soon vocalis) and bassist Mikael Hedlund have held their spots in the line-up ever since. Drummer Reidar Horghagen, who joined in 2004, is only the band's second and Tomas Elofsson is the fourth guitarist to play alongside Tägtgren. He's been there since 2010, meaning that he's played on two of their thirteen studio albums.

I remember Hypocrisy starting out as brutal death metal, due apparently to Tägtgren's residence in Florida for three years during the eighties. However, I also remembering them shifting towards the Gothenburg style more favoured in their native Sweden, though they're from a long way away in Ludvika, and this feels like a strong mix of the two styles, with the melodic side front and center but some brutality left in Tägtgren's vocals and the somewhat downtuned back end. This is a little lower and a little slower than melodeath tends to be, though there are faster sections too. I much prefer melodic to brutal but I like this mix too.

Worship kicks the album off well, with an intro reminiscent of Cyclone Temple and plenty of faster sections with incessant double bass drumming. It's a good song, but Chemical Whore is better and Greedy Bastards isn't bad at all and Hypocrisy aren't resting on their laurels after all these years, that's for sure, even though it's been eight years since their previous album, End of Disclosure. If they felt like they needed a break, they've benefitted from it, because this feels like they have all the energy and drive that they had back in the nineties.

If there's a downside early on, it's that the lyrics are utterly routine cynicism. They revolve around social issues but are always told from a very simplistic us vs. them mindset, whether they're about religion or drugs or climate change or the economy or whatever. There are occasional moments of lyrical style, such as when Children of the Gray begins with "What a beautiful day to die", but they mostly remind of rebellious teenage poetry and that's unfortunate, given that Tägtgren's vocals are so easy to understand, even though he stays harsh throughout.

There are eleven tracks on offer and they're agreeably varied without ever drifting too far from a central Hypocrisy sound. Dead World is a bit more brutal, complete with a bleak scream to open it up, though it also wanders into groove metal. We're the Walking Dead is a solid slow chugger, not my favourite approach for melodeath but done well here. What's totally up my alley is the thrashy Another Day and the oddly infectious Children of the Gray, my favourite song here after Chemical Whore. In fact, the whole second half is a strong, consistent ride, all the way to a peach of a closer in Gods of the Underground.

I'm impressed by how much this one is growing on me. I've always liked Hypocrisy but they're one of those bands who I can listen to and enjoy, then move right onto something else. They aren't one of those bands who I replay frequently or even seek out. Maybe it's just been too long since I gave one of their albums a listen, though, because this feels stronger than I remember them being. It's not the greatest melodic death metal album ever recorded, but neither is it something to dismiss either. It sounds good on a first listen and then grows each time through, especially the deceptive second half.

Hypocrisy have been away for a while. I'm a little surprised by how happy I am to hear them back.

Martians - You are Here (2021)

Country: Czech Republic
Style: Alternative
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 Nov 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

I'm reviewing an increasing number of submissions from the Czech Republic, but that's mostly due to a couple of musicians being both versatile and prolific. This band, which could be called Martins as much as Martians, given that both its members are named Martin, is a project set up by a pair of musicians who were major players in other bands I've reviewed. Martin Schuster, who sings and plays guitars and bass, along with undetermined virtual instruments, is a key player in Mindwork, whose Cortex EP got an 8/10 from me in January; and Martin Spacosh Peřina, on guitars and more of those virtual instruments, is the man behind Beween the Planets, whose third album, Parallel World, also featured a guest appearance by Schuster.

What's telling is that neither of those bands sound much like Martians. Mindwork play prog metal and Between the Planets is a post-rock project with some djent and post-metal. This, on the other hand, isn't metal at all. The closest genre to lump it into is alternative rock, with Radiohead much closer to mind than, say, Nirvana or Nine Inch Nails. There are pop melodies here, but it's always rock music at heart; it's very accessible, sometimes soothing and never abrasive; and accessibility makes it seem a lot simpler than it is. There's a lot going on here.

"We're here to tear down some musical barriers", they say on their Bandcamp page and I can see that from the very opener. A Soul of New Days is a soft song, very melodic, with one guitar taking a folky line and another (if it isn't a keyboard) adopting more of a percussion role. There's gentle, dreampop progression to it but it drops away two thirds of the way through into an instrumental post-rock piece that makes us ponder on what the song is telling us. It's much deeper than it may initially seem.

Many of these songs do the same thing. They're constructed very carefully so as to seem like they haven't been constructed very carefully. They set a mood that's dreamy or haunting or playful or whatever and they immerse us in that, so that whenever the traditional song, with riffs and hooks and verses and the like, gives way to something else entirely, we can't help but assume that it's a very deliberate act to tell us something and we sit back and examine what it's doing to figure that out. Radiohead do this a lot too, especially on their more experimental albums, and their ability to work on two layers—accessible music that just sounds good and thoughtful music that rewards an inquisitive listener—always impressed me. Martians have that down too.

It's not all Radiohead or other prog-infused alternative rock bands. Much of this, like Abusing the Muse, took me further back to the eighties, mostly to British indie bands like the Cocteau Twins or Shriekback, but Worm Nest shakes up that completely because it feels German. It kicks off as new wave with whispered vocals and an electronic beat, and moves firmly into post-punk and rock, with a neatly jagged riff. I'm no expert on that era, especially when we hop over to the continent, but I love how this one shifts so emphatically from electronica to guitar and back again, ending with piano. It's quite the journey and it's all seamlessly done.

While Worm Nest is my favourite song here, with Abusing the Muse up there too, I also dig Deceiver a lot, because its infectious melodies got under my skin, and Story of the End, with its glitchy beats and minimalist instrumentation. Most of the latter is vocals, clean and manipulated in duet, and it has a timeless feel to it. Not everything stands out like these songs so I'm going to give You are Here a 7/10 for now, but this is an album I can imagine coming back to over and over, so I may well find myself upping that to an 8/10 later.

Tuesday, 21 December 2021

Yes - The Quest (2021)

Country: UK
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 1 Oct 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Yes were a busy band indeed half a century ago. In 1971, while I was being born, they were releasing both The Yes Album and Fragile. They'd put out two albums in the two years prior and would add a trio in the three years after. They're not so busy nowadays, but they're still going and still doing it well and in their very own unmistakable style. This is their twenty-second studio album, even if it's also only their fourth this millennium. They get around to things when they're ready.

I say they, but I should explain who's in the ever-changing Yes line-up nowadays. Steve Howe is the focal point now, I think, on a wild variety of guitars, but Alan White has actually more years with Yes, having taken over the drumkit from Bill Bruford as long ago as 1972. Howe was already there then but he's had gaps since. Billy Sherwood joined on bass in 2015, though he'd contributed in an array of ways previously, whether vocals, guitars or keyboards. Geoff Downes is on his second stint behind the keyboards, as he's been since 2011, following a brief stint in 1980. And, on vocals, is Jon Davison, formerly of Glass Hammer, who's almost racked up a decade with Yes at this point.

The Quest starts off wonderfully with The Ice Bridge, a song that's exactly what I expect from Yes, a complex but melodic prog rock track that rolls along nicely through multiple movements. It does rather a lot, especially given that it wraps up just shy of the seven minute mark. It's very strong in every way, including the production by Howe, which is crystal clear, and the keyboards, which are a constant joy. Had the album maintained this level of quality, it would be a modern day Yes classic. Looking back from the other end, which is an hour later if we count the three bonus tracks on the second CD, nothing comes close to it.

Dare to Know starts out well, but it gets all orchestral in the midsection, something that does add to the sound but not in a way I really wanted. It feels light to me. Part of that may be because Jon Davison sounds a little smooth to me generally and especially on smoother songs like this one. He has all the range he needs to sing in a band that everyone knows with Jon Anderson, but he seems to be missing something that's hard to define. It's like a difference in the resolution that becomes noticeable when you upgrade to BluRay but have to go back to a DVD. Anderson is the BluRay and Davison is the DVD.

A caveat to that paragraph is that A Living Island is surely the smoothest thing here but I loved it anyway and primarily because of what Davison contributes to it. Trust me, I'm not knocking any of his talent, and he's exactly where he needs to be.

Another song that stands out but not in ways I appreciated is Leave Well Alone, which is a hundred things at once. It starts out with Howe on koto, I believe, but then things get down and funky. The vocals are unusual and told in duet between Davison and Howe, the latter not remotely as strong vocally but able to bring a warmth to proceedings. All that's fine, but it changes. Again and again. I ended up imagining that the band were playing live on a a late night talk show but shifting styles every thirty seconds when the host pressed a button on his electronic style generator. What is it? It's world. It's funk. It's folk. It's disco. It's rock. It's jazz. It's prog. It's the history of music. I have no idea what it is but it's too much.

Enough with the negative. For me, the highlights after The Ice Bridge are the constant flourishes by Steve Howe that decorate every song here. They could also have become too much but they are always appropriate to my ears. I like the vocals on Future Memories, which are partly Davison in a still high but lower voice than his norm for this album, and partly Billy Sherwood. The catchiest of the eight songs proper is Music to My Ears, very well titled as arguably the only song with honest to goodness hooks. Certainly nothing else here is going to become an earworm. And then there's A Living Island, which is a bit of a departure from the Yes norm but a very welcome one by me. It's more like a prog take on the Eagles's serious closer from Hotel California, The Last Resort.

So, this is a mixed bag. Nothing is bad, but quite a few songs struggle to find their identity and so end up getting lost amidst the really good stuff. Sure, the bonus tracks fit that bill and could have been safely left off the package titled The Quest, but there are earlier songs that fit it too. Some songs are notable but simply didn't work for me. Maybe they'll work for you instead. A few songs work well enough to be net positives, but The Ice Bridge is the only one to stand out as a highlight for me. And so this is a welcome album but one to which I think I have to give only a 6/10.

Modder - Modder (2021)

Country: Belgium
Style: Sludge Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 3 Dec 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

Here's a submission from Belgium that satisfies a wish of mine that's often manifested this year. I really like the heaviness generated by sludge metal bands but I tend to dislike the raucous shouty vocal style that such bands often employ. The obvious solution is Modder, an instrumental sludge metal outfit who play long, heavy songs without a single attempt to vocalise anything. Everything revolves around the riffs, which have always been my favourite aspect of sludge.

I was hooked by a the opener, the nine and a half minute Mount Frequency, and the band kept me paying attention throughout. This one is built off a riff that's simple in nature and told simply, but it's a good one and it's the bedrock under what I would call atmosphere if that word didn't have a different meaning in genre names. Modder have a knack of setting a scene with their songs and it doesn't come from the riff at all, though that's slow and heavy and hypnotic. It comes in part from a melodic line that's doomy but often ethnic, almost middle eastern, and in part from electronic overlays that are like ambient industrial.

The latter is there even more on Wax Rituals, which is slowed and downtuned further anyway but benefits immensely from these overlays. Both these songs could fairly be read as improvisations on themes by latter day Celtic Frost, whether it's dark rhythmic chords or upbeats on the drums. However, this one adds even more of a gothic industrial ambience that's drenched in horror. I can easily imagine people using Wax Rituals as haunt music, even taking the slowing and downtuning even further to include subsonics to affect mood.

That industrial edge is omnipresent, adding those layers of texture, but industrial is inherently an artificial sound, whether it's the heartbeat of pulsing machinery or their by products like hails of sparks or escaping steam. Spasm has that industrial edge too, but there's something fundamentally organic in it too, as if its earliest overlays are the tortured catgut strings of cellos rather than steelcutters in a factory, and its punctuating sounds like giant ocean bubbles.

Spasm also differs from the others by dropping the riffs away completely just before the halfway mark. Sure, it allows a shift in mood for the second half of the song but it's like an entire complex shut down for the night and we suddenly see animal life emerging from the quietened shadows. I love this, even though it's brief, because it really helps to make this visual. You're probably going to see something else entirely to what I saw, but you're going to see something. There's post-rock here, or post-metal. Is post-sludge metal a thing? Maybe it is now.

My least favourite song here is the last one, When Your Bones Weren't Meant to Be, for no better reason than everything before it feels unusual and this one merely feels like a jam around a set of riffs that the band happen to like. Sure, those are decent riffs and I didn't dislike the piece at all, but it feels somehow less substantial and more unoriginal after three more evocative tracks.

It's great to hear something this unusual and especially when it's submitted for review. It's been a very interesting week, listening to subgenre that I hadn't heard before, like Mothflesh's technical groove and now Modder's ambient industrial and post-sludge. Now, what's slated for tomorrow's playlist? Thanks, folks!

Monday, 20 December 2021

Alcatrazz - V (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 15 Oct 2021
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Alcatrazz have never been the most prolific of American heavy metal bands, but they're beginning to realise that in their fourth go around. They were initially around from 1983 to 1987, issuing two albums, including the well received No Parole from Rock 'n' Roll in their debut year, with Rainbow vocalist Graham Bonnet at the mike and a young Yngwie Malmsteen shredding on lead guitar, his replacement for the follow-up being no less a guitar wizard than Steve Vai. Talk about a couple of heavyweight guitarists to kick off a band's career! Well, when 1986's Dangerous Games wasn't at all well received, that one with Danny Johnson on guitar, they vanished for a couple of decades.

A new band built around Bonnet, Howie Simon and Tim Luce released nada from 2006 to 2014 and a third attempt from 2017 only existed for a one off concert, producing a live album to show for it. It's the fourth Alcatrazz that got together in 2019 that's finally proving to be productive. They put out album four, Born Innocent, in 2020, though I somehow missed it here at Apocalypse Later, and album five follows only a year later, albeit with a major line-up change: founder member Graham Bonnet replaced by Doogie White, a former vocalist for Rainbow and Yngwie Malmsteen, among many others, making him an obvious choice.

Both those influences are equally as obvious as the album gets moving with its stormer of an opener, Guardian Angel, with guitarist Joe Stump happily adopting the role of classically-influenced shredder and White walking quite clearly in Bonnet's footsteps, just as he did in Rainbow. I can imagine people taking bets on whether Ronnie Romero will take over in one, two or three albums time. Guardian Angel is a good opener, doing everything expected of it, and it's up to the album to maintain that momentum for an ambitious further hour. It mostly does.

Nightwatch adds an overt Judas Priest influence into the Rainbow feel for a fascinating hybrid of Screaming for Vengeance and Gates of Babylon, though White does resist any urge to soar in Rob Halford style, something the song continually invited him to do. Turn of the Wheel sounds like one of those kickass openers that Dio featured on early albums, like We Rock and Stand Up and Shout, and the picture is close to complete. Blackheart does veer more into European power metal, even adding some overt prompts for the participation of the audience at gigs, but the template is set and it's a good one, only really avoided on Dark Day for My Soul, the power ballad that closes the album.

And so this is various eras of Rainbow infused, from Dio era on songs like Return to Nevermore to Bonnet era on Guardian Angel and sometimes both at once, like on Target, with White playing up his Dio-esque intonation in the verses but shifting to Bonnet or his own era for the choruses. Some of the guitarwork emulates Ritchie Blackmore but it shreds far more than he ever did. And, just to highlight that this is very much heavy metal rather than hard rock, it's often heavied up with that Priest element too.

I like this, but then I'm a sucker for anything resembling that old Rainbow style. The three albums with Ronnie James Dio are all absolute killers with solid claims to be listed among the very best of the hard rock genre, and I'm a huge fan of the underrated Down to Earth album with Bonnet too. I was always going to like this. No, nothing quite matches those old albums and a few late tracks are arguably unworthy inclusions, not filler so much as songs better used as B sides to whatever gets a single release. The band do give it a good go though and I'm quite prepared to like this a bit more as the years go by.

Spidergawd - Spidergawd VI (2021)

Country: Norway
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 10 Dec 2021
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I reviewed the previous Spidergawd album three years ago, but haven't gone back to the first four yet, each of them titled exactly as you might think looking at this one. I'm really wondering about how their style progressed through them now, given that Discogs lists them as "alternative psych prog", which is truly not the case here. Sure, there was some of that last time out, especially on a few songs that featured the baritone saxophone of Rolf Martin Snustad, but it's entirely gone on this one and so is the colourful kaleidoscopic cover art.

This is a hard rock album, that continues to highlight the variety of hard rock influences that I was able to catch last time out, but in a more focused form. As before, the key name may be Thin Lizzy, whose sound pervades the entire album, from the power chords on opening songs like Oceanchild and At Rainbows End onwards to the Celtic melodies on Into the Deep Serene. The guitar tone is a very clean one, which is especially obvious during the many solos, but it still rocks hard, bringing a Brian Robertson style to mind.

The biggest difference between Spidergawd and Thin Lizzy is in the vocals, because neither of the lead vocalists, Hallvard Gaardløs and Per Borten, sounds remotely like Phil Lynott. They both have a clean alternative edge to them, the most contemporary sound the band has. Everything behind them this time out hearkens back to the late seventies and early eighties, as hard rock gradually morphed into the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, especially as almost everything feels British, surprising given that Spidergawd are Norwegian.

The extremes might be At Rainbows End and Narcissus' Eye, perhaps coincidentally a track in from each end of the album. While they're both up tempo rockers, the former is lighter Celtic rock and the latter is heavier and more English, trawling in Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden. I really like how the latter chugs along with broody menace but the former is just as irresistible. For a more overt contrast, At Rainbows End is followed by Running Man, which barrels along like Tank, with a bass that drives incessantly forward just Algy Ward's.

There's less variety on this album than the last, especially given that all eight tracks are up tempo rockers without anything slowing down to explore ballad territory. Like last time, the variety is all in the influences, a song like Into the Deep Serene scooting along like Heart's Barracuda or even Judas Priest's take on The Green Manalishi, but Morning Star wrapping things up with punky urgency, though it also features the most delightful extended hard rock soloing in its second half.

I should highlight that Maiden, Heart and Lizzy may be seen as having very different styles within the multi-genred world of rock and metal today but, back in the eighties, they all just played hard rock music or even just rock music pure and simple. So Sabbath or Priest were a little heavier than Lizzy or even the Waterboys? Nobody cared. They all co-existed naturally in a single stylistic world and this album underlines that with grace.

I really like this album and I really liked it on a first listen, because the style is familiar but it's all played very clean and with a real sense of vibrancy. In its way, each track is a highlight, and it's not an easy task to call any of them out above its peers. I haven't said anything yet about Prototype Design or Yours Truly, for instance, but the former is classic Maiden infused with the blues and I'd say the latter has a riff without equal anywhere on this album. Everything is excellent.

And that means that this isn't just a better album than Spidergawd V, it's a real gem. It's easily an 8/10 but it keeps getting better on me. It's one of those albums I have to struggle to move on from because COVID stole a month of my energy and I'm still notably behind with reviews. I just want to keep listening to this for the rest of the week. That and the fact that the worst track, if I could call any one of them out for that dubious honour, is still an absolute peach, means that this has to be a 9/10 and one of the best albums of 2021.

Friday, 17 December 2021

Deep Purple - Turning to Crime (2021)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 Nov 2021
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It seems like an odd decision for a band like Deep Purple, who have spent the past half century as one of the most influential bands to any genre of rock and metal, to release a covers album but, a million copies of their past three original albums behind them, they seem to be happy to have fun with old material. And I do mean old material, as the average release year of these songs is older than Deep Purple itself, who formed as far back in 1968.

The mean is 1965 and the median is 1966, if you're a statistics fan. If we count the final medley as a set of five source tracks rather than the one it's presented it, then the sixteen on offer include no fewer than nine from the sixties, along with four from the seventies, two from the fifties and one from the forties. That earliest song is Let the Good Times Roll, a 1946 hit from Louis Jourdan & His Tympany Five, while the most recent is Little Feat's Dixie Chicken, from 1973. I'm in my second half century now and I was only two years old when that came out.

First up is a decent cover of Love's 7 and 7 Is, though it's not as effective as the one by Billy Bragg (wow, it sounds odd to hear myself saying that) on the Rubáiyát compilation put out to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Elektra Records. This take isn't bad at all, but Ian Gillan struggles with the punky transition at the end of the verse. It's a likeable and up tempo piece to kick this off and it sets the stage well.

It gets better from there, even against the odds, given that next up is Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu, a joke song by Huey 'Piano' Smith in 1957 that refused to quit, made still more famous when Johnny Rivers covered it. It sounds great here, much better than it ever should have been and it really perks things up. Oh Well is the Fleetwood Mac classic, such an iconic song that it can't be easy to put a fresh stamp on it without a complete reinvention. Purple absolutely nail it, kicking into gear gorgeously after its famous intro, and they wrap it up well too, drenching it with spaghetti western menace.

These are all good songs interpreted well, but Jenny Take a Ride! is an absolute gem. This is an old Mitch Ryder classic that I know I've heard before because it was used in the Joe Namath movie, C. C. & Company that was shot here in state, but I couldn't remember it. So I found it on YouTube, discovering that it's much weaker than this version, which truly rocks. It also gives opportunity to every member of the band, not just Gillan on vocals but Steve Morse on guitar, Ian Paice on drums, Roger Glover on bass and especially Don Airey on keyboards. This steams along with all the oomph that the original didn't have and, while it feels more like a Gillan song from the heyday of his solo band than a Purple song, it's easily the first highlight of this album. It isn't the last.

The next is Dixie Chicken, as Gillan may well have been singing this in the shower for thirty years. I remember him playing it on the Friday Rock Show when he stood in as host for Tommy Vance, as an all time favourite of is. It highlights just how much these songs are favourites of the band, not just things they think might work done by Purple. It's very hard not to move to this, because they get a groove going that really gives respect to Little Feat without just copying what they did.

Not everything works and not everything feels like Deep Purple. Shapes of Things could be anyone covering the Yardbirds or even later Jeff Beck, and The Battle of New Orleans, written by Johnny Driftwood back in 1959 but best known through the Johnny Horton cover, is light years away from anything I've heard Purple do in any of their many incarnations. Nobody hearing this take who is blind to who did it would ever guess that it was Deep Purple, not least because that's not Gillan at the mike, it's both Roger Glover and Steve Morse, not people known for their vocal talents.

I wasn't much fussed by Lucifer or White Room, though they're done well enough. The former is an obscurity by Bob Seger back in his Bob Seger System days and I don't know why they hauled it back into the limelight. White Room sounds great but it's too close to Cream, not adding anything new to make it worthwhile. I much preferred Let the Good Times Roll and Watching the River Flow, the latter a Bob Dylan cover that ends with a loose piano section for Airey.

It's Caught in the Act that impressed me late on and that's the closing medley that's mostly shorn of vocals until it wraps up. The band simply blister through a string of classics, from Going Down to Dazed and Confused via Green Onions and Hot 'Lanta, before Gillan steps back to the mike for the immortal Gimme Some Lovin'. Airey's contribution lends this more of a Blues Brothers feel than a Spencer Davis Group vibe but that's fine. The medley approach kind of did that anyway.

And so this is a worthwhile covers album, albeit an unlikely one. I was wary of this sort of release coming from a band like Deep Purple but most of their selections are inspired ones and they have a heck of a lot of fun with such old material. When Rockin' Pneumonia sounds this good, you know they care about it, and that goes all the more for Jenny Take a Ride! and Dixie Chicken. And, when a band formed in 1968 can just have a blast playing a song from 1946, we know we should pay a lot of attention. Don't dismiss this. Take it in the spirit it was offered and simply enjoy.

Mothflesh - Machine Eater (2021)

Country: Malaysia
Style: Groove Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Dec 2021
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While I didn't love it, I certainly liked Nocturnal Armour, Mothflesh's debut album, and a lot of my reasoning why was the sheer variety of it. Their core sound was a cross between groove metal and melodic death, with different songs starting in one of those genres and moving to the other. After hearing this follow-up, I went back to it to refresh my memory because this is very different. That debut is as I remember it, that groove and melodeath mix deepened by industrial and electronic angles. This follow-up ditches much of that variety and aims for a much truer groove metal sound.

That's certainly what they deliver on the opener, Dogmacore, with the rhythm section amped up a great deal so that we hear the drums first and foremost and the bass next after them, for a heavy and in your face sound that initially seems to be much of the point. They do it very well but it's just not my style of choice and, when Hexburn Ω started out exactly the same way as Dogmacore, I had to wonder if I'd just drift away from the album and not even review it.

Fortunately, Hexburn Ω gets a lot more interesting as it builds. Sure, it starts so consistently with its predecessor that it could even be a continuation of the same song, but there are points where it drops to solo bass that are pretty cool and the chorus adds vocal layering that's fascinating. It's just as heavy as Dogmacore and in exactly the same ways, but there's stuff in this one to grab me, that's for sure. I really dig that chorus. What other surprises are Mothflesh going to throw at me?

Well, not too many surprises, but they remain very technical for groove metal, a genre that tends to be more interested in being tight, angry and aggressive. That's the melodic death focus that's not entirely gone from the debut, even if the feel now is pure groove. There's an all too brief section partway into Reconstructing Fire that sounds wild and Ranveer Singh's guitars get interesting often. The back end of Mothflesh may remain incredibly consistent, but he simply isn't willing to just do the same thing on every track, for which I'm thankful.

The biggest surprise the rest of the album brought me was the presence of a clean voice, because that shows up on a few tracks to duet with the harsh lead. That harsh voice is the closest Machine Eater gets to the melodic death that was so prominent on the debut, and it's a good one, able to match the sheer aggression of the music but retaining flexibility enough to intonate. I like it most when the clean voice joins it on The Lotus Denial to duet, because the music gains some depth. It's even less of a layer on Myriagon, where it's a clear and frequent duet, and it shows up on Cyberpsycho too.

Quite frankly, from wondering whether I'd even finish the album, I ended up rather enthused with it. I can't recall another groove metal band that get this technical. I'm a fan of aggression, being an old thrasher, but, when aggression happens without contrast to give it perspective, it becomes boring to me. I still don't like Dogmacore, but this album isn't boring, however relentless it wants its aggression to be. Rather than adding contrast through dynamics, like the acoustic intros on a lot of thrash songs, Mothflesh do it by getting really technical and Singh and Eze Mavani have the chops to back that up. They're tighter here than last time and they're more technical. That added clean voice is a godsend too, especially on Myriagon.

And, just like that, I not only finished the album but happily listened to it half a dozen times to fully figure out what they're doing, and, even though I miss the variety of the debut, I have to give this higher marks. It's a better album by a better band. The real question in my mind is where Mothflesh are going next. Will this album be seen in hindsight as a step in between the groove/melodic death hybrid style of the debut and the purest groove that they'll end up in? Or is this the sound they're looking at long term, because, if it is, I'm intrigued as to what influence it could have. This could be one of those unexpected albums mostly ignored initially, not least because Mothflesh are from Malaysia, hardly the groove metal capital of the world, but gaining importance later as it ends up spawning a genre of its own. Is this one of those albums? Only time will tell.

Thursday, 16 December 2021

Rhapsody of Fire - Glory for Salvation (2021)

Country: Italy
Style: Symphonic Power Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 26 Nov 2021
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I mentioned in my review of The Eighth Mountain, Rhapsody of Fire's twelfth album, back in 2019, that, beyond any need to distinguish the band from other offshoots of Rhapsody, I've always had trouble distinguishing any of them from some of the other similar bands with male lead vocalists that explore the symphonic metal genre in very similar ways. I liked that album and I like this one too, but I struggled even more with it than its predecessor because of how generic it is.

Don't get me wrong, these are decent songs performed by a very capable band, and listening to it is no hardship. It's enjoyable stuff. However, I quickly found myself seeing the album like this and I haven't changed this view even after a few listens.

Firstly, there are three songs that are roughly what I expected from the album. They do their jobs well enough, but they do them in the same way and I haven't distinguished them yet. Then there's a brief interlude called Eternal Snow, its Celtic flute over soft drone grabbing our attention. After a little while, the drone builds and the narration begins, as if we're in a concept album (I think we are, as this is the second chapter of The Nephilim's Empire Saga, after The Eighth Mountain). Two more songs follow that are more of what we expect.

Then there's Abyss of Pain II, a real epic at almost eleven minutes and close to twice anything else here. It has a long intro and becomes heavier than any of the earlier songs. There are cool chords and a neat choral section when it gets going. The vocals do ache to be more emotional than ever before, but it moves along very well. It's not going to be ignored, though I'm not convinced that it can truly sustain its length.

That's because, every time I listen through the album, the next thing I notice is the choral section early in I'll Be Your Hero—presented in its Single Edit form—at which point I realise that I missed the two other songs in between Abyss of Pain II and I'll Be Your Hero entirely. It's not that they're worthless; it's that I didn't register the gaps between them, so I assumed that they were parts of Abyss of Pain II which therefore played to me like one twenty minute song.

Then there's another song that I like called Chains of Destiny. It barrels along and I wanted to join in with the vocals, even though I didn't know the words. I can't help but feel that it's not good that it's only the third song I acknowledged by name, if we ignore the interlude that is Eternal Snow at this point, in eleven tracks. However, it's good that it keeps standing out, especially right after I'll Be Your Hero stands out too.

And then, because this is a generous release at six minutes over an hour, there are two songs that are actually the same song and both of them are the same song as Magic Signs, one of the two I'd assumed were sections in Abyss of Pain II. They're merely sung in different languages, Un'ode per l'eroe in Italian and La Esencia de un Rey in Spanish.

If I'd seen the album that way on a first listen because I was too busy multitasking and let it drift a little, only to see it a different way on a second, that's one thing. However, I've listened four times now and I'm still seeing it the same way. Sure, there are bits here and there that I dug a lot, such as the choral bits that pop up here and there, the opening to The Kingdom of Ice and quite a lot of what's going on in the first half of Abyss of Pain II, but it means that my brain isn't acknowledging much of the album and that's not good.

At least it tells me the highlights, because, however many times I drift away, I'll Be Your Hero has a habit of grabbing my attention back and Chains of Destiny maintains it. That says something all on its own, as much as the fact that I can't remember what songs like Maid of the Secret Sand and Infinitae Gloriae sound like after listening to the album four times.

I think I need to listen to some more symphonic metal with male vocalists, because I don't usually have this problem with the genre, especially when the lead singers are female. Are the men that close in sound? Surely not. Is it just the various flavours of Rhapsody? I don't think so. So is just me or do others have this problem? Answers on the back of a postcard to the usual address.

Weedpecker - IV: The Stream of Forgotten Thoughts (2021)

Country: Poland
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 3 Dec 2021
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This album, which, as you might expect, is Weedpecker's fourth, was quite the surprise for me. The band name strongly suggests that this is going to be psychedelic rock of some sort—shock horror, it is—but also that it's probably stoner rock in the more modern American style and that's really not what this is. I hear a little stoner rock here and there, especially on the chugging opener, No Heartbeat Collective, but mostly the influences seem to be from a lot earlier than Kyuss. Even on that song, there's plenty of Hawkwind to be found and plenty of the Who too, in the power chords and the sweep.

It's the vocals of Wyro that feel most unusual to me. They're high in pitch but low in the mix. While they do get emphatic at points, they often float rather than soar. They remind me most of the late sixties hippie era, but British more than American, even though this band hail from Poland. Once we get past that opener, this became Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd for me, an approach that frames the sound of much of the rest of the album. The question that I kept answering myself was where other influences got added to that base sound.

I didn't detect any on Fire Far Away or The Stream of Forgotten Thoughts, at least on a first listen, but there are definitely some on The Trip Treatment. The guitar here gets so liquid that it seems like a hybrid of that early Floyd sound with soul and funk and disco, very American sounds to be in something so British. Unusual Perceptions is very nice from the outset, almost saccharine sweet, swimming through a syrupy sugar solution, and it's not surprising at all to find it sounding like the Beatles. There's a lot of pop music in this sound, even if it manifests more as rock, and most of it is half a century old, even if presented in a new way.

There are more modern influences here, layered onto the older ones. Big Brain Monsters caught me out with that until I realised that there's King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard in that one and I started to hear them all over the place, even on songs like Fire Far Away that had felt so Floydian until that realisation. King Gizzard are certainly there on Endless Extensions of Good Vibrations too, which is edgier and delivered with more emphasis, with late chugging that hearkens back to the opener. Everything comes around in the end.

What I found on a first listen that was underlined by a second is that I like how Weedpecker find a sound they like and milk it without it ever seeming like they're playing a song. There may be some sort of traditional structure buried deep under the layers of psychedelia and effects, down there with the vocals, but I couldn't tell on half these songs. I just know they sound good, a combination of instruments brought together in a melodious and palatable way that might coalesce into some recognisable form under the influence of the exactly right amount of mind expanding drugs.

In fact, much of the album could be described as a mellow jam. Occasionally, what we hear finds its way into something more recognisable as a song and then jam in a more traditional fashion. The pinnacle of this is easily the album closer, Symbiotic Nova, which builds gloriously and rocks out in memorable fashion during the second half. This one often reminded me of Silver Tightrope, a song by Armageddon, that short lived project that was the last for the Yardbirds's Keith Relf, but this is less focused.

I think how I'm going to think of this is less as a set of songs on an album and more as some sort of musical installation that floats around a room like a cloud, ever changing but never different, and we walk through it to experience what it has to tell us. Clearly I should check out earlier albums by Weedpecker, inevitably titled Weedpecker, II and III. I want to see if this approach has been in play all along.

Wednesday, 15 December 2021

Black Veil Brides - The Phantom Tomorrow (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 29 Oct 2021
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I don't think I've ever heard Black Veil Brides before, though I've certainly heard of them, which is rarely a good thing when it comes to modern American rock music that's mainstream successful. I had vague fears of emo or nu metal or some such, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that this is really just straightforward hard rock music clean vocals and hook-driven sensibilities that hint at goth perhaps more often than not. There's the occasional electronic gimmickry to underpin some of the changes, in the way that Paradise Lost did in their new wave years. It's not that ambitious or challenging but it's very likeable, even at a first listen.

Given that they're pretty far from my expectations, I looked them up. They're from Cincinatti and they're pretty recent, having been founded initially in 2006 and again in the current form in 2009. The line-up has been pretty stable since that second beginning, only one change happening since 2010, that being when Lonny Eagleton replaced Ashley Purdy on bass in 2019. This is a sixth studio album and their third in concept form, after Wretched and Divine: The Story of the Wild Ones and Vale. And it's pretty decent.

I didn't particularly follow that concept but some of the songs stood out as highlights on my first time through and more joined it on a second. Blackbird is surprisingly deep musically, the strong hook grabbing us right off the bat but the solos and guitar interplay keeping us, especially as they just don't quit, continuing even during vocal sections when we don't expect it. Torch is strong too, more overtly grand and gothic and almost metal in outlook. Those are the two that caught me on a first listen and kept me each further time through.

The first one to grab me on a second listen was Shadows Rise. I was already on board, because of its quirky intro that's utterly delightful, but the song gets quirky too and it's easily the one that grew on me the most, lying in wait for me to come by again to grab me with confidence. The other is Crimson Skies, easily the most metal song on offer, with an opening thirty seconds that ought to spark a real pit when the band play live. I wasn't expecting that from the nine songs preceding it but it was a welcome shift up in the gears.

Others gradually trawled me in but were much less emphatic about it, as if they wanted me to like them but couldn't be bothered to grab me and hoped I'd just come around on my own. Most of the songs that did this came deep into the second half, songs like Fields of Bone and Fall Eternal. They do their jobs and they do them pretty well. Maybe they'll get me in the end. Certainly, they have a greater chance right now than earlier songs that sounded fine but drifted by me anyway.

And, with acknowledgement to the neatly constructed instrumental pieces that serve as an intro and a later interlude, very capable with their orchestrations, something that doesn't tend to shift across into the songs proper, I'll wrap this up by saying that I've clearly been a fool to look past the Black Veil Brides. On the basis of this album, they're a solid hard rock outfit who somehow seem to have found a trendy spot at a couple of the more sensational rock media outlets, such as Kerrang! and Loudwire. That seems odd to me hearing them here for the first time. They sound good and it would seem that the music ought to speak for itself, idiotic award nominations like Hottest Male 2012 and Tweeter of the Year 2015 notwithstanding.

Obnubilo - Nascentes Morimur (2021)

Country: Chile/Australia
Style: Avant-Garde Black Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 5 Nov 2021
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It's been noticeable for a while that the metal subgenre that's being stretched most beyond what boundaries we used to believe it has is black metal. Sure, there are bands still playing the sort of raw black metal with deliberately crappy production values that we heard on the Bathory debut in 1984, but there are also bands merging the style with others as seemingly far flung as bluegrass, ambient and jazz. I don't envy the musicologists who have to track this evolution, but I can enjoy a lot of it, especially given that black metal also seems to house more dedicated musicians than any other metal subgenre. Half the black metal out there are made by one man bands and those men tend to be involved with half a dozen projects at once, with another dozen behind them.

Obnubilo is an international collaboration between musicians from Chile and Australia and this is its first release, featuring a suitably bleak title for the genre: Nascentes Morimur is the Latin for "When we are born, we are dying". All the instruments are played by Niklas K, who also wrote the music, while the vocals, both clean and harsh, are contributed by AP and Ben T. Sheehan, with the latter also responsible for the lyrics, whatever they are.

Niklas K is one Chilean part of this equation and it doesn't surprise that this is one of eight active projects for him, though he's credited under many names on the others: Ulf Kveldulfsson, NK, Kve, Niklas and Niklas Kveldulfsson for a start, with product on the shelves as Forestfather, Er Murazor, Æra, Deveneror and Swarm of Hatred. Also Chilean is AP, or Sulphur, S, Gorrge or Alfredo Pérez on releases by five other bands: Siaskel, Concatenatus, Lacrymae Rerum, Sol Sistere and The Ancient Doom. He's mostly a vocalist, though he drums for Concatenatus. Ben Sheehan is also a drummer, for Slaughter Thou in Australia, and a guitarist for Abstract the Light. He goes by multiple names too, but not so many: just Ben Sheehan and Baraath, and he only has five active projects. Whew!

So, what does this sound like? It comes described as avant-garde black metal and that seems fair, but it could be called progressive metal even more often. This opens up with strange rhythms and a bizarre urgency, as if the band was leading a psychotic waltz. Most of the vocals are clean but a harsh voice takes over at points for extra emphasis. It's jazzy, unusual and delightfully offbeat, a song that confuses on first listen but grows substantially with repeat runthroughs. And that's just track one.

With Reflections leaps more into black metal territory, with rapid blastbeats, shrieky vocals and a distant harsh call that resonates throughout. However, it has an oddly perky feel to it, with a neat melodic line and a delightfully hyperactive bass that combine to make us smile rather than escape to the forest to curse the bleakness of existence. Obnubilation continues in this vein and it's clear from later songs that aim for a similar approach that this is the core sound of the band. It spreads outwards from here, as they challenge the boundaries they set themselves, just like adventurous black metal bands are apparently supposed to do nowadays.

Unusually, my favourite songs come late in the album. Just as the first track challenged me on its first listen, the whole album followed suit and I wondered if I'd get into it at all. Repeat listens did help and this grew on me, but it never truly connects until deep into the second half.

Lost Horizons is the song that does it for me every time through. It's the longest one on offer, at a blink under seven minutes, and it does acquire an epic feel as it goes. Initially, it's nothing special, just a jagged feel that doesn't seem to have anywhere to go but that groove grows and grows and I found myself in an odd place where I was hearing all sorts of different bands at once. There's Joy Division here and Voivod and King Crimson and often at the same time, as the song hints at The Court of the Crimson King and Nothingface and Transmission, songs I've never previously thought of in a single breath. I can't fully explain it but it got well under my skin and I love it.

It's followed by These Solemn Words, which is even better in ways that are easier to explain. It may be the most prog metal song here, starting mild but interesting and growing as it goes. It also has a groove to it that continues to build, but it's not as overt as on Lost Horizons. This one grows with dynamics as much as simple progression. Icy Barren Steps wraps things up with panache, for three out of three memorable songs at the end of the album, this one featuring some intricate changes that I adored.

It's rare for me to find the strongest material late but this is hardly a traditional album. Even with these songs, it's the feel as much as anything that makes them work for me, something that's not easy to pin down and is always inherently subjective. The reasons why I dig these particular songs so much may well be the exact reasons why you don't. I know that a lot of people don't like Voivod because of their feel and, if you're one of those, you probably won't like this either. I can't call out songwriting, because it's obscured. It's hard to recommend it on a traditional line. It's not riffs or hooks or melodies or structure.

Everything comes down to feel so, if this review has piqued your interest, I'd recommend checking it out on YouTube, especially these later songs, and find out if it does the job for you. It may well. It may well not. It's certainly not going to be for everyone. It's not entirely for me, but I can tell it won't leave me alone and I like that.

Tuesday, 14 December 2021

Swallow the Sun - Moonflowers (2021)

Country: Finland
Style: Melodic Doom/Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 19 Nov 2021
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I have no idea why I didn't review Swallow the Sun's previous album, When a Shadow is Forced in to the Light, but it slipped away from me. My only excuse is that it saw release in January 2019, which was the month I started Apocalypse Later Music. At least I'm here for this one, their eighth studio album, each one released this millennium as the band was founded in 2000. Guitarist Juha Raivio is the only remaining member dating that far back but vocalist Mikko Kotamäki and bassist Matti Honkonen joined only a year later and Swallow the Sun has never had anyone else in those roles.

I liked it from the outset, as the opening title track of sorts, Moonflowers Bloom is Misery, builds magnificently. Initially, it's soft and plodding melodic guitar that a melancholy voice joins with an aching refrain. "Will you die in misery?" it asks over and over, as a string section joins the guitar. A couple of minutes in, it repeats again with insane emphasis, heavying up massively, before dropping back to the initial mode. I don't know what time signature it uses, but it feels like a slow waltz, a hypnotic sort of dance. I found it difficult not to sway to this one, even sitting in my office chair.

If Moonflowers Bloom in Misery works primarily as a set of variations on a theme, Enemy is more of a traditional doom/death song and Woven into Sorrow follows suit at greater length, elevating itself with a glorious riff early in its second half. The genre lends itself to songs that breathe and Swallow the Sun benefit from that, all eight tracks here exceeding five and a half minutes. What I see they have no interest in is conjuring up anything epic, with the longest three songs only in the seven minute range.

My favourite song opens up the second half and that's All Hallows' Grieve. I dug the album prior to that, the opener haunting me and Enemy getting better with every listen, but All Hallow's Grieve has two things to elevate it and both elevate it substantially. The first is the presence of Oceans of Slumber vocalist Cammie Gilbert; she leads the song out and duets beautifully with Kotamäki on its chorus. I still haven't heard her primary band on anything but videos but she impressed me on the recent Ison album, Aurora, and she impresses me even more here. The other is that chorus, as it's heartbreakingly beautiful, drenched in loss and grief. I felt this one deep inside.

I didn't feel anything else as deeply, but I enjoyed other tracks like The Void and The Fight of Your Life too, keeping the second half strong. I can't quite connect with Keep Your Heart Safe from Me and I'm still coming to terms with This House Has No Home, which I think is a highlight, but is still strange, shifting from pizzicato strings into a full on black metal wall of sound without warning. It caught me out when that happened the first time and, even though I knew full well it was coming on repeat listens, it still kind of catches me out each time anyway.

I can't remember which Swallow the Sun album I listened to last. I'm certainly quite a few behind, at least a decade, but this reminds me how good they are and how much I ought to check out the others. After all, their debut and their most recent album before this are both maintaining 90%+ averages at Metal Archives. Contributors don't give those out like candy and neither do I. I don't think this is that good, but it's a solid and reliable album with a number of standout tracks, a few of which I'm sure will become earworms. Let's see whether it's the refrain of Moonflowers Bloom in Misery or the sweep of the chorus in All Hallows' Grieve that dominates.

Deception Store - Pindaric Flights (2021)

Country: Italy
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 Nov 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | YouTube

Dreams are important to Marco Pentozzi, the main man behind Deception Store and their debut release, Pindaric Flights. The band name itself, drawn from the final metaphor in One More Time, is about opportunities that you gain by paying dreams but receive only disillusion. The album title is about dreams too, Pindaric flights being flights of fancy, open eyed dreams that drift from one thing to another, echoing the writing style of Pindar, a fanciful ancient Greek lyrical poet.

The band are Italian but the key influences are British, their style being that very accessible form of progressive rock pioneered by Pink Floyd. It's built on simple but highly effective grooves that mix a guitar, that knows well that notes not played are often as important as those that are used, with delicate piano and tasteful electronica and it's all performed with effortless elegance. When the voals show up, they're softly delivered but with a knowingness that beckons us into a story.

The Floyd influence is obvious from the opener, Lifetime, which is latter day Floyd, the style that dominated for them after David Gilmour took over from Roger Waters as the driving force in the band. That sound continues through a few more songs and never quite goes away, suggesting that they're clearly the most important influence to Pentozzi, who wrote the music and the lyrics that he sings as lead vocalist, as well as to Stefano Nicli who contributes the guitars. Even Teo Ederle's bass fits that, especially late on One More Time.

However, Floyd are not the only influence. Rock Star (Meteorite) wanders into Hawkwind territory, especially once it reaches its chorus, there's a moment in New Bad Day that simply screams early Marillion—it could even be Fish on backing vocals—and the title track begins with acoustic guitar very reminiscent of Dust in the Wind, even if the song grows into something else entirely. There's some singer/songwriter stuff here too, A New World reminding as much of Leonard Cohen as Pink Floyd or Marillion and Free adding a laid back Tom Waits at the piano vibe, sans vocals. Timeline, on the other hand, has an alternative feel that kicks in with the opening riff and never quite loses it.

It's certainly an album to explore, but the strongest material seems to me to be found early on or right in the middle. It starts well with Lifeline, firmly defines its boundaries, then expands beyond them to Rock Star (Meteorite), New Bad Day and Pindaric Flight. The first half is very strong. But, while it's not unusual for a title track to be the standout, the album's obvious highlight, it doesn't help when it's a pinnacle from which the rest of the album descends. The second half isn't bad, but it isn't a patch on the first and it's where songs just drift away from me.

Pindaric Flight doesn't do that because it stays fascinating all the way. It grows impeccably, with a few different sections expanding it. The first three minutes build off that acoustic guitar, flowing vocals alongside it and a gorgeous echoey guitar in counter. Then it shifts tone to a much heavier, if not faster, approach that lends the song some real urgency. But A couple of minutes later, that all falls away so our attention forces back to the vocals again, with more gorgeous distant guitar, before it shifts us into the groove that we think will take us home but doesn't. It's wonderful.

I don't want to put down the second half too much, especially as the closer, E Immagino Se, which is the only song to be sung in the band's native Italian, is decent, with a solid contribution from a guest vocalist, Roberta Staccuneddu, who also elevated I Do It My Way early on. It's merely a 6/10 half following a 9/10 track that ends a 8/10 half. The result is still a 7/10 album but I'm more likely to skip half of it in the order it's presented than if the sides had been shuffled somewhat.

Monday, 13 December 2021

Carl Sentance - Electric Eye (2021)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 19 Nov 2021
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Carl Sentance has quite the varied career in music and this solo album, only his second after 2009's Mind Doctor, is a good distillation of all of it. He first found fame as singer for Persian Risk back in the NWOBHM era and he reformed them in 2012. Originally, that was Phil Campbell's band, and it strikes me that, with very different vocals, Overload could easily be a Motörhead song. While he's still singing for Persian Risk, he also took the lead vocal slot in Nazareth in 2015, though, and a lot of these songs, including the openers, are really hard rockers wrapped in the clothes of metal.

If the most obvious Nazareth style song is arguably Nervous Breakdown, which softens things up a bit and adds a little psychedelic shimmy, the openers really aren't heavy as they initially seem, an effective deception that's built off sharp guitars and downtuned bass. Sentance stood in on a tour for Tokyo Blade and, sped up a little, I could see Judas being one of theirs. Alright is even catchier but it stubbornly refuses to speed up and never loses any power because of that decision. The title track sounds to me like a stripped down version of Fastway, circa their Trick or Treat era.

If the sound is hard rock but played heavy and with a metal attitude, the band that Sentance built to play it is well qualified indeed. If I'm reading things right, he provides the guitarwork himself, a role I don't remember him for but which he does well with here. On bass is Wayne Banks, who's in Sentance's current Persian Risk line-up; he's also played for Blaze Bayley, Finnish rock band Brazen Abbot and, well, Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees. On drums is Bob Richards, who's played for both Asia and AC/DC (filling in for Phil Rudd on a couple of videos during his trial). And that leaves Don Airey on keyboards, an old boss of Carl's, who's played with everyone.

That's a capable line-up and they do well here, the downsides being with songwriting rather than performance. Young Beggars feels like a watered down Queensrÿche, hitting all the moments but without any of the oomph. That's especially odd given that that oomph was there from the very beginning of this album, so toning it down had to have been a deliberate choice and, as an obvious enough failure, I'm surprised they didn't drop it from the album.

Fortunately, there are few downsides, even where descriptions might suggest one. Whatever I say about If This is Heaven sounds like a negative, for instance, as it feels like an unusually perky song put out as a single by a much heavier band just to try and break the mainstream. However, this band do it very well indeed and, while such songs are usually the worst on their respective albums, this one could be considered a highlight by some. It's not one of mine but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

The final tracks all feel like other genres rocked up, but with varied results. California Queen is, of all things, a pop punk song that feels rather out of place. I think it's supposed to show a lighter side to the band, and it's not a bad song, but it seems at odds with the earlier, more vicious approach because this is a song for a party band and they've been all about the music up until this point. In between those two is Battlecry, which works better, even though it has an early U2 vibe, probably because it's heavied up instead of watered down and that helps the song immensely.

So this is a mixed bag. Kudos to Carl Sentance for putting such a solid line-up together and for not confining it to a single style. Some of the ideas work better than the others, but it's decent stuff and it often becomes much more than that. For me, it's the early songs because my favourite four are the first four, when they're playing hard rock with a metal edge. It's tight and it's vicious and it rocks. And, entirely separate to new Persian Risk and Nazareth material, let's see another solo album sooner than another dozen years.

Fading Aeon - The Voices Within (2021)

Country: Germany
Style: Epic Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 10 Dec 2021
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Almost three years ago, at the very beginning of 2019, Germany's Fading Aeon introduced me to a new combination of metal subgenres—epic melodic death metal—and I thoroughly enjoyed their debut album, A Warrior's Tale. Now they're back with the follow-up, which continues very much in the same vein: five long songs that combine the riffage of heavy metal and the melodies of power metal with a harsh voice and the crunch of death metal. There's nothing new added this time out, but everything is a little more: the songs are longer still and the riffs are more urgent, but there is also even more of the delicate instrumental work in between the heavier sections.

As with the debut, the first two songs are the shorter ones but, for this band, that means a seven minute song and an eight minute song. They ramp up from there, with the other three all passing the ten minute mark and two heading towards fourteen. None of these feel too long though, even if it's not always easy to grasp the full sweep of any of them in one go. We just dive into them and let their flow take us where they will. These are rivers of songs, sometimes calm and intricate and sometimes whitewater rapids, but they always carry us and we end up happy wherever we end up.

The most immediate song is the first one, Beginning of the End, which means that it's the first of them to become an old friend. One time through and this is just good stuff; a second and we start to identify favourite riffs and favourite sections; a third and we're feeling some of it in our bones. In very different hands, Beginning of the End could be an Iron Maiden song, because of how it's all structured, with solid riffs, memorable melodies and galloping sections where both the voice and instruments gallop together.

The tone is completely different, of course, and the vocals are a light year away from the Air Raid Siren, but this track makes me wonder how Fading Aeon would sound cover something off Piece of Mind. If Maiden are fair to highlight as an influence but completely meaningless as a comparison, I'll go back to the band I compared them to on their debut, because I hear it here as well and that is the French band Winds of Sirius, who were much slower than this but much closer in tone, with a similar vocal style.

Christian Stauch has a warm deep rasp that doesn't allow him much flexibility to intonate but he's very good at stretching his notes for effect. He's a texture here more than he is a delivery method for lyrics, even if his diction is often completely intelligible, and that texture owns the deep end so that David Gareis's far higher guitar can have fun playing counter to it. In many ways, it provides a drone for a higher voice to soar over, just like throat singers, who admittedly do both themselves. Here he's the drone and Gareis's guitar is the higher voice.

Tempting Voices coalesces next before then the longer songs, but my favourite soon became track three, Defying the Path Foregone, which is the shorter of the thirteen minute songs. It kicks off in almost alternative rock fashion, with chords that could start a Red Hot Chili Peppers number, but it unexpectedly adds strings—and was that a flute?—before chunking up and firmly staking out in metal territory. It's the stripped down section early on, where they actually sound like a trio for a change, that grabbed me first, but I enjoyed the build too. It gets faster and heavier with a lot of the melodic line handled by whatever the extra layer is behind the band, and the last third is joyous.

Mostly, I'm just as surprised as last time to realise that Fading Aeon are a trio. Stauch takes care of vocals and bass, David Gareis all the guitarwork and Patrick Gareis the drums. However, there's often another layer in addition to these traditional instruments, including right at the beginning of Beginning of the End, which is the beginning of the album. Sometimes it sounds like it's all the work of keyboards, but sometimes it takes more of a choral form, a merging of voices. Someone's doing something extra and it's obvious when they stop doing it, such as the first minute of ...Dust to Dust, the closer, which opens slow and stark and bluesy.

I like this a lot and I like it more each time I listen through it. It starts out an easy 6/10 but with an expectation that it'll grow on further listens. It becomes a 7/10 the second time through and then keeps getting better, as the songs become old friends. I'm very tempted to go with an 8/10 at this point, especially as I gave the debut a 7/10 and think this is better. Another time through ought to firm up that decision. Now, who else is making epic melodic death metal because I want more and I don't want to wait another three years...