Friday 29 January 2021

Black Sky Giant - Planet Terror (2021)

Country: Argentina
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 16 Jan 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook

Somehow I switched on auto-replay on VLC and listened through Planet Terror for much longer than I had planned. It's an immersive release, containing seven songs to fall into, but in a slightly different way to normal. Instead of our simply aiming to explore the depths of the music, we want the music to become our surroundings so that we can explore where it takes us. For instance, Ghost Valley Truckers is notably well named because we fall into the rhythm of the road as we roar through Ghost Valley at night, wherever that is. It's not the soundtrack, it's the trance state that the road soothes us into and the hyperfocus we find on what else is going on.

Black Sky Giant hail from Rosario, four hours up the road from Buenos Aires, and they play a form of stoner rock with the fuzz turned down and the psychedelic warmth turned up. There are sections that are heavier than others, but the focus is more on bluesy psychedelia than doom metal crunch. There's plenty of Black Sabbath here, of course, but that influence is more obvious from spacier songs like Planet Caravan than its more famous brethren. Mix it with some Shine On You Crazy Diamond and the psychedelic blues of Robin Trower's Bridge of Sighs, then up the tempo and you'll have Black Sky Giant doing Yithian Time Travellers.

I should add that this is entirely instrumental, though there's a sample right as the album begins and a few more as it runs on, especially on the final track, The Phantom Gun. I'm tempted to argue that an affectation for westerns is the final piece of this puzzle, because there was a spaghetti western feel on Asteroid Hermit long before we get to The Phantom Gun. As the cover art suggests, we find ourselves deep into weird western territory here.

Everything is a frontier, whether we're out in the belt mining asteroids, battling monsters on an alien planet or driving through the desert night keeping our eyes open for bandits. There isn't much space rock, merely moments in and amongst songs like Ulameth (Endbringer), but there are keyboards to paint textures in sound and make us feel like we're on a journey. The samples on Ghost Valley Truckers feel like rare radio signals getting through, before leaving us alone with our thoughts once more, back out on the frontier beyond the reach of other humans. What species are those bandits?

It still seems strange to me, however many times I've listened through this album now, that there's an overt sense of desolation on so many of these tracks, given that the tone is emphatically warm. I think it's because the soft beat is so relentless and the bass pulses ever onwards, ensuring that we never feel that we're anything but confident and safe, however far from home we roam and how much danger we might run into out there in the middle of nowhere. It's wonderful worldbuilding.

My favourite track is Ulameth (Endbringer), though it's a little longer than it should be. It starts out like a fifties B-movie, but then focuses inward. Initially, it struggles to find itself, as if it's focusing on a point that it can never reach, but, a couple of minutes in, it focuses even further inward. This album is warm and liquid and organic from the beginning, but it gets downright amniotic on Ulameth. This one feels like being in the womb. Maybe that counts as another frontier, one we're not quite ready to breach yet.

I wish I knew who the musicians were on this album so I could praise them for their work. I can't find out much of anything about Black Sky Giant, just that they're from Argentina and they recorded this last month, making it a quick release. In fact, I know more about the cover art than I do the band; the Bandcamp page for the album tells me that's by Pablo González, who is GonzoSkulls on Instagram, as cool a name as I've ever coveted. He illustrated this album well, but so did the musicians who brought it to life.

Now, let me reload my six shooter and saddle up my trusty steed, then we can venture out once more to tangle with the monsters lurking beyond the perimeter.

Napalm Death - Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Death Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 18 Sep 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Let's wrap up my 2020 coverage at Apocalypse Later with an album I'd have reviewed in September had I not been suffering technical difficulties at the time. It's the new one from Napalm Death, amazingly their sixteenth original studio album, something that I simply wouldn't have believed when I bought Scum in 1987. Of course, that pioneering debut led to quite the career, even though no musician on it lasted past 1991, names like Lee Dorrian, Bill Steer and Mick Harris now known as much for their work after they left as before.

I'd have reviewed this anyway, but I'm doing so now because it was received particularly well and made a strong showing in the end of year lists, topping Decibel's list and coming second at Consequence of Sound. It sounds really good to me too, better than the band last time I saw them live (which I see now was as long ago as 2006, just after Smear Campaign came out). It feels fresh, surprisingly so for an outfit technically celebrating their fortieth anniversary this year (and their thirtieth in this line-up). I haven't heard much from their last couple of decades but what I have heard wasn't this fresh.

Much of that is surely due to the fact that they continue to experiment with their sound. The heart of this is still grindcore heavily infused with death metal, but there's a lot more here than that. It's very punky, hearkening back to the band's roots in the anarcho-punk scene of the day, long before the idea of grindcore had been conjured up. There's a lot of early Discharge here, especially in the way Barney handles the vocals, not in style but in rhythm, intonation and meter. I first noticed this on Contagion and Zero Gravitas Chamber but the intro to the title track underlines it. It's like he's shouting poetry rather than singing and how the words and their syllables sound is important as what they say.

There are also journeys into lands other than grindcore and death. There are other sounds in songs at the beginning of the album, but that becomes impossible to miss once we get to Joie de na pas Vivre, an experimental piece that mixes black metal and industrial. That's followed by Invigorating Clutch, a nod to avant garde Celtic Frost; it's slower but utterly relentless. Because the styles they explore to a deep degree are already present in earlier songs, they don't feel out of place. The only song that does is the last one, the most overtly industrial piece here, A Bellyful of Salt and Spleen, which wisely ends the album. It would have been awkward anywhere else.

I love the sound of this album. I remember listening to Scum in 1987 and struggling to keep up with a pace that exceeded anything I'd heard before. It's easier nowadays, of course, with decades of extreme metal to train my ears, but this is as clear and melodic as I've ever heard grindcore without losing any power whatsoever. It's purple faced angry even as it embraces subtleties and textures. Amoral is like a ruthless punk take on a Depeche Mode song, but it's a highlight here, even if the vehemence and pace of the title track that follows it underlines how different it really was.

Perhaps the best way to describe this is to suggest that I like grindcore not so much for the music but because that music provides an experience. If the best and fastest thrash cleans me out, leaving me as spiritually refreshed as if I'd spent a day meditating in a sauna, then grindcore does that in blitzkrieg fashion, a more jagged and punctuated route to the same goal. This, however, I'm listening to for the music. It's fascinating to hear this sort of versatility at this sort of speed and it bodes very well for an iconic band entering its fifth decade.

Thursday 28 January 2021

Sirakh - Crisis of Faith (2021)

Country: Finland
Style: Gothic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 22 Jan 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

If I'm understanding properly, this is the debut studio album of Finnish goth rockers Sirakh, although they formed in 2013 and have been knocking out singles for seven years now. They don't call what they do gothic rock, because, as they suggest, "rock fans think it’s too heavy, metal fans call it pussy music and goths never accept anything post-1985 to their ranks anyway." So this is a Dark Alternative album, which actually makes more sense than it probably should.

Initially, it feels like it's going to get heavy with an ominous opening to Yours for the Breaking, only to find a danceable beat and add bubbly keyboards. The lead vocal is delivered by Marina Trench, who sounds like a member of Abba thinking about symphonic metal because she's clear and sweet but with an underlying darkness. There's a male voice here too, though only occasionally and clearly there with the goal of supporting rather than leading. I presume that's lead guitarist Nikki Angelus.

I see the band's dilemma, because this does hint at metal but stubbornly remains in a more pop/rock mindset. Tear Me to Shreds becomes a gothic take on a-ha, especially during the chorus, even if it first reminds of a UFO stormer and the guitars do have a buzzsaw quality to them. Apparently, their home town of Oulu, seven hours north of Helsinki and the gateway to northern Finland, is fundamentally a metal city, the home of Impaled Nazarene, Sentenced and Kalmah, along with apparently hundreds of others. Sirakh see themselves as outsiders for playing it softer. Then again, Padre Mortis does chime in with some harsh vocals here and there to play along.

While there's a gothic feel throughout and Sirakh see themselves as "torchbearers of the early 2000s Fenno-goth movement", the name that leapt out to me most overtly here was a surprising one. There are ten songs here and the first half is gothic rock, heavier than usual but not heavy enough to count as gothic metal. That's the core sound, even if Downfall gets all funky for a while. My favourite songs are probably the first two on the second half, Grown Apart and Mirrors, and they sound to me rather like Fleetwood Mac as goths, Marina Trench channelling Stevie Nicks.

That's a really interesting sound to me, especially with lyrics a lot darker than Stevie would ever sing: "When you told me to pay my dues, would you like it in cash or in my bodily fluids?" It's still a darker love song, so that works, and the mix highlights everyone like Fleetwood Mac did in their heyday, the chiming keyboards in Grown Apart almost duetting with Trench and the bass audible throughout and even leading the way in Mirrors. A few more harmony vocals and the resemblence would be complete.

So yeah, this is an agreeable mix of styles, one that sounds great to me and different enough from the glut of Finnish gothic music that it'll either be utterly ignored or the spark for a whole new sound. It has to be said that the most traditional song here is probably New Black, which features a clean male vocal and incessant rhythm section that reminds of H-I-M at their heaviest, but more Teutonic, a vibe that the arrival of Trench halfway through doesn't nullify.

I like this. I like the poppier end of the album, that a-ha chorus in Tear Me to Shreds. I like the heavier end too, epitomised by the crunchy guitars that drive many of these songs or the solo histrionics that kick off Downfall. More importantly, I have absolutely no problem with all those sharing space on the same album. The band are clearly capable but then there are a lot of capable bands out there. Not all of them embrace being a little different from everyone around them. I especially like that. No crisis of faith needed.

Hyperia - Insanitorium (2020)

Country: Canada
Style: Thrash/Death Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 14 Jan 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

Here's another submission I planned to review ages ago and never got round to. Sorry, folks! I picked this up from Vlad Promotion at the same time as the excellent Anubis EP right before my server went down, so it got stuck on my tablet where I'd keep on finding it at two in the morning and it would be impressive all over again. So, before I run out of January, let's review the thing.

Hyperia are about as hyper as their name suggests. They play blistering thrash metal at a serious rate of knots, but with vocals that delve into death and whole melodic sections that venture deep into the territory of power metal. The first things to grab me were the clarity of sound, the sheer speed and an impressive guitar sound, not only from lead guitarist Colin Ryley but rhythm guitarist David Kupisz, and they were easily enough to hook me into this album. Then Marlee Ryley opened her mouth and I was beyond sold.

She has a kaiju of a voice that's about a hundred times her size and she continually explores different styles as if they're going out of fashion—she can steer through thrash, death, heavy, speed and power in a single verse—but it's made all the more glorious for a deliberately unpolished delivery. I clearly recognise and acknowledge her technical ability—when she wants to hit a note, she hits it like a Tyson punch, and her breath control is amazing—but she's as interested in energy as she is technique so she doesn't so much sing here as unleash her voice like a dragon and let it ravage the countryside. And we can't help but pay attention.

Hyperia have only been together since 2018, presumably formed by the Ryleys, who were a symphonic power metal duo called Sahasrara, which may have evolved into Hyperia, and played together in a folk/melodic death metal band called Skymir. There are a few earlier releases, an EP and a couple of singles, but all that material is on this album as well, so it's the result of a few years of band evolution even if it plays very consistently indeed.

In fact, it plays so consistently and so energetically that it's easy to just get sucked in like a 42 minute mosh pit, from which we emerge utterly cleaned out but half wondering what just happened. Hyperia start out by throwing us into a Mad Trance with only a memorable sample from Psycho to prepare us, Norman's old quote about his mother setting us up for Marlee Ryley's vocal delivery: "She just goes a little mad sometimes." Then it's speed metal riffs that only get faster, with early Helloween melody in abundance; that voice erupts out of the speakers, treating us to twelve seconds of sustained scream in the chorus; our heartbeats speed up to match Jordan Maguire's beat, our necks report for duty... and forty odd minutes later, we emerge battered and bruised with a big grin on our faces.

Eventually I racked up enough listens and partial listens to be able to focus on some little details like whodunit and wot they dun. I ended up thinking of this band like a cross between the sheer speed and energy of Nuclear Assault and the melodies of Helloween. Think Game Over meets Walls of Jericho, an impressive dream combo for me. I say those two because there's nothing as epic or slick here as we got on The Keeper of the Seven Keys and there are the twin senses of immediacy and fun that were obvious on Nuclear Assault's debut but not so much as their career ran on.

Lyrically, there's a strong focus on insanity, so much so that it's not too much of a stretch to read this as a concept album, featuring a serial killer locked up in an asylum, her blood lust still echoing in her mind but kept in check by a straitjacket, her fractured mind channelled instead to ponder on her past in her padded cell. The cover art and album title fit wonderfully, though I get the impression that the lead character thinks of her work as art, so I'd have gone with something like "Tangled Red Thoughts".

The intensity speaks to me so much that this is a gimme for an 8/10. If this had been released in 1987, I wouldn't have kept it far from my turntable. Writing in 2021, the only comment I can throw out that's even remotely close to a negative is that I'd have appreciated more genre hopping in the music. It's in the vocals throughout and it's there at points in the music as well, like a section of folky jauntiness in Unleash the Pigs, but there's infinitely more thrash and speed than death and it seems like that could have crept in a little more, as could the lively folk metal. But hey, I ain't complainin'! I'm diving right back in again. See you in 42 minutes!

Wednesday 27 January 2021

The Dead Daisies - Holy Ground (2021)

Country: Australia
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 22 Jan 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

David Lowy isn't the most likely candidate to create a supergroup, given that, until 2012, he was more known for being a businessman—with over a decade as the managing director of the Westfield Group, which operates shopping centres in nine different countries—and an aviator—he's an Australian Aerobatic Champion and the founder of the Temora Aviation Museum. But hey, he's no slouch on the guitar and a string of names have been more than happy to join a revolving line-up in his band, the Dead Daisies, which he put together and is the only remaining founder member in.

In addition to Lowy, the line-up on this album includes two current members of Revolution Saints and an old favourite as a new fish. The pair are guitarist Doug Aldrich, who's played with Dio, Whitesnake and House of Lords, among others, and drummer Deen Castronovo, formerly of Bad English, Journey and Wild Dogs, among others. The old favourite is Glenn Hughes, who has an almost unparallelled CV with names such as Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Trapeze, not to forget Black Country Communion, his other current supergroup. He's here not only on the expected vocals but on bass too.

As you might imagine from names like them, the performances are seamless and comfortable. This is a patient hard rock album with its roots in the seventies and eighties but sounding very contemporary, as a New Wave of Classic Rock band should. The production is crunchy, so the guitars and drums seem heavy and the bass is easily found, not just on the excellent Like No Other (Bassline), in which it plays the lead role that title suggests. Hughes, possessed of an old school soulful rock voice, also chants his lyrics frequently here, helping it to sound modern.

None of these songs stood out for me on a first listen. The album sounded good but it also sounded a bit generic. This doesn't sound like any band so much as it sounds like all of them distilled together. I would catch some Bad Company here, some Led Zeppelin there and some Deep Purple after that, but without any song actually sounding like any of those bands. It's just in the style of a riff or shake of a tambourine, like all the influences are inherently always there in the band's DNA but don't separate easily. Perhaps Bustle and Flow is a little more AC/DC, My Fate a little more Whitesnake and 30 Days in the Hole a little more like the Faces, but you would never mistake those songs for those bands.

All of these songs stood out for me on a second listen, which is unusual. I'm used to albums that take a little time to sink in and songs that need a second time through to pop. I'm not used to ones where every song pops on the second shot and it makes me wonder if the problem was me last night. Maybe I just wasn't in the mindset for this at the time but I am today, because it didn't work for me then and it does now. What sounded generic then sounds like a consistent Dead Daisies sound now that takes a lot from other bands but distils it all into a sound that's just them. It's all perspective.

My favourite songs are the ones that are a little looser and haven't had the edges polished off them. Like No Other (Bassline) feels like the whole band is having a lot of fun. Bustle and Flow plays each of them off each other very well. Unspoken gifts Hughes with lots of opportunity and he takes it, as the band nails emphasis shifts around him gloriously. The midsection is a fantastic breakdown too, going down to almost nothing before kicking back in. This band is tight and recommended.

Tristwood - Blackcrowned Majesty (2020)

Country: Austria
Style: Industrial Black Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 29 May 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | YouTube

Here's another submission, one for which I should apologise to Jegger from Tristwood about, because he sent this to me in May 2020, when this was new. I downloaded it but failed to get round to actually listening to it until now. Double shame on me because this is a fascinating feast of uncompromising underground extremity. It's absolutely not going to be for everyone but, if it speaks to you, it may be one of your favourite albums from last year.

Tristwood hail from Innsbruck, which is in Austria but has been historically part of Germany, Italy and France, making it a suitable location for a band who play an unholy mixture of black and death metal, industrial and grindcore. Whatever they are right now on this song, they'll be something else in five minutes on the next one. There's even a neat melodic part in one song but I'd better not mention that or it might get cut back out again, given the neat background to the album's musical direction that's detailed on its Bandcamp page.

Most of my favourite songs arrive late on, whether that's the proto-death of Acherontic Deathcult or the death-infused black metal onslaught of Bone Cathedral, but the title track may well be the key to what they do. It doesn't show up until three songs in, but before it pulls back the curtain and shows us the layers to Tristwood's sound, we're treated to the assault of a couple of others.

Re-Enthronement of the Damned is blisteringly fast, so much so that it's hard to actually listen to the guitars behind a wall of sound. What our ears catch instead are electronic noises that I imagined were aliens trying to communicate with me through the same equipment I'm using to listen to this album. It's black metal mixed with grindcore and it's uncompromising.

The vocals stood out too. I'm used to death growls, black shrieks and hardcore shouts, among others, but these are what I'll now think of as Tristwood barks. Luckily I'm not listening to this on my laptop, because those doglike vocals would send my cats to the high country. The ferret in my office is down, of course, as he'll say hi to anything, even if it'll eat him.

As we roll into He Who Traversed a Greater Oblivion, the wall of sound remains but with many bricks removed. I can hear the guitarwork now behind slower drums. Notably the vocals turn into grindcore gutturals, deep and desolate. It's different but still extreme, death rather than black, a new facet to a band about to kick A Blackcrowned Majesty off with techno beats and atmosphere, like we're in one of those European clubs we see in the movies that only cater to vampires about to be slain.

What this one does is echo both the earlier songs at once but in a mix that highlights the industrial aspects that we were merely glimpsing before. I can almost figure out what those aliens are trying to tell me, enough that I think they may be chatting with the barking dogs. It's well named, because it's a majestic song indeed, successful at combining at least four genres into one. Oh, and there's a flute, just in case we thought the surprises were over. They're not, though perhaps we're now expecting the unexpected and that's why we're not surprised by the further surprises.

Tristwood were formed as long ago as 2001 and they've put out four studio albums before this, plus a couple of EPs and singles. I haven't heard any of those, but the line-up seems to have remained pretty stable so this, as ruthlessly uncompromising as it is—their 2019 single, Crypt of Perennial Whispers, featured a single 22 minute song—is clearly working for them in the Tyrol, even if they're never going to be providing the new theme for Ski Sunday. Their Bandcamp page lists influences from black metal era Bathory and Hellhammer to Skinny Puppy and Killing Joke. They all make sense, even Oxiplegatz, a name I haven't seen in twenty years.

I like this. It's not something I'm going to virtually spin every week but it works well both as music on its own merits and as a reminder that the genre-hopping, avant-garde, uncompromising underground doesn't have to be unlistenable. Hyperspeed blastbeats, industrial drone riffs, electronic noises and a barrage of Tristwood barks remind me of that magic moment in 1987 when Sid put Napalm Death's Scum onto the Groové Records deck in Halifax and I realised I wasn't buying the Faster Pussycat debut that day after all. It's a good reminder that a lot of extreme music just isn't that extreme any more, but the edges still exist and they seem to be in Innsbruck.

Tuesday 26 January 2021

Cryptic Confinement - The Iniquitous and the Corrupt (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Melodic Thrash Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 25 Jan 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | YouTube

Thanks to Zakk Weathersby for sending this one in. It used to be that Cryptic Confinement was his one man band, playing guitar and bass and programming drums. That was the case on the project's debut album, Wrath of the Morning Star in 2018. For its second album, which was released on Bandcamp this week, however, he brought in Burt Usry II and everything here is written and performed by the pair. I don't know who played what, but there are still no vocals, so this is an entirely instrumental release.

And I'm fine with that concept. Vocals are the usual reason why a band playing any genre of extreme metal might stop speaking to me. There's an irony in that phrasing, I know, but, if a band has a poor production or a bass that I can't hear or a drummer that can't keep up with everyone else, I can often still enjoy their work, merely with caveats. However, if I don't like the vocals, that can spoil the entire experience and I'm lost.

Talking of production, I like the music here a lot more than I like the production. It's not bad, but it's a little thin and, oddly for extreme metal, favours the high end of the spectrum rather than the low. I say extreme metal rather than a particular subgenre, because this plays in quite a few of them. Metal Archives calls the band melodic thrash metal and there's definitely some technical guitarwork that's fairly described as thrash, but that's not all that's here and this album isn't listed there yet anyway.

A number of songs, most obviously The Price of Defiance, do more than dabble in black metal. That's a drum thing more than anything, as they're often faster than any other instrument, but it's also found in the guitar tone. The Fury of Redemption initially feels like death metal and it also moves into what could be described as death/doom. The Bandcamp tags don't include either of those genres, but they do include epic doom metal, which initially surprised me.

Listening afresh, I realise that it's probably talking about what I thought of as fitting "atmospheric": some intros; much of the final song, Beyond the Catacombs; and the wildest piece here, which goes by the clumsy title of Necromancy/Inducens Post Bestiam. The first half of that is slow and atmospheric and, had the song ended with it two minutes in, I'd call it an interlude in between the heavy and fast material. The second is a drum solo.

Yeah, that's the most surprising thing anywhere on this album, along with the realisation that it isn't a problem and is actually a highlight. There's even a second drum solo, a short but effective exercise in patience that shows up midway through Beyond the Catacombs, but this one is long, running three and a half minutes, which is more than the opening song. I like it a lot, partly because it isn't just an attempt to prove how fast the drummer can play and partly because it ends up reminding me not of a rock solo but a taiko performance. The only downside is the drum sound, which is a mixing issue.

I'd suggest that the drums sound better in isolation than when backing other songs, but I should add that I dealt with it. I wonder if the black metal influence is what led the production to take this route, as that subgenre almost worships bad production, but this isn't muddy; it's just thin. The production is easily the worst aspect for me. This would be a better album with thicker, meatier production that gives the drums more power and the cymbals less. The guitars and bass could do with bulking up too.

So this is a mixed bag. I like the majority of the music, regardless of instrument. Technically, this pair are very capable and I appreciate the decision to throw in that long drum solo, not a usual thing for a band playing this sort of music to do. I like the variety, moving from doom to black to death. I dig the cover art. I don't like the production at all. I still can't get into the opening song, Iniquitous Domain, even looping back to it after getting used to the sound. It feels rushed to me and the drums don't fit. Fortunately I didn't stop after that one, because it gets better.

I haven't heard Wrath of the Morning Star, but it seems like this is a step forward from a solo project towards a band and it's definitely promising. I'd like to see how they develop from here, even if they stay instrumental. Thanks, Zakk!

Walter Trout - Ordinary Madness (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Blues Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 28 Aug 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

I reviewed Walter Trout's Survivor Blues in 2019, almost to the day, and it was emphatically a blues album. Like duh, you think, but it was a deep covers album that saw him reinterpret a variety of older music. This is a blues album too, of course, but it plays to me like a rock album. Robby Krieger of the Doors guested on one track and he provided the studio for this one and maybe that's a factor in why this explores the blues through the rock music it inspired rather than directly. Maybe it's just a focus back on the blues rock that he started out playing when he graduated from sideman to his own band. I haven't immersed myself deeply enough into his copious discography to be able to say.

I love how it starts. The title track is a slow blues with a smooth, laid back vibe, but it also has an odd opening and a darkness that's just a little obscured from us, like we're not supposed to see it but will always find it eventually. It's a gorgeous song, led by Trout's gorgeous guitar, but also his voice. He's never going to be remembered for his voice the way he is for his guitar, but it's perfect for this track, because it pairs an everyday vocal with an unworldly guitar and that helps.

Most of the rest of the album moves firmly into rock and often hard rock. "I still love my rock 'n' roll, the Beatles and the Stones," Trout sings on OK Boomer. "I like my music loud." On that prior album, any comparisons made would be to blues musicians, but here they're to blues rockers. The most overt rockers here may be Final Curtain Call, which reminds of Rory Gallagher, and The Sun is Going Down, a psychedelic blues rocker that brings Robin Trower quickly to mind.

The first obvious rock song is Wanna Dance, which has a real darkness to it, more obviously than that opener. I love the heavy seventies organ sound and I love how the whole song is more upbeat and up tempo, even with a dark miasma hanging over everything. Trout isn't interested in just exploring one blues rock sound though and continues to mix it up. My Foolish Pride is more of a Bob Seger song, a good one but one that feels tamer than it should, given what's gone before. It's slower and softer and more emotional, but, to my thinking, All Out of Tears does what My Foolish Pride tries and fails to do, which is to get emotional without losing the atmosphere.

It's fun to figure out the rock underpinnings here. Heartland has a Neil Young vibe. Wanna Dance has a Dire Straits feel to its intro. Heaven in Your Eyes reminds of Gary Moore's Empty Rooms. Even on a purer blues song, like Make It Right, I was reminded of Jeff Healey, who discovered that the world of rock music was very open to a blind white Canadian bluesman. Once we've heard Robin Trower in The Sun is Going Down, suddenly he's everywhere on the next listen, especially on Up Above My Sky. The only song where I felt that the blues influence was stronger than the rock audience was All Out of Tears, on which I immediately thought B. B. King.

All in all, this is a peach of a blues rock album, neatly varied and highly accomplished. Trout is closing in on seventy years of age, but this doesn't feel like an old bluesman's album, even if it wraps up with an acknowledgement of that in OK Boomer. It feels like there's serious experience there, as it should, but it also feels like Trout is still playing for the future. I look forward to another January review of a Walter Trout album.

Monday 25 January 2021

Perfect Storm - No Air (2021)

Country: The Netherlands
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 15 Jan 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website

If you're in Perfect Storm's native Holland, then their debut album came out a couple of weeks ago; if you're anywhere else, it technically doesn't come out until 19th March, but it's worth highlighting it now because it's a worthy release and I hope it does well. Perfect Storm play modern prog rock with a slight contemporary jazz edge, as if they're a combination of Porcupine Tree and Steely Dan. The line-up of six includes three vocalists, two dedicated and one who also provides the warm keyboards, so it isn't surprising that it's so accessible.

Those keyboards, courtesy of Ard Offers, tend to lead the songs in and help them develop. It's rare for him to not be obvious here, even when he's underpinning everyone else with texture. There are seven pieces of music here, none short but none notably long either; they all fall within a comfortable six to ten minute range where they can really breathe but can't develop into full-blown suites with multiple movements to build epic stories.

Maybe a few manage two movements. The Search is one of those and it ably demonstrates the sides of the band. The first is commercial, driven by the male voice of Adel Saflou and with a smooth solo from Gert-Jan Schurer. The second is just as accessible, but it's more adventurous, led by the female voice of Hiske Oosterwijk, and with an edgier, more brooding feel to it. I should add that both these voices are very appropriate for this music. Neither sounds like a solo artist lending a hand; they're two inherent facets to this band and the result would be very different if there was only one of them here.

With that said, I think I prefer Oosterwijk, because Saflou is a little too smooth for my tastes. "Living is easier," he sings on Hope and we can believe it. He sounds like everything is easy and effortless and he's never had to suffer through hard times. Oosterwijk doesn't sound like she's had a hard life but it hasn't always been easy, so there's more depth of feeling when she's singing. They work well together in the sense that they bring different things to the band that complement each other. They work less well together when they're both at the mike at the same time, as Saflou dominates almost every time.

Schurer can work either way. His solos early in The Search and late in Hope are wildly different, neatly highlighting his versatility. It feels a little odd talking up the vocals on a prog rock album, which may underline just how this moves towards smooth jazz and soft rock. Mind's Eye, for instance, is surely as close as this gets to Steely Dan, until it mixes it up in the midsection with Schurer getting jaunty and sassy and Oosterwijk adding some more edge. Oddly, it's often right after the band get really smooth that they decide to get really edgy.

There aren't any poor tracks here, let alone bad ones, so the conversation shifts to the highlights and the consistency. I think there's a lot of consistency, however much light/dark play goes on, because it's a very mature debut album. I believe everyone in the band performs with other Dutch bands, so this is about them learning how to combine their experience and ideas not starting from scratch.

As for highlights, Mind's Eye is one of the growers for me. The title track is the one that leapt out for me on a first listen, while The Search took two, one to experience it and a second to realise how much it was doing. Mind's Eye, on the other hand, has quite the arc between beginning and end and it gets better each time I hear it as I understand it more. The epic of the album is How It Ends, and it's a good song with some great instrumental passages, both hard and soft, which also happen to gift drummer Jesse Bosman and bass player David Klompmakers with moments of their own.

How It Ends is also how it ends, as it wraps up the album, leaving us wanting more but satisfied with what we were given. This isn't a perfect storm, but it's a pretty damn good one and I live in a desert. I wonder if finding this album is why the skies have opened over the last couple of days to refresh us. If so, thank you!

Legio Sergia - Through the Fire with Closed Eyes (2020)

Country: Germany
Style: Heavy/Power/Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 14 Aug 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | VK

Here's another submission, this time from Tübingen in Germany, that came out last August. Thanks to Proprius, Legio Sergia's guitarist, for that. The band ostensibly play melodic death metal, with a lot more of the "melodic" than usual because his guitar is high in the mix and often higher than expected in pitch. It makes for a versatile sound that plays in heavy and power metal as often as it does melodeath and is definitely more cheerful than the genre usually gets. With an opening instrumental title track being orchestral and a little avant garde, this album is definitely interesting.

The biggest downside to the album is obvious from the start and only becomes more so once it's over and that's that it doesn't last very long. It only runs 27 minutes to begin with, ninety seconds shorter than even Reign in Blood, and the intro and outro take up almost six of those minutes. That means that we only have six songs proper, each under four minutes, and they include the two songs from the EP they put out in January 2020 and the two singles before that. I definitely wanted more material here.

The good news is that the material we have is often very good stuff. In addition to the guitar sound, which makes this a broad album if not a long one, I was really impressed by the drumming of DeMort, who joined the band this year and is best known for doing absolutely everything in the Ukrainian project Luna, which Metal Archives calls a symphonic funeral doom/death metal outfit. I presume that means he plays a lot slower there than he does here, but his work seemed effortless to me, as if the speed meant nothing and he could have handled any tempo the band threw at him without breaking a sweat.

Look Upon the World sets the template in place with the harsh voice of Theodor over what could have been a a NWOBHM era riff and drums that shift from fast to very fast. Across the Streets is darker and heavier but adds a second voice in a jaunty section that's almost alternative rock. There's a lot of Iron Maiden here, as there often is on this album, but there are points where it gets doomy and that jaunty section could have been borrowed from commercial nu metal. The more I listen to these songs, the more they don't seem to do what I expect, which I like.

There's a point in Across the Streets where I could swear blind that I recognise a riff, but I can't place it. Other riffs spark memories in Our Freedom and especially Assertion, which kind of sounds like not just one band but the entire year of 1984 in metal, everything from Nemesis to Venom via, inevitably, Iron Maiden. It feels like this song both looks back to the NWOBHM era, which was over in its purest form, and forward to the extreme genres that were being formulated at the time. Our Freedom does a similar job, but not so overtly.

My favourite song here is easily The Walker, because it continues to do all the interesting things with music but adds some other interesting things with vocals. There are two primary voices in play here, a third introducing them. Each is harsh and deep to a different level, but it's easy to differentiate them from each others. They bounce off each other in memorable fashion, seeming like a conversation not a duet, like trolls meeting over a barrel of ale. The guitar drops into its most simplistic form anywhere on the album to give them the focus, before returning to business as usual. It's an unusual song, with nods to speed and, through the voices, folk metal, and I adore it.

Just as Our Freedom is Assertion but less so, Rush Along is The Walker but less so. They have similar goals but they're a little less ambitious and a bit more traditional. I like all six songs here, though I did need to get used to the constant shifting of style and that took a couple of listens through. After that point, I was fascinated by how the band could shift from heavy to power to doom to death on the turn of a dime. This may well be the least obviously death metal album of any death metal I've reviewed at Apocalypse Later, but it's a fascinating one. Thanks, Proprius!

Friday 22 January 2021

Jason Bieler and the Baron von Bielski Orchestra - Songs for the Apocalypse (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 22 Jan 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Chris Franklin took me aback with a recent instalment of his excellent Raised on Rock radio show. One song he played leapt out at me for its quality and for how much it sounded like Saigon Kick, who top my personal list of bands I wish had made it but never quite did. That song turned out to be by Jason Bieler, lead guitarist and vocalist of Saigon Kick, taken from this album, which I naturally sought out immediately. It comes out today.

Saigon Kick always got lumped into the hair metal bucket, which isn't entirely unfair because of songs like Love is on the Way, their biggest hit, being a hair metal ballad. However, if you actually look past that one song by say, listening to their Water album, you'll find that they were one of the most varied and versatile bands anywhere on the planet. The only other release I can compare to that for variety is Queen's Sheer Heart Attack, another one with a safe spot in my all time top ten.

This isn't as varied as Water or, indeed, the press release's suggestion that the album's sound is like "if Neurosis got stuck in a blizzard at a Wawa with Supertramp, then Jellyfish showed up and they all decided to do Barry Manilow covers in the style of Meshuggah, but in waltz time with slight country underpinnings." It is varied though, but more subtly, with songs veering into different styles rather than adopting them throughout: the tuba parts of Crab Claw Dan, the funky guitar in Down in a Hole and the bluegrass intro to Beyond Hope, not to mention that song's wildly varied vocals, don't stop them being hard rock songs.

The core sound is consistent. Vocals that are always catchy, whether they're singing a chorus, verses or just vocalising for effect. Drums that are always lively, often by finding unusual rhythms that match a vocal line (or not: Annalise feels thoroughly unusual, mostly because of what the drums are doing and they're not doing what the vocals are doing). An audible bass that sometimes takes the lead. Guitars that slide back and forth between melodic pop/rock and a heavier, grungier sound, plus everywhere in between. There's even a jazzy instrumental called Horror Wobbles the Hippo, the guitar set against an ominous backdrop.

There's no band here, it seems, Bieler providing everything except what a variety of guests chip in on. On Annalise, everything is Bieler except the bass, provided by the versatile Kevin Scott, while Beyond Hope features Dave Ellefson from Megadeth on bass; vocals from Skindred's Benji Webbe; a solo from Bumblefoot, ex-Guns n' Roses and currently Sons of Apollo; and Saigon Kick's Ricky Sanders on drums. The long list of guests includes names as varied as Devin Townsend; Todd LaTorre of Queensrÿche; Jeff Scott Soto; Extreme's Pat Badger; gypsy jazz guitarist Emil Werstler of Dååth; Clay Cook, formerly of the Marshall Tucker Band; among others.

My biggest disappointment was that there's very little here playing into a "roll up, roll up" carnival mindset promised by the album's design and publicity. That's mostly confined to the tuba sections of Crab Claw Dan, with seaside ambience and a manipulated vocal, even what sounds like a kazoo, but the song keeps returning to an exquisitely layered rock vocal anyway. I could suggest that some songs are stronger than others, but I won't fall into that trap because I know from Saigon Kick albums that even my least favourite songs might become my favourites later.

Right now, after three runs through and a lot more cherrypicking repeat plays, I have a whole host of favourites. Apology is a pristine opener, with solos from KMFDM's Andee Blacksugar. Bring Out Your Dead is exquisitely catchy, with a neatly heavy bass from Dave Ellefson and a fantastic solo from Devin Townsend. Down in a Hole features some wonderful guitarwork, courtesy of Bieler and Stephen Gibb, who's played with Crowbar, Black Label Society and Saigon Kick, but is currently working with his dad, Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees. Beyond Hope reminds me of SuperHeavy, a mix of very different styles in a glorious fusion. And Annalise is thoroughly unusual, so much so that it shouldn't work but it does, refusing to leave me alone.

This is a peach of an album for Saigon Kick fans and if you aren't one of those, why not? I'll be playing this one to death, enjoying immediate earworm catchiness but also exploring its substantial depths. I apparently also have a heck of a lot of Bieler solo material to check out, as he's all over Bandcamp like a rash, with a slew of solo EPs and work under the name of Owl Stretching. I've always felt that he was one of the greatest musicians that nobody's ever heard of and this underlines that. Thanks, Chris!

La Fin - The Endless Inertia (2020)

Country: Italy
Style: Post-Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 9 Oct 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram

I was very happy when Federico La Torre, bass player in La Fin, sent me a copy of their debut album for review, because the PR material doesn't seem to be able to define what they do. In an era of subgenres and sub-subgenres, it's great to see a band who don't fit into any of the buckets already out there. It's going to be fun trying to define what they do, with that in mind.

The first genre that came to mind, as Inertia kicked off the album, was post-rock. It's melodious guitar, set against a background texture, with other instruments gradually joining the fray. Even as it gets a lot more vehement, it still feels like a soundscape, just an angrier one, with the music a conversation with the shouted vocals of Marco Balzano. He sings cleanly too, at multiple points in this song, but in the angry moments these are hardcore shouts.

Once Inertia really got moving (ha!), it was clear that this is post-metal rather than post-rock and it's possible that it's the fairest place to end up. Wherever this album takes us, it always has hard edges, even when the band have moved into softer sections. I'm no expert on post-metal but I caught a little Isis or Cult of Luna here, but without as much sludge. The pace is often similar but feels more active. Perhaps that's because there are three guitarists in play, plus an audible bass, and they don't so much weave together as join a conversation separately, alternately agreeing with and then wildly disagreeing with the vocals.

Then there are points flavoured by extreme subgenres, most obviously black metal and avant jazz, but they're only points. There are no black metal songs here, but there are entire sections featuring a wall of sound approach and much faster drumming. There are no avant jazz songs here, but there are parts that feel acutely experimental. La Fin clearly have broad tastes in music and they're happy to borrow ideas from diverse sources to filter into the nine jagged soundscapes to which we're treated.

And jagged is a good word to use here. It's clear that, while the band is conjuring up soundscapes, it's doing so in unusual fashion. Riccardo Marino rarely just keeps the beat here and, even when he does, it isn't always in a traditional time signature. I certainly won't be tapping out Repetita's drum intro with my fingers any time soon. This takes us firmly into progressive metal, but not remotely like Queensrÿche or Dream Theater and their ilk. Maybe there's a little Tool but this is more like King Crimson as a post-metal band.

I think it's fair to say that this is not an easy to grasp album. It's as full of melody and elegance as it is anger and dissonance, but it's hardly going to make for easy radioplay, even on a station that leans to the alternative and happily embraces metalcore. I've listened through a few times now and I can't say that I've figured out the structure of any of these songs yet. I appreciate this part and that one and of course that one over there, but there's so much going on that I know I still have a heck of a lot of dots to connect. I'll take time.

For now, even though I'm rarely a fan of shouted vocals, I like this a lot. It feels vibrant and fresh and fascinating. There's anger but it's textured anger and, unlike every metalcore band on the planet, the voice isn't the only storyteller. The instruments aren't just providing a mood, they're each telling the story from another angle. The PR tells me that this is a concept album, with each of these nine tracks exploring a shared concept from a different perspective. I'll have to take that as read, but I could buy into those different perspectives not being limited to their own track but arguing for it throughout.

Even if I'm not following the concept, this is clearly intricate, dynamic and accomplished music and it counts as La Fin's debut album, following an EP in 2016. It was never going to get less than a 7/10 but I'm already comfortable going with a 8/10 for now. As I listen to it more, it's not outside the bounds of possibility that I up that to a 9/10. Fascinating stuff. Thanks, Federico.

Thursday 21 January 2021

Black Magic Tree - Through the Grapevine (2021)

Country: Germany
Style: Psychedelic Blues Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 22 Jan 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

After Sinira, anything was going to seem bare, but it took surprisingly little time for me to adjust to the old school psychedelic blues sound of Berlin's Black Magic Tree. They look a lot further back than the mid-nineties, with the obvious early influences being Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and maybe some Cult too. I liked the opener, Mandala Lady, but Beethoven is the one that grabbed me, with that Stones swagger, a Georgia Satellites kick and late psychedelic sections just to keep us on the hop. The odd thing is that it sounds contemporary, even though it really shouldn't.

That's an impressive feat, for a band to establish an identity of their own on a debut album that's full of so many influences that a first listen is almost spoiled by trying to figure them all out. They issued a single in 2019 and an EP shortly afterwards, but they only formed in 2018, so they haven't had a long time to figure each other out yet, let alone weave five sets of diverse influences into a new sound. I'm not sure that they're even done with that yet. It wouldn't surprise me to find a second album evolving in whole new directions. After all, I didn't find any Marvin Gaye here, even with that album title.

The band's biography suggests that this was a deliberate homage to the hard rock of the seventies, if with the goal of sidestepping "the pretensions of the era" by keeping the songs short and snappy. I'd suggest that they mostly succeed at this, but I caught more than the seventies here. There are parts I would swear go back to the British blues explosion in the sixties and the San Francisco sound as that decade rolled into the next. There are also others that feel more eighties, albeit by bands not typical for that decade, such as the Black Crowes.

But hey, where do the Doors end and the Cult begin? Long Night mixes up both, along with a pinch of Black Sabbath in the slower and heavier sections and another of Lynyrd Skynyrd in between when this gets jauntier. It's going to take a lot of listens to figure out everything going on here, especially with a song like this effortlessly changing itself into something else on a dime. It's a quick change artist of a song but, with half a minute left, it suddenly feels like Led Zeppelin again and I'm not sure what the change was that time.

Maybe part of it is because the two guitars are neatly separated between speakers, so one of Christian Reuter and Max Milan-Bertgrath is in the left speaker turning out a groove like Jimmy Page while his colleague in the right speaker gets mellow in hippie fashion. Or maybe that left guitar can get jangly while the right guitar veers into stoner rock. The point is that the pair don't always play in the same style and that's as fascinating as it is unusual.

The common factor, of course is that all both of them do stems from the blues via classic hard rock, so the result feels comfortable and familiar even when it's quirky and unusual. I like that. I also like the breadth of what the band is aiming at. Just looking at the Zeppelin influence, they're giving nods to songs as diverse as Going to California and Living Loving Maid. Now extend that diversity to dozens of other bands they're giving nods to.

Not everything here worked for me, with the longest song at the heart of the album being the prime example. That's Domo and it's six minutes of the half an hour that Through the Grapevine runs, which is a good chunk of it. Therefore I wanted more than the seven songs on offer, which is a good thing from a band's perspective. Leave 'em wanting more, right? When it did work, it really worked though. I loved Beethoven, Spider's Web and Flower, the rocker to wrap everything up, all the more on a second listen and a third. Bring on another album, folks. I like.

Sinira - The Everlorn (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Melodic Black Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 Jun 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

I talk about originality a lot at Apocalypse Later. One of my missions is to find music unlike anything that I've heard before and this is absolutely not that, so let's get that out of the way quickly. This is as close to a melodic black metal template as I've heard in a long time, appropriately given that Sinira's Bandcamp page is honest about this being "a homage and tribute to the Swedish titans who reigned proud and whose flames still burn bright." So, no, it's not original at all.

However, I also talk about quality and this is a thoroughly enjoyable melodic black metal album, with six long songs that wax and wane through frequent dynamic shifts, always maintaining neat textures. This is a one man band, with Knell, the talent behind Sinira, responsible for playing every instrument here except the piano on the final piece of music, and his technical ability is clearly excellent. He also wrote it all, produced it, mixed it and, no doubt, put the kettle on and swept the studio floor. Even if it doesn't tread any new ground, he ought to be proud of this debut.

What impresses me about this isn't his versatility, as black metal is full of one man bands, but his age. When Dissection released Storm of the Light's Bane in 1995, he surely failed to notice because he was busy being born. When Sacramentum released Far Away from the Sun a year later, he was likely trying to figure out how to stand up. Yet he clearly groks the genre, because this album does everything that it should. To add to the surprise, he hails from Nacogdoches, Texas, which feels natural for a pithy sort of writer like Joe R. Lansdale but hardly tops any list of hotbeds of melodic black metal activity.

I liked this immediately, because of its sound. Where Starlight Does Not Shine is fast, of course, but it also plays with the tempo and the transitions are neatly handled. In instrumental sections, the guitar is prominent with its melodies given wings to soar above everything else, even when it's not soloing. In vocal sections, it's lower to allow for Knell's dark voice to share the limelight. Gardens of Pestilence continues that, allowing a little more to happen with the drums, and so does The Everlorn.

The biggest problem this album has is that the songs are similar enough to blur together. I was never bored with them, but I often lost track of which one I was listening to, because, once Knell had found a sound, he stuck with it most of the way. The songs do delineate themselves a little over repeat listens, but they share a very similar approach, enough that I'd be telling you that this felt like a single piece of music, a generous one too at almost an hour long, if it hadn't been for Dawnless Twilight.

This is the sixth of those six songs and the longest of them. The others are long too, the shortest just shy of seven minutes and the longest almost nine and a half, excluding a brief interlude called Souls of the Flame and an outro called Omega XI. Dawnless Twilight, though, runs eleven and a half and is a magnetic piece of music for all of those minutes. It has a more epic sweep from the outset, doing what the other songs did but more confidently and more majestically. Then it adds some neat depths, near the four minute mark that elevate it even further, and again later. This one's immersive and it grows.

The catch to this song leaping out from its peers so firmly is that it underlined to me that, while this whole album is strong, it could always be stronger. If I'm enjoying it already, how much more will I in a follow up that does throughout what Dawnless Twilight does here? I don't expect a second album in the near future, because Knell has been careful to explain that being a one man band means that he's always going to take longer to create, but I'll be waiting for album two when it arrives. I'll give this a 7/10 but add a point to that if you're not fussed about originality.

Wednesday 20 January 2021

Mindwork - Cortex (2021)

Country: Czechia
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 22 Jan 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

Here's another submission, this time from Prague in Czechia and a band who are back at it after seven years away. Mindwork formed in 2007 and issued two studio albums before calling it a day in 2013. I'm not familiar with either, but I do like the thoughtful sound of this short EP, which marks a return for half of the former band, Martin Schuster on vocals and guitar and Filip Kittnar on drums.

Metal Archives describes Mindwork as progressive thrash/death metal and maybe they used to be but I'd call this straight up progressive metal. Their cited influences—Death, Cynic and Opeth—are all bands who grew from one genre to another, so maybe they've followed suit. The most obvious of them here is Cynic. I went back to their Traced in Air album from 2008 and it played well alongside this, as if the two bands were sharing a mindspace. Mindwork do let their inner death metal band come out and play on occasion, but I didn't find any thrash here at all.

Most of what manifests as death metal here can be found in Schuster's harsh vocals, though he sings cleanly more often and his harsh voice isn't particularly demonic. It's probably the weakest aspect to this album. The mix, also courtesy of Schuster, is clinical and clear, even during the heaviest parts of Depersonalized and Grinding the Edges. There's no attempt to hurl a wall of sound at us or bludgeon us with brutality. This is intricate and technical and, while it often finds grooves for us to respond to, the point is obviously for us to be able to hear everything that's going on in these songs.

The worst aspect to the EP is that it's short. There are only three songs proper on offer here, none of them long, so it's a mere taster of what Mindwork are up to nowadays and I hope it points the way to a third studio album sooner rather than later. Intros and outros are plentiful and comfortable builds too. Nothing is rushed and each song has the patience to be what it wants to be, though every one of them is over within five and a half minutes. There are no epics here, though it seems clear to me that Mindwork could easily write a single coherent piece of music that stays interesting for as long as this EP runs.

Even in its quietest and softest moments, which are not restricted to those intros, this seems acutely metal, but there's an alternate feel to the clean vocals midway through Last Lie Told. While Cynic has the undying heart of whover wrote these songs, it seems to me that he's also clearly been listening to Tool. I have no idea where the drum sound in the last thirty seconds of this song came from, but it's a startling creation. I wanted this EP to sound thicker and heavier but, the more I listen to it, the more I like this mix.

At this point, I can't even tell you which my favourite song is. Initially, it was Grinding the Edges with no competition. Then it was Depersonalized, with a guest solo from Bobby Koelbe, who played guitar on Death's Symbolic album. Last Lie Told was the also ran, but it refuses to leave me alone and, at this point, it may well have become my favourite. At least it's duking it out with Grinding the Edges and it may end up as a split decision. Let's just say that it's the patient listener who will be rewarded most.

The John Irvine Band - The Machinery of the Heavens (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Fusion
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 16 Oct 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website | YouTube

Many thanks to John Irvine, who kindly sent me his fourth album, The Machinery of the Heavens, for potential review. I believe he did so after reading my take on Solstice's Sia and that fits, because, like Solstice, Irvine could be categorised as prog rock, though, just as we can't talk about Solstice without bringing up folk rock, we can't talk about this without mentioning jazz. This is fundamentally a fusion album, in the tradition of Allan Holdsworth rather than, say, Brand X.

Irvine lives and works in Scotland, so it's not surprising to hear Scottish elements in the opener, Dark Skies. I think that's a keyboard rather than a guitar, but it's clearly trying to be a set of bagpipes. This is a bright and cheerful opener that doesn't seem to be doing anything wild, except that it ends oddly because Irvine's guitar seems to take up the rhythm in the form of a riff while the drums take the lead by embellishing over them. I like that.

If the album title and cover art don't suggest a futuristic feel, then ...and How Much for the Robot? is going to hammer that point home. Irvine plays everything but the drums here, those being the realm of Rich Kass, and that includes a lot of keyboards throughout, but this one features a more overt use of electronica than elsewhere, inserted as futuristic texture. There are times in this piece of music and in others like Lunar Fields where I wondered if Irvine was auditioning to score a science fiction film.

I drifted a bit through the next two songs, because they're more thoughtful pieces and they need our attention, but Gadzooks, as short as it is, running under eighty seconds, grabbed me back. It's a good interlude. Going back, Dangerous Notes may be the jazziest piece here, especially in its experimental midsection. Given that there are only two musicians involved here, it clearly wasn't improvised, but it feels rather like it was. Take It from the Edge feels a little closer to the Vai/Satch approach to a guitar instrumental, but it's jazzier and not as interested in a killer commercial melody to repeat.

I had the same problem after Gadzooks with Lunar Fields and Blast from the Past. Again, going back, I found that there's a lot going on with these, but I had to pay attention. Lunar Fields is a particularly evocative piece but so much so that my brain automatically assumed it was part of a soundtrack and I ought to be looking at something else. Blast from the Past is a delightful piece but it's inoffensive in its delights so it's easy for it to fade into the background. I plan on listening to this again in the dark to see how it plays without distractions.

There's no way that The Machinery of the Heavens will fade into any background. At fourteen minutes, the title track is easily the proggiest piece of music on this album, not least because of variety. Every song on this album finds what it's going to do and does it, whether it's a guitar piece or an electronic piece or whatever. This one has wider goals than just one single feel, though, bringing us a distinctive set of movements in different styles, as it grows and develops.

The first section, for instance, is jazz funk with a Herbie Hancock sound, hardly surprising given what's come before it, though the backing has controlled urgency taking over from the usual lively jazz. The second section shifts firmly into the territory of the electronic auteurs. Initially, it feels like a Tomita piece, before it grows into a mature Mike Oldfield feel, complete with tribal drums, eventually going back to Tomita and a shockingly introspective ending. If we've spent time inside boxes of circuitry and surfing the stellar clouds here, we end drifting in space reflecting on everything we've heard.

I've come to visualise a sliding scale for what Tom Waits calls "really interesting things to be doing with the air". At one end is post-rock, conjuring up soundscapes for us to interpret visually. At the other is jazz, with its constant efforts to define what music is and can be. In between is prog, moving from one end to the other as it deems fit. This album sits in most of the way towards jazz, as I felt these songs a lot more than I saw them. I felt the neon rush of riding a fast motorcycle through Neo-Tokyo in ...and How Much for the Robot? and the movement of giant space structures around me in The Machinery of the Heavens. If I saw anything, it was the blackness of space and I closed my eyes to it and listened.

Now I should go back to find out how Irvine got to this point. I'm intrigued in the way his covers are themed different colours: Wait & See was red, Next Stop blue and Metaphysical Attractions yellow. Is this purple album a mixture of what he a couple on two of those previous albums, taking the stability of blue and the energy of red to create something ambitious? Inquring minds want to know.

Tuesday 19 January 2021

John Diva and the Rockets of Love - American Amadeus (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Glam Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 15 Jan 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Wikipedia | YouTube

John Diva is new on me, so I'm not sure quite what to think. On the face of it, this is a decent album, a trip back to the hair metal of the eighties and occasionally the glam rock of the seventies that laid its foundations. It's playful but varied and highly competent, well worth your hard earned cash. However, dig just a little into his background and you can't fail to see how tongue in cheek everything is. I have to say that I laughed aloud at the band history on his website, but it raises a serious question...

Are we supposed to take John Diva and the Rockets of Love seriously or treat them like another Steel Panther? For instance, is Soldier of Love neatly commercial single material or a jokey attempt to take the Desmond Child writing style and mimic a mid-eighties Bon Jovi song? Is Weekend for a Lifetime a modern day hair metal manifesto a little south of LA or a translation of Rebecca Black's Friday, as by a mid-eighties Alice Cooper?

That those songs work well as both their options explains to us how capable this band is, even if we're supposed to buy into drummer Lee Stingray being a former NASCAR driver or bassist Remmie Martin being a Frenchman preparing his own beauty line. The last time I heard a metal album full of so many overt takes on other artists, it was the Lordi album a year ago and that was actually structured like an imaginary collection of songs from different eras that was introduced by an imaginary DJ.

Maybe this isn't quite as overt as that one, but it's not far off. Voodoo, Sex and Vampires starts things off sleazy in Hanoi Rocks style, though there is a wild moment when it drops into bluegrass. After Bon Jovi and Alice Cooper, we find other major names like Mötley Crüe on Wasted (In Babylon), Poison on Drip Drip Baby and the Scorpions on This is Rock 'n' Roll. It's notable that Diva's vocals change just as often as the songs do, to the degree that he could be accused of doing impressions. He even puts on a German accent for the Scorpions song and an English one to become David Bowie on Movin' Back to Paradise.

That lessened the album for me. I'm not listening to find out how good Diva is at accents; I'm looking for quality music. Sometimes, though, the band escape the gimmickry and turn out something that's just good on its own. Here, that's the title track, which is slick and emphatically commercial hard rock with a catchy chorus and its own gimmick rather than someone else's. There are hints of violins, opera and harpsichord to play into that, not to forget a nod to Falco's Rock Me Amadeus. It really shouldn't work, but it does.

So, while this is very capably done, I'm going to drop my rating to a 6/10. If you're OK with the joking around, add a point back to that. I have no idea who the real musicians are behind these wacky names are—Snake Rocket, J. J. Love, Remmie Martin and Lee Stingray—let alone John Diva himself, but they are all very good indeed at this, even if the inevitable power ballad turns out to be soporific. At least it's at the end of the album, where we can skip it and start over again. OK, who's up for some more voodoo, sex and vampires?

Onslaught - Generation Antichrist (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 7 Aug 2020
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While enthusing about the return to the studio of major old school UK thrash bands like Acid Reign, Xentrix and Virus over the past couple of years, I somehow completely failed to notice that Onslaught also released a new album. In fact, I hadn't even noticed that they reformed in 2004 and issued three studio albums to sit alongside the original three I know well. Onslaught were a special thrash band, as heavy as any the UK produced and with a particular talent for songwriting. I loved Power from Hell but The Force sat among the key steps forward for the genre in 1986.

The band today is very different from the band back then, though the 2004 reunion did include three of the five members from before their split in 1991, along with a return for Sy Keeler who sang on The Force. Keeler remained until 2020 but left before this album was recorded, meaning that this features founder member Nige Rockett and four musicians who never featured in any pre-split line-up. Bassist Jeff Williams has been on board since 2006 but the others only joined in the past few years.

The good news is that they still sound damn good. Once we get past the radio dial intro, the sound on Rise to Power is slow and heavy but ever building and, when Strike Fast Strike Hard starts, we're up to full speed and attitude. Onslaught came out out of the British punk scene and this is a great example of British punk-enthused thrash, with precision playing under blistering attitude. In fact, there's only one better exmple that springs to mind and that's Religiousuicide, later on this album.

I should point out that the band's sound here is right up my alley. It's fast and heavy, slowing down to the midpace now and again but never staying there, because this is the sort of thrash to utterly clean out your system, leaving you both knackered and refreshed. The riffs are strong and incessant, with an impressive drum sound pounding them onward and an audible bass backing them up. The vocals, from new fish David Garnett, are fundamentally clean and intelligible but they're infused with attitude and they're willing to slide just a little into harsh for emphasis.

What struck me most, beyond the fact that this new Onslaught sound excellent, is that these are often shorter songs than I expect from them. There were only seven tracks on The Force because they tended to be in the six or seven minute range. In Search of Sanity was more varied but not shorter. Since they got back together in 2004, the songs have been more likely to run four or five minutes and this album follows in that vein. In fact, there are more songs here under four minutes than over it, if we exclude the bonus track on the Japanese edition, a rework of In Search of Sanity which outstrips the longest other song by a full minute.

While I miss the dynamics and growth that Onslaught's longer songs allowed, these shorter ones play with more urgency. That's aided by the surprising fact that there are more lyrics than there used to be and the lines are shorter. This is a punchier and more succinct Onslaught than I'm used to, but with a similar weight to their sound. By the way, those lyrics aren't as Satanic as they used to be, even given the album's title, but continue to rage against society.

I can take or leave the intro, Rise to Power, but everything else here is strong. Some songs stood out to me immediately, not just punkier songs like Strike Fast Strike Hard and Religiousuicide but a more thoughtful title track too; it's the longest and most old school song here, with Empires Fall following it in both respects. However, other songs stood out on a second listen and still more on a third. There are no bad songs here.

In fact, to call out a negative, I'd have to dig deep and suggest that the solos don't feature as much of a punch as they should because they're buried a little deeper in the mix than I'd like. Even running as short as three and a half minutes, there's time in Religiousuicide for some blistering solos but they're a little suppressed by the mix. Does that spoil the album? Not at all, though it would be a better one had that minor issue been addressed.

So, thank you to Dallas Falvo in the Thrash 'em All Till Death! group on Facebook for making me aware of this return. It's a real peach, right up there with the new Acid Reign album from the end of 2019. All hail the return of classic British thrash metal!

Friday 15 January 2021

Fractal Generator - Macrocosmos (2021)

Country: Canada
Style: Atmospheric Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 15 Jan 2021
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This is going to sound weird, but I found myself sold on this death metal band from Ontario for a very odd reason. Sure, the opening track is fascinating, enough that I repeated it three times before continuing. It combines fast, often black metal drums, with rough death growls for vocals. There are a few symphonic elements, with a choral atmosphere in the chorus. There are some neat textures that I presume are keyboards and electronic effects, though I don't see anyone credited for those. All of this works really well, forging a recognisable identity for the band.

But there's a riff that's so overtly "I'm just a poor boy from a poor family" from Bohemian Rhapsody that it ought to have just killed this song (and probably the album too) for me. It didn't. So I'm sold.

I'm calling this atmospheric death metal because the death metal overshadows all the black elements and the textures behind the songs are always atmospheric, even when they're symphonic, but I'm not happy with the label because there's a lot of diversity to this band. They're progressive at points and downright experimental at others, perhaps epitomised by the fact that the musicians are credited by long numbers.

That's 040114090512 on drums, for instance, even though his name is Dan Favot and he usually goes by Vesper in other bands. I presume bassist and vocalist 040118180514 is a relative of his, given that he's Darren Favot, even if he went by Fraust when they were both members of a melodic black metal outfit called Wolven Ancestry. And, on guitars and vocals, there's 102119200914, who usually goes by his real name of Justin Rienguette. I don't know where these numbers come from, whether they're taken from the cubes they sat in after being abducted by aliens or their passwords to PornHub. I'd love to know.

Looking up what these folk have done suggests that there's quite the busy scene in Sudbury, one that also seems rather incestuous, given that everyone seems to have played in a band with everyone else, each playing a slightly different style. I wonder if that's why Fractal Generator sound so interesting. I should look into who else is playing out of Sudbury nowadays.

The catch to this interesting sound is that, while it's built out of some admirable variety, it keeps the same admirable variety throughout rather than continuing to mix it up in different ways. Maybe the symphonic elements show up less as the album runs on and the electronic sounds show up more. They certainly seem more overt on Chaosphere and there's a neatly weird opening to Shadows of Infinity, a sort of alien grind that leads into guitar and an underlying choral element that's eerie like a György Ligeti piece. The whole piece also breaks completely apart at 1:35 as if it's sucked by some wild energy source through the portal on the cover art into somewhere else, where it kicks back in unabated.

It's innovative enough that I'm not sure who to compare it to. I'm leaning towards a more brutal take on Blood Incantation with a heavy side of Voivod. Certainly, there's a science fiction feel in place of a more typical horror feel for the genre. There's nothing here to suggest that we're listening to demons perform on that popular stage that floats on the lake of fire, even though the vocals aren't unusual in the death metal genre. It's not just the cover art and song titles that make us feel like we're visiting a bleak alien planet or we're stuck on the way somewhere in the endless void. It's inherent in the music, in the textures and electronic elements and a less organic and more artificial taste to the bass.

This is only a second album for Fractal Generator in thirteen years of existence, after 2015's Apotheosynthesis, but I hope to see many more and a lot more frequently. But hey, Sudbury's clearly a busy scene. I ought to see what else these guys and their many current and former colleagues in other bands are doing.

Wobbler - Dwellers of the Deep (2020)

Country: Norway
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 23 Oct 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Prog Archives

I've said a few times during the past year that 2020 was a flagship year for prog rock and the year end lists reflect that. I'm seeing a lot of the same names: names of long-standing like Fish, Pendragon and Kansas, along with newer ones like Pattern-Seeking Animals, Arabs in Aspic and Gazpacho. At least one is new to me but not perhaps to many and that's Pain of Salvation. Always floating around the top, if not at the very top of these lists is this album, the fifth from a Norwegian symphonic prog band with a rather odd name, Wobbler.

I've listened to this a lot today and it's clearly the work of incredibly talented musicians. I had a blast with it and I have no problem giving it an 8/10 and adding it to my highly recommended list. But... in the end, there was a serious problem that I couldn't get past and it's relatively easy to describe.

The runner up for my 2020 album of the year (not just prog album of the year, but album of the year) was Solstice's Sia and, if you listen to that, you'll hear music easily identifiable as Solstice. Duh, I hear you say, but that continues across all the other great prog albums I heard last year. The Kansas album sounds like Kansas, the Pendragon album sounds like Pendragon and the Fish album sounds like Fish. This Wobbler album, on the other hand, sounds like Yes, merely with a new vocalist they slipped on us while we weren't paying attention.

There are other influences here, but we have to listen carefully to catch them. There's some ELP early in the fourteen minute opener, By the Banks. There are moments of Genesis here and there, especially in Naiad Dreams. I see a lot of reviewers bringing up Gentle Giant, but I'm not familiar enough with them to follow suit. But this is Yes, constantly and consistently. It's Yes during the delightfully quiet moments in Five Rooms. It's Yes later on the same song when they ramp up to a more emphatic speed, with all the instruments overt, like the parts of Roundabout where everyone seems to be playing lead at once.

So I'm a little disappointed that five highly acclaimed albums haven't yet got Wobbler to the point of defining their own sound, rather than playing someone else's, however masterfully. I have to say that I'm also a little disappointed that this is so quintessentially English. Sure, that's where the genre had its origin and all the top fifteen rated albums of all time at Prog Archives are English, but Animals by Pink Floyd, which is the most recent of them, came out in 1977. The genre has moved on.

I'm hardly well versed in the Norwegian scene but I know enough to know that there is one and it's an especially vibrant one. Motorpsycho are amazing and every time I find another new example, whether it be rock bands like Mantric, Magic Pie or Mythopoeic Mind (or others who don't begin with M, like Kanaan), or metal (or former metal) bands, like Enslaved, Leprous and Green Carnation, it's somehow a level up on whatever else I've been listening to that week. So I wish Wobbler were more Norwegian, as if I know enough to know what that means. I'm overdue checking out keyboard player Lars Fredrik Frøislie's other band, White Willow. Maybe they're what I'm looking for here.

Like Wobbler's previous album, From Silence to Somewhere, which was as well received by critics and fans, this features four pieces of music, two really long and two not so much. This time the shortest is a four and half minute piece that often goes acoustic, Naiad Dreams. The dynamic play is impressive, all the more so given the scant length of the piece, so you can imagine how much more there is going on in a song like Merry Macabre, whose nineteen minutes close out the album.

It's fair to say that I need to listen to this a lot more than just the dozen times I've probably played it today. It's grown on me considerably already and I have a lot of depths still to explore. However, it's a decision to choose to do that. I didn't have to make that decision with the new Solstice or Pendragon or Motorpsycho. For them, it was just a given and I think it's because I know who those bands are and I'm not sure I know who Wobbler is yet. Except Yes.