Friday 26 February 2021

Alice Cooper - Detroit Stories (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 26 Feb 2021
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Alice is back again with his 21st studio album and it'll be a surprise for many listeners, though less so to those of us who heard The Breadcrumbs EP in 2019. Perhaps more appropriately, we should call it his 28th and add back in those seven recorded when Alice Cooper was a band rather than a frontman, as it's a throwback in many ways to those early years of School's Out and Billion Dollar Babies. That's only in part because quite a lot of that band is here.

Two songs here were recorded with Michael Bruce, Dennis Dunaway and Neal Smith, who left the band in 1974 though have been back for odd songs like these on Welcome 2 My Nightmare and Paranormal. Perhaps more importantly, Smith co-wrote one of them and Dunaway two. Bob Ezrin, Alice's producer back in those days, produces again here. He also co-wrote the majority of the songs and performs on a bunch of them, whether through percussion, keyboards or backing vocals.

Other major contributors include regular guitarist Tommy Henriksen, Wayne Kramer of the MC5, jazz man Paul Randolph and Johnny Badanjek of Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels, the common factor in all those names except Henriksen being that they hail from Detroit. This isn't a concept album but it's themed around that city, where Alice was born back in, holy crap, 1948, even if we don't notice much of the time. That means that it follows on nicely from The Breadcrumbs EP, which mostly featured covers of songs from Detroit bands. Two of them are here—the MC5's Sister Anne and East Side Story by Bob Seger—along with two Alice originals, Detroit City and Go Man Go.

Now, Breadcrumbs was a garage rock EP but this is more of a hard rock album like the old days, maybe as a nod to the fiftieth anniversary of Love It to Death and Killer, Alice's breakthrough 1971 albums. I should note here that they were pivotal not just to hard rock but to other genres too. Johnny Rotten has called Killer the greatest rock album of all time. This isn't but it is a thoroughly enjoyable ride to a lot more places than I've heard Alice go on one album in a long while. Admittedly, I don't remember anything about Paranormal, but this plays a lot better to me than Welcome 2 My Nightmare.

To get us in that seventies mindset, it kicks off with a seventies song, Lou Reed's Rock & Roll, which is a new cover, though given that the lyrics mention a Detroit station rather than a New York one, this is really a cover of Mitch Ryder's cover of the Velvet Underground song. The next couple of songs feel as if they ought to be covers but they're not. Go Man Go is still the energy shot of punk rebelliousness I remember from Breadcrumbs, while Our Love Will Change the World sounds like a Beatles single with psychedelia edges. Social Debris, on the other hand, sounds exactly like Alice Cooper.

The sheer variety here means that this is a treat for Alice fans, especially those who have followed him through what sometimes seems like every genre under the sun. Drunk and in Love is a prowling brooder that feels longer than it is but in a good way and Wonderful World does some of that too. Independence Dave is a blitzkrieg that finds its groove quickly and milks it. Detroit City, namechecking a plethora of musical legends from that city, sounded great on The Eyes of Alice Cooper and still does, but it may be $1000 High Heel Shoes that ends up my favourite here. It's a sassy number with horns and sax and a prominent shooby doo backing vocal from what seems to be much of the modern incarnation of Sister Sledge.

I can imagine many reviews talking about the return to an older style and the loose Detroit theme we continually forget about, but I wonder how many will talk about how self-aware this album is. There's a pair of songs here that epitomise Alice's personae. I Hate You is a stomping anthem with lyrics that rage about how awful Alice is on stage: "A guillotine! Oh, big surprise!" And, just to flip that around, Hanging on by a Thread (Don't Give Up) is a catchy little song with narrated verses that offers hope to troubled listeners to the degree that it includes the number of the Suicide Prevention Hotline at the end of the actual song.

That Alice is both of those people may be the primary reason why he continues to be relevant even at 73 years young. That he's made a lot of great music over the years (and, let's be honest, some dreck as well) may be secondary but there's a lot more of it on this album, which is the most enjoyable that he has conjured up in years.

Dalit - Moksha (2021)

Country: Norway
Style: Doom/Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 15 Jan 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

Unusual circumstances have led me to re-start this review three times over three days so I've listened through Moksha countless times. It's an interesting album because it doesn't behave like most to my brain. For instance, it impressed me from the very beginning and it only deepens with further listens, but it remains a little elusive, refusing to knock me out. It's a good album and it keeps on telling me that it's going to be a great one if only I stay with it but, while it does get better, it never quite finds that magic X factor to shift it into the halls of greatness.

While it's broken into eight songs, it plays to me more like a single 41 minute duet between two very different voices. Eirik Hellem, who is also Dalit's bass player, provides a harsh vocal that's rich but not warm. It's an interesting voice, because Hellem stays in a relatively consistent tone throughout but is still able to intonate and remain engaging. We listen to him, even when we're unable to catch all his words. Guro Birkeli provides a clean female voice that does have that warmth and it's interesting too.

There's a spirituality in her voice, which is ancient enough to drift between Norse, Celtic and even, on The Best of All Possible Worlds, middle eastern mythologies. I believe that Dalit is a Christian band, a surprising fact to me given that the album title is the concept of enlightenment in Hinduism and the band's very name is Hindu, the Sanskrit word that I thought described those at the lowest end of the caste system who deemed "untouchables". Digging deeper, I realise that it's also a term used by those who have converted from Hinduism or Islam to Christianity.

Both voices feel a lot older than they are, as if they've been there and done that and understand what went down, perhaps for aeons. There's a timelessness to them both, as if we're not listening to people but gods whose time may be long gone but who are still around and looking down on we mortals with mixed emotions. Hellem is more urgent and demanding. Birkeli is calmer and more patient, especially on Anthem, where she draws out phrases magnificently. And, while Hellem's voice is always dark, hers isn't simply light to contrast. It's a more flexible voice that meets more needs. It's often soft but it's as often powerful.

The music backs up the vocals capably, the sections Hellem leads being crunchy doom/death with the guitars a wall—if not a haboob following in his wake—and those with Birkeli more delicate and with far more nuance. Beyond more soulful guitar, her sections often feature strings and echoey piano for a sound that isn't just melancholy, it's life. Put together, there's a lot of dynamic play, as each singer gives way to the other for a while, and the overall feel is My Dying Bride, but across eras.

I like this album a lot, even if it steadfastly refuses to become more than it is. Those 41 minutes keep on getting shorter every time I listen. It's getting to the point where I pop it on, let the moods take me and suddenly it's over again. Each song blurs more into the next, so I can't really pull out any as a favourite. Sons of Adam, Daughters of Eve, which opens up the album, is the whole thing in miniature but I think I'd call Anthem the best song here. The guitars are more ambitious and the pace is a little faster in Hellem's sections and Birkeli's are just as immersive. Hallways of Sadness is a highlight too, especially with additional keyboards from Jon Ivar Larsen. I like Fra Jord til støv a lot too, even if it ends the album and I'm still not ready for that.

Thursday 25 February 2021

Ricky Warwick - When Life Was Hard and Fast (2021)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 19 Feb 2021
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I remember Ricky Warwick as the lead singer of the Almighty, but it won't surprise anyone who listens to a verse of the title track to this album that he ended up singing for Thin Lizzy too. That's not quite what this is, but it's impossible not to hear some Phil Lynott in his voice, even if it's hard to tell that that's Joe Elliott of Def Leppard behind him. There are a few guests here, including Luke Morley from Thunder, Dizzy Reed of Guns n' Roses and Andy Taylor of Duran Duran. They're dotted here and there, but the album's pretty consistent regardless.

And, like Lemmy, would have said, he plays rock 'n' roll. If we hadn't noticed a rocked up old time feel on You Don't Love with Me, it becomes obvious on Gunslinger, the only cover here. It's a Mink DeVille song, dating back to 1977, and beyond the fantastic sound that is the combination of Gary Sullivan's drums and Robbie Crane's bass, it's the rock 'n' roll that stands out and what's particularly important to note is that it doesn't sound remotely out of place following the three originals that came before it. After this, it isn't surprising to discover that on his prior covers album, he took on Eddie Cochran, Elvis Presley and the Bobby Fuller Four.

So this is rock 'n' roll heavied up to have a hard rock edge, with some punk attitude, some sleazy blues and some country emotion to spice up the gumbo. It's an interesting mix, even if what's interesting is sometimes surprising. I'd Rather Be Hit starts out a little similar to Ants Invasion, for instance, and I really wasn't expecting that. Oddly, it works though, just as the blitzkrieg approach on Never Corner a Rat works and the acoustic ballad that follows it, Time Don't Seem to Matter, on which his daughter Pepper joins him at the mike.

Six tracks in of eleven, that's appropriately the heart of this album, even if its calm singer/songwriter vibe renders it something of an interlude between halves. He covered Johnny Cash too on that covers album. Oddly, he didn't cover Thin Lizzy, because the next song, Fighting Heart, is the most overt Thin Lizzy song here amongst quite a few with a discernable Lizzy influence. Then again, Warwick was born in Northern Ireland and grew up listening to Phil Lynott. It would be more surprising if there wasn't any Lynott in his voice.

I think the first half is generally stronger than the second, but the second has Still Alive and that's an obvious highlight for me, up there with Gunslinger and Never Corner a Rat. It features Warwick's firm voice and attitude, with the return of that gorgeous combo drum/bass sound and wicked slide guitar from Keith Nelson, formerly of Buckcherry, who also produced the album. It's as emphatic as the demo of Clown of Misery, recorded over the phone, isn't (though it's interesting).

It's another overt rock 'n' roll song that wraps up the album though, the appropriately if illiterately titled Your My Rock 'n' Roll. This is the sort of song you expect to hear blaring out of the stage when you walk into the right sort of small bar. It's a simple but energetic stomper that stems as much from Joan Jett as Jerry Lee and it'll have you down the front before you grab a pint from the bar. And that has to be about the best way to end this rock 'n' roll album that I can think of.

This is Warwick's fifth solo album and, if I'm counting right, he's recorded twelve more with Black Star Riders, Circus Diablo and the Almighty. As such, it's not surprising to find that this is mature but it's good to find that it's still energetic and alive.

Evil - Possessed by Evil (2021)

Country: Japan
Style: Heavy/Speed Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 9 Feb 2021
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Wow, that's a lo fi sound to kick off this album, with background hiss and rough, frantic drums which seem to be determined to keep up with a band that doesn't want to hold back. Then again, the band is called Evil, as simple a metal name as can be. Metal Archives lists nine other metal bands called Evil. I think the only other one formed within the last twenty years, which has actually released anything, is from Tunisia, where that name is probably quite the statement all on its own.

Then again, a 2021 band calling themselves Evil and releasing an album called Possessed by Evil (after a debut called Rites of Evil) is making a statement too. They're saying they're emphatically old school and we shouldn't expect anything modern. Certainly all the names I can conjure up date way back. The drums remind me of the earliest days of Sodom, the music is often pure NWOBHM; much of The Cycle of Pain and Raizin could almost sit on either of the Paul Di'Anno albums by Iron Maiden. At breakneck pace, like on Yaksa, named for their drummer, they're a combination of early Bathory and Possessed with speed metal solos.

In other words, this dates back either to NWOBHM days or the proto-extreme metal that grew out of it. And it isn't just the music that sounds like that, the production does too. While the sound is meaty and energetic, I could believe that Evil just showed up one day to the studio, hooked up all their gear, played these twelve songs off the cuff in 36 minutes and 45 seconds and, job done, went home again. I could even believe that the engineer just pressed record, waited for them to be done, ejected the tape and sent it to the plant to press. Oh, and no overdubs.

In a way, that kind of makes this kin to the most recent Sodom album, Genesis XIX, except they took a little time to rehearse and I'm sure those songs weren't all recorded on the first take. Here I'm not so sure. I'd say that I'm surprised to find that Evil are a four piece instead of a trio like Sodom, Raven or Venom, but then Sodom are four people nowadays too. They merely sound like a quintessential power trio setup who grew up listening to Motörhead and the bands they inspired.

I like this, but I'm an old school proto-extreme metal fan. I remember when albums started having the sort of track listing this one has: out of a dozen songs, Hell is in three of the titles and Evil four. Hell's Evil Bells, of course, has both. This isn't trying to be clever. It's trying to fit into a scene that arguably ended before these musicians were even born and doing a decent job of it. The only aspect here that's of later heritage is the vocals of Asura, who's also one of the two guitarists. He's a bit more extreme, I think, than even Bathory was doing back then, but his style fits the band well.

This is the sort of album that you don't need to hear first. If what I've said piques your interest, you'll be in seventh heaven with this. If it made you shrug and move on, then this isn't for you at all. This is for people who still spin those early Venom, Celtic Frost and Bathory records; who wish that Di'Anno still sang for Maiden and Possessed hadn't split up in 1987; or who got all nostalgic hearing that last Sodom album. Sure, some songs are certainly better than others, and I'd suggest the first half is a lot better than the second, but it won't matter. If you're on board, you'll love it anyway. If not, you won't.

Wednesday 24 February 2021

Mogwai - As the Love Continues (2021)

Country: UK
Style: Post-Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 19 Feb 2021
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It seems that I was just reviewing a Mogwai album last week, ZeroZeroZero, but it turns out to be last April. Time is a speedy critter nowadays. That wasn't a regular studio release, though; it was the soundtrack to a show on Amazon Prime. This is a regular studio release, their first since Every Country's Sun in 2017, and it may well be the first that I've heard. I'm learning a lot about post-rock but haven't had a lot of chance to go back and discover the founders and the classics and how the genre developed.

My favourite post-rock is very visual, in that the soundscapes conjure up images for me. This isn't one of those albums but I like it anyway. These pieces of music play more like moods to me, maybe because I'm hearing influences and they're flavouring the experience for me. For instance, the opener, which is imaginatively titled To the Bin My Friend, Tonight We Vacate Earth, feels like Joy Division to me and that's enough to generate a mood. It's not entirely depressing, because the brightness is turned up a little, so more Love Will Tear You Apart than the second half of Closer.

Often the mood includes perkiness, either through the beat or through the electronic blips that coast over some of the songs. Here We, Here We, Here We Go Forever is just insufferably upbeat, but others have more depth. Dry Fantasy is like the start to a beautiful day, if you're a morning person, the fresh discovery after a long night of sunlight, birds and flowers and an abiding feeling that all is right with the world, but there's a little darkness underneath it like the moving shade.

To my mind, the best pieces here are the ones that mix those moods without anything feeling wrong. I particularly like Midnight Flit, which counters all the perky blips with dark undertones, brooding and menacing. That contrast is magnetic. The final track, It's What I Want to Do, Mum, fosters a real cloud of sadness out of clean notes and soft swirling keyboards, but there's hope littered through it and it's always building. The title suggests that the hope won out in the end but perhaps never entirely. There are interesting edges in Drive the Nail and Ceiling Granny too.

I have to mention the odd song out because it's a really odd song out, though it wouldn't be on a lot of albums because it's the most normal song here, not least for having vocals. It's Ritchie Sacramento and it's very good, a mid eighties British indie pop song but with what would no doubt have been an overly primitive artificial backbeat replaced by a submerging in texture. Maybe some of the bands of the day would have written Ritchie Sacramento had they had 2021 equipment, but maybe this is more than just a progression of technology; it's a progression in songwriting too.

I liked this album, which played well while I was running reports at work. It's good background music but it kept grabbing my attention at odd points to highlight something new and interesting that I'd missed earlier. What it didn't do was blow me away, as the tenth album by a band who helped bring a focus to the nascent post-rock genre. I think I'd like to hear Mogwai write longer songs with more and broader dynamic play. And, the thing is, I think that's what they used to do. I should find out.

Yoth Iria - As the Flame Withers (2021)

Country: Atmospheric Black Metal
Style: Greece
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 25 Jan 2021
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Yoth Iria is a new band, formed in 2019, and this is their debut album, but the two men involved have quite the history in Greek extreme music and black metal in particular. Bassist Jim Mutilator was one of the co-founders of Rotting Christ, back when they played grindcore, and he remained with them for a decade. He also co-founded Varathron and was part of their line-up for their first five years, but he's been gone from the scene for a long time, as a musician at least. The vocalist known here as the Magus was also in Rotting Christ, as well as Necromantia and Thou Art Lord, among many others.

All of which means that it's really not surprising when The Great Hunter is a decent opener. It's heavy and fast and black with a doomy drone in the midsection. It's nothing outrageous or innovative but it ably demonstrates that these folks still have it, even if they haven't been using it for a while. It's Yoth Iria, though, the second song, that really made my attention perk up. This one isn't heavy and fast and black, at least not in the way that we're expecting after that opener.

It's more interesting from moment one, with a vaguely middle eastern intro that defines the song, as that theme permeates the song, shifting from instrument. It heavies up, but never gets fast and never gets particularly black either, except for the commanding voice of the Magus, which is an archetypal black shriek and very consistent, whatever his tone. He narrates and chants and shrieks, with massive amounts of intonation, but it's all in done in that beautifully evil voice. I love the outro too, which is a gradually decreasing thing, dropping to bass and keyboards and then just those pulsing keyboards from guest musician John Patsouris.

And so we realise that this isn't just the decent new black metal album from a couple of old names. It's an album rooted in black metal that experiments to see what else they can do with the genre. It plays in doom, without getting weighty and oppressive, but also in traditional heavy metal, folk and gothic metal too.

For instance, while I can't particularly quantify it, I continually felt during Yoth Iria like I was hearing an Iron Maiden song translated into another genre. I think it's the storytelling style. Hermetic Code starts out with a riff worthy of Satyricon in their heavy metal days, but it becomes very folky during a dramatic black metal midsection and during the outro. That midsection also features those Patsouris keyboards elevating this music once more, and they're a constant reminder here that we're listening to something beyond pure black metal.

The Mantis builds on the Magus's narrative style in Yoth Iria and the midsection of Hermetic Code to get even more dramatic, with choir effects layered in for emphasis. By this point, it feels like there's something visual going on that I should be watching while I'm listening, like this is a soundtrack to a black metal opera. Again, though, the black is mostly in the vocals, the Magus stalking the stage in an impressive costume dominating our attention with the swagger of an Alice Cooper (or the god on the album cover), while the music is traditional in a Mercyful Fate vein.

The Red Crown Turns Black is faster and more traditional atmospheric black metal, though it doesn't quite become a wall of sound and it continues to expand beyond its genre, ending with more of those reminders of Iron Maiden, even though it features particularly galloping drums from JV Maelstrom, another guest musician, who was in Thou Art Lord with the Magus. The other guest that I've skipped over thus far is George Emmanuel of Lucifer's Child, who played guitar live with Rotting Christ for a majority of the previous decade.

I've run through each song thus far because they're all different and interesting in their way. Unborn Undead Eternal continues that, with a gothic feel laid over Celtic Frost bedrock, something that flows less notably into Tyrants, which at seven tracks into eight is the first song not to do anything new on this album, if we exclude the industrial effects at the very end. And that leaves The Luciferian to wrap up the album and that does quite a lot, even if it's the least engaging song for me.

So I'm not going to put down the bookends but they vanish on me. Every time I listen through, I get re-engaged by Yoth Iria and stay captivated until the end of Unborn Undead Eternal, at which point I drift away. That half hour in the middle is fascinating and 8/10 for sure. With the rest put back in, it's still a solid 7/10 from me.

Monday 22 February 2021

Labyrinth - Welcome to the Absurd Circus (2021)

Country: Italy
Style: Progressive Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 22 Jan 2021
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | YouTube

Also on Frontiers Records and not light years away from Joel Hoekstra's 13 in style are Labyrinth, the Italian power metal band, formed in Massa in 1994 and on their ninth album. They have all the same instrumentation, though these keyboards are too buried in the mix, and they share a solid grounding in melodic rock, but they're harder and heavier and they also have a progressive edge that leads them to more solos, more vocal layering and more dynamic play. But hey, these two albums play excellently next to each other.

The Absurd Circus is a strong opener but I like Live Today even more. It's faster, really stirring up the blood, and it does a lot in under six minutes, even if I wish I could hear the keyboards more. It sounds like Oleg Smirnoff is playing in the next studio over and someone just left the door open so we could catch a hint of what he's doing. It's a really odd decision because everything else is well mixed, with a good balance between vocals, multiple guitars and drums. I'd like to hear more of the bass too but I'm used to not hearing that nowadays. Struggling to hearing keyboard solos is something new.

The problem with Live Today is that it's such a powerful track that One More Last Chance seems lesser just by comparison and the album suffers for a while. Live Today's a real go getter, speed power metal during the verses with slower dreamier sections to really keep us on the hop. The extended solos are engaging and upbeat and the whole thing just works. However, One More Last Chance is often a softer and more passive song and, with our blood now up, it feels like it unfolds in slow motion.

The album does pick back up again. As Long as It Lasts starts that with some neat intricacies and Den of Snakes does a lot more with some more overt melodic riffing bringing us mostly back on track, but I was questioning the album at this point while realising that I was being utterly unfair. It isn't that One More Last Chance is a bad song; it's actually a pretty decent one that merely struggles to follow such a stormer. It would have been better anywhere elsewhere on the album. Den of Snakes would be a better choice to follow Live Today and slow us back down gradually.

There's a cover nestled in here eight tracks into eleven and I have to call it out because it's an unusual choice but a good one. It's of an Ultravox song called Dancing with Tears in My Eyes, which I'd say was an old song if only I hadn't bought the single when it came out. It does feel a little different to what's around it but a lot less so than I would have expected. It sounds good and it's actually good to hear a Scottish vocal sung with a slight Italian accent.

This is a solid 7/10 album, consistently above average European power metal but without much that's leaping out for special attention. Live Today is about it on that front. I was tempted to drop a point for the buried keyboards but decided against it because this is a generous album that runs a breath beyond an hour and never really drops the quality. So imagine I dropped that point and added it back again.

Joel Hoekstra's 13 - Running Games (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Feb 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

For those who don't know the name, Joel Hoekstra is the current guitarist with Whitesnake who tours with both Cher and Trans-Siberian Orchestra. This is the second album from his own band, following a 2015 debut, Dying to Live, and it features the same stellar line-up of musicians as before. Ironically, it may be that Hoekstra is the least experienced of them, his first album being solo instrumental guitar music, appropriately titled Undefined, back in 2000, eight years before Night Ranger and six further years before Whitesnake. That means that there's a heck of a lot of experience here to draw from!

Russell Allen handles the lead vocals, as he has with Symphony X since 1995. That's the legendary Tony Franklin on bass, whom I first heard in the Firm back in 1985, alongside Jimmy Page and Paul Rodgers, and he's been a very busy man ever since. Derek Sherinian is behind the keyboards and you may know him from his work with Alice Cooper, Dream Theater and Black Country Communion; merely two weeks ago I was listening to him on the new MSG album. And, without forgetting the suddenly omnipresent Jeff Scott Soto on backing vocals, who's still ahead of the pack for my album of the month with W.E.T., there's Vinny Appice on drums, who started out with John Lennon and has been a force to be reckoned with ever since, playing for Rick Derringer, Black Sabbath, Dio and more.

Very few bands can boast that level of experience and unbridled talent but bands need more than that to sound good. Fortunately whatever that X factor is, this band has it. Whether they're playing with a heavy Dio feel on Finish Line, which sometimes resembles those Dio opening stormers like We Rock or Stand Up and Shout, or a little softer on I'm Gonna Lose It, which is a bit closer to Hoekstra's work in Whitesnake, they play in a consistent melodic hard rock style, as tight as you'd imagine, with perhaps more of a focus on hooks than riffs but plenty of both.

What works best is that this really does feel like a band, even with Hoekstra's name on the cover. He's obvious throughout, of course, but he's not dominating the way that, say Yngwie Malmsteen did on a couple of albums that Jeff Scott Soto sang on back in the eighties. There are points where this feels as if it's Hoekstra's band, but others where it feels like Allen's or even Appice's, who's so utterly on point here that it feels like he's playing in slow motion so as not to overwhelm. The mix is superb, so it isn't difficult to track any of these musicians, even Franklin, and they're all worth tracking. While each has their moments to shine, they support each other well here, both stepping up and getting out the way.

I think my favourite song here is Heart Attack, a little closer to the Whitesnake approach than the Dio and with some added sass. All these songs are worthy but the best ones really nail the groove they're aiming for and that one does. Fantasy does too, albeit a different groove with strings that remind of Led Zeppelin and Rainbow and a cool keyboard solo from Sherinian that marks it apart from its peers. I'd call out Cried Enough for You too, as it's almost like a Metal Church song covered by Dio, without the level of crunch but with even more of a brooding nature.

But hey, not everything needs to thrill us here. There are eleven songs on offer, twelve if you count a bonus track called Lay Down Your Love, and they're highly consistent in quality. The question is more about which songs elevate beyond that than which don't reach it, because there are no duff ones here, just ones that might not speak as much to our individual tastes. For instance Lonely Days isn't a bad song at all, doing that Fantasy string thing with guitars, but I'm less sold on it because it's somehow a classic rock stomper and a laid back melodic rock song at the same time and it doesn't work for me. I'm less fond of the title track too, even though it does the laid back melodic rock song thing on its own very well indeed.

I haven't heard Dying to Live but, on the basis of this album alone, Joel Hoekstra already has his own supergroup in place for whenever that long Cher tour ends or David Coverdale decides to refresh the Whitesnake line-up again. The 13 don't have the hit singles those acts can rely on, but they would be worthy support for either and a bunch of people ought to show up just to see them.

Friday 19 February 2021

Tribulation - Where the Gloom Becomes Sound (2021)

Country: Sweden
Style: Gothic Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 29 Jan 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Wikipedia

Not to be confused with the earlier thrash metal Tribulation from Surahammar, Sweden who released their only album in 1991, this Tribulation are from Arvika, three hours west, and they started out in a death metal that's gradually shifted to a gothic flavoured heavy metal. This is their fifth album, with the shift happening on their third, The Children of the Night, in 2015 which features Irma Vep rather than the expected Dracula in the cover art, I believe.

I really like the opener, In Remembrance, which is a moody, broody gothic rock epic adorned with the accessible harsh vocal of bass player Johannes Andersson. It's weightier than it is heavy, if that makes sense, the weight coming not from guitar riffs but a lush gothic texture that pervades the album. It's not denim and leather, it's heavy velvet, regardless how harsh that vocal gets. That only doubles when a song like Leviathans shows up, with playful guitars dancing above everything else. The most gothic piece here is Lethe, a concerto for piano and creaking oak. It isn't remotely heavy but it has weight to it like a curse. There's as much influence here from the Damned as Black Sabbath, if not more.

Plenty of names come to mind though. When Dirge of a Dying Soul begins, I thought Rainbow, as it's a doomy take on a classical piece of music I'm sure that I ought to recognise, though it moves more to Candlemass territory as the intro becomes the song. That's the only song with "dirge" in its name but it's not the only dirge, Inanna showing up later on. And that sits in between the two most traditional metal tracks, Daughter of the Djinn and Funeral Pyre, the latter of which especially screams Mercyful Fate, even without any falsettos. These are up tempo and lively but still dark and mysterious.

Much of this is immediate, which surprised me. There's a lot of musical territory in between Dirge of a Dying Soul and Funeral Pyre and that applies whether we're talking specifically about this album with pieces like Lethe or generally. Tribulation trawl a lot in, but they stamp their own brand onto it well enough that it all seems natural. Candlemass, the Damned and Mercyful Fate is a tasty combination. I could suggest that In Remembrance could sit on a Tim Burton soundtrack, if only he'd stop pandering to the mainstream public and grow some balls. There's a lot here.

However, some of it wasn't as immediate for me. There are ten songs here and, if half resonated from a first listen, the other half didn't. Some of them gelled the second time through, especially Hour of the Wolf, but others, such as Leviathans, continued to elude me. Parts of it got through, maybe, but not the whole song. This may not sound like me but perhaps it tries to do too much. I can't connect with Elementals, either, even though it sounds good. It just fades away for me in between the powerful Daughter of the Djinn and the arresting Inanna, though Inanna itself isn't Dirge of a Dying Soul.

So I should listen to this more, I think. For now, it's a good album. I just wonder whether how much of a better one it'll be when I'm fully acclimatised to Where the Gloom Becomes Sound.

Slammin' Gladys - Two (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Glam Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 12 Feb 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

I thought Slammin' Gladys sounded familiar but I think I'm thinking of Smashed Gladys, whose singer, Sally Cato, sadly passed away last year. Slammin' Gladys do go back quite a way but not quite that far. Smashed Gladys were mid eighties, with albums in 1985 and 1988. Slammin' Gladys were nineties, their only prior album dating back to 1992, with what may be the most overt phallic symbol I've yet seen on an album cover. Almost thirty years later, the same line-up is back with a second and it's good stuff, if a little less energetic than I might expect for such a long overdue return to the studio.

They play their hard rock with a strong shot of glam and a chaser of funk, which translates to a sound that moves back and forth between AC/DC and the Faces, but with a plethora of extra influences which shake it up considerably, most obviously Extreme. Toxic Lover is like Extreme playing We Didn't Start the Fire with the AC/DC rhythm section. Dragon Eye Girl ditches AC/DC and Durango ditches Extreme too, leaving a song that could work for a smooth Rod Stewart or a less drunk Dogs d'Amour.

The best early song, though, is Lose My Mind, which is sassy, funky and neatly catchy. It's an odd song because it talks about drinking and smoking too much and going a little mad sometimes (hey, haven't you?) but it's not remotely as debauched as the Quireboys or the aforementioned Dogs. We don't buy into the band having to be propped up by roadies while they record the song, which would have been the only way to improve it. It's not squeaky clean and it's not pop glam in the way that Green Day are pop punk, but it's certainly commercial.

One reason for that may be that the mix seems very clean, not thin but emphatically not thick, with J. J. Farris's guitar dampened down a lot further than it ought to be. I like the music but I'd like it much more if it had some real oomph added in the mixing booth. A song like Lost in Texas tries, with a neat harmonica and a backing that lightens for the verses and heavies up before the chorus, but the mix is weak. This song ought to crush, but it merely entertains with the promise of what I'm sure it'll be on stage.

The most obvious sound is the voice of Dave Brooks, which is characterful and highly appropriate for funk rock, even if he obviously hasn't destroyed his throat through a life of debauchery over the three decade gap in between studio visits. His most raspy vocals are more like Axl Rose than Rod Stewart or Tyla. I don't know what he's been doing in that time because the rap on Light Up suggests that he has a taste in music that hasn't moved on from 1992. Everything in the sound here is from then or earlier, whether it's funk, glam, rock or that rap section, which is a lot closer to Blondie than Dr. Dre, not that I'm complaining about that.

Sometimes it's much earlier, like Ice Water, which is a delightfully bluesy old rock 'n' roller with nods back to Elvis and the Grand Ole Opry and, bizarrely, the mix is very different here. The guitar has a lot more oomph, the drums have a lot more oomph, we can hear Al Collins run up and down the fretboard of his bass like he's a born again rockabilly and Brooks isn't as dominant as he's been. This is a deeper sound and it's how Slammin' Gladys ought to sound throughout this album.

I feel a little bad giving this a 6/10 because I enjoyed Lose My Mind, loved Ice Water and liked Poison Arrow more and more the longer it ran. I'm sure I'd have a blast watching Slammin' Gladys live. Some songs here are weaker than others but none of them are bad. They just don't all sound as good as they should because of the mix. This ought to be a 7/10. But welcome back, folks!

Thursday 18 February 2021

The Pretty Reckless - Death by Rock and Roll (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Alternative
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 12 Feb 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

A few years ago, we had a dead car and a need to get to San Diego to work a convention. My daughter-in-law stepped up and lent us hers and a side perk was that we got to play some of her CDs during the journey across the desert where radio signals vanish for long periods. Our discovery from those was a CD from the Pretty Reckless, their then current album, Who You Selling For, which was quality stuff in a whole slew of genres, not just alternative rock but looks backward to blues, country and soul.

So I'm jumping on the new album as soon as I saw it come out, which, because of COVID-19, was quite a while after its opening single last May. This is even more varied than its predecessor and more overtly too. What's interesting to me is that it starts out pretty heavy and gradually works away from that to slide through genres like layers of an onion.

And it does start heavy. The title track is a stomper of a hard rock number, the sort of thing than Joan Jett might be recording if she'd been born three or four decades later than she was. It and the album are tributes to the band's producer, Kato Khandwala, who died after a motorcycle crash in 2018. Those are his footsteps at the beginning of the song. Only Love Can Save Me Now is a grungy brooder that's built on Black Sabbath-esque riffs and an opening that controls feedback really nicely. There's a great solo from Kim Thayil of Soundgarden.

Halfway through And So It Went, I was thinking this was a much heavier album than Who You Selling For, but then it took a very sudden shift from heavy to light that's cleverly done. Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine is the guest here and he does great work too, but it's the songwriting that makes this one work so well. It's wildly catchy, shifting not only from heavy to light but eventually to what I can only assume is a choir of kids. There's some Alice Cooper in the attitude, not so much in the rest.

That shift put paid to the much heavier assumption and the album promptly got very interesting. 25 is probably the best song here, a deep and powerful song that shifts from sultry to doom prog to the Beatles without any threat to its integrity. It's a black hole of a song, pulling us inexorably toward a seriously weighty ending that underlines how this song must mean something. We can't not listen to it. It's almost a command.

After My Bones, which is another crossover between alternative and hard rock, those onion layers fly. Every song is interesting and every song sounds like that's what this band was meant to play. It's not just vocalist Taylor Momsen who feels natural in each of these styles, though she's the real highlight here. It's everyone in the band, which means guitarist Ben Phillips, bassist Mark Damon and drummer Jamie Perkins. I've just listened to this album a few times and I want to hear the next one already.

Got So High is Britpop, almost an Oasis kind of song. At only 38 seconds long, Broomsticks is there to set a tone, not so much introduce Witches Burn but get us in the mood that it's Halloween. How to do that better than emulating a Tim Burton musical? Witches Burn itself sits halfway between AC/DC and Danzig, of all people. It's certainly not Broomsticks for five minutes. The Pretty Reckless are getting to be as good at changing style on a dime as Queen and that's saying something.

Standing at the Wall is a singer/songwriter piece, setting us up for a gradual shift into what I'd call an old school country rock sound. Turning Gold seems very familiar, but I can't place why beyond being a quintessential Americana rock song in the vein of Bob Seger, even though it ends with a sitar which is an interesting choice that sounds good even if I don't understand it. Rock and Roll Heaven is country rock in a relatively modern style, while Harley Darling goes further back to a country rock sound with a lot of folk. Hippies could sit round a campfire with their acoustic guitars, get high and all sing this together.

That's a lot of mileage for an album that runs through a dozen songs in fifty minutes. It sounds great and it already sounds surprisingly consistent given how varied it really is. With each listen through, I feel it's even more coherent as an album and not just a collection of songs, each of which also grows a lot. My Bones, for instance, initially felt like a bit of a letdown after 25, a sort of return to the heavier early songs, but it isn't. It's probably the best song here after 25 and merely suffered from its impact coming first. This is good stuff and it's getting better.

Zebu - Reek of the Parvenu (2021)

Country: Greece
Style: Southern Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 Feb 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

Given how much quality music I've been finding coming out of Greece lately, I keep my eyes open for more and this one looked interesting. Metal Archives call what Zebu do southern metal, which is fair but not entirely true. Sure, there's plenty of sludge metal here—just check out Our Shame for sludge riffing—and stoner metal too, so southern metal works. However, there are points where they shift a little into neighbouring genres and, in at least one instance, a genre over from that, which is more of a stretch but still a welcome one.

For a start, there's some more traditional Black Sabbath type doom at points, not only in the riffing, which is especially obvious on Shattered Mentality and The Hunger, but deeper on songs like Burden, where it's obvious in soloing and breakdown sections too. There are points where the band speed up with more of a Pantera effect, especially on Hollow, so there's groove metal to be found here. And, almost at the end of The Skin I Wear, there's a section that speeds up so far we can only call it thrash.

I liked that thrashy section a lot but this band exist more naturally at a much slower pace and they're tight enough to make that work really well. If you look up Zebu's own description of their sound, they simply say that they play "heavy shit" and that's even more accurate than southern metal. It works to my thinking because they're naturally heavy without trying to overdo it. There's a lot of bass here, for instance, which doesn't mean that they downtuned everything and pumped up the spectrum's low end but simply that the bass is audible and given plenty of opportunity to be heard.

I like how they don't have to try. This could easily have been heavier but it wouldn't have had close to the same impact. Zebu can play a song like Nature of Failure with riffs they know are heavy and vocals that are rough without quite becoming harsh, but they can drop into a mellow section without fear it will make people think they're going soft. That one's the most obvious, with clean spoken word vocals, but there are a few others dotted around, often in folksy intros like on Shattered Mentality or Keys to the Gutter, where it's not just an intro but bookends. They don't make this sound soft, they just make it sound deeper and more mature and it's a better and more varied album for it.

I'd throw the vocals of Kostas Synatsakis in here too. He finds an odd balance between clean and harsh that's rather palatable. There's definitely an influence from hardcore, but he sings rather than shouts and it works. The balance isn't entirely consistent and he certainly gets rougher on The Skin I Wear to balance with the guest vocal he's duetting with, that of Katerina Kostarelou, who appears to sing with a stoner doom band called Bacchus Priest. I didn't catch all the lyrics because I was often absorbed by the music but, however rough he gets and however close to harsh, he's always intelligible.

I like Zebu even though they don't play my subgenre of choice. I like sludge metal instrumentally but often, as with Thou, hate the vocals. That applies to a lot of hardcore too: I love the urgency of it and really dig the cover art that -core bands are finding, but the vocals usually leave me dry. I like stoner metal but I'm kind of digging stoner rock more nowadays, because it can play in psychedelia far more. I like groove metal but much prefer the thrash that it grew out of. As southern metal is all the above thrown into a blender, it can be hit or miss for me.

And this one's a hit. I wouldn't call Synatsakis a new favourite singer, but I certainly didn't dislike his style, even though I was ready to, and it works well with what the band behind him are doing. I'd call out the bass work of Alexis Korbis for praise, but guitarist John Roupaliotis is no slouch, handling all the guitars here on his own, and neither is drummer Nicholas Rossis. They're heavy, they're tight and they're reliable. Job well done. If this is your genre, you ought to really dig this.

Wednesday 17 February 2021

Wardruna - Kvitravn (2021)

Country: Norway
Style: Dark Folk
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 22 Jan 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Vimeo | Wikipedia | YouTube

When Einar Selvik played drums for notorious Norwegian black metal band Gorgoroth, he was known as Kvitravn, or White Raven, so it's not too surprising to find his dark folk project, Wardruna, using it as the title of its fifth album. However, the project itself still seems surprising. Kvitravn drummed for Gorgoroth at their controversial Black Mass Krakow gig in 2004, with sheep heads on stakes, 80 litres of sheep blood and four hooded naked crucified models as a backdrop. It somehow seems odd for him to be embracing nature and traditional folk music in music videos such as Kvitravn.

But hey, it works. Selvik founded Wardruna in 2002, while he was still in Gorgoroth, and it's featured a number of different musicians since then, but at heart it's Selvik playing traditional instruments like the taglharpa, which is a bowed lyre; the bukkehorn and tungehorn, made from the horn of a ram and cow respectively; and the lur, a wind instrument as long as Selvik is tall. The music is spiritual, rooted in ancient Norse cultural traditions. The first three albums were based on individual runes.

I don't know precisely what any of this means and how it ties into Norse pagan belief systems, but it's hard not to feel some of the spirituality being explored. Most of Selvik's vocals are chanted, while his most frequent partner and only other real member of the band nowadays, Linda-Fay Hella vocalises in ways that remind of Dead Can Dance. The percussion sounds handheld, often with a simple main drum beat decorated by more complex drumming behind it. I closed my eyes a few times while I listened to this and often felt like I was in a forest clearing with a group of people dancing around a bonfire.

Synkverv is an excellent way to kick this album off, building as it does so well that the drums stop and the song carries on without them. However, it's the title track where we realise that we're listening to something special. It's a patient piece at six minutes and change. It starts with taglharpa, the core riff echoing through the piece like a hurdy gurdy. Selvik's vocal is a droning chant. The beat is simple and effective. Then other layers keep adding into the sound. A choir joins in. There's a crunchy percussion like boots stomping snow with an icy surface. Hella is a force of nature here, soaring through this like the white raven of the title soaring through sky and it builds so well that I didn't want it to end.

It feels odd to realise intellectually that some of these sounds, such as that crunching snow, are likely to be samples and some of the rhythmic passages probably use looping effects. Of course, we can also hear the album because it was recorded in a studio and mixed and mastered and all that jazz. But that seems odd because this is fundamentally spiritual music to connect us to nature. Technology ought to be anathema to this music, which ought best to be heard live outside in a small group, while barefoot and probably drunk on mead.

There's a lot here to absorb because it's folk music rather than folk songs. We don't sing along and I'd think we wouldn't to most of this even if we understood Norwegian and knew the material backwards. It feels primal, shamanic and meaningful, like Selvik and Hella are teaching us something important about ourselves and how we connect to the universe. I constantly had the feeling that, if I listened to this long enough, Hella's soaring voice, which rarely forms actual words, would suddenly tune into a deep truth.

There's also a lot here to absorb because there's a lot here. This album runs an almost an hour before the longest song, the ten minute Andvevarljod, kicks in to wrap things up. Some of it is instrumental and somewhat ambient because the instruments aren't restricted to Selvik's repertoire because there is discernible music conjured out of water and fire and thunder too. Some of it is simple and pure but that doesn't jar with what's complex and layered.

I'm still trying to figure out if that means that this works as an hour and change of ritual music for us to absorb or whether a good chunk of it is redundant, enjoyable filler that wouldn't hurt the message with its absence. Maybe after a few more listens through. I'm on my third right now and I can't tell if it's getting deeper or shallower. It's really kind of both, Flygjutal lessening but Munin growing, for instance. So it warrants a 7/10 for now with the potential for another point to be added later.

The Ruins of Beverast - The Thule Grimoires (2021)

Country: Germany
Style: Atmospheric Black/Doom Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 30 Jan 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Wikipedia

I haven't encountered the work of Alexander von Meilenwald before, but he's been around for a while and has a pair of active projects. He's the drummer in a black/death metal band called Truppensturm, who have released a couple of albums since 2006 and he's the founder and sole member of this project which is now on its sixth album since 2003. It's labelled atmospheric black/doom metal, but it appears to me like he takes that very much as a starting point rather than a boundary.

It's ambitious stuff, this album running close to seventy minutes but featuring only seven songs, with three of those lasting into double digits. I'm assuming that it's a concept album or at least a thematic collection of songs that revolve around strange magical goings on at the end of the earth. The Greeks and Romans saw Thule as the location farthest north, while grimoires are books of spells. Put the two components together and this album certainly feels like it's introducing us to unseen places that can be found on no maps.

I liked the opener, Ropes into Eden, immediately. It's an engaging piece, whose minute and half intro of oscillating guitar grabs our attention and makes us wonder where the song is going to take us. It's quite the ride, at points an almost ritual storytelling chant and at others a dramatic narrative played out in front of an eerie and atmospheric backdrop. It ought to grab any fan of extreme metal not as a mere exercise in brutality but a mechanism to create weird art.

However, I liked the next song so much more that it sold me on the album all on its own. If Ropes into Eden told me a strange story, The Tundra Shines grabbed me through the magic of technology and let me be part of it. Everything about this one speaks to me, from its outré whalesong opening through a doomy deliberation punctuated with cultlike celebrations to a sort of spiritual conversation. A ritual beat keeps us grounded while everything else going on takes us on a bizarre journey. And there's a lot going on. It lasts eleven minutes and I immersed myself in it a few times before allowing the album to move onward.

And that's just the first twenty-five minutes. These two epics give way to a set of shorter songs, where shorter here means six to nine minutes each, that weren't as immediate to me but which grow well on repeat listens. One thing I realised exploring these shorter songs is just how good the drum sound is on this album. I'd enjoyed it on The Tundra Shines, whether fast and urgent or slow and resonant, but there's percussion like whips on Mammothpolis and that highlights how crystal clear the beats are in these songs and how beautifully each of them transitions into silence.

What else struck me is how far this drifts from its black metal roots. There's definitely black metal on this album, in abundance, and there's plenty of doom too, but this weaves its inexorable way into the less usual genres of gothic rock, post-punk and even new wave. It's never less than heavy, but this is a very different way forward from the avant-garde genre mashing of Celtic Frost than I've heard before. There are points where this album, which would have been an unimaginable thing in the early British eighties, touches on Bauhaus and Depeche Mode and other names I wouldn't expect to cite here.

The variety in vocal styles helps too. Quite frankly, I got far too immersed in this to quantify any sort of break down between them, but a lot of this is harsh in a blackened death sort of way, while a lot of it is clean and resonant in more of a gothic vein. There are spoken word sections too, which only add a level of drama to music that's inherently dramatic anyway. While I'm only seeing Michael Zech's name credited on a variety of odd instruments, like Jew's harp and EBow, along with effects, so I'm unaware of who the female vocalists are, but there's a middle eastern voice on Anchoress in Furs and a distant echoing soprano on Deserts to Bind and Defeat. Maybe they're samples.

I'm already rating this highly, but I need to throw this onto headphones and listen in the dark in the middle of the night, because I think it may merit more than an already highly recommended 8/10.

Tuesday 16 February 2021

God is an Astronaut - Ghost Tapes #10 (2021)

Country: Ireland
Style: Post-Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Feb 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Tumblr | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I came to God is an Astronaut, a name taken from a quote in Nightbreed, from a suggestion that their particular brand of Irish post-rock is reminiscent of Tangerine Dream. Well, maybe on earlier albums, as this is their ninth, but not here, because this is driven by guitars not keyboards and it often has an abrasive texture to it. I haven't heard the band before, but I did check out some of what they've done in the past on YouTube and this is angrier stuff. Given that they've said that each of their albums is a "photograph or snapshot of who we are in that moment of time", maybe 2020 was a tough year. It was for the rest of us.

Texture seems to be the goal here, rather than soundscape. I don't see much when I listen to this, just a predominant colour of grey. Maybe there are colours way over there somewhere in the dim distance but they're certainly not particularly close. I don't see places or people or even much of anything that might give an indication of what's happening, just swirling. Maybe I'm in a thick bank of clouds and I can't see the world at all except in momentary glimpses.

This certainly fits with some of the song titles. Adrift feels exactly that, especially in the midsection. I don't know where we are but we're not supposed to be here and we'd like to find our way back, if that's OK with everyone. There can be peace here but it doesn't last and that's telling. The guitars are chaos, but the bass has a dark deliberation to it, as if chaos was the goal all along. Other titles here speak to being lost as well, like In Flux, Fade and even Burial, if we assume we aren't dead.

There's certainly some peace in Burial before that angry guitar kicks in and spoils our escape. I do feel that these swirling guitars represent the absence of something rather than a presence of one. They're not telling us what's going on; they're hiding what's going on from us. If anything, the drums serve as a guide, their tempo our sense of urgency and their complexity a reflection of how much we ought to pay attention.

Somehow, like life, we have to pay attention and we're rewarded for that. As chaotic as this feels, it's a rich sound and one that never got boring for me. It's also a very current sound, as if this is all of us at this moment in time rather than just the band. We're struggling, but we're still going and we'll see it through, whatever "it" is for each of us, whether COVID-19, politics, debt or whatever. Gradually, over repeat listens, I came to think of the bass as us, a vibrant life force that's carrying on whatever else is happening. It perseveres and we will too. This is chaotic but it's not pessimistic in the end. We emerge from that in Luminous Waves.

I'm still learning about what post rock is, but each time I think I have a grasp on it, the next post-rock album tells me that I haven't got it yet. I'd come to the thinking that post-rock has musicians playing traditional rock instruments in a way that takes us to new places in the way that Tangerine Dream and thers did entirely with synthesisers and electronic gadgetry. God is an Astronaut mostly do that but I hear synths and some of the more peaceful moments benefit from piano. Doesn't that disqualify this from post-rock?

Who sets the rules? Well, maybe God is an Astronaut do. They've been doing this for two decades now, nearly, and they've remained prominent throughout. Who better to listen to on this?

Durbin - The Beast Awakens (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 12 Feb 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Many rock fans, myself included tend to view television talent shows as anathema to metal, especially in the UK and US, but maybe that's changing. The first 2021 album I reviewed was from a runner up on the South African show Idols, Mark Haze, and my previous review was by Inglorious, featuring Nathan James of both The Voice and Superstar. I mention this because James Durbin came fourth on American Idol in season ten.

This is the first Durbin album, but it isn't the first James Durbin album. He's released three prior solo albums, plus two with Quiet Riot, including Hollywood Cowboys, which I reviewed here at Apocalypse Later, suggesting that Durbin was a decent singer who hadn't yet find his identity. I think he may have found it here because, as cheesy as much of this fantasy-drenched heavy metal is, it feels heartfelt and honest and it allows him to do what I think he always wanted to do. In American Idol's personal choice round, he chose a Judas Priest song, You've Got Another Thing Comin' and he obviously channels Rob Halford for much of this album.

You can hear that most obviously on the opening song, The Prince of Metal, which is pure Priest with a strong chaser of Iron Maiden. Durbin has the pipes for this and he fits the style a lot better than he fit Quiet Riot's. Whenever a song isn't in the Priest style, it's still in a classic rock/metal vein. There's a lot of Blue Öyster Cult here, most obviously on Into the Flames and By the Horns, while Calling Out for Midnight is obviously influenced by early Queensrÿche, with Durbin doing well as Geoff Tate too. Given the subject matter, it isn't surprising that he also takes on a Dio style on Riders on the Wind.

The band behind him is rock solid, though it's not entirely behind him because Durbin is credited on rhythm guitar too. If I'm reading things properly, there are only two solid members, Barry Sparks on bass and Mike Vanderhule on drums. Sparks is used to this, given that he's the only other member of MSG with Michael Schenker right now, the recent album fleshed out like this with guest appearances. He's also backed a lot of other major guitarists: Marty Friedman, Vinnie Moore, Tony McAlpine, even Yngwie Malmsteen. Vanderhule has been with Y&T since 2006 and has also played with many others.

I don't know how guitar duties break down, but there are four lead guitarists credited, plus three on guitar and Phil Demmel from Violence on Kings Before You. I don't recognise any of the names except for Chris Jericho, who sings on the same song, but I believe they all recorded their parts remotely, as the album was created during the COVID-19 pandemic with only Durbin and his producer in a studio, putting it all together. Given those circumstances, it sounds very tight indeed.

I like this a lot more than earlier material I've heard from Durbin. It all sounds good, however cheesy it gets, though it does fade a little on repeat listens. The Prince of Metal remains strong, as does the prowling and heavy title track, and I really dig Necromancer. It's the shortest song on this album but that's partly because it gallops along so quickly that it can't even stop for a chorus, that sort of being the last line of the verse. The riff matches it and it just speaks to me.

I'd have gone with a 7/10 here on a first listen and I'm still not sure I shouldn't after a few more times through, but what seemed like strong riffs and hooks didn't take hold the way I thought they would. I wouldn't call anything here filler, but quite a few of these songs fade into the background, letting the highlights stand out above them, so I think I have to drop to 6/10. Partly that's due to the generosity of this album, which runs only five minutes short of an hour, but it could have been trimmed, I think. I also think that James Durbin has found his style at Frontiers and I look forward to his next album.

Monday 15 February 2021

Inglorious - We Will Ride (2021)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Feb 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Last time I reviewed an Inglorious album, it was with a largely new line-up because everyone had just left the band except lead vocalist Nathan James and drummer Phil Beaver. Two years on from Ride to Nowhere and the line-up hasn't changed at all. Apparently it all worked out and perhaps that's one of the reasons why this is a more interesting album than that one. I'm not sure it's better, though it's at least as good. It's just more interesting.

Some of it is that the sound is chunkier and more varied. Danny Dela Cruz and Dan Stevens are a more vicious pairing on guitar than their predecessors and they bring things a little more up to date. Sure, this is still a New Wave of Classic Rock band and there's still plenty of old school influence here, from the Helter Skelter build of the verse in Messiah to the Bad Company riffing in God of War. However, it isn't as obvious as it used to be. Inglorious are now rooted in the legends instead of sounding overtly like them.

I think the biggest reason, though, is that Nathan James has managed to move forward from what I'm still thinking of as an excellent David Coverdale impersonation. Now, he does share quite a similarity in tone and so he's never going to lose that sound entirely—it's obvious on Medusa, for instance, and the second half of Eye of the Storm, among others—but I found far more here than I did last time out. There's some Robert Plant in later songs like He Will Provide and We Will Meet Again, right down to the middle eastern lilt, and plenty of Graham Bonnet throughout too, but much of this sounds much more modern, as if James has been listening to alternative rock singers too.

All that is good and it helps the band find an identity that they surely needed after losing a majority of its musicians at once. The catch is that, while this is a real step on the way to a great album, I'm not buying that this is that great album. It's more consistent than the last one and I enjoyed it through a few times, but there's little that wowed me. Nothing annoyed me either or left me blah, but there are only a few moments that truly shine out from everything else around them.

The best moment here is the early riff on He Will Provide that emerges from the riotous intro. It's an utterly alive riff and it ought to have people bouncing like lunatics when gigs open back up again. I'd lump a couple of intros in with that too. There's one on Cruel Intentions that's both acoustic and faux vintage, played on what sounds like Spanish guitar, and it really grabs our attention and sets a scene for the song proper to build on. Vinnie Colla's bass intro to We Will Meet Again is another, an almost Iron Maiden-ish romp but on Cliff Burton's fuzzy bass.

All in all, I think most people are going to be coming to this album to see if Inglorious still have it. It can't have been an easy couple of years for them but maybe they were freeing years too. If there was a rift that big in the band, it's good to put it behind them and find a way to move forward. I'm happy to say that they've move forward very well. This is a good album but, more importantly, it's a promising one. The present is pretty good but the future looks better and that's a lot more than I could say last time out.

Marco Garau's Magic Opera - The Golden Pentacle (2021)

Country: Italy
Style: Symphonic Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 19 Feb 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Many thanks to Marco Garau, the keyboardist in the Italian power metal band Derdian, for sending a copy of his debut solo project for review. As you can imagine from the project's name, this is his work through and through. He wrote the story behind this metal opera, orchestrated it and, even with two guitarists in the band, leads the way with his keyboards, which often don the masks of harpsichords.

To bring it to life, he elicited the aid of a couple of his Derdian bandmates—bassist Enrico Pistolese and drummer Salvatore Giordano—along with a trio of international names, all best known for power metal. The twin guitar assault comes courtesy of Gabriel Tuxen and Matt Krais, the former a Dane who plays for Seven Thorns and the latter an American who plays for ShadowStrike. That leaves lead vocals, which are delivered by Anton Darusso, obviously a graduate of the Michael Kiske school of power and melody, even though he hails from Costa Rica, where he sings for Wings of Destiny.

So, this is a power metal album through and through but it's rooted inherently and inexorably in the world of classical music, occasionally opera but even more often symphonic music from the masters. It seemed obvious from the moment the keyboards start their harpsichord impressions on the opening title track, but it gets more obvious still. Remember when Beethoven rocks up the San Dimas Mall in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure? This is that concept taken to its logical musical extreme. Yeah, I'm aware that was Extreme but this album fits that style much better than the rest of Play with Me did.

It was Keepers of the Night where I started to wonder how much of this is Garau's original music and how much is Garau borrowing from the masters. This one kicks off with a riff on Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and the next song, Never-Ending Pain, channels Bizet. Is that a sultry dance from Carmen or does it just sound like it's a sultry dance from Carmen? I'm sure I recognise the keyboard solo late in The Sacred Legacy and the solos early in Until the End of Time from classical music too, though I'm unable to place them. Other moments ring bells as well but I can't claim to be an expert in opera and I haven't listened to much classical in far too long.

I know enough to say that this feels more classical than operatic, which surprised me. This is dramatic music, but it doesn't feel like it's phrased as drama in the way an opera would be. There are no arias to be found, Darusso always singing in front of a band rather than solo. His is the only primary voice and the only other vocal texture to be found here is a harsh voice that shows up out of the blue in Never-Ending Pain and Until the End of Time, so there's little conversation here between characters, even with the story following a feud between two wizards. Darusso is excellent here but there's more variety in the music behind him than in what he's given to sing.

For all that it so often sounds like an homage to classical music and the project name suggests opera, it really does end up as a power metal album full of songs rather than dramatic stage movements. I'm going to leave it wondering which classical nods I failed to recognise—the melodic structure in Fight for the Victory and the intro to Until the End of Time for a start—but I'll also leave it entertained and energised. This is uplifting symphonic power metal with pace, vigour and emphasis that plays out over more than an hour but doesn't remotely drag, because it's so inherently engaging.

It also plays very consistently, enough that I'm struggling to pick a song I could call a favourite. Maybe I could go with Until the End of Time, which wraps up the album with neat dynamics, shifting from its bombastic beginning to the tinkling harpischord during its outro, via a sassy Spanish dance section I could see as much as hear, especially when the harsh voice joins in. I presume that's the evil wizard, Sir Dohron, aiming to stop his kind enemy, Lord Kama, from freeing a nation from his iron boot with the power of the Golden Pentacle, but it sounds like Satan teasing a beautiful young señorita dancing the night away in passionate red.

Now, I have a lot of homework to do. Derdian have released seven albums and, given that half of them are here, I should check them out. What's more, Wings of Destiny have five, all of which feature Anton Darusso on vocals, Seven Thorns have three and ShadowStrike one. I have a feeling this is going to be a project that doesn't just introduce me to the work of Marco Garau but a string of bands I should be listening to already. Thanks, Marco.

Friday 12 February 2021

Sirenia - Riddles, Ruins & Revelations (2021)

Country: Norway
Style: Symphonic Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 12 Feb 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Wikipedia | YouTube

I've mentioned a few times how I drifted away from rock and metal in the early nineties after a decade of deep immersion. I did come back at points and one of them was around the time Sirenia came to be in the early noughties. I was part of a vibrant community at EMusic and there had discovered Napalm Records in Austria through an album that's still one of my favourites today, Tristania's World of Glass in 2001. For a while, I was devouring everything on Napalm, and that inevitably led me to Sirenia, who were formed by Tristania guitarist Morten Veland.

In fact, the Sirenia debut, At Sixes and Sevens is, in large part, material that he'd written for Tristania before leaving that band, shortly before World of Glass. I liked it a lot and its follow-up too, An Elixir for Existence, but, like many fans, was disappointed with Nine Destinies and a Downfall. I'm happy to see that Veland, the heart of the band and often technically its only member, kept Sirenia going, with this being its tenth album. The other permanent member is female vocalist Emmanuelle Zoldan, who has held that role since 2016 but had sung with the band's studio choir since 2003 and also performed on the 2010 album produced by Veland's side project, Mortemia.

The sound here is symphonic metal, led by Zoldan as Veland's contrasting male vocals, whether clean or harsh, have mostly vanished. However, Zoldan doesn't show off that much. Her voice is a rich treat, one I appreciated more and more as the album ran on, especially when she sang in her native French, but there's little here to test her range. She shows some serious power on Towards an Early Grave, an interesting track vocally because it also features her whispering and a harsh verse from Veland, but it isn't enough to prompt people to highlight it on a vocal reaction video.

The gothic feel is still evident, though decreased considerably, with the violin and choirs gone and, in large part replaced by electronica. The bulk of the album is guitar driven, of course but it feels like all of it is performed in front of electronic textures, with a few songs, such as Towards an Early Grave and Passing Seasons, opening like Enigma tracks, a sound that continues to show up throughout, notably late in December Snow. The electronic grooves also expand to an industrial aspect at points and, in a few moments, even a theremin sound.

It took me a couple of songs to get used to this change, but I like it. The riffing is decently heavy and often industrial-tinged, but the solos are bubbly shred, the backing vocals are often poppy and that perky electronic backdrop is always there. Just check out Addiction No. 1, the opening track, which is able to do all of that in a single song. It's a good one, but I think the best are still to come, like Into Infinity, December Snow and Passing Seasons.

What's telling is that it's difficult to call out the heaviest track or the poppiest, because the two are so fundamentally linked. The Timeless Waning may feature the most harsh vocals, while We Come to Ruins may have the heaviest riffs, but they both feature bubbly elements and the bubbliest and most melodic songs, like December Snow, feature heavy ones. And that's kind of the point. This isn't heavy music trying to be accessible or poppy music trying to be heavy. It's a mature combination of the two. It's a distance from what I remember Tristania being, but I like it a lot. In fact, after a couple more listens, I upped my rating.

DeWolff - Wolffpack (2021)

Country: The Netherlands
Style: Psychedelic Southern Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 5 Feb 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Latest on the list of bands I should have been listening to for years but hadn't heard of until now are this delightful Dutch outfit called DeWolff. They were formed in 2007 and, if I'm counting right, this is their eighth studio album, even if the last one was recorded on the road for the princely sum of €50. They won an Edison Award, the Dutch equivalent to the UK's Mercury Prize, as the Best Rock Band of 2019, so they're clearly well known over there.

So what do they sound like? Well, they're a kind of hybrid of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Stevie Wonder, with other notable seventies artists like Deep Purple and the Bee Gees popping in for close ups at points. As you'll imagine from that combination, it's wild enough that it's hard to actually define what they do, except to say that, when they're not finding a Black Crowes vibe, they sometimes appear to be the entire decade of the seventies rolled up into a single band containing only three people. Well, most of it at least. They're clearly not fans of Yes or Judas Priest but most of the rest is here.

They play funky psychedelia with a Hammond organ floating through it, hints of Marc Bolan jamming with Sly & The Family Stone. There's a fuzzy guitar but it's not overt enough for this to be counted as stoner rock. It's never far from southern rock but everything is built on melody above riffs, so think a song like Four Walls of Raiford over Free Bird. It's soul, it's funk, it's even disco on Half of Your Love—and that makes two albums in a row with a disco influence for me; when did that become cool again? There are way too many sounds here to cover in a paragraph of reasonable length.

In fact, there are way too many sounds here even in individual songs to cover them properly. Yes You Do, for instance, which opens up the album, begins like Vangelis, turns into fuzzy Skynyrd and ends up stomping on John Kongos ground. Treasure City Moonchild is a soulful Deep Purple number with scat singing Gillan but featuring Gary Rossington on guitar instead of Ritchie Blackmore. Lady J kicks off with a driving Golden Earring vibe but gradually becomes Skynyrd at Muscle Shoals. Roll Up the Rise is a playful swamp rock song like Dr. John covering Creedence.

If there's anything here newer than the seventies, it's the Black Crowes. R U My Saviour may start out like the Stones but it soon turns into the Crowes and actually stays there for a change, with its funky beat and a welcome brass section adding to its depth. I believe DeWolff are a trio, who have remained consistent since the very beginning, but there are a lot of instruments here. Guests include Ian Peres of Wolfmother and, though he isn't on my version, Luther Dickinson, formerly of the Black Crowes.

While I'm certainly better versed in some of these genres than others, most of this sounds really good to me. Everything is variety, but there's such a consistency in the overall feel so that nothing feels at all out of place, except perhaps Do Me, which Pablo van der Poel, singer and guitarist, may feel is the greatest song he's ever written but I would call easily the weakest of the ten on offer here. It played a lot like an elevator music cover of Band on the Run with all the good bits taken out.

That's the only song here that I'd skip on repeat listens, but everything else is a highlight, even if I'm leaning more towards Yes You Do, Lady J and R U My Saviour right now. Ask me tomorrow and I might plump for Treasure City Moonchild, Roll Up the Rise and Hope Train instead. These songs may well be ones that connect with us differently depending on our mood at the time, even though they're all the sort of upbeat antidote to COVID and whatever else is dragging us down today.

And so I've finally discovered DeWolff and I'm rather happy for that. I'm sure many of you will wonder where I've been, given that there are seven studio albums preceding this one, with wildly different art on their covers, and a few live albums as well. I can see a busy weekend exploring all this.

Thursday 11 February 2021

Steven Wilson - The Future Bites (2021)

Country: UK
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 29 Jan 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Maverick British musician Steven Wilson has travelled through a lot of musical territory in his time and he only gets more intriguing with each release. This sixth solo album plays in one of his frequent genres, prog rock, but it's laced with so much electronica that we'd see it as a synthpop album if only it didn't bear so many nods to Pink Floyd. Apparently, they're one of the two foundation stones that underpin almost everything he does, the other being Donna Summer, which explains a lot.

Yeah, that's an odd pairing but there's reason for it. He's said that his roots are in a couple of albums that his parents bought for each other for Christmas sometime in the mid-seventies: The Dark Side of the Moon and Love to Love You Baby. I'm hardly the world's greatest expert on Donna Summer, but it isn't difficult to hear prog and disco combine on this album. The third factor is dystopia, which tips a virtual scale back towards the Floyd. For all that it sounds perky, this is a dark album and the various music videos emphasise that. The video for Personal Shopper is this album in microcosm.

The more I listen to it, the better it gets and the more that it burrows under my skin. A lot of what it does reminds me of the new Foo Fighters album, which I reviewed yesterday, as both are pop albums as much as they're rock albums, musically upbeat and quintessentially catchy. However, rock is always the winner of any imaginary battle, even here where so much is electronic. As dance-oriented as it is, it always feels like we're supposed to listen to it rather than get up and shake our booties.

Also, even when the dance feel is at its most potent, with electronic beats and soulful backing vocals, not to mention Wilson's own ventures into falsetto, there's always a guitar chord waiting for its cue that's so Floydian that I'm still not convinced that many of them aren't samples from Welcome to the Machine. I almost sang along to that a number of times on Eminent Sleaze and during the narrative section on Personal Shopper.

The latter, which at almost ten minutes is the magnum opus of this album and probably its greatest highlight, brings another name to light. That's Gary Numan, as so many of the synth textures appear familiar from his early eighties work. This menaces like Floyd but swells like Numan and maybe some Nine Inch Nails too, when it really gets moving, even if the vocals in those sections are soulful rather than pained. The darkness is there in the video and the savage attack on consumerism.

I clearly haven't paid anywhere enough attention to Steven Wilson's work as I should. This is a strong album indeed, one with nine tracks, seven of which count as songs proper and five of which have been released as singles. Even though it runs over forty minutes, I want more, which is glorious irony given the lyrical themes. There are another six original tracks on the limited edition deluxe box set, whose very existence is further irony given its mention in the lyrics of Personal Shopper, plus some remixes.

I want to cast my net wider though. Just browsing Wikipedia's notes on who he's worked with and the genres his musical diversification has encompassed suggests that I'm way behind on someone I ought to follow. So much good music, so little time.