Tuesday 30 March 2021

Ronnie Atkins - One Shot (2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 29 March 2021

Architects - For Those That Wish to Exist (2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turbulence - Frontal (2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 17 March 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five the Hierophant - Through Aureate Void (2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 16 March 2021

Eisbrecher - Liebe Macht Monster (2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grande Fox - Empty Nest (2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 15 March 2021

Eyehategod - A History of Nomadic Behavior (2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chez Kane - Chez Kane (2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 12 March 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Now the Owls are Smiling - Dirges (2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 11 March 2021

Anneke van Giersbergen - The Darkest Skies are the Brightest (2021)

Country: The Netherlands
Style: Folk
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 26 Feb 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Anneke van Giersbergen, former lead singer of the Gathering, returns with an atypical release that's a soft acoustic singer songwriter album. It's apparently inspired by the Japanese artform of repairing a broken object, often ceramic vessels used in the tea ceremony, with precious metals, the point being to treat things that are broken but repairable as merely going through stages of their lives and even celebrating the imperfections. This had ramifications in van Giersbergen's own life and it apparently helped her immensely.

Well, I say it's a soft acoustic singer-songwriter album. Much of it certainly is, van Giersbergen's voice reminding of Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins, but even purer than the former and with more soul than the latter. There are strings here in addition to the acoustic guitar and hand drums, such as on Agape, the opener that features the title in its lyrics, and The End. I'd suggest that these feel new rather than old, but then both Mitchell and Collins were always contemporary to their times. Maybe this will feel old a decade or four from now. Of course, some songs, such as Losing You, which omits the strings, are timeless.

The structure of these songs is more interesting, though, and many songs, starting with the deep and meaningful My Promise but firmly underlined with the poppy I Saw a Car, reminded me of Rickie Lee Jones in their subtle quirkiness, and once I recognised that, the entire album took on that flavour, if to different degrees. My favourite song here fits this well too and that's Keep It Simple, with a subtly sassy groove, stripped way down from what's on Hurricane, and some neat cello and even neater vocal harmonies.

Talking of Hurricane, it's so overtly played that it isn't really soft at all, even if it remains technically acoustic. Halfway through, after Coos Zwagerman joins on trumpet, the groove expands to remind of Kate Bush and that's never a bad thing either. This is a busy acoustic song with vehement drumming from Martin Bosman but it's glorious. The brass is a great touch. The bouncy Survive is overt too but still acoustic.

This isn't what I expected from a solo Anneke van Giersbergen album, but it's a really strong release. I know a lot of people think of acoustic releases as being a very particular sound that's rather confined in its emotional reach, but that really doesn't have to be the case. Quite frankly, it doesn't have to be the case on a singer songwriter album featuring a single person on voice and acoustic guitar, because there are a lot of textures that can be drawn on, but this is a fantastic album to repel that thought, as it's full of admirable variety without ever feeling the urge to plug in.

And this also makes me wonder how a lot of symphonic or gothic metal singers might sound in a very different context. One of the reasons why Floor Jansen was so fascinating on the Beste Zangers show was because she sang in so many different styles. That show really ought to reach out to the agent of Anneke van Giersbergen, because she'd be perfect for it too, between what she's done in the Gathering and what she's done across this album.

And how pure can a voice be? What she sings on Losing You is so pure that it's a frozen morning in the sun before anyone's touched it. It's utterly pristine. This album may not be at all what Gathering fans are used to from her, but it's a fantastic album. I hope they check it out.

Omination - NGR (2021)

Country: Tunisia
Style: Funeral Doom/Death Metal
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 5 Feb 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives

Regular readers will know well that I live to discover things that I haven't heard before. That's why I'd easily call Nepal Death's debut my favourite album of the month, even if I've rated three others above it. This is the first to even stand up as a contender and that's because this is a one man funeral doom/death metal album from Tunisia on the aptly named label Hypnotic Dirge Records.

That one man is Fedor Kovalevsky, who doesn't sound like he's from Tunisia, unlike his bandmates in progressive death metal outfit Vielikan, Zied Kochbati and Nessim Toumi, both of whom seem to have at least some sort of connection to Omination even if they don't play on this, the project's third full length release. Wherever he hails from originally, he's based in Tunis and that makes this a Tunisian extreme metal release, one that's long, fascinating and uncompromising.

And I say funeral doom/death metal for the sake of listing a genre. This may not be what you imagine from that description, though it's certainly as fair as anything else. This may sound really weird but I ended up thinking of NGR as the dark side of early Enigma. No, this isn't built out of samples and I'm not suggesting that it's Gregorian monks shifted into a minor key. However, the instrumentation here is as much church organ, bells and choral chanting as it is guitars, bass and drums. The whole thing is about setting a mood and that mood is cultists in black robes performing unholy rites in the ruins of an unsanctified church.

It's also experimental enough that it's hard to sit this truly alongside bands like Ahab, who are heavy and achingly slow but traditional enough in their song structures that you could play them at 45rpm instead of 33rpm and get a different experience. This often appears to be as much a sound collage as a piece of music. There are points where our ears catch riffs and melodies and rhythms and all the other things that we critics call out so often for attention, but mostly this sounds like a train colliding with a packed church in slow motion and in such a way that the result sounds appealing.

I'd love to hear someone better versed in experimental music than I explain why this works. I can see a particularly canny combination of subgenres, bringing in walls of sound from black metal, the growls from death metal and the slow pace and atmospheres of doom metal, but there are other things here. This is music I could imagine reading about in The Wire as much as Terrorizer and I'm convinced that a number of the instruments here are found objects in a Einstürzende Neubauten sense, bringing some proto-industrial textures into play.

It also feels as if it falls into a genre that could simply be called loud music. I don't know the technical wonders that the production is utilising but I've stood in a tiny venue with a band performing louder than was appropriate for the space and my ears rebelled at the sheer volume. I felt the same here and I have a volume control that I can tweak however I like. That discomfort factor is built into the music and it's fascinating to me. I don't want to leave, but my ears are constantly struggling to understand what's happening in such a challenging environment. This is what intensity sounds like and I say that before we get to the industrial black metal section sixteen minutes into The New Golgotha Repvbliq.

The vocals help a picture like that because they're varied. Kovalevsky sings with both clean and harsh voices but he also shouts, not in a hardcore style but like he's fighting to be heard in a hurricane, and he also chants in ritual fashion. I presume it's all him, because he's credited for everything, but he's a cast of characters rather than a single performer. Given that some of this feels ritualistic, I wonder if it was written with visuals in mind. If I put the words "dark opera" together, I'd expect something in a gothic metal vein, which this totally isn't, but they seem to fit here.

The stage would need to be huge though, because the grandeur here is Wagnerian in scale. This needs an organ the size of a building and entire walls of choirs. The characters have to be giants, fallen gods moving achingly slowly, especially during the hypnotic ritual chanting sections in songs like Unto the Ages of Ages and Death(s), Love and Life. The sets and costume must be black and white because colour has been bled out of this album. And it must have an ethnic angle, even if African flavours don't show up until Post-Apocalypticism almost an hour in, because wherever this unfolds, it isn't here and that's going to stand wherever you're reading this from.

Did I mention that this album is long? When Post-Apocalypticism ends, eight songs in, we've reached 57m, making this long already. But then it's time for the title track, because NGR presumably stands for The New Golgotha Repvbliq, and this wildly ambitious piece is over twenty minutes long. And, if that's not enough, my edition has a tenth song, titled Nothing, which adds another ten. An hour and a half of this ought to be unbearable but it's magnetic. I listened to this in entirety three times yesterday and a fourth time today as I translated my notes into an actual review.

To suggest that there's a lot here is a major understatement. It's not remotely going to be something that everyone's going to appreciate. This is very niche material, but if you're someone who likes how genres can be merged and subverted into something new and if you're someone who reads The Wire as often as your favourite metal magazine, this may be the best album you've heard in forever.

Wednesday 10 March 2021

Kings of Leon - When You See Yourself (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 5 Mar 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Kings of Leon have been gradually drifting away from their original garage rock sound to alternative rock for years and on this eighth studio album, arriving five years after its predecessor, they're easily at the safest sound they've reached yet. However, even though these songs are so laid back that all the urgency of an early single like Red Morning Light is forgotten, they do tend to find the grooves they seem to be looking for, even if they're softer ones without any sharp edges. When Caleb Followill asks us to "come a little closer, closer now to the edge" on Time in Disguise, the irony is biting.

The question that constantly comes back to mind here is whether those grooves are engaging enough to draw us in to explore what's going on in a particular song or so underplayed that we drift away for a while. And while even having to ask that question surely says a lot all on its own, there are plenty of both of those categories here.

The earliest songs, as subtle as they often are, did grab my attention. I dug the opener, When You See Yourself, are You Far Away, because it starts so softly and inoffensively but gradually adds layers until it's quite a complex thing. It's rather like pop-era Peter Gabriel singing for a new wave outfit who are mysteriously without much budget for electronics and it's a great way to kick off an album. I liked it a bit more than the opening pair of singles, The Bandit and 100,000 People, and a lot more than most of the songs here.

The Bandit is probably the most overt song anywhere to be found here, with the possible exception of Echoing, and it also hearkens back to indie music from the eighties and maybe nineties too. Taking a different approach, 100,000 People reminded me of a stripped down Bruce Springsteen, perhaps doing a cover of one of his wife Patti Scialfa's singer-songwriter songs. It's my favourite song here, after the opener which is a step above. These are good songs.

But then the next few didn't do much for me at all and I kept forgetting that they were even playing. I won't say that they're boring, because when I paid attention on a second listen I was rewarded, but I'd suggest that they easily become ambient noise, like songs on whatever inoffensive radio station is on in the background at the dentist's while you're concentrating on not feeling pain during a root canal. That especially begins with A Wave and continues through Golden Restless Age and on throughout.

And here's where you have a decision to make. If you stop doing everything else and concentrate on a song, it sounds good but we can't help but feel that it's bad for us anyway. It may be the safest album to put on in the background at a party that I've ever heard. It's feels like it's been designed to be the definition of inoffensive and it succeeds so well that our brains revolt at the concept. So do you want in? Do ya?

For instance, there's an organic pulse to Supermarket that feels like someone took the entire output of Joy Division, filtered it through algorithms to become one definitive song, shifted it into a happy key and applied an entire bottle of the digital equivalent of fabric softener to make it soft and fluffy. It's really hard to not like it, but you have to concentrate to even notice it and it leaves us with mixed feelings. Are we supposed to be happy or depressed? Is this really the soundtrack of our lives? Is this muzak conjured up a mad hacker who slipped something into it that's subversive and our subconcious knows it but hasn't convinced us yet? Is it an impeccably crafted musical drug?

I wonder what I'll feel if I come back to this album in a couple of weeks. I'm wondering if I'll remember that it exists. Wasn't I dreaming? But with that Joy Division trick repeated on other songs with Bruce Springsteen and Lou Reed and other iconic musicians, maybe it's all I'll remember because two listens was enough for it to take over my brain like a parasite and own my thoughts.

Bloodkill - Throne of Control (2021)

Country: India
Style: Heavy/Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 19 Jan 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

I've been hearing good things about Bloodkill, a new thrash band from Mumbai, India, who formed in 2016 and are on their debut album, so I was eager to check Throne of Control out. What I found is that they're a tight and reliable new band who chug really well, the pairing of Shubham Khare on lead and Vishwas Shetty on rhythm the powerhouse behind them. There's a fantastic midsection to For I am the Messiah where the latter chugs magnificently so the former can run free and there really isn't much at all to the title track except solid chugging and neat pauses.

They're not a particularly fast thrash band, falling more often into an Iron Maiden-esque heavy metal sound on songs like Unite and Conquer or a bouncy mid-pace thrash feel to songs like Blindead Circus which really ought to get the pit moving. They do speed up, but never for long enough for us to get a real workout. I have a feeling their pits are going to seriously and constantly churn but never go wild the way pits can. The band I kept coming back to the most for comparison is Death Angel, but the last Warbringer album sprang to mind as well.

If the guitars were my favourite aspect by far, almost every track coming close to the extended section of For I am the Messiah that absolutely dominates that song, my least favourite must be the vocals of Anirudh Gollapudi, who has a deliberately rough voice. He sings clean but it's very hoarse. There are a lot of points where this works, infusing songs like False Face or Unite and Conquer with a Tom Araya-esque attitude, but there are a lot of points where it seems to be too much, like late in 3B or early in Horrorscope, at which point he seems to be trying too hard to be over the top. I wonder how much of that is due to the production and whether it'll show as much on stage.

This isn't a particularly long album, but it doesn't outstay its welcome. There are seven songs proper, plus a minute long introduction, and they're all of a regular sort of length. With the exception of the shortest song, Blindead Circus, which only just nudges past three minutes, everything sits in the four to six minute range, long enough to build well and allow for instrumental workouts, but not so much that anything can even think about being epic and that limits Bloodkill's ability to mix it up.

This is a decent album, if mostly for the mid-paced thrash fans out there who lapped up Warbringer's release from last year, especially given the rough vocals. I liked a couple of these songs a lot, For I am the Messiah chief amongst them, and none of them let the side down. However, I'm not wowed in the way that some people seem to be at the moment, perhaps because I do like my thrash to blister rather than chug and there are precious few moments where Bloodkill do that. But that's fine. It just means that it may speak to you more than it does to me. It's good stuff.

Tuesday 9 March 2021

Nightfall - At Night We Prey (2021)

Country: Greece
Style: Melodic Black/Death/Doom Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 5 Mar 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter | Wikipedia

Here's another band who have been around for some time but are nonetheless new to me. Singer and bassist Efthimis Karadimas formed Nightfall in Athens, Greece way back in 1991 and the band put out nine albums before this one, apparently evolving as they did so through quite the variety of genres. Metal Archives says they started out as melodic black/death/doom metal, morphed into gothic metal or rock and then moved back to their roots. Wikipedia says that, along with Moonspell, which I know, and Inciuvatu, which I don't, they introduced a "Mediterranean way to black metal".

Whatever we call this, it's emphatic. After a dark piano intro with keyboards building behind it like a trailer to a horror film, the opening track proper tells us in no uncertain terms that the band mean to hit us hard. Perhaps it's because they've been gone for a while. They kinda sorta split up from 2005 to 2009 and again from 2013 until now, so some people are surprised to see them back. Maybe they want to underline that not only are they back but they're back with a vengeance.

This opening track is Killing Moon and everything in it is done with emphasis. Fotis Bernardo, a new fish on drums, especially means to really thump them hard and the production does a fantastic job of aiding him in that. The tempo ratchets up nicely too, so that we could often almost see this as thrash metal rather than the melodic death metal it's closer to. It really doesn't hang around, especially in a frantic midsection, but the tone is always a little deeper and Karadimas's voice growls and bellows.

I have to say that I like the faster sections more than the slower ones, but the band do both well and I can't complain about how heavy it all feels. Witches opens up like Seasons of the Abyss era Slayer and that's heavy indeed. However, when they speed up, like on Killing Moon and Darkness Forever, I found more of a Kreator vibe than anything off Reign in Blood.

Nightfall are more varied at slower tempos, adding in black metal on Witches, gothic metal on Giants of Anger and death metal on, well, pretty much everything else. There are other sounds here that may not come from any of them. Temenos has a vibe that's halfway between a heavy Blue Öyster Cult song and something by one of those black metal bands who abandoned the genre for something a lot more commercial like, say, Satyricon. Meteor Gods starts out with choral vocals that sound ethnic. Martyrs of the Cult of the Dead has a bombastic flavour from outside extreme metal, though it's extremed up.

In short, there's a lot here and I'm digging the way that Nightfall merge genres. The most interesting music I've heard over the last few years has been from artists or bands who ditch all traditional marks of boundaries and create whatever they want, whatever box or boxes it might end up in. Nightfall are clearly masters of that. These songs move back and forth between pretty much every flavour of metal without any of it seeming inappropriate. The title track can drop into a quiet melodic line or spoken word because it feels like it and suddenly we're remembering that there's progressive metal too. It's like they want to check off all the boxes and that's not a bad thing.

Now, it seems like I have nine Nightfall albums to catch up on. I've been finding some wonderful stuff coming out of Greece, but it's new. I like that there's still wonderful stuff from Greece that's old too, beyond what I already knew about.

Kreek - Kreek (2021)

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

Formed in 2019 by lead vocalist Antony Ellis, who had left Bigfoot that year, and signed to Frontiers, Kreek come highly recommended by my go to melodic rock maven, Chris Franklin of Raised on Rock, and I've learned to pay attention to his recommendations. Then again, with an opening track like At the Bottom of Hell, I didn't need much prompting.

This is a long song for a rock album like this, running over six and a half minutes when precious little else makes it past five, but it's a manifesto of everything what the band want us to know they can do. There's an intro, a build and an unusual vocal part to grab our interest. There's a confident lead vocal from Ellis, which is clearly designed to start out memorable but so far within his capabilities that we will learn what he can do as he goes on. There's a strong melodic line that's underpinned by musicians who are somehow patient and urgent at once. The drums especially don't quite do what we expect and the bass goes particularly wild late in the song. The guitar solo is good. The chorus is good. The feel is good. And we end with the sure knowledge that, if we didn't like this one, we might as well go home.

I liked this one. And that means that I like this album.

Kreek are emphatically a hard rock band, though there are plenty of moments that remind me of Iron Maiden. It's there in the way Ellis's vocals build. It's there in odd melodies throughout. It's especially there in some of the more frantic intros like the one to Missiles, which reminds of Back in the Village. But it isn't there in the intensity that a metal band goes to, though I'm sure Kreek will be heavier on stage than they are here on record, because that's not what they're aiming to do. They fit very well in what I'm hearing from the New Wave of Classic Rock.

Million Dollar Man, the opening single, brings an American flavour into a British style; there's some Sammy Hagar swagger in this one and there's some Aerosmith to be found elsewhere in the album as well. Mostly, though, this is British through and through. Stand Together in particular feels like it's encapsulating decades of British rock 'n' roll because this song runs the gamut, reminding at points of Budgie, Saxon and Wolfsbane, even the Beatles. Everyone will want this one to be faster but we'll eventually realise that it works at this slow, grinding pace because it's a statement.

In fact, many of these songs, especially late in the album, remain stubbornly slower than we're likely to want them to be, including the refreshing anti-ballad, You're on Your Own, that closes the album, but it may be that they stick in our heads better for that. They make us feel like Kreek have confidence in what they're doing a little more. And, of course, I'm sure they'll be speeding them up on stage for a wildly different effect.

The biggest problem this album has is that it peaks early, nothing able to match that killer opener, At the Bottom of Hell. The strongest point this album has is that, even if the other nine songs are lesser to that one, they're each only a single notch down and they remain consistent in quality throughout. Sure, this isn't the killer album that the opener promises, but nonetheless it's reliable and solid and a strong debut for a band that ought to go far. You can pull any song off this and you're in good hands.

Monday 8 March 2021

Evergrey - Escape of the Phoenix (2021)

Country: Sweden
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 26 Feb 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I don't think I've ever heard Evergrey before. They hail from Gothenburg, Sweden but play what they call progressive power metal rather than the expected melodic death metal. They formed back in 1995 and have kept busy ever since, this being their twelfth studio album. The biggest gap between albums is only three years and it's been just two since The Atlantic, which slipped by me in 2019. Their line-up has been stable since 2014 and is centred on Tom S. Englund, who sings and plays guitar.

Having now heard Escape of the Phoenix, I'd suggest that there's a lot more progressive metal in their sound than power metal. There's power here, but it's mostly overwhelmed by the progressive sound, a few exceptions notwithstanding. Many of these songs have an alternative rock feel too, but framed in a heavier context and with progressive flavour. I could imagine a regular alternative rock band taking many of these songs, simplifying them, removing the metal crunch but keeping the modern bass and releasing them as commercial covers.

What's more, the best songs here, like the piano-driven In the Absence of Sun, are clearly progressive metal and have very little power metal in them at all, perhaps just a little of that genre's grandeur. It falls to songs like Forever Outsider, which opens the album, the title track and Leaden Saints to bring that driving power metal sound into play. Much of that comes from drummer Jonas Ekdahl, who rolls on wonderfully. When he ups the tempo, everyone else has to follow suit and even the solos begin to feel a little more power metal.

To underline how this is primarily prog metal, James LaBrie from Dream Theater shows up to guest on one of these songs, The Beholder, and his contribution is not wildly different in style from Englund's on the earlier four. These are prog metal vocals, always with an eye on melody but not being as catchy as a softer melodic rock take on these songs would be. Neither screams nor soars, but both are clearly accomplished and both deliver some neat runs and holds.

I like this sound. Evergrey are clearly very comfortable with it and this album does run very smoothly indeed for almost an hour. It feels like they could have just carried on for a further hour or two in the same vein without the quality dipping at all. The only catch to that comfortable consistency is that it takes a while for songs to stand out from the others, even though this is really good material. I found that listening through the album as a whole was an enjoyable experience but that playing individual pieces in isolation was a better way to appreciate just how good they are.

To pick just one example, Stories sounded good every time I listened through the album, but it didn't sound like it was any better than Where August Mourn before it or A Dandelion Cipher after it. It was just good stuff. Taking a break, getting some lunch and coming back to play just that song showed me that it's better than just good. It's an excellent song that would have stood out on any radio show but merely doesn't here because all the songs around it are just as excellent. Successfully applying that logic to pretty much anything else on this album underlines how this is very worthy of an 8/10.

Raven Sad - The Leaf and the Wing (2021)

Country: Italy
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 3 Feb 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Prog Archives | YouTube

It's hard not to like Raven Sad. This is another generous album, at almost sixty-eight minutes, but it's one that really knows how to breathe. They're an Italian progressive rock band formed in 2005, even if they don't often sound like they're an Italian progressive rock band. Apparently, they used to have an abundant space rock influence that led people to thinking they were Germans but Samuele Santanna, whose solo project this originally was, has changed line-up frequently and Gabriele Marconcini, their new vocalist, is clearly Italian.

I'm hearing more of an Anglo-American sound here, a cross between Marillion and Queensrÿche, with the Marillion most obvious in the instrumental sections and the Queensrÿche in the way Marconcini delivers his vocals. He doesn't soar the way Geoff Tate used to but he's often very similar in his lower register. But that's just a starting point. There's a folkiness throughout that's easily found through a deceptive lightness and the ability of these songs to breathe. There's a funky organ in City Lights and Desert Dark and it veers into jazz fusion midway through. There's also some seventies rock in Ride the Tempest that is shorn of its prog, reminding how widely Black Sabbath influenced music. There's very little of them here but it can be found.

The band is new, but Santanna has been recording as Raven Sad name since 2008 and this is his fourth album. Only keyboardist Fabrizio Trinci has appeared on any of those, I believe, so I doubt they're too representative of what this band sounds like today, especially given what I'm reading about krautrock and jazz influences on them. It's also been a full decade since the prior release, Layers of Stratosphere in 2011. I'm still interested in looking out for them, because this is deep music, but I don't expect too much similarity.

And that makes me wonder about what the next album will be like. This band is easily strong enough that I hope this isn't it for the line-up. If it is, I'm happy that they left us with so much music. The Leaf and the Wing may only include eight songs, one of which is a two minute intro, but they're not short ones. The Sadness of the Raven opens up proceedings at almost ten minutes and it never once seems long. City Lights and Desert Dark is a few breaths longer still and the same applies. Then it's Colorbox at thirteen minutes even, the longest song here, which feels looser and a little more Italian, even with Marconcini singing in English and some very Steve Rothery guitarwork from Santanna.

I think my favourite songs are that early pair of ten minute songs and the a pair of darker pieces that follow Colorbox. I enjoyed this throughout, but the early sections of Approaching the Chaos spoke to me. It's a little darker, but not by much, and a little sassier too. It isn't content to sit back and flow; it wants to actively engage and play with us. An inquisitive bass, perky drums and teasing keyboards are a great way to kick the song off and it only grows from there. Ride the Tempest continues the slightly darker approach and adds a little weight to it. This is never heavy music, let alone metal, but this one does think about it often.

Like the Moonspell album from Friday, this is a grower, a second listen highlighting depths that I had missed the first time through and a third listen doing the same. However, it's a lot more immediate. I had to work a little with the Moonspell, which I did because of their name. I didn't know Raven Sad at all before hearing this, so wouldn't have had that incentive to persevere. Fortunately, I didn't need it. I'll be pulling both these albums out again to explore further and I won't rule out upping the ratings on both of them.

Friday 5 March 2021

Moonspell - Hermitage (2021)

Country: Portugal
Style: Progressive/Gothic Rock/Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 Feb 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Portugal's premier gothic metal band return with a new album, their twelfth, which returns them to a predominantly English language approach after their concept album, 1755, about the earthquake that year in Lisbon, which was entirely in Portuguese. As has increasingly become the case, this is a gothic metal album that isn't what we would usually think of when someone mentions gothic metal. There is no beauty and the beast vocal interaction and no female vocalist at all. In fact, there's not a heck of a lot of metal either.

While Moonspell reached this stage of their careers in a gradual shift away from the black metal they started out playing, this feels like it started instead as goth rock, moved into progressive rock and, at points, heavied up a little. The Greater Good, which opens the album, plays with that contrast, mostly staying in a rock vein but happy to get more crunchy and emphatic at points. However, a song like All or Nothing feels like it's still in that prog phase, the gothic tone mostly in the pleading of the vocals but overshadowed by some neat guitar solos. It doesn't even think about becoming metal, even when it could.

I quite like this sound, even if I was hoping for something heavier, but these songs aren't particularly immediate. I liked what I was hearing, even on a first time through, but it took a few listens to really start to appreciate what Moonspell are doing here and, even then, little of it wowed me. I just became increasingly comfortable with it until the point where some of the songs turned into old friends. The longer I listened to this album, the more I appreciated it, but it took time.

Entitlement was the first song to seep under my skin. It's a slower, proggier piece, but an atmospheric one too, that atmosphere being dark and obviously rooted in goth, if notably underplayed goth if we compare to what the early eighties would have done to it. It chooses to beckon us in rather than bash us over the head and drags us there, which helps to underline that it may be one part Bauhaus but it's one part Bauhaus to four or five of Pink Floyd, the name that I kept coming back to. That influence is a stronger one as the album runs on, especially in the solos of Ricardo Amorim, who has been paying a lot of attention to Dave Gilmour, though the band are never derivative.

What surprised me, given the album's title and song titles such as Common Prayers, Solitarian or The Hermit Saints, is the lack of a religious feel. Clearly this is themed, if not a concept album, and we're constantly hearing references in the lyrics. I was following the music a lot more than the words, but it ends up being impossible not to hear words like "saints", "pray" and "hermit" repeating everywhere. However, excepting some choral backing vocals, the first hints I found were in Apophthegmata, eight songs in, and even there, it's only at points, through a well placed church organ, and not integral.

By the way, that song title doesn't refer to the name of a demon, it presumably refers to the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, or the Apophthegmata Patrum, a set of stories that describe spiritual practices of 5th century Christian hermits in the deserts of Egypt. It doen't explore them specifically, but there is a common thread running through this album about leaving the world of things behind and going elsewhere to think and pray and regain some sense of who we are.

And talking of identity, it's interesting to see that Moonspell apparently still think of themselves as a gothic metal band. Their Bandcamp page still uses tags like black metal, dark metal, gothic metal and progressive metal. There's no black metal here at all and, while the other three still hold truth, this is much more of a rock album. Sure songs like Common Prayers, The Hermit Saints and the title track are willing to add some metal crunch and vocals that are more overt but, over time, that gradually seems like a holdover from the older Moonspell, who are inexorably moving away from it. I'm interested in seeing where Moonspell go from here.