Friday 30 April 2021

Evile - Hell Unleashed (2021)

Country: UK
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 30 Apr 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I went to school in Halifax and sixth form college in Huddersfield and grew up out in the sticks halfway between those two towns. I continued to live in Halifax until 2004, when I emigrated to the US. Take a wild stab at when Evile were formed in Huddersfield. Oh yeah. The bastards. So, while I've never been able to see them live, what with that large pond in between us, I have to keep up with the local sound digitally. They still sound good on this, their fifth album and their first in eight years, but I have to say that I'm not as fond of new singer Ol Drake's vocals as I was of his brother Matt's.

Musically, they play their thrash metal fast and vicious, just the way I like it, with guitars like buzzsaws and an approach that's sure to get the pit moving. A song like the opener, Paralysed, ought to have an opposite effect to its title, because fans will take its opening build partway through a live set as a sign to go completely insane. I could feel their restless energy combining as they waited for the moment to go and I'm listening to an mp3 in my office. It's just like Metallica's Damage Inc. but with less messing around before the pit explodes.

It's a fantastic way to kick off an album, with memorable riffs everywhere, courtesy of Drake, who was the band's original lead guitarist, even if he only took over on vocals too last year, and new fish Adam Smith, who joined in 2020. The audible bass of Joel Graham shines through too. I'm frequently shocked by how many thrash bands hate the bass-free mix on ...and Justice for All but then proceed to copy it. I am very happy to say that that is very much not the case here and Graham does a fine job. Ben Carter is impressive behind the kit too, because, while this is generally up tempo thrash, it does shift gears a lot and he handles that effortlessly.

Oddly, the most obvious gear shifting song is Gore, which is something of a theme here, I think, given other songs like The Thing (1982) and Zombie Apocalypse. The reason why it's odd is the band's choice of backing vocalist, who is none other than comedian Brian Posehn. That's him shouting "Gore" during the choruses and, while it ought to sound gimmicky, like something a more fun-oriented thrash outfit like Acid Reign or Gama Bomb might go for, but it actually sounds fine. Posehn simply does the job.

My biggest problem here is with Drake's vocals, which aren't bad but seem to be more monotone and limited than I'm used to from Evile. He's obviously a much better guitarist than he is a vocalist and I'm reasonably sure he knows that. My initial guess was that he thinks of himself as the lead guitarist in Evile and maybe he's stepping up to take care of mike duties until his brother comes back or they hire someone else. He certainly doesn't annoy the way that John Cyriis did on the recent Agent Steel album and he doesn't jar with the style at all. It just feels like songs like The Thing (1982), which ought to be utterly blistering, like early Testament, are missing that extra something they ought to have.

The flipside to that can be found on the cover of Mortician's Zombie Apocalypse, which is where Evile play most obviously in death metal. It rips nicely during the midsection but most of the song is slower and plodding and somewhat out of place on such a fast thrash album. All that said, Drake's vocals are much more at home here, so maybe he should be playing guitar in Evile but singing for a death metal band. The more I listen to the album with that in mind, the more it seems to be true. After that song is Control from Above, a more up tempo death-infused thrash song and he fits pretty well there too.

So, Evile return after eight years to find themselves at a fork in the road. If they want to carry on playing thrash in a fast and uncompromising fashion, then they need to either bring back Matt Drake or hire a new singer. If, however, they want to evolve into the death/thrash outfit they've always kind of been but never quite embraced fully, then Ol Drake ought to carry on working double duty and he'll sound more and more at home behind the mike as that shift proceeds. Either way, welcome back, folks.

Issa - Queen of Broken Hearts (2021)

Country: Norway
Style: Melodic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Mar 2021
Sites: Facebook

If Simulacrum, whose third album I reviewed earlier this week, are atypical for a Frontiers release, I'd be hard pressed to come up with a band more suited to that label than Issa. It's melodic rock through and through, with hints of symphonic metal behind the hooks, and it's bright, perky and cheerful from the very outset. It also remains on the rock side of the boundary with pop music, even with a few R&B runs here and there from Issa, a Norwegian singer apparently living in York, the lucky devil, and some poppy keyboards every once in a while from the Frontiers in-house producer Alessandro del Vecchio.

I'm new to Issa, having first heard her in January when Chris Franklin played her single Angels Calling, which opens up this album, on his Raised on Rock radio show. However, this is her sixth album and she has apparently grown over that discography, even if I'm hearing that the symphonic rock style in play here hearkens back to her debut, Sign of Angels, just over a decade ago. I like this sound, though it's a given that the band are there to support Issa and nobody would assume on a blind test that this isn't a solo album. At least she has the vocal chops to justify that.

She's very good at finding a balance between the soft and sensitive voice that would serve her well in the pop world and the strong and soaring voice that's perfect for the a rock world. The epitome of this can be found in Blue, which kicks off like a ballad with Issa ratcheting back her power substantially for effect and gradually bringing it back in. It's not just a toggle, it's a scale and it's telling that she has an extra level beyond the one we think might be the pinnacle.

That isn't to say that the musicians behind her aren't up to the task. They are, with del Vecchio finding some neat textures across the eleven tracks and Simone Mularoni contributing some excellent power metal flourishes. He plays for a lot of bands, most obviously DGM and, with del Vecchio, the Frontiers project known as Sunstorm, among others across the hard rock, heavy metal, power metal spectrum. These are quality musicians. They're just here to support someone else's voice, not to showcase their own abilities.

I liked this immediately because it's really hard not to like something this fresh, bouncy and upbeat. It really does play like a cold fruit salad on a hot day. It's refreshing. The question isn't about whether it gets a thumbs up or a thumbs down, because it was always going to be the former, but whether it has the staying power to work on levels beyond the simply refreshing. How's it going to taste an hour later when we're refreshed and looking for something deeper?

Well, I think it does pretty well and I'm still discovering some hidden depths on a third listen through. Derive is fast becoming my favourite track, because it refuses to be obvious. It's sultry and enticing, a real grower of a song. However, from a melodic standpoint, there's only one earworm here that nails every aspect of what it wants to do and that's the title track. However good we think this is, that song, which sits right at the heart of the album, is always a step up from everything else.

If you like your melodic rock on the poppy side, you're going to dig the songs that are more driven by electronica like The Night It Rained Forever. If you like it to be emphatic rock music but with singalong choruses and spotlight moments for the guitarist to shine, then you're going to like Without Love. As I mentioned, if you're looking for something deeper to get your teeth into, then you'll get a kick out of Derive. But whichever one of those three listeners you are, Queen of Broken Hearts is going to be your standout and that tells me that, as enjoyable as this is throughout, there's a better album still in Issa Øversveen. Maybe we'll hear that next time. I'll be listening.

Thursday 29 April 2021

Trettioåriga Kriget - Till Horisonten (2021)

Country: Sweden
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 25 Mar 2021
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Prog Archives | Wikipedia | YouTube

It's a sign of the internet age that I've been familiar with Mongolian folk metal outfit Nine Treasures for quite some time, but hadn't heard of Trettioåriga Kriget until now, even though they're from a lot closer to home and they've been around for longer than I have, albeit with some breaks. They formed in 1970 and their debut four years later may well be the first heavy album ever released in Sweden. It did well and they put out four more before first splitting up in 1981. Their fourth reunion in 2003 took and this is their fifth album since then, for ten thus far. That's not a lot for half a century, but it seems like this discography is quite the journey.

They play progressive rock, though it appears to have changed considerably over the years. Their first album supposedly sounds like what Rush would six years later, which means Permanent Waves, so I'm intrigued. Over time they gradually softened up, though they continued to play their brand of prog in a traditional way without a wild instrumentation set. They're primarily based in the usual guitar, bass and drums setup, plus a keyboardist who occasionally plays saxophone but not, I think, this time out. I thought I heard a flute on Vägen till Horisonten though and I see a credit for violin.

I do like this sound, which includes long instrumental stretches and is often laid back, though never so far as to seem safe. The vocals are capable and never seem out of place, but I found that I didn't miss them at all when the band toggled into instrumental mode. By the time I got to the end of Vägen till Horisonten, which is a delightfully varied prog epic that almost reaches fourteen minutes in length, I couldn't remember if it had ever included vocals. It doesn't matter. It's a journey of a piece, as befits its title, which translates to The Road to the Horizon.

I'll have to take it on faith that they started out sounding like Rush would sound like later, but this has little to remind me of Rush. It's there, but it's rarely obviously there, such as perhaps towards the end of that fourteen minute epic. I heard a lot more Pink Floyd, from their more laid back era, though this isn't quite as commercial, even to Swedes who understand the lyrics. It's always prog rock, never quite right to crossover to a pop music audience, even though some of it comes really close.

While, there are passages obviously reminiscent of the Pink Floyd style and there are certainly solos where Christer Åkerberg is channelling Dave Gilmour, but the band is never derivative. What I believe they took most from the Floyd is their ability to mix a laid back sound, where less is always more and a guitar is meant to be fluid, with dark undertones, often provided by the bass of Stefan Fredin. While I don't speak Swedish, the translations of the song titles don't seem particularly negative, with only In Memoriam inherently suggesting sadness and loss. However, I caught darkness in Tidigt, Till Horisonten and especially Staden, which titles translate simply to Early, To the Horizon and The City.

Staden, which, along with the epic, is easily my favourite track here, starts off more experimental, with King Crimson the obvious influence, but it gets softer and more laid back. There's King Crimson in Vägen till Horisonten too and whenever the band decides that it wants to do something wild, often in a change or a breakdown. At the other end of the spectrum, I'd say that there are points where they go all the way through Pink Floyd to reach a Dire Straits level of laid back. In between, there's quite a lot, including some surf guitar that I really wasn't expecting.

It seems almost an insult to describe a prog rock album as pleasant, because that inherently suggests that it's unimaginative and safe. This isn't either of those things, but it's pleasant nonetheless. I felt like I could lie back and just let the entire album wash over me, enjoying the sensation of it passively and ignoring the depths that I could happily explore later in a different mood. Because those depths are there. I wonder if knowing what the lyrics say would help with that. Somehow I don't think that it matters. The music speaks volumes on its own and in a universal language.

Nine Treasures - Awakening from Dukkha (2021)

Country: Mongolia
Style: Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 19 Mar 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I don't usually review compilation albums at Apocalypse Later, because there's far too much good new music to talk about instead. I'll make an exception here, though, for three primary reasons.

One is that I'd be shocked if many of you have heard the first three albums by Nine Treasures, who are a Mongolian folk metal band currently based in Beijing, China. They were formed in 2010, as were the far more prolific and sadly now disbanded Tengger Cavalry. That's six years before the Hu, who were a lot of people's introduction to Mongolian folk metal, but six years after Hanggai, a folk punk band of renown, who built on the folk music traditions of bands like Huun-Huur Tu and Altan Urag. And yes, if you're interested in Mongolian folk music, all these bands are well worth checking out.

Another is that, if you decided to seek those three albums out now, you wouldn't be able to find them, as the band weren't happy with the recording quality and pulled them from Bandcamp. All you'll find is this compilation, which features twelve songs taken from those earlier three albums but recorded afresh by the current line-up of the band in consistent style and with consistent production.

And that means that, for three, to the mind of the band members, this is a new album as much as it's a compilation, one that certainly looks to the past but also celebrates a rebirth, one that reflects the band as it is today and one that they can use as the bedrock from which to move forward. So, if this is new music both to Nine Treasures and to you, it fits here. My mission at Apocalypse Later is discovery and covering this album would seem to meet that.

If your exposure to Mongolian folk metal is, like most people in the west, limited to the Hu, you'll find that Nine Treasures are faster, heavier and more metallic, but just as inherently rooted in folk music. Just check out the opener to this album, Black Heart, which has guitars as crunchy as in the Hu's cover of Sad But True, but feels more like a speed metal playing a jig. The song doesn't stay that fast, but it isn't an unusual speed for them and they stay this heavy throughout, meaning that they often sound as similar to a band like Korpiklaani as one like the Hu.

Like most Mongolian metal, this features delicate finger picking strings and a bowed instrument that sounds kind of like a violin playing over the crunchy metal riffs that underpin everything. The latter is a morin khuur, a massively important instrument in Mongolia that we would call a horse head fiddle. I doubt you'll find much Mongolian music that doesn't feature at least one of these in their group. The former, however, isn't the tovshuur, or western Mongolian lute, that the Hu use, but a balalaika, which adds a neat touch to their sound.

And, over the top, of course, are the rough vocals that most Mongolian metal bands have. There's not as much in the way of throat singing here as other bands but four out of the five members sing as well as play their chosen instruments and they all sing in Mongolian. Their voices are clear and clean but in varying degrees of harsh texture and often deep. There are hints of drone and lots of rolling Rs, so it's very recognisably Mongolian singing. If you were enthused by the vocals on the Hu's Wolf Totem, you will be very much at home here.

What surprised me is that my favourite songs come from all three of the band's source albums for this compilation. Only two songs here come from their 2012 debut, Arvan Ald Guulin Honshoor, but I adore that album's title track, which is very much like a Mongolian Korpiklaani. Six are sourced from 2013's Nine Treasures, including the bookends: the frantic Black Heart and the more bouncy Three Years Old Warrior. I particularly like The Dream About Ancient City, which is a classy instrumental. That leaves a quartet from their 2017 album Wisdom Eyes, which all have opportunities for the balalaika, including its gloriously subtle title track and The End of the World, which features an excellent intro.

I can't remember how I got introduced to Mongolian metal. It certainly wasn't the Hu, because it was much earlier. I was a fan of Huun-Huur Tu and some YouTube algorithm showed me something heavier, probably either Tengger Cavalry or Nine Treasures. Like most people, I haven't looked back since, and this is a great way to be introduced to Nine Treasures. I hope it serves as the rebirth they so richly deserve and that they're soon on as many people's radars as the Hu and for many of the same reasons. Hey, they covered Metallica in 2012, with their debut album including their take on For Whom the Bell Tolls. The world's just catching up to them.

Wednesday 28 April 2021

Thunder - All the Right Noises (2021)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 12 Mar 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

It's becoming more and more obvious with each year that passes that there's a serious New Wave of Classic Rock going on in the UK right now. Much of that activity is due to new bands burning to bring a new life to the old styles. However, there are old bands out there too who are still doing the business and, if we hadn't already added Thunder to that list, we can safely do so now because this is a peach of an album, as energetic, vibrant and infuriatingly catchy as I've heard in a long time. Certainly, I didn't get those descriptions from the new Cheap Trick album yesterday.

It kicks off with what I'd usually expect to call the catchiest song on the album, Last One Out Turn Out the Lights, which is just aching to get going from moment one. It's simple stuff really, but effectively so in the exact same way that Bad Company could do so much with so little. That's a basic but bouncy beat that had me dancing in my office chair, a seriously sassy riff and a catchy chorus with the sort of soulful backing vocals that have you singing along before you've even finished hearing the song once.

I said that I'd expect to call something that catchy the catchiest song on the album, but this album has Young Man too and that does all the same things with even more overt Bad Company simplicity. It's a catchy song too, if not as instantly so, but it gets there. Oh boy, does it get there! As this one is taking it home, reprising a section in the middle of the song, I felt an generation of pop divas wondering how they can hire these guys to write their hooks.

And that's not too far a stretch to take. There's a lot more here than catchy hooks, but they highlight how much soul and funk is riddled through this music, right down to the brass section. There's also an overt presence for southern rock, that comes in with the brooding Destruction and plants its feet for sure in The Smoking Gun. There's an even a riff on Force of Nature that I swear they stole from the Charlie Daniels Band and from Satan's own section in The Devil Went Down to Georgia.

The southern rock isn't everywhere but it shows up often enough to bring Lynyrd Skynyrd to mind just as often as Bad Company, who are the primary influence here for sure. She's a Millionairess moves in circles between one and the other. I'll Be the One is brave enough to populate the heart of this rock 'n' roll record with a ballad that would have been worthy material for Otis Redding at Motown, and The Smoking Gun is brave enough to boast what sounds exactly like an old school Peter Frampton voicebox right out of the seventies. They may have picked up the organ sound on She's a Millionairess from the same time travel trip.

The thing is that I've never been a huge Thunder fan. I've always liked them, because it's pretty damn hard not to like Thunder, but I remember them being described so often as the next great band from the UK and they never quite were for me. I liked Back Street Symphony and I've liked what I've heard from them since, but I've never heard them sound this great. This album leapt out of the speakers to aurally slap me round the face saying, "Dude, if we don't get you with this one, we're done." And they got me with this one, immediately and often and with emphasis.

To my thinking, and I've listened through this twice now, every sound they try works. They venture into Bryan Adams-esque soft rock and get sleazy like the Faces. There are funky riffs, soulful vocals and an abundance of good old fashioned back to basics rock 'n' roll. There's brass early on to get sassy and, on St. George's Day, some ethnic strings to raise thoughts of Led Zeppelin. And throughout it all there's a mature approach to songwriting that makes for great earworms. I went to the bathroom halfway into my first listen of She's a Millionairess and found myself singing it down the hallway. That's the sign of a great album.

Simulacrum - Genesis (2021)

Country: Finland
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 12 Feb 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

I've mentioned before that every time I listen to the Raised on Rock radio show, DJ Chris Franklin puts another couple of standout songs in front of me that I've never heard before and may not have found otherwise. Recently, he played a track from this third release by Finnish prog metal band Simulacrum and I jotted it down as a standout. Unlike perhaps every other similar instance that I've picked up for that reason, however, this one is kind of leaving me a bit dry.

What probably grabbed me was the level of technical expertise the band display, which is clearly high, and the way that they stayed inventive throughout what had to have been a reasonably long song, as nothing here runs below five minutes and change and the shortest is part three of a four part suite. I can't remember which song Chris played, but all nine on offer here would have met those criteria and he could have chosen any of them with the same effect.

Let's use the opener as an example. It's called Traumatized and it packs a lot into its six minutes, as if the band were getting paid by the note. My biggest problem with the album as a whole is that it's too much and consistently so. It's impressive on an initial listen but, the more I replayed, the more that I wanted some serious dynamic play to really mix things up. There are points where things quieten but they don't usually slow at the same time, so they're usually there to allow a particular instrument to take the spotlight for a while, rather than a way to vary the intensity.

Traumatized may be a telling name for many listeners, because it's easily the heaviest song that I've heard on Frontiers Records, a label much more known for its melodic rock. And yes, the rest follow it; this isn't a palate cleansing anomaly. The guitars of Petri Mäkilä and Solomon are powerful and carry quite the punch, often a jagged punch that fits with the modern American metal style. However, they do mix that up and vary that style, shifting often into their default mode of European power metal.

There's also a layer of keyboards to differentiate it from anything American, as it doesn't always work as a softening agent. Sometimes it does, but sometimes it's more like an opponent in a duel, with the various instruments queuing up to fight it out for supremacy. I quite like that deathmatch approach to composition, but it's a busy one and it can be a tiring one. The keyboards sometimes come out on top, as they do midway through Nothing Remains, but those jagged rocks of riffs threaten it throughout.

The vocals are clean but often unpolished for effect. There are two singers here, with the primary one being Niklas Broman, who I think is the warmer and more polished. That would suggest that the more raucous voice, not that it's particularly harsh, belongs to Erik Kraemer and he often reminds of Bruce Dickinson, especially on Like You Like Me. There's not a huge distance between the two, though, both being powerful male tenor voices, with the biggest difference being the tone.

I can't say that I don't like this, because I do. It's technically intricate and musically accomplished and I found warmth and emotion here too, albeit not throughout. It's very carefully constructed, enough so that I certainly wouldn't see it translated into emotion with the colours of the cover art. It would have a lot more blue and grey and brushed steel. The warmer parts are often the ones where the band pull back for a solo run, oddly more the bass of Olli Hakala and sometimes Christian Pulkkinen's keyboards than the guitars. Hakala gets an organic stretch in Traumatized and another to introduce Arrhythmic Distortions.

And, while I've mostly talked about the opening track with a little more about the next two, all of that is applicable to every other song here too. The album's consistency is at once a strength and perhaps a fatal weakness. And I start to realise why one of these nine tracks struck me as so impressive within a radio show full of other artists, but the album as a whole is leaving me a bit dry. This is a band to take in small chunks, appreciate their talent and move on, and any song here will achieve that. Only the diehard prog metallers are likely to be similarly enthused throughout the hour plus that this album runs.

Tuesday 27 April 2021

Cheap Trick - In Another World (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Pop Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 9 Apr 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

I'll be reviewing a few albums over the next few weeks that I never expected to see. This is one of them because I'd assumed Cheap Trick had ceased to be years ago, not through a split or any sort of musical differences but through retirement. They're close to the epitome of the band who show up in rotation on classic rock radio stations and you think to yourself, "I wonder whatever happened to them" as you can't name a single song by them that wasn't recorded well over thirty years ago.

Well, it seems that Cheap Trick have never gone away, maintaining a consistent line-up for almost half a century. Sure, lead vocalist Robin Zander didn't actually show up until 1974, making him the new fish in the same way that Dave Gilmour is the new fish in Pink Floyd. Rick Nielsen and Bun E. Carlos were in place from from moment one in 1973, playing lead guitar and drums respectively, and they never left. Tom Petersson was also the founding bassist, but he did take a break in 1980, so causing the only line-up changes outside Zander replacing Randy Hogan at the mike when I was three.

Now, I should add that while Carlos is still the band's official drummer, that's only for legal reasons, as he's retired and he's the official drummer in the same way that James Patterson is the official author of all those books he farms out to others to write nowadays. Daxx Nielsen, son of Rick, is effectively their drummer and it's him playing drums here, whatever the legal paperwork says.

Wikipedia tells me that they've been recording a lot of albums too. I don't think I've heard anything of theirs since Lap of Luxury in 1988, which was their tenth studio release and their most successful after Dream Police in 1979. However, this is their twentieth, even though it's not particularly likely that I'd want to venture anywhere near it's predecessor, Christmas Christmas, which is exactly what you think it is. Yes, it's Cheap Trick covering all the rock Christmas classics, from Slade and Wizzard to the Kinks and the Ramones and, er, a Saturday Night Live skit co-written by Jimmy Fallon.

The good news is that this doesn't come anywhere near to how bad I expect that album to sound like. The bad news is that this doesn't live up to its beginning. I might disagree with them singing The Summer Looks Good on You because I'm a pasty Englishman living in the boiler room of Hell (Phoenix, AZ), but I like the song. It's a classic Cheap Trick song in that it's bubbly and vibrant and is never far away from a fresh hook but it keeps enough bite in the guitar for it to feel as much like an edgy rocker as the soft pop song it is under that leather jacket.

From there, however, it gets poppier and poppier. Quit Waking Me Up sounds good but it also sounds like it could be the backing for a cereal commercial. You just know that everyone involved in making it wore a big American smile as they did so. Boys & Girls & Rock n Roll is what the Faces would have been if they ditched all the debauchery and wrote theme songs for sitcoms instead. So It Goes starts out like a Harry Nilsson song and gradually morphs into a Beatles cover of a Harry Nilsson song. I don't think I can describe I'll See You Again better than as a lullabye.

And, while I can't write the album off for doing all that, because it's slick and pretty and commercial, I can't necessarily recommend it to Cheap Trick fans who want to rock out as much as they want to hear catchy hooks. Listen to the recent Jason Bieler album instead; he's mastered that Cheap Trick, er, trick of making singalong songs that still kick ass. However, there are moments.

Final Days boasts a decent riff, almost something Ritchie Blackmore might have written when he was in Deep Purple, and the song broods along nicely. Here's Looking at You is a little soft but it still does everything that we expect any Cheap Trick song to do. And Light Up the Fire is exactly what I want in a Cheap Trick album released in 2021. It's catchy as hell but it's also a guitar song, not just when the solo shows up but inherently throughout. It's the third single and I'm wondering if it should have been the first.

In other words, while this isn't close to being their best work and it would look uncomfortable next to Dream Police or At Budokan, it's not that bad an album. There are some real highlights and even the softer material isn't awful. It turns out that Cheap Trick aren't that bad at being the Beatles, or even, on Another World (Reprise), a rebellious David Bowie. I enjoyed it, though I doubt I'll ever come back to it again and, perhaps more importantly, I doubt it'll prompt me to check out any of the other eight non-Christmas albums they've released since I heard them last.

Gynoid - The Hunger Artist Show (2021)

Country: Greece
Style: Sludge Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 Apr 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

Here's something interesting from Greece. How many times have I said that over the last few years? I should thank Gynoid guitarist/vocalist Sypros Tsalouchidis as much for underlining once more just how vibrant the scene in Greece seems to be at the moment as for sending over his band's debut album for review, but I'm thankful for both. They describe what they do as both noise rock and sludge metal and that seems fair, even if it sometimes seems like the two genres are battling each other for supremacy in the Gynoid sound, albeit never to the death.

The Collar, which is the opening track proper, shows their commitment to metal, with strong riffs that are inspired, almost inevitably, by the Black Sabbath playbook. These musicians can definitely be tight when they want to be, which they are in the metal sections of The Collar and especially in Scissorman, which feels like a garage punk band covering Voivod. It's intricate and tricky and it's very tight except when it doesn't want to be tight at all. Sometimes Gynoid want to be really loose.

This is epitomised in breakdowns that sound like everything might fall apart but never does, because the band always know where they're going next and they're just keeping us on the hook. Usually these points are pause moments in songs when my imagination tells me the mobile musicians are prowling around, stirring up the pit by almost creating one themselves on stage. This works really well, but it's less effective when it's a whole song, like Garbageman (Apeman). In the briefer pauses, we know this is the calm before the storm and, sure enough, that storm promptly arrives all the more effective for the buildup. It never arrives on Garbageman.

The loose aspect is also epitomised in the vocals, which couldn't be any further from *insert favourite Sabbath vocalist here*. They're equal parts Serj Tankian, Jello Biafra and Fred Schneider of the B-52's, with perhaps a side of Blaine from the Accüsed, which boils down to very alternative and very punk. It fascinated me to see how the tight metal aspect found a way to co-exist here with the loose punk one, and I have to say it that way around because the punk side of this band's sound clearly couldn't give a monkey's about the metal side in the slightest. It drives Gynoid wherever the hell it wants, leaving the metal side to figure out ways to support it.

Sometimes they're so loose that the sound goes to very strange places indeed. My Mirror, My Master wraps up the album in a way that sometimes feels like that same garage punk band who was covering Voivod earlier is now taking on Crimson Glory but ending up more in Jandek territory instead, which is not remotely what I expect when I throw on a sludge metal album. I'm not sure if I like this song or not but Gynoid are never conventional or predictable and I know that I like that.

While it wasn't hard for me to identify favourite songs—Scissorman and Mannequin are my highlights with My Pet Worms and The Collar not too far behind—it was a heck of a lot harder to figure out what I liked about them most.

I like the fact that they're a trio, because it makes for a sparse sound with an incredibly obvious bass playing an important role, occasionally taking the lead. Panos Dedis often reminded me of Tony Sales, who was the utterly reliable bassist behind Iggy Pop when that singer was at his most unpredictable. I like the guitars on My Pet Worms a lot but I love the parts where the bass takes the lead. I like when Tsalouchidis riffs. I like the more unusual rhythms that Nikos Dimitriou finds on The Collar. But that's me.

In the end, I think whether you'll like this band or not will come down to whether you like the vocals. I can't say which are Tsalouchidis and which are Dimitriou, but they're wild and they're unrestrained. If you like the idea of sludge metal played by a punk trio with vocals that could go absolutely anywhere at all at the drop of a hat, so keeping you totally on the hop, then Gynoid might be the favourite band you haven't heard of yet.

Monday 26 April 2021

Cannibal Corpse - Violence Unimagined (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 16 Apr 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Cannibal Corpse have to be the hardest band to review in 2021. I mean, they are what they are and it's pretty much all you need to know. They're called Cannibal Corpse. You can see the cover art above. If you've never heard them before, that's pretty much all you need to know. Their brand of death metal is just as over the top and as uncompromising as their name and their art and they've been doing this for a very long time now, long enough that I believe this is their fourteenth studio album. While they weren't the first and they aren't the best, Cannibal Corpse really are the very definition of American death metal nowadays. Look it up in the OED. It'll have a picture of this album.

For those actually wanting a review from me here, what that means to me is that they play fast, heavy music with technical precision and an attitude of utter non-compromise turned up to eleven. They also do this really well. The musicians are incredibly tight and vocalist George Fischer has exactly the right shade of deep shouty growl for the material, guttural but inherently rhythmic because he never aims for intonation or storytelling. Maybe he raises pitch at the end of a verse for emphasis, but that's it. It isn't meant to be anything more than it advertises. It's music to immerse yourself in and shut out the world, because the world doesn't want to know. This album is a forty-three minute primal scream.

The downside for me is that I moved on from this sort of death metal about forty years ago. It was an extreme twist after thrash metal and I loved my time seeing bands like Autopsy and Obituary live, but that was 1990. It ceased to be extreme for me and I moved on to more inventive music. Now, if I was in a club right now and Cannibal Corpse got on stage, I'd head down the front to police the pit and revel in the raw and primal purge of the experience. But I'd probably buy the support band's album instead of this, because they were more interesting. I've listened to this album three times now and I couldn't tell any of the songs apart. They all do the same thing in much the same way. They do it well, but they also do it over and over again. I might have been listening to the same song for two hours.

My problem is that the last paragraph seems to tell you that I think this sucks and it doesn't. This band is very good at what it does and, if you're into this particular brand of death metal, you're going to be happy to hear this album. It won't disappoint you in the slightest. But remember, while it plays exactly like what it advertises, it's only what it advertises and absolutely nothing else. If you want a subtlety in your death metal, you won't find it here. If you like your death on the progressive side, with variety and unusual and interesting passages of music, this isn't just not it, it will never be it.

I'll happily give this a 7/10. It's impressive technically. It's ruthlessly uncompromising. And somehow it never gets boring, even though it refuses to shift an iota from its formula. It's a good album for what it is. But the only surprise you'll find is me telling you that the band save up quarters as they tour the country so that George Fisher, who goes by Corpsegrinder, can win soft toys out of every claw machine he can find and give them to children's charities. And that's the gospel truth. Respect.

Soulkick - No Turning Back (2021)

Country: Argentina
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 30 Apr 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Many thanks to Pablo Zuccalá, the lead vocalist for Soulkick, for sending me their debut album to look at for review. It underlines something I've been discovering for a few years now, namely that there's a vibrant rock/metal scene in South America nowadays that runs all the way across the genres. This is one more album from one more band from down there that's worth checking out and I'm certain that I haven't even scratched the surface yet.

Soulkick hail from Buenos Aires in Argentina and they play a form of hard rock that occasionally thinks about venturing into heavy metal but never quite does. It reminded me a lot of the British bands that grew up everywhere in the mid eighties after the pioneers of the NWOBHM era had shown that there was a serious audience for rock music. Much of what I hear on this album comes from that particular era of British hard rock: the riffs on songs like No Turning Back and Hands of Time; the melodies on No Shelter and The Walls; and even the Whitesnake-esque bluesy swagger of Dagger.

However, there are newer sounds too and the other one I caught often was nineties alternative rock. It's a dominant aspect on Would, which closes out the album, but there's a grunginess that's obvious in songs like Mirror Eyes and The Circle as well. It's kind of like Elixir got crossed with Pearl Jam with some Sammy Hagar era Van Halen added to the mix too. What they don't sound like, at all, are any of the other bands that the musicians play for, like Therion and the Eric Martin Band, two very different outfits indeed that are just are different from Soulkick.

Guitarist Christian Vidal has been with Therion since 2010 and there's absolutely nothing here of that band's sound. The rhythm section of Charlie Giardiana and Pablo Garrocho both play with Eric Martin, or have done (I'm not seeing a current line-up) and, while there's a little of that sound here, it's only a little. This band definitely chose to go their own way, perhaps to play with a style that they're not used to playing otherwise.

Everyone in the band is good at what they do and everyone in the band gets the opportunity to shine, even though nobody feels the need to show off. They're all aided by the mix, which is excellent. I could hear Giardina's bass throughout, without it ever becoming bass heavy. Sure, it helps that there's only one guitarist in the band so, while Vidal is soloing, that's obviously Giardina keeping the riffs alive in the background, but a song like Would is almost a showcase for the bass, as well as a showcase for the unusual rhythms of Garrocho. This one really gets under the skin.

I'm not sure I could tell you my favourite song. Initially it was the riffier ones, no question. No Turning Back barrels along joyously, while When the Lights are Gone does much the same thing about half the speed. Hands of Time deepens the riffing very effectively, but hands off to Zuccalá who finds a way to both sound urgent and soar at the same time, which is a neat trick. I love the way he sustains melody across a tempo shift forty seconds in. That was when I stopped paying attention to the guitars quite as much. There's a lot more here than that and it's not just what's in Would.

This is obviously a good album from the outset but it's one that gets better with repeat listens, as we discover what else the band are doing beyond what we thought they were doing to start with. All that may be missing, I think, is the killer single. No Turning Back tries to be that and does a pretty good job at it too, but the overall effect definitely trumps any individual song. What that means is, while I may not be waking up with any of these songs playing in my head tomorrow morning, I know I'd love to see this band live and I want to hear a second album in a year or two to see how they develop.

Friday 23 April 2021

Greta van Fleet - The Battle at Garden's Gate (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 16 Apr 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Yeah, yeah, Led Zeppelin, derivative, ripoff, moan, moan. That's what you're looking for from a Greta van Fleet review, right? Well, with the acknowledgement that there's definitely a lot of Led Zeppelin in their sound across all four band members, I'll ignore all that because this is an outstanding album and, amazingly, still only their second. The greatest aspect they've taken from Zeppelin to my way of thinking isn't their sound, but their ability to hit the ground running more mature and accomplished than any band truly has any right to be at this point in their career.

To be fair, Led Zeppelin isn't the band I heard first here, though it was certainly the band I heard last, because the nine minute epic closer, The Weight of Dreams, is as close to a hard rock song to sit in the company of Kashmir, Ramble On or No Quarter as I've heard in a long time, especially during its last four minutes. For a while, I heard a good deal more Rush than Zep, because of Josh Kiszka's vocal style. He's pitched right up there with Geddy Lee and Burke Shelley and, while he doesn't usually deliver in the same way, he doesn't always deliver in Robert Plant's way either. That said, there are certainly moments where he borrows from each.

The first Zeppelin moment I couldn't ignore was during Broken Bells, which is three songs in and is the first overt highlight. It runs shy of six minutes, so it's not an epic in the truest sense, but it surely feels like one from its very first note. It builds nicely, Kiszka finding quite the snarl as he adds emphasis and the style evolving, from Budgie into Pink Floyd around the halfway mark and eventually Led Zeppelin for the last couple of minutes. Josh Kiszka's twin brother Jake on guitar channels Jimmy Page here in no uncertain terms, but it's magical to hear. It's just as magical to hear the band behind him help that build throughout his solo and then ease into a natural wrap up.

Everything here is excellent but there are songs like Broken Bells that stand out from the crowd. It's a generous album at over an hour, but I wonder if it would have benefitted by a judicial cropping of a few of the lesser songs to be shifted out to be B sides for fans to track down. For instance, Heat Above and My Way, Soon aren't bad songs at all to kick off the album but Broken Bells instantly wipes them from memory. I've listened through in entirety a few times now and I just can't remember what they sound like, because my brain is all about Broken Bells. Built by Nations, on the other hand, works as a bridge to Age of Machine, the second overt highlight, so ought to stay.

Age of Machine is an odd song. It leaps out for attention from moment one but, even at seven minutes, it doesn't feel as epic as Broken Bells. It often feels to me like an extended 12" single version of a shorter song, a song with roots not in the blues that built rock music but world music. I'm still trying to figure out why but I'll persevere. It's deep in the vibe of the song but there's African music in the way this one moves. That continues into Tears of Rain, where I couldn't help but feel that they could perform it with a very different singer like Gigi Shibabaw and her Ethiopian band with very different instrumentation.

I wonder if some of this is due to Josh Kiszka's vocal approach, because he doesn't just sing, but snarls and coos and soars in turn, a song like Stardust Chords highlighting all these and more, because there is a vocal break like a yodel throughout too. Sure, there are points where he commands like Jagger or Joe Cocker, as if the audience is utterly in the palm of his hands, but he vocalises on this one far more than he actually sings and that's just not a rock approach. This may be my favourite song and for that reason, even if Broken Bells and The Weight of Dreams are deeper and more accomplished.

And talking of that closer, there are a lot more songs for you to discover and explore here, because it really is a deep album that will reward anyone leaving it on repeat or even shuffle. However, it's sure that it's always going to come back to The Weight of Dreams, which is the epic any album of this sheer quality frankly demands. I remember last time all these Led Zeppelin ripoff moans found themselves hauled out, but I don't remember Kingdom Come recording anything this epic. I should go back to see.

Paysage d'Hiver - Geister (2021)

Country: Switzerland
Style: Black Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 23 Apr 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

I'm not sure I've ever heard an album that sounds so much like its cover image. Paysage d'Hiver are a Swiss band who play black metal in a raw and uncompromising fashion, even for black metal, which is a notoriously raw and uncompromising genre. Actually, they're not really a band, because there's only a single member, who goes by Wintherr, perhaps to underline how Paysage d'Hiver translates from the French to "winter landscape". The winter landscape I hear here is blizzard.

It's the vocals that really make this unique. The music behind them is relatively traditional, even with drums that slow down more often than I expected. It's wall of sound stuff and it's underproduced, as it has little of the crunch most modern metal has. It's a very thin sound, but one that howls like the wind even before the vocals layer on top like added bite. This icestorm of an album would be felt through an Icelandic parka but these vocals would strip you the skin right off your bones.

They really are outrageous vocals and, quite frankly, they're going to be the primary reason why this is either going to be something for you or not. Black metal diehards often look for the bleakest sound in the most abysmal production. This is certainly bleak and thinly produced but I don't think I've heard a shriek quite like this one before. I often had to concentrate to see if what I was hearing came from the throat of a human being or whether it was just some sort of bizarre feedback at the top end that had my speakers in a tizzy.

This is clearly not just noise, because the musical backdrop chugs along like a Hawkwind album playing in the background but the focal point is always the hurricane that's raging around it. Maybe there's a little more deep crunch to Undä. Likely Äschä is the fastest song. Certainly Geischtr is an ambient haven at the end of whatever journey took us through this hellish storm. But, with that sole exception wrapping up the album, there's precious little variety to be found.

I have to admire Wintherr's dedication to his art, because he's found a sound that feels extreme to me even in 2021, which really doesn't happen often. During the ambient sections, which I'm not convinced aren't the same ambient section kicking off every song, he sounds like an angry dalek. As the ferocity of any one of the eleven squalls which comprise this album kicks in, he sounds like a human wind chill factor. I wonder how he keeps his throat healthy. I also wonder if he records his shrieks in one system, plays them through another at the opposite end of a field and re-records them in a third using a very sensitive microphone, finally amplifying the results to match the music.

I really can't pick highlights because everything is so utterly consistent. This is less like an album with eleven tracks and more like one song that's merely broken up into eleven sections, with ambient bits here and there to break it all up. If you like one, you'll like the album, because it somehow never gets samey, even though it sounds pretty much the same throughout. It's almost like a ritual performance, lulling us into a hypnotic state and doing something to our brain in the meantime. But if you don't like one, there's really no point continuing. It's surely one of the most polarising albums I've ever heard.

At least it can't be accused of false advertising. It sounds like its cover image.

Thursday 22 April 2021

Agent Steel - No Other Godz Before Me (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Speed Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 19 Mar 2021
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I have to say that I've been looking forward to this album possibly more than any other this year. I was absolutely blown away by the debut Agent Steel album, Skeptics Apocalypse, in 1985 and I've never let it drift too far from my playlist ever since. They were a speed metal band based in Los Angeles and the album was blisteringly fast with no end of glorious riffs and the unusually high vocals of John Cyriis, a man who may have been batshit insane, given everything I've read about him and what he wrote in his lyrics, which are all about alien conspiracy theories, but was undeniably talented. His first album with Agent Steel in thirty-four years is something I want to hear! So what's it like?

Half of me loves it, though it's not Skeptics Apocalypse or even Unstoppable Force. The band are tight and forty minutes of their speed metal is glorious. Nikolay Atanasov and Vinicius Carvalho provide a glorious twin guitar assault and the rhythm section is solid as a rock, even if Rasmus Kjær galloping along like there's no tomorrow is a lot more obvious than Shuichi Oni, who's a bit low in the mix, though he does get some moments on Outer Space Connection. The riffs are great. The solos are great. The urgency of the drumming is great. This is why I love speed metal so much.

The other half of me realises that there are some major problems here and Cyriis is most of them. His voice has always been high but he used to sing at a lower pitch and go up when needed. His screams on songs like 144,000 Gone or Bleed for the Godz are legendary and they still sound amazing today, but he spends most of this album in the stratosphere, leading us to wonder if he's actually singing on helium. What's more, there are so many points where he adds more flourishes behind his voice, so effectively duetting with himself, that he ends up all over this album like a rash and with much the same effect.

So how do I quantify this? This could have been great stuff and it still is in many ways, but it needed to have John Cyriis singing on it. And I mean the John Cyriis from 1985 not this Stepford Wife pod person John Cyriis from 2021. This John Cyriis is too much and too often. Quite honestly, he spoils much of this album and he does it quickly enough that I got tired of him even during my first listen. That feels odd to admit, given that it's Cyriis's presence here that makes this Agent Steel and it's his return I was so looking forward to. Now I find myself hoping for an instrumental version.

The musicians joined up over a couple of years, after Cyriis put the band back together in 2018, and I'd be remiss in pointing out that they're from all over the globe. Guitarist Nikolay Atsanov is Bulgarian, though he lives in Denmark, where he also plays with Prophecy. He duels with Vinicius Carvalho, who's Brazilian and also has other bands down there, like A Red Nightmare. Bassist Shuichi Ono is Japanese, though he performed in a Dutch band called Stellar Seed with one Max A. Havlock, who turns out to be John Cyriis, who I believe is actually Brazilian himself, even if his origins are weirdly obscured; we still can't be sure of his real name. That leaves Rasmus Kjær on drums, who's from Denmark and also plays with Disintegrated. Oddly, that means that this pioneering American band doesn't actually contain a single American any more.

So where am I at? Frankly, I could listen to this just as background music and be happier at the end of a day than when I started it. Songs like Carousel of Vagrant Souls and the title track kick in with so much glorious style and power that I found myself in speed metal heaven. These are the best instrumental intros I've heard since the last Gama Bomb album. However, I'm really disappointed in Cyriis. I think I have to go with an 8/10 for the music but then drop not one but two points for what he does on top of it. That saddens me.

Infinite & Divine - Infinite & Divine (2021)

Country: Sweden
Style: Melodic Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 9 Apr 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives

Infinite & Divine are a duo, with Jan Åkesson playing all the instruments and Tezzi Persson adding her voice, so I can only expect that he's the infinite and she's the divine. It makes sense, of course, for the obvious reasons, but it's 2021 and I don't want to assume. Maybe their name refers to the versatility of Persson's voice and the crystal clean sound of Åkesson's guitar. Who knows. I can certainly read it a number of ways, all of which work.

This is their first album together, though Åkesson leads his own band, Jan Åkesson's Shadow Rain and has performed in a number of others, most obviously the melodic heavy metal band StoneLake. What leaps out to me from his career is that some of his bands have pages on Metal Archives but others do not. This one does and I have no argument with that, especially given how metallic his guitar tends to sound, but it's fundamentally melodic rock that's just a bit heavier than normal. I'd call it hard rock as often as I'd call it heavy metal.

For a reference point, the second song, that's named for the band, plays very much to me like an early Bon Jovi song. It's smooth and commercial and radio friendly, but it still has a little edge, like Åkesson had done a stint in Ozzy Osbourne's solo band somewhere between Randy Rhoads and Jake E. Lee. It's inherently focused on the melodic too, without any real metal crunch but with many squealing guitar moments to heavy it up a bit and many keyboard moments to lighten it back up again. Not Too Late is a great example of both, starting out with a riff that's rare here in how overt it is but then adding an all-encompassing layer of keyboards over it.

The result is classy and elegant. Even if it seems like it's constantly walking the line between the twin genres of hard rock and heavy metal, it's very comfortable where it is and I like this balance, any song going in a melodic pop direction one moment and then returning to a metal guitar solo the next. The reason it works so well, I think, is Persson's vocal, which effortlessly moves through whatever might be needed by any particular song. She can sing pop in a Bangles style, shift up to the female fronted soft rock norm in a heartbeat, shift up again to go full hard rock and finally hit top gear with powerful belt like she's an eighties metal queen. She does all that in Wasteland in a couple of lines.

My favourite song here may be We are One, which gets a little poppy at points, even including a sung/spoken duet in the Pat Benatar style, but it never becomes a ballad. That's the one song where I think everything Infinite & Divine does comes together most naturally and effectively, but there are a host of other easy standouts. Persson turns up the sass dial on Keep On Moving, gets all emotional on Off the End of the World and plays sultry on I Feel Alive. Åkesson slides in decent guitar solos all over the place. None of these songs lets the album down.

If there's a flaw, it's that, while Persson is doing one thing and Åkesson at least five, it often seems as if he's there to support her and that seems contrary. He's most obvious here as a guitarist, a role he's more than able to fill. He's also obvious as a keyboardist, especially on the softer numbers (which are not particularly soft, just softer). He also played bass, sang backing vocals and programmed the drum tracks too, so he's a busy man here who shines in each of those tasks, unsurprisingly given that it's he who's the member of the band with most experience. However, Persson is so naturally comfortable in her voice and the versatility of that voice that she dominates without ever trying to. She's definitely a name to follow.

In the meantime, here's a classy beginning to her recording career that's effortlessly good. If you're into European melodic rock, this is another must buy for 2021.

Wednesday 21 April 2021

Lee Kerslake - Eleventeen (2021)

Country: UK
Style: Rock
Rating: 5/10
Release Date: 26 Feb 2021
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Wikipedia

It's only been a couple of weeks since I reviewed Ken Hensley's My Book of Answers and I missed Trevor Bolder's Sail the Rivers in January. The common factor between these three albums is, of course, that they're the posthumous final solo releases from prominent members of Uriah Heep.

Hensley was with the Heep during their heyday, from 1969 to 1980, while Bolder had a couple of stints, from 1976 to 1981 and again from 1983 until his death in 2013. Oddly, given that these two were never in the band together, they recorded a joint album, Free Spirit, in 1980. Kerslake, of course, played with both of them: with Hensley during his initial term from 1971 to 1979 and with Bolder during his return from 1981 to 2007. All three are missed, though Uriah Heep continue onwards with Mick Box still going strong and Bernie Shaw and Phil Lanzon both there since 1986.

I appreciated Lee Kerslake's drumming in Uriah Heep immensely and he's also known for co-founding the band Blizzard of Ozz, before it became entirely Ozzy's solo project; it's Kerslake on their first two albums, Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman. Given his enviable back catalogue, I was disappointed with this album, though it's easy to see why and I guess it's as good a reason as any. Put simply, it's as personal an album as I've heard in a long time and it's mostly not aimed at me.

Long story short, Kerslake has been ill for a long while and this final album really didn't emerge out of the blue. In 2013, he'd been given four years to live, and he started work on this halfway through that period. He outlasted the doctors' estimates but, in late 2018, he announced that he had been fighting cancer for some time and he was looking at only eight months. A couple of heart murmurs didn't help either, but he persevered with this project and completed it before he died in September of last year.

Therefore, it's not too surprising to find his mortality a common theme. Sometimes it's in the lyrics of songs like Home is Where the Heart Is, whose chorus is crystal clear: "Home is where the heart is and I know I'll be going home real soon. Home is where the heart is and we're past the point of no return." That's a decent song and the context adds poignancy and emotion. Mostly, though, it's in what I have to describe as songs that aren't there to be songs but opportunities for Kerslake to bid farewell to an array of friends and colleagues, who aren't named but are clearly the targets for this music.

These songs are clustered in the middle of the album and I'm sure have serious meaning to those who they're aimed at, but are difficult for us. You May Be By Yourself (But You're Never Alone) feels like it was performed for one of Kerslake's descendants, a child or a grandchild. It's touching, but it's acutely personal and I felt a little awkward listening to it, as if I was intruding on a private moment, even if it evolves into a Wings-esque rock song. I was more comfortable listening to Port and a Brandy and Lee's cover of Carole King's You've Got a Friend, but I felt excluded. The former is a Chas 'n' Dave-esque pub rocker presumably aimed at his friends, while the latter is surely a thank you to all the musicians he's played with over the years. The problem is that I'm in neither of those groups.

Fortunately for me, as a fan, there are some songs before those and some after them too. The album's kicked off by a decent rock song in Celia Sienna, which is a tad on the soft side but it moves along well enough. It fits fairly with Where Do We Go from Here, though the two are separated by Take Nothing for Granted, which is a more up beat rocker. This is definitely a softer album and it doesn't feature too much hard rock drumming, which would seem odd out of context.

It's Home is Where the Heart Is, late in the album after all the really personal songs, where the hard rock side of Kerslake's career kicks in, as it features some nice guitar and plenty of power chords. The album wraps up with Mom and, while that title surely emphasises that it's another personal piece I'm not really equipped to receive, it's also instrumental and instrumentals are kind of universal. It might carry a specific message but I could enjoy it without knowing that.

So this is Kerslake going out on his own terms and I can respect that. Across a career of half a century, he played on a lot of amazing music. Sadly, this isn't a reminder of that, but a set of goodbyes that he felt he wanted to make in musical form. Respect for that and RIP.

Mindfar - Prophet of the Astral Gods (2021)

Country: Italy
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 22 Feb 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | YouTube

Here's my other Italian submission for this week, which also came out in late February. Mindfar is a progressive metal project and this is their second album, after 2017's The Dark Tower, which appears to be a concept album based on the Stephen King series of the same name. Prog metal fits what they do, but it's a little misleading, because they don't sound at all like Queensrÿche or Dream Theater. Where they grabbed me was on The Eye of Ra, because it starts off ethnic and instrumental but ends up with a vocal to and fro between two singers that's reminiscent ofthe Doobie Brothers.

The most obvious influence to me was folk music though. It creeps on in with Heroes and Wonders but really announces itself with One Prophet, which often sounds mediaeval in aspect, before it turns into a ritual. The folkiest song here is Walls, which grows into a power metal song with bombast out of the Blind Guardian songbook, but that folk aspect never really goes away. It's there in Beyond the Edge of the World, where it's tinged with some Wishbone Ash. It's even there in Rapsodia, which is a classical piece presumably played by a string quartet but evolves when the band plugs in halfway through.

And this makes for an interesting meld of sounds. Putting that classical piece aside, half the time this is old school folk rock like Wishbone Ash or even Jethro Tull, but the other half ramps up to European power metal in the vein of early Gamma Ray, without becoming quite that energetic. It grounds itself in the common ground and never really wants to escape it to soar free, even if it often comes close. If there's an underlying flaw here, it's that. I kept waiting for it to just burst loose and it never did, even if it gets regal and comradely and intricate.

This is certainly not what I was expecting from an Italian progressive metal band, especially from an album billed as a metal opera. Mindfar are a project of Armando de Angelis, who also plays guitar for a symphonic power metal band called Ghost City. I don't know how many instruments he plays on this album but I believe it's a lot, given that he's the only official member of the band. He didn't write the lyrics and he didn't step up to the mike, leaving the vocal duties in the hands of a set of international guests. He didn't perform all the music either, but I get the impression that the various guests didn't do anywhere near as much as he did on that front.

I don't know which voice is which, beyond Claudia Beltrame, formerly of Holy Shire, providing the sole female vocal. Certainly, Bruce Dickinson is not one among these five names, even though someone is able to do an eerily accurate impression. I presume they're all playing characters in this metal opera, but I didn't follow the lyrics closely enough to grasp the logistics of that. I had to look up that the idea behind the album has something to do with the evolution of the human race, perhaps helped by some aliens, given the album's title. The final song suggests that we did rather well out of our visitors, given its title of Ascended to Divinity.

I liked this album, which is easy to like, but I didn't love it. I get the feeling that, while I enjoyed it as it played, it's going to fade relatively quickly into the background of all the albums I review every year. I hope I'm wrong about that, but only time will tell. One Prophet certainly doesn't overstay its thirteen minute running time, remaining interesting throughout, and the album never feels too long either at a generous hour and six minutes. It's never boring but how memorable will it be?

I think that, if I wake up tomorrow morning with something from this album playing in my head, it has to be One Prophet. I liked Eye of Ra and Rapsodia a lot too, but I can't see it being anything but that long song, because there's just so much going on within it, from brass elements through piano to that chanted ritual and maybe sleep will sort it all out and then spit it out at me in little pieces. Let's see.

Tuesday 20 April 2021

The Crown - Royal Destroyer (2021)

Country: Sweden
Style: Thrash/Death Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 12 Mar 2021
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I was going to start this review by pointing out that I hadn't heard the Crown before, even though this is their eleventh album in only just over double that, so it would seem that I'm playing catch-up. Then I realised that the Crown used to be called Crown of Thorns, so I do know them, as Eternal Death sits on my CD shelves right next to the American Crown of Thorns, who beat them to a release by one year, so prompting the Swedes to change their name instead of the other way around. But hey, I'm still playing catch-up because I haven't heard them since 1997 and they have, well, eleven albums since then.

They appear keen to get me right back on their side, because they kick off with a real blitzkrieg for an opener! This is not the melodic death sound we know from Gothenburg bands, but then the Crown are from at least an hour up the road in Trollhättan, so they clearly don't feel those rules apply to them. I would call this thrash metal as much as death metal and, while they do slow down to churn every once in a while, they're mostly unapologetically fast. Let's just say that it easily outpaces quite a few bands I've reviewed who call themselves straight up thrash metal.

I like this sound, which may help to explain why they've kept going so long and with a relatively stable line-up to boot. Singer Johan Lindstrand, guitarist Marko Tervonen and bassist Magnus Olsfelt were founder members of Crown of Thorns in 1990 and they're still here, thirty years on, in the Crown, even if they all took a break from 2004 and 2009 and Lindstrand hasn't always been been there otherwise. A few second guitarists and drummers have come and gone, but not many and there hasn't been a shift in line-up since 2016, when Henrik Axelsson joined on drums.

I'm blithering on because I'm still recovering from the opener. Baptized in Violence explodes through the wall and refuses to stop raging around until seventy eight seconds have passed and it's over. That isn't much more time than is taken up by the intro to the second song, Let the Hammering Begin! It's a longer song, as are most of these, running six minutes and change, but it's still fast and heavy, even if it can't remotely match that opener. Axelsson refuses to let the band slow down too far or too long, occasionally blistering along much faster than anyone else, as if hinting that they need to pick up the pace.

Most of the time, of course, they're happy to follow his lead and I'm more than happy for that too. Let the Hammering Begin! highlights how well the Crown can maintain this sort of pace for more a longer period. It speeds up and slows down, but never loses its urgency for six minutes. Motordeath may well be my favourite song, a speed metal onslaught dipped in death, and both Ultra Faust and Full Metal Justice are excellent too. It's fair, I think, to suggest that best songs are loaded in quickly, so that the second half isn't as good, but it certainly isn't bad. It's simply one notch down from excellent to pretty damn good, with some highlights of its own, like Beyond the Frail.

Whatever genre the Crown consider themselves, this is high energy metal highly recommended. Most of this played like thrash to me, with the death most obvious in Lindstrand's voice. I've often said that I'd prefer vocalists in thrash/death bands to be closer to thrash than death. Now I know exactly how to quantify that, because Lindstrand clearly has a death growl but it fits the music perfectly and he has the ability to match the aggression with texture and intonation. It doesn't feel remotely limited by its choice of style and it's exactly what I'd want to hear from a thrash/death vocalist.

Cancervo - I (2021)

Country: Italy
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 Feb 2021
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I have a couple of submissions from Italy to review this week and here's the first. Cancervo hail from a small town called San Giovanni Bianco in northern Italy and the calm patience of rural living pervades this debut album utterly. They're only seventy miles outside of Milan but they named their band after the mountain just north of them, Monte Cancervo, and the inspirations for these pieces were sourced from local tradition and legend. I don't think they'd be the same band if they lived in Bergamo half an hour south, let alone the big city of Milano.

They play heavy psychedelic rock with a side of doom metal and more than a little stoner rock too. It's simple but so effective that it's almost hypnotic. I don't think anyone in this band does anything flash at any point on this album, but I felt like I just had to close my eyes and let it transport me into a place of tranquillity in the Italian mountains to seek peace and contemplation. It's odd for music that really does need to be played very loud indeed to be tranquil, and there's certainly a darkness inside it, but it's an honest darkness, stripped down to its essence, and that makes it immersive.

Sadly, I have no idea who's in the band, but I do know that they're a power trio, so I'm guessing at just bass, guitar and drums. There's certainly no vocalist but I'm not hearing anything else here. It's very seventies in its simplicity and sixties in its psychedelia, so the obvious influence is Cream, even though their cover of SWLABR is unrecognisable in how much slower and heavier it is (and how instrumental). It feels much more like a Black Sabbath song than anything that originally had Eric Clapton playing on it and it's the heaviest piece of music here.

For a while, I wondered if they'd invented a new genre here, of funeral psych, because the opener, also named Cancervo, has that feel. It kicks off like a tugboat siren trying opera, but it never seems like the band is trying to be as slow and heavy as possible. It simply is what it is, without apologies, and it doesn't always stay that leisurely or that epochal. I'd argue that the tone is far more important than how low and slow it goes. That tone is gorgeous, especially at the beginning of Aralalta, which is resonant and haunting. This one's about mystic mountains but I felt like I was floating through a swamp, safe but surrounded by danger.

Aralalta is my favourite piece here, but 1987 isn't far behind. It's another piece where I felt like I was floating through a landscape, but it's more appropriate this time given that this one's about a rushing river. I could feel danger all around here too, but from the river itself rather than what might be lurking in or around it. It has the fastest pace of any of these half dozen pieces of music, though it's never fast. It's definitely holding back because there are rapids up ahead and we wonder if we'll still be afloat when we get there. As it turns out, we aren't, because the album ends first.

I like this a lot and I'm having to force myself to move on without replaying it yet again because I have other albums to review. Thanks, Zoheb, for sending this one over, because it's the sort of album that's easily missed in and amongst all the other stoner rock instrumental albums that get released. It has a slightly different take on the genre, a simpler and older take that works for me, though I have to add that Darco runs very long at almost eight minutes. Will this be too slow for you? There's only one way to find out and they're on Bandcamp.

Monday 19 April 2021

Bewitcher - Cursed Be Thy Kingdom (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Black/Speed Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 16 Apr 2021
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I still haven't figured out quite how to describe what Bewitcher do. What usually gets conjured up is black/speed metal and that's only fair to a degree. The vocals of Unholy Weaver of Shadows & Incantations are definitely rooted in black metal, however punked up they are, and the lyrics are very much on the Satanic side. The music he plays with his two (count 'em; there's a drummer now) cohorts may have a speed edge to it but it's decreasing with each album. To me, they sound rather like Iron Maiden might have done in 1993 if they'd hired Schmier from Destruction to replace Bruce Dickinson instead of Blaze Bayley. Oh, and maybe cut down on the instrumental bits too so the songs end up shorter.

Now, I've seen Bewitcher live, just after their previous album, Under the Witching Cross, and it's clear that they speed up considerably on stage, so I won't complain about that speed metal tag, only point out that it's not that obvious on vinyl. Songs like Death Returns... and The Widow's Blade are upbeat but they wouldn't be the fastest songs on Powerslave or indeed the heaviest and I'd call that a heavy metal album rather than speed.

Of course, adherence to advertising standards aside, this is another good album and another pretty immediate one. You won't need multiple listens to grasp this. Like the best Maiden, this is energetic and infectious right out of the gate. If you don't like it immediately, you're not likely to like it ever. On the flipside, if you do, it's not going to grow much on future listens. It'll continue to sound good and the riffs and melodies will keep digging a little deeper into your brain, but that's about it. Your sixth listen isn't going to give you much that you didn't hear on your first time through.

What I got out of a second listen was a bit more focus on the influences that go beyond Maiden. That's who kicks off the album in Death Returns... and continues throughout, but the riffs in Satanic Magick Attack are a bit more taken from Saxon, there's some Motörhead in Electric Phantoms and Mystifier (White Night City) has a European feel to it. As far as I'm aware, all these songs are originals, except the closer, Sign of the Wolf, which is a Pentagram cover, but Mystifier sounds like it also ought to be a cover because it feels so familiar, maybe like a Hanoi Rocks song covered by Accept, who added some classical bits in the solos, and sung by Schmier.

When I saw them live, it was in between a local band, Varkan, and a couple of bands big enough to be touring nationally but aren't household names, Striker and Holy Grail. I actually liked these support bands most, because Varkan were interesting and Bewitcher wandered on stage and slayed without apparently even trying. To haul in a weird analogy, they're kind of like Kevin Smith talking about Star Wars. You could bump into him at 4am in a grocery store and he'll still hold forth on that subject with the same quality as one of his stage shows, just because it's always in his head.

If Bewitcher climbed out of a van with instruments strapped to their bodies and a PA system inherent in the air, they'd do exactly the same thing, because I get the impression that they're always switched on. They could have jammed this album in the 36 minutes it takes to play and continued on for another three hours. That's at once the best thing and the worst thing about it. It sounds effortlessly good because Bewitcher don't know how to not be good, but it doesn't sound special. Effortless is a double edged sword.

White Void - Anti (2021)

Country: Norway
Style: Hard/Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Mar 2021
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Here's an interesting sound. White Void are led by Lars Nedland, who often goes by Lazare when he's doing his day job, which is to play keyboards and sing for the Norwegian progressive black metal outfit Borknagar. He's also one of the two band members in post-black metal band Solefald, who are further into the avant-garde. White Void is a new project to allow him to explore some seventies and eighties influences that are well out of scope for those bands. And it's those influences that fascinate me.

It's easy to hear the late seventies and early eighties here, but quantifying it leads us to odd places. I ended up hearing early Pink Floyd, as covered by the Damned. There's definitely early goth here, with some of the post-punk that came along with it, but the songs are obviously rooted in progressive pop. This feel is there in There is No Freedom But the End and The Shovel and the Cross, but it's overt on a song called This Apocalypse is for You. It has the edgy attitude of post-punk but the melodies are right out of the Syd Barrett songbook.

What's really odd is how it merges simplicity with complexity, because the punkier aspects are simple riffs but the prog aspects are clearly a lot more layered, bringing in clever changes, dynamics and lots of texture from Nedland's keyboards. It's not just him, of course, as the rest of the band appreciate an odd approach like this. Tobias Solbakk has fun varying his drumming on All Chains Rust, All Men Die; I can't imagine he gets to do much of this for progressive black/death metal outfit In Vain, though I am eager to find out.

I wonder how this paradox will affect how the album will be received by audiences. I believe the more pure a prog fan sees themselves, the less they'll like this. They may see it as not proggy enough, with too much edge and not enough dynamic play, too close to post-punk and hard rock. At the other end of the sound, I wonder if goths, punks and post-punks will conversely see it as too proggy, because every time the band find a simple groove, they clutter it up with all sorts of clever musical shenanigans, the layers and the density of the music and the like.

It may be the fans in between those two extremes that appreciate this the most. The organ sound is a welcome seventies hard rock component to them and they may see this as a tasty combo of Hawkwind and Boston. I caught the Hawkwind early, especially through the hypnotic nature of Nedland's vocals and the effects layered on to them. The Boston grew as the album went on and made itself obvious at the end, with the closing track, The Air Was Thick with Smoke. I like this one a lot, even if the keyboard work starts out way too obvious. It's the most overtly seventies song here in an album full of them.

It may well be the best of them too. I liked this from the outset but it was that final song that had me wanting to start the album again, at which point I wondered how I hadn't heard Boston from the very beginning in Do. Not. Sleep. It's suddenly obvious, even alongside those other sounds. It takes a bit of a back seat during the more goth and post-punk songs in the first half, especially Where You Go, You'll Bring Nothing, but it never really goes away.

And I do find it fascinating that so many musicians in the extreme metal bands of Scandinavia seem to have such a thing for seventies American hard/prog rock. It's not a bad thing, but it means that I'm really liking side projects and direction changes nowadays and that does feel odd. But good.