Monday 31 May 2021

Sylvan - One to Zero (2021)

Country: Germany
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 28 May 2021
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Prog Archives | Wikipedia | YouTube

Here's another welcome discovery for me and they may be for you too. Sylvan are a progressive rock band from Hamburg who have been around in one form or another since 1990, when they were a hard rock band called Temporal Temptation. Their rename to Chameleon later that year marked their shift to prog rock and they became Sylvan in 1997, at which point they started releasing more than demos. This is their tenth album and it's a very easy one to listen to but one that also has depths should we want to dip below the surface.

I read that they're primarily neo-prog and have appropriately supported Marillion and Pendragon in their time. While this definitely sounds British in style and is sung in English, I'm hearing a lot beyond that neo-prog tag. Sure, Marillion may be the best initial comparison, albeit more the Steve Hogarth era than Fish, though there's definitely some of the latter in Unleashed Power, along with some older influences like Genesis and Camel. However, there's a lot more here than Marillion.

The excellent opener, Bit by Bit, also includes elements of post-punk and new wave. There's Ultravox in here and Gary Numan too, though musically it's harder, heavier and with a very different approach to keyboards. Ultravox show up here and there throughout, especially on the closer, Not a Goodbye. The songs in between trawl in a lot of British alternative rock too, people like Muse and Radiohead, whose lush arrangements can be both interesting and commercial. My favourite song may well be Go Viral, a more contemporary piece which adds a lot of pop and dance-oriented electronica. I'm beginning to realise just how influential Steven Wilson is.

As you can imagine from that, there's plenty of variety here but it's always approachable. In fact, it's perhaps a little too approachable. Apparently this is a concept album that explores an attempt by an AI to save the world from humans, but the concept kept sliding past me at every listen because I found the voice of Marco Glühmann so smooth that I automatically tuned into it as another instrument and not a means of delivering meaningful lyrics. He's really good at what he does, but he could easily sing synthpop or join the New Romantics without changing his tone.

Without ever managing to focus on the lyrics, I can't speak to the concept, but the songs are all good. They're also smooth enough that I'd find myself enjoying them without extracting myself far enough to take notes but enough listens through allowed me to put some thoughts down on paper. What may impress me most is how smooth Sylvan remain while changing from one focal instrument to another, even one emphasis to another. Trust in Yourself is a great example of this, as it moves from machine samples, effortlessly woven into the music, to a point that softens the song with cello and another to harden it back up with wilder electric guitar. This sounds jarring, but it's done very smoothly indeed.

It shouldn't surprise me that a band this far into their career can make something so interesting feel so effortless, especially given that none of the members are new. Glühmann dates back to Chameleon days and both keyboardist Volker Söhl and Matthias Harder on drums go all the way back to Temporal Temptation. Only bass player Sebastian Harnack joined after they became Sylvan, but he's been with them since the turn of the millennium, so he's hardly new. I should add that there's also Jonathan on guitar, but I know nothing about him at all, so can't say if he's new, old or guest.

What I can say is that the production is strong enough that we can follow each musician's contribution here easily. These songs really know how to breathe and the musicians are very good at backing away when their instrument isn't needed but stepping right back in the moment it's needed again. Oh, and that holds true whether a song runs three or four minutes, like Start of Your Life and Worlds Apart, or extends out to nine or ten, like Part of Me and Not a Goodbye. Well, the latter also runs nine, but has an unusual extra machine bit to take the album home that makes me want to read the lyrics to get on board with the concept.

I like this album a lot, though it's so smooth that I didn't realise how much I like it until maybe a third or fourth time through. It certainly makes me want to dive right into their back catalogue, though it's worth mentioning that this is Sylvan's highest rated album at Prog Archives, though they've garnered good ratings throughout their career. Now, let's get caught up so I can go and do that.

Goat Rider - Tsundere (2021)

Country: Costa Rica
Style: Black/Speed Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 29 May 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

I found this as a speed metal album, but it's really a cross between black and speed metal with a punk attitude, kind of like Midnight, who were quite the surprise when I saw them supporting Kreator and Obituary. They're an absolute blitzkrieg on stage and I'm guessing that Goat Rider, who hail from San José in Costa Rica, follow suit. They just don't mess around here, unless we count the intro as messing around. There are ten tracks proper here and there are as many under three minutes as over. There's a cover of a Toxic Holocaust song on their debut album, High Speed from Hell, and that fits too.

While this band are from South America, they clearly have a fondness for Japan. The album's title is a reference to a type of anime character who has two distinct moods: one cold and aloof, the other hot and temperamental. The intro is full of Japanese instruments, like kotos and shakuhachi flutes. There are songs here called Katana, Kamikaze and Hentai, not to forget Harakiri at WWII, all of which cover quintessentially Japanese topics. There are plenty of little snippets that I presume are samples which serve to underline this connection too, as does the stylistic cover art.

Musically, they're not Japanese in the slightest. The roots here are initially English, starting with the mighty Motörhead, an influence that's especially obvious on songs like Necromancer and Harakiri at WWII, the latter of which plays out rather like Orgasmatron for quite a while. Following as an obvious influence is Venom, for reasons of speed and harsh vocal delivery but also because not everything here is speed. Most of these songs don't leave the gate at 100mph and not all of them get up to that, though many do. Goat Rider would have been seen as fast and edgy had they also recorded for Neat Records in the early eighties but they're not as fast and edgy today, given what's happened in the decades between. A song like Flagellator ends up very much in Venom territory.

The eagle eyed would notice that both the bands cited above were, at least at their most influential, power trios, as are Toxic Holocaust and, on stage, Midnight. Goat Rider aren't, because they number four members, but they sound like they are because the music is generated from one guitar, one bass and one set of drums. The only way they're bucking that trend is that vocalist Anthony Umaña, or his musical nom de plume of Cvnt Deströyer, is only the vocalist and he doesn't do double duty on bass. A power trio in this genre has a very recognisable sound, with the bass as obvious as the lead guitar, as often it serves the role of rhythm guitar. A band like Bütcher, who would otherwise work as a further comparison, sound deeper and denser because they have two guitarists.

My favourite songs here are found at the heart of the album. With the Japanese connection firmly in place through the intro and tracks like Fire Rain and Katana, they show just how well they can blister on Satanic Speed Samurai, which title is a really good description of the band on this album, and just how well they can maintain that energy level while not playing incredibly fast throughout on Too Fast for You, which certainly spends much of its time very fast indeed but also slows down very effectively too for a late section. I also love the late pause, as the band wait for a single cymbal note before they enter the final stretch and dive for the line.

With the understanding that this is what it is, and it's not trying to be some higher form of art, there really isn't much negative to say. I'd have liked a thicker sound but I wouldn't suggest the production is flawed; it's just a consequence of being a power trio (plus vocalist). I'd have liked a few more songs too, because this runs a short 33 minutes, but it's kind of appropriate for the musical style. Certainly, we don't need hour long black/speed metal albums. If I want more, I should splash out for the band's debut album, which makes this one look long, given that it wraps up in under 25 minutes.

Of course, with albums running this short, Goat Rider really don't have much excuse not to knock out a fresh one every year for us to tune back in and exercise our necks for a while. This particular combo of genres is a relatively limited one stylistically, even if I really dig it, and Goat Rider have found a clever way of keeping it interesting, with samurai slashing the swords and anime girls crying out phrases still faster than the music. I'd love to see these guys live on stage too. It's only a three thousand mile drive with four borders to cross. During COVID. Yeah, maybe YouTube for now.

Friday 28 May 2021

Gary Moore - How Blue Can You Get (2021)

Country: UK
Style: Blues
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 30 Apr 2021
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

Continuing in the vein of previously unreleased songs finally seeing the light, which encompasses the Cirith Ungol and Serj Tankian EPs that I've reviewed this week, here's a new album from Gary Moore, who died a decade ago. Holy crap, has it been that long? Yes, indeed: he left us on 6th February, 2011 and I remember that announcement, because Moore was one of the best blues rock guitarists of all time and, while I first heard him playing straight forward rock and later metal in the eighties, it still stuns me that so many people haven't yet discovered his talents.

It's happening. He comes up a lot on YouTube nowadays, with many commenters spreading the word of a Montreux Jazz Festival cover of Roy Buchanan's timeless The Messiah Will Come Again as being the single best guitar performance of all time. It may be or it may not be—and, if you haven't see it, you should check it out sharpish—but there's no debate around Moore being able to make a guitar speak, soar and scream like few others in history and the first couple of tracks here follow him doing exactly that. They're both covers, a six minute rendition of Freddie King's I'm Tore Down and a much shorter take on Memphis Slim's Steppin' Out, but that really doesn't matter when it comes to solos and these solos truly blister.

There are eight songs on offer here, each taken from a different era in Moore's career but all firmly focused on the blues. I believe half are originals, including some beautiful slow blues numbers. In My Dreams is quite a departure from the two openers but it's a highlight nonetheless and the vibe of the album isn't lost. Love Can Make a Fool of You is even better and that goes double for the closer, Living with the Blues, which is the longest track on the album, albeit only just, and it puts that timeframe to great use. It's fair to say that, when half the songs on this album were originally by other major artists but the best ones are yours, you're doing something really right.

If you're looking for covers, the best known song is probably How Blue Can You Get, which is obviously a B. B. King number from its opening notes, even if you don't know the original. However, it's my least favourite cover here for precisely that reason. Everything else feels like Gary Moore, even if you have a background in the classic bluesmen that he's covering, but this one can't escape its origins with B. B. The last of the four, just for reference, is Done Somebody Wrong, originally by Elmore James. I'd plump for the two openers as the cover highlights.

There's really only one downside to this album, beyond Moore not being around to promote it, and it's the remaining original, Looking at Your Picture. It's not that it's a bad song, because it isn't. However, it just doesn't work in this company. It's a brooding blues number clad in alt rock clothes and, even if it plays well in isolation, it feels emphatically out of place here, whether we're looking at style, tone or even production. I get that these songs were recorded at different times in Moore's career but seven of them fit well together and this one really doesn't.

What's most annoying is that this album would still run forty minutes with this song excised and that's how it should have been released. I guess we need to excise it ourselves. Buy the album on streaming and ditch track five. You can thank me later.

Serj Tankian - Elasticity (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Alternative
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 19 Mar 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Of all the genre-hopping bands to emerge in Faith No More's wake and attain massive popularity for music that wasn't remotely mainstream, System of a Down have long been a personal favourite. They were never remotely predictable, so I always thought of them as being more akin to Frank Zappa than the other alternative media darlings of their own era. While they went away a surprisingly long time ago, their most recent albums dating back to 2005, they still seem far more imaginative and unusual than almost anyone making music today.

This EP, from System of a Down's lead singer Serj Tankian, comprises five tracks written for System of a Down but never recorded or released by them, similar to the Cirith Ungol EP I reviewed yesterday, but not quite so old. Apparently the members of the band couldn't agree on how the songs should unfold for a theoretical new album so Tankian took care of them himself. While they're a mixed bag, there's some fascinating material here and it's often neatly heavy. Oh, and while it's my second "alternative" review this week but it couldn't be any more different from the A. A. Williams covers album if it tried.

My favourite tracks are the bookends, but stretched a little to include the second with the first.

Elasticity opens up with another of Tankian's patented vocal trips that are well known to all System of a Down fans. He's a wildly versatile singer and, even when he seems to be failing utterly at scansion, he somehow gets all the words he needs into the lines and in memorable fashion. It's a unique form of delivery and that's even before he adds the weirdness the he does in the verses here. The song itself is actually rather a sedate alternative rock song for much of its running time but it's unforgettable because of what he's doing with his voice.

Your Mom is a title that makes sense in a Zappa-esque way once you've heard the whole song, but it's odd for a long time, because it's a vehemently anti-religious extremism song, if not anti-religion, with lyrics that tell a simple story in complex words, like the best of Tim Minchin: "The embedded hypocrisy fighting autocracy with an army of convenience" is merely how the song starts. And, of course, there's a particularly haunting section delivered with a catchy hook: "Butchering, raping, killing and burning, brutally beheading your enemies. What kind of retarded promises have led you to these prophecies?"

What else Your Mom does is combine ethnic music from the middle east with the alternative rock and metal musical base of the song. There's not as much of that here as I expected but, when it does show up in songs like this one, it's noteworthy. I expected some of this on Electric Yerevan, which closes out the EP, given that Yerevan is the capital of Armenia, but it goes in different musical directions, heavy riffs combining with wild electronica. The song ends up almost with a Dead Kennedys vibe to it, which shouldn't surprise as much as it does, given how Jello Biafra and Serj Tankian are similarly outspoken on politics and similarly acerbic in how they do so.

In between these three songs are a couple more that aren't as memorable but aren't weak. Rumi is a personal song, I expect, given that it's the name of Tankian's son, and How Many Times? is capable in what it does, but it just doesn't stand out in this company. These aren't weak songs, so if you're one of those people who misses System of a Down and wishes that they'd get back together for more than a charity single, this is pretty much what you've been waiting for. I wish it was longer and I wish that its songs were more consistent in quality, if not in style, but there are two killers here and another that you won't forget in a hurry. That ought to be enough for now.

Thursday 27 May 2021

Cirith Ungol - Half Past Human (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 28 May 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter

When Cirith Ungol returned last year with an album of all new material almost thirty years after they had split up, I was impressed with the music but also at how far back they go. I always thought of them as an early eighties heavy metal band, but they were formed in 1972 and just didn't release an album until 1981. As they were American rather than British, hailing from Ventura, California, the influences that drove them weren't what drove the NWOBHM bands playing in a similar style over on the other side of the pond. They came out of the early days of heavy metal, taking the core Black Sabbath sound in a very different direction.

Well, they seem to be eager to release new material, even given the constraints of COVID, so they've put this EP together and it's an interesting one because it's new material to us but not to them. These are songs that date all the way back to the early days of Cirith Ungol, but only two have ever seen the light of day before and even then not in widespread form. Route 666 was included on their 1978 demo, known as The Orange Album, but it appears here in a longer version. Brutish Manchild was first heard last year on a flexi-disc that was stuck to the cover of issue #187 of Decibel magazine.

So here they are on a full release, along with a couple of others, all four of which are re-recordings of older songs we've never heard before, unless perhaps we saw Cirith Ungol live in the seventies, which isn't going to be a heck of a lot of us, and, even if we did, we're not likely to remember much. It's been a long time. I remember loving Nuclear Abomination, a song that Paradise Lost played live back in the early days for them of 1988 and 1989 but never recorded because they apparently hated it, but I don't remember at all what it sounded like.

Modern production means that these songs sound fresh, but they're clearly a portal into a long gone era that feels more authentic because it isn't a young band trying on an earlier style; it's the actual band who wrote these songs back then. I wonder how different they are in these versions to the ones back in the day. Route 666 feels the oldest, but the guitar duel in the middle sounds utterly fresh and may well be new. Shelob's Lair is built on simple but effective riffs right out of the Sabbath playbook, one so reminiscent that it feels a little too close, so it's very seventies.

Brutish Manchild feels more recent, not least because it gets very Iron Maiden in the middle, but the core of it is still that seventies heavy/proto-doom style that's all Cirith Ungol and feels like it could be an influence on bands like Manowar and Twisted Sister. Remember how heavy the latter were on their first album? If not, check out Destroyer. This isn't light years away from some of the songs on Under the Blade until it turns into a Maiden guitar duel, because it's heavy but melodic, simple but effective and raucous but accessible.

And that leaves Half Past Human itself, which is the epic that wraps up the EP. It's almost seven and a half minutes long, so naturally features a quiet intro and it's less overt and more exploratory. When it builds, it does so with a Viking-esque choral backing that so many bands would adopt in order to have this epic feel. I like it and it reminds me that there's so much I don't know about the American bands of this era. Being British and having deep dived into rock and metal in 1984 when I found out it existed, I'm well versed in the British equivalents but, while I had Cirith Ungol and Manilla Road albums back in the day, among others, I surely still have a lot to learn. That's part of why this is so much fun to me.

What will surprise British listeners like me are the vocals of Tim Baker. Everything else kind of makes sense, even though it differs from the British style. There's Sabbath in here, along with other proto-metal bands, and there's Judas Priest in here too, but Baker has a very in your face vocal style. There are calmer moments, because he doesn't stay in the same place throughout, but it's definitely a voice to get used to. I like it, because it makes Cirith Ungol stand out from other similar bands and it serves as a real middle finger in the face of rock radio. It's not unpleasant; it's just attitude personified, not punk but with the same effect in a controlled metallic way, and it might take a little getting used to. If you can do that, then welcome to the wonderful world of Cirith Ungol!

A. A. Williams - Songs from Isolation (2021)

Country: UK
Style: Alternative
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 19 Mar 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Here's what we could safely call another COVID album, by which I mean a release created at home in 2020 during lockdowns imposed to help restrict the spread of COVID-19. However, in another time and another place, this would just be a vocal album. It used to be that singers spent most of their time not singing their own material, though they often wrote too, but reinterpreting work by others that their listeners generally knew well. Judy Collins still makes a good living at it.

It doesn't happen as often nowadays but there's become something of a trend of singers reinventing songs from diverse genres, often in a stripped down style. You probably know Johnny Cash's version of Hurt by Nine Inch Nails, but check out Tori Amos's version of Raining Blood or pretty much anything by Susanna and the Magical Orchestra, starting with Love Will Tear Us Apart. And into this trend steps A. A. Williams, with an album she recorded at home in London during lockdowns, uploading them one at a time to her YouTube channel and even taking requests.

It's an interesting selection, mostly trawled from indie pop and rock albums, often singles, from a ten year period from the late eighties to the late nineties. The only two songs earlier than 1988 are much earlier: Nights in White Satin, which the Moody Blues put out in 1967, and If You Could Read My Mind, which Gordon Lightfoot released in 1970; and the only song newer than 1997 is a Nine Inch Nails track from 2005, Every Day is Exactly the Same. I knew many of these, but not all of them, so this isn't close to the obscure choices Monster Magnet made for A Better Dystopia but it's still discovery for me.

Williams strips all these down to voice and piano, adding loops to a few songs too, though in at least one instance, Nick Cave's Into My Arms, the song was already stripped down and she actually bulks it up a little by floating a texture behind it, though keeping it bare and personal. I really liked this bare approach she takes, because her voice is strong and resonant but also vulnerable, a breathy vibrato adding emotion whenever she employs it, but also because her piano playing accompanies her voice with a similar level of dynamic play. In her hands, it isn't just an instrument to play notes. She totally gets what else it can do.

Like Susanna and the Magical Orchestra's Melody Mountain album, this is a release to absorb over a period of time to let seep into your soul. Like that album, everything is worthy but it's not difficult to call out highlights, but what I call out might not be what you call out. It'll depend on which songs, in a stripped down format like this, speak to you personally and which just don't feel right to your take on a song you already know.

For instance, I knew the Gordon Lightfoot song here well, but Williams brings something entirely new to it. It feels like her song now, in the sense that Johnny Cash took ownership of Hurt, The Mercy Seat and Rusty Cage just by singing them. However, I don't know the Cure well at all, so Lovesong is new to me and it still spoke to me. Both are haunting songs in this form, even though I knew one and not the other. I'd call Where is My Mind? a highlight too, originally a Pixies song, though she isn't able to hide the original behind her version.

However, I didn't like her take on Radiohead's Creep, because I don't feel that her breathy vibrato fits the song. It comes across tremulous and uncertain on this one, though it works well in contrast, as she manages to build magnificently away from it and then back to it. On the flipside, that same approach is one reason why her take on Nights in White Satin works so well. That's so timeless and iconic that it really isn't easy to cover it, but Williams makes it seem effortless. I'm still impressed at how she took If You Could Read My Mind so easily, because it really isn't that different a version to the original, but it's different enough in just the right ways to work so well.

One thing I realise here is that the five songs I've called out are the first five on the album and that's not deliberate on my part. Maybe it helps that I know four of them well, while I only really know Into My Arms from the second half, but they seem deeper to me. I know that Porcelina of the Vast Oceans has been described as the ultimate Smashing Pumpkins song and it certainly feels deep, but I haven't ever been a big fan of theirs and its depths just don't speak to me. I'll be playing this a lot, so I'll see if the second half grows on me the way the first half did from the outset, but I'm well aware that it may work the other way round for you. Either way, this is well worth checking out.

Wednesday 26 May 2021

Strawbs - Settlement (2021)

Country: UK
Style: Progressive/Folk Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 26 Feb 2021
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

Here's a band that I expected to be long defunct, but seem to have stayed in business pretty well since they were founded at St. Mary's Teacher Training College in London way back in 1964. They split up for a few years from 1980 to 1983, but otherwise have continued on and released new material too. This is their twenty-fifth studio album, I believe, if we count one by Sandy Denny and the Strawbs and one by the Acoustic Strawbs. Perhaps more notably, it's their fourth in the past ten years.

Dave Cousins is the only founder member remaining, as everyone else who was in the band that year has either deceased or, in the case of Arthur Phillips, was only in the band very briefly. However, three other musicians here—Dave Lambert, Chas Cronk and Tony Fernandez—joined the Strawbs back in the seventies and have put thirty years or more into the band. Only new fish keyboardist Dave Bainbridge is a recent addition, dating back to 2015.

I think of the Strawbs as a progressive folk band, as you might expect given that luminaries like Sandy Denny, Don Airey and Rick Wakeman have been members over the years. In fact, both of Wakeman's sons have served stints on keyboards. However, this sounds wildly different to what I remember from albums like From the Witchwood, which admittedly came out in the year I was born and I've officially been old since March. Well OK, the instrumental Chorale isn't too far adrift, but the rest of the album is.

Most obviously, while this retains a folk vibe, it's a much darker folk vibe, Cousins's voice reminding of Johnny Cash in his latter years, thoroughly lived in and partially broken, albeit a little softer and less iconic. Then again, I'm old, as I mentioned, but Cousins is older than my mother. I have no doubt that she would sound more thana little broken if she attempted to sing a folk album. Settlement runs just a few minutes shy of an hour and many of the dozen songs on offer all have a darkness to them, even when it's not Cousins singing.

Now, it's not an evil darkness, more a melancholy darkness, born of a lifetime of experiences, not just the pandemic that raged while they wrote and recorded. It's the tone on the title track that opens the album and it's the tone for much of the album. It's less obvious on Judgement Day, while Flying Free escapes it, being a brighter instrumental interlude, but only Better Days (Life is Not a Game) is perky and irreverently upbeat, with an eager calypso vibe and a strong use of brass. How it stays perky with lyrics like "we've all seen better days", I don't know, but the darker song titles are ironically the least dark tonally. Judgement Day ought to be more negative than Settlement, going by titles alone, but it isn't.

The style does vary, even within the darker songs. Quicksilver Days feels like a country song packed in tight with reminiscences and regrets. Thats not too surprising, given that the Strawbs started out as a bluegrass band and Cousins plays dulcimer and banjo as well as guitar. We are Everyone feels like the dark side of the hippie era. The Visit stays truer to folk music, adding a Celtic air but playing a lot slower than we might expect and with a refrain of "Stay away from the window, lock up your doors." I don't think it tells a pandemic story, but the claustrophobia of the pandemic flavours it.

I'm not sure quite what to make of this. It's not a bad album and it is a little haunting, but it's a little much at the end of the day. After all, we went through the pandemic too and I lost too many friends to it. I can understand and forgive the darkness, but it feels a little guilty about it. With the exception of maybe Quicksilver Days, which is heartbreaking, all this material feels like it should be stripped down to its barest essence to tweak our emotional strings as a singer/songwriter album. It doesn't work as well for me as a disjointed band effort.

Aegos - The Great Burst of Light (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Post-Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 Apr 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Instagram

Here's another album whose genre is really hard to pin down. It came to me described as "progressive doom metal" and there are certainly some aspects of that to be found, but it's only one part of a vast picture. I've ended up going with post-metal, even though I reviewed a post-metal album yesterday, as this is about as different to Pupil Slicer as can comfortably be imagined and still count as metal. You'd actually be pretty safe using the cover art as the genre, because the music is as bleakly beautiful.

I know very little about Aegos, beyond that whoever's actually in the band hails from Texas. Who and where, I couldn't tell you. The band's page on Bandcamp does list some guests, but three of them are vocalists in some form or other and the two musicians are credited with saxophone and cello and are therefore not responsible for the bulk of what we hear in the five long tracks on offer. There's guitar and bass and drums, as you'd expect. They may be the work of one musician or fifteen. I have no idea.

What I can tell you is what I hear on this album, which I believe is the debut release for Aegos. While it gets very loud and very quiet, reasonably fast and reasonably slow, the first adjective I'd throw out is "patient". Just like the cover art, there's a lot of space in this music and there are echoing silences to flavour the songs as much as the actual notes. Sometimes there are drones, often short ones created out of power chords and there's a haunting emptiness behind some drawn out passages.

Yet, that's far from Aegos's only approach. Ironically, The Stillbeing is the least still of these songs, an intricate weaving of bass, drums and electronica building into a harsh vocal over slow ominous riffing and frantic beats. There are multiple voices here using multiple vocal styles. This song kicked off with a clean voice, but it grows to a harsh one that doesn't sound like it came from the same throat. Even here, it mixes up because there's a point where it becomes a harsh duet.

Vocal guests include Jei Doublerice, Chelsea Murphy and Annastatsea. Doublerice is Italian and listed in Metal Archives as the singer for a symphonic black/death metal band called Journey into Darkness but on Aegos's Bandcamp page as a member of Despite Exile and Abiogenesis, both of whom show up on their own Bandcamp pages as metal bands but experimental ones. Murphy is American and sings for Dawn of Ouroboros, who are listed as "progressive post-black/death metal". Annastatsea, who is credited for spoken word, is also American and another experimenter, opening her soul to the cosmos and embracing the darkness, as her bio reads. In other words, they're all open to something new.

I liked this album from the outset, even though I'd have preferred more variance between clean and harsh vocals. The consistency of the shouty approach on songs like Chaos and Nebulous means that it overstays its welcome a little, though it also ends well. There are five songs here, which generally get longer, from the opener which runs six minutes all the way up to the thirteen minute closer. As you can imagine, they get progressively more epic and I'd call out the fourth track, Qualia, as my highlight.

I'd enjoyed the three earlier tracks but never entirely. I loved some parts of each of them, while some others left me dry. Qualia feels right throughout and, at almost eleven minutes, there's plenty of it to go wrong. Fortunately it doesn't and it grows magnificently. It also features yet another unexpected use of the saxophone in extreme metal, something I'm starting to treasure. It eases in softly, with an ethereal voice behind an unusual beat and a hovering dissonance that feels science fictional, like an alien race observing us through what appears to be a swarm of of bees.

Then it erupts, a frantic beat accompanying a beauty and the beast duet between clean female and harsh male voices. When the sax shows up, it's a wild and free jazz instrument squealing around a riff so relentless that it just has to be deliberately regimented to counter the saxophone. It works really well. Gravity Bending Light is less epochal, even at a couple of minutes longer again, but it gets there five minutes in when the vehemence of the early section boils away and everything gets peaceful. The cello adds to this, as does the oddly choral chanting later on. It's dark but it's delightful.

I hope I can find something out about whoever's behind Aegos. Something this interesting deserves to have credit appropriately assigned. The guests are certainly worthy but they're not the primary here and I wish I could praise him, her or them properly.

Tuesday 25 May 2021

Touch - Tomorrow Never Comes (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Melodic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 30 Apr 2021
Sites: Facebook | Wikipedia

Touch's claim to fame is that they were the first band to ever play the Monsters of Rock festival, given that they opened the very first one in 1980, but they were certainly the most melodic rock band on its bill. They recorded two albums, imaginatively titled Touch and Touch II in the early eighties, though it took until 1998 for the second to see release, on The Complete Works I & II. They split up at some point, probably way back in the early eighties, but got back together last year, with the original line-up. The result is this album and it makes me want to go back to refresh myself on its predecessors.

Given that I don't remember them right now, I'll point out that, here at least, they play very much in a melodic rock vein, crafting catchy songs like Fire and Ice and Run for Your Life with decent riffs, plenty of keyboards and strong vocal hooks. Songs like Let It Come reminded me of mid-seventies Jefferson Airplane, especially when whoever's singing really gets going late in the song, aiming at what Mickey Thomas did on Freedom at Point Zero. Nobody's actually credited for vocals, presumably because all four members sing and presumably swap lead duties. I couldn't tell.

They soften up too at points, unsurprisingly given the later work of songwriter Mark Mangold writing for artists like Michael Bolton and Laura Branigan. He even had a top ten hit for Cher, though he wrote it for Bolton and Branigan recorded it first. Trippin' Over Shadows is unmistakably soft rock and it fits well on this album, because that's hardly a rare approach. Wanna Hear You Say starts out heavier but becomes very soft indeed during the midsection, especially given where the keyboards go. This is pop music at points, even if it's built like a rock song.

More importantly, Touch also veer into other genres and they're certainly at their most interesting to me when they drift into progressive rock, as they do on Swan Song. This is easily my favourite song on the album and it's also the longest at almost eight minutes, reminding at points of Boston with hard rock guitars but prominent keyboards. They approach a sort of Steely Dan-esque jazz rock at points as well, such as on Scream at the Sky, and that can be really effective. It all helps give the album quite a variety. There's even a nod to funk rock at the end of the exquisitely catchy Try to Let Go.

Mangold is definitely very obvious on the keyboards and, I'm guessing, the most frequent lead vocals. Behind him, Craig Brooks definitely makes his presence known on guitar. Even at its softest, this gives him constant opportunities and he takes advantage of them. I particularly enjoyed his soloing, which is very old school in the sense that he doesn't feel the need to particularly show off but knows exactly how to add another level to a song in his solo anyway. Doug Howard and Glen Kithcart are reliable on bass and drums respectively. Again, they both avoid doing anything flash in favour of doing what the songs need them to do and they do that well.

It's great to see an old band back with their original line-up and I hope it felt good for them. It doesn't look like they left the music business when Touch split. Certain Mangold was busy as a songwriter and performer; Howard was perhaps even more busy recording with names of the calibre of Edgar Winter, Todd Rundgren and Roy Buchanan (or so says Wikipedia; I'm not seeing that on Discogs, though he has a lot of songwriting credits with Utopia); and Brooks played with Michael Bolton and sang on a Roger Glover solo album. Only Kithcart seems to have vanished until this reunion.

And, however much or however little they've done musically since Touch split up, this feels vibrant and fresh. It certainly doesn't feel like a first album in forty years, which is exactly what it is. I guess, the album title notwithstanding, tomorrow does eventually come. And, while I don't remember those early albums, welcome back, folks!

Pupil Slicer - Mirrors (2021)

Country: UK
Style: Post-Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Mar 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

I've seen the memorable name of Pupil Slicer—clearly someone stumbled upon Un Chien Andalou, or at least the one famous clip from it—crop up in a few places so I thought I should check out what looks like their debut full length album, following some EPs. They're definitely an interesting band, though they're hardly going to be everyone's tastes. I usually see them defined as post-metal, but I see telling genres listed on their Bandcamp page like grindcore, mathcore and powerviolence. The one that I'm thinking rings truest is "chaotic hardcore".

That's because this is both wild and tight, often delivered at a breakneck speed but with a solid level of technical ability. There's a lot of stop and start with this band but everyone stops and starts at the same time and they shift tempo just as seamlessly. A blisteringly short song like Stabbing Spiders, all over and done with in a mere forty-seven seconds, comes very close to grindcore, but it's performed with guitars tuned in a very modern American metalcore style and there's too much else going on to be pure grindcore.

By the time L'appel du Vide, a much longer three minute song with a further thirty seconds of what is perhaps a manipulated electronic take on the intro to Metallica's Damage, Inc., was over, I'd figured out the obvious comparison and it's a surprising one. Back in 1992, the BRIT Awards, which featured a performing line-up of pop artists like Seal, Simply Red and Lisa Stansfield, opened with the legendary combination of avant garde techno pranksters, the KLF, and crust punk band Extreme Noise Terror. It was an unusual artistic statement, especially given the audience, but it seems to me that Pupil Slicer might just have stumbled onto that on YouTube and been inspired to start a band.

That's because L'appel du Vide, like the rest of the album to varying degrees, is rhythmic in ways that go far beyond the impressive drums of Josh Andrews. The vocals are spat out in rhythmic bursts like a machine gun, the guitar sometimes resembles a cycling siren, and there's artistic manipulation of the song, whether performed live or added in post. There's a fascinating backing vocal partway that's just as melodic as the song itself isn't. It sounds good to me, but it also sounds as much like an artistic statement as a song.

There's performance art here from the outset. Kate Davies delivers the expected screams and other ultra-harsh gutturals but they're far beyond the more straightforward backing vocals of bassist Luke Fabian and there are points where they feel painful. Martys, for example, which opens up the album with a vengeance, features vocals with the expected harshness until, well, they go much further. The intensity level increases until, by the end of the song, it sounds as if she's in actual, serious pain, like she's just swallowed a vial of acid and her throat's dissolving as she performs.

After a few tracks, I started to wonder what this looks like visually. Husk is fast and furious, but it also gets downright sludgy at points and the longer it runs, the sludgier it gets. The last couple of minutes of Mirrors are More Fun Than Television is even sludgier. And what does it look like? There ought to be a visual component to this. What's going on at the beginning of Worthless, when it's just bass under a drone? Then again, what's going on when it gets moving? It sounds utterly destructive. At least Pupil Slicer put a music video together for the minute and change Interlocutor and it's as dark as it sounds, telling quite the self-destructive story in such a short time, but still leaving room for a very impactful ending.

The closest musical comparison I can conjure up is the debut Dillinger Escape Plan album, Calculating Infinity, but that's a slow motion version of this album. It shares the mathcore insanity of a song like 43% Burnt and even a guitar sound, but this is much heavier, the vocals are much more raucous and the stylistic chameleon play is much more extreme. If that sounds like your sort of thing, then this is going to be so your thing that you'll have found a new favourite band. Otherwise, this will probably scare you.

Monday 24 May 2021

Adrian Smith & Richie Kotzen - Smith/Kotzen (2021)

Country: UK/USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 Mar 2021
Sites: Official Website | Wikipedia

Here's an interesting collaboration, between a pair of guitarists, one British and one American, who shouldn't need introduction but I'll introduce anyway, just in case. Adrian Smith is best known for his work for Iron Maiden, beginning with their second album, Killers, in 1981, but he's released a couple of solo albums and led an underrated soft rock project called A.S.A.P., which stood for Adrian Smith And Project. Richie Kotzen has been a solo artist since 1989, but he's also been a member of Poison and Mr. Big and he's fronted the Winery Dogs for the past decade.

What's most interesting about this collaboration is that these two guitarists are almost the only folk to actually play on it. They swap guitar licks and solos, of course, but they also handle the bass and the lead vocals between them. What's more, Kotzen takes care of the drums too, on five of the nine tracks on offer, with the other four falling to guests: Nicko McBrain of Iron Maiden on one, and Tal Bergman of Rock Candy Funk Party on three. Smith and Kotzen also wrote the songs, produced the album and, I have no doubt, kept the kettle boiling throughout the recording process.

They work together very well and this is far from the guitarfest that you might expect, though surely the best parts are when the two just jam together. You Don't Know Me is far from the only example of this, but it's at least a minute longer than anything else here and two or three more than the average so there's much more opportunity for it. It runs a glorious seven minutes, and the six minute Scars is probably a close second on this front. When they find this mode, it's so absorbing that it's easy to just fall into it. However, this is a vocal album and that really changes the flavour of the piece.

It's difficult to describe the sound because, while the album is consistent enough to have an identity, it trawls in a lot of different influences, which come and go as these two musicians feel a need. Above anything, I'd call it a hard rock album, rooted in the blues but with elements from funk rock, southern rock, alternative rock and even grunge on the opener, Taking My Chances, though it's too upbeat for that genre. There's some Lynyrd Skynyrd in Glory Road and some ZZ Top in Solar Fire and some and it has to be said that, while I'm hearing those mostly in the guitar, both Smith and Kotzen are American tinged with their vocals. The earliest influence comes on the closer, 'Til Tomorrow, which builds with a Led Zeppelin vibe.

While these are individual songs with individual merits, I found that this plays best as an album to let flow around me. It's an immersive experience that sets a mood and grows it over three quarters of an hour, so calling out individual tracks somehow feels wrong. The catchiest song is probably Running, as it's a modern sounding hard rock song with a good hook, but it's the only obvious single to me, even if they went with Taking My Chances instead. Generally, these songs fit best in each other's company, as they're pieces in an album sized puzzle. Whether you see that as a good thing or not may shape your experience of Smith/Kotzen. Me, I dig it.

Witherfall - Curse of Autumn (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy/Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 5 Mar 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

If the sound of Ossian, the time honoured Hungarian band I reviewed last week, is at the softer end of the power metal genre, drifting often into hard rock, then Witherfall are firmly at the other end of it. This is energetic, often frenetic stuff, the opening track proper, The Last Scar, fast enough to work for speed metal freaks like me, though always with the melodic power metal approach paramount. Much of this seems to be due to Jake Dreyer, who is surprisingly the only guitarist here, the band featuring two keyboardists rather than two guitarists.

Now, while Dreyer is on fire throughout this album, often reminding of shredders who use three notes where many would use, he sometimes withdraws considerably to give a wildly different effect because there's a lot of variety here. Not everything blisters like The Last Scar. As I Like Awake is much calmer but doesn't do anything particularly unusual, making it rather forgettable between the opener and a pair of particularly interesting tracks, Another Face and Tempest, where Dreyer does very different things indeed.

Another Face is all over the map as far as tempo goes, but stands out for being theatrical. The intro is as powerful as it is delicate, definitely the work of a tight, well-practiced band, but it's Joseph Michael who will soon steal this song. He's the lead singer, as well as being one of those two keyboardists, and he covers a lot of ground here. Initially, he takes a prog metal approach, bringing a lot of character to his delivery, whether it's totally clean or with a level of grit added to it, but, by the midsection, he's a long way into theatrics, soaring high, chanting lines and veering into raucous laughter, often all at the same time. There are points on this one where he reminds of King Diamond.

Not that we forget the instruments in Another Face, because there's a lot of dynamic play unfolding on that front as well, Tempest firmly shifts our focus back from vocals to music. I really like the intro to this one, because it quickly finds a groove of its own, Dreyer's guitar is much slower and subtler, and it even shifts from a crunchy modern sound to something I can only describe as acoustic and Spanish. The versatility of the band thus far always suggested that they'd shine on long songs and this is the first of two to test that theory, being over eight minutes long. It holds true here, because this one moves through a set of different phases, each of which adds something new and interesting to the song. It's an emphatic highlight.

While I've only highlighted Dreyer and Michael thus far, this band is quite obviously not lacking in the department of technical ability and each of the five members is easily up to the task of surviving in a band that does what this one does. New drummer Marco Minnemann deserves a callout for technical accomplishment too, but nobody lets the side down. That is absolutely not the problem here and I need to return for the next album and the next after that to see what talent of this level will conjure up.

The problem the album has is that it's an hour long and it's a long hour. Not all of these songs shine the way that the three I've already mentioned do. Now, I enjoyed everything here, but I found myself drifting away often and there are songs that I just don't remember at all, even after a couple of times through the album. I guess that means that, while this is occasionally brilliant, it's also inconsistent.

Tempest never once lost me in its eight and a half complex minutes, but ...and They All Blew Away isn't remotely as successful in its fifteen and a half, though it does have its moments. I'd suggest that it's eleven minutes too long, but I'm not a big fan of the four minute radio edit version either, which is included as an apparent bonus. The other bonus seems like an odd inclusion too: it's a emotional acoustic take on the Boston classic Long Time, shorn of its Foreplay, which would seem to be more up this band's alley. It's a good take but it's out of place on this album.

And so I find myself staying at the 7/10 level. There's 9/10 material here for sure and I might have been persuaded into an 8/10 had this ended after The River, but there's too much that levels out those peaks. So 7/10 it is.

Friday 21 May 2021

Jess and the Ancient Ones - Vertigo (2021)

Country: Finland
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 21 May 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Wikipedia

Here's an album I've been looking forward to for a while. Jess by the Lake's Under the Red Light Shine was my Album of the Month a couple of years ago in June 2019 and Jess's day job is fronting Jess and the Ancient Ones, an occult rock band from Finland. I don't like this album, their fourth in a decade, as much as I liked her solo album, but I still like it rather a lot. It's acutely early seventies in nature, with a prowling bass and a cool Hammond organ but with plenty of vestiges of the psychedelia of the late sixties and, somehow, often an agreeably contemporary touch too. That's a neat trick to master.

For instance, while Jess has a huge voice and an almost unparalleled ability to go from gentle croons to wild wails in a heartbeat, she comes across initially on World Paranormal like Chrissie Hynde, as if this is a new musical departure for the Pretenders. It's poppy and it's perky and it's neatly delivered in waves, as if there's a musician somewhere on stage responsible only for tweaking an intensity dial to ramp things up or to calm them down again.

For the most part, it's very lively, because almost everything here feels like it has to be lively. In fact, it's such an up tempo album that it really takes until the intro to the eleven minute closer, Strange Earth Illusion, to really slow down and take a breath. That doesn't mean that it's all done at lightspeed, but it's always bouncy, whether it's the keyboard line on Talking Board that sounds like a spooky cartoon theme tune or the barrelling beat of Summer Tripping Man. It refuses to be ignored. If you're in a room while this is playing, and I mean any song on the album, then you're going to find yourself tapping your foot and eventually dancing around, because it's irresistible.

The band are clearly capable and I thoroughly enjoyed the sonic webs that they wove here, but Jess is the spider at the centre of all of them and she makes it crystal clear why the band's name is Jess and the Ancient Ones rather than just the Ancient Ones. The riffs blister and the keyboards swirl and the instrumental sections are great, but she's always ready to steal our attention back with a command. Her most overt showcase is on What's on Your Mind, but most of these songs feature her singing at a variety of intensity levels and always seeming to have another one ready when we think she's hit her limit.

My favourite song is Love Zombi, but I'm not sure why. It's as lively as the rest, but it has an extra je ne sais quoi that I'm still trying to figure out. Maybe it's the way that Thomas Corpse solos over the early riff. Maybe it's the playful and sassy vocal melody. Maybe it's the bass of Fast Jake that runs around in the background like a chicken with its head cut off. Maybe it's the keyboards that alternate between endearingly spooky and chiming like crystal raindrops. I think it's all of the above combining into the most effective groove on the album.

And there are a lot of effective grooves on this album, because it's built on them. Some of the songs are more traditional than others, like the opener, Burning of the Velvet Fires, which could have been a cover of something from back in the proto-metal era. Some feature neat samples, from movies like Dr. Strangelove and The Exorcist, with the clownlike laughter in Talking Board really adding character to the song. Some are more frantic than others, like Summer Tripping Man, which must be a riot live. But all of them feature effective grooves and your favourite song is likely to be whichever one has the groove that speaks to you.

It's a wildly different album to the solo Jess by the Lake release I liked so much a couple of years ago, heavier and livelier, but it's a really good one anyway. I've been playing it solidly for a couple of days and really ought to be moving on to another one. Maybe after this next listen through...

Karmant - Riot in Uniform (2021)

Country: Bangladesh
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Apr 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | YouTube

It's a shrinking globe. Here I am, over five thousand miles west of home listening to an EP submitted to me from Bangladesh, which is a further eight thousand miles west. It's odd to discover that Dhaka is actually closer to where I was born than where I live. And yes, I reviewed some thrash metal earlier in the week with the new Torture Squad, but that was a short EP and this one isn't much longer, so the two together add up to an album in my book. Fortunately, this is more consistent in its genre.

I wouldn't have thought of Bangladesh as a hotbed of metal, but I'm fast learning that there are a lot of excellent extreme metal bands in southeast Asia, from other bands in Bangladesh like Kaal Akuma through Elcrost in Vietnam down to the death metal haven of Indonesia, though my highest rating for that country went to an atmospheric black metal album by Pure Wrath. Now I can add Karmant to the list because they they play a varied form of thrash that's often agreeably fast, which makes it right up my alley.

The opener, Nuclear Outbreak, is the fastest and best song here, but it's neatly varied, even finding a groove metal vibe during the midsection. It's led in by a siren and then machine gun fire, which turns out to not be machine gun fire in the slightest, because it's excellent drumming from a gentleman by the name of Naweed. I have to admit that I spent a while simply listening to these drums. Naweed is a perfect drummer for a thrash band, because he can play at any tempo they want to go, shift gears like there's no tomorrow and never seem to be approaching the limit of his speed.

What makes Karmant so promising is that he's not the only perfect fit here. Rumman and Zamil play a tightly woven pair of guitars and the more intricate work, like the intro to General Destroyer, is easily as enjoyable, while Zami has a few opportunities in the spotlight for his bass, one in the opener and a second on Greed, plus a really nice section early in the second half of General Destroyer. It's not hard to track his bass throughout and he rumbles nicely behind the guitars in quieter bits of the title track and others. Musically, this band is excellent, even if they formed only five years ago and this is their debut EP. All the various instrumental stretches are highlights for me.

The worst thing about this EP is that it ends, without a natural stopping point. It feels less like a four track EP and more like the first four tracks of an album and I was ready to keep going into the last half a dozen. I'd also call out Zami's vocals as a lesser aspect too, though not a negative. I was surprised to find that he sings in English and he seems fluent, though there's clearly an accent there. However, he has a punky approach that works much better in slower, churning sections than it does on the sprints. My guess is that he thinks of himself as a bass player who sings rather than a vocalist who plays bass.

Thanks to Farhan, who kindly sent this EP over to me for review. I like Karmant a lot and look forward to a full album. This is an indie release and I'm still learning about how deep the fanbase is over there in southeast Asia, so I hope this finds a global audience. Torture Squad formed over thirty years ago, but I'd take this debut EP over that band's Unknown Abyss in a heartbeat.

Thursday 20 May 2021

Monster Magnet - A Better Dystopia (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Stoner Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 21 May 2021
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

I try to review two albums each weekday at Apocalypse Later, one of them rock and one metal. With so many bands playing on both sides of that boundary, it can be a little tough on occasion to achieve that goal. I reviewed the new Liv Kristine EP this morning and, while she's best known for gothic metal and symphonic metal, it's really a gothic rock EP. Monster Magnet, on the other hand, are fundamentally a stoner rock band but they certainly veer into metal on occasion, because they're just so energetic that it seems inevitable.

I'm relatively new to stoner rock, because it didn't really come along until around the point when my life was taking different directions and I wasn't diving as deeply into the scene. As I explore the newer stoner rock bands and read about their influences, the name Monster Magnet comes up a lot, and it's not difficult to see why from this album, but it also seems to sit a little apart from the genre that this band helped to create.

Musically, it doesn't seem too complicated for a while. There's a lot of Black Sabbath here, those riffs sped up rather a lot more than I expected and fuzzed up too. There's plenty of Hawkwind here too, in a generally spaced out sound and also in how well integrated the bass is into the energy of the band. It's not hard to see both those bands on the first track proper, Born to Go, because it sounds emphatically like Hawkwind playing Sabbath, while on speed, even if that wasn't their drug of choice.

It's really not that simple though, because there's a lot more here. A track like Death underlines that, being drenched in sitar and tambourine and acid. It's an acutely late sixties, early seventies sound in a contemporary form, through a reinvention of rock 'n' roll basics. Really, there's as much of the Cramps here as there is Black Sabbath, It's Trash is fuzzed up garage rock and I heard psychobilly in songs like Motorcycle (Straight to Hell). What Lemmy always said about Motörhead, Dave Wyndorf could easily say about Monster Magnet: "We just play rock 'n' roll."

Talking about Wyndorf, he may play rhythm guitar here, behind Garrett Sweeny and Phil Caiviano on lead, but he's really a frontman. And I don't mean singer, because he's not really that, even though it is his voice coming through the microphone. He doesn't sing these songs so much as he commands and conjures and preaches and creates a particular experience. There are plenty of vocalisations that are not tied to words and there are many points here where he reminded me of Screaming Jay Hawkins, and not just on a voodoo-infused song like Mr. Destroyer. He holds court with his voice.

The other name that I'd bring up here is Rob Zombie, because, like his work, this often feels theatrical and visual. It's not difficult to imagine the visuals behind the double-entendre laden performance art poetry that consistutes the introduction, The Diamond Mine, and what I saw in my imagination was a Rob Zombie directed animation. A song like Epitaph for a Head may bring Captain Beefheart quickly to mind but there's a modern edge to it that's all Rob Zombie imagery. The same goes for the garage rock blitzkrieg that is It's Trash. It sounds very different to Rob Zombie's music, not least because it's not industrial in the slightest, but it shares a similar vibrancy and attitude, all fuzzed up and finished with in two minutes and change. Of course, I gave the latest Zombie a 6/10 and this one's getting an 8.

I like this album a lot. It sounds like walking into a club in a strange foreign city and finding out that a mysterious stranger in a mascot suit has injected you with a hallucinogenic drug. What follow is wild and dangerous and somehow invigorating. It's real, not driven by cool image, and it's felt as much as heard. It's good stuff and it is indeed a better dystopia.

One last point, because I didn't recognise any of these songs, though I should have known a couple of them. This is a covers album. Born to Go sounds like Hawkwind because it's a Hawkwind cover, a deep cut from In Search of Space. The other song that I've heard in its original form is Be Forewarned, which is the title track from that Pentagram album. Other songs are covers of obscure psych, punk and rock bands like the Scientists, Dust and J. D. Blackfoot. I haven't even heard of bands like Josephus, Table Scraps or Poo-Bah, but I'm eager to collate the originals for these songs, all the way back to Death by the Pretty Things, and hear what inspired Wyndorf. Thanks for the education!

Liv Kristine - Have Courage Dear Heart (2021)

Country: Norway
Style: Gothic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 7 May 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

This EP may not be what you expect from Liv Kristine, but it's good stuff and she's done enough over a quarter of a century to deserve not being pigeonholed. You might know her work from the pioneering gothic metal band Theatre of Tragedy, the symphonic metal band Leaves' Eyes or even her sister's folk metal band Midnattsol, which she joined as their second vocalist in 2017. This has elements from all of those genres but much of it not really a metal release at all.

There are five tracks on offer, running just over twenty minutes between them, and they're agreeably varied. Serenity starts things out in a gothic post-punk vein, reminiscent of Siouxsie and the Banshees at their most interesting. The title track feels indie too, pairing a tremulous vocal with a vibrant drum sound and little touches of decoration here and there. Apparently it began as a mandolin piece but it grew into something that Liv has described as a sort of imaginary spaghetti western theme.

The closest this gets to the work she did for the bands listed above is the final minute of Gravity, but it has to be said that Skylight kind of qualifies too. It's not heavy enough to really be called metal, but it definitely has an upbeat nature and it builds nicely. This could easily have been as a gothic metal song but one shorn of its crunchy guitars and turned into simply a goth rock song. What's really interesting about it, though, is that she doesn't stop there.

The song that closes out the album is called Skylight Cathedral and we might expect it to be a reprise or a companion, but it's actually the same song, because "cathedral" in Liv Kristine's world means an acutely bare rendering of a song. It's like she wrote a metal song, then stripped it down to be a rock song, but wasn't done, so she stripped it down again to its essence, with nothing but voice and piano. It's delicate and it's touching and it's very personal, as if she's sitting on the edge of my desk singing to just me. As much as I love the heavy stuff, I think this is my favourite piece here.

That leaves Gravity, which sits between the two takes on Skylight and so is presumably a focal point. I would have to describe this one as synthpop, at least until it heavies up late on, though again there's a tinge of darkness from the outset and the gothic melancholy only grows. The final minute is as close as this gets to metal, though I'm guessing that the five live songs might go there. They were recorded in Nagold, Germany at her eighth annual special show and my copy doesn't have them, so I can't talk about them beyond mentioning that they ought to be there on your copy.

Even without them, I like this EP a lot. It might feel consistent, but Liv Kristine actually does rather a lot with her voice here. It's an immersive twenty minutes.

Wednesday 19 May 2021

Ossian - A Teljesség (2021)

Country: Hungary
Style: Heavy/Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 7 May 2021
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website

I stumbled onto Ossian last year, through their Csak a jót album, which I reviewed here at Apocalypse Later, but I'm a little late to the table, given that it was their 25th since 1988. That's a productive rate and it's a rare year that doesn't see a new Ossian album. Well, here's number 26, exactly on schedule and it's another good one. I really need to get round to diving into their back catalogue.

Metal Archives lists them as a heavy/power metal band and that's fair enough, because they're both of those things, but they're hard rock more than they're any sort of metal, especially when compared to most bands playing some form of heavy or power metal in Europe nowadays. Play any song from A Teljesség next to something by Primal Fear or Rage or Iron Savior and it will appear to be slower, less heavy and more traditional in comparison and that would still count even with heavier songs such as Kelj fel és láss (Get Up and See), A türelem hatalom (Patience is Power) and A hiányzó láncszem (The Missing Link).

And that's fine. There's plenty of room in the genre for different approaches and I like this particular sound. Even if it's slower, less heavy and more traditional than any of the heavy or power metal bands I've reviewed, it's still rooted in power and strength, through tone, patience and production. Richárd Rubcsics may not be a guitar shredder and nobody ever shows off in hyperspeed but this is strong and confident and very comfortable in itself. It's appropriate that the title transates from the Hungarian to The Completeness.

Those heavier songs I mentioned above are clearly metal and most of what's here is built on solid riffs and a very clean guitar sound. There's also an instrumental piece, Engedd el (Let Go), which is a tasty slice of metal too, especially when it speeds up towards the end, the only moment on this album when Ossian truly let loose and become reminiscent of Iron Maiden. However, that gives way to a far softer moment, as Az, aki voltam (The One I Was) kicks off like a radio friendly soft rock song. It ramps up for the choruses, but it's still a much softer piece.

And there's a lot of that here. Lassan ébredö (Waking Up Slowly) is an outright piano ballad and quite a few songs here, perhaps most notably Azon a napon (That Day) plays out in a very intimate way. It's initially just acoustic guitars and voice and, while it does heavy up with some power chords halfway in, until that point it feels like the band are sitting in my cramped office performing to an audience that consists entirely of me and that's a good feeling. Nem elég az ég (The Sky is Not Enough) starts out in the same way.

Most of these songs are in the second half of the album, where there's a lot going on, whether at the heavier or softer ends of the band's sound, but my favourite song here is easily the opener, which is a singalong special, Kell egy szikra (Need a Spark). As always, the rhythm section is reliable, so Rubcsics can conjure up another simple but strong riff in front of them and coax some elegant atmosphere out of his guitar too. He doesn't play a lot of notes but he plays the right ones and they're exquisite on this song.

I don't know what sole founder member Endre Paksi is singing, because just like all of these songs, he delivers the lyrics entirely in Hungarian, but I wanted to sing along with him anyway. The only flaw I'm seeing is that the core hook on this song is so strong that I wanted it to keep on going, but it fades out to give way for the next too quickly. Sure, it's the longest song on the album, but it's still only 4:35. It's surely no hardship to let it breathe past the five minute mark and milk that hook for all it's worth.

Based on the two Ossian albums I've heard now, they're a thoroughly reliable band. Some songs are better than others, of course, but they're all decent and the best are excellent. Like many bands that I review at Apocalypse Later I'd love to see them live in their home environment, but with Ossian, I'd try to watch the audience as much as enjoy the band. I have a feeling that there are a lot of people in Hungary who have grown up with Ossian and probably see them like a national institution.

Electric Gypsy - Electric Gypsy (2021)

Country: Brazil
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 29 Apr 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

Let's virtually travel back to Brazil again but this time for an album at the other end of the rock/metal spectrum to the death/thrash of Torture Squad. Electric Gypsy are a young band from Belo Horizonte on their debut album and, if the modern production values didn't betray it, I'd have sworn it was made back in the late eighties when surely none of the four band members had got round to being born yet. Their particular brand of hard rock is strongly infused by some of the bigger American rock/metal acts of that era, venturing into both melodic rock and hair metal as needed.

The first thing to say is that Electric Gypsy do this really well and, if they can replicate this on stage, it ought to be quite the retro experience. I bet the faster songs rip and the slower songs get sped up for the live audience, making for an energetic and enjoyable night out. The negative thing to bring up in response to that is that we have to look really close to find a single moment of originality. There are a few neat moments where they bring in something new, but mostly they sound like a versatile tribute band from a parallel universe who's covering songs that we've never heard before.

Everything here is at least decent, so there are no tracks you'll want to skip, even on a third or fourth listen. There are certainly weaker songs, but they're still enjoyable, just more forgettable than their stronger peers. I liked Hit and Run, for instance, but it's an odd opener because it feels like a song by a local band who are good enough to get some airplay but not good enough to be able to translate it into something more. Back in the eighties, that would have meant some fans and some success but a split sooner rather than later with musicians going on to different bands to try something different.

That's emphasised by Shoot 'em Down, which follows it, because that's one of my highlights. It's still not original, but it scoots along wonderfully with good riffs and good hooks, it's a radio friendly three and a half minutes and it's catchy enough that it might stick in my head for a couple of weeks. Back in the eighties, this would have had a strong chance of being a hit to break the band into the big time. It would have needed something to back it up, hopefully with a little more depth, but there's Nine Lives (Until I Die) to achieve that and they'd have been off and running.

Nine Lives is one of those songs that wears its influences openly on its sleeve but does something just a little different to elevate it. This one's clearly taken right out of the Mötley Crüe playbook, but it's a little slower and it's jazzed up a little. There's a honky tonk piano in there and the slide guitar is neat, courtesy of a guitarist called Nolas. There's a really cool section late in the song that's all slide, claps and harmonica and it's lively as all get it, sounding like the Crüe at a street carnival.

For other reference points, Love Bomb is Aerosmith, Wild Kiss is inevitably more akin to Kiss, while Rivers Tomorrow is a Bon Jovi style western ballad and The Devil Made Me Do It feels like Y&T translated from heavy metal to a slightly softer and broodier hard rock style. Let It Roll plays in Sammy Hagar era Van Halen territory, with a little touch of brass that was also on Wild Kiss. Roundabout is softer and more reminiscent of a British band like FM but, given all the other influences, I'm sure there's an American equivalent that I should have chosen there instead.

All in all, it would be hard for anyone with a taste for eighties hard rock and heavy metal not to find a lot of enjoyment in this album. The band are clearly capable musicians who play well together and are either having a lot of fun here or doing a good job of faking that atmosphere. Guzz Collins has a good rock voice and he sings in English throughout, so this ought to have international appeal. The best of these songs, like Shoot 'Em Down, Nine Lives and Roundabout, are commercial, radio friendly pieces of music that don't sound alike but all deserve airtime. I'm looking forward to album number two and hope that the band stay as catchy and entertaining but add a little more originality.

Tuesday 18 May 2021

Robin McAuley - Standing on the Edge (2021)

Country: Ireland
Style: Melodic Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 7 May 2021
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

Robin McAuley may always be remembered for becoming the new M in MSG, when it shifted from the Michael Schenker Group to the McAuley Schenker Group for three albums as the eighties turned into the nineties. He contributed to both the Michael Schenker albums I've reviewed, Revelation and Immortal, so there's likely to remain a connection there. However, I first heard his voice before that, singing for Far Corporation and then, catching up on even earlier work, for Grand Prix. He's hardly the most prolific vocalist out there, but he's been doing good work for four decades now.

Oddly, this is only his second solo album, following 1999's Business as Usual, though his 2020 album as Black Swan was really a solo album with a band's name. Like this one, that was released on Frontiers, which is a great home for him, given that he's a born melodic rock vocalist, even if he's best known for his hard rock and heavy metal and this does venture into hard rock, especially on the title track, which closes out the album in a flurry of guitars and energy. Certainly it starts out in melodic rock territory with the excellent Thy Will Be Done and it stays there for most of the album.

There are no duff tracks here but some certainly stand out. Late December was the first of those for me, the sort of song that would surely have been all over American radio had it only been released in the mid eighties. It's really accessible but it doesn't have to go soft to achieve that, just like the best songs from Jimmy Barnes. Like a Ghost fits that description too and brings the same comparison. I'd not seen the two as similar until this point, perhaps because they usually play in different genres.

Say Goodbye has a similar effect too but with a little harder riff. Everything on this album lives or dies on its melodies but there are still decent riffs behind them, like those in Do You Remember or Chosen Few, which kicks in so reminiscent of AC/DC that I actually wondered if the first vocalisation was Brian Johnson. I should add that Say Goodbye has a really nice ending too, but on bass rather than guitar. It isn't anything fancy, just a subtle little touch that's icing on an already tasty cake.

What surprised me here is that I usually go for the harder edged songs and, while I liked Chosen Few and especially Running Out of Time, which hearkens back to those days in MSG, it's actually the softer ones that got me on this album. Run Away, in particular, is a peach of a soft rock song with a gem of a chorus. I'd suggest that it's almost guaranteed to be staking out space in my head for the next week, but there a few others that seem to want to battle it for that honour, Wanna Take a Ride for a start.

Surprisingly, the musicians behind McAuley don't seem to be particularly well known, though Howard Leese is the guitarist in Bad Company nowadays. The only other name I recognised is Alessandro del Vecchio, because I think he plays on every album released on Frontiers. Guitarist Andrea Seveso looks like a Frontiers regular too but as a studio engineer rather than a musician. Nicholas Papapicco does fine on drums but seems to be earning his first credit here.

But, however reliable all these folk are, it's the voice that will sell this album and McAuley definitely seems to be having fun, even if the songs don't allow him to belt the way he does on the title track. I'd expect that the point was always to showcase what he can do with his voice, on soft songs and harder ones, and I think it does a grand job on that front. This was always going to be good because it's Robin McAuley but it's better than I expected and it definitely goes on my highly recommended list.

Images of Eden - Angel Born (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 Mar 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

It's been interesting watching Images of Eden grow, especially since I've done a lot of that outside of normal musical channels. I met Steve Dorssom at a local film festival almost a decade ago, because he was introducing a documentary he'd shot about his eighties thrash band, Ripsaw, which spoke to me. I believe his primary band at the time was Born of Fire and, as a screener for that festival, I got to see a lot of their music videos as they were submitted. He joined Images of Eden in 2014 as their drummer and I experienced them through music videos too, many shot here in Phoenix by Steve and featuring actors who are friends of mine.

Their problem was that they were spread out over many states and, I believe, Mexico too, so they had little opportunity to play together live. At some point, they must have had a serious band talk, which resulted in a concentration on live work, distance be damned. I've seen them a couple of times, once supporting the Iron Maidens, which didn't make much sense at all, and again supporting Geoff Tate, which made lots of sense. Images of Eden used to be a solo project for vocalist Gordon Tittsworth and it's thankfully turned into an accomplished band, fuelled by very talented musicians.

As you can imagine from that Geoff Tate comment, they play progressive metal, even if it's becoming a little less progressive as time goes by. Tittsworth doesn't have Tate's range (of course, not many do) but it's obvious that the former Queensrÿche singer was a massive influence and Tittsworth still uses a very similar approach. If he's less obvious on these songs than Tate tends to be on his, that's due to Images of Eden don't employ as much dynamic play. This music is technical and intricate, but there are five musicians behind the singer and they're kept busy throughout keeping this loud and heavy.

I'd suggest that the quieter parts are generally relegated to delicate intros but there are exceptions, most obviously the eleven minute epic, In Memory of Me, which closes out the album. That one plays in a lot of different tempos and brings in textures not found anywhere else on the album. It's also the most theatrical song here, by far, rising and falling musically to mirror its emotional sweep, which is considerable given that it's a song sung by a father to his kids, though he's in Heaven and they're still living their lives on Earth. In many ways, it's the title track even if it isn't the one called Angel Born.

Listening through a second time, I realise that the songs with most dynamics are mostly towards the end of the album. Marigold Sun has a major shift in its second half that's a breath of fresh air and Animation in a Still World does a lot with spoken word, without being particularly theatrical. However, the first interesting midsection comes on Fight the Good Fight seven songs in and that's the one cover on this album, of a track from the killer 1981 Triumph album Allied Forces. I was enjoying the album before it, especially with If?, but it's telling that I noticed the first real variety on the only cover.

Now, that's only a minor issue but there is a bigger one here that's perhaps epitomised on Animation in a Still World, because it ably highlights all the good and bad in Images of Eden at this point in their career. On the good side, the performance is truly accomplished with everyone in the band shining in their own right but also shining together. Dorssom is on top form on this one, all over his kit but with a constant purpose. There's some glorious trading of solos between guitars and keyboards. It's built on good riffs and the ending is tight. On the bad side, there isn't a killer chorus and the song needs one.

I've long felt that this was the one missing piece in the puzzle that is Images of Eden. Tittsworth has a good voice, even if he isn't Geoff Tate, and he's constantly interesting in the verses and bridges. He's always able to build songs with intonation and melody, but he never seems to end up on the hook that should top any particular song. This is an enjoyable album, even at a particularly generous 68 minutes, and every one of the dozen tracks on offer has plenty going on within it to be a recommendation, but I don't think there's a single killer chorus to be found on any of them.

I really hope that they figure that out, because there's a seriously good band here that's ready to be noticed. They're on their fifth album, but that's a little misleading. As a band, it's really their second album after 2018's Soulrise, and some seriously good musicians play their socks off throughout. It's a reliable album from moment one that builds nicely, ending particularly well with three highlights in a row to wrap things up. It's well produced and there's invention throughout. If they can ever find out how to add memorable choruses, they'll be unstoppable.