Friday 29 October 2021

Glass Hammer - Skallagrim: Into the Breach (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 15 Oct 2021
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It's only been a year since Glass Hammer's last album, the highly recommended Dreaming City, but it can't be said that COVID has slowed them down any. Founder members and mainstays Steve Babb and Fred Schendel reimagined a bunch of their favourite nineties Glass Hammer songs later in 2020 for the A Matter of Time album and now they're back with an hour plus of all new music, a concept album that ties in to a four hundred page novel, Skallagrim: In the Vales of Pagarna, that Babb plans to release in the early months of next year.

I'm not quite as sold on this one as I was on its predecessor, but it's a good album nonetheless and it's an interesting one too. The most obvious difference ought to be the presence of Hannah Pryor as the band's new vocalist. She takes the lead for the majority of the album, while both Babb and Schendel contribute backing vocals, and she sounds good, if not particularly emphatic, part of which is as much due to the production. Her voice is low enough that most of the comparisons I could throw out are to men, including Chris Cornell, but it's still clearly female. There's some Lauren Smoken there too, but less bluesy and without the vocal fry, and some Patti Smith, but less punky. Perhaps Ann Wilson is the closest overall but there's a lot in this voice.

What I think trumps this new voice as the most obvious difference is how heavy this album is. It's a prog album still, don't worry, and I'm reviewing it after the Sonic Overlords, a heavy/doom metal outfit, so it's much lighter by comparison, but it's still heavy stuff, often surprisingly so. After the more delicate intro that is He's Got a Girl, Anthem to Andorath leaps in with a heavy and grungy riff that reminds of the whole Seattle scene but also a few bands from elsewhere. I heard Mary My Hope here, who were from Atlanta, and some of the grungier stuff that Miami-based Saigon Kick put out, such as One Step Closer. Given that Glass Hammer are in Tennessee, both those bands are far nearer than Seattle.

And, given that my usual comparisons for Glass Hammer are to seventies prog bands like Kansas and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, it's suddenly surprising to throw out grunge bands as comparisons on what I believe is their nineteenth studio album of original music. However, it's impossible not to listen to the song Sellsword with its deliberately downtuned bass and not hear alternative music. This isn't ELP or Kansas or Yes, this is nineties grunge, whatever Schendel's keyboards are doing over Babb's bass. It's odd and it may be offputting to long term Glass Hammer fans, but it's fascinating to me and I do love music that takes off in directions I never expected.

As such, this is an album to listen through once just to plant its seed in your brain and then sit down to listen to again properly. It mostly doesn't do what you expect and, when it does do what you expect, as on Steel with all its ELP flourishes or on A Spell Upon His Mind with all its swirling and pulsing Vangelis keyboards, it's no longer what you expect because of what went before it. Then, when we get to funky psychedelic beats on Moon Pool, we're just confused, but that can be a good thing. Whether you'll get into this album or not may depend on whether you think that can be a good thing. I do and I really dig this midsection to the album.

It gets a bit more traditional on The Ogre of Archon, which doesn't just shift us back to a heavier prog sound, but to a male lead vocal, for the first time on the album but not the last because it continues into Into the Breach. I heard some Black Sabbath on The Ogre Archon and some Rush but also plenty of Armageddon, if you remember Keith Relf's final band before his death. Maybe that's why it's very possibly my favourite song from this album. Into the Breach is similar but a little more Hawkwind than Armageddon.

They're two excellent tracks but they're surprising together after we've got used to the new vocals of Hannah Pryor and they're suddenly gone. Fortunately they come back and she leads the remainder of the album, including the two epics, The Forlorn Hope at eight minutes and Hyperborea at almost ten, on which she fits the Rush sound perfectly.

I'm going with a 7/10 for now, but I'm well aware that this is a grower of an album that's going to take a few more listens to fully come to terms with. It's not the obvious 8/10 that Dreaming City was, but it may end up creeping up there to match it. Let's see.

The Sonic Overlords - Last Days of Babylon

Country: Sweden
Style: Heavy/Doom Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 22 Oct 2021
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This is an interesting sound! I see the Sonic Overlords listed as heavy/doom metal and that's entirely fair, but this still isn't quite what I expected. Sure, this Swedish quartet have obviously been listening to a lot of Black Sabbath and Utopia opens up proceedings with a four minute slab of energetic doom but there's a fuzzy tone to Morgan Zocek's guitar taken from stoner rock and the chorus is taken right out of the Blue Öyster Cult songbook, even though there's a lot of Rainbow in the chord progressions. It's a fascinating opener and I love it.

In My Darkest Room slows down a little more and loosens up considerably, but I heard Magnum in the melodies. And yes, that Magnum heavied up considerably, but Magnum nonetheless. Would this be how Sacred Hour would sound like at 16rpm instead of 33, once adjusted for pitch. Four minutes in, it heavies up again, though, and we're right back with heavy/doom and another solid riff. Even here though, this sounds more like a doomy take on classic rock, so fitting in the American doom mould a lot easier than it does alongside other established Swedish doom bands like Candlemass or Sorcerer.

And so it continues. It's always heavy, even when it's not driven by really heavy riffs, which it often is. I love the opener on Lords of No Tomorrow, for instance. It's always doomy, even when it's reminding us of classic seventies rock bands who could never have been considered as playing doom in the slightest, even proto-doom. I got blues-based arena rock bands like Journey from World on Fire, again heavied up considerably, though there's a lot of Dio in its quieter moments. And it's always energetic, however slow it becomes. It's never a fast album, but these energy levels sometimes make it feel faster than it is.

All that said, the longer I listened, the more I split the album up between heavy and doom. I think the most overt example of that is the double bill of Shine and Children of the Night on the second side. I'd certainly say that the former starts out doomy and the tone is heavy, but it sounds like the Scorpions, perhaps as heard from outside the stadium they're playing in. That's no bad thing but, when Children of the Night starts out with a quintessential doom metal riff, we can't fail to notice the difference. It's a prowler of a song, that riff stalking us with menace in its eyes. The Scorpions never sounded like this and I should emphasise that this song stays quintessential doom metal throughout.

As if to underline this dichotomy, the final track features a guest appearance from the second longest serving vocalist of Black Sabbath. That's Tony Martin, surely the most underrated Sabbath singer but also one of the least iconic. We all remember Ozzy and Dio and maybe even Gillan, but Martin should be just as memrable because those albums were strong and often outstanding. If you haven't listened to Headless Cross recently, pull it off the shelf. Past the End of Time is very much in that vein, which is a great way to highlight that, while Sabbath are a major influence here, as they always are with doom metal bands, the Sonic Overlords aren't just listening to their first half dozen killers, especially given that Fools has a Dio-era Sabbath vibe to it.

And that means that you can pick and choose what you might like from this. I think the opener is still the strongest track, not just black for Sabbath but blue for Öyster Cult. The heaviest track is probably Children of the Night which is as pure doom as anything else here. The most commercial are Shine and World on Fire, while the most varied sonically is surely In My Darkest Room, with its major escalation four minutes in. But this is an impressive album throughout, all the way to that Headless Cross-era Sabbath closer with Tony Martin. It's also a debut, so I wonder which of these varied directions they're going to move in next.

Thursday 28 October 2021

Burning Point - Arsonist of the Soul (2021)

Country: Finland
Style: Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 22 Oct 2021
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This is the eighth studio album by Finnish power metal merchants Burning Point, though it's the first for two thirds of the band, because they've undergone quite a line-up change since 2016's The Blaze. I don't believe I've heard the band before, so I'm coming into a predominantly new line-up completely fresh, and they sound pretty good to me. I wonder if long term fans of Burning Point would agree with me or not. I simply don't know if this is typical or not.

They start out as a very up tempo power metal band. Everything is clean, including the vocals of Luca Sturniolo and the guitar tone of the two longer term members, Pete Ahonen and Pekka Kolivuori, the former of which has been the only founder member left for well over a decade now. Not everything is quite as up tempo as Blast in the Past, which really does kick things off with emphasis, but it certainly doesn't make a habit of slowing down too far and too often. Everything does remain clean though.

As with so many Finnish bands who play something other than folk metal, they don't particularly feel Finnish, playing their power metal with a central European sound. While Rules the Universe is often reminiscent of Gamma Ray, the most obvious influence is surely Blind Guardian, also a German band, of course. That's especially obvious on the album's first real standout, which is the title track, Sturniolo's vocals not a million miles away from Hansi Kürsch's in his higher register.

I should mention here that, while Sturniolo's voice isn't remotely unusual for European power metal, it's a strong one and it fits this material perfectly. I'm rather surprised to see that his credits up until now have been as a backing vocalist on a couple of 2013 albums by Mad Matter's Den and Timo Tolkki's Avalon. I expected to find that he'd led a few power metal bands in the past. Apparently not. Sure, he doesn't do anything new that hasn't been done already by a bunch of other singers within the genre, but he does it very well.

And, quite frankly, the same left handed compliment could be given to Burning Point as a band. There isn't anything in these dozen tracks that I haven't heard before from other bands, but it's done nicely across the board. It's not enough to say that nobody lets the side down. There are good riffs here and good melodies and good hooks and everyone in the band contributes to them. This is a tight band and I'd love to see them live to discover how this level of energy translates onto the stage.

What's more, this relatively traditional sound could easily have descended into filler, but that doesn't happen here. Even three quarters of the way into the album, with powerful openers Blast in the Past and Rules the Universe long past and mid-album highlights like Arsonist of the Soul and Hit the Night also in the rear view mirror, the band doesn't let up. Off the Radar and Fire with Fire are amongst my favourite songs here and I didn't hesitate after the excellent Eternal Life to run through the album all over again. Will I Rise with the Sun is hanging out in my brain too.

And I think that wraps this up. If you're aching for something new and innovative, this isn't it. If you're a European power metal fan but innovation is something you can live without, then you can do a heck of a lot worse than to acquire this. It may do what you expect, but it does it well. Now, I really ought to take a dive into their back catalogue to find out if they sounded like this all along and whether this is merely a solid reinvention of the band or just one in a number of strong albums.

Green Lung - Black Harvest (2021)

Country: UK
Style: Occult Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 22 Oct 2021
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I liked Green Lung's 2019 debut album, Woodland Rites, a lot, if not quite as much as other critics who fawned over it. This follow-up is better to my ears, doing much of what its predecessor did but slicker and much more emphatically. The production is in your face, almost exploding through the speakers with a burning energy, and the bottom end is particularly bombastic. The impression is that we have to fear for the stages up and down the United Kingdom because they're just not going to be the same after this band wraps up their sets. Everything feels deliberately loud and it stays that way, even after you turn down the volume. Which you won't want to do, trust me.

I'm still hearing the expected Black Sabbath influence for an occult rock band filtered through a more modern Cathedral update to that bedrock, but there's an American rock element to this one that sits behind all that that I don't recall from the debut. It's there as the folk chant of The Harrowing builds to something a lot more intense halfway through and it feels to me like a sort of arena rock band who you don't expect to gallop, like, say, Boston, who promptly start to gallop with abandon and it's clear that they're effortlessly good at it, even if they don't do it often.

I think it's mostly the very seventies style heavy organ of John Wright that brings that to the fray. He clearly listens to Tom Scholz and he channels a lot of Foreplay into The Harrowing, which benefits from that punchy production. It's overt in Leaders of the Blind too but it's rarely actually absent, after that escalation in The Harrowing and some hovering tantalisingly behind the shoulder of Old Gods. It's not far away wherever the band go on this album.

As is perhaps inevitable with occult rock, there's a strong folk element here and much of this feels like folk horror. I'm actually surprised that only one of these song titles decorates the spine of a novel on my horror shelves. It feels like every one of these should be British folk horror novels, probably in slim paperbacks published by New English Library in the seventies. Maybe I should write some more. I did, however catch others in the lyrics, Dennis Wheatley showing up in at least Upon the Altar.

If seventies horror makes you think of schlock, though, I should scotch those thoughts quickly because there's a real maturity here in the songwriting, which is at least a step up from its predecessor. Songs like Graveyard Sun and Born to a Dying World are admirably deep, rising and falling but never losing any of their power and impact. The title track does a lot too in its mere two and a half minutes. Excepting the intro, it's easily the shortest song on offer here, with the majority of songs comfortable at a four or five minute length, longer enough than commercial singles to get our teeth into them but not quite so much as to become epic.

I appreciated this maturity. Sometimes the heaviest bands aren't those who never do anything else but those who feel comfortable in softening up when songs demand it, only to absolutely crush when it comes time to trawl in a perfectly placed killer riff and escalate. There's a particularly effective riff on Doomsayer that I adore, but the main one from Reaper's Scythe is a killer too. These are the sort of quintessential Sabbath riffs that are so simple that we can't help but wonder why nobody came up with them sooner. Then again, Tony Iommi has been doing that for half a century and more. It's a very particular and rare talent.

I know this has to get an 8/10 from me because I noted half the songs down as highlights, there isn't a duff track anywhere to be found and I'm having trouble not just leaving it all on repeat for the whole day. I have another review to do and need to move on, but I don't wanna. So an easy 8/10. This band is going to make a serious impact over the next few years if they keep going like this.

Wednesday 27 October 2021

U.D.O. - Game Over (2021)

Country: Germany
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 22 Oct 2021
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I've never been as much of a fan of U.D.O. as I am of Accept, even though I still think of Accept with the voice of Udo Dirkschneider in front of it, however good Accept albums like January's Too Mean to Die happen to be. They've certainly kept themselves busy over the years, this being their seventeeth full length studio album since their founding in 1987, but maybe that's part of the problem.

There are Accept albums that are just killer throughout; I still play Restless and Wild and Metal Heart reasonably often. And I don't believe there's an Accept album without at least a couple of killer songs, even the least of them, but there has been a lot of filler in there too over the years. And, while I can't say that I've heard every one of those seventeen U.D.O. albums, the same seems to apply. Every one is elevated by a killer track or three, but there's filler to back it up.

Here, the killers all arrive early on, as tends to be the case. Fear Detector and Holy Invaders are both strong openers and Prophecy is even better still. By that point, this is a stellar release, but then filler starts to creep in. Metal Never Dies is exactly what you think it is from its title. Let's face it, if you've never heard a heavy metal song with a title like that, maybe you'll get something out of it, but, if you grew up listening to songs like Metal Never Dies, this is, well, another one and nothing more.

Now, that doesn't mean that it's a bad song. I'm not ashamed to say that I enjoyed it, but it didn't do anything for me that a hundred similar songs haven't done in the past. I have no doubt that there'll be another song that does exactly the same thing on the next U.D.O. album. The same goes for a song such as Like a Beast, which is the same vaguely misogynistic belter that you've heard from a hundred different German bands. Midnight Stranger and Speed Seeker are enjoyable but so generic that I had forgotten them the moment they ended.

In other words, this is roughly what you might expect from an U.D.O. album. It's enjoyable throughout but there are really only a handful of songs that are worth focusing your attention on. If it wasn't for a couple of oddities that I'll call out, you could really just stop this after fifteen or twenty minutes and not miss out on a thing. Maybe you'll want to stay through Empty Eyes and I See Red, the latter being as close to Accept as anyone other than Accept gets. Of course, you'll want to listen to those fifteen or twenty minutes over and over again because they frickin' rock.

The first oddity is Kids and Guns, because it ditches the Accept without being Accept mindset and goes instead for an AC/DC approach, merely with a more raspy voice than even Brian Johnson's leading the way. It's not a bad song, but it doesn't have the spark that someone like Angus Young might bring to it and so it feels a little lacking through no fault of its own.

The other is Don't Wanna Say Goodbye, which is a ballad. I'm not going to say that a voice as perfectly suited for up tempo in your face heavy metal as Dirkschneider's shouldn't sing ballads, because I'm all for it in principle, but every time I hear one it just sounds wrong. Then again, when Angry Anderson did a ballad, it was a huge hit, and he's just as inherently up tempo and in your face as Dirkschneider. Then again, I didn't care for that either. Give me the first couple of Rose Tattoo albums, not the Neighbours wedding theme. Similarly, Dirkschneider was born to sing such non-ballads as Fast as a Shark, Son of a Bitch and Balls to the Wall. Prophecy and Holy Invaders work on that front. Don't Wanna Say Goodbye doesn't.

And so I think this is a not unexpected 6/10. Udo sounds like Udo and I love that. His band are certainly capable and they all do their jobs here. The problem is that this is a generous release, almost seventy minutes of music translating to twenty that grabs you by the balls and fifty that promptly forgets that it did so. It's definitely not game over because it's a damn good game, but it spends far too long on pause.

Plastique Noir - Iskuros (2021)

Country: Brazil
Style: Gothic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 18 Oct 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram

Beyond enjoying so much of what's coming out of South America, I'm always surprised at what genres they're tackling. Sure, they're shining in prog and thrash, but they're not location-specific. It's when a band records Celtic rock or Viking metal that I really start to wonder, but the results have been stellar and I eagerly seek the next surprise. And here it is, because the beach city of Fortaleza, on the north-eastern shores of Brazil, isn't where I'd generally expect a darkwave band to do their thing.

However, Plastique Noir have been strutting their stuff in the Brazilian underground for fifteen years now and this is their fourth album, six years after 24 Hours Awake. As such, I shouldn't be too shocked to discover that they could play the Whitby Goth Festival without anyone noticing that they're from a little further afield. The singing voice of Airton S. suggests that they may not even be able to tell from inter-song banter. He's very much in the Peter Murphy vein.

While I'm far from the world's greatest expert on this genre, the sound is very old school English goth, grounded in new wave pop but draped in darkness and with an electronic edge that's not only there in the beats from the inevitable drum machine but in the atmospheric overlay. Songs like Times feel like they're draped in fog as much as darkness. This is upbeat darkwave dance music rather than a descent into doom and it's hard not to move to it, especially when the driving grooves get under your skin, like on Asleep in the Night Train. Sometimes it's downright perky, if mostly because of the jangly guitar of Danyel Fernandes. Again, Bauhaus spring quickly to mind rather than, say, U2.

The point at which the album lightens up a bit is Scrying Your Soul at the beginning of the second half. It's the poppiest song up to this point, the closest thing to pure new wave (and stays as such until All Cats Shall Celebrate), but it's slower than everything else too, with a clear sense of melancholy in its introspective piano. It has a drive to it, but it aims for atmosphere more than the emphatic Sisters of Mercy groove that drove some of the earlier songs. It also has plenty of time to breathe, because it's easily the longest song here. Everything else sits in the traditional three to five minute range, but this one's a comfortable seven and a half.

It still resembles Bauhaus, but there are points where the vocal approach seems almost like Billy Idol was stepping in and trying to be Peter Murphy, and the very prominent bass is right out of the Peter Hook songbook. And, as the album ran on from there, I started to hear those influences even more. It could be said that Upper Waves is Scrying Your Soul condensed into under four minutes. It's perkier in that Billy Idol sort of way and that Joy Division lead bass of Deivyson Teixeira is suddenly unmissable, the guitar shifted to atmosphere generation.

Another oddity to note that's surely more of a reflection on me rather than the band is that there are a couple of songs late on, Kafé and Catedrais em Chamas, which are sung in Portuguese instead of English, but that shifted the songs in my mind firmly onto the continent, so bizarrely making them sound as if they had harder edges like the Germans tend to go with. I think that's unfair and it's just in my brain because Portuguese isn't remotely similar to German, but I couldn't unhear it.

It still seems strange and unusual for a darkwave band clearly primarily influenced by old school Brits like Bauhaus and Joy Division to be from an equatorial beach town in Brazil, but they sound very good to me. Whether they're upbeat and driving, like on Asleep in the Night Train or Manifesto, or slow and atmospheric like on Scrying Your Soul, they'd fit perfectly in and among all the usual suspects at any goth night anywhere and surely prompt some audience members to ask the DJ who they are. I certainly would.

Tuesday 26 October 2021

Cradle of Filth - Existence is Futile (2021)

Country: UK
Style: Symphonic Gothic Black Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 22 Oct 2021
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This ought to be a lucky thirteenth studio album for professional British thorns in the side of society Cradle of Filth. The concept this time is a surprisingly grounded one for them, being, in Dani Filth's words, about "existential terror. The threat of everything. The end of the world, the end of one's life, existential dread." In other words, it speaks to now, the only counter to the negative given being "A little hope, I guess, in there" as well.

And, in keeping with the apocalyptic Hieronymous Bosch-inspired cover art by Arthur Berzinsh, it's an appropriately busy sonic interpretation of our collective demise as a species, trawling in a whole slew of musical influences from across the extreme genre map in characteristic Cradle of Filth style. This is a vibrant apocalypse, one that's impossible to ignore, which is surely much of the point. How come we seem to be so good at ignoring ours?

The Fate of the World on Our Shoulders kicks off the album like the symphonic intro to a horror movie, which is a pretty appropriate way to start. It's a little Hans Zimmer and a little Danny Elfman, epic but playful. Then we move into classic Carl Orff territory. There are Dani Filth's unmistakable vocals. And a bouncy extreme metal hybrid sound that's such a fascinating creature to dissect. It's fast and frenetic but it's built on powerful riffs and fascinating songwriting.

I absolutely adore bands like Cradle of Filth who are simply impossible to stuff into a simple subgenre labelled box. This one comes across a lot like Therion in their heyday combined with a commercial era Satyricon, like an unholy union of Enter Vril Ya and K.I.N.G. But then there's the Zimmer feel to render it epic and a layer of othic texture that's not only overt in the soaring and clean female voice of new fish Anabelle Iratni, who also contributes keyboards and lyre. This apocalypse is draped in velvet just as much as it is blood and fire. It's heavy, of course, and it gets fast at points and faster at others, but it's enticing as well, especially during Discourse Between a Man and His Soul.

So, if you just have to label everything, this could be called epic gothic black heavy symphonic extreme metal. Or something like that. The symphonic is obvious from the very beginning of Existential Terror, the epic gradually takes over as we go and the black manifests itself most obviously during a frenetic chase to the finalé. But even that description isn't enough, because there's almost some exotica early in Necromantic Fantasies. Crawling King Chaos adds church organ and chanting narrative, guitars like buzzsaws in harmony, epochal drumming and vocals like a swarm of murder hornets. There's a heck of a lot to discover here on what has to be the most emphatic Cradle of Filth album in forever.

It's hard to even pick a favourite track. Existential Terror was clearly going to be mine from the outset, but I hadn't heard anything else at that point. As it went, Necromantic Fantasies made me wonder if I was being premature. Crawling King Chaos underlined that I was and The Dying of the Embers was the one that emphatically took over from it as my favourite, a delicious spoken word intro escalating even more deliciously into an old school heavy metal song that becomes extreme and playful and blistering in turn. It even ends as deliciously as it began. It's an absolute peach of a song.

If there's a flaw here, it's that the album runs long, over seventy minutes, and it doesn't sustain that level of imagination throughout. That's not to say that the second half is bad or poor or even just OK, especially with my favourite song to kick it off and a neat if brief instrumental interlude to follow. I'm rather partial to Suffer Our Dominion and Us, Dark, Invincible is growing on me, but, both on my first and subsequent listens, I find myself tuning out during some of the later tracks, something I never do during the first half.

This is still a major Cradle of Filth album though. It's the best I've heard from them in a long time and I can't remember when they were this vibrant and urgent and relishing in both of those things. I think I have to go with the first half as a 9/10 and the second as a still decent 7/10, so averaging out the album as a still highly recommended 8/10. If you're into extreme metal and don't care about staying within a particular subgenre boundary, this ought to be essential.

Loose Sutures - A Gash with Sharp Teeth and Other Tales (2021)

Country: Italy
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 15 Oct 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram

Here's something interesting from Sardinia, a second album by a band who describe themselves as a "blend of hard-stoner rock with a pinch of garage spirit and modern punk attitude." That's not unfair but it misses out a retro mindset towards psychedelia. While the instrumental opener, White Vulture, is very much stoner/hard rock with fuzzy guitar and subdued pace, that's not everything in this band's arsenal and Stupid Boy promptly highlights that.

It ditches both the subdued pace and the instrumental approach in favour of something untamed and frantic. The idiosyncratic vocals are truly wild, a lofi holler that combines Screaming Jay Hawkins with Fred Schneider of the B-52s, delivered through a Rudy Vallee megaphone. The guitar is as rhythmic as the drums and its tone hints at an electronic pulse that isn't otherwise here. There are sound effects at odd moments as well, such as a breaking glass. The end result is as close to a psychobilly outfit like Demented are Go as it is to a heavy stoner group like Monster Magnet and it makes for a fascinating mixture.

They haven't betrayed all of their influences yet and the eight remaining tracks continue to highlight other facets of their sound. Sunny Cola adds the Doors and Black Sabbath at once, especially during the heavy psych midsection with its guest solo by from Marco Nieddu, the founder of Electric Valley Records, home to Cancervo. There's more Sabbath on Last Cry too, but a different Sabbath, this one aiming at simple but effective riffs rather than slow doomy heaviness. But Sabbath are a gimme of an influence. The second half of the song adds some Hawkwind bass and space vibes to underline the fact that texture is as important to Loose Sutures as anything else.

This is an album to listen to, of course, but it's also an album to feel. I enjoyed this as a piece of music, closing my eyes to listen to, say, the instrumental midsection in Mephisto Rising, which barrels along as effortlessly and as characteristically as the underrated instrumental midsections in songs like War Pigs. But I felt it too. This album is made up as much of dry dust in your eyes and the smell of gasoline and the sweat hanging in the air of a bar after the gig is over and everyone's gone home as it is beats riffs and hooks.

As you might imagine from that, this is a dirty album that almost has to start out used and abused. It would be weird to walk into a record store and walk out with this album in pristine condition. It ought to be something you discover like buried treasure in a dusty crate underneath a market stall in a city it had no right to have ever visited, like a souk in Marrakech. Sure, the cover had been folded at some point and it's bumped around the edges and there's dried blood on the inner sleeve, but it tells you in no uncertain terms that you have to buy it and you never regret that spur of the moment decision.

I just wish I could figure out all the influences. I can recognise a lot of the classic rock in here, even if I can't identify which specific song Last Cry reminds me of—I was almost singing along on my first time through but couldn't quite find the wrong words. I'm still learning about stoner rock, which is clearly the primary influence here. But there's rockabilly and punk and garage and even a bit of psychedelic pop here too and I'm just not well versed enough in these genres to pull out who Loose Sutures grew up on. I just know that I'd love to see a list to turn into a sonic rabbit hole.

I've mentioned most of my favourite songs thus far—Sunny Cola and Mephisto Rising—but there's one more that I haven't got to yet because it wraps up the album. It's Death Valley II, the longest piece on offer at six and a half minutes (ironically making it as long as the shortest track on yesterday's Dream Theater album), and it's as wide open as everything else here isn't.

The garage angle to this album means that we're agreeably trapped with the band inside a cramped venue with the sound and sweat and charisma dripping off the walls. Death Valley II is more a desert rock piece in that it feels like we're outside in the middle of nowhere, the band jamming on a stage a long way away even though the sound carries to us perfectly in the wind. Oddly enough, Death Valley I doesn't feel like that, but Death Valley II is a great way to leave us because we're already halfway out of there as it's playing, even if we hear every note and it all stays with us for the rest of our journey, however long that takes. I like that.

Monday 25 October 2021

Dream Theater - A View from the Top of the World (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 22 Oct 2021
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I never find it easy to review Dream Theater. Everyone knows what they sound like already and all the obvious things to say are givens. This is heavy prog, performed by people with insane technical ability. The songs are generally long, the seven on offer here ranging from six and a half minutes to a breath over twenty, and they're intricate and mesmerising, which means that albums are really long as well, always over an hour and often seventy minutes and beyond. And I can hear you all say, "Well, duh!" This is the audio porn of choice for many metal musicians, regardless of what instrument they play.

What a Dream Theater review usually comes down to for me is a personal call as to whether I liked it or not. This one I did a lot. The last one, Distance Over Time, not so much, though it did mix it up a lot more than usual, going for, as the title suggested, ground covered rather than how long that process took. It lasted under an hour and the songs were generally short, none of them reaching ten minutes, without any extended breaks for the musicians to showcase their abilities. It didn't work particularly well for me and I wonder if I was overly generous with my 6/10 rating. Given that this album is back to business as usual, maybe it didn't work particularly well for the band either.

And I certainly appreciated this return to long and intricate songs with long and intricate passages of instrumental virtuosity. What's telling for me this time out is that, while the various musicians enjoy indulging themselves, the songs manage to retain some catchiness and that's crucial for this band. It has to be said that Pull Me Under succeeded so well because it did all the instrumental acrobatics the band are known for while being fundamentally catchy to a mainstream audience. That's a neat trick if you can manage it and even Dream Theater struggled to manage it again. This album is a reasonable effort on that front throughout and it's all the better for it.

The closest to a Pull Me Under here is Invisible Monster, not quite the shortest track at six and a half minutes exactly but only Transcending Time is shorter and even then only by six seconds. The chorus is obviously a chorus and its hook is pretty good. Even better is the keyboard section early in the second half that leads into a guitar solo. Sleeping Giant and Awaken the Master are closer to the ten minute mark but they're both as catchy as they are adventurous and indulgent, the former finding a Zeppelin riff and a Purple vibe for the first couple of minutes, neither of which I really was expecting from this band. All these songs feel good but they also feel right, even with their instrumental parts. Nothing feels too long, not even the twenty minute title track, which is an epic indeed.

Transcending Time feels playful and vibrant, as if the musicians had built a framework together for it but jammed through it anyway, to keep the feel fresh. These logical contradictions apply throughout. Awaken the Master feels particularly aggressive, with some driving drums early on, but thoughtful as well, especially with its keyboards. It's as close as I've heard Dream Theater approach a Liquid Tension Experiment showcase in a long time, but it's equally effective in its slower sections. There's also some of that in the opener, The Alien, which doesn't sustain it as well but is a highlight nonetheless.

I began my review of Distance Over Time by stating that "I've never been the world's biggest Dream Theater fan", even though I have massive respect for their talents and achievements. Nothing on that 2019 album changed that opinion because it mostly left me dry. This one, on the other hand, may well convert me. It's exactly the sort of thing I want from a band like this and I enjoyed it immensely, more so than I can remember doing before. Never mind how great each individual musician is; that can be taken for granted with Dream Theater. This is a fun album, one to enjoy immediately and one to dive into with abandon to explore what they're actually doing. I like that.

Mescaleros - No Fear No Limits (2021)

Country: Spain
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 Sep 2021
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Not to be mistaken for Joe Strummer's old backing band after he left the Clash, this is a current hard rock band from Barcelona, the home of some of the most interesting architecture and most delicious seafood on the planet. I say current because they are, but it's obvious from their sound that these are definitely not a bunch of young kids starting out. This band feels experienced and more so than might be suggested by their three prior albums going back to a debut in 2011. They feel like a band who was around in the eighties and still loves that high energy hard rock sound with just an edge of well, a bit of everything, really.

Dreams kicks off the album like a NWOBHM era song from a band who had played in the hard rock era of the seventies but were heavying up a bit for the new decade. It's both rough and tight, because it's no nonsense, working class rock music. There's a lot of the Scorpions here to my mind and I don't mean their heyday in the eighties but their earlier underrated stuff, when Uli Jon Roth was still in the band. The Feeling starts out like a Paul Di'anno era Iron Maiden song and often comes back to that, but it's also a dirty rock 'n' roll number, combining Maiden energy and Scorpions guitar with some Motörhead earthiness.

But Away feels smoother and slicker, as if it's aiming for airplay, even though Amadeo Digon's vocals are, shall we say, hardly smooth like a Steve Perry. They're as obvious on this as any song here, except perhaps the stylised intro to So Many Clouds, and they're halfway between Uli Jon Roth and Michael Monroe, which means that they're an acquired taste. I rather like them but I'd bet money that most detractors of the band would focus on them over any other aspect. It's hard not to dig Alfonso Digon's versatile guitar, whatever it happens to be doing; the drums of Sergio Gavin are effortlessly reliable and Manu Reno's basswork is fantastic and often a real highlight.

Talking of the bass, it really comes out to play on Night is Where I Belong. For almost three minutes, it plays in that early Scorpions sound with an absolute vengeance, but then the bass leaps to the fore to go absolutely wild as a lead-in to the guitar solo, half Primus and half reggae. It's really striking and yet it doesn't remotely spoil the song; it just adds an extra fascinating component to it. The Dark Side of My Soul kicks off with some delicious basswork too, much slower but just as effective. This is driving slow blues rock with a slight shift four minutes in to a proggier take on the same.

I absolutely love the middle part of this album. It starts well, but Night is Where I Belong ups its game and The Dark Side of My Soul underlines that. Then there's Invincible, which may be my favourite song with what must be my favourite midsection. There's some Manowar swagger added to the sound the band have already established and that means more power, which is welcome. But it's the midsection that really sells me on this one, starting halfway through. It's an utter delight, sassy and teasing and exploratory. It's not just the guitar, which is fantastic, but everything around it, including some great interplay with the drums.

There are another five songs to come at this point, but there's not much new to find in them until the final two. Light My Way adds a rockabilly urgency to proceedings and Sueños wraps up the album on a very different note. Not only is it sung in Spanish, the only song here that can boast that, but it's done with a far softer touch, not entirely an acoustic version of the opener, Dreams, but for a while exactly that. Amadeo Digon certainly seems more comfortable singing in Spanish, so I wonder how a Spanish language version of this album would differ from this one, but I'm not as sold on the softer approach for a band who thrive on energy. It's a good song and it feels more Spanish than it should given vocals alone, but it also feels lighter than the album that preceded it.

And, as a child of the eighties who found rock music in 1984, I really like this. Had Tommy Vance played these guys on the Friday Rock Show, I'd have been down at Groové Records the following day to ask Sid for their album. Like so many of the bands from that era, I have a gut feeling that the Mescaleros kick serious ass on stage. This is the sort of outfit who will hang out in the audience to listen to the earliest bands on an indoor festival bill, quietly walk on stage, steal the day and, after loading their gear into their van out back, return for another couple of pints at the bar to see how everyone else is doing.