Thursday, 15 September 2022

Tysondog - Midnight (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Heavy/Speed Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 29 Apr 2022
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From one NWOBHM band to another, but White Spirit and Tysondog are very different in sound, even though they were based only thirty miles apart in the north east of England. It isn't at all difficult to notice the unmistakable influence of seventies Deep Purple on the hard rock of the former, but the latter were always faster and heavier, often even approaching speed metal as befits their later arrival on the scene, though this album mostly slows down from that to be good old fashioned heavy metal. The opener here, a belter called Battalion, reminds very much of Toranaga, slower and tighter but fully aware of how emphatic it is. I liked the album immediately because of that.

I have to say that I enjoyed the vocals here, delivered by the new fish in the band, Alan Ross, who is especially good given that he's mostly known as a guitarist, his role nowadays in Blitzkrieg; he has vocal experience too, but I haven't heard his work for Cardinal Synne. I'd suggest that his voice is a pretty solid match for the current Tysondog sound, loud and heavy, clear and resonant, deliberate and emphatic. He may not have much in the way of nuance, but then he doesn't need to have. He's the absolute vocal equivalent to the Steve Morrison/Paul Burdis guitar assault that underpins the entire album.

There's a genre of music called lowercase sound, because it's so quiet and ambient. This is close to the exact opposite, something like uppercase sound, bolded and underlined, because it's slow and in your face and relentless, even when songs happen to start in a deceptive way. For instance, I dig the way Hellbound begins, in a sort of acoustic but manipulated alt country vibe, only for it to kick into a firm groove in almost Rammstein style. I'm sure Ross will be hoping that the crowds at gigs will sing that title at him the way that crowds sing Du Hast at Till Lindemann.

The fastest song here is Defiant, another highly appropriate title for a Tysondog track. It wouldn't be unfair to suggest that their sound right now could be defined by words like Hellbound, Defiant and Battalion, not to forget Midnight and It Lives, which are perhaps not uncoincidentally all the titles on the first half of this album. Defiant still isn't speed metal, but it's a gear higher than the songs around it, some of which almost take pleasure in not going faster than they do. Paper Cuts especially could easily have been more up tempo, but the band just won't oblige.

Now, it does make sense for some of these to remain slow, the inevitability in the rhythm of Dead Man Walking being highly appropriate. It's another song that reminds me of Toranaga, though it finds a groove metal approach for the bridge. In fact, there's enough Toranaga here that I double checked the line-up to see if anyone from that band is also in this one, but there are no surprises to be found there.

The core of Tysondog nowadays is the pairing of Paul Burdis on guitar and Kevin Wynn on bass, like it's always been when the band has been active. If I'm reading things correctly, neither has played for anyone else, even during the thirty years Tysondog spent on hiatus. Like Ross, Phil Brewis was in Blitzkrieg and also played live for Satan, whose new album I reviewed earlier in the week. Hes a solid and reliable drummer, again underlining how well suited these musicians are to each other.

The results are decent, but not spectacular. Tysondog released a pair of albums in the eighties but then vanished. This is their second since reforming in 2008, arriving seven years after Cry Havoc. I'd be lying if I didn't say I didn't like it, but I didn't like it as much as their old stuff and I think it's fair to say that the faster this got, the more I liked it. Defiant is a peach of a track and Battalion isn't a long way behind it. I'm a sucker for the Toranaga sound and it's good to see someone else taking it on, even if it's a band who predate them and I liked before they ever formed.

By the way, just as an aside, I recognise part of the cover art. That young lady crawling towards us here is the same young lady crawling towards us on the British cover of Mike Flanagan's fantastic movie Absentia, which I know well because it boasts an Apocalypse Later quote at the top, which is still a bucket list achievement for me.

Wednesday, 14 September 2022

White Spirit - Right or Wrong (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Hard and Heavy
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 29 Jul 2022
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Here's something special for NWOBHM fans that you probably never thought you'd get to hear. If you remember those days, you probably remember White Spirit, a band from Hartlepool up there in the northeast of England, who impressed enough with a single on Neat to land a deal with MCA but vanished after their one and only album. That album is well worth your time, by the way, with plenty of biting NWOBHM guitarwork from Janick Gers, now of Iron Maiden, but also an incessant chug and heavy organ reminiscent of seventies Deep Purple. They even added some prog in there for good measure; just check out the epic closer, Fool for the Gods.

Everything was very promising indeed. But then Gers left to replace Bernie Tormé in Gillan, Toby Sadler replaced Phil Brady on bass and singer Bruce Ruff left, to be replaced by an unknown called Brian Howe. The new White Spirit recorded most of a new album under producer Colin Towns, also of Gillan fame, but they split up before it was done and everyone went their separate ways. While some joined bands as varied as Tank, Airrace and the Sweet, that unknown new singer made good on the other side of the pond, fronting Ted Nugent's band and then replacing Paul Rodgers in Bad Company, hardly the easiest challenge a singer's ever been given.

Fast forward almost forty years to 2020 and the death of Brian Howe of a heart attack. A day later, Mick Tucker, who had replaced Gers on guitar, and Malcolm Pearson, keyboard player all along, did the expected reminiscing about old times and remembered that second never finished album. The expectation was that the master tapes were long gone, but then Pearson started organising for a move to France and found them in storage. And so began the process of restoration, because four decades in a bedside cabinet is hardly the ideal place to keep master tapes.

Restoration went well, but not everything was salvagable. Tucker and Pearson therefore decided to re-record all the music and to replace the vocals where Howe's original work from 1982 couldn't be saved . They performed their own parts, of course, but brought in drummer Russell Gilbrook, of Uriah Heep, as original White Spirit drummer Crash Crallan had died in 2008, and bass player Neil Murray, who's played with everyone. Howe's voice remains intact on five tracks, making this a cool posthumous gem in his discography, with Jeff Scott Soto stepping in on two, Lee Small on two and FM's Steve Overland on the fifth. Towns finished up his production four decades on, while the mix was done by Pontus Norgen of Hammerfall.

So, these are old songs, written and originally recorded in 1981, but largely re-recorded by two of the original members, two new ones and a mix of original vocals with new ones by diverse hands. As a result, it sounds both old and new at the same time, as if White Spirit had done most of their job, but then magically hopped through a portal in time to finish up with 21st century technology. The Deep Purple sound of the first album carries through to this one, but the songs do change just a little depending on who's singing them.

Soto sang for Journey for a year, so it's hardly shocking to find that his two tracks, Right or Wrong, which is a stormer of an opener, and Better Watch Out, with a more prominent keyboard line, have a notable Journey feel to the vocals, but they're more like Heep and Purple behind him. Lee Small currently sings for Lionheart, Shy and the Sweet, so he has plenty of flexibility; he's a higher, more emotional version of Soto here, especially on The Dice Rolls On. Steve Overland helps Holy Water to sound exactly like Bad Company, a fitting tribute to Howe, who sang for them for eight years.

And that leaves Howe's half of the album. He does sound a little thinner than the others, but that has to come from his recordings are forty years old. Runaway sounds like it could have been on Van Halen's 1984 album, if Sammy Hagar had joined by that point. Lady of the Night and Gotta Get Out are keyboard heavy too, but in a different way, as if White Spirit was moving a little away from the NWOBHM sound and more into mainstream hard rock but in an interesting way, as Diamond Head did with Canterbury.

That said, the riff in Gotta Get Out feels like it could have been on White Spirit's debut album, and I actually went back to see if Wait a Little Longer actually was. It wasn't, but it's my favourite song here, happy to just barrel along. There are hard rock songs here that rock hard, but none of them harder than that one. Finally, there's Rock and Roll (Is Good for You) to close out, which is the most obvious single material here, completely unlike the closer of the debut except for the keyboard bit in the middle and a carnival version of Greensleeves to fade out at the end.

These are all fantastic songs to hear but the obvious response is that it's a real shame that such a promising band ceased to be so quickly. After all, they didn't record a third album before they split up that someone's going to find next week. However, Tucker and Pearson have apparently hired an all new rhythm section and a second guitarist to record and tour with. So White Spirit are back and I couldn't be happier.

Municipal Waste - Electrified Brain (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Crossover
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Jul 2022
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Municipal Waste have never been the most prolific thrash band in the scene, but their every other year album release schedule slipped to every three years and it's now every five, with this coming five years after Slime and Punishment and that five after The Fatal Feast. What's increasing is the average ratings at Metal Archives, because each album released after Massive Aggressive in 2009 has garnered a higher rating. I'm not sure I can agree with that because Municipal Waste's brand of crossover thrash is ultra-reliable but also relatively predicatable. This is done well, because all of their music is done well, but it's hard to compare its merits.

For anyone not aware of what they do, the openers quickly establish their modus operandi and it's not one that they vary much at all as the album continues. Electrified Brain highlights how frantic their approach to thrash is, a speed metal assault with hardcore punk vocals that's over and done in fewer than three minutes, even with an intro, an outro and a set of swapped guitar solos in the middle. Demoralizer is a bit more metal, with even more Iron Maiden-esque guitarwork, but it's a song with a similar impact otherwise. Last Crawl is back to pure crossover, the vocals taking a lead over the guitars, and on we go.

I should comment on the lengths of these tracks, because they make those on yesterday's Soulfly album look positively epic. Only Thermonuclear Protection makes it to the three minute mark and Putting On Errors only reaches half that, with The Bite only a blip longer. There are fourteen songs on offer here and yet the album still only clocks in at thirty-four minutes even. It can't ever be said that Municipal Waste hang around.

The comparisons to draw are to the original crossover bands, so I won't even bother to list them, as they wouldn't surprise anyone. I got a lot of Suicidal Tendencies on The Bite though, with a dash of Overkill, a band that kept cropping in my mind from the thrash side of things. The most overt punk side is Tony Foresta's lead vocal and his voice defines the band's sound even more than the guitars of Ryan Waste and Nick Polous. Talking of Waste, he and Land Phil both contribute vocals here too, combining most effectively on Ten Cent Beer Night, deepening an already catchy chorus.

That song has a neat nod to the Scorpions at the end and I couldn't fail to catch a German bite in a prowling Accept vein on songs like High Speed Steel and especially Thermonuclear Protection. The latter may well be my favourite song here, even if Restless and Wicked comes as close to textbook as anything here, a two and a half minute blitz with rough vocals over tight riffs, the combination of punk voice and metal guitars apparently effortless but utterly effective.

And there's not much more for me to say, because Municipal Waste aren't one of those bands who might grow on you with further listens. They're utterly transparent about what they do and that's on offer on the first song, the last song and everything in between. If you like one of them, you're pretty much guaranteed to like all of them. Conversely, if you don't like the first one you hear, the rest of the album isn't going to change your mind. This is another short blitzkrieg of an album that will clean your clock in the best possible ways. If you're into that, check it and them out.

Tuesday, 13 September 2022

Soulfly - Totem (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Groove/Thrash Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 5 Aug 2022
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While I was a big fan of early Sepultura with co-founder Max Cavalera, both the early death metal stuff and the later stuff that brought in tribal rhythms, I haven't been as fond of Soulfly, which he founded in 2007. Sure, they had an interesting genre-melding approach and they were far heavier than most of the alternative stuff I was hearing from the States at the time, but it didn't connect with me. Now, I haven't followed their career religiously, but I have heard a couple of albums and some odd other stuff here and there, enough to know that it just wasn't my sort of thing.

Maybe I should have kept listening, because this isn't what I remember at all. This is much heavier and often much faster, though there's still a strong focus on groove metal. The nu metal elements are gone, it seems, which I'm not upset about, and there are riffs that shift clearly from groove to thrash to death, which I'm also not upset about. It's an interesting mix and it's backed up by vocals that are definitely somewhere on that same road; they may be rooted in hardcore shouts but they don't feel remotely out of place on thrashy material and have a tinge of death growl to them too. I hear some Tom G. Warrior in that voice, especially on songs like Ecstasy of Gold. And all of this is a lot further up my alley than what I remember on earlier albums.

Of course, the tribal aspect is not neglected either and Cavalera's son Zyon is credited not only on drums but also Brazilian percussion. This is more overt on the later, more experimental tracks, but it's discernable on the storming opener, Superstition, and on others like Rot in Pain and Ancestors. I like this approach and, frankly I'd like to hear a lot more of it, but I'm hardly going to complain, as Soulfly are one of the few bands doing this at all. What's odd to me is how this doesn't particularly feel like folk metal at all, even though it kind of is because of that ethnic Brazilian sound.

Superstition is a blistering opener, more thrash than groove but the groove elements present add a bounce to it, so it feels upbeat as well as up tempo. It's over in three minutes and that's average here, if we factor out the five minute title track and the epic nine minute closer. That makes these songs all the more urgent, because they show up, do their thing and then vanish into oblivion (or a dead tone on The Damage Done), so another short, punchy song can do the same thing. I dig that a lot, even though it's clearly a punk influence and this is a lot more of a metal album.

Talking of The Damage Done, not everything here unfolds at a serious pace. The songs are always urgent and ready for the pit to respond, but this one focuses on that effect, its fundamental riff a perfect example of what a thrash band would call the mosh part of a song. Add the chanting vocal and the bouncy groove and the pit ought to love this one, but I dug the guitar solo just as much. It definitely counts as a song to feel as much as hear.

With a brief note to point out that the title track is longer and so has more opportunity for wilder, more interesting things to happen, that's a growing approach on the album's second half that the title track kicks off. Ancestors plays a lot with the Brazilian side of things and morphs into a sort of conversation with the spirits. Ecstasy of Gold is my favourite short song here, not least because of the repetition at the end of lines, something that's there from Superstition onwards but finds its greatest effect here. Soulfly XII is an interesting instrumental built around what could have been a thrash metal intro, but deepened with world and electronic sounds.

And that leaves the closer, Spirit Animal, which is particularly fascinating. It kicks off riddled with spooky effects, like a Hallowe'en ride, then finds a groove metal riff to ground it, adds a chant to colour it and only gets more inventive from there. By the seven minute mark, it's unmistakably a prog rock song, atmospheric and imaginative and we start to wonder about the instruments that we hear. Was that a saxophone? Certainly horns of some description. What's being done over the clean vocals? Are those layered effects in post or some sort of filter? Something, I'm sure.

I've listened to this a lot today, partly because it connected with me and I'm not used to that from Soulfly but partly because it's really interesting material. The first five tracks are worthy of a 7/10 but the second five are even better and I don't think an 8/10 would be unfair. As the latter amount to a lot more minutes than the former, I think that balances a 7.5/10 upwards. This may become as low on my highly recommended list as anything gets this year, just squeezing on as a rounding up but I do think it deserves to be on there. That surprises me but it is what it is. Now, what else have I been missing out on by Soulfly? I'm seeing suggestions that they ditched nu metal a while back.

Satan - Earth Infernal (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 1 Apr 2022
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There are all sorts of odd little observations when it comes to Satan. The band, that is. For a start, they hail from Newcastle upon Tyne and yet didn't start out on Neat, like so many others. Instead, they released material on labels like Roadrunner and Steamhammer that were more prestigious than Neat but didn't have such a grounding in the NWOBHM era. The other observation from me is that I seem to have a lot more of Satan when they weren't called Satan, under which name they have existed for four out of the seven eras of their existence.

That's partly because they changed their name to Blind Fury in 1984, when I discovered rock music. So, while I've heard and thoroughly enjoyed the debut Satan album, Court in the Act, from 1983, I first heard them as Blind Fury, on yet another strong Friday Rock Show session (the 31st May, 1985 show when it debuted is one of my most frequently played recordings). Somehow I failed to notice their 1987 album as Satan, but did pick them again under another new name, Pariah, who played a heavier, thrashier form of metal. I remember their second album, Blaze of Obscurity, fondly. Now I see that they're back to being Satan again, and I realise that I've missed more of their work than I've heard.

It's good to hear Satan again, whatever name they're using this week, and this album took me way back to those days. Sure, there's nostalgia to that, because this is new music that fits right into my comfort zone. I kept expecting Tommy Vance to back announce the track I'd just played. And that's because the style they adopt here is emphatically the NWOBHM era one that they played early in their career, with deep and warm vocals from Brian Ross, who's on his third stint with the band. It would be fair to say that he's the most characteristic aspect to their sound, a clean hard rock vocal over a heavy metal backdrop.

The metal aspect manifests through the twin guitar assault of Steve Ramsey and Russ Tippins, the heart of the band. Each is on their fourth stint with Satan (not forgetting one with Blind Fury and two with Pariah), and they're just as capable as Ross, even if they're a little less iconic. They add a metallic edge to the band, ironically because they hint back to seventies Wishbone Ash as much as that band's most overt metal disciples, eighties Iron Maiden. Both of them manifest together on the first side's closer, A Sorrow Unspent, which is up tempo without ever quite becoming speed metal. I could listen to this pair of axemen duel all day. I've actually repeated Burning Portrait three times just now only to listen to them.

With such a grounding in seventies hard rock, as so many of the early eighties British heavy metal bands had, it's perhaps not too surprising that I should hear some Demon here, along with the more expected Angel Witch. Satan are a little heavier, for sure, but everything is still built out of melody, whether it's the vocals or the guitars. They also have a sort of epic feel, like Demon had, that isn't reflected in the length of their songs. None of the ten songs here make it to the six minute mark, though a few come close, but quite a few feel like they're epics anyway, not least the closer, Earth We Bequeath.

Of course, both Satan and Demon shared the side effect of appearing to be a Satanic band, which was cool and edgy until it became a problem when listeners expected them to sound as raucous as Venom. There's nothing worse than to disappoint people for no better reason than not being what they expected you to be. What surprised me here is that they seem to have embraced that Satanic angle again. Sure, they've hardly joined the Norwegian black metal elite, but songs such as Twelve Infernal Lords and Luciferic betray the interests that prompted their name to begin with.

It's actually hard to pick a favourite song here, because everything plays very consistently, even on a second or third listen. Maybe, if you twisted my arm, I'd reluctantly call From Second Sight out as the best song here. But I might say A Sorrow Unspent instead. Or Twelve Infernal Lords. Or, any of the ten songs on offer. On my current listen, I'd say Burning Portrait. And that just underlines how consistent this is. Nothing really stands out above anything else, not because this isn't good stuff but because it's all good stuff, from Ascendancy to Earth We Bequeath. And that's why I've cut my paragraph talking about why I'm giving this a 7/10 and going with a highly recommended 8/10 instead. Hail Satan indeed!

Monday, 12 September 2022

Dare - Road to Eden (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Melodic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Apr 2022
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

I remember Dare from the late eighties, when they put out a killer debut album called Out of the Silence. After that 1988 arrival on the scene, I'm not convinced I heard anything more. I probably thought they'd split up and gone their separate ways. They kind of did, but after a second album in 1991, they returned in 1998 with a third and they've been at it ever since. This appears to be their eighth studio album of original material, with two others reworking earlier releases. Their prior original album was Sacred Ground in 2016, so it's been six years. I'm glad they're still around.

What I remember most from Out of the Silence was the warm, inviting voice of Darren Wharton, a former keyboard player for Thin Lizzy, and their melodic approach, which was notably against the trends of the time, when bands were getting heavier and moving into extreme metal. Of course, a certain Nirvana album the same year as Dare's follow-up was just a further reminder that people wanted something different. Three decades on, I'm happy that so many bands impacted by such a volatile moment in time kept at it anyway and are still putting out strong material today.

While Wharton was initially known for his work in Thin Lizzy, he sounds more like David Coverdale than Phil Lynott, his voice breathy, honeyed and soul-infused. However, his tone is different and he doesn't deliver every line with a knowing wink in his eye. That grounds him and it shifts the overall effect closer to someone like Bob Catley of Magnum. In fact, the longer I listen to this album, the more it sounds like a janglier, subtly folk infused version of Magnum and it's that folk angle, which isn't a huge one, that delineates them.

Born in the Storm is a Magnum-esque opener, and it's a peach too, but Cradle to the Grave sounds folkier, because of the way the vocal line unfolds. If Runrig had tried to emulate U2 in the eighties, they might have ended up sounding like this. On the other hand, those folk melodies are there in the title track too, but they're phrased very much like Magnum would phrase them. In between is a real grower of a track, Fire Never Fades, that's as good as the songs around it even if it took me a couple of listens for me to realise it.

That's four excellent tracks out of four, four varied tracks as well that underline how powerful this album is. To me personally, it's another reminder that, while I was focusing on increasingly heavy material in the eighties, there was so much softer and quieter rock music that I should have found worthwhile too. It's not just Wharton's fantastic lead voice, it's also the guitarwork of Vinny Burns that adds consistently elegant solos and solid riffs like the one on Fire Never Fades. Ironically, for a band founded by a keyboard player, there's not a lot of keyboards early on.

The catch is that this album promptly softens up after those first four tracks and, while it remains good stuff throughout, I'm not going to praise the rest of it the way I've praised the four openers. Lovers and Friends is too soft for my tastes and, while Only the Good Die Young and Grace aren't, I have to say that they're not far away. Suddenly, the obvious comparison ceases to be Magnum and starts to be Bryan Adams. That's especially notable on I Always Will, though it's there to a greater or lesser degree on all four of those songs, surprising me to realise that there's a light/heavy line between Bryan Adams and Magnum.

To my mind, things pick back up with The Devil Rides Tonight, which fits so well with those first four tracks, even with a quiet opening, that I couldn't help but wonder why it wasn't shifted up to play alongside them. That choice would have created an album of two sides, one hard and one soft, and listeners could easily choose which they wanted to replay, depending on their tastes. As it is, it only serves to remind us how impressive the album was early on and how much it had softened up since that point.

I think that means another split the difference rating. Half of this is at least 7, often 8/10. And half is 6 out of 10, well constructed and well played but missing the oomph of the rest. So I'll go with a 7/10. If you're a big fan of the softer end of the spectrum, then you may want to a point to that.

Animals as Leaders - Parrhesia (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 25 Mar 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

Animals as Leaders will never be my favourite band because they take that djenty approach where every instrument becomes a percussion instrument and I'm just not a fan of that. If I want to focus on percussion, I'll listen to Hossam Ramzy's Egyptian rhythms or a gamelan orchestra or even John Cage's compositions for prepared piano. You may be asking at this moment why I'm reviewing the new Animals as Leaders album, their fifth thus far and first in six years, if I'm just going to hate it. Well, I may not be a fan of that particular approach but this band are wildly inventive and do a lot more than just the djenty thing. How much so I just found out.

Case in point: the opener, Conflict Cartography. Sure, there's a rhythmic element to both the bass and the guitar but this one goes everywhere. It reminded me of a far more traditional progressive metal band, or at least their offshoot, Liquid Tension Experiment. It's wild and it's complex but it's also melodic and ambitious. While it drops into a djenty section halfway, it also develops beyond it relatively quickly into more of the playful intricacy that it began with. It's easily my favourite song here and it feels as fresh on a third time through as it did on the first.

On the other hand, Monomyth, which follows it, simply doesn't want to depart so far from rhythm based everything, and most of the song is grounded in that percussive approach. There are synth melodies and guitar soloing over the top of it, but not as much or as notably as on the opener. The thinking is much more limited and the song suffers for that, at least in my opinion, in ways that I'd say don't apply to Red Miso, which is acutely rhythmic but in a fascinating way, making it feel like a success but Monomyth a failure. Sure, Loudwire listed it, in its single form, in a top twenty metal songs of 2021 chart, but that shows how far adrift I am from mainstream American tastes.

And, as with so much, it comes down to a matter of taste, though more so here than on the recent Meshuggah album, I would think. Sure, Animals as Leaders are incredibly talented musicians and they're doing incredibly intricate work, so the question boils down to whether we enjoy what they do or not. Meshuggah are also incredibly talented musicians but they didn't seem to be trying on that album, which made it monotonous to my ears. Taste allows for a lot, but it seems to me that people who dig what they do would prefer other Meshuggah albums over that one. But hey, what do I know? I'm not much of a fan there either.

Of course, that leaves everything else on this album in between those two polar extremes, which I can't say I'm too shocked to discover. The question I had coming in was always going to be primarily about where the balance would be and the answer is that it's a lot closer to the opener than what comes next, meaning that I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected to. Then again, I've only really experienced Animals as Leaders through odd tracks on YouTube, rather than complete albums. I'd be lying if I wasn't surprised by some of what I heard here.

For instance, there's a large amount of keyboard work here that I didn't expect, presumably from Misha Mansoor, who isn't an official band member but who produced this album, played bass and arranged the synth work. He's a djent pioneer himself, best known for founding Periphery. Plenty of songs here, especially during the middle of the album, felt like seventies jazz fusion because of that, merely with occasional more contemporary bass overdubs, rather like what Frank Zappa did on Rubber Shirt, taking an old guitar solo and having a new bass part played over it.

Gestaltzerfall is where that approach largely comes in, sounding somewhere between Colosseum II and Herbie Hancock. Asahi is a swirling piece of atmosphere, its noodling guitars over keyboard swells serving as an interlude where one doesn't seem to be needed. That's because the next song is The Problem of Other Minds, more jazz fusion but with the repetitive bass overlay that annoyed me by distracting me with banal simplicity away from all the admirable complexity going on in the background, which I felt ought to be the foreground. Micro Aggressions is more 21st century but in a similar vein, with the keyboards often leading the way and sections sounding like they were sped up artificially, returning us to Liquid Tension Experiment territory.

It's telling that I enjoyed this rather a lot, especially given that I'm not a hardcore fan of the band. It means that it's accessible to outsiders, even for music so progressive and often experimental. It doesn't feel remotely mainstream, not least because they're an entirely instrumental band, but I can't fail to acknowledge how important and influential they've become. This is jazz as much as it's metal and very possibly more so. There's funk here too and I'm also well aware that most of what I hear as bass is really an eight-string guitar. The bottom line is that they sound like themselves and comparisons aren't easy to conjure up. After all, Parrhesia means "freedom of speech" and that's something they're definitely exploring musically. I should listen to them more.

Friday, 26 August 2022

Journey - Freedom (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Melodic/Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 Jul 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Latest in the growing department of "let's release a new studio album after... holy crap, how long has it been", this is the fifteenth by American melodic/hard rock legends Journey—if we're strict—or the sixteenth, if we count their underrated Dream, After Dream soundtrack from 1980. Either way, it's their first new album in eleven years and it's a generous one, running almost an hour and a quarter, without ever seeming too long. That surprised me, though it should be pointed out that anyone who only listens to them on classic rock stations is going to get three serious shocks here.

The first is that, while Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain are still in the band and in strong form after decades of service—Schon was a founder member way back in 1973—that's not Steve Perry on lead vocals, because he left in 1998. The second is that the current singer is Arnel Pineda, who's Filipino and discovered by the band singing cover songs by Journey and others on YouTube in a band called the Zoo. So far, shocking but maybe not too shocking.

The third is that, given that Pineda joined in 2007 and has been with them consistently for the past fifteen years, performing on their previous two studio albums and a live one, he actually has more years with the band than Perry did. Sure, Perry had a twenty-one year stretch, but they were split up for almost a decade of that, which ought to count. Oh, and fourth just to throw in a bonus, you are not going to care. Pineda sings just like Perry did and he sounds fantastic.

That's evident on the strong opener, Together We Run, which sounds just like Journey should. The band's sound is pretty intact here for much of the running time, whether it's that obvious starter, a grower like Don't Give Up on Us or a ballad like Still Believe in Love. Journey have always done a good job with ballads, though they've never been my favourite songs by them. This one is soft but it's meant to be. I still liked it more than Live to Love Again, which feels like something taken from a musical. At least Don't Give Up on Us has a searing guitar solo from Neal Schon, however soft it gets.

There's a lot of music here, across fifteen substantial tracks, and I'm not going to run through that list one by one. Let's just say that nothing is bad, little is just OK and the highlights for me are You Got the Best of Me and The Way We Used to Be, with All Day and All Night following in their wake.

You Got the Best of Me is a clear standout. It's a relatively subdued rocker but its hooks got stuck in my brain quickly and effectively and the band milk those hooks well enough that it's the longest song here except for the epic closer, Beautiful as You Are. Now, that's only five and a half minutes, just to be clear; the closer is the only long song on offer at a breath over seven. I liked this one on a first listen but it kept standing out more on every repeat, until I was plucking it out for separate plays.

The Way We Used to Be is an odd song because it feels like it ought to slip into the background as a filler track, but it just refuses to stay there. I think it succeeds not because it's inherently great as a song but because it utterly nails its groove. It feels absolutely right. I prefer You Got the Best of Me as a song but this one just gets into my bones and I can't not move to it. All Day and All Night is another groove-oriented song. It feels loose, a lot looser than it really is, because there's no way this wasn't constructed very carefully. Again, it just feels right and that's enough for me.

What I ought to wrap up with is that the line-up isn't quite what it ought to be. Behind Schon, Cain and Pineda, there's Randy Jackson on bass and Narada Michael Walden on drums. Of course, both of them also provide backing vocals, because every member of Journey does that, including Jason Derlatka, who doesn't play an instrument otherwise, even though he's a keyboardist in the usual line-up. Jackson was the bassist at the time the album was released but left before its release, so anyone going to see them on tour will see Todd Jensen on bass. Stranger still, the band's drummer is Deen Castronovo, who's only here to sing lead on After Glow, because Narada Michael Walden is the drummer on everything here and he's particularly emphatic at the end of Beautiful as You Are.

And I'll add a further surprise. Given that almost every quality melodic rock album nowadays is on the Frontiers indie label from Italy, it's an eye opener to see this one come out on a major label, a suggestion that maybe BMG are realising how vibrant the genre is right now. After all, their prior album, Eclipse, in 2011, was a Frontiers release, at least in Europe. Whatever the reason, Journey are back and on top of their game. This is probably longer than it needs to be, but then it's been a long eleven years. I'm not going to complain about how much music there is here, even if it affects the overall rating.

Panzerfaust - The Suns of Perdition - Chapter III: The Astral Drain (2022)

Country: Canada
Style: Black Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 22 Jul 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

I'm not convinced I've ever heard Panzerfaust before, though I have heard the Darkthrone album of that name, which I presume was the source of the band's name rather than the Nazi anti-tank weapon. After all, they're Canadian and not associated with the NSBM movement, though they do write lyrics about war. This is their sixth album in total and the third in the series that's occupied them over the past few years, The Suns of Perdition. Chapter I was War, Horrid War in 2019 and it was followed by Chapter II: Render unto Eden a year later. I believe there are to be four albums in this series, so this is the awkward third before it wraps up.

That said, it doesn't feel particularly awkward. I haven't heard either of the first two chapters, so I can't speak to how it compares, but this is an impressive album that makes me wander to find that pair and experience the whole thing (thus far) in entirety. If there's anything awkward to mention, it would be the presence of experimental interludes in between the five songs proper that I don't see have a real purpose except to separate the tracks. Maybe that's all they intend to do, but they have an industrial tinged sound effect vibe to them that suggests they ought to achieve more than they do.

I knew Panzerfaust played black metal but that didn't prepare me for their sound here. There's as much doom metal here as black and much of the point seems to be texture, atmosphere if you will but I'd say that's a misleading word in this context, as this isn't really atmospheric black metal as a genre. Sure, there's atmosphere in the sound effect laden backdrops; every song starts and ends with one of those, as if we're listening to a Krautrock album. But then the guitars show up and the drums and we're into black metal territory.

If anything, the textures have a gothic flavour to them, due to lush feel and firm confidence, but I wouldn't remotely call this gothic metal. It's always surprisingly slow black metal, deliberate and dark and with rare enough ramps up in tempo that they're always noteworthy when they appear. I would say only one song, The Far Back at the River Styx, spends most of its time at the traditional black metal sort of speed, because it ramps up quickly and never slows back down again.

The songs aren't short, as we might expect from such a slow take on black metal, but only the first of them, Death-Drive Projections, could really be called long, clocking in at over ten minutes, with the others lasting a comfortable six or seven minutes each and change. They're patient creatures, the doom element dictating the tempo and the texture often suggesting ritual. There's a hypnotic quality to the music that I appreciate and I'd like to see how that manifests in the earlier chapters.

I have no idea what the overarching story is here, though I presume there is one, given that this is surely a single concept album spun over four full length releases. I'm enjoying this for the feel, an approach that's probably still in mind from yesterday's Nik Turner album, and every component is on board with the feel. Even the vocals play ball, because there are two singers here, Goliath, who only wears the one hat in the band, and Brock Van Dijk, who also plays guitar, and they hand off to each other as if it's important somehow for the lyrical delivery to continue without any pauses for breath.

Death-Drive Projections is just patient, steadfastly refusing to speed up, though it somehow gets a little more intense as it goes. Bonfire of the Insanities, on the other hand, rumbles along like it's an unstoppable creature, utterly confident in its eventual victory that it doesn't have to exert any more effort than it feels like at any point in time. It's a surprise when it ramps up to more typical black metal speed with less than a minute to go, but maybe that unstoppable creature is pouncing. Tabula Rasa is bludgeoning, not insanely fast but ultra-powerful and with a seriously hard hitting beat from a very impressive drummer, Alexander Kartashov.

After a few listens, I'm still not sold on the interludes, which range from only thirty-eight seconds of The Pain to almost six minutes with Enantiodromia. Almost ten minutes of interludes seems just a little excessive on a forty-seven minute album and this would be a safe 8/10 without them. Were they just not happy with thirty-eight minutes?

I think the songs get better too as they progress, the first two solid but the last two even more so and maybe Bonfire of the Insanitise right at the heart of the album above them all in my thinking. But this is all new to me. Clearly, I need to check out the first two chapters in The Suns of Perdition tetralogy. Maybe I've found another favourite black metal band from North America, after Wolves in the Throne Room.

Thursday, 25 August 2022

Arch Enemy - Deceivers (2022)

Country: Sweden
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Aug 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

I've enjoyed Arch Enemy for years, partly because they were one of the few bands who I noticed in my nineties period of not noticing much because life had taken over from music for me for a while. Maybe the fact that they famously hired a woman as a harsh vocalist helped to grab my attention, but that novelty wore off quickly once that unlikely glass door was broken and Angela Gossow was able to become simply the singer, worthy of note for her musical talents not just her gender.

Their current singer, Alissa White-Gluz, is probably a better vocalist, but I still have a fondness for Gossow's voice. She spat out lines well and she's still who I see when I think of commercial melodic death metal. Now, this is a less commercial album than say, Anthems of Rebellion, with faster and more technical shifts, but the melodies are still there and clearly come from the same band. I may not have heard that album in a decade but listening to it alongside this one highlights just how much this is Anthems with crisper production and harder and cleaner edges.

I really like the balance that they've found here between an extreme death metal sound, with its double bass drumming and harsh vocals, and an older school power metal sound, with slower riffs, guitar solos and melodies. There are reasons why Handshake with Hell is the opener, because it's quite a lot of things all at once. It's a melodic death metal song, of course, but White-Gluz sings a line here and there clean, as if it's a straightforward heavy/power metal song too, and she drops into a tasty section in the second half with clean vocals that are almost folky, over a sort of dark ambient backdrop. Then a guitar duel between Michael Amott and Leff Loomis brings us home.

It's the most varied song vocally, because White-Gluz does stay harsh for the vast majority of the album, though she did impress me thorougly with what she did there. However, the music remains varied throughout. In the Eye of the Storm is slow and powerful and it's a firm nod to Judas Priest, even though White-Gluz is a few octaves below Rob Halford. Priest had a few songs with Deceiver in the name, so I was almost expecting that nod, given that there's a kinda sorta title track called Deceiver, Deceiver, but they shifted it elsewhere.

They speed back up on The Watcher, the elegant twin guitarwork of the intro soon giving way to a speed metal blitzkrieg, but it slows down for the choruses and wraps up with keyboards that flow smoothly into the strings that open Poisoned Arrow. And the choruses on both those songs, as on most of the ten songs proper on offer here, are epic in sound. It would only take a change in vocal style for Arch Enemy to become a pure power metal band. They don't even need to lower the bass in the mix, because that's already been done, which I'd suggest is the only flaw to the production.

Some of the songs don't even need the choruses to feel epic. My favourite here after The Watcher may well be Sunset Over the Empire, which has orchestral sweeps in it that may well be keyboards but which endow it with a timeless quality. The lyrics aren't particularly deep but it feels like they ought to be. Certainly it's about a pivotal moment in time, with talk of holy war and an end to one era with the promise of another ascendant. It's the sort of thing an epic metal band tends to sing about and I don't doubt that Arch Enemy would acknowledge that. The orchestral/choral section that closes out Spreading Black Wings is just another example of pure epic, almost a soundtrack.

I wonder whether the naysayers after the hiring of Angela Gossow are still dissing on Arch Enemy. They didn't like how commercial and mainstream the band's sound was getting, especially on the breakthrough Anthems of Rebellion album, and wished for the more technical, more intense days with Johan Liiva at the mike. White-Gluz may be a little more traditional with her vocal but all the complaints about Gossow's era are applicable here. There are catchy melodies everywhere. There are "hey, hey" sections in both Sunset Over the Empire and Spreading Black Wings. Mourning Star is a brief instrumental that wouldn't feel out of place on a Pink Floyd album.

But Arch Enemy seem to be shifting units, so plenty of people aren't upset about their sound. This is often powerful, fast, heavy, emphatic. Is it what the band were doing with Liiva? No, not particularly, but music is fluid and evolving. It seems somehow disrespectful to challenge a band who pioneered one genre for moving into another. It ought to be just as valid to challenge why they haven't changed more in the past couple of decades. Me, I'm just enjoying a quality melodic death metal album that, sure, may often be a quality power metal album instead.

Nik Turner & The Trance Dimensionals - Synchronicity (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Space Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 30 May 2022
Nik Turner: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website | Wikipedia
Steve Hillman: Bandcamp | Facebook
The Trance Dimensionals: Facebook

It would be fair describe the prolific space rock saxophonist and flautist Nik Turner as an acquired taste and pretty much everything I said about his previous album, The Final Frontier, holds on this one, credited to Nik Turner & The Trance Dimensionals. This is a more personal version of the style you might know from Hawkwind, the legendary British space rockers with whom he performed for a decade or so during their most successful period, albeit in two stints. He certainly hasn't moved too far adrift from their sound, referencing their Space Ritual album by name in Destination Void and The Enchantress, the first two tracks here.

When Turner sticks to making music, he sounds great. I love his instrumental work, because it's as trippy and weird as anything Hawkwind put their name to but more exploratory. Turner has stated that he's more interested in the feel of songs than any particular structure or components within them and that makes sense. Instrumentals like Sphinx Dancer are joyous journeys that I wouldn't mind continuing for hours. I wonder if this one was extracted from a longer jam, as it fades in and kind of fades out after its six minutes in the spotlight. It could have been as endless as the sands it evokes and which are so vividly depicted in the cover art.

However, when Turner takes the mike, the quality drops because he sounds less like a vocalist and more like an old man reading poetry, which I'm pretty sure he is on songs like Sekhmet. On others, I think the point is more to narrate an introduction, like on Destination Void, which also opens the album, and Thunder Rider Invocation. Even when he tries to sing, he sounds like he's providing the narration rather than singing a song. Fortunately, he hands over actual singing duties here to the various guests. Angel Flame, the dancer in Turner's Space Ritual band and also the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, provides excellent narration on a couple of tracks too.

I talk about Turner like this is his band, but it isn't. Last time out, on The Final Frontier, it was and I'm assuming that all the creative decisions were his. That's not really the case here, because this is a Trance Dimensionals album, with Nik Turner a guest of sorts, even if he's an acutely prominent one. The Trance Dimensionals are the band of Steve Hillman, who provides the guitars, keyboards and synths here, as well as writing all the music and lyrics, except for a couple of those overblown narrations, which are the work of Terry James Hawke, and the final song, Children of the Sun, by a partnership of Nik Turner and Dave Anderson of Amon Düül II, the Groundhogs and, inevitably, an album by Hawkwind.

So this is really a Steve Hillman album, with Turner adding saxophone and flute and, occasionally, vocals. Oddly his sax is relatively subdued in the mix, so I had to focus hard to hear it on favourites like Night of the Jewelled Eye, the longest piece here, which starts out folkier and ends up almost in carnival territory when it gets frantic, though it never ceases to be space rock and really good space rock at that. His flute is much more obvious, especially on a beautiful but much calmer instrumental called Cloudlands, but also on Sphinx Dancer.

It's telling that all my favourites here are instrumentals and very possibly jams. It wouldn't shock me to discover that this line-up, which includes a couple of musicians Hillman performed with in a prog rock band called Ra Rising, Clog on bass and Dai Rees on drums, could just jam for hours and never cease to be interesting. When vocals show up and aren't just recited poetry in some form of collaborative performance art, it's the guests who shine, especially Eleanor Rees, who provides a memorable vocal on Children of the Sun.

And so, this is another 6/10 for me, though really that's a midpoint between a lot of 7/10 material and a lot of 5/10 material. Guess which side of that is almost entirely instrumentals? I see that Nik Turner has also released a collaborative album this year that I should check out, featuring a slew of enticing names, including Robby Krieger, Chris Poland and Steve Hillage, along with legendary jazz drummer Billy Cobham and others. It's called Space Fusion Odyssey and I guess it underlines a rather busy period in Turner's career.

Wednesday, 24 August 2022

Ted Nugent - Detroit Muscle (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Hard and Heavy
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 29 Apr 2022
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Sure, Ted Nugent is a right wing whackjob and he's about as subtle as the muscle car engines that introduce his sixteenth solo album or indeed the rendition of the Star Spangled Banner that closes it. He's a loud and obnoxious personality, but that doesn't mean that he doesn't rock. If you don't buy into that, just go check out Double Live Gonzo! and we'll talk. Songs such as Wang Dang Sweet Poontang are about as loud and obnoxious as he is but there are few ever released that rock much harder.

Sure, it would be easy to dismiss him into a right wing whackjob category with people like Kid Rock and that's fair on a single front, but only one. I didn't review Kid Rock's album, Bad Reputation, in March, because it's just awful, an embarrassment that should never be mentioned again, led by a cringefest of a single, Don't Tell Me How to Live, that beggars belief. This isn't. It's not Nuge's best but it's a rock 'n' roll record that doesn't embarrass anyone, least of all him.

And, of course, given how opinionated the man is, I should probably talk about lyrics before music. Surprisingly, they're not controversial at all, even if there are a few veiled references that we see through. We might look at song titles and cringe at their lyrical content in advance, like Come and Take It, Just Leave Me Alone and Feedback GrindFIRE, but there's nothing much to them. Mostly, I would call them generic and uninspired, as if Nugent simply didn't want this to be an instrumental album so had to come up with some words. Come and Take It has forty lines and over half of them are literally just the title.

Frankly, I'd have preferred this to be an instrumental album, because the best thing about it is the guitar. Nugent rarely unleashes his instrument and rips the way we know that he can, but he plays it well and in an interesting fashion throughout. In fact, he lets us wait for the blistering stuff, the WinterSpring SummerFall instrumental a real highlight but through subtlety rather than a gonzo genius. The wild guitar waits for Feedback GrindFIRE no fewer than ten songs in, one I'm sure he's going to absolutely blister through on stage, and it's still there on Star Spangled Banner to close things out. I wanted a lot more of the Motor City Madman and I didn't get it, but I see reasons why.

One is that Feedback GrindFIRE is the only vocal song here where the guitar truly plays a lead role in that it's higher in the mix than the vocals. On this one, those vocals are suitably wild too, mostly because I presume they're delivered by Nugent himself rather than his bassist, Greg Smith, who is a far more deliberate and controlled singer. He does a decent job and he's a better singer than his boss, but he feels out of place to me on a Ted Nugent album and he left me wondering if the guitar was more deliberate and controlled to complement his delivery.

And so this becomes a little underwhelming, even if the best, most raucous material is left for last and so makes us want to immediately start again to see if we misjudged it. But no, we didn't. It's a fair observation that the muscle cars in Detroit Muscle, one of two paeons to Nugent's hometown, are actually a sample of muscle cars, even though we know full well from Feedback GrindFIRE that he could have generated that sound in a far more interesting fashion from his guitar. To not do so was a deliberate choice and it underlines those first nine songs. He even gets a bit sentimental on Alaska and it doesn't work for me.

Of the pre-Feedback GrindFIRE songs, the most interesting to me are the ones that find a groove. Born in the MotorCity is another paeon to Detroit with banal lyrics but one that's performed as a blues song in ZZ Top style. That little old band from Texas do it better but it's neat to hear Nugent take on the groove. There's a southern rock undercurrent to Drivin' Blind, beyond the lyrical nod to Molly Hatchet and others, that's neat to hear too. They're decent, but it's the wild closing pair and the unusually introspective instrumental that I'd call out as highlights.

Satyricon - Satyricon & Munch (2022)

Country: Norway
Style: Dark Ambient
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 10 Jun 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

And there was I thinking that Satyricon had lost all their extreme metal edge and shifted well into mainstream heavy metal with admittedly killer riff-driven singles like K.I.N.G. This is not remotely that and, in fact, it's edgier than the black metal they started out making. The Munchmuseet says that this fifty-six minute track, "carries Satyricon's unmistakable signature yet breaks away from anything they've previously created through its format, length, and expression." They're right.

And why would the Munchmuseet, an Oslo museum dedicated to the art of the famous Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, have any relevance in an album review? Well, because this single piece was composed to accompany a selection of Munch's paintings and graphics at the Munchmuseet, in an innovative collaboration between two artists of different media. This is therefore less of an album and more of an installation piece. Which explains why it's so weird.

Satyricon & Munch, also the name of the exhibition, certainly isn't black metal or metal at all, but it's hard to label it. There's a lot here that's dark ambient, but it starts out abrasive, almost like a subdued industrial piece, pulsing over a repeated mechanical riff. It evolves from there, through the use of imaginative instrumentation, some of which provides what is clearly music and some of which is content to serve as sound effects. Rarely does it come close to what we tend to expect in a Satyricon album, making it a worthy piece of music but a surprising one to boast their name.

The first instrument to emerge from this dark soundscape, as everything thus far fades into it, just like the cover art, is an elegant cello that manages to be both traditional and experimental, as I'm pretty sure the strange noises around the expected rich sound are also cello-derived. It's the next section that comes closest to the Satyricon we know and love, with a black metal guitar delivering a neat riff, albeit entirely without the blastbeats that normally accompany it. Instead, there's an oddly upbeat percussive backdrop, that's half industrial and half circus music, a clarinet joining in for good measure.

And so we go, the motif developed thus far explored in a variety of instruments and timbres. This is certainly constructed like a classical composition, but with strong use of electronics and pulsing mechanised sounds. Of course, there's a serious crossover between classical music and metal in an array of different subgenres, but it's rarely delivered in such a form as this. In fact, it's probably a greater likelihood that you might hear this on a niche modern classical radio station than on rock shows. And really, whether that piques your interest or not is the most likely indicator of whether you might dig this or not.

I do, but then I like dipping my toes into the often avant-garde world of modern classical music. I'm not an expert and don't even have a complete grounding but I find it fascinating. Now, just like the modern art world, I don't always like it or understand it, but I find it fascinating nonetheless, just to hear instruments that I do understand doing things that I haven't heard them do before or in a way that I haven't heard before. To anyone who thrives on discovery, it's a fascinating place.

And it's that sort of listener who might dig this. You should certainly approach it with your mind as open as possible. You'll need to be patient, not only because it's one fifty-six minute track but also because it's often slow and ambient and it warrants multiple listens to fully appreciate. It's almost the opposite of an ear worm like K.I.N.G. in just about every way. This is rarely catchy, though a few sections find a groove that latter day Satyricon fans might recognise, often the ones that bring in a metal guitar and generate a riff to play with for a while. Of course, even when that happens, the cello remains a prominent instrument, often the prominent instrument.

So, if everything I've said makes you wonder what's wrong with the world today, then this isn't for you and, if you like Satyricon, you're definitely going to be pissed that they labelled it as such. But if you have a more open mind and are intrigued as to what Satyr and Frost have done here, then I do recommend that you check it out. You may still hate it and you'll still be puzzled about why it's identified as a Satyricon album, but it will, at least, have a shot to impress you. Maybe it will.

Tuesday, 23 August 2022

Agathodaimon - The Seven (2022)

Country: Germany
Style: Gothic Black Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 18 Mar 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Wikipedia | YouTube

I haven't heard Agathodaimon since my EMusic days a couple of decades ago when I discovered an array of favourites on Napalm Records. It's been long enough that I don't remember exactly what they sounded like but I believe that they've evolved a little from more symphonic black metal into a gothic flavour of black metal. Both those sounds are in evidence on the opener, La Haine, which starts out as a grandiose form of black metal but shifts midway to a more emotional gothic sound midway, and it's a highly appropriate way to kick things off.

Initially, the black metal side of this bled through the deepest and I liked it, even though it didn't blow me away. Gradually, the gothic side of it came into focus and I liked it more, with the harsher black metal side an interesting contrast to keep this heavy. Gothic metal can often feel like gothic rock simply heavied up somewhat but this never feels like it's anything but metal, the harsh voices and frantic drums an unmistakable manifesto of extreme metal and their agreeable taint always floats there keeping its evil eye on us, even when the sound gets slower, richer and darker.

The song that emerged as a standout first was Wolf Within, which again starts out black but finds its way to a more evocative gothic sound, with a strong riff and an ambience of whispers, even before the achingly slow and dark section. There's some sort of narration late in the song that sounds like it's delivered by a pissed off witch. Maybe it's a sample and maybe not, but it's evocative however it was sourced. Putting all those elements together makes this quite the potent song.

And, while I'm not sure anything else here matches it, others gradually highlight similar qualities. I rather like the middle of the album, Mother of All Gods and Estrangement the logical end to one side and the beginning of the other. The former is the better song but the latter is interesting, as it's the least black metal song on offer, though there's plenty of double bass drumming going on and it keeps on speeding up until its finale. However, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's the most gothic, because the rich textures evident elsewhere don't show up much at all.

In fact, there's more velvet and mahogany in the sub-two minute prelude to In My Dreams which follows it than in this entire song, with In My Dreams proper kicking off with neat whispered sonic cobwebs before launching into a faster and more frantic tempo. The question really becomes what songs are the best place to start for the new listener. I'd say start with La Haine, just as the album does, and, if you like what you hear, follow up with a double bill of Wolf Within and In My Dreams (Part 2 - In Bitterness). If you're not convinced by them, this isn't for you. If you are, then you're all set and you can explore from there.

Oddly, my least favourite song is the one they've made a video for, which is Kyrie / Gloria. It seems too deliberate for me, as the spotlight section runs too long, a sonorous gothic voice playing a sort of counter to a variety of voices, some shrieky, others very different. It's an interesting idea, but it didn't work for me and the rest of the song doesn't make up for it. That's probably down to choice, which is a personal thing, so you may dig it. The band are very capable, so this ends up being about how the black metal merges with the symphonic and gothic aspects and which songs do that best.

I certainly like Agathodaimon more as a gothic metal band than a black metal one and, while they're a bit more of the latter than the former, they're moving my way. I would suggest that it'll be interesting to see how they develop over their next couple of albums, but they haven't been particularly busy of late. They split up in 2014, after a couple of decades as a band and half a dozen studio albums to their name, but they got back together in 2020 and this is the first output since then. So, welcome back, folks! The Seven is their seventh album. Let's hope it's a lucky one for them.

Children of the Sün - Roots (2022)

Country: Sweden
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 18 Mar 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook

I adored Flowers, the debut from Swedish psychedelic rock band Children of the Sün, in 2019 and it only missed out on being my album of the month for August 2019 by a heartbeat. This follow-up is a peach of a difficult second album. Sure, it didn't wow me as much as its predecessor but that has more to do with me being hip to their game now than any lack of quality. I know what they can do. They're not going to surprise me, but they're certainly going to entertain me.

It feels like a more mature release to me, as the band admirably diversifying their sound without losing any of their power. And that power is in full effect on the opener, Reflection, not only in the amazing voice of Josefina Berglund Ekholm but in the band behind her too. This one builds from a soothing start through a searing midsection to a soothing finish. It reminds me in fewer than four minutes why I love this band so much.

If Reflection is typical for them, their range is admirably highlighted over the next three tracks, in which they cover a lot of ground, some of it new. Leaves kicks off with an early seventies hard rock riff but the vocal shifts from Joan Baez through Dolores O'Riordan to Abba, so it's not all heavy. It isn't dark either, which Blood Boils Out is, from the very outset. It looks forward too, adding some eighties into the very sixties mix, even if it feels like it could always been a cunning cover of a Nina Simone song that we've never heard before. It's built out of small things: a minimal piano line, an omnipresent shaker, hand claps, some percussion. It grows magnicently.

It's where we hear something new in the Children of the Sün sound and that's backed up by what's in Gaslighting. There's still a lot of sixties here, a strident Grace Slick vocal leading the way, but it has plenty of eighties too. There's Siouxsie in here and post-punk in its gorgeous energy, even as it builds to a neat guitar solo from Jacob Hellenrud. It's loose in an Inkubus Sukkubus style and, if it's at all hippie, it's a much later All About Eve neo-hippie vibe rather than the old school Woodstock one we might expect.

And so we go. There are thirteen tracks here, though a couple are brief instrumental pieces, one a Epilogue because it says so and the other an interlude even if it doesn't. That's Willow Tree and it leads into the title track, which is hypnotic pagan ritual, even if it evolves into something more, as so many of these songs do, not least another vocal workout for Berglund Ekholm. She gets quite a few of those here, though I'm as impressed by her delicate moments in between as the spotlights. There are plenty of those, in songs like Eden, Man in the Moon and In Silva.

Really, there's plenty of everything. Those delicate songs feature an acoustic guitar that I'd swear at points is played by Jimmy Page. The Soul is a wild spiritual with a John Kongos groove. Thunder lets us believe it's going to rumble along like a heavy blues song but then switches gear on us as it finds a Heartless Bastards sort of vibe. Reaching for Sun may be the best example of the mix of old and new, because it has an old rock sound, like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, but filtered through a tighter, more modern groove that's sometimes reminiscent of Nick Cave.

I've been playing this album all day and I'm still discovering little details, as if it's an old coat that I bought used that fits perfectly and I keep finding new pockets with little treasures in them. These songs wax and wane on me, different ones standing out on each listen. Blood Boils Hot and Roots may be relatively static as my top favourites but others come and go. Right now Eden is rising and Man in the Moon falling, but the only song that I don't adore is In Silva. It's still a good song but it introduces a male voice that tries to match Berglund Ekholm's and inevitably fails, however much it tries. It's not a bad voice but it would need to be a special one to survive here.

And so I think this is my first 9/10 for the month, which means it's leading the way to the Album of the Month slot that its predecessor so narrowly missed out on. Let's see in a week's time.

Monday, 22 August 2022

Wolfsbane - Genius (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 5 Jun 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

For all that Wolfsbane are a heavy metal band and I'm not arguing against that in the slightest, it has to be said that they don't sound like most, if any, of their peers. They didn't when the eighties were ending on their debut album and, if anything, they're even further apart from the norm now on their first studio album in ten years and fifth overall. The easiest way to describe this is to call it simply another Wolfsbane album. If you know what that sounds like, you're already golden. If you don't, then check it out.

They're an unusual band in that it's hard to define their sound by comparing them to others, but I think everything is fundamentally based in the seventies, whether any particular song owes more to Thin Lizzy or the Ramones or the New York Dolls. I heard each of those bands on multiple tracks here. However, they build on that with more modern sounds, whether that's alternative rock, pop punk, glam rock or some other genre, whatever might be vibrant and energetic enough to make a song feel even more like it was spontaneously jammed on the spot.

It's as much in their attitude as their music, because this is a band who feel like they're here to be entertained as much as to entertain. Maybe the two things are the same to them. They seem to be primarily having fun and only secondarily actually playing music, so there's a constant feeling that everything might go horribly off the rails in about three seconds time. Every song has to be a first take, right? Of course, it never falls apart because these four musicians are so highly capable and they know each other so well that this somehow ends up loose and tight at the same time.

Blaze Bayley actually sounds less like Bruce Dickinson now after his five year and two album stint as the Air Raid Siren's replacement in Iron Maiden than he did back in 1990 on one of my favourite Wolfsbane songs, All Hell's Breaking Loose Down at Little Kathy Wilson's Place. He's maintaining a solo career nowadays on top of fronting Wolfsbane and his fifth solo album, War Within Me last year was excellent. It didn't sound like this, though, because much of this band's sound is found in the guitarwork of Jase Edwards, who never seems to do what anyone else would at any given spot. He always has his own ideas about what to do instead and he's usually right.

And that means that a song like Rock the Boat, with its heavy staccato riffing that takes it from a somewhat Meshuggah level to Bauhaus, can be followed by a mainstream alternative rock song such as Small Town Kisses that's almost the Foo Fighters covering Thin Lizzy. And hey, both of them can be followed by the nearly rockabilly vibe of Things are Getting Better. Rock City Nights is straight ahead glam punk that ends up in Sex Pistols territory. I Was Born in '69 is even a ballad, I guess, but one that doesn't feel out of place in this company.

What's important is that all of these different sounds feel natural together because every one of them is connected by its live in the studio energy. Opener Spit It Out is surely the most energetic song on offer when it's in full motion, but there's plenty more to spare for the other nine tracks. I know these guys aren't young because they're older than I am and I'm not young, but this feels as if it was recorded by eighteen year olds eager to show the world what they can do. Respect to the band for that and welcome back! It's been a while.

Karthago - Máté Péter in Rock! (2022)

Country: Hungary
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 17 Jun 2022
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

Four years of deep diving into international rock and metal at Apocalypse Later Music has brought me in touch not only with the new stuff that's coming out everywhere but also with old stuff that's either still going strong or being brought back into the light. If I'm translating websites correctly, I think this album counts as two cases in point: both the hard rock band Karthago, who recorded for a few years in the early eighties and the music of a Hungarian pop singer called Máté Péter, a cult figure in his native country for a couple of decades from the mid-sixties to his death in 1984 at only thirty-seven years old.

Now, Karthago aren't entirely new to me but I've only heard one of their songs, courtesy of Milan Hubláček from the then Czechoslovakia who kindly sent Tommy Vance a copy of their first album in 1982, from which he played Do Not Stop on the Friday Rock Show. I didn't hear it until recently on a shared recording, as I didn't find that show until 1984, but I enjoyed it and other Euro-rockers that Tommy hauled out for that particular episode. It looks like they released five studio albums in the early eighties before splitting up in 1985, but they got back together in 1990 and eventually found their way back into the studio for ValóságRock in 2004. This is their second studio album since then.

However, if I'm still understanding correctly, none of this one is original material. Everything here is a Máté Péter song, reinterpreted within a rock framework. This works surprisingly well for me, even not knowing nothing at all about Máté and not a heck of a lot more about Karthago. At least I have Discogs to hand, so I can see that there are four tracks here from Máté's 1976 debut album, Éjszakák és nappalok, nothing at all from its follow-up, Magány... és együttlét—which does seem telling—but a trio of songs from each of Máté's two other albums, Szívhangok and Keretek között, the latter of which was released in 1982 at a time when Karthago were active. The rest, I presume, were originally singles.

What matters is that this material rocks, whether that was inherent in the originals or whether it was infused during the translation between genres. Zene nélkül, which opens up the album, is like Deep Purple taking on a Scorpions power ballad, and Elmegyek seems like that too. Egy darabot a szívemböl is a hard rocker out of the gate and stays that way, while Minden szónál többet ér ramps up nicely. To keep the variety in play, Otthonom a nagyvilág, which is old school bluesy rock 'n' roll.

Other tracks feel more like the ballads I'm assuming they were to begin with, even rocked up with a strong guitar like Most élsz or a harmonica like Szülöi ház. Some end up with a Nazareth feel, an epitome perhaps being Azért vannak a jóbarátok, but they're all powerful, even when they're not delivered with as much emphasis. Part of that is that Takáts Tamás's lead vocal, which didn't grab me on the opener, is particularly strong on these power ballads. It's interesting how he went from my least favourite aspect of the band to my favourite literally from one song to another.

It's fair to say here that by power ballads, I don't necessarily mean Still Loving You; many of these are closer to Bridge Over Troubled Water, especially Ott állsz az út végén, which features a highly recognisable four note section on the piano, even if it's also little bit country, as if it's translated a second time. It's not a million miles from a Johnny Hallyday cover of a Merle Haggard cover of the Simon and Garfunkel song.

I should mention here that the entire band is clearly very capable, even though I don't know if any of them have been with Karthago for their entire run or just the last five minutes. The guitars are by Szigeti Ferenc and Gidófalvy Attila, the latter of whom also provides the excellent keyboards, a background instrument here for sure but one that manifests in different ways throughout. There are delicate piano parts over here, texture swells over there, Jon Lord here and there and even a bit of Dire Straits on Szülöi ház. There's a neat bass section on Egy darabot a szívemböl too.

So Kathargo may not have stayed the course like Ossian, but they've hung in there and remained relevant over four decades. On an important Hungarian national holiday last year, the members were given the Máté Péter Award, which is presumably why they decided to record this album. I'm very happy that they did, because it was a discovery for me.

And that may be another reason why the most emotional song is the closer, Emlékezz rám, which I noticed was also the closer on Keretek között, Máté Péter's final album before his death. It really doesn't need three reasons to be there, the third being that it inherently sounds like a memorial, even if it never was until now. And, hey, it did its job, as did this album.

Friday, 19 August 2022

Alan Parsons - From the New World (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 15 Jul 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

For someone who seemed to be retired from the music business, Alan Parsons seems pretty set on releasing a lot of new music. I reviewed his most recent studio album, The Secret, in 2019, but I last encountered him as an actor, in an unusual short film called Galactic Fantastic! in 2020. However, I see that he's issued not just one but two live albums since then, with One Note Symphony: Live in Tel Aviv released in February. The Secret arrived no fewer than fifteen years after its predecessor, A Valid Path, but only three years on and here's another one.

I have to say that I liked this a lot more than The Secret immediately and for a few songs, but that faded as everything softened up. That previous album often felt more like a collection of musical numbers to me than a rock album and this ends up there too, albeit not quite so overtly. Certainly for a while, it's more like the rock albums that we remember from Parsons, the early songs full of his instantly recognisable style, with keyboards and guitars merging together before a drop into soft rock with smooth vocals and careful but soaring guitars.

As with The Secret, Parsons brought guest vocalists on board here, which seems unmistakable on transitions like the one from Don't Fade Now to Give 'em My Love, two vocal songs that feature a pair of completely different voices. There are fewer guests here though, the seven from last time reduced to three this, with one caveat that I'll get to later, the three being Tommy Shaw of Styx on Uroboros, but James Durbin of American Idol on Give 'em My Love and David Pack of Ambrosia on I Won't Be Led Astray. Shaw's contribution fits comfortably with his background, but I know Durbin from harder, heavier material, such as his stint in Quiet Riot and his solo Durbin album from 2021, The Beast Awakens.

As that might suggest, this does play very much on the softer side. The Secret, which I surely ought to wonder was written for the previous album of that name, is bouncy, while Uroboros, which I first heard separately as a single, is the sort of mildly progressive rock that I know Parsons for, but then it gets softer and softer. Sure, there are effortlessly strong guitar solos dotted throughout, which shouldn't surprise anyone, but we can't help but wonder what Parsons would sound like if he took a more daring, less safe approach to his music nowadays.

There are moments early, such as with Uroboros and they show up later too. You are the Light has a perkier outlook, with nice Fleetwood Mac-esque harmonies. Halos brings up the keyboards, in a progressive pop fashion and I liked the new wave rhythms and the samples on a first time through but it got better with every repeat. It's this track and, to a lesser degree, Uroboros, that reminds us of just how great the Alan Parsons Project was on so many albums in the seventies and eighties. Had Parsons filled this album with songs like those, I'd be celebrating a return to form rather than highlighting a second underwhelming release in a row.

What else I should mention here is that there's a folk element here that I wasn't expecting. That's there on Don't Fade Now, which feels like a British folk song we might hear someone singing on a stool in a rural pub, and it's especially there later on Goin' Home, merely one that happens to be orchestrated with keyboards. It's an odd departure from the two styles in play here but there's a reason for that and it ties to it being a song dating back to 1922 that became the base for Antonín Dvořák's New World symphony.

I'm sure there are deeper ties here, beyond the album's title, but it's been a while since I've heard that symphony and don't recognise anything beyond the melody on Goin' Home. Certainly, that's not as odd an inclusion here as the closing track, an incredibly accurate cover of a Ronettes' single, Be My Baby, with vocals from a female vocalist I can't find a reference to but who's certainly up to the task at hand. And here's the caveat I mentioned earlier, because as good as this song is and as good as this vocalist is, it feels utterly out of place here.

So, this is definitely better than The Secret but it's a strangely structured album. The best tracks, a combination of the rockier and folkier material, are early and late, with a bundle of soporofic stuff in between. This would have been better with its middle eviscerated and its closer ditched, maybe to be released separately as the tribute to Ronnie Spector I presume it was meant to be, given her passing in January of this year. However, putting that all together means some easy 7/10 material and some easy 5/10 songs too, so I'll split the difference and go with another 6/10.