Friday 28 January 2022

Jethro Tull - The Zealot Gene (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Folk Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 28 Jan 2022
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Back in 1988, I listened to the 20 Years on One Leg with a Flute special on the Friday Rock Show and taped it for posterity. Two decades was a big deal for Jethro Tull and the majority of songs played were from their five album box set, 20 Years of Jethro Tull: The Definitive Collection. Fast forward to 2018 and I tuned in to Chris Franklin's Raised on Rock for a three hour runthrough of all the best Tull tracks of their first fifty years, as voted for by listeners. Now it's 2022 and Tull have a new album out that doesn't remotely sound like the band is almost fifty-five. Of course, it isn't, as it features a new line-up across the board, except for main man Ian Anderson, but still.

Well, OK, maybe it doesn't feel like they're bounding around the stage any more, but it's vibrant and engaging, even if it's a thoughtful album with typically strong songwriting. It certainly lives up to its status as a decent comeback album, albeit with one notable exception, given that it has now been no fewer than twenty-three years since J-Tull Dot Com, their previous studio album of all original material. I have to add that caveat because they did release a Christmas album in 2003, which we'd normally ignore for no better reason than it's a Christmas album, except that it's one of the rare examples of such a creature being interesting.

That one notable exception is the absence of guitarist Martin Barre, for the first time since their debut, This Was, in 1968. Why Ian Anderson didn't ask him back after reforming the band, I haven't a clue and, as good as this album is, his absence isn't hard to miss. His replacement here is Florian Opahle, a German guitarist who's best known for playing on Anderson's solo albums, including the most recent, 2014's Homo Erraticus. However, he left Tull in 2019, in between recording this and its eventual release.

Opahle does a good job, but this isn't a big guitar album and the mix clearly sees Anderson's flute as the lead instrument, after his voice, with others like mandolin, harmonica and tin whistle peers to the guitar, even if they don't show up as often. On a few occasions, Opahle steps up to make his presence known, on songs like Barren Beth, Wild Desert John, and it's always welcome, but also a rather fleeting thing. Never mind cowbell, this needed more guitar. In fact, by the end, we wonder where the drums went too, because there aren't any on most of the late songs because recording, begun in 2017, ran into COVID-19 and drummer Scott Hammond couldn't record at home.

My first impressions were that this was a capable and enjoyable Tull album but not a particularly immediate one. The exception is Mine is the Mountain, which feels like an epic, even though it's a rather short one at well under six minutes. This is an absolute gem of a song, calm and thoughtful but innovative and striking in its way. It stands out from everything else here, both in quality and in style, given that the rest of the album is playful and lively and full of folky, pastoral elements.

On repeat listens, I found the songs becoming old friends. They're not necessarily the best Jethro Tull have ever recorded but they're certainly worthy of being played alongside them on stage. The Zealot Gene is a memorable one and so is Shoshana Sleeping, where Anderson's voice drifts into a spoken word mindset at points. Most are story songs, as is Anderson's bent, and we find ourselves listening to the lyrics the way rap fans do when they start paying attention to rock music. However, the storyteller in Anderson that captures us, doesn't necessarily plant seeds and, when it's over, I only had Mine is the Mountain stuck in my brain. It's head and shoulders above the rest of the album.

Loudness - Sunburst (2021)

Country: Japan
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 29 Dec 2021
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I started out my traditional January look back at the albums I'd missed in the previous year with a double album of heavy metal with a demon samurai on the cover and an eight letter S word for its title that was released by a long established band. As unlikely it might seem, I'm wrapping up my 2021 catch up with a double album of heavy metal with a demon samurai on the cover and an eight letter S word for its title that was released by a long established band. The first one was Senjutsu by Iron Maiden, who were formed in 1975 with their debut album released in 1980. This is Sunburst by Loudness, formed in 1981 with their debut album released that same year.

Amazingly, this is also their 31st studio album, if I'm counting correctly, and three quarters of the band are founding members, though two of them have left and returned over the years, just like key members of Iron Maiden. They've all been in place since 2001, though, except for the new fish drummer, Masayuki Suzuki, who joined in 2009, after the death of Munetaka Higuchi, the original drummer. Guitarist Akira Takasaki has been the single constant all the way through, meaning that he's now been with the band for over forty years and he's still doing good work.

I have to say that, while putting out a double album of new music at this point in their career does suggest that they're simply bursting with ideas, this one took quite a while to grab me. The intro is there but there's not much more to say about it or about OEOEO, the opening track proper. It isn't a bad song and there are good hooks and riffs and changes in it, but it's hardly the most engaging track on this album to kick it off. It's when we get to tracks entirely in Japanese that they begin to remind us why they're such a legend of Japanese metal.

What's interesting is that these are varied songs. 大和魂, which translates to Yamato Soul, is the epitome of Loudness's traditional heavy metal approach, with solid riffs over which a lively guitar dives in to liven things up. It also features a strong lead vocal from Minoru Niihara. 仮想現実, or Virtual Reality, is a slower, grungier song, but a neatly heavy one nonetheless. It's almost an '80s vocal over '90s instrumentation, but there's no clash between the styles and the vocals do update at points. It's a really interesting pairing.

And then things get seriously good. Crazy World is a peach of a Loudness song, the first standout on this album. It gets right down to business and stays there throughout. Stand or Fall has a real character to it, even it borrows rather obviously from Paint It Black for its intro and refrain. As if they wanted to look backwards and forwards at the same time, the vocals shift almost to harsh by the end, linking the '60s with the '00s. The Sanzu River is slower and softer, though it heavies up in a Black Sabbath way towards the end. And disc one wraps with 日本の心, or Japanese Heart, yet another impressive no nonsense heavy metal onslaught, like Crazy World, albeit not as catchy.

Frankly, it could have stopped there and it would have been a good album, forty minutes of heavy and solid metal, let down only by a lacklustre opening. But there's a second disc still to come, with another three quarters of an hour and it kicks off wonderfully with a set of more hard rock based songs that look back to the band's early years. 輝ける80’s, or Shining '80s, is just as eighties as it might seem from that name; 天国の扉, or Door of Heaven, has a Van Halen vibe to it; and there is more than a little Gary Moore in the excellent ballad All Will Be Fine with You.

What's telling is that the songs here are varied too, but the styles feel more consistent, even if it all heavies up again halfway through the second side with the superb Fire in the Sky. At this point, we're thirteen songs in and it seems like the album just keeps on getting better. Hunger for More certainly has one of the snappiest riffs anywhere here and The Nakigari adds a bit of psychedelic doom into proceedings for what might be the most interesting song on the album. I wouldn't call it the most immediate by a long shot, but it's arguably the best of the sixteen songs on offer, if we pay attention and let it grow.

It's great to see that the legends of Japanese metal that I discovered in the mid eighties are still around. Bow Wow (Vow Wow when I discovered them) have been around the longest, but they are apparently not putting out new material; their most recent album was in 2005. I missed the album that Earthshaker put out in 2018, but I should check that out. And here are Loudness, the newest of the three, but the busiest, it would seem. And it's even better to see a band on their 31st studio album do such a great job across what's almost an hour and a half of music. Even with that shaky start, this is easily an 8/10.

Thursday 27 January 2022

Dawn of Solace - Flames of Perdition (2022)

Country: Finland
Style: Gothic Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 28 Jan 2022
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I got a real kick out of the Dawn of Solace album, Waves, a couple of years ago. It's a second album rather than a first but it served as a restart to the project, given that fourteen years had elapsed since the debut. I say project rather than band, because it's a side project of Tuomas Saukkonen of gothic death metal band Before the Dawn. Dawn of Solace strips the death away and adds a little doom in its place to play in a more alternative gothic metal framework. Saukkonen contributes all the instrumentation, with Mikko Heikkilä once again stepping in to add vocals over it.

It's solid stuff, but a little more emphatic than last time out. It's heavier than Waves, even when it calms down on a song like the title track, decorated with piano and laden with melancholy, rather than the chugging that shows up in Erase and is especially glorious on Black Shores. I have to point out that Flames of Perdition heavies up too, so that while Waves was often gothic rock as much as gothic metal, this is clearly gothic metal throughout. The knock-on effect that this has is to, if not remove the Soen comparison, to shift it somewhat. I got more of a Tool vibe from the vocals here, especially on the opening couple of tracks. That's not a huge shift, of course, given how much Soen were influenced by Tool, but it's there.

Generally speaking, the mindset is the same though, even if it's heavier. This is a depressive style of music, unsurprisingly given that it mixes gothic with doom, but it's somehow far more upbeat a depressive style than it ought to be. Like Waves, it's the sort of depressive that makes you take a look inside your brain and your heart and reaffirm your connection to life. It's more a comforting reminder that the abyss is there than it is a deep yearning look inside it. The darkness is safely in that abyss, so you can concentrate on living, starting with enjoying this album. Don't panic.

Also like Waves, it sounds OK on a first listen. This isn't music to grab you immediately for flirting, it's music to settle down with and get to know deeply. With each song, it feels closer and truer. It's stronger as it ends than when it began, but we want to let it loop on forever and the beginning is stronger the second time around. That said, while I enjoyed the increased heaviness, I don't think this one's wrapping itself around my soul as much as Waves, which was my album of the month for January 2020, so I think this is a 7/10 for me right now. Maybe it'll grow to another 8/10 over time but, if it does, it's not there yet.

There are some killer tracks here though. Flames of Perdition gets me every time, especially when it heavies up, because that's a wonderful contrast. Skyline stands out for me each time through as well, with its layers of melancholy. It feels like this would be a great song to add harsh vocals to, as a doom/death number, but Heikkilä remains clean throughout. Waves went harsh on one song but this steadfastly resists that urge and it's a good decision. There's only one song here after Skyline, called Serenity, and it's not really a song, more of an outro, but it's a killer too, slow and characterful over a very simple but effective pulsing beat. It leads very nicely into White Noise too, if we loop the album. Which, because this is a Dawn of Solace album, we will.

The Night Flight Orchestra - Aeromantic II (2021)

Country: Sweden
Style: Melodic/Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 3 Sep 2021
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Back in the mid eighties, when I stumbled onto rock music, there was a genre that was frequently mentioned that seems to have vanished in the decades since and that's pomp rock. I haven't seen that term used in forever but the genre is still being played to this day and by few better than the Night Flight Orchestra, who emphatically explore it on this album, which is a direct sequel to their 2020 album, Aeromantic. Pomp rock is a particular flavour of melodic rock that's perfect for arena crowds because of its strong hooks and particularly its driving beats and prominent keyboards.

The usual suspects spring quickly to mind as comparisons, especially early on with the purer pomp rock tracks in the first half that scream Journey, Boston and Jefferson Starship. I heard Demon as well, especially on Violent Indigo, but that's accidental as this is such a quintessentially American sound; it's coincidence that Björn's Strid's voice has a similar clean rasp to Dave Hill's. Some songs are more like Journey, such as Burn for Me, while others, like How Long, really channel the Mickey Thomas era of Jefferson Starship. There's even some Alan Parsons Project in Change, because the NFO are channelling the entire era rather than any particular band.

And that's why, as the album runs on, we start to realise that it isn't just pomp rock. In fact, it isn't even just rock, because there's pop here too and all those seventies genres that were so obviously explored on Aeromantic. They're more combined here, so there's no clear dividing line between a more rock side and a more disco side, but the first half is definitely more rock and the second does shift more and more into pop, soul and disco. However, there's rock on the second side as well and disco on the first, the tracks blending in both directions. You Belong to the Night is Abba-esque disco meeting arena rock, but Midnight Marvelous is arena rock giving way to disco. I liked Aeromantic but I think I like this more because of that closer fusion.

It still surprises me that a band who sound like this would have such roots in metal, because this is a long way from what Strid and guitarist David Andersson play in Soilwork, or bass player Sharlee D'Angelo plays in Arch Enemy and Witchery. That extends to new fish John Lönnmyr, who joined in 2020 after Aeromantic; he also plays for melodic death/groove band Act of Denial, among others. It's refreshing to realise that musicians like these heard and clearly still have a passion for a band as utterly different as Cheap Trick, as that's who's channelled on the album closer, Reach Out, let alone whichever disco outfits they're emulating.

I know Cheap Trick but have almost zero depth in disco beyond my guilty pleasure of Boney M, so I couldn't tell you to whom they're paying homage on Chardonnay Nights. If we didn't catch the nod to disco on Midnight Marvelous, it's impossible to miss on this one, however much the melodies in it still remind of Mickey Thomas. I'm surprised they passed on the obvious opportunity to call this song Chardonnay Night Fever. I wonder how much the drums signal the direction, because it feels like they shift down a scale from analogue drumsticks on drums to digital electronic beats as the songs shift from rock to disco.

I often review albums that I highlight to my youngest son, especially on the thrash metal side, but this is one that I'll highlight to my better half, as she grew up in the States listening to most of the influences the Night Flight Orchestra obviously have. She probably saw most of them live and can probably tell me which funk and disco bands can be heard in the NFO sound too. Being English, I'm lacking in that era of American music, having largely grown up on homegrown bands instead, but hey, the Night Flight Orchestra aren't American either, even if they sound like it. They're from the Swedish town of Helsingborg, so I'm fascinated by how they first heard all this stuff. Certainly they know it well.

Wednesday 26 January 2022

Boris - W (2022)

Country: Japan
Style: Dream Pop/Shoegaze/Experimental
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 21 Jan 2022
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You never know what you're going to get when you pick up a new Boris album, which is an ongoing joy with them. My last visit was their 2020 album NO, mostly punk in nature but with some stoner metal thrown in for good measure. This... well, this isn't, but it's hard to describe what it really is, because that depends on what aspects you focus on. If you focus on the instrumental aspect, as is likely on Drowning by Numbers, then it's experimental rock or experimental music with no genre mentioned. If you focus on the vocals, which are entirely provided by Wata this time out, then it's dream pop or shoegaze, because she remains soft and sweet throughout, whatever the band are doing behind her.

It's easier to explain what it isn't, because it's not remotely like NO except for the anomalous final track on that album, which I wondered about at the time because of its name. Who ends an album with an Interlude? Well, apparently Boris do and I can't help but wonder now if it was so named to point the way towards W. This isn't drone either, which is what I tend to think of when Boris's name comes up. There are points where feedback becomes a defining aspect, like on The Fallen, which is sort of industrial sludge, but this is a rare guitar piece, as much of the backdrop is electronic.

In fact, the closest comparison I can conjure up is Rickie Lee Jones's album Ghostyhead, especially on Drowning by Numbers, which isn't close what I might have expected to cite coming in. This one's decorated with sharper edges though, even when they're not as heavy as on The Fallen. And these edges are what define it the most. Because Wata's voice is so soft here, if the edges are primarily soft, then the effect is primarily dream pop, like on Beyond Good and Evil, but, the heavier these edges get, the more she fades into the background and that effect is lost.

I like this album, but it's an odd one, even for Boris's insanely varied back catalogue. Everything is contrast, with the levels adjusted song by song to achieve different effects. The vocals are sweet, but the backdrop is dissonant, whether it's sludge, industrial, electronic or even, on Old Projector, a sort of Coil-esque ambient take on surf, though it drifts into sludge later. Pieces of instrumental music like this one help make the album fascinating. It's never boring, even when you think that it kinda sorta should be.

It seems to me that it's an album to listen to and, if you have that sort of taste, appreciate, rather than one to dance to or journey with or rock out to. Even though it seems to be rock music, of some description, the effect feels more like what I get from a lot of contemporary classical. It's not that there aren't grooves here, because there are, but I found myself deconstructing them to find out what makes them tick, rather than sitting back and enjoying them. This is far more of an exercise in composition and construction than one in performance. Whether you dig it or not may depend on what you think about that last sentence.

And now I'm going to go and listen to Ghostyhead, because I haven't thought about that album in years. Thanks, Boris!

Downright Malice - Mechanica Temporis (2021)

Country: France
Style: Heavy/Thrash/Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 3 Jun 2021
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Yes, I'm following a heavy metal album with another heavy metal album, which is unusual for me, but this is a late submission for 2021 and I only have three days left to slot it in. Also, while Thorns was a traditional doomladen heavy metal album for Tony Martin, this is a heavy metal album that looks both backwards and forwards in an intriguing way, so I'm sticking with it. They're Downright Malice from Saint-Louis, which makes them French, but right on the border with both Germany and Switzerland. Maybe the diversity in language and culture that they must see on a daily basis, with Basel only a couple of miles away, is reflected in the diversity in genre in their sound.

Initially, they sound just like an old school metal band from the eighties, merely given production values from the 21st century to make everything bigger, not far adrift from Tony Martin's album. As the opener, also named Downright Malice, runs on, though, we hear what distinguishes them from a traditional sound. It's a lot easier to gallop if you factor in double bass drumming and it's easier to add an edge in 2022 when there's a second vocalist who delivers in harsh style. I've seen Downright Malice listed as heavy/thrash metal and the tempo does enforce that, but that harsh voice is from death not thrash and the resulting sound draws from all three of those genres.

I like that sound and I liked this album from the outset, but it took a while to grow on me. It's fair to say that the opener was decent but I liked this more with each subsequent song. You Can Pray is faster and features more engaging guitar and vocal hooks, not to mention a surprising use of piano late in the song. Malleus Malificarum, the celebrated old Hammer of Witches, adds a choral element to generate atmosphere early on and easily the best riffs thus far. This is a Maiden song with added harsh voice, their famous gallop in full effect here, up to speed metal tempo. It's a peach. And so we go.

While Virtual Reality is arguably a downstep in that escalation, given that it's a good song that's merely the first to not be better than its predecessor, the strong songs continue unabated. I love the crunch this band has, reminding of Metal Church, but Iron Maiden are never far from my ears and there are plenty of other names that crop up as comparisons here and there. This vocal hook is right out of Blind Guardian and that guitar shift is Seasons of the Abyss Slayer. The addition of a piano element to A Time to All brings a gothic vibe into proceedings, even as it stays heavy and fast. In short, there's a lot going on here. Just wait for the keyboard intro to Sin of Pride.

What surprises me most is how long Downright Malice have been around. Usually, bands who drop me a line to tell me about their album are new bands trying to get their name out there, on their first or second albums, often in response to me reviewing something else from their country. This band may well have noticed me for that reason too, but they've been around since 1987 and this is their fifth album. If I'm reading correctly, they've never split up but they're not exactly prolific, an initial album arriving in 1995, a decade passing before their second (with an EP in between) and a trio more since 2005.

The inevitable founder member keeping the band going is Didier Bauer on guitar, but bassist Aris and vocalist Cliff have been alongside him since 1991, over three decades now, long enough to be on every one of their albums. Olivier Riedel joined on drums in 2000 and second vocalist Cyrille at a point in time I'm blissfully unaware of. That does suggest, of course, that Cliff is the clean voice and Cyrille is the harsh one, but I'm happy to be corrected if need be. It's an interesting line-up, a pair of dedicated vocalists over a trio of musicians, but it works for them. They're both old school and new school, with the two mindsets conversing well and never clashing.

Clearly I have some catching up to do. I did hear some French metal bands back in the eighties, in large part because of Tommy Vance and the Friday Rock Show, mostly Trust, of course, but Shakin' Street, Sortilège and Vulcain as well, even Treponem Pal. I don't recall coming across Downright Malice before but I wish I had. Now I have some catching up to do!

Tuesday 25 January 2022

Tony Martin - Thorns (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 14 Jan 2022
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2022 has started out really strong for British hard rock/heavy metal with a string of solid albums in January. The 14th saw the new Magnum album, which is excellent, then the 21st brought a new Tokyo Blade. The 28th will bring a new one from Praying Mantis and, before that, here's another one from the 14th, from Tony Martin, the second longest serving vocalist in Black Sabbath, given that Ronnie James Dio's return in the 2000s was under the name of Heaven and Hell. There's even a new Lawnmower Deth album coming on the 28th too. The genre is thriving in its homeland.

This is roughly what you might expect from someone who spent ten years singing for Sabbath, but it doesn't start that way, because the opener is As the World Burns, as obviously a Metallica song initially as I've heard in forever. It's downtuned and up tempo, though it does settle down into the more expected traditional vibe. Given that the rhythm section is the former HammerFall bassist, Magnus Rosén, and the current Venom drummer, Danny Needham, perhaps I should be surprised more at how this doesn't power up more often. It mostly stays slow and heavy after this one.

Martin sounds good from the outset, but he nails some sustained notes in the opener that I'd call quintessential Sabbath. They're very impressive for a 64 year old! And that is the other thing that is thrilling me about these traditional British releases. The musicians in Magnum, Praying Mantis and Tokyo Blade are hardly spring chickens but they're all on top of their game at the moment to put out some of their best material in years. I'm glad to add Tony Martin to that list.

This is what the Sabbath website calls his "long delayed third 'solo' album" and there's been quite a gap between releases. His first, Back Where I Belong, came out in 1992 during a brief time away from Sabbath, while they reunited with Dio for the Dehumanizer album. His second, Scream, came out in 2005 and now, seventeen years on again, we have number three, apparently comprising ten years of work. That rings true for a long while, because this has a strong first half but it begins to wear towards the end.

As the World Burns is a strong opener. Book of Shadows has some real power to it, at 80% Sabbath and 20% Judas Priest. While Martin's voice leads the way, as you would expect, I was impressed by Rosén's basswork in this one and the preceding Black Widow Angel. There's a choral layer too and a decent violin from Martin that sounds deeper, like a cello. Book of Shadows is easily the longest song here, by over a minute, and it may be the best song on offer, even wrapping up with excellent narration from Laura Harford, who I expect is related to Martin, given that it's his real surname.

It's also notable that these three songs, along with the fourth, Crying Wolf, which is acoustic, are very different in approach and structure. They're all heavy and powerful, but none of them sound like each other and that aids the album no end. As the album ran on, though, I found the songs to be less memorable, though I should call out No Shame at All here as a highlight. I did like the way that the vocal line in Passion Killer echoes Chopin's famous Funeral March, so there's interesting material to be found late on, but there are also songs like This is Your Damnation, which sounds a lot like a rock cover of a disco song. It isn't, but that's what it sounds like.

In short, there's some great material here, if you're a fan of Sabbath with Martin—and, if you're wondering who he is because you only know Ozzy and Dio, then pick up the Headless Cross album at your next opportunity. However, it's a front heavy album, arguably its best four songs also the first four songs. The second half isn't bad, but it doesn't live up to the album's early promise and even the title track, that closes out the album, feels like too little too late. As an album, it's good stuff, but, as an album ten years in the making, it feels a little disappointing. It warrants a 7/10, I think, but only by the skin of its teeth.

Fans of the Dark - Fans of the Dark (2021)

Country: Sweden
Style: Melodic/Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 5 Nov 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram

So I asked the maestro of melodic rock, Chris Franklin, host of 10 Radio's Raised on Rock, what my most obvious misses were in 2021. What were the best albums in that genre that I didn't review at Apocalypse Later? He came back with a few, led by a trio of Scandinavian albums: Kens Dojo from Norway, Laurenne/Louhimo from Finland and Fans of the Dark from Sweden. I don't believe he put an order on these three, but he listed this one first, so I put it on and immediately recognised the opener from his show.

Now, Chris plays a lot of great material in every show, but there are usually a couple of tracks that blow me away and I jot them down for future investigation. Those are the cream of the crop, but I won't necessarily remember one of them in detail months later. The Ghost of Canterville was one of those that I did. Having heard it once a few months ago, I still found myself singing along with it on a first revisit. It's a memorable song with a memorable hook and, having now heard the rest of the album, I'm totally with Chris. Fans of the Dark are a memorable band and the self-titled debut that came out in November is a memorable album.

At eight minutes and change, The Ghost of Canterville is an epic opener, based on the Oscar Wilde short story, which immediately conjures up Iron Maiden comparisons. This is surely softer than a Maiden equivalent, led by what initially seems like an ethereal vocal from Alex Falk, but it's also an epic rock song, drawn from classic English literature by a band sporting a name appropriate for a Maiden tribute band. The more I listen to it, the more I hear similarities in its riffs, its changes and its hooks. The biggest difference is Falk's vocals, but he's playing to the song and is more than able to rock out at the right moments. It's a well constructed piece that reveals itself to be better constructed still when we analyse it.

And, if it pulls the instruments back while Falk is singing, Fans of the Dark follow up with a denser song that really rocks out in Escape from Hell, aided by the guest guitar talents of Ryan Roxie of Alice Cooper's band. It's a stormer of a track that ably shows how Falk can add rasp and emphasis into his voice for even greater effect. I mention him a lot here because he's the unique factor that elevates Fans of the Dark. The musicians behind him are excellent and the songwriting, primarily by drummer Freddie Allen, who put the band together, is fantastic, but we are not going to listen to instrumental sections here and immediately recognise them as being by Fear of the Dark. The vocals do serve that exact purpose though. Nobody else in rock music sounds like this.

There's something androgynous about them that reminds me of Freddie Mercury. They're clearly male vocals for the most part, but Falk is able to shift seamlessly into a female voice, like he does on Rear Window, just as he can go deeper, turn up that rasp and sound even more masculine. I'm utterly not surprised to see that he's also a drag queen as my drag queen friends shift their voices depending on whether they're in persona or not and it becomes second nature over time. Falk has a serious range too and it's clear, just from the opening couple of tracks, that he really knows how to add or remove weight from his voice to find the effect he's looking for. He gives a memorable performance here, even on the overtly silly closer, Zombies in My Class.

As much as Falk is the clear focal point for this band and Allen apparently wrote these songs with his voice very much in mind, the other members of Fans of the Dark are no slouches either. This is melodic rock, but it does heavy up too, on songs like Escape from Hell, Rear Window and especially Life Kills, which features the most overt Maiden midsection on the album (and it has a whole slew of competition there). Allen is the bedrock of the band and Robert Majd on bass is audible, with a single guitar in front of him, and utterly reliable. That guitar is Oscar Bromvall's and he seems to have been listening to a lot of NWOBHM on top of the AOR that always feeds melodic rock bands.

I can totally see why Chris focused so much on this. He's a die hard melodic rock fan and this works as a pristine melodic rock album. He's also happy to listen to heavier material if it maintains that melody and this goes there too. He likes epic songs and, while only The Ghost of Canterville really meets that here, many of these songs have epic in them, as adaptations of literature or film. The Alfred Hitchcock double bill on the front cover is echoed in two of the songs, Dial Mom for Murder and Rear Window. Add Falk's unique vocals on top of that and Fans of the Dark utterly stand out from the crowd. The songwriting is the cherry on top of this already rich cake. Thanks, Chris!

Monday 24 January 2022

Lalu - Paint the Sky (2022)

Country: France
Style: Progressive Rock/Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 21 Jan 2022
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Here's an interesting band from Paris—the one in France—one of those rare bands to fairly have a page of their own on both Metal Archives and Prog Archives. That's because they play progressive music that draws strongly from both rock and metal and often seems to sit in between the two. My initial impressions of Reset to Preset, the opening track, were that it was prog rock, and it is, but I realised that it ventured into prog metal then had to adjust again because the production wants it to be prog rock. This is Lalu's third album and I have to wonder what the prior two were like, partly because the band is hardly prolific, those earlier albums being released in 2005 and 2013.

The most overt influence I could find was Yes and that holds true on the predominantly prog rock of Reset to Preset or the more obviously prog metal song that follows it, ambitiously titled Won't Rest Until the Heat of the Earth Burns the Soles of Our Feet Down to the Bone, and on through a majority of the album. It's most overt in the vocals of Damian Wilson, best known for his work for Threshold and Headspace, but it's in the music too, with an intricate instrumental journey in each song for each instrument.

The band is named for keyboardist Vivien Lalu, who doesn't betray as clear a Yes influence. Sure, there's some Rick Wakeman in what he does—most obvious in the intro to Witness to the World— but I hear others too, including Jordan Rudess of Dream Theater and Liquid Tension Experiment, who is even present as a guest on The Chosen Ones. Oddly, most of the guests are keyboardists, a surprise perhaps best explained by allowing Lalu to play alongside a host of friends and mentors. Hey, is there a better reason to create a band?

Rudess is the biggest keyboard name, though I see legendary bassist Tony Franklin on a couple of tracks and drummer Simon Phillips on one and, in both instances, it would be far easier to list who they haven't played for than who they have. Jens Johansson, of Stratovarius, is the most prolific guest contributor, appearing on three songs, including the keyboard heavy Lost in Conversation. I have to say that, with all these keyboards, it's almost surprising to notice other instruments, but there's a good balance between musicians, even if the guitar is lower in the mix.

I liked this album from the outset, but I didn't feel that it was anything particularly special until I got to Standing at the Gates of Hell, easily the standout track for me. It's track seven, but the first one that found a powerful groove and stayed in it. It's majestic more than it's intricate and, when it gets intricate, it does so in a very different way, leaping headlong into jazz territory. Excepting guest contributions, of which there are none on this track, all the guitarwork here is provided by Joop Wolters, both bass and regular electric guitar, and he's clearly having an absolute blast on a song like this. He's released at live five albums under his own name, which unsurprisingly mix jazz fusion with progressive metal. I should check them out.

I don't want to suggest that the album picks up at this late point, because earlier songs are good ones, but this is where my favourites come in. The Chosen Ones pitches Yes at Dream Theater, not only because of Jordan Rudess's inclusion but also Simone Mularoni's, he being the guitarist for a few different bands, including DGM and Sunstorm. I last heard his guitar on the Queen of Broken Hearts album by Issa earlier in 2021 and, the more I hear, the more I want to hear. It's Wolters on Sweet Asylum, a pristine guitar interlude before the epic We are Strong, one of three tracks here to pass seven minutes and aim at eight. It's a generous release, even without the bonus track.

Everything I do at Apocalypse Later ties to discovery and this allowed me to discover not only Lalu the band, but Vivian Lalu the keyboardist and his guitarist Joop Wolters, who has a whole career of his own to explore. It also reminded me, not that I needed the nudge, of the talents of vocalist Damian Wilson and guitarist Simone Mularoni. And, what's more, it ably highlights how much the Frontiers label is expanding their already wildly impressive roster in new directions. This isn't the melodic rock that they're justifiably known for; it's prog rock that dabbles in prog metal, but it's a good fit for them. I look forward to more unusual Frontiers releases.

Mammoth WVH - Mammoth WVH (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Alternative/Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 11 Jun 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I was looking forward to this album last year, even though the quality of its music, which is always the most important thing, was doomed to be ranked below other considerations that shouldn't be important. There's a legacy in play here, because the WVH in the name of band and album stands for Wolfgang Van Halen and that's a heck of a legacy, beyond what his father Eddie could make his guitar do. The first Van Halen album changed rock history and is remembered as one of the great debuts of all time. What Eddie did on it blew minds the world over. And, of course, his band, which featured Wolfgang on bass for a surprising fourteen years, was massively successful for over four decades.

I can't imagine how hard it must have been to make this album, with all of that hanging in the air, but it's a good album, if perhaps not what we might all have expected. For a start, Wolfgang does not just play the bass here; he plays everything: guitar, drums and keyboards too. He even sings it himself. In this, he outdid his father, who only played guitar and sang backing vocals on that debut Van Halen record. Maybe it was important for him to outdo Eddie in at least one way, because the world was always going to be focused on what he does here on guitar and, as excellent as he is, it has to be said that, shock horror, his solos aren't going to set the world alight the way Eddie's did in 1978.

What Wolfgang wisely does here is to not play in the Van Halen style, whether you're talking old school party Halen with Diamond Dave or new school smooth Van Hagar. This is a hard rock album at points, with some fancy guitarwork on songs like Mammoth and You're to Blame, but mostly it plays as an alternative rock album, combining elements from various subgenres into a consistent Mammoth WVH sound. It's a lot smoother than I expected, perhaps mostly because of Wolfgang's soft voice, which is the most prominent instrument. Even on heavier songs, like Don't Back Down or The Big Picture, his vocals temper that heaviness and make this very accessible.

And that's where people are going to find themselves making decisions about the album. Clearly, Wolfgang Van Halen is a very talented musician and a pretty decent songwriter too, but that isn't enough to guarantee that we're going to like what he does. I have every respect for Taylor Swift, a very talented singer/songwriter, but that doesn't mean I'm listening to her albums. She's just not my thing and I'm not sure Mammoth WVH is either. It seems to me that Wolfgang is fonder of the softer, smoother, modern American alternative rock that some of his frequent collaborators, like Mark Tremonti of Alter Bridge, play, rather than the hard rock/heavy metal style that he himself played when he was in Van Halen.

My biggest criticism here isn't the variety of songs that many critics called out, because I hear an original and consistent sound across them and see that variety as a strong positive, but how safe they tend to feel. Much of it stems from his voice but it's there in the music too, because all these songs felt like he was holding back, perhaps deliberately, and I wanted to hear what he could do. I certainly preferred the songs where he seemed to push a little more, like Resolve, Mammoth and Feel, that push being on multiple instruments, but I left the album wishing he'd have done it more often.

I hear that the inspiration for Wolfgang playing all the instruments himself was Dave Grohl in the early years of Foo Fighters and that kept coming back to me, because I'm hardly a big Foo Fighters fan. I am a big Dave Grohl fan though, from pretty much everything else he does, whether it's the old stuff in Nirvana, the retro stuff in Probot or the new stuff like the Dee Gees. He's interesting whenever he does something different, but vanilla to me when he's at his most successful. And I'd extend that to Wolfgang Van Halen. I have a feeling that I'm going to love a lot of what he does in the future, but I'm going to like him least when he's at his most successful. And this was definitely successful. It's accessible and it fits what the mainstream wants right now.

I can't say I don't like this, because it's very easy to like, but I didn't love it and I doubt I'll return to it. I appreciated it more than I liked it, because Wolfgang is clearly talented, because he's walking his own road and because he's walking it really well. Sure, I dug more adventurous songs like Feel and Resolve, and I was fascinated by what he did here and there, like the way that his guitar felt a lot like an echo of the title in Circles. But, like Taylor Swift, this isn't really my thing. Maybe it will be yours. It's certainly very good.

Saturday 22 January 2022

Tokyo Blade - Fury (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 21 Jan 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Anyone who remembers Tokyo Blade fondly from the eighties is likely to remember two things of note. One is that, every time the sun came up, their line-up had changed and the other is that any change in the popular style du jour meant a change in Tokyo Blade's sound. That meant that they recorded some fantastic material—I still adore the entire Night of the Blade album, as well as the Friday Rock Show session recorded at that time—but they had little consistency so every fan they attracted tended to vanish with the next stylistic shift.

I'm incredibly happy to see this album underline how those times are firmly relegated to the past. This is their third album in five years, each featuring the exact same line-up and a consistent style that arguably ought to have been what they should have played throughout: classic British heavy metal. Sure, I'd like a little more speed—especially for an album named Fury—but I ain't bitchin'. I'm happy to see albums, overjoyed to see consistent albums and ecstatic to see albums this damn good. They're becoming the gift that keeps on giving.

As always, my focal point is the twin guitars of Andy Boulton and John Wiggins, because I love the riffs they conjure up and I love how they play off each other. Every song here, even the ones that I wouldn't call filler but wouldn't be particularly notable by their absence, features a strong riff or six and at least one decent solo, often an excellent one or a couple traded between them. There's a lot of music here to choose from, but I think my favourite on this front is Life Leaves a Scar, which is gloriously tight in the Iron Maiden tradition. I love the changes in this one and the progressions in the midsection and towards the end.

It's easy to conjure up favourites but often they'll come not from riffs or solos but the grooves the songs find. As with the previous two albums, this sounds good on a first time through but it grows on repeat listens, because many of these songs start to really get under our skin. The first song to nail its groove here is the second, Blood Red Night, but there are plenty to choose from, including Static and Life Leaves a Scar again. Every time through, I add another couple to that list.

While I mentioned Iron Maiden on Life Leaves a Scar, I should highlight that I didn't catch obvious influences here that often. The band have their mentors and stylistic go tos, of course, and they're still obviously a product of the NWOBHM, but I feel that, with each new album, they firm up their own sound just a little more, to the degree that it's harder to hear a particular song and think of a particular influence. It still happens on occasion, because I couldn't not hear Thin Lizzy on Eyes Wired Shut and Rhythm of the Gun, for instance, but I felt more immersed in this modern Tokyo Blade sound than ever.

And, with almost eighty minutes of music here, it's easy to become immersed. Yeah, it's a longer album than it should be, but it would take a debate to figure out which songs could be dropped to tighten it up. There is no obvious candidate for the chop. Every time I thought there might be, it promptly elevated itself with a memorable riff or something else notable. I didn't think much of Nailbomb for a while, but then it turned into one of my favourites. And the highlights elevate too, Cold Light of Day going full on epic with some neat orchestral backing and John Wiggins gifted in Message on the Wall with plenty of opportunities for his bass to shine.

I'm breaking a trend, but I think I have to give this a 7/10. That's still recommended but I feel that this is a little weaker than the previous two albums. It's not far behind the others and there are a few great songs here. Its key problem is an overly generous length because, while this is certainly a good eighty minute album, it would have been a great fifty or sixty minute album. The last pair notably ran right between those two thresholds and this probably should have done too. But hey, no big deal. It's good stuff and I'm eager to see the fourth modern Tokyo Blade album in 2024.

Lee Aaron - Radio On! (2021)

Country: Canada
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 23 Jul 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Here's an album I was looking forward to last year but lost track of due to events and so never got around to. I remember Lee Aaron from the early to mid eighties when she fronted a heavy metal band and then later in that decade when she went smoother hard rock. I know that she's kept on shifting gears throughout her career, moving into straight pop music, blues and especially jazz, a genre she found particular success in. I missed her return to rock music in 2016, which was Fire and Gasoline, but I didn't want to miss this one and I'm glad I didn't because it's a lot of fun.

Vampin' is a great opener because it's patient but engaging, hard but soft, rockin' but funky. It's a lot of different things all at once and it isn't just Lee Aaron's voice that shines. Sean Kelly turns in a sleazy rock riff to introduce the song and then finds a funky one to give it life. The shift is kind of like Mötley Crüe to Extreme and, later it goes to the blues bar, but Aaron herself finds a vocal line that works across the board. She's on top form here, sultry but powerful and she dominates, especially during the second half, which is a showcase for her. It's good when she isn't singing and there's some strong guitarwork from Sean Kelly, but it comes alive when she's back at the mike.

I call out the opener because it's a hard rock song on a melodic rock album. From here, things tend to soften up to the radio friendly melodic rock vibe that Aaron is going for here, everything vocals first and foremost and guitar the only other instrument getting a spotlight, Kelly delivering quite a few notable solos, my favourite perhaps being on Soul Breaker. Occasionally, a song might heavy up a little, like Mama Don't Remember and Soho Crawl, both of which remind of Heart, as indeed does Soul Breaker. Occasionally, one might soften up even more and turn into a ballad, as Wasted and Twenty One do almost at the end of the album.

What's interesting to me is that Aaron plays even more with vocal textures on the ballads, turning up the rasp. She's been singing for a long time now, in a recording career that reaches forty years in 2022, but I've never heard her explore so many textures on one album. So much of this features pristine intonation, but she rock 'n' rolls up whenever she wants to and every single nuance is very deliberate. I was prepared for any song to be paused so a YouTube vocal coach reactor could point out what she's doing in any particular moment.

Another thing I noticed is that some of these songs, especially the title track, feel like they're the creation of a blues singer who's recording a rock album rather than a rock singer returning to her roots. I wonder what genre she feels most comfortable in. Certainly my favourite songs here are a mix of genres, that sassy rocker, Vampin'; a melodic rock gem called Cmon; and a slow burner that kicks off the second side, by the name of Devil's Gold. This one's not really a ballad, even though it has to be slower than either of the real ballads here, and it has a western flavour. It sounds great on a first listen but it really gets under the skin and calls at us to return after the album is done.

This isn't one of those legendary comeback albums that rejuvenate careers, but it's enjoyable on a first time through and there are enough highlights to prompt us to play the whole thing again. I think it's a grower, but maybe a little front heavy, with most of the best songs in the first half and the ballads almost relegated to the end. It also benefits from the wild musical journey that Aaron has taken herself on over the past four decades, because, even from the outset, it's clearly never just another melodic rock album. Even when it's exploring ground that we know well, it's different because of what she brings to it. A belated welcome back to rock music, Lee!

Thursday 20 January 2022

Skillet - Dominion (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Alternative
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 14 Jan 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I worry every time I see a name like Skillet showing up with a new album. My mission is to listen to new music from across the rock and metal genres and around the world and, while it often makes me cringe, sometimes that means an American band who have been associated with nu metal at some point in the past, and I really don't wanna. I can dismiss a lot of it because I see nu metal as loud pop music more often than it's rock music and covering it can lead to predominantly negative review like Papa Roach's Who Do You Trust? There's too much good music out there for me to take time to review crap unless I'm warning as a public service.

But I've been surprised too. I've enjoyed some albums that I never thought I would or much more than I thought I would. The most obvious example is last year's excellent Chevelle album, which I have to admit to being completely shocked by, as it was utterly not what I expected, but I liked the Foo Fighters album last year and the Powerman 5000 a year earlier. This one turns out to be much better than the Papa Roach, but it's nowhere near the Chevelle. What's important is that it isn't objectively bad, it's just not my thing. If it's yours, then it's done well. Skillet know precisely what they're doing.

It opens with Surviving the Game, a catchy song that features aggressive guitars and chorus, but tempers that with some electronic tampering for effect, so it somehow ends up both aggressive and cute. This is the sort of song my kids were listening to when they were young teenagers, that almost had to end up as WWE entrance music, so Skillet have presumably stayed a little closer to the nineties than some of their peers. Then again, there's a clear use of autotune on the second song, Standing on the Storm, and that's more of a noughties thing, even if it came out only a year after Skillet were founded, in 1997. That's disappointing.

Much of what follows walks that awkward border between pop music and heavy music, with rock a kind of afterthought. The backdrop is almost always electronic or electronically enhanced and the melodies could easily be transferred to a pop song. However, there's a nu metal crunch on many of the songs and there are cool guitar solos here and there. Dominion is a great example of all those things at once and Surviving the Game features a lot of them. These songs half annoy me with the manipulations that seem unnecessary and half impress me because the band really knows how to shift. Dominion, for instance, reaches a drive that's comparable to the Sisters of Mercy, though it is not a cover of their song of the same name. It has a strong solo from Seth Morrison too.

Now, that may be the heaviest thing here and it's easily my favourite song on the album, but they work surprisingly well in a much softer mode, like on Refuge and especially Valley of Death, which isn't as annoying a power ballad as it feels like it ought to be. Skillet also occasionally shift into an alternative rock mode, toning down the nu metal crunch and getting all bouncy with clean vocals. The epitome of this is Shout Your Freedom, again not my thing but capably done nonetheless. It's fair to say that sentiment underlines the whole album for me. I don't like this, but I'm not going to tell you it's worthless because it isn't. I wouldn't turn the dial if anything on this album showed up on the radio and, depending on the song, I might well find my toes tapping along.

I'd even go so far as to suggest that it's a neatly varied album, none of these songs retreading the ground that others had already staked out. There's quite the range between songs like Dominion, Valley of Death and Shout Your Freedom, and others do interesting and unusual things, such as an experimental wild guitar sound on Destroyer and an African hum (and Celtic backing vocal) within Forever or the End that had me honestly smiling. I'd shut this album off more than once as I tried to figure out if I should review it, but I kept putting it back on and, by this late point on the album, I wondered if a band like Skillet were actually going to win me over. And, even though I don't see myself playing this again, they kind of did and that surprised me.

Velesar - Szczodre Gody (2021)

Country: Poland
Style: Folk Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 1 Oct 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | YouTube

Like the Riverwood album that I reviewed earlier in the week, this is a very welcome follow-up by a band whose debut I adored here at Apocalypse Later, in this instance an eight piece folk metal band from Cieszyn in Poland called Velesar. Dziwadła made it onto my highly recommended list in 2019 and the band were kind enough to mail me a physical CD, which was much appreciated. Unlike the Riverwood album, which was brand new in January, this one's from last October, so I'm playing catch-up. It came out right before my film festival and I had it slotted into my schedule, but ended up returning to reviews a week later. Apologies for the delay, folks!

There are a lot of reasons why I really dig Velesar. They play lively folk metal, for a start, which is a sort of Achilles' heel for me, and they do it very well indeed, but there's more to it than that. They clearly have a lot of fun playing this music, which is pretty crucial in folk metal, and I would love to experience what they do live. But they also nail a lot of balances. They're uplifting, especially with two violins and one flute in their line-up, but there's a darkness to what they do too, which lends a majority of these songs depth. Similarly, vocalist and band founder, Marcin Wieczorek has a harsh vocal style that adds plenty of texture to the band's sound but not so much to call this extreme.

And, best of all, they have a way of sharing the spotlight between so many members that they all have something to do and that something is exactly the right thing for the song. As with the prior album, I liked this from the outset, from a palate cleansing intro and the neat riff at the opening of Zmora, but it was the third song proper that truly sold me on the band once more and, as I had it replay for the third time, I realised how much of a showcase it is for every member of the band. It's Ognie Swaroga, which Google tells me translates to Swarog's Fires.

If Zmora was heavy and Swaćba was bouncy, Ognie Swaroga starts out a little thrashy then settles into a song of trade offs. It starts with guitar and drums soloing at once, then the flute flutters in to join the fray. Everything feels like movement, as if each section is a different set of musicians in a sort of face off against another set, before shifting again and finding a new face off. It's a dance of a song, not in the sense of Taniec diaboła from the debut (or indeed Szczodre Gody on this one) but in the sense of musicians approaching each other and whirling away again. It doesn't matter if its violins meeting drums or violins and flute surrounding the singer, or guitar duelling with violin, it's all a glorious dance.

And I think it's this approach that makes Velesar such an enticing band. They rarely drop down to a single instrument; even when Dawid Holona's lead guitar is soloing in the spotlight, there's one of the violins there with him, and they all hand over to another combination. Zmora grew on me with a second runthrough but Ognie Swaroga remains a highlight and Velesar don't let the album slide at any point after it. I think my favourite moments come late, when the violin leaps into a break in guitar early in Śpiew juraty (szanta bałtycka) and when the flute does the same thing on Modły. Then there's the closer, Radecznica, which has a wonderful first half and an even better second.

Another reason they're so enticing is that every song begins like it's going to be an instrumental and we lose ourselves in the music but, when Marcin Wieczorek arrives, as he always does, even if it's not for a while, he never gets in the way. I've enjoyed a few albums this past year that would have been improved by losing the vocals, but this isn't one. Not only because I don't understand Polish (even if I've just been translated into it for a Guy N. Smith book), I began to see Wieczorek's voice as just another instrument in the Velesar orchestra. Like everyone else, he does precisely what he needs to do, then steps back to hand over to his bandmates, always ready to step back in again at the right moment.

And, talking of those bandmates, I really need to highlight the violinists here. There are a pair of them, but the credits suggest that they never work as a pair. Either it's Iga Suchara, as it is on five of these songs, or it's Ewa Kozieł, on the other half dozen. They're both great but I don't know why they don't appear at once. It often feels like they do, but that must be illusion. The only song that features both of them is Szczodre Gody, but the violin there is Kozieł's while Suchara sings. I have to highlight Katarzyna Babilas on flute as well, even if she doesn't get as much opportunity as the violinists, and Dawid Holona, who delivers a host of excellent solos.

But I'm gushing again. It's going to take something truly special to knock the mighty Korpiklaani off their throne as my favourite folk metal band, not least because they've been doing what they do for either two or three decades, depending on how you count, and they have eleven albums to their name. Velesar only got together in 2018 and this is only their second album, so they have a long journey ahead of them, but they ought to have a glorious time as they do so, especially with COVID hopefully retreating and gigs opening back up. Now, I want to hear albums three, four and ten!

Wednesday 19 January 2022

Leave the Dead - The Cicada King (2022)

Country: New Zealand
Style: Thrash/Groove Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Jan 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter

To follow last year's Leprous album, which continues their move far from metal, I threw on a Kiwi thrash album, or least what I thought was a Kiwi thrash album, the debut from Leave the Dead. It actually plays deeper than that because, while the thoroughly reliable backing band feel like they want to play thrash and do, it's at the midpace and slower, Morgz Timu often seems to be singing for a groove metal band. He's usually halfway between shouty groove vocals and more grounded thrash ones, but he moves either way as needed.

Long term readers know that I prefer thrash to groove and I prefer my thrash on the fast side, but I'm not averse to slower thrash or to groove. Leave the Dead are an interesting mixture of styles, but what really sells them to me is their engine room, which seems to me like an ultimate session band. The tone is pristine and they're just always on, whether the song wants them to riff or chug or get bouncy all of a sudden for a groove section or drop away for an interesting solo. The band is always at its best when that engine room is fuelled up and in full motion.

While songs like the title track take them a lot further into groove metal, the default is thrash at the mid-tempo with slower sections that are heavy metal pure and simple. In slower sections, like the end of the that title track, the band that leapt to mind for comparison is Toranaga. They were always on too and they shifted from riff to riff to riff so seamlessly that I'd get lost in them and, if Mark Duffy hadn't been such an emphatic frontman, I'd have forgotten he was there. I kind of did that with Morgz Timu here, because these chugging riffs own the album. The other name that I'd throw out is Death Angel, especially in faster sections, again because of the reliable way in which those riffs flow thick and fast. Leave the Dead have definitely heard The Ultra-Violence.

All that kicks in with the opener, Everyone is Dead, and just never quits. It works whatever they're doing, whether it's something as overtly simple as AOW or as inventive as Thorns. AOW has such a simple riff, that gets even simpler as it goes, that I surely must have heard it before, and there's nothing fancy to be found in the song at all, but that chug is just as engaging as on anything else here. The delightful riff on Thorns is far from complex either, but it's magnetic and solid as a rock. The faster drums from Colin Rennie underline it really well too.

And I really should call out these musicians for special mention, especially given that this is a first album and, at least according to Metal Archives, none of them have recorded for anyone else. I'm thinking we should start at the back with Rennie, who's as reliable a drummer as I've heard in the past few years and one who does a surprising amount of not just keeping the beat here. I may not be a huge fan of Morgz Timu's groove-infused vocals, but I love his basswork. He's right there with the drums throughout and he gets a few moments of his own on songs like Destroyed by the Sun.

That leaves two guitarists, Rob Black and James Miles, who are perfectly fine whenever they play a solo or step up to take a lead role, but they both just own rhythm. Arrival begins with a riff duel between the two, each speaker taking its side, and it underlines how much I'd happily sit back and just listen to them doing that, for extended periods of time. Imagine a Metallica that never hired Kirk Hammett away from Exodus but cloned James Hetfield to replace Dave Mustaine instead. I'd think, with groove vocals and more reliable drumming, they might sound like this. OK, they'd be a bit faster, but that's a preference thing.

And yeah, I'd like to hear Leave the Dead play faster, but I'm not going to complain about how well they play at the speed they do. They do this insanely well and I became a confirmed fan after only a few songs. A few more times through the album and I'm totally on board with whatever style the gods deem theirs. I'm just thinking of a song like Diamond Head's cover of No Remorse. It was at the mid-tempo for much of the song and it sounded great, riff moving into riff just like every song on this album. I adore that cover and, vocals aside, it's a solid comparison to what Leave the Dead do, except for one thing. The one missing tool in their toolbox is what happens in the final ninety seconds. And, if they add that into their sound, even only occasionally, they'll become unstoppable.

Leprous - Aphelion (2022)

Country: Norway
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 27 Aug 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

When Leprous were founded in 2001, they were clearly a progressive metal band. By the time that I go to their sixth studio album, Pitfalls, for review a couple of years ago, they'd shifted down into progressive rock and continued beyond it, that album almost pop music, with rock hovering at its dark edges, to take an almost reluctant lead for a few songs. This seventh very much continues in that vein, but there's an element of dark folk that leads the way from the outset and never truly vanishes. This is surprisingly close to Hexvessel, though it's simultaneously more progressive and more poppy.

On the opener, Running Low, and into Out of Here, it's dark folk and indie pop. There's Bowie here for sure but maybe some Cure too. It's never really goth, but it has an flavour of that to darken all the folk and pop sounds. And then, nine minutes into the album and two and half into Out of Here, it leaps into rock music. Leprous are happy not only to trawl multiple genres into their sound but to do it in a single track. And, with the electronica that kicks off Silhouette, we have no idea where this is going to take us, but we're up for the ride.

As with my review of Pitfalls, I should emphasise that this isn't a bad thing. Sure, I'm a metalhead and I like big chunky riffs and soaring operatic vocals, but I'm also a fan of music and I love to hear things that I haven't heard before. My early favourite is All the Moments, a magnificent ride that really works the dynamics. For all that it starts out with teasing rock guitar, this is a pop song for a long while, mostly a fascinating interplay between Einar Solberg's haunting falsetto vocal and the drums of Baard Kolstad. Way back in the mix are guitar, bass and, occasionally piano, but they are more of a hint than a set of participants. Eventually, it builds to give them, and the soaring cello, something to do, but it's still mostly voice and drums early and voice and piano late.

What was that track? Prog pop? Sure, why not. It's almost seven minutes long; they wouldn't allow that on a seven inch single back in the eighties. It's not an airplay sort of song. John Peel may have played it back then, but that's about it. And he'd be more likely to have leapt at Have You Ever?, a quirky dark pop song that moves in some of the same circles but with an electronica beat and wild keyboards. It's lively and quirky and engaging. The final track, Nighttime Disguise, is the closest it gets to old school metal Leprous, with harsh vocals that are all the more harsh because we've no option but to compare them to the clean falsetto Solberg uses for much of the album. There's life here for sure.

However, the more I listen to this album, the more I believe what I like the most is the exceedingly stripped down Leprous, the one that throws away the layers and the textures and goes minimalist to sear our soul. It's the dark folk Leprous and, if my favourite is still All the Moments, then I have to say Castaway Angels comes close to surpassing it. Maybe it will with enough listens. These songs play bleak and northern and fit with the album cover. I can almost feel the chill in that air, and I'm in Phoenix, Arizona, where it's a gazillion degrees already in February. Solberg may tell us "Never look back again", but I'm looking inward. I'm breathing slower, I'm finding peace and my focus is a palpable thing.

Like All the Moments, that song grows, of course, because there are dynamics everywhere on this album, but that just makes the fall away at the end even more acute. On Castaway Angels, that's a brief moment of calm indeed and it makes the song feel like we've searched every inch of our soul during it and we're ready to leap off the cliff. It's a good thing that it isn't the last track, with the closer perhaps the most busy song on the album, unless the alt rock of The Silent Revelation tops it with its perky, jagged guitars.

As with any Leprous album, there's a lot here. This is music for the adventurous. It never quite lets its roots in rock go, but it's often a pop album with the focus on vocal melody you might expect. It refuses to go all the way to pop, the vicious power chords on what I believe is the bass midway into Nighttime Disguise underlining that. These Norwegians continue to broaden their palette and I'll always look forward to another Leprous album. And I'll struggle with my rating, because it's never going to be anything but it's own thing and trying to rank it alongside anything else will fail. I'm of the mind right now that it's better than Pitfalls and I gave that a 7/10, so I feel an 8/10 is safe.

Tuesday 18 January 2022

Frozen Planet... 1969 - Not from 1969 (2022)

Country: Australia
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 11 Jan 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

I hadn't heard of Frozen Planet... 1969 until recently, but they're a psychedelic rock jam band from Sydney, Australia and they've knocked out a bunch of albums in the past decade, each of them an entirely improvisational effort. I don't know how much preparation they put in before visiting the studio, but the songs are improvised jams. In fact, even on Bandcamp, this tenth album is credited as "Improvisation by Paul Attard (guitar), Lachlan Paine (bass), Frank Attard (drums)". I believe a few of their albums are improvisations on previous songs, so it may be that they have a base idea ready in place to build on in the studio.

As you might expect, these are extended jams, so the three quarters of an hour (exactly) comprise of only three pieces of music, all instrumental because, understandably, nobody in the band aims to conjure up a set of lyrics on the fly. Dissolver is the epic at an impressive twenty-seven minutes, but Strangelands, which is my highlight, runs seven, and that comes after opener Diamond Dust, a ten minute plus jam that was easily the weakest link for me on a first listen but continues to get a little more under my skin each further time through.

It's still the least of the three tracks, but the back end is getting to me. Lachlan Paine's bass amps up the fuzz and Paul Attard's guitar weaves its way through some middle Eastern melodies but it's the drums of Frank Attard that elevate it for me. They're relentless, not planning domination but ruthlessly keeping time, like Stefan Kaufmann did on Accept's Princess of the Dawn, albeit with a few more fills here and there. It's his fills that play with the tempo, which could so easily have got increased at a hundred moments but he stubbornly refuses to do that.

Strangelands starts off well with a good first half, but it's the second half that utterly sold me on Frozen Planet... 1969 and this album. Paine finds a fantastic groove, that's a little reminiscent of the bass line in On and On, from one of my favourite albums of all time, Saigon Kick's Water. That works perfectly under Attard's guitar, which wails and oozes rather like the talk box guitar Dean Parks played on Steely Dan's Haitian Divorce. It feels like a conversation and it's wild, mixing the funky bass with the psychedelic talk box and creating something sublime. It gets more fun every time I listen to it, though that does highlight how much it comes alive halfway. The first half isn't bad and it isn't that different, but the musicians don't nail it until almost four minutes in.

I'm not going to talk much about Dissolver, because it's such an epic jam that it's best to just lose yourself in it. It's bubbly from the outset and it builds well, but there's so much going on that it's always going to mean a lot of different things to different people. What I will say is that it speaks volumes about the confidence of this band that they can come into the studio to knock out a tenth album, maybe with some basic ideas of what to improvise around, but just jam for almost half an hour and make the entire thirty minutes worth listening to. You might imagine highlights, but it's strong throughout.

The other thing I should highlight is that it was Paul Attard's guitar that grabbed me first and it's Lachlan Paine's bass in Strangelands that sold me on the album, but, every time I listen through, I leave it more impressed with Frank Attard. Sure, he's notable on Diamond Dust as much for what he doesn't do as what he does, but he's utterly magnetic on Strangelands and he does a heck of a lot on Dissolver. I need to listen to this another dozen times just to figure out everything that he's doing.

Rivers of Nihil - The Work (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Progressive Death Metal
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 24 Sep 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter | YouTube

Having apparently missed the biggest progressive death metal releases of last year, the majority of which came out only a few months ago in September and October, I'm catching up quickly and it does seem that the genre is vibrant and insanely varied. Rivers of Nihil, who hail from Reading in Pennsylvania, have been around since 2009 but really made a splash with their third album, 2018's Where Owls Know My Name. This fourth is a mature release indeed, running just over an hour but channelling all sorts of rock and metal from the past half century. They're varied on their own but it has to be said that they don't remotely show off like First Fragment and they're not remotely as in your face as Archspire. Sure, your run of the mill death metal bands all sound the same but, up here at the top of the heap, that's utterly not the case.

Rivers of Nihil start out hinting at prog rock, The Tower being subdued introspection for over half its running time, with gentle saxophone and soft backing vocals behind the lead's. It does explode into harsh and loud but it's still being held back. There's definitely Pink Floyd here, as there is on a few other songs, especially Maybe One Day, but I honestly think I could suggest Radiohead as well and get away with it. Of course, that's not the case when they ramp up to full on metal, which they do on the next song, Dreaming Black Clockwork.

This one's heavy when it kicks off, with harsh death vocals over blastbeats, but the song moves to an industrial sound before falling away completely, leaving us grooving in an underground cave in the middle of nowhere with an introspective saxophone and vocalist. It's a wild shift indeed, from immersion into isolation, but a good one and the transition back into metal is neatly handled. The song grows in intensity, every shift driven by Jared Klein's drums, until it ends in a dissonant wall of sound finalé that sounds like a horde of demons all screaming at once, only to drop utterly away so Wait can begin with calming piano. This is pristine use of dynamics.

And so we go. Wait isn't metal at all, a mix of rock, prog rock and new wave that builds through an engaging stripped down jazzy guitar trade-off in the second half, which is almost the antithesis of death metal. Focus continues in that vein, before escalating to a more emphatic post-punk vibe, a tasty groove and memories of Paradise Lost's One Second album. Clean adds some neat synths as much as a contrast to the harsh vocal floating around them as neat on their own merit. Again, the feel is multiple genres at once, both the Floydian prog rock and the Paradise Lost new wave flows join to create something new, all wrapped up in death metal.

I like this mix of styles and should emphasise that I've only covered the first half thus far. It keeps going in that mixed vein throughout the second without ever dropping quality. If Focus may be my favourite song from the first half, Episode may be its equivalent from the second. It runs longer, a seven and a half minute piece that really knows how to breathe. It alternates between quiet bits that are a Floydian—lots of Dave Gilmour in the solos— take on that new wave Paradise Lost era, with heavier sections that are much slower than the usual Rivers of Nihil full on death approach, but still very heavy, with a great monotonous beat to make it hypnotic.

And if I stick with Episode as my second half favourite, I have to talk about Terrestria IV: Work in a completely different category. It wraps up the album and it's easily my favourite piece here, even more varied than earlier songs. It starts out like a György Ligeti choral work, finds its sweet spot and starts developing into a true epic. It's easily the longest song here, running eleven and a half minutes, and it's a patient piece that takes its time and builds for most effect. It's death metal often, but it's also contemporary classical, avant-garde jazz, prog rock and a slew of other genres.

It's a great summary of the ambition that drives Rivers of Nihil and why people are paying a heck of a lot of attention. To release an album that sees no problem with placing the relentless death metal assault of MORE? only three songs away from the Floydian alt-prog of Maybe One Day and, in the other direction, the post-punk new wave of Focus, underlines how confident this band is in what they do and how they do it. I'm impressed.

Monday 17 January 2022

Riverwood - Shadows and Flames (2022)

Country: Egypt
Style: Symphonic Folk Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 7 Jan 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Oh, I've been looking forward to this one! Very early in my redunking into the world of rock/metal here at Apocalypse Later Music, I discovered a great experimental Egyptian folk metal album by Ahl Sina and that prompted Mahmoud Nader to send me the debut album of his band, Riverwood, a progressive metal band also from Egypt. I loved both those albums, they both made my highly recommended list for 2018 and they helped to underline why the variety I need to explore here is not just in genre but in location. There's great music oozing out of the pores of the globe and it's often showing up in the countries you might least expect.

So here's a second album by Riverwood and it's another good one. It's also a long one, as not only do the band continue to write and play long songs—three here are longer than the longest on the prior album, Fairytale, which ran only a breath under ten minutes—but they're generous with the quantity of them too. There's an hour and a quarter of music here, spread over two discs. Perhaps the length, of both album and songs, helps it to become immersive. I started out planning to listen to the songs and see how they contributed to the album, but I lost that plot halfway through and I never really picked it back up.

The opener is an epic, even at a mere four minutes, with chanting and powerful strings. It's heavy, then it's folky, then it's both. In between that and the album's first long song, Blood and Wine, is one of a number of interludes, this one aptly titled A Haunting Lullaby. It's precisely what it says it is and it's a memorable piece, even at a mere minute, changing the mood before we leap into the twelve and a half minutes of Blood and Wine, which ably highlights how Riverwood are an extreme metal band even if they kind of forget that most of the time. This is folk music as often as it's folk metal or symphonic metal and, while some of that feels olde English, most of it is middle eastern.

Everything in Blood and Wine feels orchestrated and there are neat choral moments. Nader sings clean, though someone—maybe also him—adds a harsh voice here and there for contrast. Guitars are a constant highlight too, courtesy of Seif Elsokkary and Nader again, but the orchestral parts often take over from them. There are sections run through with crunchy guitar, then repeated as sections for bass. There's a lovely section almost midway where the heavy choral sound of Therion is turned on and off and on again over quiet guitar. There's a lot going on here and it's easy to get lost in the song.

And that's exactly what I did with the album. The Shadow is an odd interlude, but its ethnic winds lead well into Sands of Time, which begins like it's the real interlude. The ethnic winds are joined by ethnic drums and a clean and plaintive voice. I love these folk sections that endow everything with a sway and a timelessness. This one grows into a prog rock piece and, in time, prog metal, an occasional harsh voice showing up to add texture. The bass is often a highlight in this one, but so are the strings seven and a half minutes in. And...

Well, I realised at this point that I wasn't really paying attention to songs any more. I was merely immersed in the music and it didn't matter if Sands of Light rolls into Queen of the Dark or Dying Light gave way to Lustful Temptation. By this point, I was listening to Shadows and Flames like it's an pulsing ocean of waves or an undulating desert of dunes and I was content to let it carry me on to wherever it wanted to take me. Did I mention that I got almost Marillion vibes in instrumental sections of Lustful Temptation? Probably not. I don't think I wrote that down until after a third or fourth listen. How about Dying Light starting out very much like Therion, not just in choral vocals but in riffs? Yeah, probably the same.

Eventually I got round to taking notes again. There's some more glorious bass work in The Flame, from new fish Mohannad Ahmed, one of two members to join after the previous album, Abdallah Hesham on drums being the other. There's some lovely flute too, from guest Hüseyin Pulant, who seems to be on Sands of Time and Dying Light too but might not be. The closer, Solitude, is an odd piece, because it's gothic and doomladen and dominated by strings. At least they sound to me like strings but I don't see anyone credited, so maybe it's all done by Omar Salem on keyboards.

Mostly, though, I want to call out Babylon, one of those brief interludes, because it highlights just why I love folk metal so much. It does that quintessential Riverwood folk into folk metal shift, and it's a delight for its seventy or so seconds. This isn't inventing any wheel, it's merely doing what a folk metal song is supposed to do, but the very nature makes it wildly original. Every band in this genre has a different heritage to bring to proceedings and the variety you find when moving from Finland to Japan to Egypt is glorious. Riverwood probably think of themselves as symphonic metal nowadays and progressive metal after that, but the folk, with or without the metal suffix, is what truly drives its unique nature.

Now, how long do I need to wait for a third album?