Thursday, 24 March 2022

Frostbite - Misdirected (2022)

Country: Norway
Style: Progressive Rock/Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 28 Jan 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

Here's another prog rock album from Norway because, if I have an addiction nowadays, it that. It's heavier than the others that I've been wowing over, because it often crosses that invisible border into prog metal, but in a commercial fashion. The more I repeat listened to this album, the more it felt like Frostbite are aiming at being Dream Theater lite, which may or may not be a good idea.

The six members all are clearly adept technically but none of them shows off that much or aims at flashy demonstrations of their skills. The band's sound isn't as dense and they keep instrumental workouts far less frequent. However, they find many of the same grooves and they have a lot more melodies. It's like they listened to Distance Over Time in 2019 and felt the same way I did, that the technical wizardry is all well and good, but where are the hooks? I just wrote about it, but they put an album together that's full of the hooks that Dream Theater weren't writing.

The question is whether this approach is going to work for them. Fans of Dream Theater do like an instrumental workout and many of them like them all the more when they're technically brilliant to the degree that most bands wouldn't even be able to cover them. Those fans are going to hear this and wonder why there are so few notes, even as the melodies and hooks seep into their bones. On the flipside of that, fans of straight ahead of rock who are used to hooks like these may baulk a little at how complex and progressive the songs are. Is there a place in the middle for a band like Frostbite? Maybe and maybe not. I hope so, because I like this.

I also like the way that they dance back and forth across the rock/metal boundary. Superior opens up in more prog metal style, while Ice Cold feels more like prog rock, albeit lively prog rock with a commercial vocal and a sound that's never too far from becoming metal. As the album run on, it's not too hard to see that there are obvious commonalities between many of the songs. Many kick off with piano, then grow through commercial rock sections to more metal guitar solos and often slightly heavier and more imaginative sections to wrap up. Fear My Name and Holy Be the One do that at the heart of the album and they're far from alone, even if the purer Perfect Storm may be be the best song here.

There are a couple of songs that stand apart from this approach. One is the closer, Finding Home, which is the epic of the album. These are generally shorter songs, when you think Dream Theater lengths at least. Two finish in under four minutes and another two in under five. Three stretch to under six and there's another under seven, but Finding Home runs past ten, mostly because of an impressive and mostly instrumental prog midsection. It doesn't change the formula much in other ways but I do appreciate that midsection.

The other is a peach of an instrumental that hints at one direction Frostbite may take more in the future. It's Crepitu, an odd name, given that I'm only seeing a couple of potential inspirations for it. One is that Crepitus was the Roman god of flatulence, which seems unlikely, and the other is a crepitus, a medical condition that involves cracking or popping sounds under the skin and joints. I don't know if that fits either, given that this is emphatically a metal take on classical music in the style of Johann Sebastian Bach.

It's flashy but not as much as Yngwie J. Malmsteen would make it; it's more in the style of Accept, when they cover classical standards. However, I'm thinking that, even if it's nodding knowingly to certain Bach pieces, it's an original creation. I like it a lot, whether early on when it's driven by a lively guitar or late on when the keyboards get frantic. I love the tone of both those instruments and especially the latter, which seems to only play one chord at a time, switching firmly to another each time but with increasing speed.

And so I wonder where Frostbite are going to move musically. It seems like they may already have moved away from an anthemic hard rock sound into the Dream Theater lite style I'm hearing here. I wonder if they're going to expand the instrumental sections further, even if they don't want to go far away from hook-driven commercial rock/metal. This is only their debut album, so there's much opportunity for growth. I look forward to hearing their follow up. Maybe by that point, I'll find out who's actually in the band.

Wednesday, 23 March 2022

FM - Thirteen (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Melodic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 18 Mar 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Like Pure Wrath but from about as close to the other end of the rock/metal spectrum as could be comfortably imagined, FM are an established band whose most recent work I reviewed in 2020. In FM's case, that was their twelfth studio album, Synchronized, meaning that this is what I happily hope will become their lucky thirteenth, and it's emphatically more of the same, to the degree of me almost being able to link to it and simply say "Ditto!" I can safely state that everything I said last time out remains valid this time too.

In case you don't want to follow that link, I'll summarise like this. FM play commercial melodic rock from the softer end of that genre. They're British but they sound American and the radio friendly songs they play often aren't that far away from pop and soul and, on rarer occasions, country, like early in Love and War here. Mostly they play eighties AOR, doing it well enough that many of the songs on offer here will sound like you've been listening to them for decades. You might swear that half of them are covers of songs by bands like Journey that you loved when they were new way back in the day, but they're new now, distillations of a style rather than plaguaristic remakes. This band is just that good.

The line-up remains stable for the eighth album in a row and three of the five members have been there throughout: the back end of Merv Goldsworthy on bass and Pete Jupp on drums, as well as a soulful frontman in Steve Overland. He's the most recognisable part of FM's sound and he sounds just as good now as he did over forty years ago when he was starting out with his brother Chris in a band called Wildlife. It's his shifts into soul that make FM's sound so interesting, because I have to say that, as catchy as their AOR tunes are, they're deliberately smooth and commercial. Turning up the soul component gives them depth and emotional impact.

As an example, check out Long Road Home, which is a powerful song because of Overland's soulful vocal but could have been almost forgettable had he stayed clean and poppy. Waiting on Love is a pop song in rock clothing, surely the softest thing on offer here and, as well crafted as it is, one of the most forgettable. It's songs like this that I can hear and enjoy while they're playing, but forget halfway through the next song because that's just as catchy and, like that, my attention is shifted. That goes double when they're followed by songs with an electronic component, such as Just Got Started and Be True to Yourself, as I imagine they were deliberately designed to grab attention with a little edge.

I don't want to suggest that FM are just a pop band though, because there are a few songs here of harder stuff. Shaking the Tree is a stalker of an opener, almost to deliberately remind us that even if the album will inevitably get softer, FM still know how to rock and it's one of the highlights of the album. Every Man Needs a Woman is a rocker too, even with such a quintessentally soul title. If I'd looked at the track listing before pressing play, that would have been the last song I'd expected to rock it up, but, while it isn't without soul, it never stops rocking. The same goes for my favourite of the eleven songs on offer, which is Turn This Car Around.

It's fair to say too that new fish Jim Kirkpatrick, who's been FM's lead guitarist for fourteen years now, has an important role to play, even though I'd prefer it to be a larger one. He delivers some driving guitar on Shaking the Tree to kick off the album and he's prominent late on too, with neat solos in Fight Fire with Fire (no, it isn't an ambitious Metallica cover) and Be True to Yourself. He's not just there during the bookends either, as Turn This Car Around proves, even if he isn't always given as much opportunity to strut his stuff as I'd like. He contributes excellent, if short, solos in a few songs like Talk is Cheap and Love and War. There just aren't any epics for him to really get his teeth into.

So, as tends to be the case with FM, I'll leave this thirteenth album refreshed and entertained and wondering once more how they've never managed to break the mainstream.

Pure Wrath - Hymn to the Woeful Hearts (2022)

Country: Indonesia
Style: Atmospheric Black Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 18 Feb 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

I had an absolute blast with The Forlorn Soldier, technically an EP by Pure Wrath but one that was long enough to think of as an album. It was my runner up for Album of the Month in March of that year, nudging out the excellent Ghost Toast and My Dying Bride albums but losing out to the new Harem Scarem. Well, Januaryo Hardy, the man behind this project, is back with an full album, his third such as Pure Wrath, with a live album, that 2020 EP and a split release with Onirism available on Bandcamp too. I haven't heard most of that, but I really should carve out time to dig into it.

Januaryo is responsible for the vast majority of what's here, providing the vocals and most of the instrumentation, including guitar, bass and synths. He's also the songwriter, lyricist and, I expect, producer. He doesn't play the drums, which are, as last time out, the work of Yurii Kononov, an ex-drummer for White Ward. Also returning from that EP is Dice Midyanti to contribute piano, cello and "additional elements", whatever they are. Certainly, there's plenty of atmosphere within this atmospheric black metal, so I expect Midyanti is responsible for some of that.

Both are obvious from the outset, Midyanti's cello there as The Cloak of Disquiet kicks things into motion, an elegant sway in companionship with acoustic guitar, before the electrics take over and take over hard, Kononov's frantic drumming setting the pace. Suddenly, we're in full black metal onslaught, albeit with a slow sweeping melody floating through that wall of sound. There perhaps aren't as many dynamic shifts in this one as I'd have liked, but there are points where everything drops away for a slower section for texture.

Certainly, there's some elegant piano work to wrap up Years of Silence, alongside an odd shaking sound that's both enticing and creepy, like a bundle of rushes being beaten against a stone floor. That piano had already made a major effect in the song, minimal but very noticeable tinkling at a number of points. It's this song that also made the theme clear to me, which is grief, that piano an overt expression of such. Also, while the majority of the vocals phrase black metal shrieks as howls of anguish, there's a slower section midway that's dirge like, an outpouring of grief that wouldn't be out of place in a church, sans the music around it.

It's fair to say that I enjoyed this album through its first three tracks, and more on a second listen, but not as much as I enjoyed The Forlorn Soldier. Years of Silence is my pick from those three, even if Presages from a Restless Soul is a real grower of a song, but the streak of genius that was there last time out seemed to be missing. Well, it shows back up on Footprints of the Lost Child, because this is the Pure Wrath I was so impressed by on that EP.

It's strong from the outset, with an almost Iron Maiden melody under its wall of sound, while the vocals are a neatly creeping layer on top but the midsection is simply magnificent. In a subtle turn of mood, things got almost upbeat a couple of minutes in, as if the choral voices are celebrating a life rather than mourning a loss. It's at the five minute mark that it starts to steal our breath, with piano, cello, slow drums and whatever the other sound is merging into an inviting nest of comfort. The backing vocals as the song wraps are welcoming and comforting too. It's quite the piece and I'd have no hesitation calling it the standout track.

There are a couple more songs to come, Those Who Stand Still having some notable moments and Hymn to the Woeful Hearts being a very different closer, not a black metal song at all, more of a respite from the pain and grief inherent in everything thus far. It's almost like the album up to this point is a musical interpretation of all the heartbreak hidden (or not so hidden) by the attendees at an emotional service for the lost, with the title track the peaceful instrumental played as everyone's filing out to rejoin their lives. There's a guest here, Nick Kushnir on "guitar elements", but I don't know what that really means.

So, more powerful and thoughtful stuff from Januaryo Hardy. I'm not convinced that this is quite up to the standard of The Forlorn Soldier, but it's really good stuff and, when it's at its peak, with Footprints of the Lost Child, it's magnificent.

Tuesday, 22 March 2022

Immolation - Acts of God (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 18 Feb 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

This is an eleventh studio album for New York death metal legends Immolation, arriving five years after its predecessor, Atonement. It's a decent release, because it does exactly what Immolation's known for and does it in the fashion to which fans have become accustomed. However, I'm not one of those, even though I should be, because of the lack of imagination in the vocal delivery of Ross Dolan. I end up realising on any Immolation album that I appreciate them more than I enjoy them.

They play a form of death metal that's notably technical but isn't notably progressive, a section in the middle of An Act of God notwithstanding. This approach means that they do all sorts of clever things instrumentally, especially in interplay between Robert Vigna's guitars and Steve Shalaty's drums, but within songs built from frameworks that feel inherently limited by self-imposed genre constraints. There isn't much of anything here that isn't death metal so, if your favourite albums in that genre from the past couple of years are from bands like Rivers of Nihil or First Fragment, then this will seem wildly unimaginative in comparison.

However, Immolation aren't one of those death metal bands who cares more about the impact of their music than they do the songs themselves, like say Cannibal Corpse. The technicality of these songs may not flex the genre's boundaries in the slightest but it's admirable and ought to appeal to fans of bands like Archspire, merely with vocals that feel unambitious. While Dolan's certainly singing these songs, he's almost singing them in a different subgenre, because there's nothing in them to match the technicality of Vigna and Shalaty. His basswork, on the other hand, because he has two roles in this band, absolutely does. Is the man schizophrenic?

What I know is that my appreciation of this album shifted as it went on. I enjoyed the early tracks because of this sort of technical aspect. I loved the intro, Abandoned, for a start, and the complex rhythms on An Act of God too. There's a section late in Noose of Thorns that's breathtaking in its technical ambition. I listened to that a dozen times to try to figure out exactly what they're doing in it. There's a section in When Halos Burn that does likewise and a few in Incineration Procession that come close too.

Over time though, the general vibe of the album took over from those sections of songs and I just ran with it all in a similar way to how I enjoyed the last Cannibal Corpse record, letting the songs bleed together into a single palatable assault on the senses. Dolan's vocals work better with this sort of mindset, in which we give up listening to the detail of the songs and let them simply wash over us. The more I replayed the album, the longer the technicality won out, eventually getting to the point where it was just the last couple of songs in that torrent of death.

I was going to go with a 7/10 because of this, with a note that any particular fans of the band ought to automatically add a point to that. Then I thought I should just bite the bullet and call it an 8/10. But I still don't get Dolan's non-technical vocals on such technical music, so I'll stick with a 7/10 and you can add a point to that if you want, based on what I've said here.

King Mountain - Tempest at the Gate (2022)

Country: Greece
Style: Stoner/Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 Mar 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook

I've been stumbling upon all sorts of quality rock and metal coming out of Greece lately, even if it doesn't seem to be the product of any single coherent scene. Naxatras and Halocraft are only the latest to seriously impress me, with Acid Death and Soundtruck getting 8/10s from me in the past, along with Firewind, who I already knew about, of course. And so, always greedy for more, here's another Greek album, courtesy of another project of Stavros Papadopoulos, who I've encountered before in Universal Hippies.

If I'm counting properly, this is a fourth album for King Mountain with vocals and a fifth overall, as 2020's Beleaguered was entirely instrumental. Papadopoulos provides the guitar and vocals, with Chris Lagios, the drummer in Universal Hippies, behind the kit and John Christopoulos on bass. It's well within possibility that he's played with Papadopolous before in one of his myriad bands, but I couldn't tell you which. I just assume that the man is a scene all on his own.

Like Universal Hippies, King Mountain play stoner rock, as is patently obvious from the amount of fuzz on the guitar. However, this is a vocal album and Papadopoulos's voice underlines just much of Clutch there is in this band's sound. He delivers clean vocals that are deep, confident and powerful without overtly trying to be. Like Clutch, King Mountain builds its songs out of slow, solid riffs that are effortlessly heavy without ever really pushing towards doom. If it crosses boundaries, it's into grunge and southern rock, which I'd never seen as a sliding scale before. There are also hints at an influence in NWOBHM, both in riffs and solos.

For a while, it's pure stoner rock. Soul Sacrifice is a strong opener, a patient stormer of a track. The title track continues that, overloading the fuzz on its intro to worship the distortion, and it's only late in Burning Walls that it leaps into a gallop for some clear Iron Maiden guitarwork. That's neat energy to add into the sound of a band that tend to be heavy without being urgent. The same goes for the psychedelic opening to Break Away and for the way that it then grows into something not a million miles away from southern rock. There's grunge in songs like King of the Mountain and lots of blues too, which is crucial bedrock for King Mountain.

It's notable that the less expected sounds the band trawls in tend to be in the middle of the album. A few of these songs sound like Eddie Vedder singing for Clutch but thinking he's in Lynyrd Skynyrd and I'm not going to argue with that, especially when the guitar plays along. That Break Away solo is a real peach, even if there aren't any other guitars to interweave with. The resulting sound ends up as much akin to Black Country Communion as Clutch, albeit with a very different vocal style.

However, the openers are firmly in Clutch territory and so are the closers, which tend to turn out to be my favourites here. If Soul Sacrifice isn't my pick for the album's standout track, then Under the Blackened Sky is. This is the penultimate song on offer, with the similarly excellent Naked Souls on duty to close out the album, and I adore the guitarwork, which alternates between delicate almost spaghetti western soundtrack picking and a neatly heavy riff, not to forget another excellent solo. The drums are fascinating too, even if they're heavied up to the point of dissonance.

So, how many bands is Stavros Papadopoulos actually in nowadays and which one of them will issue an album next week? Inquiring minds want to know.

Monday, 21 March 2022

Ronni Le Tekrø - Bigfoot TV (2022)

Country: Norway
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 18 Mar 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website | Wikipedia

If you don't know the name, you'll know his guitarwork. Ronni Le Tekrø found fame as the guitarist in Norwegian hard rockers TNT and he blisters on this solo album too, his first true solo job since a pair of Mein Ampf albums in 2014 and 2015. There's a building solo late on the opener, Life on Long Island, that ably demonstrates that he doesn't just still have it, he still has something that a lot of guitarists would kill for. The rest of the song's pretty damn good as well, a quirky but fascinating opener indeed.

What really impressed me, though, was how delightfully offbeat this album is. Few of these songs really do what you expect them to do, though I'm not sure what that would be, given that Le Tekrø hasn't ever restricted himself to a single genre. He certainly doesn't do that here, shifting around a broad realm of music from the Beatles through soothing Eric Clapton and perhaps even Cake to a more traditional hard rock mode with searing guitar. What links it all is a sort of laid back vibe. Nothing here is urgent. Ronni's just having fun.

Life on Long Island is a hard one to describe. It's almost like a cross between what he's been doing for TNT for the past forty years and, well, maybe Jimmy Buffett. Well, maybe not, but it's a combo of hard rock groove and conversational banality that seems like a wild clash but one which somehow works. Similarly, Demons is Eddie van Halen style riffs but the bizarrely banal lyrics are more David Bowie. And the next song after that is about Ronni's cat. The lyrics throughout this album are clearly personal and any that connect through do so through sheer coincidence.

I've only heard this album twice thus far, but I'm tempted to play it a few more times throughout a week or so to let the lyrics soak into my brain. Right now, it's the musical hopscotch that's grabbed my attention, the sheer variety on display on an album that somehow feels coherent. New Day in the Morning is more Eric Clapton than Eric Clapton is nowadays, soothing through both vocals and guitar. A Handful of Time feels Scottish because the swell of the guitar reminds of bagpipes, surely deliberately, conjuring up almost a Runrig vibe. U.F.O. is emphatically a hard rock song but I heard as much ELO in it as I did TNT.

In other words, there's a lot here and Le Tekrø's band is up to the schizophrenic dancing of styles. I wondered at one point if he'd brought different singers in to sing each different track, but no, it's Leif Knashaug demonstrating as much versatility behind the mike as Le Tekrø does on a fretboard. Well, OK, there is at least one guest, Rodmar Johansen on Not Today, but there may only be one. I don't know how long these musicians have been playing together but I'm guessing that it's longer than we might expect for a solo album coming out of nowhere. If not, all power to them, weaving a sonic web together so well on such a diverse set of songs. There's forty full minutes here but I was eager for more. It's a whole radio show on a CD.

SheWolf - SheWolf (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Symphonic Power Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 18 Mar 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives

Here's a band I first heard on Chris Franklin's glorious Raised on Rock radio show and immediately noted down for review. I'm very happy to say that the album lives up to whichever track he played that day, even if it opens up with hints of a folk metal element that don't really manifest. Sure, I'm hearing flutes at a couple of points, like in a tantalising midsection in Lone Wolf and a brief pause in The Thrill of the Chase, but this is never really folk metal. It's symphonic power metal, with the two sides of that just as important as each other, and it's good stuff.

I can't remember which song Chris played that first time, because he could have picked any one of them and not been wrong. The One You Feed is an excellent opener. Welcome to the Pack is a little better again. Lone Wolf is a step up again and could well have been my choice if I were in his shoes.

If anything else can class as better than that one, I'd call out Moonbound, which is a real gem from its bombastic opening notes, the song building from the parade of little tinklings behind the early emphasis to a magnificent power note from the lead vocalist known only as the Shaman. This is an immediate song, one whose groove you'll just fall into the first time you hear it, but there are also layers that you'll keep discovering each time you go back. And trust me, you'll go back.

It's an understatement to say that the Shaman has some serious pipes on her. She has a warm and accessible voice that plays more in traditional power metal melody than the musical theatre that so many symphonic metal singers lean towards, but she can hit notes and enunciation just as well as they can. I don't think this album shows off everything that she can do and I'm interested in the next few albums that I'm sure will bring out more of her talents.

One criticism I'd have is that when a band has a singer who can do this sort of thing, it becomes an easy choice to play with dynamics, crafting songs to take advantage of her range, but SheWolf are resistant to a degree. Take Dimash as the epitome of an example. He has no intention of taking a song to eleven from the outset. He takes his sweet time building it from nothing to the showcase moments that stun us. SheWolf could do that but only Nothing is Forever truly tries, starting out with quiet oohing and solo piano and voice, but even here that voice never hides its power.

We know it's there, folks, and that it'll show up soon enough. Don't rush it. With this album under your belt, be confident that we're fully aware of how much power you have to wield and then play around with other intensity levels until you need it. One moment of artistry that made me smile is the beginning of Home, because it tells us promptly that it's going to be a ballad, teasingly hints that it won't be, then teasingly hints that it will be after all and then, of course, isn't. That's a nice use of dynamics. The all too brief drop into piano at the end of Safe in the Dark is another.

The other thing I got from this album that isn't a criticism at all is that these songs are uplifting. I don't mean to suggest that they're designed to be inspirational, because that's a genre nowadays as much as a mood and that's not what this is. They're just inherently upbeat and refreshing. It's a tough task indeed (and one that I don't want) to listen to a song like The Thrill of the Chase and not be caught up in that, as if we're running with the pack and howling with the sheer delight of it.

One side effect of that is that some of these songs, notably Fallen with You but others too, such as Lone Wolf, could work as decent pop songs, as much as I prefer them as power metal. They're built from melody so fundamentally that turning the heaviness down quite a few notches and switching the very able instrumentation to something more electronic and pulsy, and you have a chart hit. I don't want to suggest that SheWolf should do this, but it's illuminating that they could. This is why they can throw an orchestral version of Lone Wolf onto the end of the album as a bonus, because it doesn't rely on genre to work.

This is the debut album for SheWolf, who hail from the unlikely town of Southampton, not the first place I'd think of when I wonder where the best symphonic metal comes from. But hey, with a band of this sheer quality leading a scene, that could change, and perhaps all it took was a Greek singer showing up. Hail the Sotonians! Now, am I going to up this from an 8/10 to a 9/10? It's very possible.

Friday, 18 March 2022

Slash featuring Myles Kennedy & The Conspirators - 4 (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Alternative/Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 11 Feb 2022
Sites:
Slash: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube
Myles Kennedy: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I've heard some prior material by the surprising but vibrant collaboration between Slash of Guns n' Roses fame and Myles Kennedy of Alter Bridge, but with the latter's backing band, known as the Conspirators. I couldn't tell you which songs, but I certainly haven't heard any of the three albums they've put out previously. Given how this one plays out, I should find those, because the team up is a fascinating one.

I've read that they were aiming for a slightly different sound this time out, so went to Nashville to work with a country music producer, Dave Cobb. While they seem to be happy with his work and I'm not going to complain about it, I'm not hearing any overt country influence here. The album starts out as alternative rock, played in a mildly grungy, downbeat vein with odd moments of perkiness. I found this a little odd in the opening two songs, as it felt like two halves of the collaboration going in different directions. As it ran on, those two sides came together more and more, bringing in an eager hard rock edge and ending on a sublime note with a fantastic closer.

Those two openers are The River is Rising, the album's first single, and Whatever Gets You By. The former really isn't my sort of thing until Slash gets serious a couple of minute and change into the song, when everything gets lively and joyous. It seems all too brief a moment, because it shifts on back into the alt rock vibe it had established, but fortunately it comes back a minute later to take the song home. Slash livens up the latter too, not just with his solo but the build into it. It's worth mentioning that neither is a lively song otherwise, so Slash's contributions, as joyous as they are, make these tracks feel schizophrenic.

However, C'est la Vie is perkier from the outset and the rest of the album gradually agreeing to be a more upbeat affair, ditching the pessimistic cloud so often a feature of American alternate rock since grunge and allowing in at least a little of the party vibe that Guns n' Roses had so much fun with. Talking of Slash's old band, Fill My World starts out in that sort of style, though it moves into becoming a Bryan Adams sort of straight ahead rock song with perhaps a side of Journey. It was a second single off the album and, to my thinking, the most obviously commercial song here, though it runs longer than the traditional three minutes.

I liked a lot of moments in the second half. The riff that kicks off April Fool is firmly Guns n' Roses in approach but with a very different backing band. The unbridled passion of the third single, Call Off the Dogs, suggests that the Conspirators decided that may be they want to be Gn'R after all (or, when it gets to the prominent bass in the midsection, Motörhead). If Slash played the odd one out on the opening tracks, Myles Kennedy definitely takes that role on this one without remotely attempting to sound like Axl Rose. However, not one of these songs matches Fill My World until we get to the closer, which is easily my favourite song here.

That's Fall Back to Earth which initially feels almost like a tame way for the album to wrap up, but it really builds and turns into quite the epic. At six and a half minutes, it's a minute longer than Fill My World, which in turn is a minute longer than anything else on offer. Most of the songs are lean and occasionally mean, but this one has every intention of taking as long as it takes and it's all the better for that. It's definitely an older school song than anything else here, building gloriously in a way more typical of the seventies than the nineties, and featuring some really nice mixing of high vocal notes and soloing guitars.

Attempting to put all of that together, I'd say that 4 is a journey of an album, inconsistent in approach but interesting all the way. There's nothing I'd call out as bad, even acknowledging that much of it was recorded live in the studio, little mistakes included, but not all of it works. At least they follow the good old showbiz maxim of leaving us wanting more, by wrapping up with the real highlight of the album that prompts us to go right back to track one and start all over again. Not that it could have gone anywhere else on the album, of course. I haven't heard anything so obviously a closing track in a long while. It's certainly what I'm taking away most from this album.

Chemicide - Common Sense (2022)

Country: Costa Rica
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 15 Mar 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

Here's a thrash album with a vicious edge indeed, courtesy of Chemicide who have been perfecting their craft in San José, Costa Rica for a decade and a half, beginning out as Conquerer in 2006 and changing name to Chemicide in 2008. This is their fourth album, a year late for their schedule thus far of one every odd year, and it's a real peach. It's fast thrash, barrelling along at a strong rate of knots, with fantastic chugging and excellent solos. The vocals are reliable, even if nothing new and it's notable how the production makes them fight for attention, because the instruments are high in the mix. And that guitar sound!

Chemicide are a quartet with two guitarists, Sebastián and Frankie, though I don't know which one handles the lead or whether they swap lead duties. Frankie also splits the vocal duties with bassist Palo and, again, I don't know who sings lead or whether they swap. Both the vocals and guitars are highly consistent though, with nothing ever seeming patchwork. In fact, they have to be one of the tightest guitar pairings I've heard and both guitarists play like their lives depend on it.

Self-Destruct is a fantastic opener that gets down to business immediately, highlighting with real emphasis how Chemicide are not one of those thrash bands content to chug along at mid-pace and maybe even slower than that. They blister out of the gate and, while they do chug magnificently, it is never for an entire song. They sprint for a while, occasionally shift down a gear midway through a song for a mosh part and then ramp up back up to sprint again. This works really well, especially on the notably patient section late in Strike as One, which is otherwise as frantic as this album has to offer. The song does try to get away from the band, but they manage to keep it in check.

Lunar Entity is the first obvious highlight for me, with Common Sense following right on its heels as the second, especially spending its first minute and a half as an instrumental. There's a third as well, even with only eight tracks on offer, and that's False Democracy, kicking off the second side. Nothing else lets the album down though and I happily spent a whole Saturday morning becoming seriously energised listening to this album over and over again.

It's a very strong album from the good old fashioned "nothing like a good thrash to clean you out" standpoint, in the vicious early Exodus style but maybe a little more polished with its 21st century production values. My only complaint there isn't really a complaint, because there are a couple of points, like when Strike as One and Disposable kick into gear, where the production seems to have lost the battle, the songs sounding like there's a distant explosion behind them, but it may just be for effect, because otherwise it's solid as a rock, with the bass admirable clear throughout.

What elevates it above other very strong thrash albums are the way that Chemicide know exactly how to start and stop songs. I wasn't sold on the ending to Self-Destruct and Lunar Eternity fades out, but there are a whole lot of really good endings here, where a song reaches a natural end to stop on a dime. At the other end of songs, there are no long intros here, unless we count the long instrumental section on the title track, which I wouldn't, but the songs delineate themselves with individual openings. The most notable is the guitar tone as Color Blind begins, but it's clear that a live set wouldn't surprise the audience at any point. Chemicide would only need to play a couple of bars and the die hard audience would know exactly what song is starting.

The best thrash albums I've heard lately have been from established North American bands, something I have to admit to being surprised by. Last year's releases from Flotsam and Jetsam and Exodus are absolute killers, for instance. South America, especially Brazil, has been a hotbed for good thrash though and I'm really happy to see that quality moving up to Central America. I wonder what sort of scene is going on in Costa Rica but I'd love to hear more.

Thursday, 17 March 2022

Dark Funeral - We are the Apocalypse (2022)

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

This is a solid slab of traditional black metal from a Swedish band who have been doing this for the past three decades. I say that now because it took me a while to get into it. I liked Nightfall, which opens up the album, but it didn't seem to do anything new. Only when Let the Devil In kicked off in interesting fashion with some unusual drums did I start to pay attention and it still took a listen or three to really get into the album. The biggest problem it has is that much of it is very traditional in delivery, albeit with very capable production, which means that, if you're a black metal fan, and you probably are if you're reading this review, there's nothing here that will be new to you.

I've heard Dark Funeral before, but I don't believe I've heard anything from them since album two in 1998, Vobiscum Satanas, so I'm out of touch with what they've been doing. Revisiting that album to refresh myself, I realise that the band's sound has indeed changed over time, albeit not too far. While these are still generally fast songs, they're not as frantic as they were at the tail end of the previous millennium and some, like Let the Devil In, are notably slower. Also, the vocal delivery of Heljamadr, the band's fourth singer, is deeper and much more confidently delivered, with capable diction and intonation. I like his approach a lot.

Perhaps one of my problems with Nightfall was that it reminded me at points of a song with quite a similar name but which belongs to another genre entirely. That's Nightfall by the Shore of Time, also an opening track, but from the debut Dark Tranquillity album, Skydancer, so nascent melodic death metal rather than black. This Nightfall is faster, of course, but with a similar energy, similar changes in tempo and similar pauses before all the mentions of the title in the lyrics. I had similar thoughts on other tracks too, especially When I'm Gone.

It's odd to listen to what's clearly a black metal album but keep hearing connections to something that isn't, but it certainly flavoured how I felt this album and that meant that I had to get used to the idea over a few listens before I could fully appreciate what Dark Funeral are doing here in the better moments of the album. And, once I'd got to that point, I started hearing other bands, with only some of them black metal. There's Satyricon in Let the Devil In, for instance, which might be expected, but Paradise Lost in When I'm Gone and Leviathan, which isn't.

Maybe that's why I like When I'm Gone so much and, as a wild generality, the slower of these songs more than the faster, which is contrary to my usual tastes. In fact, even on faster songs like Beyond the Grave, which blisters along just as it should, it's the slower section that spoke to me most. Thus I find myself in the odd position of thinking negatively about this album because much of it feels so traditional while simultaneously enjoying all the songs and sections that aren't. I wonder if Dark Funeral are torn about whether they should slow down and try something new or carry on in a vein that they've been mining for a quarter of a century now.

Where I ended up was liking this a lot more than I thought I would after my first time through. It's a very reliable black metal album, even if it isn't often a surprising one, and I very much want to be surprised by their next album. Of course, it took them six years to knock this one out so it may be a while before that next one comes along. Let's hope not.

Black Rooster - Red House (2022)

Country: France
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 11 Mar 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website | YouTube

Here's an album that I liked without really understanding why. Maybe it's just a little different to anything I tend to listen to and the novelty is appealing. Certainly, it's rooted in hard rock and an array of recognisable American genres, from alternative pop/rock to southern rock, but there's something else that I don't think just stems from an unusually deep lead vocal. I'd call out the singer as a key component of the band's sound but I'm not finding a line-up anywhere online so I guess he'll have to remain mysterious for now. Let's just say that his voice is deep and warm and with just a hint of gravel, but can escalate on the turn of a dime. It's glorious in the second half of Burning Me and it has a fantastic ZZ Top rasp on Speed of Light.

My favourite song may be the opener, Once Upon a Dog, which is an intriguing mix of those genres. The edges are all southern rock, with hints of a western sound too, but it's a hard rock song that somehow manages to swing, even though the riffing is relentlessly tight, reminiscent of a less heavy version of Clutch. This is very much a rock band not a metal band. The catchiest is the next one, I Met the Sun, with a telltale nod to No One Knows by Queens of the Stone Age that clearly must be deliberate, given an inclusion of that band in the tags on their Bandcamp page. Clutch are there too, along with other diverse but telling names like Johnny Cash and the White Stripes. This song's a cross between the relentlessness of Clutch with the jauntiness of Queens of the Stone Age and that's an interesting battle.

The remaining five songs continue to play with how the various sounds the band like to work with doing their own battles and that generally works out. I'm a Bomb has a really neat groove, almost a Sonics-like garage rock one. Speed of Light trawls in that southern rock vibe again as if it should always be there. These are each good songs. However, there are a couple of other habits the band regularly falls into that I don't like as much and they bring the album down a little for me.

Mostly that manifests as sections, usually at the start of songs, in which the band decide to go low profile. I think they're playing with contrasts, especially in songs like Burning Me, which start out a lot less emphatic than they end up after a build. The approach works well there. It eventually works in Slove too, though it takes its sweet time in building. That one stretches out for a couple of minutes longer than anything else here and we feel it while it's playing. It even slows down for a section of noodling with a delightfully tantalising hint of keyboards floating in the distance, but doesn't get moving until five and a half minutes in. It's a very patient song and listeners may not be as patient.

If the build works in Burning Me and kinda sorta works in Slove, it doesn't work in Useless Times, a telling title given that it feels like the band just noodle around until they're ready to get started. I guess it's an intro, but it's an underwhelming one. It would be a better song if it simply ditched the first minute and change, especially given that the kick to actually start is a good one. That isn't an obvious solution for Slove, which is what it is. Some people may really dig the patience. Maybe I'll grow into that too because it certainly ends wonderfully.

So this is a mixed bag to my ears but an intriguing one. Black Rooster are French, but the sounds I hear are all American and they're put together in a different way to how an alternative American band might do it. I like that and I'd like to hear what they come up with next. There are only seven songs here, because most of them are patient enough to nudge over five minutes, the much more urgent I'm a Bomb the only short song on offer. I wonder how that'll change on their next album.

Wednesday, 16 March 2022

HammerFall - Hammer of Dawn (2002)

Country: Sweden
Style: Heavy/Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 25 Feb 2022
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Early HammerFall albums, such as Glory to the Brave and Legacy of Kings, were never far from my playlist in the late nineties, along with similarly powerful but melodic albums from their German peers Blind Guardian, before I shifted a little into the nascent gothic metal genre around the turn of the millennium. That meant that I was happy to see a new album from them a few years ago, an album that impressed me early on before it tailed off into what I kept calling "decent enough". I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy it, but the ballads lost me and a few songs got overly cheesy.

This twelfth album almost plays like a response to my criticisms, ditching the ballads entirely (Not Today thinks about it but never really goes there) and turning down the cheese. Sure, much of this still plays in generic territory, especially from a lyrical standpoint, but even clichéd song titles like Live Free or Die don't lead to songs as cheesy as (We Make) Sweden Rock from that prior release, Dominion. Instead, this album focuses firmly on what HammerFall do incredibly well: wildly catchy hooks, high but strong vocals from Joacim Cans and a reliable underpinning from the rest of the band. No, you won't find anything original in play here, but it's all done with energy, passion and style.

Brotherhood is a belter to open up proceedings and No Mercy is another one to close out, echoes of Accept included. Hammer of Dawn and Reveries are utter anthems and I was singing "na na na" along to the latter on my very first listen. Too Old to Die Young is merely one example of a chorus to vie for most memorable. Not Today is definitely softer and approaches Scorpions territory but resists the urge to go too far in that direction. This band is always at its best when it's in full flow and the riffs keep on coming almost as often as the hooks. I do like the riffs that kick off Live Free or Die and State of the W.I.L.D., not that I don't like the rest of either song. They're full of melodic verses, catchier bridges and emphatic choruses, as all of these tracks do.

The question really comes down to whether you're content with entertainment or whether you're emphatic about your need for originality.

If the latter is important to you, you're going to be disappointed. There's nothing original here at all and, if you've heard an earlier HammerFall album, you won't be remotely surprised by any one of these tracks. It's so quintessentially HammerFall that, if you have any background in European power metal, you wouldn't have any trouble recognising them from any of these songs, even if you were listening blind.

However, if you just want to be entertained, I'd say that this is a solid step up from the prior album, which was itself a step up from some of their weaker releases of previous years. It really feels like they mean it again and they have the energy to deliver. I'd also say that it's a lot more consistent than Dominion. Every song had my attention while it was playing, and I can't say that any of them lost me to memories of an earlier track, something that happened a lot last time out. I'd be on the later tracks but still playing the choruses of earlier ones in my head. That didn't happen here.

So, take your pick. HammerFall are very much HammerFall and nothing much else, but that might be all you need today. If so, this will do the job for you.

Naxatras - IV (2022)

Country: Greece
Style: Hard/Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 25 Feb 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | YouTube

It's appropriate that this album begins with an instrumental called Reflection (Birth), because the band appear to have started out as yet another jam band trio, merely one based in Thessaloniki in Greece, but they evolved into something deliciously more along the way. This is a decent opener, a pleasant intro featuring sitar-like guitar, tinkling piano and hand drums shifting into a stoner rock guitar for an instrumental workout. What it isn't is a complete guide to what's still to come within the next three quarters of an hour, just as I would guess the nascent Naxatras probably weren't a good guide to what they'd be getting up to a decade into their career.

There's a lot here to explore. Some of the songs do fall into the style I expected from the combo of genre and cover art. Omega Madness is clearly Hawkwind influenced, for instance, built as it is of strong riffs and spacy keyboards, though Journey to Narahmon escalates that approach up to the next level, ditching most of the space sounds but maintaining that incessant Hawkwind bassline as it navigates through a lively, more urgent sonic landscape. It's songs like this that prompted me to listen through this album a whole bunch of times because I kept getting lost in its flow. And after all, journeys aren't supposed to be about destinations, even when they're to Narahmon, wherever that is. They're about what's on the way.

Other songs are journeys too, like the closer, Shape of the Evening, which feels like it's more likely to be a journey through the desert to Tombstone than to Narahmon. It's glorious soundscape stuff, patient and western, with danger never overt but always lurking somewhere nearby. The shorter tracks in the middle of the album, like Ride with Time and Radiant Stars, are glimpses of journeys too, especially the latter, its delightfully melodious bookends enclosing some searing guitarwork from John Delias. There's a lot of that here, though nobody lets the side down.

While Naxatras are still primarily an instrumental band and the majority of the ten tracks on offer here are instrumentals, the line-up does include a couple of vocalists, even if they also play guitar and bass respectively. Their vocal work shows up within The Answer four tracks in, after a gorgeous intro, and continues on in Ride with Time and then, most notably, Horizon, which is a true gem of a track, easily my favourite on the album. The instrumentation is blissful, from the Jimmy Page-like guitarwork early on through a moment just before the four minute mark that steals my breath on every single listen to a magnificent climax, but it benefits greatly from a confident vocal too.

Just to keep us on the hop, The Battle of Crystal Fields takes us in a surprising direction, one that seems very reminiscent of a Scottish folk tune. It's a lively piece that's as different from Horizon as Horizon is from The Answer or The Answer is from Omega Madness. I did mention that there's a lot going on here but every moment of it is well worth your effort in seeking it out. This is an easy 8/10 for me, but I'm wondering if I should up that to a 9/10.

Tuesday, 15 March 2022

Napalm Death - Resentment is Always Seismic: A Final Throw of Throes (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Death Metal/Industrial
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 11 Feb 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

It still feels strange to realise that Napalm Death are forty years into their career and they have a lucky thirteen studio albums to their name, the most recent of which made a whole slew of end of year charts in 2020 and got an 8/10 from me here at Apocalypse Later. This isn't number fourteen; it's a mini album made up of material that didn't make it onto that album, and it's as inconsistent as that might make it seem, but some of it is powerful stuff indeed, like the blistering two minute punk onslaught that is By Proxy. It isn't the grindcore of their debut album, which was really a pair of mini albums packaged together, but it hearkens back to even earlier anarcho-punk material, as did some of the material on that thirteenth album, Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.

If that's the best song, there's a whole gradient of material behind it. Narcissus is a strong opener that fits very well with the best of the two covers on the album, Don't Need It, a Bad Brains track from their self-titled debut album back in 1982. It's a frantic but very true take on that original, a more appropriate cover here than the song I remember best from that album, Pay to Cum. Also of note are the two songs that play as a consistent double bill in between the covers. I'd have to give the edge to Man Bites Dogged, a chugger rather than a blisterer with its roots in thrash metal but Slaver Through a Repeat Performance is pretty close.

So far, that's all fairly expected for a band who have morphed over the decades from anarcho-punk to grindcore to death metal. Even when they shift into punk or flirt with thrash, they're immensely recognisable as Napalm Death. That starts to change when they shift into more unusual territory, something that they did on A Bellyful of Salt and Spleen, the closer to Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism and a song that almost felt out of place there. It feels like it has a lot more in common with the various tracks here that also delve deep into industrial.

The best of these, to my ears, is Resentment Always Simmers, a slower song in between Narcissus and the vicious assault of By Proxy, but a heavy one nonetheless. It plays well to me and tells me in no uncertain terms that the Napalms doing industrial can work within the confines of my personal taste, which dabbles in but has never dived into that genre. However, it doesn't work for me on the other cover here, which is of a 1988 single called People Pie by Slab!, a British industrial band. It's easily my least favourite piece of music here, which means that the closer is above it.

I've left that for last not because it's the closer or because I particularly like it, but it's interesting in ways that People Pie isn't. It's called Resentment is Always Seismic (Dark Sky Burial Dirge) and I guess that makes it the surprising title track. It's absolutely the dirge that its name suggests and I was immediately reminded of how Celtic Frost dabbled in industrial way back in the day, but taken to the degree of heaviness they reached much later with Monotheist. I remember mentioning the Frosties in my review of Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism too and it really shouldn't surprise to see them as an influence on Napalm Death. I wonder if they ever delved further back down that path.

So this is a mixed bag, as such collections of extra tracks tend to be, but it's an interesting one. The best songs here are easily worthy of sitting on a regular album and the worst are still unusual enough to be worth a listen, even if they wouldn't remotely fit on a regular release.

Ghost Toast - Shade without Color (2022)

Country: Hungary
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 3 Mar 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Ghost Toast were new to me when I found their fourth album a couple of years ago and that made my highly recommended list for 2020. Here's the fifth and it's a longer and heavier album, though most of it was written at the same time. In fact, the bass is turned up so high here that it distorts on me at points, as if my speakers just aren't up to the job. As that continued, even after I fiddled with my graphic equaliser to minimise the effect, I realised that it was something the band had to be aiming at. It's an odd choice to my way of thinking, but it's the one they made.

Beyond being longer and heavier, as epitomised on the opener, Get Rid Of, which blisters out of the gate and has little plan to calm down, it's also a more varied album. Sure, Ghost Toast still play in a sort of electronically tinged instrumental prog rock/metal style, with samples taking the place of vocals, but they also add a female vocalist here who I haven't been able to identify. She's there on Leaders, playing with middle eastern melodies, and she's there on Reaper Man, albeit glitched for effect. She may be sampled on those two, but she seems to be singing along with the band on both the closer, Rejtekböl, and my favourite track, Let Me Be No Nearer, on which she's more Celtic. It's very possible that there's more than one female voice here, but there's a consistent tone.

As that might suggest, not everything here is frantic, though Get Rid Of never has any intention of letting up, almost black metal without the shrieks, and Deliberate Disguises shows some excellent buzzsaw guitars. Leaders crunches as well, highlighting how easily Ghost Toast slip over from prog rock to prog metal. But there's peace even in Get Rid Of, with late strings and the first sample the album has to offer, from my namesake, HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The band definitely look forward rather than backward, but they don't see inevitable heavying up of everything. They see a richer palette for their dynamic play, which is probably why they resonate so well with me.

That's definitely on show in the first epic here, Chasing Time, which almost sounds like bagpipes as it kicks off, but they're not: they're keyboards and guitars playing a sort of modulated drone. From this point, delicate electronics and tender strings highlight that it's going to seriously build, which it does, magnificently so. Let Me Be No Nearer uses those strings even more effectively, not least through all the middle eastern play; Acceptance is sassier, looser and jazzier; and Rejtekböl finds a neat pastoral groove. There's a lot here to explore.

Once again, the samples are a highlight because they're used sparingly but effectively, so always stand out for attention, the music tending to lull to allow that. Leaders uses an old Frank Herbert NBC interview that feels utterly contemporary, as does the reading of T. S. Eliot's The Hollow Men on Whimper, even though that's even older, dating back to 1925. Jim Carrey's here, not from a film but from a commencement address he gave to a graduating class at the Maharishi International University. However, the most hard to ignore is the creepy conversation on Deliberate Disguises, sampled from the movie adaptation of The Neverending Story.

I liked Shape without Form enough to give it an 8/10 and I like this even more. It continues in much the same vein, but it seems to be more mature and more ambitious with its musical palette. They were excellent anyway, but if they're improving at this rate, they're going to be unstoppable soon. I now have their earlier work at hand and look forward to album number six.

Monday, 14 March 2022

Steve Vai - Inviolate (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 28 Jan 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Of all the myriad styles of rock and metal, the toughest for me to review tend to be instrumental guitar albums like this one, the tenth from guitar wizard Steve Vai. Instrumental albums in other styles, especially post-rock, stoner rock and psychedelic rock, tend to be about conjuring journeys into existence for us to take with the band. One measure of success is whether we as listeners feel transported. It doesn't really matter where, as long as we're taken somewhere. However, albums like this are more about conjuring new sounds out of an old instrument.

And that's where Vai, because he can, kinda cheats, because he brings a new instrument to the table. That insane creation on the cover of this one is the Hydra, a combination instrument constructed by Hoshino from his vague designs, and, just in case you wondered, yes, he absolutely plays the beast on this album. I would highly recommend checking out the official music video for Teeth of the Hydra, which showcases both the instrument itself and his techniques for playing it. In addition to the regular six string guitar, it also contains a fretless bass, a twelve string guitar and a limited harp, enabling to be an effective one man band. All he needs behind him is percussion.

Teeth of the Hydra is fascinating and that's the first thing I want from Steve Vai. No, it didn't take me anywhere but it sounds good and it never lost my interest from a technical perspective, even a half dozen views in. The other thing I want are those new sounds and he stirs some of those up on the second track, Zeus in Chains, which has all the melodies and tone we might want from a guitar piece playing in the background that catches our attention, plus the quirky weirdness that is Vai doing new things with his instrument.

So far, so good. The good news for the rest of the album is that it's a delightful listen. I could listen to that fluid tone all day and almost did, and any random moment you care to skip ahead to will be as delightful as the one you left. The bad news is that it's pretty consistent throughout, which may or may not be a problem, depending on what you're looking for. If you just adore Vai's tone, then I would guarantee that you're going to adore this album. Let it play and let it repeat. You won't be disappointed. However, if you're looking for variety and more of those interesting sounds, it's not as straightforward for you. He's playing music here more than he is stunt guitar.

There are nine songs on offer, racking up three quarters of an hour of running time, and there are maybe two that stand out from the crowd for some reason. However, there are moments in most of them that will have you wondering what he just did and how he did it. Little Pretty is a fantastic example of this, because it's just another piece of almost the metal equivalent of smooth jazz, an accomplished delivery of smooth jazz but smooth jazz nonetheless, until a few odd moments when it goes somewhere surprising and we perk up and wonder what just happened. Those moments do make the piece, but they need the rest of it to serve as the build and contrast.

The two that stand out are Avalancha and Knappsack. The former is much heavier than the rest of the album, suggesting that Vai isn't just able to step in to Whitesnake on a moment's notice when needed but Testament too, should Alex Skolnick ever need a stand in some night. I'd love to hear a sample of what that might sound like and Avalancha may be as close as we get. The latter has him imitate a bee for a while, which is definitely strange but clearly a comfortable part of his musical toolbox, which we all know is one of the most fleshed out toolboxes in the business.

I should mention also that these stand out because of style rather than quality. Everything here is pretty consistent in quality, that quality being high. If you twisted my arm viciously enough that I just had to name one piece as the best, I might think for a while and give you Candlepower. I'd say that it works better as a complete piece than many of the other tracks, while still doing plenty of interesting things. It doesn't soar so much as it picks, but it picks really well.

So there's Vai's new album, which really does what you think it's going to do. If you're a fan of this sort of thing, then you're going to love it. Vai is, and has been for decades, easily one of the most technically accomplished and most inventive guitarists in the business. This is close to everything you might want from a new album of his. If you don't like displays of virtuoso talent and prefer an album of riffs and hooks and, dare I say it, vocals, then, of course, this isn't for you.

Zaria - Tell the Wind (2022)

Country: Slovenia
Style: Symphonic Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 18 Feb 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | YouTube

Well, I dived into this album because it claimed to be symphonic folk metal from Slovenia, which is all I need to know, but it's not quite what I got. Sure, Zaria hail from Medvode in Slovenia but this is epic metal to me, a very clean implementation of European power metal led into the fray by an eager spoken word intro. The symphonic angle is clear, because Jerca Starc has quite the operatic range, but the folk aspect is far more elusive. Maybe they were more folk-based with their earlier singer, as Starc joined in 2017 and is the only member here not on their debut album in 2014.

There is folk to be found here but it's limited to a few tracks, usually to their extended intros and a few reprise moments later within them. It's probably no coincidence to realise that these tend to be my favourites. The first of them is Prek meglic preteklosti, which Google translates to Through the Mists of the Past and the flutes that are dominant early get plenty to do later on. To Stealing, Cheating, Fighting and Drinking is lesser but it's still fun and it's definitely one to get all listeners moving, because it would be hard not to buy into its spirit.

The best of the folk-infused songs is surely Gea, which is my choice for highlight, though Dream of a Frozen Dragon comes very close. It's telling that this pair are the longest songs on the album at seven minutes and six and a half respectively, and that they're right at the heart of proceedings, the former wrapping up the first half and the latter kicking off the second. My guess is that it isn't just me who sees these two as the standouts; the band does too, even if they throw the title track at the very end of the album, perhaps deliberately. This album certainly seems carefully framed.

Of course, that leads to its worst aspect. The bookends are narrative tracks, with a cheerful voice backed by sweeping orchestral music. It's almost like we're in a grandiose movie trailer, except it reprises at the end instead of the credits. This narrative isn't annoying, but it is long, the opener almost two minutes and the closer over three and a half, so there are well over five minutes here that aren't devoted to the band doing what they do best. Fortunately, the album clocks in at close to an hour, so they're not skimping on the content. However, on repeat listens, I found myself very happily skipping those bookends entirely and running the album through from Where Adventures Begin to Tell the Wind.

And I have to say that the rest of the album doesn't get old. I find a lot of symphonic metal similar to a degree that I might enjoy an album once, twice or even three times, but get tired of it after a point. While, this one isn't the most original symphonic metal album I've ever heard, it's so clean and so uplifting that it's easy to just lose a day listening to it over and over. It's refreshing, almost a palate cleanser to whatever crap's going on in the world today. Because it stays fresh, the songs deepen with each listen, becoming old friends and gradually standing out from their peers. I may have enjoyed Rok Ražman's bass work late in Ko vstane jutro (When the Morning Rises) on a first listen but it stands out more with every repeat.

Every instrument is clean, making this almost the opposite of the Love/Hate album I reviewed last week, where the band's approach was to dirty every instrument up to be as sleazy as possible. This extends to Jerca Starc's vocals, which are like crystal when she soars dragon-like over the musical landscape her compatriots conjure up behind and beneath her. In fact, her voice is so pure that I'd not be remiss in bringing up Dimash Kudaibergen in comparison and I don't do that lightly at all. I would recommend Dream of a Frozen Dragon if you're into that sort of thing, or V senci Triglava (In the Shadow of Triglav).

And I really need to stop playing this particular album on repeat, sans bookends, because I have a long list of other bands and other albums to catch up with. It's telling that I just don't wanna. This one feels exactly right for today. I'm getting book reviews knocked out nicely and I'm stuffed with free Chinese food. Life is pretty good right now, if as busy as ever, and this is a sonic mirror of that.

Friday, 11 March 2022

Marillion - An Hour Before It's Dark (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 4 Mar 2022
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This is my first Marillion review at Apocalypse Later, so I should get this out there and then never mention it again. I discovered rock music in 1984 and Marillion were one of the first bands that I'd called my favourite. Script for a Jester's Tear is still one of my top ten albums of all time. B-Sides Themselves isn't far behind it. I know Grendel by heart. Those songs were all shaped by Fish, their idiosyncratic lead vocalist and the arbiter of their uniquely poetic lyrics. But, he's long gone. Sure, Steve Hogarth is still the new fish in the band, but he's been there since 1989, which is thirty-three years and counting. Fish only managed seven and he wasn't their original singer anyway. Let's get over this idiocy, people.

Now, I haven't kept up with Marillion the way I should have done. I couldn't name you the greatest songs of Steve Hogarth's era the way a friend of mine surely could, but I certainly enjoyed what he brought to Seasons End and I've heard and appreciated odd tracks here and there in the decades since that album. This is the first time I've sat down to listen to a full Marillion album since maybe Holidays in Eden and I'm seriously impressed. Sure, they've moved firmly away from the technical intricacies of Van der Graaf Generator and seventies Genesis to a more commercial sound, but it's still prog and it's still really good stuff. You Can Learn nails its groove and Murder Machines has a magnificent sweep.

The thing is that it's hard to compare this to anyone except Marillion themselves, which I can't do because I'm not familiar enough with their last few decades. To my ears, there's more Pink Floyd here than Genesis, but this certainly isn't a Pink Floyd album. There's Magnum in there too when Be Hard on Yourself kicks in, though it grows beyond that. Hogarth came to Marillion from a new wave background and, while I wouldn't say there's new wave here per se, there's certainly a dose of contemporary art rock in the current sound as well, a Coldplay or Radiohead element. Mostly, they're simply Marillion, which goes an awful long way to explaining how they've maintained such a dedicated fanbase.

There are two sides to this album, but I'm not talking the first and second halves for a change. The bookends are multi-part suites that aren't as epic as they might seem, in three, four or five parts. Reprogram the Gene may have the most delineated parts, but they only add up to a seven minute song. Be Hard on Yourself is nine, Sierra Leone eleven and Care a fuller, more fleshed out fifteen but, as I remember Marillion doing in the past, these suites are also individual songs tied together. I have no problem pulling a part from this song and a part from that as highlights.

The other side to the album are the songs in the middle, which are more coherent as single tracks and so aren't broken up at all. Why Marillion separated them like this, I don't know, but I like the approach, because Murder Machines is the clear standout for me here and, while I liked the early two suites, they felt like they were building towards this song as much as the brief intro listed as a separate piece, Only a Kiss. Three minutes into Murder Machines, we're floating on a sonic wave, every aspect of this band combining effortlessly into magic. I wanted this song to go on and on.

The other major song in the middle of the album is The Crow and the Nightingale, a real exercise in dynamic play. It's a wave too, but one that waxes and wanes rather than maintains. While I have no hesitation calling it the lesser of the two songs, it has a grandeur to it that makes me think it'll argue with me about that. It's still strong though and you'll never hear me complain when a song allows Steve Rothery to let loose on his guitar.

After that, the album tails off gradually with two suites that are softer in nature and so remind of how Pink Floyd built their Wish You Were Here album. An Hour Before It's Dark sometimes echoes that approach, putting the more straightforward songs at its heart, between its sprawling suites, but sometimes flips it on its head, making those sprawling suites clearly vocal. It's an interesting approach and it seems more meaningful the more I think about it. Which probably means that it didn't enter into the band's minds when they put it together.

I like this album, but it's a very easy album to like. On the surface, it's smooth and unchallenging, though there are depths to be found if you dive in and explore beyond the surface (a shoutout to Pete Trewavas's basswork on Maintenance Drugs right here). It's also wildly optimistic, shorn of its edges and infused with optimism. Reprogram the Gene's lyrics open: "I don't want to be a boy. I don't want to be a girl. I want to be happy, I want to be clever and no pain whatsoever." That's this album in a nutshell.

Kimaera - Imperivm (2022)

Country: Lebanon
Style: Symphonic Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 15 Mar 2022
Sites: Bandcmap | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter | YouTube

This is Kimaera's fourth album, but it's the first for me so I haven't followed their sound through a variety of evolutionary steps. It seems that they started out as a heavy metal band called Chimera that featured entirely clean vocals, changed name to play atmospheric doom/death metal and, in time, moved into symphonic death metal. I presume those changes weren't instant and they grew from one genre to another, which might explain why so many of them are still rattling around in a genre-hopping sound.

The symphonic aspect is there first, along with the most prominent ethnic music. The latter isn't a priority for the band, so what little of it shows up is generally confined to the background, but it's discernible at a few points in the opener, De Amare et Bellvm. I wanted more of it. The symphonic side of things is keyboard generated and a clear priority so continues throughout the album as an omnipresent default texture. The death metal joins in next, present in the chugging guitars and a deep harsh lead voice.

I believe that deep voice belongs to the band's founder, J. P. Haddad, who died of asphyxiation in a gas leak only a fortnight after this album was completed. If so, he must be a serious loss to the metal community in Lebanon, where they're from, because the Middle East isn't the most typical place to find metal bands, yet he was able to create one that obtained international acclaim and reached their fourth album. He sounds good too, the primary voice here being deep and rich and warm. Further male voices appear at points, one thinner but harsh and another clean. I presume both are also him. Certainly he also provided the rhythm guitarwork and the concept behind this album, which is centred on the Roman Empire. R.I.P., sir.

That subject matter may well have framed their use of genre here. It starts out bombastic, with a rampant and confident army at war, but it goes to other places too. The decadence of the empire surely manifests through gothic sections. I believe there are violins, or their synth equivalents, on the opener, but they're more obvious on The Die is Cast and VVV, with a melancholy piano joining them on the latter. Most of all, there's a turbulence in this music, which shifts style often in minor ways, as if the various musicians in the band represent constantly shifting different factions in an ever-changing empire. Certainly, there's a song here exploring The Ides of March. It really fits.

That turbulence is arguably the best and worst thing about the band. If you're someone who likes genre-hopping music, you may really dig this, with all its varied performance elements shifting to mirror where the lyrics or mood takes a particular song. The Grammys give out different awards for Best Song and Best Performance and I still don't really understand the difference, but I would call what Kimaera put on this album as a set of performances more than a set of songs. They don't flow like songs but they present like art, where everything has meaning. And, of course, if you're not a fan of anything I just said, you may have problems with this album.

I certainly like it but I'm not sure yet how much. I'm not usually a fan of musical theatre but this is only halfway to that because, sure, it's about the story but it's about the music even more. There are still riffs and hooks, even though the songs are too patchwork in nature to adhere to the usual structures, and they're often good riffs and hooks, albeit a lot more of the former than the latter. It's just that, as you get used to one, they shift onto another. The truest song here isn't theirs; it's Ya Beirut, a memorable version of Majida el Roumi's Beirut Set El Donya with Cheryl Khayrallah on guest operatic vocals.

I don't know what the future holds for Kimaera, given the tragic loss of J. P. Haddad. He's led this band for over two decades and, while nobody else in the line-up appears to be brand new, nobody has been there anywhere near as long as he has. There are no other founder members here and I don't know if any of them are ready or able to carry the torch. Only time will tell, but this does, at least, stand as a testimony to what Haddad and his compatriots achieved. When they're on point, they're really on point and you only have to check out Capvt Mvndi, surely the best song here and the album's epic, to discover that.

Thursday, 10 March 2022

Zeal & Ardor - Zeal & Ardor (2022)

Country: Switzerland
Style: Avant-Garde Black Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 11 Feb 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

The much celebrated Zeal & Ardor really shouldn't work as a concept. Manuel Gagneaux had been in a few different pop bands when he asked the members of 4chan to give him two genres for him to combine for a song he'd create in half an hour. They gave him black metal and black music, so he combined extreme metal with African American spirituals, a ludicrous concept but one that, to everyone's surprise, actually worked. Having found that he was somehow able to release this as a serious project, he framed the underpinning idea as "what if American slaves had embraced Satan instead of Jesus?"

While the first Zeal & Ardor album was an entirely solo effort, he expanded into a full band in time for the amazing second album Stranger Fruit, even though only the band's drummer, appeared on the album with him. That's Marco von Allmen and it's the two of them here as well, even though a lot of what they do is samples and programming. This is a much more artificial album than the last one and deliberately so, with plenty of electronic manipulation and a lot of industrial grooves too. I think that's a mistake because, while black metal can work with drum machines, I don't believe that spirituals can work with anything except heart and soul.

That's underlined for me on Bow, which explores the spiritual side of Zeal & Ardor but with heavily artificial accompaniment. These aren't old black felons singing on a chain gang. They're sitting in a studio generating handclaps electronically and that doesn't work for me in the slightest. Sure, I can see a place in music for the static, dissonance and manipulative effects that are spread over this album like a rash, but not in a solo spiritual section. Going with that decision means that Bow is a failed experiment for me and it's not the only one here.

Some songs work really well but I'm pretty sure that which will depend on your tastes. Many have praised Run, the opening single, which is a an alternative rock/nu metal onslaught, but I wouldn't because it didn't do much for me. I'd call out Golden Liar as the highlight, which reminded me of a Tracy Chapman song written for the soundtrack of a western feature, complete with whistles and narration. It's the sort of song that will absolutely find itself playing behind the crucial finalé of a TV show. There's some of that in Church Burns too, but it has industrial layers to hinder that.

Another track that worked for me is I Caught You, which combines the call and response aspect of spirituals with alt rock. It's modern and trendy and wants to be both, but it transcends the limits that come with that to be a fascinating song. Death to the Holy does some of the same, but with a little less ambition, something that's otherwise all over this album and every Zeal & Ardor release.

I have every respect for Gagneaux doing things that aren't done just to see if they'll work and I'm often appreciative of a song, even if I don't actually like it. Erase is one of those. I didn't want it to heavy up, but it does with hardcore vocals and jagged guitars that end up dissonant and djenty. I didn't like it much at all but it was easy to appreciate Gagneaux's talent nonetheless.

Where he lost me this time out was on songs that feel disjointed. Emersion is the first of them. It shifts genre like a round of Whose Line is It Anyway, alternating between inoffensive electronica in a Moby or Enigma vein and what I guess is blackgaze, the black metal wall of sound with what I would think of as a post-rock melody. These aren't integrated into a single sound, something that Hold Your Head Low achieves. It's like moving the dial on the radio between stations and back. It even ends with still more inoffensive keyboard work that could be the theme tune to a kids show. Feed the Machine feels disjointed to me too.

And all this means a mixed bag. I adored Stranger Fruit and don't recall any of it not working. This has a bunch of stuff that works, led by Golden Liar, and a bunch of stuff that doesn't, chief among them Emersion. Most of it sits in between, with Hold Your Head Low and I Caught You high on that scale but Bow and Feed the Machine at the lower end. And that means only a 6/10 for me, a major drop from the previous album. But hey, let's see what Gagneaux does next. It's guaranteed to be interesting but, when you're playing with genres like this, not everything pans out every time.