Monday, 13 June 2022

Dame Tu Alma - Lead (2022)

Country: Switzerland
Style: Dark/Horror Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 Apr 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | YouTube

Dame Tu Alma may be Spanish for "give me your soul", but the band of that name are as Swiss as the clockwork effects on the intro to the debut album and its opener proper, ironically named The End (well, its intro was called The Beginning of, so that's fair). Their sound isn't particularly Swiss though, with what they trawl into it not remotely as European as we might expect, plenty but not all of it being American alternate rock.

The first influences I felt are actually heavier, but they're misleading. There's a lot of the groove-oriented mainstream Metallica in the tone and riffing, as well as some of the intros, like on In the Sense of Brightness. There's also an NDH drive that we tend to know from Rammstein in the early songs, though it could equally have been sourced from Rob Zombie. It's mostly in the urgency but also some of the dance oriented nuances or orchestrations behind it, Sick Horrors the most overt example. That combination sounds like it ought to be in your face, but it's not, mostly because of the vocal delivery.

It's clear early on that this is never going to thrash out like earlier Metallica or go industrial like Rammstein, as often as little triggers in the sound convince us that it's preparing to do just that, but the vocals settle this as alternative rock and the longer the album runs on, the more it feels naturally alternative, however chunky the riffs or urgent the drive. Every time I hit replay, I hear that heaviness in the openers that gradually fades into a more alternative vibe, one that resists heavying up into nu metal rather than thrash or industrial.

The band's website calls out Depeche Mode and Marilyn Manson as influences here, and it's easy to hear both of them, though the former are more obvious in the music and the latter more in the approach. Whoever's singing here, and I can't see a line-up to detail that, has a smooth and clean voice with plenty of theatricality in it and the band have that theatrical feel too. It isn't surprising to discover that they all wear facepaint on stage. I'm sure that there are other American alt rock bands that could be cited here, but it's not my area of expertise. It all feels post-grunge though, a few lingering moments going back to the grunge era. It's a very modern sound, with even a djenty chord surfacing at points on Breaking Loose and vocals that get shouty and almost raucous.

I should add that this isn't musical theatre to the degree that the inherent lack of visuals when we listen to the album is problematic, because it can be listened to on its own merits, but it seems an utter given that that visual element exists. This singer can surely see in his head the music videos for every one of these tracks, even if the band has only made three thus far, for Skeleton Key, Black Fire and All Mine. Oddly, given that The Knife is almost an intro to the latter, it doesn't appear on that video, because it's arguably as theatrical as it gets here.

Dame Tu Alma call what they do dark rock or horror rock and it's easy to see why, especially when you factor in the sound effects used throughout the album. However, the songs don't feel like they were built around movie samples and they aren't named for or obviously inspired by such movies, like the Misfits back catalogue. It's just a general vibe that drives everything. Tom Waits has said that all he tries to do is write "adventure songs and Halloween music" and the latter kind of fits in this case. Dame Tu Alma seem like people who live like it's Hallowe'en every day, seeing the world from both sides of the veil. Unlike many horror/shock rock musicians, it doesn't feel like this is the suit they're putting on when they go to work. I like that.

I like their music too, which is still coalescing in my brain. It's consistent enough to find a feel over multiple listens, but there's a lot of admirable variety in it without ever seeming to be consciously seeking that. It's organic variety, songs growing the way they do because that's their nature. The pairing of The Knife with Skeleton Key may be my favourite right now, just as the two minute closer Obsidian Heart is my least favourite, an experiment that doesn't work for me but might for you.

However, that'll probably change tomorrow. After all, I like the experimentation and Skeleton Key may shun that more than any song here. I ought to gravitate towards Peyote Mirage, with its crows and its jingling, like it's playing under the Twilight Zone theme, and it may become my favourite. It cheers my soul that these two songs sit next to each other on an album because it means that this band has a range broad enough that that seems natural to them.

Friday, 10 June 2022

Kreator - Hate über alles (2022)

Country: Germany
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 10 Jun 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | VK | YouTube

I'm always up for a new Kreator album. I've been a fan of theirs since their early days and enjoyed them enough to go see them live twice in two months back on their 1989 Extreme Aggression tour. Perhaps more pertinent to today, I dug their last couple of albums too, especially 2012's Phantom Antichrist but 2017's Gods of Violence too, which signalled the way that this album would take five years down the road.

They're not the most prolific thrash band on the planet but they tend to deliver, with a few almost inevitably awkward nineties albums notwithstanding, though, in Kreator's case, these tended to be far more interesting than plenty of other bands of their day. They innovated and experimented and, while not all those experiments worked out as they'd hoped, they never lost the way forward. This is their fifteenth album, even though they've never split up and their debut was back in 1985, and it's often very recognisable.

That word "often" may cause a raised eyebrow and that's warranted because Kreator are playing with their sound again, starting with the instrumental intro, which is an oddly late homage to the Italian film director Sergio Corbucci, who's been dead for thirty-two years. Why they felt the need to notice this year, I have no idea, but it's a pleasant minute that leans far more towards his many spaghetti westerns than his action comedies.

Things really get down to business with the first couple of songs proper, the title track and Killer of Jesus. They're both excellent up tempo thrashers, as you might expect from Kreator, even if there isn't anything particularly groundbreaking in either of them. The sound is clean and the band get down to business quickly. They just don't have anything new to say that they haven't already said a bunch of times before. I still got a kick out of them though, especially the guitar duel in the second half of Hate über alles.

And then things gradually shift down tempo. Crush the Tyrants stays strong anyway, even though I prefer my thrash on the fast side. Strongest of the Strong continues the decent mid-tempo and is elevated by some almost doom/death guitarwork over the top of the crunch and the fury. Perhaps this approach is summed up by Become Immortal, which looks backward with an air of nostalgia. I couldn't miss the refrain of "Remember where you came from". If that's what Mille Petrozza aims to do here, he's going all the way back to the early days when they had other names: Metal Militia and Tyrant and Tormentor. Certainly the influences here aren't proto-thrash bands but traditional heavy metal bands like Saxon and especially Accept, right down to the "woah" section.

And so it goes. There's thrash metal here but it's surprisingly sparing, to the degree that it shows up when we least expect it. Conquer and Destroy plays with epic metal, from the guitar intro to an unusual late vocal section and a general anthemic feel. The real epic here is Dying Planet at close to seven minutes, but it's too long and the narrative segment doesn't work for me.

What does work for me is Midnight Sun, which begins with a tasty buzzsaw speed metal guitar but develops in surprising ways. It stays speed metal for a while, just with an oddly slow beat, but the bridge is delivered by a female voice in an almost gothic fashion, one that's placed in an odd level of the mix for effect. I'm not convinced by all the ideas on this album, but this one is tantalising, a very interesting contribution by Sofia Portanet, apparently a modern German new wave singer. I need to check her own work out.

I hadn't planned on running through this album track by track, but it develops in that sort of vein, with the final couple of tracks being relatively forgettable. It feels like a manifesto, a very public choice to take the thrash metal that Kreator are rightly known for and then gradually move away from it, back into traditional metal and then forward into more unusual territory. Had the album ended after Demonic Future, that might have worked a little better than it does with a relatively unnecessary pair of closers. I'm not entirely sold but I'm not such a thrash purist that it pisses me off. Some of these experiments work well, but not all of them and I wonder where they'll go next.

Electric Mountain - Valley Giant (2022)

Country: Mexico
Style: Stoner Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 May 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram

Of all the genres I've dived into since birthing Apocalypse Later Music in 2018, stoner rock is surely the freshest, mostly because I wasn't paying attention when it was born and missed out on all the early years. Nowadays, it's a truly global genre, not just one confined to the American southwest, and here's a great example of a stoner rock band from south of the border (and there are enough of these for some quick research to turn up Fuzztlán, a blog dedicated to them). Electric Mountain hail from Mexico City and, as is so often the case with such bands, they're a power trio, featuring Gibran Pérez on guitar and vocals, Jorge Trejo on bass and Max Cabrera on drums. This is a follow up to their self-titled debut in 2017.

For the most part, it's exactly what I expected. Stoner rock's twin sister, psychedelic rock, can go in a whole slew of different directions, but stoner rock mostly slides along a scale, softening up to be desert rock or heavying up to be doom or sludge metal. Electric Mountain are right in the middle of that scale, built out of chunky riffs reminiscent of Black Sabbath and blistering solos that take over enough that we often forget that one of these three musicians also sings. They're also fierce and energetic, whether they're rocking out up tempo or slowing down for effect.

What tends to vary the most in stoner rock is the amount of fuzz on the guitar and I'd suggest that Perez's sits midway between clean and crazy distorted, so perhaps 4 or 5/10 fuzzy, even though the intro oddly ramps it up further as a hint of what's not to come. The fuzz is certainly there to leave us in no doubt about what Electric Mountain are playing, but it doesn't overwhelm the sound like a fungus exuding through our speakers.

The other common thread that I see a lot in stoner rock bands is a focus on instrumental jams over vocal content. Many ditch the singer entirely and those that retain one often task him with double duty, noting that his instrumental job clearly far more important than the delivery of lyrics. Many stoner rock singers only seem to be such because they drew a short straw, no-one else in the band willing to step up. Electric Mountain do have a singer but, while he's clearly playing an instrument as well and he does probably see that as the more important role, he cares about crafting a vocal performance too and he does a pretty strong job with it, especially so for the genre.

That said, while I like his delivery, it often surprises me when he steps up to the mike, especially on repeat listens when I get to a favourite track I could have sworn was entirely instrumental, such as A Fistful of Grass. This one's actually only instrumental during its last third, but the band find such a sweet spot during that part that I forget every time. There's only one instrumental here, which is a real journey, A Thousand Miles High also being nine minutes long and always inventive. When it fades out, I'm always surprised, because it remains fresh, even at double the length of anything else here, and could easily have run on longer. Also, while this band lives on its riffs and solos, I got a real kick out of the bass on this one.

By the way, I said for the most part earlier, because there's a song here called At Least Everything that doesn't fit any of the descriptions I've just run through. Of all things, it's an acoustic piece, so inherently shorn of the amped up energy that everything else here thrives on, but it's a real song not an interlude. It's surprising to hear it on this album at all, but it's even more surprising for the position it holds, slotted into the track list partway through, eight tracks in, with a couple more to go. It's not a bad song, but it feels out of place here and would have worked better as an oddity at the end of the album, if not on a B-side later. There's enough music here for its absence not to be a problem.

So, that one anomaly aside, this is yet another solid stoner rock album, merely one from south of the border for a change. I've heard psychedelic rock from Mexico before, courtesy of SixSuns and Saturno Grooves, but this is the most traditional stoner rock I've heard yet and I'd certainly like to hear more.

Thursday, 9 June 2022

Colosseum - Restoration (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Jazz/Blues Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 15 Apr 2022
Sites: Facebook | Prog Archives | Wikipedia

Here's another band I remember from back in the day who have surprised me not only with a new release but with the fact that they're still together. Sure, they weren't for quite a while, as this is their fourth incarnation, but they weren't gone for anywhere near as long as I thought. They were a pioneering jazz rock band on their first go around, from 1969 to 1971, and a similarly pioneering jazz fusion band during their second shot, as Colosseum II from 1975 to 1978, with Gary Moore and Don Airey in their roster. And I thought that was it, but apparently not so.

The original line-up at the time of their split in 1971, including such luminaries as Dave Greenslade and Chris Farlowe, got back together in 1994 and stayed that way for a couple of decades, knocking out a couple of albums to add to the three from each previous period. They split up in 2015 but got back together in 2020 just in time for the pandemic. Greenslade didn't return and neither did Jon Hiseman, who had died in 2018 (Dick Heckstall-Smith had also died in 2004), but Farlowe did and so did long term members Dave Clempson and Mark Clarke, who collectively cover vocals, guitar and bass.

I remember Colosseum II more than Colosseum, but I remember them sounding more like heavier pieces here, albeit with the prominent soloing of Dick Heckstall-Smith's saxophone. By "heavier", I mean heavier from the perspective of the start of heavy music, in 1969 when Colosseum were the first band to see an album released on the Vertigo label, ahead of Black Sabbath. They played jazz rock so the songs were complex and the technical skill level needed to play them was high, but they drove songs hard back then, just like they do songs like I'll Show You Mine and Hesitation here, the former especially reminding of Cream and the way the latter moving into sax typical Colosseum.

And, with that said, it's the lighter stuff that stands out the most for me here. I like those heavier pieces, but Hesitation is more notable when moves into sax solo and wailing backing vocal, as if it could have been on The Dark Side of the Moon. That sax, played nowadays by Kim Nishikawara, is a constant highlight, often elevating songs. If Only Dreams Were Like This is a good one anyway, but the laid back sax makes it better. The bluesy Home by Dawn is another highlight, but the excellent sax solos make it better still. It doesn't do as much on the soulful blues called Need Somebody, but it helps anyway, as does the organ of Nick Steed, another new fish who joined in 2020. Tonight has an impressive balance, especially in its bookends, between sax, organ and Dave Clempson's guitar.

The highlight on Need Somebody is Chris Farlowe, demonstrating yet again that age doesn't make much difference when you have a stunning voice. Farlowe's been around for ever, as epitomised by the fact that he had a UK number one single in 1966, but he sounds great here at 81 years old. He isn't the only vocalist here, but he's the only dedicated vocalist, so that's him at the front just as it was for a couple of years half a century ago. What's perhaps most impressive is that he's always a highlight even when somehow turning it down a notch on songs like Tonight to not steal the show.

Instead, this feels like a group really finding these grooves together rather than a large collection of highly experienced stars swapping moments in the spotlight. Half the band were in the band in its heyday in 1970, if not 1969, while the other half only joined this most recent incarnation in 2020. They're veterans anyway, even if they ony have a mere three decades of professional work behind them, like Nishikawara and Steed, who are presumably here because they've toured and recorded with Farlowe. That leaves drummer Malcolm Mortimore, who's OG and played with everyone from Mick Jagger to Tom Jones, via Gentle Giant. There's a lot of talent in this band and I'm very happy to say that the material they play doesn't let that promise down. Welcome back, Colosseum!

Bucium - Zimbrul Alb/White Wisent (2022)

Country: Romania
Style: Folk Rock/Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 1 Apr 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | YouTube

Here's a submission from Bucharest, Romania that surprised me, as submissions so often do. It's a folk rock/metal album at heart, though that description may mislead a little because this isn't yet another collection of drinking songs and the band don't play unusual instruments beyond violins, though there are two of those. I would add "progressive" to the genre, especially once we get past the title track, which is atypical in its simplicity. It feels like a French chanson sung in Romanian by a Tom Waits fan until chunking up with some heavy guitar. It's unusual, sure, but it's also straightforward. It does one thing.

Fata din gradina de aur is where this album really grabbed me because that certainly doesn't just do one thing. It's an eight minute epic that does very little by the book and it's a gem. The vocalist is the same and the crunch not too far different but everything else changes. If it initially feels like it might have also started out as a vocal folk song and it moves into a dance a couple of minutes in, it evolves beyond both soon afterwards, with original riffs driving a section, before a neat drop to a midsection that starts Genesis but adds in Hawkwind and a hummed melody builds into a choral vocal swell. If it starts out as a folk song, it ends up as a football chant, and folk/prog is the glue.

If the goal was to gradually add complexity and depth as the album went, that goes by the wayside after Greuceanu, which is more epic than its predecessor, which translates to the poetic The Girl in the Golden Garden, and more progressive too. Greuceanu is a name, presumably referencing the folk hero who takes on a quest to recover the sun and the moon after they were stolen by an ogre. The twin violins of Alexa Nicolae and Mihai Balabaș take a broader role here, as lead instruments, and they help make for an emotional journey. Every time I listen to this one, I get caught up in it, a ten minute song feeling at once like merely three but also a lifetime. It's glorious stuff.

And there was no way to keep going along this path without following up with a side-long suite in a collection of parts, so Bucium wisely step back and deliver a set of shorter songs instead. The Song of the Sun, Cantecul Soarelui, introduces a guest, Ligia Hojda, who provides a delightful melodious vocal to duet with Andi Dumitrescu, Bucium's regular vocalist and guitarist. This feels less rooted in folk music and more in pop music, though it wraps up very much in both at once. More obviously a folk piece, Harap Alb, or White Moor, brings in Bogdan Luparu instead, Dumitrescu's equivalent in Bucovina, who has a very different voice to Hojda's but one that works well on such a lively song that's driven by violins as much as guitar again.

Vanator is even more lively, with Dumitrescu back at the mike, but again it's the violins that steal the day. Bucium have an unusual line-up in having a pair of violins alongside a traditional rock trio of guitar, bass and drums, but nothing else: no accordion and no hurdy gurdy, just the guest string quartet on the bookends. They have to give prominence to those violins for this to remotely work and they do so, never more effectively than in the midsection to Vanator, which is a frantic hunt by the title character.

The guitars seem to gain prominence in the final two tracks, Road of Serfdom and Nirwana, almost bringing Bucovina vibes to the fore. Bucium never attempt black metal, but there's a strong sense of urgency in both these songs that I'd enjoyed in Bucovina's excellent Ceasul aducerii-aminte album and the tones in play aren't too far away either. It's an interesting approach for an album to really pump our blood as it's ramping down and I'm not entirely convinced that it's a wise one, even with a drop to narration and slow keyboard fade, but it does seem to serve the purpose of having us roll from the last track right back to the first one for a repeat listen.

Thanks to Andi for sending me a copy of this one. I now have another favourite Romanian band and they have two prior albums to discover, Voievozii way back in 2008 and Miorița more recently, only five years ago.

Wednesday, 8 June 2022

Battlelore - The Return of the Shadow (2022)

Country: Finland
Style: Epic Symphonic Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 3 Jun 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | YouTube

I remember Battlelore from what I think of as the golden age of Napalm Records, when I stumbled onto the genre of gothic metal and started picking up everything they released. I don't remember liking their black, death or symphonic bands as much as I did gothic ones like Tristania and Sirenia, but I equated Napalm with quality in my mind. I don't remember how many albums by Battlelore I got through, but it was probably the first three and I enjoyed them. I enjoyed this one too, but it's stubbornly not fully engaging with me. When it's playing, I mostly like it. When it finishes, I mostly don't miss it, though repeat listens do help draw out its merits.

And that's a problem, because this is a comeback album for them. They knocked out half a dozen in twice as many years in between their founding in 1999 and splitting up in 2011, never short on new material. However, since they got back together in 2016 in entirety—while only Jyri Vahvanan is a founder member, five out of the seven joined before the first album and everyone was on the last four—they've only put out one album and that a compilation of unreleased older songs. Until now, that is, so this one has been anticipated for a decade and change by fans. Are they going to be sold on it? Maybe, but will it convert the rest of the world? Doubtful.

What Battlelore do here is a light but pretty straightforward take on symphonic metal with beauty and the beast vocals, without really surprising at any point except through their subject matter, which generally boils down to a single word: Tolkien. The base of their sound is chunky riffs backed by the keyboard layer that emphasises them and this combo is reliably successful but perhaps doesn't do as much as it should to vary the sound. Tomi Mykkänen's harsh vocals work well with the riffs and I especially like it in duet with Kaisa Jouhki, who contributes a clean female voice in counter, though they tend to alternate the lead far more often than they duet.

I'm probably going to regret saying that they don't vary their sound much, but it's fair. There's one tone in play throughout this album, for the most part, and they milk it continually, as if it's all they need. However, there are some interesting moments and I'd be remiss if I didn't call them out. The unexpected narration partway through Orcrist works surprisingly well. Elvenking and Firekeeper slow things down, with the latter doing it rather effectively. Mirrormere gets really interesting in its midsection, and starts out delicately in a way that Shadow of the East echoes and never loses, a song that maintains its sense of gothic doom as it builds, Mykkänen whispering his vocals.

So there's more here than we might initially assume from a first listen and the album does reward repeat listeners, even if that first time through might only throw out Shadow of the East as a sole exception to Battlelore in default mode. It remained my personal favourite but, playing as it does in gothic and doom metal, it was always going to be. However, I think it's fair to say that it nails the epic side of Battlelore's sound better than anything else here, its last minute or so as cinematic as this album gets.

And, I should add, it's not just an album, it's a kinda sorta double album. The album proper on one disc runs a decent forty-seven minutes, but there's a second disc too, a much shorter one that we'd best call an EP. It contains three songs written around the time the band ceased to be a decade or so ago. They're separated here, because they don't sound particularly like the album proper, with less chunky riffs and a folkier, more epic feel, even Isenmouthe, which is definitely heavier than its peers. It probably isn't a good thing that I like all three more than I do the main album.

Caught in Action - Devil's Tango (2022)

Country: Sweden
Style: Melodic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 22 Apr 2022
Sites: Facebook

It's a sign of how far the rock/metal spectrum extends that I almost feel unqualified to review this album, the debut from Swedish band Caught in Action. This is melodic rock, heavy on the melodies and hooks but a little less heavy on the, well, heavy. It's definitely on the rock side of the tentative pop/rock boundary, guitar music even with two keyboard players. However, when they haul out the heavy riff on Miracle, it's a little shocking and it's no surprise when it vanishes, replaced by softer guitar and a keyboard line. Everything feels like it wants to be a single. Everything ought to have done well on American radio in the eighties, had it merely seen release four decades earlier.

The band are Swedish and, while they're new, having formed as recently as 2020, the musicians are apparently veterans of the Swedish scene for over three decades, even if I can't see a credit list to say which bands they played with. Only Portuguese lead vocalist Marcello hails from elsewhere, an observation that's almost meaningless because he sings in clear and unaccented English. He's why New York City is the opening track, because he was clearly keen to hit the Don't Stop Believin' note in the chorus and do so effortlessly. We know what he's capable of after one song.

What they do can be fairly summed up by the opening four tracks. New York City is purest melodic rock in the Journey vein. Miracle has heavier moments but still lives for its hooks. The title track is sassier and closer to hair metal without ever quite getting there. It's not just the sassy riff, but an array of spotlight moments too, Richard Jönsson given the chance to show off a bit on guitar and a few keyboard flourishes give Ronnie Svard and/or Ménito Ramos opportunity too. The band have a couple of keyboard players, though I don't know if they divvy up the songs between them or duel in the same ones. And Simple Man calms things down further, to a more laid back Bryan Adams vibe.

Beyond that, there's not much more to say. If you're into this form of pure melodic rock with all its hooks, soft riffs and keyboard melodies but sans any of the side trips that bands like FM take into soul or other genres, then you're going to like this album and probably a great deal. However, it's not likely to convert anyone who prefers either pop music to one side of it or anything from one of the heavier genres on the other. It's content to be what it is and do that very well indeed. It has no ambition to vary the formula at all. OK, It Was Always You has a neatly slow opening in the style of Whitesnake, but that's not much of a departure.

If you're interested, I'd suggest checking out the song First Time, which opens up the second half of the album. It's such quintessential melodic rock that, if someone hacked into your local classic rock radio station and slipped it into their playlist, I doubt either the DJs or the listeners would notice, until the hacker owned up a year or two down the road. They'd assume it was some deep cut from a Journey album they'd forgotten about. And, to a lesser degree, the same could be achieved with half of these songs.

Tuesday, 7 June 2022

James LaBrie - Beautiful Shade of Grey (2022)

Country: Canada
Style: Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 May 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

If you don't know the name, James LaBrie is best known as the lead singer for Dream Theater, the day job he's had for only three decades now. What you need to know right now is the sound you're automatically think of is not the sound of this fourth solo album. Sure, LaBrie sings prog metal in a prog metal band, but he also used to be in a glam metal band called Winter Rose (as did Sebastian Bach of Skid Row) and he's cited a diverse set of influences, from Freddie Mercury to Jeff Buckley, via a whole slew of major names from elsewhere in the rock genres, like Robert Plant, Lou Gramm and Steven Tyler.

And, quite frankly, he runs the gamut of all of that here. Devil in Drag, which bookends the album in two different versions, is the closest to prog metal, I think, though it's much lighter in a number of ways than Dream Theater. It's not as heavy for a start, but it's not as reliant on an instrumental aspect either; LaBrie's voice is definitely the centerpiece, though there's a neat riff and sections for swirling keyboards to take over. It's not light years away from Dream Theater in a commercial vein. It's the logical opener, of course, to make fans of that band feel at home here.

SuperNova Girl, however, starts the variety. I can't quite decide if it's a Styx ballad heavied up just a little or a glam metal power ballad softened up. Either way, it's the point at which we notice the similarities between LaBrie's voice and Tommy Shaw's, much more than Dennis DeYoung's. And if we don't, then Am I Right makes it unmissable. That's much later on the album, but it's even more of a Styx ballad, as covered by a contemporary singer/songwriter. It starts out breathy, as if LaBrie is perched on a stool in a coffee bar trying (and presumably) to grab customers' attention for tips. As it escalates a little and the breathiness decreases, the Tommy Shaw kicks in and this becomes a perfect audition for a genre shift. What's more, it builds almost into a gospel number, courtesy of some notable backing vocals.

I do like this attempt to channel another band's sound without actually covering a song of theirs. It's far more successful than the next song, which is a cover of Led Zeppelin's Ramble On. LaBrie is a fan of Zeppelin, which shouldn't surprise anyone, and he's said that he took the acoustic side of that band as a key inspiration here, because of "their organic approach to their songs". It's not a poor cover, let alone a bad one, but it doesn't add anything to the original and it was never going to surpass it, so the point is lost. It works best here as a key to what happens in other songs.

It's there in the rich cello of Sunset Ruin and the careful use of repetition in building a verse. It's a gimme in how these songs develop, because most have a clear arc to follow. It's in the interplay of vocals and guitar in Wildflower, enhanced by the additional presence of a violin. It doesn't take a lot of digging to find a Robert Plant influence here and not much more to find Zep in other forms. The more I listened through, the more I caught, even if it was just a background guitar rhythm.

It certainly isn't all Styx or Zep, though, just as it isn't often Dream Theater. It's often a mix of the three, along with other styles entirely. Heck, Conscience Calling ditches instrumentation entirely, going entirely a cappella, even if it's only for forty-eight seconds. The best song here, which to my thinking is What I Missed, almost has a sassy pop diva sensibility to it, even if it's phrased as a rock song. It isn't hard to imagine that chorus delivered by a scantily clad singer leading a synchronised dance routine. However, there's also some neat folkiness in the changes and good orchestration.

I wasn't anywhere near as fond of this album after a first listen as I was after three or four more. I would call it a real grower that rewards further listens. And it makes me want to locate the three solo albums LaBrie put out before this (and the two before that with NullMuzzler as the credited name), but I have a feeling from some basic googling that they're heavier and closer to the Dream Theater mould of prog metal.

Kirk Hammett - Portals (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 23 Apr 2022
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Here's something completely unexpected: a solo album from a member of Metallica. They've been around for over four decades now and not one member of the band has released anything solo. In fact, I seem to recall James Hetfield stating something about how it would never happen because it would only serve as distraction from Metallica. I guess times have changed. Metallica famously have, after all. And, almost as if to show just how far, Kirk Hammett, who's been their guitarist so long that only Dave Mustaine really remembers them without him, clearly chose to release music utterly unlike the music he's known for in his day job.

While there are moments that remind very much of Metallica, because Hammett's soloing is very recognisable, this is emphatically not a Metallica album. It's entirely shorn of vocals, for a start, a completely instrumental release; there are precious few riffs, so little of that ever-reliable James Hetfield rhythm work; and the drums aren't really there to keep time, at least not throughout. As heavy as it gets, and it's not unfair to label it metal, it never truly steps into any of the genres that Metallica have been known for. Maybe there's a section in The Jinn that would qualify, if it wasn't for the cello.

For the most part, I'd call this progressive metal or post-metal, but it dips more than its toes into the genre of soundtracks, music composed to accompany something visual, like a movie. We know that Metallica are aware of Ennio Morricone, as they open each gig with The Ecstasy of Gold, after it was suggested to them by the late Jon Zazula, their first manager. There's a lot of Morricone on this album, especially in High Plains Drifter, even though that western was not scored by him, and at a number of key points in The Incantation.

What else I heard in The Incantation was classical music, not that that's a long way away from the sort of thing soundtrack composers conjure up. The staccato riffing is reminiscent of Holst's Mars, the Bringer of War. The lively midsection is quintessential Mendelssohn. The lonesome beginning and frantic ending mix the unusual instrumentation of Morricone with the swells of John Williams who, of course, was massively influenced by Holst. Listen to The Planets and then watch Star Wars if you don't believe me. There's orchestration throughout The Incantation, even a sitar section.

And it's easily my favourite piece here, as well as being the most visual. None of this was created to score a movie, but some of it appears to have been composed as background to an exhibition of Hammett's horror and sci-fi memorabilia called It's Alive. I have no idea which bits and what they accompanied, but there's serious menace in The Incantation and I could easily see it put to use in the soundtrack of a horror movie or thriller. That doesn't hold true for everything here, but it all goes a couple of steps beyond what we might expect from an instrumental guitar album.

That's my biggest takeaway here and it's the biggest reason I like this EP so much. It's not there to showcase Hammett's technical virtuosity, though he does exhibit plenty of that, because it's not a shred album. It's not about taking the guitar into new places, either, like you might expect from a Joe Satriani or a Steve Vai. It's fundamentally about composition and feel. It's telling that while a guitar may be the central instrument, others often take over. There's cello on every track, plenty of other strings, horns and even a harp. There's plenty of percussion that isn't on a drumkit. All of this is there to add texture and feel and evoke some impression or other. And it succeeds.

I believe this is being marketed as an EP, but its four tracks add up to twenty-seven minutes, only a couple shy of Reign in Blood, so it's not a skimpy release, even if it's hardly an sprawling epic. It's a decision on your part as to whether you want to dive in, because it's not Metallica. The question is going to come down to whether that's a good thing or not. Right now, to me, it is. I've been a huge fan of Metallica since Ride the Lightning came out and I enjoyed this more than anything they've done since ...and Justice for All. Their choices as to which musical adventure to take next can be of greatly different validity, but this is emphatically a good one.

I want more of this and may well up my rating. The Incantation is a 9/10 for me. High Plains Drifter is an 8/10 and The Jinn is really close. And Maiden and the Monster, easily my least favourite track, is a 7/10. So this is closer to an 8/10 than anything. So be it. Now, let's have another EP, Kirk, with a similar lack of creative control from a certain overreaching drummer.

Monday, 6 June 2022

Quartz - On the Edge of No Tomorrow (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 20 May 2022
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Here's another band who I'm surprised but happy to see releasing new music, even though it's not entirely new, given that all of the keyboards and some of the guitars are played by Geoff Nicholls, of Black Sabbath fame, and he died in 2017; this may represent the last of his posthumous output. He's here not because Quartz hired him to be a recognisable name, but because he was a member of Quartz back in the day, who played on their self-titled debut album in 1977, which coincidentally was co-produced by Tony Iommi, even though Nicholls didn't join Sabbath until 1979.

There are plenty of Sabbath connections here, beyond a shared keyboard player. Both bands are from Birmingham in the West Midlands, which is the traditional home of heavy metal. Both date back to the early days of the genre, Quartz starting out as Bandy Legs in 1974 and acquiring their current name in 1977, too early for their usual label of NWOBHM to be fair. Tony Martin, vocalist for Sabbath over two memorable stints, provides guest vocals on Evil Eyes here. And the music is very much in the Sabbath tradition: slow and patient in demeanour, driven by heavy riffs and led by clean but clearly working class vocals. In fact, it gets more and more Sabbath until the gimme that is World of Illusion.

Martin is one of four vocalists here, who are surprisingly consistent, but the others are all former or current members of Quartz. Geoff Bate sang on their third album in 1983 and David Garner on the fourth in 2016—they split up in 1983 and didn't reform until 2011. I believe Bate has become an official member of the band again, but presumably after this was released. He leads most of the songs here, but Garner sings on three, Martin on one and bass player Derek Arnold takes over for one as well. Martin is easily the smoothest and most professionally commercial, but the others all do the job, each with a patient, strong and obviously English delivery.

It's probably fair to say here that Mike Taylor, who sang lead on the first two Quartz albums, died in 2016, so his absence here is understandable. Everyone else in the band's history chips in, as the four wielding instruments all date back to that debut in 1977 and all but Nicholls only ever left for real life rather than to other bands. Clearly, they're enjoying the heck out of making music again after doing whatever else they've been doing for years. Only Mick Hopkins has a real history with other bands, including playing guitar for a pre-Moody Blues Denny Laine in the Diplomats.

As you might expect for a band with so many Sabbath connections, this is very deliberate metal, a neverending set of simple but patient riffs behind the simple but capable vocals, all produced in a simple but effective manner. By the way, don't take "simple" as a criticism here, folks. Tony Iommi is the master of simple but patient riffs and they're the bedrock of the entire genre. Simple only means that Quartz aren't interested in the complexities of prog; they strip songs all the way down to their essence and they do it really well.

What I found was that every time I started the album at the beginning, I felt that the early songs, like Freak of Nature and Death or Glory were sparse, almost rehearsal levels of simplicity. It feels like they were just recorded live in the studio, some vocal echo notwithstanding. Those vocals are very high in the mix, almost as if everything else was turned down behind them. However, they're good songs with reliable riffs and confident vocal hooks. As the album ran on, though, I fell into it more and more until I forgot I was listening for review, just grooving along to it.

Most of the early songs are patient indeed, They Do Magic standing out a little by perking up in a Budgie vein. Night of the Living Dead isn't much different from its predecessors but it feels more like a proto-doom song, easily one of my favourites here, and Dirty Disease continues that vibe in the later parts of the album. Highway to Madness is more Judas Priest than Black Sabbath, but in a parallel universe version with Dio at the mike. Angels at the Crossroads feels like it came right out of the NWOBHM era, and others follow suit.

However, it's hard to shed the Sabbath influence and, quite frankly, Quartz clearly don't care. This is unashamedly heavy metal in the early British style and it sounds glorious. The best song from a strictly critical standpoint is probably Evil Lies, not only because of Martin's presence but because of its grand build, a strong intro finding its feet almost halfway with another killer riff and plenty of neat Nicholls atmosphere. World of Illusion is easily the most Sabbath song on offer though, in a particularly early style. There may well be nods to Sabbath Bloody Sabbath but we're talking the debut for much of it, the vocals clearly meant to sound like Ozzy and the riffs achingly slow.

I'm so happy to see bands from the seventies and eighties return with new material that's clearly drawn out of nothing but love for the music. Quartz gave it a solid go back in the day and didn't get the big breakthrough, so they hung up their instruments and got day jobs like the rest of us. Now, decades later, they're able to pick those instruments back up again and play music for its own sake. Those are often the best bands nowadays, to my way of thinking, because they're doing what they do from a standpoint of talent and honesty. If you're really old school metal, this is essential. It's also over an hour of music that doesn't get old.

DeVicious - Black Heart (2022)

Country: Germany
Style: Melodic/Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 14 Apr 2022
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Last time I reviewed DeVicious, for their third album, Phase Three in 2020, I pointed out that every one of those albums had featured a different lead vocalist. Well, they've changed up again, albeit not quite quickly enough to affect this album. Their new vocalist is Baol Bardot Bulsara, a fantastic surname for a rock singer, but I'm told that it's still Antonio Calanna on this fourth album. That's a surprise, because he was a huge highlight on Phase Three but seems to have been submerged a bit in the instrumentation this time out and he doesn't shine as brightly.

In fact, I'd say the same for every other aspect of the music too because, while this is still a decent and enjoyable album, it comes off worse in a direct comparison to its predecessor in almost every way. The only aspect that it wins out on is that there's a slightly harder edge to this album. I'd call them a melodic/hard rock band, but they're a little heavier than that suggests and I was surprised to find that they have a page on the Metal Archives, who call them melodic heavy metal/hard rock. Certainly they're closer to metal here than last time out, even though everything is utterly rooted in melody rather than power. Certainly they also cross the rock/metal boundary more often.

I rather like Heroines, with its punchy riff and keyboard embellishments but it stands out from its peers more obviously than last time, where each song kept outdoing its predecessor, but I had no problem rolling from the last track back to the first and listening through again. Those songs were more immediate but also grew more with further listens. These grow a little too, as we get used to them, but not so obviously and not so far. I think it's fair to say that I liked Phase Three more on my first listen than this on my fourth, and that just kept on getting better. I'm not convinced about an increasing growth in Black Heart.

And I fully realise that everything I've just said is going to seem more negative than it's meant to be. While the quality is down on last time, that doesn't mean that the quality isn't still there. It's still a strong album with catchy hooks everywhere. The title track starts with a "nanana na na na" hook that other bands would kill for and I heard Abba in a lot of these melodies, especially in Not What It Seems, which nods to Dancing Queen? Just like last time, everything is inherently catchy, down to the drum beats. I can't call that a common achievement even in the ever catchy world of melodic rock and that can't be underplayed.

Not having gone back to the first two albums, I wonder if there's a shift in play here to change the band's sound. Clearly, they keep cycling through singers, but it feels like Radivoj Petrovic's guitar is getting heavier and more prominent but Denis Kunz's keyboards are getting poppier and more perky, while not giving up any prominence. Neither is inherently a bad thing, but it feels as if they are moving in different directions. I wonder if that's the reason for the vocalist turnover too. It's fair to say that Calanna can hit some impressive notes, but he's better in a lower register and the choruses where he's way up there throughout get old fast.

And I bet I'm sounding negative again without meaning to. If I aimed to be negative, I'd call out an insanely quick fadeout to Liar that just feels wrong. The only way to justify that would seem like a need to meet a sixties single length threshold, but, with the exception of the delightful closer, an anomalous instrumental piano piece called Axenya's Dream, it's the shortest song here. Mostly, I liked this album, consistently and throughout. The thing is that I loved the last one, which was my Album of the Month for June 2020. No spoilers, but, while I've certainly heard much worse in June 2022, this won't be my Album of the Month.

Friday, 3 June 2022

Aldo Nova - The Life and Times of Eddie Gage (2022)

Country: Canada
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Apr 2022
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Here's an unusual release in a lot of ways. The most obvious is that I don't believe it's actually the album it looks like, with its ten tracks that take up over fifty minutes between them. It's labelled a "10-song EP" and "a little preview", presumably because this isn't the entire rock opera that Aldo Nova has been working on for a decade and a half. It looks like the entire thing may span 25 tracks and the rest will see release in the future, but some of it is so clearly musical theatre that it feels like it ought to be staged. Songs like King of Deceit and On the Way to the Psycho Ward seem to be missing something when we only hear them. Maybe music videos will fill that gap. There's one for King of Deceit already.

The King of Deceit, by the way, is a character in this rock opera. He's M. F. Stophalis, the CEO of an international conglomerate called the Daedalus Organization. Our hero, Eddie Gage, signs with them and, of course, later realises that he's signed away more than he thinks he has. As the title suggests, the entire release is a concept album that presumably covers his battles to reclaim his own talent, music and self. It's a timeless story, one told many times but one that's always worth telling again.

Another reason is that Nova hasn't really been putting out other material while he's written this project, perhaps because the core idea of a talented musician disillusioned by the music industry he works in is acutely autobiographical. If you don't know the name, Nova made the big time with his self-titled debut in 1982, which went double platinum and spawned a top thirty single, Fantasy. A couple of further albums did well but not as well and he's hardly been prolific as a solo artist in the years since, with his most recent album of original music being Nova's Dream from 1997. That makes this a comeback release, I guess.

Instead he shifted into writing for other people, his clients including Blue Öyster Cult and Jon Bon Jovi but also a whole bunch who record in non-rock genres, such as Celine Dion, Faith Hill and Clay Aiken. Maybe that's why this album, which is primarily a hard rock album, shifts into other genres at points, most obviously on Say a Little Prayer, the epic of the album, which is a power ballad with its verses rapped. I'm really interested in what the forthcoming second half of this album is going to sound like and especially the various songs that didn't make it. Apparently those 25 tracks are what was left after Nova whittled down the 142 that he wrote over a nine year period.

Don't let me lead you astray. This is fundamentally hard rock, told with the usual instrumentation that you'll expect, fairly comparable to his eighties style but a little more mature and benefitting from 21st century production values. It's just not all it is. Hey Ladi Dadi kicks off the album as if its electronica, all characterful keyboards and what sound like electronic beats, but then it kicks into hard rock gear with the King of Deceit persuading Eddie Gage to sign his soul away. It gets jazzy in the middle and hints at that future rap, but then it's guitar solo time and Nova can still sear.

At the other end of the album, Les Anges is almost a new age instrumental until Nova hauls out a guitar two thirds of the way through. In between there's quite the variety spun out of a hard rock base. Free Your Mind is funky. Follow the Road is singer/songwriter for quite a while. On the Way to the Psycho Ward is often peaceful and even calming, but it also features the heaviest and most blistering guitarwork. Burn Like the Sun is another power ballad that finds a glam metal vibe at a few points. The Bitch in Black struts in the Stones tradition but a little heavier. When All is Said Done nods towards AC/DC but with modern manipulation done analogue, I think. There's a lot here.

And, of course, there's a lot more to come, which is a point that never quite goes away. This sounds good, but I think I avoided paying too much attention to the lyrics because the whole story isn't on this album. If you're one of those people happy to watch each episode of a TV show when it drops, you're probably OK with this, but I'm not. I wait until it's all available until I binge it. Sometimes I even wait until a trilogy of movies is out before starting in on it, especially when it's told linearly. So this is half of an album to me, with the other half due sometime down the road. It's good stuff on its own, as individual songs, but I can't really judge the rock opera until I've heard the rest of it.

Evil - Book of Evil (2022)

Country: Denmark
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 May 2022
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By sheer coincidence, Evil became quite the topic of conversation online recently, when a playlist for a Friday Rock Show was shared in our Facebook group. That dates back to 1984, the track being played Evils Message/Evil, from what was a pretty hard to get 12" EP on Rave-On Records, but people remembered it in glowing terms. One made his first trip to the legendary Shades shop in London and bought it with Metallica's Creeping Death.

Of course, the logical next question is "What happened to them?" Well, they split up after that EP but got back together in 2007, with a new vocalist. However, by the time their long overdue debut album came out in 2015, it had become a one man band, with drummer Freddie Wolf contributing all the music himself, the only other musician involved a guest vocalist. They're a band again now, though Wolf is the only returning member and he's switched from drums to guitar. Whew.

And they sound really good, though I have to add that there's some nostalgia in that opinion. It's fair to say that there's little new in their sound, though it has changed somewhat over the years. This is still rooted in NWOBHM, for all that they're Danish, and the other obvious influences date back as far or almost as far. This is still unashamedly old school heavy metal, with a side of power metal, though the influences come intriguingly from both sides of the Atlantic; it's not as solidly European as I would have expected.

For instance, while the most obvious names springing to mind are Iron Maiden and Mercyful Fate, Divine Conspiracy opens with a Metal Church groove and there's a Metallica crunch to the guitars throughout. Vocalist Martin Steene clearly idolises Bruce Dickinson, but there are points where he shifts into a Geoff Tate style and others where he moves more to Michael Kiske, with only a few moments with a nod to the famous King Diamond falsetto. Similarly, the guitars are heavy/power but often think about ramping up to thrash speeds. They never do, I should add, but they think about it a lot.

There are songs that feel European, like the opener proper, Divine Conspiracy, that often sounds like Dickinson singing for Mercyful Fate. There are also songs that feel American, like King of the Undead, the most Metallica song here. Many of them shift back and forth, combining a European sense of melody, often nodding towards Rage or Primal Fear, with a more American tone, a Metal Church sense of menace. For instance, Sanctuary starts out Metal Church but shifts into European power metal as it grows, even adding some Uriah Heep moments to go even older school.

And, eventually, it gets to Evils Message, which I presume is the only old song here, one reworked from that 1984 EP. There's certainly nothing else here from that or from the debut and, while the style is predominantly old school, the songs somehow feel like they were written more recently. I have to say that Evils Message, with its intricate instrumental passages, is still the standout here, which kind of underlines how this is not a great new album from a band eager to live up to a long anticipated promise. However, it's still a good one, if you're into this sort of thing. I've had it on a repeat cycle for about three days and I haven't tired of it in the slightest.

What I think they need to do is to think more epic. That's a feel that's inherent in everything they do, but it comes out more on longer songs like Evils Message and the album's closer, Book of Evil, not least because it includes some closing narration to complement the intro. Those songs run for seven and a half minutes each and they're highlights, reminding both of epic Maiden (Alexander the Great came to mind a few times on the title track) and of more Diamond Head time changes. However, the rest only last three or four minutes each and I wonder if they'd all be better off with more time dedicated to solos and more complex songwriting. Sure, Evils Message has a killer riff to elevate it, but that's not all it has.

I'm going to take this as a very promising return of an obscure but well remembered Danish band and the groundwork needed to move forward. A more ambitious follow up release in two or three years would be very welcome indeed. There's a 9/10 album in this band, I can feel it. It merely isn't this one.

Thursday, 2 June 2022

Jeff Scott Soto - Complicated (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Melodic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 6 May 2022
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Jeff Scott Soto is such a busy man that it seems surprising to find that this is only his eighth album. Well, that's because it's his eighth solo album and they only count for a minuscule fragment of his discography. He's also the T. in W.E.T., who who released my Album of the Month for February last year, that T. being for Talisman, a band he's fronted for another eight albums. He started out with Yngwie J. Malmsteen's Rising Force and has also been the singer in Axel Rudi Pell, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Sons of Apollo and at least eight other bands.

Oh, and that's just bands he's actually joined. I've reviewed a couple of albums he merely guested on, by Joel Hoekstra's 13 and Jason Bieler and the Baron von Bielski Orchestra, and that scratches a very large surface. I missed albums by Octavision, Black Maze Rose, Big Clyde and Star One, just to look at the last couple of years, and I believe he's sung on over a hundred albums as a guest, as either lead or backing singer.

But this is where he gets to call the shots for a change, courtesy of Frontiers, the most prominent label anywhere in the world for melodic and hard rock nowadays. What he's turned out is melodic rock with generally upbeat tempos and blistering guitarwork by Fabrizio Sgattoni, who was also on Soto's last solo effort proper, Wide Awake (In My Dreamland). Fans of Frontiers won't be surprised at all to discover that the band behind Soto, who's American of Puerto Rican descent, are Italian, or that the bass and keyboards are provided by the busiest man in rock music, one Alessandro del Vecchio, whose prolificity makes even Soto look like he's sleeping the years away.

There's nothing new here at all, but Soto and his crew do this very well indeed. A lot of these songs sounded to me like Graham Bonnet singing for eighties Dio, though Soto is established enough as a lead singer that I shouldn't need to compare him to anyone. Let's just say that he doesn't sound at all like Dio, even though the music behind him tends to have the drive of his Holy Diver/The Last in Line era and some of the melodic approaches too. That's there in swathes on Home Again and it was there on the pair of opening tracks that precede it too, Last to Know and Disbelieving.

Love is the Revolution is where it starts to diversify, a song that grows outwards from the Beatles to Led Zeppelin, but with that soulful Soto vocal floating over the top and an alternative approach from maybe Saigon Kick. Until I See You Again is a power ballad, with plenty of rasp in Soto's voice to emphasise the emotion he wants to get across. I didn't buy it as much as I did the many rockers on offer, but it makes for a decent change of pace and I can't say that it isn't done really well. It's very aware of how often it seems to peak emotionally, only to promptly go another level upwards without ever seeming strained. If you're going to do a power ballad, this is how to do it.

While there are other touches here and there, it stays mostly consistent, both in style and quality and it's actually pretty hard to call out the best songs. Home Again was my first favourite, with its early guitar spotlight and heavier vibe. Don't Look Back is much softer but has some lovely guitar moments too and it builds confidently into what's probably the earworm of the album. Back to the Beginning is a sassier number with moments for both guitar and bass. The thing is that these may be my favourite songs today, having listened through a couple of times, but it wouldn't shock me if they weren't my favourite songs tomorrow. Thank You feels like a sleeper single, for instance.

All in all, it's thoroughly reliable, which shouldn't shock anyone who's heard Jeff Scott Soto before in whichever one of the bands he's performed with. He's always been reliable and able to shimmy a recognisable voice into any number of different existing band frameworks. Is this better than an album he hired out for? That depends. It's not as good as the W.E.T. album from last year, but few things are. It's well worth your money if you're a melodic rock fan because it really isn't that complicated, after all.

Katharos XIII - Chthonian Transmissions (2022)

Country: Romania
Style: Black/Doom Metal, Dark Jazz
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 23 May 2022
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Not everything I'll review this week is from a band I discovered through Apocalypse Later a couple of years ago, but here's another one. Katharos XIII are a black/doom metal band from Timișoara, Romania, but they're also categorised as dark jazz, a genre I'd never even heard of but I promptly fell in love with anyway. At least on that 2019 album, Palindrome, they were a combination of slow doomy riffs and soloing saxophone, bleak black metal shrieks and ethereal but commanding clean female vocals. No, you wouldn't expect these elements to sit together but, holy crap, they work.

Let me phrase it in traditionally clichéd polarising fashion. You're either going to hate this from its very outset or Katharos XIII will become an unforgettable changing experience, because you have never heard anything like this before and you can't let the moment go. As with Palindrome, this is a long album, its hour plus running time broken across only six tracks, and, as with Palindrome, I'm unable to let each of those tracks just shift into the next. I had to repeat listen to each one before I could move onto the next one, just to come to terms with what it had done.

Neurastenia is the first, an ambitious but uncompromising piece to kick things off, given that it's a fourteen minute epic. It's made up of the components I mentioned above, sans the shrieks, but it's also told in wavelike modulations, which are hypnotic electronica in the midsection. The emotional depth is stunning, Manuela Marchis-Blînda a will-o-the-wisp leading us we know not where. It's an haunting piece of music, an inspiration and a warning, a treat and an ending.

The Golden Season is almost shocking because it begins with recognisable riffs, though the layers of keyboards soon draped across the music render it denser and more obscured. Until, that is, the entire piece drops into a delicate pool of atmosphere and everything's peace and suspension with saxophone almost as whalesong, soothing and reaffirming. Which, of course, lasts until it doesn't, a black metal wall of sound looming out of nowhere and changing everything, the guitars sheets of sound, the keyboards all enshrouding, the bass a prowling beast, the clean vocals a lament, the result an emotional weight, a journey from drifting freedom to cosmic albatross of guilt that's an impactful ten minutes indeed.

Trying to gather my senses to be able to offer a coherent review, I should point out that this one is a lot more pulsing than its predecessor. It does most of the same things but it throbs as if it's alive and might just continue onwards after the musicians leave the studio. This is similar dark jazz but more organic, shifting away from the smoky cafés and shadowed streets of films noir inside a live body. It's sticky and palpable. It breathes. And it may not be entirely human, the title track some sort of supernatural mutation or alien infestation. This is music for elder gods, listening from the dark gaps beyond the stars, behind the celestial gates that bind them.

The hardest task I have is to suggest what this sounds like in comparisons. Well, it's Wolves in the Throne Room and Jarboe and Bill Evans and Coil and Celtic Frost and John Zorn and Vangelis and maybe György Ligeti. You know, that hackneyed old combo. Every track here is a work of dark art. I can't rank them. They're all astounding and they each do something different but each is done to a degree that's difficult to fathom. I think I spent the second half of the title track utterly stupefied, my mouth open and the world forgotten. I felt like the Highlander receiving the Quickening. And, once it ended, From the Light of Flesh spun up delicate and utterly beautiful and it destroyed me.

This is an unparalled emotional journey. It may well be my album of the year. Maybe I'll regain the power of speech in a week or so. Maybe I won't need that ever again.

Wednesday, 1 June 2022

Crematory - Inglorious Darkness (2022)

Country: Germany
Style: Gothic Industrial Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 May 2022
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I reviewed Crematory's fifteenth album, Unbroken, in 2020 and found myself only half convinced by their particular brand of gothic industrial. I liked the songs with their NDH hooks and grand gothic sweeps. What I wasn't so fond of was the death growl of Gerhard Stass and, as that album ran on, I found that I preferred the clean voice of Connie Andreszka, officially a backing vocal but which did take over at points. It didn't bode well to find that Andreszka left the band last year, as did bassist Jason Matthias. He was quickly replaced by Patrick Schmid but it doesn't look like Andreszka was. His role is just gone.

Stass is my biggest problem with this sixteenth album too but he didn't annoy me as much. I ought to go back to Unbroken because it feels like he's toned down his growl a little bit. Having plenty of grit on the more driving songs like Break Down the Walls works well enough, even if his accent is a little obvious when he's singing in English. He feels more natural when singing in German, which is a language that always benefits from a little grit. I do miss the dual vocal styles, Felix Orschel not being particularly obvious in a guest role.

Musically, the songs do much of what they did last time out. Sure, there's an overt evolution in the band's sound over their three decades, but it's not so fast paced as to be particularly noticeable in the couple of years between albums. This is still gothic industrial, with the latter aspect shifting to NDH more and more as time goes by. Rest in Peace has perhaps the most incessant drive of any of the songs here, though it hints back to the death metal origins of the band at points too, but it's a common approach here, evident on almost everything. It's very obvious in Das Ende too.

The gothic is aspect harder to define, as it shows up mostly in the sweep nowadays, some melodies and some keyboards. Even there, Crematory sound more like a goth rock band who heavied up in a NDH fashion rather than a band who started heavy and shifted into gothic metal, which is exactly what they did. They're on Napalm Records now but they're approaching gothic metal from a very different point to many other Napalm acts I fell in love with a couple of decades ago, like Tristania or Sirenia. Even thinking about that, I wonder what a female vocal would do to the band's sound. I can't see it working at all. This is gothic in tone, not in elegance.

Even with Andreszka gone and nobody taking his place, I think this is a step up on Unbroken. It's a shorter album but not so much to be a problem; that last one was highly generous and this is more reasonable at forty-eight minutes. It doesn't outlast its intentions and the eleven songs vary their approaches enough for it to remain fresh throughout. In fact, I wonder if it gets better as it goes. I liked early songs like Break Down the Walls and Rest in Peace, but it seems to pick up with Tränen der Zeit halfway through, a bouncy number with a reliable riff, strong keyboard melodies and a more understated vocal from Stass.

From that point on, everything feels like it's a little more emphatic, a little more focused, a little tighter in intention. I don't think a song like Until We Meet Again is really any better than a Break Down the Walls, but it seems to settle into its groove easier and more naturally. Zur Hölle, with its staccato riff and capable backing vocal, is even quicker to the mark. Again, it's no better or worse than any song from the first half but it thinks it is and sometimes that matters. Maybe Forsaken is a better song, because it's one of my highlights, especially because of Katrin Jüllich's keyboards, a touch that's almost Abba-esque.

All I know is that, each time I listen through, I kind of like the album early on but find myself liking it more and more as it moves forward. Tränen der Zeit perks it up and, by Forsaken, I'm totally on board. However, when I eagerly replay again after Das Ende, well, der Anfang is back to the kinda sorta again and I run through the cycle once more. So this is a 7/10, one up on the previous album, but I'm still interested in figuring out the direction Crematory is taking and whether it's going to impress me more or less.

Corona Nimbus - Obsidian Dome (2022)

Country: Brazil
Style: Alternative
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 10 May 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

Corona Nimbus fall into three categories of music that I'm thoroughly enjoying nowadays here at Apocalypse Later. For one, they're a band that I discovered through this project, when I reviewed their self-titled debut album in 2020. For another, they're from South America, specifically Brazil, and I was already appreciating the diversity and quality that I was hearing from that continent in 2020. That goes double now that I've reviewed a dozen more albums from Brazilian bands. Third, I have trouble lumping them into a single genre, because they shift often in fascinating ways.

Their Bandcamp page suggests that they're a stoner/sludge metal band, but that's just one aspect of their sound and arguably not the obvious starting point. Sure, it wasn't hard to find stoner rock on their debut, but it's clean stoner rock, with a vocalist who feels like a vocalist (he isn't, because Júlio Baros also plays guitar, but he feels like he might be a vocalist first, which isn't typical for the genre) and guitars that aren't a fuzzed up assault.

I heard prog rock on that album as well, on top of NDH, alternative rock, space rock, post-rock and even hints of nu metal. That holds here too, because this is an entirely logical follow-up, doing the same things maybe a little better. Once again, it's not hard to find stoner rock, once again in clean form sans fuzz. The band still heavy up from rock to metal at points, but there's not a lot here that I associate with sludge, except on Seeds of the Universe, with guest vocals from Fbcy.

Like the debut, this kicks off with an intriguing opener, introducing Iron Maiden guitar melodies into alt rock, follows up with a prog interlude and then launches into a heavier third song. Also like the debut, it's not quite that simple. Pollar, that intriguing opener, drops into a proggy and almost ambient midsection before getting more urgent in its second half. It hints at Voivod done alt rock, an approach that's all the more obvious later on Animals, which is exactly that. The heavier third song, A Place for This Golden Sunrise, is proggy technical stoner rock, with a closing section that is reminiscent of Mountain's Nantucket Sleighride as much as anything from the nineties.

Doomsday was my first standout track, its alternative stoner rock made exotic by hand percussion by someone called Fagão behind the drums and edgy in the chorus. Then it drops on a dime into a fascinating midsection, somehow without jarring us, even though it leaves ussuddenly in an exotic and lush land of jazzy promise. It kicks back in gear just as cleverly and heavier than it was to begin with too. Those shifts, both from heavy to light and back again, grab me every time I listen through this album. Corona Nimbus have always been great at contrasts but this one's an absolute peach.

The absolute peach of a track this time out, though, is Abyssal Expedition, a glorious instrumental that's also longer than anything else here. It's much looser and sparser when it starts out, proggy and with more unusual percussion from Fagão, but after a brief but excellent bass run, it's heavied up to churn nicely. The title suggests a journey into the depths of the ocean, which means pressure in crazy amounts and the increasing heaviness here mimics that wonderfully.

If that's the journey we're on, the peaceful sections we find ourselves in are hardly to be expected but they're wonderful anyway. Nobody expects to find an accordion in the depths but it shows up in this song, courtesy of Inácio Botelho, along with delicate guitar and hand blocks. Maybe the band's showing us what wild wonders suddenly appear down there in realms that few have ever ventured into. It's certainly how I took it. We're in another world entirely, one occupied by bizarre creatures indeed and the music is accordingly vibrant and unexpected. It's a magnificent piece.

The other piece I'd call out for special mention, even though it's a short interlude before the final track and it only lasts a minute, is Gaia. That's partly because it reminds of Ummagumma-era Pink Floyd and partly because it does an insane amount in just a minute. The way I read it is as how the world has changed because of us in only a few millennia. Shifting from that into Exausted (sic) and Exposed makes a lot of sense and adds power to it and, by extension, the rest of the album.

And so to rating it. I liked Obsidian Dome a lot and more than the debut which I also liked. Abyssal Expedition is easily a 9/10 for me and Doomsday isn't far behind it. I found over repeat listens that those two songs stand out more and more from the rest, though, so even though nothing lets the side down, I think I need to stay with a 7/10, just one that's closer to an 8/10 than the debut. Now I really want to hear a third album, which I guess will show up in another couple of years. There's a confidence in this band to walk their own path and I thoroughly appreciate that.

And how gorgeous is that cover art, once again by the amazing Wildner Lima!