Friday 17 June 2022

Scorpions - Rock Believer (2022)

Country: Germany
Style: Hard Rock/Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 25 Feb 2022
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I guess the question we're supposed to ask here is whether we're rock believers or not and it's the sort of question you expect to hear from the Scorpions. It's a cheesy cliché of a question, of course, and it could be argued that the Scorpions have become a cheesy cliché of a band, a caricature of a continent's worth of metal music that's rocking us like a hurricane, baby, but the thing is that the band is still seriously on the ball, even this far into their run. Rudy Schenker formed the Scorpions back in 1965, so they've been around forever, and they're still doing the job in a millennium that is somehow an impossible distance from 1984.

Gas in the Tank is a perfect opener, in that it's yet another generic rock song with clumsy lyrics but with a solid riff and a real drive to it, highlighting that these guys still feel the thrill of the music, even in their seventies. Could that ever be summed up better by the bridge in the title track, with its lyric of "our fathers came to steal but we came back to make you feel our love in every song we play." Yeah, we know who "our fathers" are there and stealing was hardly the worst of their many sins but we also know that the Scorpions meant this well and they're heartfelt in their feelings. In the parlance of this album, they're rock believers.

By the way, this particular bunch of rock believers has been consistent only for six years now. That memorably accented voice belongs to Klaus Meine, as it has for longer than I've been alive, given that he joined in 1969. The memorable lead guitar belongs to Matthias Jabs, a fixture since 1978, and he's the highlight here for me, as he so often is on Scorpions albums. The rhythm section isn't as longstanding though, Schenker excepted, and they're a quality international bunch who aren't listed strictly by their real names.

I haven't heard Pavel Maciwoda (short for Paweł Mąciwoda-Jastrzębski) before, their Polish bass player, but anyone who played in a thrash metal band called Virgin Snatch ought to fit well within the mindset of the Scorpions. He's slung their bass since 2004 and he's clearly a reliable fixture in their sound nowadays. On drums, though, is someone I've seen live a few times, pounding skins for Motörhead, because it's Mickey Dee (for Micael Delaoglou) making his album debut for the band. I may still hear his name in Lemmy's voice, but he fits well here, so much so that he and Maciwoda suddenly feel like they've always been there.

I haven't heard a Scorpions album in a long time, probably this millennium, because I drifted away around Eye II Eye in 1999 when they completed a shift into pop music. I remember their orchestral collaboration with the Berlin Philharmonic in 2000 but nothing since and it doesn't seem that I've missed much. Unbreakable got good reviews in 2004 and their back to their roots farewell release, Sting in the Tail from 2010, has its fans but the pair after that have got, shall we say, inconsistent reviews. Maybe I've reconnected with them at the right time because this feels honest and worthy from a band who are doing exactly what they used to do and loving it.

Sure, some of the songs are cheesy and they'll never be a band known for clever lyrics. "Scream for me, screamer" isn't going to win them a Nobel Prize for Literature, but it works here and a slew of tracks seriously kick ass the way the band used to way back in the day. Seventh Sun finds a cool vibe and I liked it immediately. It's a plodder but a very lively one. When I Lay My Bones to Rest is lively old school rock 'n' roll, perfect fodder for "the greatest drummer in rock 'n' roll" and the most up tempo song here.

There are quintessential songs too. Shining of Your Soul is a fantastic offbeat Scorpions track, with a neat and surprising reggae groove behind its crunchy riff. Klaus Meine's accent always soars so well on softer material but this is a rocker and a ballad all at once, something the Scorpions always did better than anyone else. And, as the album runs on, Peacemaker is a no nonsense rocker that could be spliced into any of their early eighties albums without anyone thinking it was out of place and the closer, When You Know (Where You Come From) isn't far way from the same comment, just as an epic rather than an overt rocker.

Sure, there are songs that are cheesy, like Gas in the Tank and Knock 'em Dead, and some that are just decent filler, like Hot and Cold and, well, Knock 'em Dead, but the highlights aren't restricted to the single, or even the three singles released thus far. This is a solid album that tells us that, in a career that's almost sixty years long, they still wanna rock and still know how to do it.

Wind Rose - Warfront (2022)

Country: Italy
Style: Folk/Power Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 10 Jun 2022
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Here's a surprise for me, substituting for what I'd planned to review today because, well, it wasn't up to snuff and I have no interest in being a hatchet man critic. My job at Apocalypse Later is based in discovery and this album was a discovery for me as it may be for you. Wind Rose hail from Pisa in Tuscany—yes, that Pisa—and they play power metal. This is their fifth album and the highest rated of them at Metal Archives, albeit with only one review thus far. They apparently started out with a more progressive form of power metal but gradually shifted into a more epic folk/power hybrid.

Frankly, I could also see the Viking metal label being thrown at them too, even if they're a little far south in Italy to be considered Vikings. The Mediterranean is rather different in temperature from the Baltic or the North Sea, after all. To me, this is power metal that's constantly underpinned by folk melodies and delivered in a rough but melodic singalong style by male voices that could easily belong to people wearing horned helmets, not that Vikings ever did, of course.

The key to the band's current sound may lie in the bookends to this album. It kicks off with a short two minute intro, Of War and Sorrow, that's epic and instrumental and full of folk elements. Then, fifty odd minutes later, it ends with Tomorrow Has Come, all acoustic guitars and hand drums and rough voices in folk harmonies. It underlines the observation that every track here is effectively a different take on Tomorrow Has Come, just heavied up, as indeed this one becomes around three and a half minutes in.

Sabaton surely have to be thrown out as a comparison, but with that Viking edge, as the vocals are rougher but just as melodic and singalong. Like Sabaton, they're singing about war but with more of a participatory mindset and they're doing it in in the form of shanties and folk epics. Draw a line from Alestorm to Sabaton and you'll find Wind Rose perhaps three quarters of the way over to the Swedes, having shorn the silliness and swearing but keeping the drunken singalongs.

And everything here feels like a drunken singalong, not in the sense that Francesco Cavalieri slurs his delivery, but because the setting is so inherent in the music that we can't help but imagine him singing in a oaken alehouse. In fact, he isn't just there, but standing behind an oaken trestle table with a large stein of beer in his hand and his cohorts singing along next to him. The folk aspects do underline all this too, because these songs are surely as good companions as that beer and just as inviting. When they're heavy, they're comrades in arms on the road. When they calm down, like in late sections of Army of Stone, they're warm pubs with blazing fires and buxom barmaids.

If it wasn't for that implicit welcome, the downside to this album would be that there isn't a lot of variety here. Frankly, if you like any one track here, you're going to like every one of them because they're all of a similar mindset. They don't tread exactly the same ground, though, and not one of them outstays the welcome, which is why the potential downside turns out to be one of its biggest successes.

In fact, I'll go a heck of a step beyond that. Every song is worthy on its own merits and could easily count as the track you'd want to play to catch a friend up in what this album is. I listened through a third time specifically with that in mind and it's so consistent that I simply couldn't pick one. It was always the one I was listening to at any particular moment in time, whichever one that happened to be. What's more, every time I thought maybe not this one, it would do something to enforce its place at the top of my list.

Maybe I feel reasonably safe in placing I am the Mountain just a little below the rest and it's hard to compare the closer to the rest because of two thirds of it being acoustic. So the highlight would be one of the first seven songs proper, from Army of Stone to The Battle of the Five Armies, and an acknowledgement like that means that this has to be a 8/10 with thoughts of going up to a rarely awarded but much coveted 9/10s. I've only given out two this year thus far and this is the closest I can remember of making that three, but I think the ruthless consistency of 90% of the album and a slight shift for the rest blocks that. Rating aside, grab some bottles of mead, some drinking horns and a bevy of friends and you'll have a grand old time with this. Slainte!

Thursday 16 June 2022

Lord Belial - Rapture (2022)

Country: Sweden
Style: Black Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 May 2022
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It's been a while since Lord Belial have released an album, mostly because they went on indefinite hiatus in 2009 when drummer Micke Backelin was suffering from severe tinnitus. After at least one gig in 2014 and an announced tour for the COVID years that I presume didn't happen, they're back for sure with this album, their ninth thus far and their first in fourteen years. Given how blistering the opening track, Legion, happens to be, I think the Swedish black metal pioneers may be a little happy about their return.

That they remain frantic for much of the album shouldn't be much of a surprise to anyone. Micke's drumming is pinpoint stuff and, for a while, it's not particularly varied, content to just hammer an incessant beat at ludicrous speed. Legion and On a Throne of Souls are powerful tracks, but really ones to get us in the mood and underline the fact Lord Belial and indeed Micke Backelin are back. I did wonder for a while if we'd hear anything else, because what might work fine for a three and a half minute opener, or indeed the first couple of songs, isn't going to work for a fifty minute album.

Rapture of Belial, which I guess is the title track, is where it starts to vary. It's very fast at points, I should point out, but it varies the tempo frequently, often getting surprisingly slow, even shifting the beat a couple of times from Micke's drums to what I presume is the sound of an anvil being hit by a large hammer. I was a little panicky before this song, but it opened up wonderfully from here, almost like the openers were a solid and reliable stem to a flower and we work upwards to find the rest of the album the vibrant petals. A predominantly black flower, of course, and one inexplicably decorated by blood spatter, but you get the point.

I realise that I've now mentioned Micke four times thus far but nobody else at all, though the first was inevitable. The others are because he's rather high in the mix and he's so incessant over those first couple of tracks that it's a little hard to focus on the rest of the band. Well, that's his brother Thomas's voice fighting for attention and it's a neatly evil black metal voice without going full-on goblin shriek. Thomas also plays guitar, as does Niclas Pepa Green, meaning that there are three of the four founder members in place, only Anders Backelin, cousin to Micke and Thomas, missing on bass. All three members pick up that slack, but I wonder why he didn't join them this time.

To be fair, they do it well, not that it's particularly noticeable in the mix. It's certainly there on the quieter moments in Belie All Gods, where it shines in comparison to the routine death growl that's suddenly a counter to Thomas's black shriek. It's there as Evil Incarnate kicks on with slow but firm intent. This one ramps up, of course, but varies its tempo throughout and is likely to be my pick for standout track. There's a fight on for that slot though and oddly, the majority of candidates are in the second half of the album, which ironically it begins.

There's a grand epic feel to this half, with slower sections rampaging onwards and faster ones that elevate the mood. It often feels like early Dark Tranquility in its sweep but with all its rough edges smoothed off and the tone translated from melodic death to black metal, through the vocals, the impenetrable guitars and the faster drum sections. There are some fantastic delicacies within the layers of sound in Lux Luciferi and the melody of Infinite Darkness and Death ends up accentuated by what sounds like a harpsichord. The intro to this one is blissful too. Alpha and Omega does a lot of these things but with an even better guitar solo. Lamentations gets seriously choral.

Yes, this second half shines. It swells with emotional weight but dances with elegance. As ruthless the opening tracks were, I much prefer the slower, more nuanced tracks of the second half and I'm hooked all over again on each repeat listen. Raw purists may worship Legion, but this album kicks off for me with Rapture of Belial and really gets going with Evil Incarnate. From that point, it's an excellent album indeed.

Post Generation - Control-Z (2022)

Country: Italy
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 May 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website

Control-Z or CTRL-Z is, of course, the undo button, and it's not something that Post Generation are in need of after making this music, because it's exquisite. However, it fits the concept at the heart of this concept album, which is a dystopian office that has the power to undo what it deems to be a bad feeling or bad emotion within any of its citizens, resulting in a "mass of zombified citizens". To be fair, I listened through this a few times without noticing that it was a concept album at all, with so much music to distract us from the lyrics. It's another level to appreciate, but it's not required.

Post Generation play progressive rock with a strong side of pop music, listing Porcupine Tree as an important influence, though vocalist and guitarist Matteo Bevilacqua came from heavier roots, as the bass player for Diaries of a Hero. While Bevilacqua is British and Diaries of a Hero are based in London, Post Generation are listed as being from Turin in Italy, Bevilacqua shifting across to vocals and guitar, Antonio Marincola stepping up on bass and multi-instrumentalist Carlo Peluso playing keyboards and whatever else is needed. There are two session drummers and a female vocalist on this, their second album, as well.

Initially, I found this pleasant, with fascinating details, like the shift from angry sampled voice to a delightful interplay of vocalising in the album's standout track, You're Next in Line, a section which shifts into a set of solos. It was moments like that one that made me pay deeper attention to all of the various aspects of this intricate music. What's the Worry, for instance, was initially just speech—not a sample, but a sort of carefully phrased delivery of poetry—until it switches over to singing at the halfway mark, but there's some subtle but excellent musicianship going on underneath the voice. And focusing on that ironically meant that I initially missed the concept, which is completely obvious in a song like this one, which can only exist to serve one.

In short, there's a lot going on here and that's underlined by so many of these songs sounding not at all like each other. The greatest musical shift on offer may be from frantic electric guitar-driven The Cat and the Chicken to atmospheric, jagged keyboards in White Lights and Darkest Patterns, a shift from almost hard rock to electronica. However, it's far from the only shift on this album that seems wild on paper but works well within the context of the album, which is primarily rock, but is often pop, albeit always progressive, fascinating and imaginative. This Cannot Work ramps up to a powerful finalé, then drops into the folky acoustic Raising the Bar. Nathalie kicks off with bubbling electronica but finds its way into a violin solo.

If I have a problem here, and I don't really but you might, it's that I find that I can't focus on songs for the most part, because of all these delicious moments. Once again, You're Next in Line must be the highlight, because, even though it has so many delicious moments, from the initial tinkling of piano to those later showcase shifts, it builds like a song to a neat hook of a chorus. Most songs on this album don't do that, not because they fail at the attempt but because they're not interested in that and are content to be a bigger moment in the concept album.

That means that after You're Next in Line, the next best song is Control-Z, but I don't mean track 8 but the entire fifty-seven minute album. It could be described as a collage of fascinating moments arranged in a particular order to tell a dystopian story, linked primarily by the soft voice of Matteo Bevilacqua, who occasionally passes the mike to Michaela Senetta. That's not a bad thing in itself, but it may not be what you're looking for. If you like your prog to set a single texture and run with it or if you like your prog to be commercial and hook-laden, then this is not for you. This is for fans who want many textures, not just within an album but within a song, and for those textures to stay interesting for almost an hour. Which means I need to listen to this yet again.

Wednesday 15 June 2022

Destruction - Diabolical (2022)

Country: Germany
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 Apr 2022
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While the Kreator album I reviewed last week came out in June, this Destruction album is actually a few months old, having been released in April while I was travelling in the UK. I was always going to catch up with it, because Destruction are my favourite of the Teutonic Big Three, and it's almost appropriate that I did it this way round because anyone who didn't like the slower material on the Kreator album will absolutely not have that problem here. This is a Destruction album and it does what Destruction albums do. The catch is that, while Diabolical is the thrash album that Hate über alles mostly wasn't and it's more consistent to boot, I'm not going to rate it any higher.

The reason for that is that, while it starts off really well, with a neatly building intro and a stellar title track, it doesn't seem interested in varying the formula much at any point. Sure, there are a few tracks, like Tormented Soul or Whorefication, that slow down to a mid tempo that's still faster than the Kreator tracks that went all traditional metal, and they work well. However, that's about it and I wonder if the folk who didn't like Kreator trying new stuff on their album will be happy to discover that Destruction don't on this one or not.

To be fair, I'm enjoying this one more with each repeat listen. My first impressions were mostly to acknowledge that this was a Destruction album and it sounded exactly like any Destruction album should and that was enough for me. However, it faded as it ran on, perhaps because the best songs show up early, not just that excellent title track but also the quintessential Hope Dies Last, which is textbook Teutonic thrash, and the one between them, No Faith in Humanity. With repeat listens, the guitarwork stands out even more, because it's clear in the mix and the solos are excellent.

What's weird is that Mike Sifringer is not responsible for any of that guitarwork. While most folk think of Schmier as the focal point in Destruction, he wasn't the only founder member to stay with the band for a long time and he wasn't the one who never took a break. Remember that Schmier was fired in 1989 and remained gone for a full decade, albeit not a particularly memorable one for them. Mike Sifringer was also a founder member and he never left until 2021, apparently without a statement. That timing is really odd, given that this year marks Destruction's 40th anniversary, but maybe it was important to him in a different way.

Now, Sifringer did shift from lead to rhythm guitar a few years ago, when Damir Eskić joined, but he'd done that a couple of times in the past too, whenever they bulked up from a trio to a quartet. His replacement here is Martin Furia, who's an Argentinian based in Belgium, so I presume that's him providing the crunchy riffs behind Eskić's solos. They make a very good pairing indeed and it's odd to think of how tight they are, given that it's such a new partnership. I'd call out the fantastic midsection of Hope Dies Last on that front, as well as the entirety of Servant of the Beast, but the quality runs far beyond just those peaks. Thank you, Mike, though, for four decades of music that you've given us.

The question I have is whether such a major change to their line-up is going to spur a new era and, if so, whether that's going to be a good thing or a bad one, given that Schmier is likely to make all the key decisions going forward on his own. Their previous album was solid but unremarkable and this one is just as consistent but better, albeit not so much to warrant an 8/10 instead of a 7. These songs feel a little closer to quintessential Destruction, taking the old NWOBHM style and giving it a serious dose of speed and a little more punk attitude. The bonus cover on Born to Perish was of a Tygers of Pan Tang song and this one's of a GBH classic, City Baby Attacked by Rats.

I'm going to be interested to see what my thrasher son thinks of this. I prefer Destruction and he's more of a Kreator fan, but I have a feeling he's going to like this more than Hate über alles. I have little doubt that I'm going to come back to this one more than Kreator's new one, but I think more than Born to Perish too. Let's see if I end up bumping it up to an 8/10. The only reason I'm not right now is because not everything is up to the standards of the highlights. I think that'll keep it at an 8/10 but maybe they'll continue to grow on me. Only time will tell.

Manu Reno - NocturnA (2022)

Country: Spain
Style: Alternative
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 22 Feb 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | YouTube

I don't review everything that's submitted to me for that purpose, because not everything makes the cut and a few otherwise worthy albums just get lost in the cracks during times I'm focused on my film festival or convention and end up not writing reviews for a while. I have to say here that I wasn't sure if I should review this one, but I decided to because it kept growing on me and I firmly believe that it deserves some publicity.

Manu Reno is the name of the multi-talented musician behind this one man project and I honestly hadn't noticed that he hails from Barcelona before I ate paella tonight. Damn, I miss the insanely fresh cuisine in that city and it's been a couple of decades since I've been there, singing along with a different Manu on the jukebox in some bar. I hear more of Barcelona in that Manu's sound, that Manu being Manu Chao, than in Manu Reno's, but I'm not sure where to place it at all because his voice makes it so inherently unique.

I believe he's primarily a bass player and the bass does lead the way on many of these songs, with the first a good case in point. Eternally kicks off the album in thoroughly playful mood and it's the bass that sets that mood. He also plays every other instrument too, all of them capably, and sings for good measure, which is where the question marks come in. It took me aback immediately but I developed a taste for it under certain circumstances and it fit more and more as I repeat listened through this album.

It reminded me initially of Uli Jon Roth, a great comparison because he's a fantastic musician, just one who people tend to tune into because of his guitarwork rather than his voice. Manu Reno is an accomplished guitarist, even if he favours the bass, and a quite a few songs here reminded me of a Wishbone Ash guitar intro. That delightful intricacy is right there on When I'm Gone and The Land of the Free and Time, among others, but it's just one aspect of his sound. Hiding from the Sun is an acutely Sex Pistols-esque punk song, for example. The instrumentals, Lumina Noctem and the title track, are notably progressive. There's a recognisable Black Sabbath riff in There on the Moon, so it's clear that Reno does not restrict himself to a single genre.

What I found was that his voice fits some but not all of the genres he drifts into. Once I got used to his delivery, which is in heavily accented English that's resistant to the usual directions that voices take, I found that it worked well on up tempo rockers like Eternally, where it becomes just another instrument in the mix. It works well on the punkier material too, like Hiding from the Sun and the bonus track, Rusty Souls' Trilogy, because it's anarchic and under a different sort of control. Yet, a softer ballad like Breakable feels just the wrong sort of material for him.

I don't want to concentrate on Reno's voice because there's so much else to what he does, as both the instrumentals ably highlight, Lumina Noctem being especially evocative, but it's hard to see it as anything but the focus. Put simply, if you don't dig his voice, you're going to hate this album, no doubt. On the other hand, if it gets a grip on you, even if it's to figure out what he's actually doing with it, you may well end up loving this. It seems fair to throw out Shane McGowan of the Pogues or Eugene Hütz of Gogol Bordello as two comparisons and both those highly talented gentlemen also have instantly recognisable but highly unorthodox voices that don't work for every style.

I actually played a couple of these songs to my son to see what he might think. His initial call was a combination of the deliberate delivery of Billy Idol and the mumbling of Dave Mustaine, which is a weird take for me but I guess I can see it. Reno certainly delivers with relish. His other suggestion was that the voice reminded him of a punk singer who comes on right before the headliners at an otherwise metal gig, having sunk a few beers before getting on stage. I definitely hear that.

Given that I like some of these songs a lot more than others, because of how those vocals fit these many styles, I think I have to go with a 6/10. If you hate that voice, you should shed a few points off that score to the degree that you shouldn't even bother. However, if you find it fascinating, add an extra point on, because it'll draw you in to the point where you'll eventually notice the other cool things he's doing instrumentally and the album will grow on you. So thanks, Manu, for sending me this one for review. I didn't like everything on it but I liked some of it a lot and I always appreciate different approaches. All the best!

And, before I go, I should mention that this is far from Manu's first album. I'm seeing seven on his Bandcamp page and you can pick up the whole lot for only twenty-five euros right now. I'm really intrigued to see what else is in his musical toolbox, even though very few of the songs seem to be sung in Spanish. Given how Manu's accent manifests in English, I really wonder what he sounds like in what I presume is his native language.

Tuesday 14 June 2022

Graham Bonnet Band - Day Out in Nowhere (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 13 May 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | Wikipedia

Having discovered Graham Bonnet at the same time as most rock fans, through Rainbow's Down to Earth album, which I actually heard before their predecessors with Ronnie James Dio, I have to confess surprise to discover that he had a number five hit in 1968 with the Marbles. Given that it's now fifty-four years later and he's putting out his third Graham Bonnet Band album at the age of seventy-four but sounding as strong as ever, the excellent opener about waking up and seeing an older version of yourself in the mirror kind of makes sense. Maybe It's Just a Frickin' Song is about getting old too, instead of the more obvious subject of writer's block.

Imposter is a strong opener with Bonnet's voice as strong as ever, though I have to say he doesn't vary his trademark emphasis almost at all here. He's either on and delivering at full volume or he wandered off somewhere so guitarist Conrado Pesinato can strut his stuff for a little while, with a fast shred technique. There's not a lot of nuance here until we get to the rather out of place Suzy that wraps up the album with a dose of orchestral musical theatre. I'm not a particular fan of that style anyway but this does nothing to convert me.

I appreciate the more traditional rock material more, even though some of it took a while to reach me and some of it is frankly just there, capable but hardly spectacular. After Imposter, Brave New World and The Sky is Alive stand out as highlights. The former is a little more subtle than Imposter and features a very nice guitar solo, while the latter trawls in the Rainbow textures through both keyboards and guitar that I was hoping might show up somewhere. I have zero clue what it's about but the former is about a gentleman having horizons broadened by a rubber fetishist girlfriend.

It has to be said that the lyrics here captured me, even though they're hardly poetry. There isn't a theme, though there are a couple of songs about getting old and a few more about bizarre things happening. At least I think that's what The Sky is Alive is about because, if it's preaching about an awareness of environmental catastrophe, it's pretty obscure. Certainly the title track is about an incident in Russia where Bonnet apparently drove through the Twilight Zone. Quite a few focus on sexuality, but in completely different ways, David's Mom (or Brave New World) and Uncle John not alike in any other way than sexual urge.

Musically, it's relatively unsurprising. Uncle John thinks about power metal early but chooses not to actually go there. Pesinato occasionally displays a willingness to go full on Malmsteen shred but he never really does. This isn't early Alcatrazz. While the occasional solo feels like it's there just to insert a solo, he does a good job and so does everyone else involved, even if that may just be Beth-Ami Heavenstone on bass because the drums are played by a succession of guests and I don't think keyboardest Alessandro Bertoni is actually in the band.

If you've followed Bonnet's career, there's a bit of everything he's done here, that one song with a Rainbow feel accompanied by heavier songs that remind a bit of Alcatrazz and lighter, commercial ones that approach Forcefield. There's a neat drop into piano late in the title track that works as a tie to the lyrics and as a musical device. The heaviest the album gets is Jester, featuring the guitar of Jeff Loomis of Sanctuary, Nevermore and Arch Enemy—though he's also in Alcatrazz nowadays—and Kyle Hughes of Bumblefoot.

And so, while some of these songs wouldn't be missed if they just vanished off future versions, this is another solid and reliable effort from the ever-consistent Graham Bonnet and his current band.

Reaper - Viridian Inferno (2022)

Country: Australia
Style: Black/Speed Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 22 Apr 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives

Melbourne-based Reaper tend to be listed as black/speed metal and there's truth to that, but the sound they conjure up goes back to the proto-extreme era. I'm not hearing black metal bands here but I am hearing all the pioneers here. The album begins with an early Bathory groove in Shadow of the Crucifix and stays there for a while, adding a Venom sense of urgency in faster sections and telegraphing of when those will show up, like on the intro to Drop of the Blade. This isn't as fast as you'd expect from a band labelled speed metal but it is always urgent, even in slower sections. By the end of the album, they've also trawled in Celtic Frost, especially on Internal Torment, which is the closer.

The other influences I heard are out of punk rather than metal. Taste the Blood speeds up a little more than the opening couple of tracks before it, but it feels very much like the songwriters were listening to bands like Discharge and GBH as well as those proto-extreme metal bands. As the song gets bouncy in its second half, the metal side reenforces itself, but it never loses the punk attitude and rawness, which, of course, Bathory took and ran with. Given all this, I frankly expected to catch a lot of Motörhead but that influence kept itself hidden, most obvious in the bass on like Nothing Left to Waste, and that surprised me. Lemmy's here more than Motörhead.

Given the band's choice to go with this sort of sound, I also expected them to be older musicians, a group of like minded fans who remember these particular good old days and got together to make new music that could have come out back then, but that doesn't seem to be the case. They clearly aren't teenagers but they're also clearly at least a generation younger than I am, so they weren't around listening to those pioneering albums when they came out. I wonder where the impetus for this sound came from, because I'm sure there are stories there.

Initially the most obvious component in this sound is the utterly raw and raucous voice of Shannon Styles, who bears as much comparison to people like Blaine from the Accüsed and George Anthony of Battalion of Saints as to Quorthon of Bathory. However, as the album runs on and especially on repeat listens, it's the bass of Rebecca Tovey that becomes most notable. Partly because that bass is so high in the mix and partly because the guitar is downtuned close enough to it, it tends to take over songs. Sure, that's guitar feedback kicking off Nothing Left to Waste but the bass takes over so much that we almost forget that the guitar's there. It's Tovey who drives this band.

I liked the dirtiness of the sound from the outset, but it took a little longer for the songs to take a hold of me and, after a few listens, they started to drift away again. That left me in an odd place of liking the album more than the tracks on it, if that makes sense. I don't feel much need to play any of these songs over others, even the best of them, like The Reaper or Taste the Blood, but I do feel like I could pull the album out now and again to immerse myself in its sound. There's a griminess to it that really takes me back.

It reminds me of underground gigs in the late eighties in tiny, sweaty venues in Bradford or Leeds featuring bands who weren't particularly notable but blistered for half an hour nonetheless, then wandered off to the bar. I almost wandered off to flick through the stack of albums someone must have been selling at the back, by an array of bands I've never heard of but had "pay no more than" on the cover and inserts in them exploring the evils of eating meat or experimenting on animals. I bought a bunch of them, even if I stopped for a burger on the way home. This could have been one.

Monday 13 June 2022

Wo Fat - The Singularity (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Psychedelic Doom Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 6 May 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter

I've seen Wo Fat's name bandied about often as I've dived into stoner rock and associated genres, as they're one of the more highly regarded American bands at the heavier end of the desert rock to sludge metal spectrum. They don't go all the way to sludge, mixing their stoner rock with doom metal, though I have a feeling that this album is a little less heavier than usual. I don't know that for sure, because I haven't had a chance to dive into their back catalogue yet, which encompasses another six albums going back to 2006; their most recent until now was 2016's Midnight Cometh.

I should point out here that they're a four piece now, Kent Stump still in place on vocals and guitar with Michael Walter on drums, but Patrick Smith replaced Zack Busby on bass this year and Matt Watkins, an early member of the band, has returned to add a second guitar to their sonic assault. That makes for a deep sound.

This one is a behemoth of an album, appropriately given the cover art, clocking in at over seventy-five minutes. However, the songs are long, as you can imagine when I point out that there are just seven of them on offer. The bookends are the epics, Orphans of the Singe kicking things off a blink shy of fourteen minutes and The Oracle wrapping them up at sixteen and a half. The shortest song here is The Unraveling, which is only a little under eight minutes, so shortest doesn't mean short. I found that I generally liked the longer songs but not for the reason I expected.

They're moods rather than journeys, which makes this a little different from the usual stoner rock I review. These songs don't transport me anywhere to experience the wonders of the universe. I'm not seeing them in the way I often do, because they're not triggering other senses. What they are doing is pulling me into a particular musical vibe and keeping me there for the duration. Perhaps that's the point of stoner rock, given that the genre is named for and so closely allied to chemical stimulation, but I've never explored it that way because music is my drug and I take it neat.

And I really enjoyed this as music, especially during the instrumental sections where the band just jam for extended periods. I got lost in them, as if I'd put headphones on, closed my eyes and set off for parts unknown, only opening them an hour and change later and not having a clue where I was. In other words, these songs are soundtracks to journeys or perhaps companions on those journeys, but not the journeys themselves. Not once did I forget that I was listening to music, but not once did that music forget I was listening either. It's a symbiotic thing.

I would bring Hawkwind in as a comparison here, because that's exactly what they do for me too, in much the same style. This isn't live, but it reminded me in many respects of Space Ritual. The bass isn't as driving and the cosmic sounds aren't generally here, but the vocals are as agreeably rough and the riffs are just as hypnotically effective and even more neverending. And, most importantly, those jams are much longer without ever losing any of their magnetic edges, especially in the long songs. I really dig the eight minute The Snows of Banquo IV every time I listen through this album, but the longer songs extend that feeling progressively further, to their benefit. The shorter ones are more up tempo and vibrant but less exploratory.

So, much later than expected, I've encountered Wo Fat and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I'd suggest that they're not quite what I thought they would be but perhaps in a positive way. They're rooted in stoner rock but they're definitely heavier than the norm. However, their inevitable Black Sabbath starting point, most obviously on The Unraveling, its edges rounded off and softened with Hawkwind reverb, except ironically on the same track when it gets sassy into a stoner take on Killing in the Name. It's still heavy, but with the psychedelic vibe always more important than the heaviness. I would call it velvety doom metal over heavier stoner rock, even though it's both and I love that feel. This is a peach of an album that's somehow seventy-six minutes short.

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
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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.