Friday 22 July 2022

Saor - Origins (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Atmospheric Folk/Black Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 Jun 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Saor's fourth album, Forgotten Paths, was one of the earliest albums that I reviewed here, when I had only just started up Apocalypse Later Music in 2019, and it was an eye-opener for me, because it demonstrated to me that black metal, which I was aware of as a relatively confined genre with a penchant for shrieked vocals, frantic drums and wall of sound guitars, was far more versatile than I thought. The past four years have taught me that, on the contrary, it's one of the most malleable genres out there, bands like Katharos XIII, Oranssi Pazuzu and Cân Bardd taking it into all sorts of places I never expected it to go: jazz, psychedelia and folk respectively.

Now, I'm playing up my ignorance a little much there, but I remember well the early rivalries that pitted black metal against death and thrash that were only trumped by metal vs. glam. It was not seen as appropriate to defect to a different camp or, crucially, to be in more than one at the same time. I knew intellectually in 2019 that those times were mostly gone, thank goodness, but it's fair to say that Saor helped me realise not that genres could merge but that it was already happening to a serious degree, because this is as much folk metal as it is black metal and it would be almost a heresy to attempt to separate them.

This fifth album does a similar job to its predecessor in merging those two genres, enough that I'd know precisely where Andy Marshall, the one man behind this project, hailed from even if I hadn't looked it up first. Maybe I wouldn't have been able to identify that from the opening track, Call of the Carnyx, though there are firm hints, but I wouldn't have any doubt by the time Fallen wraps up five minutes later. The last minute and a half is certainly black metal, blistering along at a serious clip, but it's also unmistakably a Celtic jig. The title track that wraps up the album returns to this a great deal, so it's there fresh in mind when the whole thing ends too.

And, once we've heard it, it's never that far away. We might not recognise the folky melodies and rhythms in The Ancient Ones as Celtic if we were given that song and that task in isolation but, in the slot right after hearing Fallen, it's impossible to miss, especially halfway through when it finds a bagpipe-like drone or later when it adds a plaintive flute. Once we have the wide open spaces of Scotland in our minds, everything depicts them.

The Ancient Ones begins and ends quietly, with that flute. It fades out slowly behind wind, and I'm talking about the wind that shifts air around rather than wind instruments. The natural world and other outdoor sounds are a frequent element here. Fallen begins with a crackling fire, Aurora with a heartbeat, Beyond the Wall with a storm. There was even more of this on Forgotten Paths and it lasted longer too, leading me to suggest two primary tones of pastoral and aggressive. That holds here, but there are fewer and shorter pastoral sections and more aggression. It's a heavier album and perhaps an angrier one. The choice of cover art reflects that too.

It's not entirely dark though. Even a song like Aurora, very possibly my favourite track here, which starts out angry and aggressive, calms down at points. It's like most of the song unfolds under an impressively dark and overcast sky but the clouds clear and the sun shines through at points, with a massive effect on the mood of the track. Beyond the Wall, which starts with a storm, does much the same thing and with similar quality, the primary difference being the tantalising presence of a guest female voice, initially as ghostlike whispers and later as a harmonising partner.

I like this album and I liked the previous one too, but I'm not sure which I prefer. I like the heavier, more aggressive feel, but I also wanted longer pastoral sections, so I'm in two minds. Other than that, it's very consistent with Forgotten Paths, with few things standing out for special notice. The one I will comment on is the bass on Aurora, which kicks in early and reminds of Peter Hook's work for Joy Division. I dug that a lot, maybe as much as I dug the monk-like choral chants on the same song. So perhaps I like this as much as last time but not more, so it's another reliable album from a busy musician.

Alpha Q - Parallel Universe (2022)

Country: Romania
Style: Progressive Rock/Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 29 Jul 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

I only know about Alpha Q because one of its two guitarists is Waqas Ahmed and I've reviewed two of his releases in the past, the Doomsday Astronaut album and A Perpetual Winter EP. In case he's new to you, he hails from Lahore in Pakistan but he lives in Sibiu, Romania, which surely has a very different musical scene. While those releases focused very specifically on him and his guitar, which means that they're almost entirely solo efforts, Waqas kindly sent me a copy of this too, which is a different setup entirely.

Alpha Q are a six-piece band and this is their debut album. While they clearly appreciate what this one guitarist brings to their sound, they just as clearly appreciate the slew of other influences the other five musicians bring to the table too. Clearly they're not all Pakistani shred guitarists living in Romania. While I don't know where they're all from, I'm guessing that they're not all Romanian either because this is quite the melting pot of a sound.

For a start, I spent quite a while wondering if they're a rock band or a metal band because they're frequently one or the other or both at the same time. Darkness opens up the album, for instance, with a solo female voice, which is appropriate because I'd call lead vocalist MeeRah a highlight of this entire band. When she roars, her voice isn't too far from Dorothy Martin's, whose new album I reviewed earlier in the week. However, MeeRah is more interested in dynamic play, so she roars when she wants to roar and croons when she wants to croon. She's great at both approaches and a slew of others, because she's equally at home with pop, rock and metal, even trying a rap over the funky beats of Make a Wish. I've been checking out her other projects and they're highly versatile.

What's special here is that the band is also versatile, which is why their sound is so hard to define. When MeeRah roars in Darkness, they ramp up from alternative rock to almost groove metal and, when she's done for a while, they shift into a sort of seventies guitar workout, like Mark Knopfler playing with Wishbone Ash. The song isn't as schizophrenic as that might suggest, but it does take quite the leap from one section to another. I enjoyed it a great deal, but think I connected with its successor on the album, Ballad of a Ticking Clock quicker, because its movements flow deceptively well and its groove is more immediate.

I'd call this one a prog metal song that's frequently prog rock. It feels bigger and more epic, but it actually runs a little shorter, maybe because it fades out just when I didn't want it to. I wanted it to keep on going for a lot longer. It's probably worth stating that five of the eight songs on offer last between five and a half and seven minutes and that's a good sweet spot for Alpha Q, because they always want to do at least a couple of things within each song and they need to transition between them and back again.

I like some of these shifts more than others, but I appreciate all of them because they're conjured up with plenty of thought about what those contrasts mean. I like how Unbreakable is both one of the heaviest songs here and one of the most commercial. I like how Angels and Demons drop from prog metal into a neatly peaceful section halfway with a vaguely ethnic acoustic guitar, then goes right back up the emphasis scale into a guitar solo. I like how Make a Wish shifts from jagged djent into a heavy groove, then goes all funky with an old school rap, the sort of thing that Blondie used to do when they played with genres. It's a story song too with MeeRah as a sort of genie.

Long story short, I like what Waqas Ahmed does on his own, just as I like what MeeRah does on her own and I'll probably like what all the other members here do on their own. I have homework to do when I can find some time. However, I have a feeling that I'll like what they all do together a little more than any of them solo. They click well, as diverse as they are, and they each bring something different to the Alpha Q table. There's folk here and shred and dance and groove and a whole lot more. I look forward to their next album.

Thursday 21 July 2022

Christian Death - Evil Becomes Rule (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Goth Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 6 May 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Wikipedia | Twitter

I've had a taste for goth since before I found metal, because I was fascinated by the indie charts in Smash Hits when I was listening to bands like Adam and the Ants. However, I didn't have access to a lot of it back then and, by the time I did, I'd moved into much heavier material, so I've kind of stuck around on the fringes of it ever since, bumping into it again and again when other interests have a goth adjacent status, especially steampunk. So I've been aware of Christian Death for a long time without actually hearing more than an odd track here and there. This is my first album of theirs.

I find their sound very interesting, because it's clearly goth rock but with obvious nods to a slew of other genres. The Alpha and the Omega, which opens up the album, is a great example because it plays Valor Kand's deep and rich vocal over a slow and melancholic backdrop of strings, reminding of Nick Cave, back when he was still with the Bad Seeds. It doesn't have the elegant poetry of Cave though, and when it heavies up, it isn't strictly to a noisier emphasis, as Cave did on Loverman; it's almost electro-industrial in a Nine Inch Nails vein.

They stay slow and melancholic, but keep enough of a bounce in their step to avoid getting overtly doomladen. Everything is dark but nothing is suicidal dark. It's characterful dark and it's simple to track the sound back to the beginnings of the genre. And, quite frankly, they were there, in quite a different form to be fair, but Christian Death dates back to 1979 when Rozz Williams founded them as a teenager. It's obvious that they were listening to Bauhaus and Siouxsie and the Banshees but also plenty of the American underground too. I hear the Swans here, not least because Maitri has quite the vocal presence here in addition to her work on bass and keyboards, but I'm sure there's a long list of others that I'm not qualified to recognise.

By the way, Maitri is one of two long term members of Christian Death. Valor Kand is the other, an acquisition in 1983 when Williams ditched his entire line-up and brought in another band, Pompeii 99, which Kand had co-formed, to become the new Christian Death. He took over at the point that Williams left in 1985 and Maitri joined in 1991. I'm not even sure who the drummer is this week but it doesn't seem to be a long term position for anyone. It's worth mentioning that Williams formed a separate version of the band in the early nineties, releasing three albums, before taking his own life. So this may be the seventeenth or twentieth album for Christian Death, I think, depending on how you count.

There's enough here that three listens isn't remotely enough for me to choose a favourite track. I dig most of what they're doing, though the experimental title track gets a little much. There are a few groove-ridden songs like Blood Moon that remind me of the Sisters of Mercy meeting Inkubus Sukkubus. There are quirkier Nick Cave-like songs, The Warning leaping out as a pristine example. Beautiful sounds more like Siouxsie and the Banshees, which may underline why I prefer Maitri's vocals to Kand's, not that I don't appreciate the latter too, especially on more subdued songs like Who am I, a two parter that wraps up the album. Pt. 1 is very Nick Cave, but Pt. 2 is stripped down, wilder and experimental. It captivated me on a first listen and did the same thing with each fresh repeat.

Clearly I should listen to more Christian Death. I know I have a bunch here, so it's just comes down to finding the time. I have no idea if this is representative of what they've done for so long but, if it is, it's easy to see why they're considered the founders of American gothic rock, or deathrock or whatever else they want to call it. It's also easy to see their sound influencing alt rock darlings like Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson, though I prefer Christian Death's older school sound certainly to Manson, who I've never got into. I think that suggests that this album is a good place to start. I hope so.

Aarlon - Dafan (2022)

Country: India
Style: Alternative Rock/Metalcore
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 Mar 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram

After I reviewed the new Bloodywood album earlier in the year, I received submissions from a few other bands from India and that makes me happy because I haven't heard anywhere near enough rock and metal from that country and I'd love to catch up more. In fact, the more I hear, the more I want to hear more because the bands who I have heard are often interesting and uncategorisable. That holds for bands as varied as Prophets of Yahweh, Cosmic Circle and Friends from Moon and it holds true with this album too, perhaps unsurprisingly, as the music here was composed by Ritwik Shivam, the man behind Friends from Moon.

In fact, I now realise that, while Shivam played almost every instrument on that Astray album, the five guest appearances included two members of Aarlon with a third, Guarav Basnet, a guest here too. When Shivam needed a harsh voice, he asked Pritam Adhikary to provide it, who's the vocalist throughout this album, except for Basnet's guest spot on Rok Lo. Shivam had two guest drummers on Astray, one of whom was Prankreet Borah, Aarlon's drummer. Clearly, this is a solid opportunity to hear what Shivam sounds like as only one musician in a band of five, each of which can also call a few shots. Sure, he composed all the music here, but his fellow guitarist, Piyush Rana, handled the lyrics and I'm sure the other musicians made their creative contributions too.

This may not be as wildly varied as Astray, but it continues to keep us on the hop until the end. The genre is very hard to nail down, because they have two very different styles, some songs playing in one and some in the other, with the most interesting moving between them. The first of the styles that shows up is metalcore, because the opener, Vidroh, kicks off hard and heavy but very modern. In fact, the first part of the song is just like Bloodywood, merely without ethnic instrumentation in the drop spots. Adhikary even sounds like Jayant Bhadula when doing his gruff voice. However, the band don't drop into Raoul Kerr-esque raps to provide contrast, Adhikary softens up instead.

And that's where the other primary style comes in, because that's alternative rock, far softer and with clean, characterful vocals. Even on Vidroh, Adhikary delivers in a number of styles, but on the next song, Panchhi, he sounds like a completely different singer, because we move from an urgent metalcore sound to a pastoral one that makes us wonder in Donovan ever recorded in Hindi. They literally go from clanging metal behind a sonic assault to an acoustic guitar over a bubbling brook and tweeting birds in as short a time as it takes for your jaw to drop.

Now, to be fair, the heaviest part of Vidroh was its ending and Panchhi does build considerably, but it feels difficult to reconcile the two tracks as being by the same band. Even when the second goes into its heavier section, it still can't compete with what Aarlon started out with one track earlier, a breathy groove taking over instead that had me rocking in my office chair. That's impressive and I would suggest that, if you don't like the first track, stick around through the second one. There's a lot going on here and you don't want to miss any of it because one style isn't to your liking.

After a few listens, I think it's fair to say that my favourite songs find a different vibe again, as they come early in the second half with an older take on alternative rock. Saavan and especially Aaina could both have done well during the post-punk era in the UK, as ethereal and haunting dark pop music. Somehow, Aaina has a Japanese flavour to it. Tu is more in line, I'd suggest, with their alt rock mode and, like so many of these songs do, builds really well, finding a point where we think it has to have peaked but continuing to build for a little while longer.

If you want the heavier Aarlon, that does return on Inquilaab, but it features a playful kind of rage that doesn't feel quite so angry to me as Vidroh did. The best merging of the two sides of the band may be found on Rok Lo, with Basnet's smooth, sometimes perhaps autotuned voice a fair counter to Adhikary's harsh approach, just as the catchy, commercial alternative rock counters the urgent, in your face metalcore. I think it probably overwhelms it, as it skews more to the alt rock side as it goes and it may end up a little unbalanced.

I'm still in two minds as to how the album as a whole balances those two main styles. As much as I'd usually go for the faster, heavier material, I prefer the softer styles here, especially the post-punk. That said, the songs that shift from light to heavy, and it tends to be that way round, are surely the most interesting. I may be all about Saavan and Aaina, but Tu and Panchhi won't leave me alone. It bodes well for a band when they leave me arguing with myself about what worked best, because it means they're doing interesting things.

Wednesday 20 July 2022

Holy Dragons - Jörmungandr: The Serpent of the World (2022)

Country: Kazakhstan
Style: Heavy/Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Jul 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | VK | Wikipedia | YouTube

This may be a surprising album to show up as my second review of the day, given that I try to post a new and often indie band first but follow up with an established and well known outfit. So who are Holy Dragons, because I hadn't heard of them before and you may well not have done either? Well, they've been around since 1995 under this name—and were known as Axcess for a few more years before that—and this is between their sixteenth and twentieth album, depending on how we count. I think a few may be re-recordings of earlier albums with new singers. Whatever the number, they certainly count as established and it would seem that the Kazakh metal scene started with them.

I really dig this album, but it's a couple of different things rolled into one and it takes a little while to get used to that. For a start, the best thing about the band at present is surely the guitarwork, which is prominent and outstanding. Jürgen Thunderson and Chris Caine, usually called Thorheim, are both founder members, though the latter wasn't in Axcess before that. I'd state that, however much I enjoyed any particular song here, every single one of them is elevated at the point that the rhythm section settles into a groove and Thunderson and Caine trade solos with each other. I could listen to The Toothless Wolf forever. Even bassist Ivan Manchenko gets in on the act.

These guitars are firmly rooted in heavy/power metal and often acquire a speed metal edge when they shift into solo territory. The biggest shift I heard was when Somebody's Life showcases an old school AC/DC style riff, right out of the Bon Scott era, but everything else here is pretty consistent in approach. However, even when soloing fast, Thunderson and Caine never lose sight of melody, a potent combination and one that I've adored since I found rock and metal in 1984. However, I must add that, while Caine has been playing guitar in Holy Dragons since 1995, she didn't step up to the mike until 2015, suggesting that she's far more comfortable as a guitarist than a vocalist.

And that makes sense, given that she sounds more accomplished as a guitarist than a vocalist. I'd better mention here that I really dig her vocals, but they're not going to be for everyone, because her shriller, more emphatic take on the Doro style works better the faster they go and the fastest bits here are instrumental sections, when she's wearing her guitarist hat. I think that fans of the pure heavy metal style that don't like speed metal may find her voice too raucous for them, while speed metal fans will love her voice but wish the band would speed up to match it. It's people like me who appreciate both styles and remember Doro when she was Doro Pesch, the lead singer for Warlock, that will dig this, even if we take a song or two to adjust.

I believe this is a concept album that spins a story out of the rich vein of storytelling in Norse myth. If it isn't, that's certainly a common theme. Certainly Jörmungandr is straight out of the Eddas, as the sea serpent who surrounds the Earth. It's a child of Loki, another title here; a sibling of Fenrir, the Toothless Wolf of that song. When Jörmungandr lets its tail go, it'll be time for Ragnarok that will take place at the field called Vígríðr, the name of the intro here. The outro is Iðavöllr, which, like Midgard in another song title, are places and, well, everything here ties in somehow.

I didn't follow the concept as it ran through, but I appreciated the music, in the vocal sections and especially in the instrumental ones. Manchenko and drummer Zabir Shamsutdinov provide a solid backdrop for Thunderson and Caine to strut their stuff and they do that well. This album squeaks a second past a full hour and I didn't find it remotely long. I could listen to these guitar solos all day every day. This is old school stuff, reminding of Warlock, Exciter and Detente. It's not what most of the metal bands in the world are playing but that's just another plus point for me. And now you're familiar with the biggest metal band in Kazakhstan. You're welcome.

Carson - The Wilful Pursuit of Ignorance (2022)

Country: Switzerland
Style: Stoner Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 15 Apr 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | YouTube

I'm not sure what I was expecting from this band, but I expected something worthy of note, given a strange location shift; Kieran Jones, the singer and guitarist, is from New Zealand and this band's origins are there, but he moved himself and the band to Switzerland. There's nothing Swiss in this sound that I can discern, but they combine their very American sounding stoner rock, played with a commercial level of fuzz, with a Ian Astbury passion for melodies. Dirty Dream Maker, the opening track and initial single, is relatively easily described as Queens of the Stone Age meeting the Cult.

Carson, as so many stoner rock bands tend to be, are a power trio, with Elina Willener on bass and Jan Kurmann on drums, and that power is on display on the opening couple of tracks. There's real energy to it, which is recognisable to fans of any antipodean music, but it's tampered down a little bit to make it more patient and commercial and it's fair to suggest that both openers had plenty of chances at reaching a mainstream audience. Everything they need is there except luck and that lady is notoriously hard to find, apparently even in Lucerne.

Siren is where they shift gear, because it's almost two minutes longer than anything else here and so it has plenty of time to breathe. It starts mellow but perky and returns to that at points, with a not all the way back to the Cult's primary influence, the Doors. It ramps up, of course, with energy to spare, even when it finds a patient heavy and dirty riff halfway through, but that's not where a kind of inevitable Black Sabbath influence creeps in, at least not really. That shows up later, when they drop down to a trippy liquid instrumental section reminiscent of Planet Caravan.

So yeah, there are surprises here. They're technically a Swiss band nowadays but they don't sound remotely Swiss. They're playing an American style of music but with a recognisably British flavour to it. And, while every stoner rock band on the planet owes a debt to Black Sabbath, theirs isn't at all the usual one for much of the album; the most overt Sabbath influence shows up on Outbound Tide, which is the last of eight tracks, even if there are undercurrents of You're So Vain in there as well. Yeah, Sabbath are there throughout, through osmosis, because this is nineties stoner rock a lot more than its seventies roots except on Siren.

In fact, there are other more modern sounds to be found here too. Gimmie is a punk song, edgier and fuzzier than its obvious modern pop punk comparisons but not as edgy as their predecessors. There's a control in play here that Carson don't want to give up. They're absolutely crafting songs here, rather than just jamming for the pleasure of the moment. Even the songs that find the most effective grooves, like No Joy with its excellent bouncy riffs, never feel like they would ever go off the rails into a drawn out instrumental section. It's just not who this band are.

At least, it's not who they are on record, though I have to confess that I'm judging that from this, a follow-up album to 2017's Drown the Witness. It wouldn't surprise me to find that they're a looser, heavier and faster band on stage. I'd love to see what some of these songs become when played by an urgent live band.

Tuesday 19 July 2022

Belphegor - The Devils (2022)

Country: Austria
Style: Black/Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 Jun 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

This makes a dozen studio albums for Austrian black/death metal legends Belphegor and it has an uncharacteristically subdued title for them. After all, this is the band behind memorable titles like Necrodaemon Terrorsathan, Goatreich - Fleshcult and, of course, Bondage Goat Zombie. The Devils just doesn't have the same oomph to it. Fortunately, that oomph is still there when it comes to the music, at least for the most part. There's an abiding patience to the opening title track that feels out of place to me and it returns a number of times throughout the album, but Totentanz nails its groove immediately and the album is off and running.

Belphegor is only two people nowadays, founding member Helmuth on lead vocals and guitar and Serpenth on bass and backing vocals, as he's been for over a decade and a half now. The drums are provided by a guest musician, David Diepold of British deathcore band Cognizance, among others. They bulk up with a second guitarist on tour, but Molokh apparently doesn't appear on this album. That makes them a kinda sorta power trio, I guess, and I've always found it fascinating to hear the depth of sound that only three people can conjure up. That goes double for a band who delve into black metal so deeply, that trio being responsible for the wall of sound we hear.

And there's some deep black metal in Totentanz, which is a glorious blitzkrieg of a track that feels like it simply couldn't be generated by three musicians. Sure, two of them have double duty but it seems like there are a lot more than two voices in play and a lot more than three musicians. Their layering of vocals, or whatever it is they're doing here, is the primary reason it feels deep, but the songwriting helps too. Glorifizierung des Teufels is seriously stripped down in comparison, plenty of it told with acoustic guitar and growled vocals, but it gets notably choral. It feels like a piece of operatic music adapted into an extreme metal framework, all the way to the strange narrative bit at the end for a female voice crying out in English in what may be a sample.

Those may be my favourite two songs here, as utterly different as they are, and they point the way to the other highlights of the album that are either fast and frantic but with a memorable groove, though only Kingdom of Cold Flesh attempts to match Totentanz on that front, or imaginative and bursting with dynamic play, a standard approach here. The songs that don't do much for me, such as that title track, are those that don't do either. The ones that do both and occasionally more are still growing on me after quite a few listens.

The most obvious example is Damnation - Hollensturz, which wraps up the first half. It has a frantic section here and there, especially during its bookends, and I love those. It has dynamic sections as well, where it bounces back and forth between calming and heavy. And it adds a fascinating ethnic vocal in its second half that doesn't sound Austrian at all, more Turkish (it returns on Creatures of Fire, just as tantalising). Yet this has also some of the patient bits that sometimes lose me, so I'm thoroughly enjoying it but I'm stuck in two minds about whether it ranks up there with Totentanz and the fascinating Glorifizierung des Teufels.

I'd have liked more frantic pieces but I'm happy with the dynamic play and the choral mindset that mixes the mild black shriek and rich death growl but layers them for effect with clean vocals which conjure up images of a choir of monks joining in song with a couple of demons. Virtus Asinaria has this and Ritus Incendium Diabolis too, almost reaching a plain chant behind the crunch. And this is enough to make me wonder if The Devils is a metal oratorio. It doesn't feel like full on opera so I'm not visualising the whole performance. It's pure music.

Dorothy - Gifts from the Holy Ghost (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 22 Apr 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

This is a third album for Dorothy Martin, the Hungarian-born American singer who dominates this sound without her huge voice. I say her rather than the band that carries her name, because she's so obviously the focal point that it feels more like a solo project. What's more, I don't know who's in the band right now; while Wikipedia lists a current line-up, one including a guitarist who joined after their previous release, I can't find confirmation that they're on this record. The names that I see in the press release, like Jason Hook of Five Finger Death Punch and Keith Wallen of Breaking Benjamin, may be writers or producers or guests or... well, I don't know.

What I know is that whoever's playing instruments here is mostly supporting that voice. There are strong riffs everywhere and some decent solos too, but it's oddly difficult to focus on anything but the voice. Occasionally, a bluesy slide guitar grabs my attention but it's not long before it's back in the background and I'm back following the vocals. In fact, there are songs here that feel as if they were designed to be showcases on a TV talent show. Rest in Peace and Close to Me Always both do that and it's almost weird to not hear the studio audience's response to being wowed.

What's odd is that, as much as it's all about the voice, the music behind Dorothy trawls in quite the range of influences. A Beautiful Life opens up sounding like it has a lot in common with the British New Wave of Classic Rock, but with a tinge of southern rock. Big Guns, on the other hand, is clearly a pop song in rock clothing, very contemporary in outlook. There are pop moments everywhere, an unexpected Phil Collins keyboard moment late in Top of the World hinting at the electronic drums that take over for Hurricane, a song whose drive ends up feeling rather like Robert Palmer with a guest vocal from Pat Benatar.

And everything here has a drive. Every one of the ten songs is urgent and Dorothy often wants us to try to sing along with her, all the more as the album runs on. The most anthemic song here may be Black Sheep, one of three tracks released as singles thus far. Not unusually for this album, it's a glam rock-inspired anthem with a spiritual mindset. It's followed by Touched by Fire, with a couple of chant-along sections and a hand clapping "hey hey" part, the most overt audience participation bit in an album with plenty of them. The title track that closes out the album is a singalong too.

I should add that much of this makes sense, given certain behind the scenes details that flavour it all. The poppier songs, not just the ones that feel like diva showcases but the ones with their very contemporary, more artificial backings too, make sense when we realise that Dorothy is signed to Roc Nation, which is owned by Jay-Z. The spiritual flavour isn't surprising when we discover that a guitar tech overdosed on heroin on her tour bus three years ago and Dorothy watched him die. By her account, he was gone but he returned to his body when she prayed for that to happen and the experience was quite the spiritual awakening for her.

She's certainly full of life here but I wonder where the invisible band is going to go from here. It's worth remembering here that Alice Cooper used to be the name of a band too, and a damn good one, but it soon became the name of its lead showman and the stage behind him quickly became full of a revolving door of musicians. I can see Dorothy going the same way, if not the full distance to a Gwen Stefani reinvention from lead singer and face of a band to solo diva, with the musicians and songwriters hired as needed and every other release featuring someone or other. Only time will tell.

Monday 18 July 2022

Porcupine Tree - Closure/Continuation (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 24 Jun 2022
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Porcupine Tree are one of those bands I managed to miss out on completely, as the deep dive into rock and metal that I'd begun when I found the Friday Rock Show in 1984 started to fade at the end of that decade for a slew of reasons, not least real life asserting itself. I've seen the name often, a constant influence on later bands that I've appreciated and a constant reminder that I should get round to checking out their work. However, by the time I started paying attention, they'd given up as a band, because pivotal founder member Steven Wilson had shifted into a solo career. Until this album, my experience with them has been entirely confined to Wilson's most recent album, which was excellent.

This one, on the other hand, is underwhelming. It's not bad, let me emphasise right from the kick off, but it is underwhelming and I think it was inherently going to be, based on the approach that it takes because what it does best is subtle and what it does worst is grab us and keep us. It drifts away into the background very easily, unless we're listening through headphones in the dark, and the tracks blur together for the same reasons. However, it does reward those who pay attention.

The opening track is a fantastic example of this. It's called Harridan and it plays with urgency in an interesting way, but you have to pay attention to catch it. It's an eight minute song where the bass and drums are more important than the guitar and the vocals are sparse and somehow distant. It has dynamics in play that take it from funky Primus to sassy Nick Cave, from Pantera groove metal power chords to acoustic Barclay James Harvest, all of which work well, but they aren't the point.

The point seems to be to convince us that there's something really urgent going on but they're too busy sipping cocktails by the pool to tell us what it is and that's as frustrating as it is fascinating, a pair of feelings that merge during the second half with its frantic beats and soft jazz vocalising. It happens on Rats Return too, with the drums consistently more urgent than the soothing vocals or swirling keyboards. It's like the message is to speed up and slow down at the same time. It's fair to say that much of the joy for me here is trying to reconcile those diametrically opposite ideas but it doesn't make for a simple album.

And maybe we shouldn't look at this as an album, even though it's what it is and there are a whole slew of consistent approaches that make it appropriate to talk about as one. From the perspective of a random listener, it probably helps to listen to it as seven isolated tracks, maybe even with gaps between each and perhaps on shuffle. Most obviously, Of the New Day, with its glorious melodies that feel utterly effortless, plays much better when it isn't just a coda to Harridan. Walk the Plank, a quirky piece of soft new wave glitch prog, only finds itself in isolation.

But the band seem determined that we should listen to this as an album. The first fifty seconds of Dignity almost aren't there and it moves through sections that could be different songs, as does Herd Culling. These prompt us to wonder if the breaks between songs are purely arbitrary. Is Herd Culling one song or a set of eight outtakes from recording one song? Are there songs that start in one track and finish in another? Is this a puzzle box of an album that we have to figure out?

The only song that stands out on its own is the last one, Chimera's Wreck, because it's as active as most of the rest of the album is passive. Everything else wants us to listen to it but feels too shy to ask us to pay attention. Chimera's Wreck commands us to listen, from the opening chords that are reminiscent of Pink Floyd's Hey You, through the first verse that's phrased like the end of Wish You Were Here. It's clearly designed to build and it wants us to guess at what's coming next. It's a good thing that it's last, because almost everything else here would fade into the background if played after it.

So, there's a lot here to discover and prog fans are used to unpacking their favourite albums, so it may well find an audience. However, with the exception of that one final track, it isn't going to let us in easy. We have to fight our way through the barriers it sets up and others that we've placed in the way ourselves, just to get into the right state of mind to pay attention. Then we have to figure out what it's doing and why. Eventually we'll be rewarded but I wonder how many of us are willing to exert that much patience to get there. So I think I have to stick with a 6/10 but you should add an extra point if you have that sort of patience.

Armory - Mercurion (2022)

Country: Sweden
Style: Speed Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 22 Apr 2022
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I should admit from the start that, even though I'm rating this 7/10 from a critical standpoint, this is so far up my alley that I haven't been listening to anything else for a couple of days and it needs to move on so I can review something else. Armory are a speed metal band from Gothenburg and, as perhaps you expect from their chosen genre, they play things old school. They're a decade into their career and this is their third full length, a sci-fi concept album because apparently everyone is into making concept albums nowadays and I missed the memo.

It's not just the science fiction side of this that prompts comparisons to Agent Steel, because they are all over the opening track, Message from the Stars, and, while not everything here follows in their footsteps, some of it clearly does, perhaps most obviously Deep Space Encounter, especially after the opening solo. The vocals of Konstapel P. are lower than those of John Cyriis, of course, though some higher notes are reminiscent, not least the very first one on Message from the Stars, and they're rougher as well, perhaps midway between Cyriis and John Connolly of Nuclear Assault. The guitars of G. G. Sundin and Ingelman, however, are right out of the Agent Steel playbook and they are the greatest success of this album.

In fact, I get caught up in those guitars so much that I keep forgetting to take notes. I keep putting the album on afresh, hearing that Agent Steel comparison and suddenly acknowledging that forty-two minutes have passed and I need to start over. I'm not falling prey to outside distraction. It isn't dropping into the background. I'm falling prey to inside distraction because it's the band doing it. I can't complain from the standpoint of a listener but it doesn't help me as a critic!

While most of this is pure speed metal, technical and intricate but mostly put in place to serve the need for speed, it's not all breakneck stuff. There are plodders like Journey into Infinity, and many slower sections in many songs where the band shift a gear or three down but remain technical and intricate. The guitarwork drives everything here, though it's reliant on the tight rhythm section of Anglegrinder on bass and Space Ace on drums, who sets the tone in the album's earliest moments. There are more interesting touches too, here and there, as parts of the story require them.

The most obvious is the way that Void Prison begins, because it sounds like the beats are built out of the sounds of a space age prison gate being firmly shut with us on the wrong side. Other intros are simpler but often just as effective, like the way that we're sucked into Transneptunic Flight as if we just leapt into hyperspace. There are odd narrative sections, but none get in the way, and an occasional choral part too, especially late in Event Horizon. In its way, the space war in the middle of Deep Space Encounter is a narration too, but it's told with keyboards rather than voice.

The most interesting stuff is reserved for the second half of the album and I'd say that the variety ramps up all the way to the fascinating way that Event Horizon ends, as if each musician wraps up their part in proceedings in turn and then proceeds over some threshold that takes them into the unknown. Maybe we'll learn something about what's beyond that threshold on their next album. I have no doubt that John Cyriis is watching the skies so he can keep an eye out for their return.

It's the final two songs that get really interesting. There's power metal in Music from the Spheres, both in vocal lines and slower sections, a nod to someone like Gamma Ray, even if they play a much smaller role here than Agent Steel. That song also features some keyboard swells right out of the seventies, which feels odd given that Armory are otherwise so rooted in the early to mid eighties. There are Megadeth riffs on Event Horizon and it flirts with prog metal often, right to the end.

And I'll shut up now because I just want to immerse myself in this album again. I think that 7/10 is a fair rating, but speed metal freaks like me will want to add another point and interpret that as an 8/10. I must be on my tenth or twelfth time through and it's not getting old. In fact I keep catching new little details each time through, even if I'm too engaged to write them down. Perhaps I will up this to an 8/10 at some point after all.

Friday 15 July 2022

Alestorm - Seventh Rum of a Seventh Rum (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Pirate Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 24 Jun 2022
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Reviewing Alestorm albums is fast becoming pointless. This is their seventh album and, if you have heard even one of them, well, this is another one. On it, they do everything that they do as well as they did on whichever one you heard last. It's not better. It's not worse. It's not different. It makes their catalogue of songs eleven richer and that's about it. The only useful comment I could add to fans is that they don't try to vary their formula here, as they did a little last time out, on Curse of the Crystal Coconut. So, if you're a fan, you can quit reading now and return to your rum. If you've never heard of Alestorm, then read on, my friend.

Alestorm are a pirate metal band from Scotland, which means that they play a form of folk/power metal that's rooted in sea shanties and is full of hook-laden singalong songs. And they're all about pirates, because that's all that matters in the world of Alestorm. Everyone's a pirate or they don't count. And every pirate has a hook hand, a wooden leg and a fondness for rum, or they don't count either. Oh, and their lyrics, as generic as they often become, are alternately blisteringly clever and pointlessly puerile, which is something that probaby divides fans more than anything else.

For instance, this album opens up with Magellan's Expedition, where they deserve plenty of kudos for getting "proud Lusitanian shores", "the Castilian throne" and "Tierra del Fuego" into its lyrics, not to forget even managing to rhyme "Fernão Magalhães". That's ambitious and clever and it's a solid indication that these pirates aren't idiots. Another is the fact that, while they sing primarily in English, Magellan's Expedition also features a section sung in Latin; Wooden Leg (Part III) is in a combination of Spanish, Japanese and English; and Magyarország features sections in Hungarian, including a moment where they rhyme "Velence" with "Csöröge". I raise my glass in admiration!

And then there's the chorus of The Battle of Cape Fear River, in which we learn how foul mouthed Blackbeard was and, just to escalate even further, the chorus of Cannonball, which prompts a good deal of self-examination as to why we keep listening to Alestorm. Sure, they do this well, but it's an awkward business model to market your band to eight year old prepubescent boys who giggle at a mention of the C word in a song. I remember when Viz started Rude Kid and it was funny for being so irreverent and unexpected, but it did its job after one panel. Forty years on, it's just stupid.

And that means that my reaction to this album is roughly 70% enjoying Alestorm sounding exactly like Alestorm; 5% grinning at really clever bits or really cool moments that I wasn't expecting; and 25% rolling my eyes at either how juvenile a song is or how generic. As I mentioned earlier, this is a seventh album for Alestorm. How many songs are we going to get about how fantastic it is to be a pirate because you can steal stuff and get drunk in good company? If that didn't get old on side A of their debut album fourteen years ago, it got old by Side B. Another half dozen albums later and we could write some of these lyrics while they're playing the song.

If that all sounds overly critical for a band who don't take themselves remotely seriously, I should add that Alestorm still do this really well. Every song is an opportunity for a singalong and, if you happen to be drunk and in good company, all the better. If you threatened me with keelhauling if I didn't pick a highlight, I'd go with Under Blackened Banners. It's one of the most generic songs on the album lyrically, but it's particularly bouncy with particularly good hooks and it features a duel between keytar, guitar and keyboards that's a lot of fun. There's also a breakdown with a fiddle, a narrative section and some great exscalations. We can forgive generic lyrics.

If you don't like that one, well, you're out of luck then. The other ten songs aren't far off being the same thing, just not done quite as memorably. There are little touches that you might enjoy in one song or another, like the 8 bit nods in Cannonball and Come to Brazil. Maybe you'll dig P.A.R.T.Y., a song so commercially aware that it could have been a cover of a Spice Girls single with a different stylistic filter on it. And yeah, that may or may not make you want to listen to it. But, at the end of the day, this is Alestorm being Alestorm and you're either into it or not.

Friends from Moon - Astray (2022)

Country: India
Style: Alternative
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 15 Apr 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | YouTube

This came to me as a submission promising to be varied and it certainly delivered on that, a genre rollercoaster of an album full of slow ascents and scary drops that eventually flows to a satisfying halt. It's impossible to slap a single label on it, but I had to call it something so I tried alternative, because that's its first stop on the genre rollercoaster. It's alternative in Rage On, which is bouncy alternative rock, starting out grungy but escalating into metalcore midway. It's alternative a song later in Rebellion Road too, though this time it's alternative pop, a perky amalgam of post-punk, new wave and college rock. So I guess I'll go with alternative.

However, the album evolves from there and it evolves considerably further than any boundary you might draw around alternative, whether pop or rock. This is a concept album that follows a loosely defined Lovecraftian theme, that of an outwardly normal young man, whatever "normal" happens to mean, who seeks what he shouldn't, eventually finds what he's looking for and is driven mad by the experience. That's why the opening two tracks are relatively commercial, not to mention quite upbeat and even a little innocent. That goes away as the album moves on.

The Enemy is when this man's journey truly begins and it does that by moving from a traditionally drawn rock song into something far more interesting. It's told almost as a dialogue, with a routine verse followed by another with experimental chords and innovative vocal passages, almost as if it flips. This young man is seeing beyond the reality he grew up in to something different, darker. It's clearly progressive rock at these points and that leads us into the standout for me, which is Astray, the title track.

The press release accompanying the album plays up Marvels Beyond Madness as the highlight and it is a peach of a song, one in which "all things culminate", but I'd take Astray over it. It trawls in an awful lot of different stuff to create something thoroughly original. In its way, it's the full journey in miniature, kicking off with a Twilight Zone-esque introductory passage, full of pulses and clocks and strands of melody. Then the rhythms get interesting, to highlight that we're not in Kansas any more, Toto. We're not really in Oz either, but we could well be midway on the tornado, with every snatch of normality we catch being ephemeral. This is a dark trip of a song, even if it's occasionally reminiscent of the Beatles or maybe Saigon Kick. There's carnival organ here and a quirky Danny Elfman sensibility, but it's darker than Tim Burton would allow.

I wanted Astray to be a lot longer than it was, but I'll happily take it as it is, just as I'll happily take the songs that follow. Come Together is not the Beatles song, at least not entirely. It's sometimes a Tom Waits-like cover of the entire Beatles output, rendered off kilter and threatening, with I am the Walrus and Come Together at the heart of it but plenty more up to Lennon's solo Give Peace a Chance thrown in there for good measure. Spoiler: this young man doesn't and we experience the results of that decision in Marvels Beyond Madness.

While I might prefer Astray, Marvels Beyond Madness is still a delight. It's where the album shifts from rock to metal for a while, because the appearance of an Elder God kind of needs the levels of anger that metal brings, and I presume that's what's happening. However, it's also more viciously industrial and experimental and it has a dark soundtrack mindset that's gradually taking over the album. It's as intensely visual as Astray, with every sound serving that purpose, not just the music, and it's often a flurry because we're on the longest and steepest part of the rollercoaster and we are heading downwards fast.

What follows, of course, if you've ever read Lovecraft (or watched Brazil), is the happy ending with our protagonist's connection to reality seared away. Riverine is Syd Barrett madness, not a raging and inconsistent Mad Hatter madness. It's the brain shutting down after a shock it can't handle to think about puppies and dandelions and anything except THAT! What surprises me here is just how long this album spends after the showdown finalé. Riverine has the least to say but it's the longest song on the album after Marvels Beyond Madness, and it's followed by an instrumental that's "an ending credits song", according to the press release.

I guess that works, and Of the Spirit is certainly a fascinating closer, but I wonder if expanding the journey between The Enemy and Marvels Beyond Madness would have been a better approach. It constitutes the core of the story in this concept album, but it's confined to the middle four tracks, with the outer four not unfairly seen as the intro and outro. But, hey, that's a quibble not a fault. I thoroughly enjoyed this journey, which viably mixes metalcore and ambient, Indian music and film soundtracks, post-punk and harsh vocals. It's ambitious stuff and it works.

The man behind it is Ritwik Shivam, who's in New Delhi, because this is primarily a one man band. He wrote everything and he performed almost everything, with a couple of guest drummers on a track each and a couple of guest vocalists also on a track each. The harsh vocals on the opener are the work of another guest. Mostly, though, this is Shivam and it's a mature release indeed for his debut album. At least I think it's his debut album, though other tracks precede it on his Bandcamp page, going back a couple of years. Thanks, Ritwik, for sending me a copy of this. It's good stuff.

Thursday 14 July 2022

Michael Schenker Group - Universal (2022)

Country: Germany
Style: Hard and Heavy
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 May 2022
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I don't want to harp on about his age, because it's far from unusual nowadays that rockers in their fifties, sixties, seventies or even beyond are still doing the business, often just as well as ever, but I have to compliment Michael Schenker for his continued work ethic. He's released more product in this millennium than he did in the last and he's still as busy ever, with this being the third album in four years that I've reviewed here at Apocalypse Later, after last year's Immortal and the Michael Schenker Fest album in 2019 called Revelation.

This continues in the vein of Immortal, which was a line in the sand for him as both a 40th and 50th anniversary, of the start of his solo career and his first song he ever wrote respectively, that being for the Scorpions. What this means is that there's a core band recording most of the material but a string of guests to either bolster or replace that band as needed. The quintessential example of the latter is A King Has Gone, a tribute to Ronnie James Dio performed by Schenker with Michael Kiske of Helloween on vocals and a backing band of former Rainbow musicians, Bob Daisley, Bobby Rondinelli and Tony Carey, who also contributes the keyboard intro, Calling Baal.

A King Has Gone is one of the highlights here, even though the lyrics aren't exactly deep, but that sentiment pervades other songs too. There's a real Rainbow vibe to Sad is the Song and again on one of two bonus tracks, Fighter, which echoes Dio's One Night in the City in its early phrasing. Of course, it shouldn't be particularly surprising to find Rainbow vibes here, given that Blackmore's current Rainbow vocalist, Ronnie Romero, is the primary singer here. I'm a big fan of Romero but his smooth voice feels a bit too soft here, especially on some of the earlier songs.

To my ears, this album truly gets moving when both the vocals and guitar step up in vehemence, a decision that happens more often on the songs Romero doesn't sing than the ones he does. A King Has Gone is one, of course, because that's Michael Kiske at the mike, but I dug Wrecking Ball a lot too and that's Ralf Scheepers from Primal Fear. The most vehement song with Ronnie on it may be The Universe, where he's dueting with Gary Barden, the only former MSG singer to guest this time out. Oddly, it starts out as a ballad with some neatly raw guitar from Schenker, but it builds nicely and that's much to do with both voices as the guitar.

As for Schenker, he doesn't show off much here but he shines when he does. My favourite solo has to be the one that wraps up The Universe, but the one on Fighter is excellent too. There are tracks where he intends to be prominent throughout too, like Au Revoir, which doesn't mess around. It's sassy and lively and Romero picks up a little off that, but he doesn't compete. He does that more on Yesterday is Dead, which goes for a slower but heavier Accept vibe, and the other bonus track, Turn off the World, which also goes for a slower and heavier vibe but one that's more melodic and commercial.

All in all, this is another decent album from Schenker and friends, one that may not be quite up to its anniversary predecessor but which comes close. As with Immortal, there are no bad songs here but some are definitely better than others. Put the best of the two together and you have an 8/10 with a whole slew of worthy B-sides, but they're 7/10s on their own.

Drift into Black - Earthtorn (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Gothic Doom Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 May 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | YouTube

I liked this album by New Jersey-based Drift into Black from the outset but not immensely, until it grew on me, which almost came as a surprise. They're on their fourth album, even though they've only been a band since 2017, and they tend to be described as gothic doom, which isn't unfair. They certainly fit into doom metal, their tempo slow and doomy. The gothic side isn't as overt but it's a noticeable angle when it vanishes, as it does briefly in On Borrowed Time, when its layers cascade away to expose the doom below. It's there in a melancholy tone but also through use of piano and violin, albeit not as often as I'd have liked.

However, those components don't add up to Drift into Black, because there's progressive metal in this sound too and it gets more and more important as the album runs on, to the point where it's a driving force. There's prog in the prominent display of keyboards, which often comes across like prog rock rather than prog metal, but also in the way the guitars build and the sometimes copious use of sound effects. There are samples here too, not used frequently within the album, but in the intro, Good Mourning Earth, which collates a slew of pivotal news moments. They're negative and mostly American (9/11, Pearl Harbor, the Challenger explosion) with only Hitler representing the rest of the world.

I think the songwriting often comes out of prog metal too, especially on more subdued songs, like The Ups and the Downs, or in more subdued sections of others. After them, even far more overtly gothic doom tracks, like Weight of Two Worlds, feel like they still have a prog metal component to their construction, especially as they evolve into something else. The man to ask would seem to be Craig Rossi, the only songwriter here, who is also the band's guitarist and keyboardist and, I think, both of its lead vocalists.

I say both because there are two male vocalists here and one female, though the latter is a guest, Melissa Hancock, who elevates a handful of tracks by adding a further contrast to the one that the male vocalists provide. One of those is clean and one harsh and I'm not entirely sure which is seen as the lead. Early on, I'd say the harsh vocal is the lead, because it's easily more prominent and it has a confidence to it that the clean vocal doesn't, seemingly content to serve in the background. As the album runs on, though, it seems to gradually acquire that confidence and eventually take over.

I prefer the clean voice, especially when it wants to be the lead. It's a decent voice and one that's able to be far more flexible than the harsh voice, which is mostly a texture, often a rhythmic one. It's limited in its delivery, so it struggles to do more than simply be the harsh contrast to the clean voice. It's almost entirely monotone and it plods, with little shift in pitch and little enunciation. It manages a little nuance later in the album, but mostly relies on the clean voice to handle any sort of melody or engagement. Sometimes it increases its urgency, but that's about it.

And so we focus more on the instrumentation, which is excellent and won me over far sooner than the vocals. The elegant electronica on the intro starts that and some neat, Queensrÿche-esque prog metal guitar tone on It Fell from the Sky adds to it, along with the contrast in vocal styles which is emphasised by the musical shifts in sections. At this point, the music outstrips the vocals, though the introduction of Hancock's voice on The March to Oblivion helps balance that a little, until the clean voice truly takes the lead with The Ups and the Downs and we reevaluate what we're actually hearing. Ghost on the Shore is just an interlude, but a tasty electronically focused one that allows us to refresh and see what's left in a new light.

The more we listen, the more we catch the nice touches in the background. That's often the violin of Ben Karas, from Windfaerer, but it's the electronica too and other details that sometimes hide in the background waiting to be discovered. There's some really cool jagged stuff going on at the end of It Fell from the Sky, for instance, that I didn't initially notice. Some of it's pretty expected, like the clocks in On Borrowed Time, but some of it not so much, like the tribal percussion behind Left to the Burning Sun.

And so I like this more than I did initially, when that limited harsh vocal tinted my enjoyment until I realised what else is going on here. I'd be interested in hearing those three earlier albums to see how Drift into Black came to this sound and how much it's developed over time.

Wednesday 13 July 2022

White Ward - False Light (2022)

Country: Ukraine
Style: Post-Black Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 17 Jun 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | VK | YouTube

I'm fast coming to the conclusion that the saxophone is a highly versatile metal instrument. It was not all that long ago that that I thought that, to bring it into metal, you had to go batshit insane, like John Zorn on his Painkiller releases, but that's not true. White Ward, a post-black metal band from Ukraine, prove that yet again here because, as with dark jazz outfits like Katharos XIII, their saxophone works as a contrast and as a driving instrument of mood and menace. And, as much as I enjoy the work of the musicians playing more traditional metal instruments here, it's the sax that haunts me. Dima Dudko does a magnificent job but, crucially, the songwriting allows it too.

The sax often conjures up visuals for me, even if they're often the same ones, and that starts early on this album. Leviathan is a ballsy song to open with, given that it's thirteen minutes long, but it isn't even the longest track here and there are eight on offer. It starts out like a film score, water sound effects setting a scene as the keyboards grow a mood. It feels eighties, something that you might hear on a Michael Mann soundtrack. Then it gets heavy. And then the sax shows up, patient but dark. Whatever this story is, it's not going to end well. When the vocals arrive, they're raw and angry, but more like hardcore screams than black metal shrieks. Things develop and grow and the sax plays its part, until soon after six minutes in when everything fades away and we're back in the quiet rain with the sax stepping up in its more traditional film noir role.

Now, that's only half of track one, so you can imagine the dynamics in play throughout this album. It's not fair to suggest that White Ward alternate between black metal and soft jazz, but it's quite the idea and there's some truth in it, so it's a useful place to start. After all, if you haven't heard a group play in this sort of style, that's going to make absolutely no sense to you and you're going to try to conjure it up in your head and probably fail. Hopefully it intrigues you, though, and that will prompt you to check them out. Leviathan is far from a bad place to start.

Probably the worst place to start is the next song here, Salt Paradise, because of the approach the vocals take, which presumably have meaning within the wider story. They come across to me like a monotone Nick Cave, which is awkward because so much of what magic Cave generates comes from his magnificent intonation. There's no intonation here, deliberately so, and I wonder if this is as an effort to draw a character as sociopathic. I have no idea what this story is, but the moods suggest it revolves around violence and maybe redemption and a sociopathic character would be at home in a violent story.

Given the presence of lengthy samples, taken from speeches, TED talks or maybe documentaries, in Phoenix and the closer, Downfall, which suggests their importance, I wonder if there's a deeper level in play too. Maybe it's telling a story about individuals, the ones we hear arguing bitterly in a couple of these songs, like Silence Circles, but it's simultaneously telling a story about something far larger, like the fate of the planet. Maybe I should go read the lyrics, but I'm not sure I care that much. I adore the instrumentation on White Ward albums. This band are incredibly tight and they have a natural sense for dynamic play that very few bands can boast.

And that's my primary focus, especially as I'm not a huge fan of the vocal approach. There are two vocalists here, Yurii Kazarian and Andrii Pechatkin, who also play guitar and bass respectively. The lead—and I don't know which is which—has a shouty voice for black metal, one that wouldn't work too well singing about demons but does in a more visceral story that's grounded in dark reality, as this album surely is. The other, usually in the background, varies. As a clean voice, it's rich and cool and engaging. As a harsh voice, it's less so, because it's a shouty growl that seems half-hearted, as if it used to sing hardcore and wants to move into death but can't quite commit to that premise.

I found myself in an odd place with this album. I gave White Ward's previous relese, Love Exchange Failure an 8/10 and my instinct told me to do the same here. It's an ambitious album, one that runs for sixty-six minutes and never outstays its welcome, and it flows in a fascinating cinematic way. If I hesitate, it's because of odd clashes that most people aren't going to care about, but I find them a fascinating set of clashes because they're counterintuitive. The band seem to moving in a modern direction in some senses, with the hardcore-influenced vocals and some edgy chords at points. Yet they also seem to refuse to follow trends, many of these songs uncompromisingly non-commercial, with wild shifts from black metal to jazz and with such a prominent and varied use of saxophone.

At the end of the day, I find these clashes fascinating and part of the joy of this band. After all, this is a band doing their own thing in their own way and blazing a trail because of it. And that I dig.

Evals Mess - Born of the Flower (2022)

Country: Brazil
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 21 May 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website

Here's an unusual setup from Brazil. Evals Mess isn't one band but three, who share a name and a logo. The line-up is mostly the same across all three, but they play different genres. Evals Mess, in this form, which is also known as Evals Mess Project, play prog rock. However, they heavy up into a thrash/death metal band, Evals Mess Insane, and also lighten up into Evals Mess Acoustic. Two of the three members of Evals Mess Insane play in Evals Mess Project but, while Andrey Cardoso has the same bass guitar slung around his neck, Sandro Maués shifts from drums to handle vocals and acoustic guitar. Samuel Wesley takes over on drums and Guilherme Andrili adds a second guitar.

This is my introduction to Evals Mess, so I haven't hear Evals Mess Insane yet, though I'm intrigued after hearing this. It's their third album and it's a generous one, almost making the eighty minute mark, though it's broken up over tracks of very different lengths, two under four minutes and two over ten. It's a rare album indeed where not more than two songs of the eleven on offer share the same minute length, but this is one. I like that the band are confident in letting them simply be as long as they should be, rather than cropping them down for better chances at airplay or extending them out with unnecessary sections.

It's a neatly varied album too, ranging from the poppy commercial prog of Cloistered through to a heavy midsection on Martyrdom that's arguably metal, albeit one nowhere near thrash/death in approach. Most of it sits in between, of course, rock rather than pop or metal, and thoughtful in a lot of its dynamic play. Witch's Fury was my early standout because of that. It grows magnificently during its eight and a half minutes, thoughtful and careful becoming intense and vehement. It's a given that I'm not going be to doing anything to invoke this witch's fury any time soon, if I can help it.

Of course, I'm sure she's fictional because this appears to be a concept album based on a novel by Sandro Maués, though I may not be translating the Portuguese properly there. It doesn't surprise me to find that this is a concept album, because it evolves like one, a shifting in tone and style as a change in the story requires it. It also explains how Maués can get so much emotion into songs like Witch's Fury, because he's not merely invested in these songs as a songwriter or performer, he was the creator of the characters whose stories they tell. He's this witch's mother and father and god.

While Maués sings at least primarily in English, I couldn't follow the story from his voice so got as much of its progression from the song titles, the sound effects and the general flow. It sounds to me like it's a period tale of hardship and restraint that eventually finds rebirth and freedom. The anger is met with boundaries, so the lead character dreams of peace and freedom. A melancholy tone that pervades many of the earlier songs gradually shifts into a darker tone and eventually a happier one.

I think those tonal shifts affect what the music appears to be inspired by. Cloistered is prog infused by sixties pop, a dream of something else. Many of the slower sections or indeed entire songs, like Redemption, remind of Queensrÿche's slower moments, though ramping up is done in a different direction. The opener starts out with a western pirate vibe that segues into a very Mark Knopfler guitar, which returns on Martyrdom before it heavies up, when Queensrÿche come back to mind. I caught odd moments here and there of Styx, Iron Maiden and Pink Floyd, though only moments. I can't imagine that there aren't Brazilian bands in here that I wouldn't recognise either; there's a rich South American scene that I've only dipped my toes into thus far.

What impressed me most here was how lush it felt without also feeling dense. There aren't thirty layers going on at once, even when there's orchestration, but it always feels like we're surrounded by interesting things happening, with the core thrust of the album moving through them. I think that's the main reason why this never feels too long, even at eighty minutes, a length at which I'd feel safe in saying most albums would struggle. This always has something to say. Twice through is almost three hours and it didn't lose my attention once. In fact, some of the most magnetic songs arrive late, like Death in Doubt, with its menacing post-punk overtones and strange rhythms, not to forget its perhaps subconscious nod to Knockin' on Heaven's Door.

It has to be said also that everything leads up to the thirteen minute epic kinda sorta title track, a gem of a piece called Anturiah, Born of the Flower. At this point, you probably know whether you'll be checking this out or not, so I'll just say that, if you do, it's the centerpiece of the album. I think I prefer Witch's Fury, just on a personal level, but everything this album does, it does it most on the final track. And I guess that means that it's the one you should check out on YouTube if you're still undecided. Enjoy.

Tuesday 12 July 2022

Michael Monroe - I Live Too Fast to Die Young (2022)

Country: Finland
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 10 Jun 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

It feels like only about ten minutes since the last Michael Monroe album, One Man Gang, but it's a surprising three years and, as enjoyable as that one was, this feels more consistent and, dare I say it, more mature. And that sounds flippant of me, I know, but, while that patented Michael Monroe blend of punk and glam on offer here, the whole thing feels a little less rough and loose (crucially, though, not more polished) and more carefully thought out. The lyrics grabbed my attention last time out and they do so even more this time, starting at the very outset with Murder the Summer of Love.

That's a strong opener in every way, lyrically and musically, but things don't fade at all from there. Songs that, in other hands, could have become filler material, aren't here, merely taking different amounts of time to grow on us. I remember liking the up tempo songs more on that last album and they're surely the ones that caught me first here, like All Fighter and, most notably, Pagan Prayer, but then the sleazier, slightly laid back ones grew and eventually the ballad as well, an impressive piece in the style of Mott the Hoople that I came to really dig. Initially, it felt like an interlude but it's a real grower that has become one of my favourites. Notably, it's located right at the heart of the album and maybe that has meaning.

What I'm finding, on my fourth time through, is that every song here could well end up like that. It didn't initially feel like a great album, just a good one, but nothing fades and everything grows. I'd be as hard pressed to pick the worst song as the best one and that doesn't happen too often. Most albums have a standout or three and a couple of songs that don't live up to the rest. I'd have given you examples of both after one listen but not after three. Derelict Palace may take a little longer to stand out than the songs around it on the first half but it's just as worthy and the same goes for Everybody's Nobody. The former has a really cool groove and the latter stands out lyrically.

And, just like the Latin vibe on Heaven is a Free State last time, there are songs here that add an unusual angle to Monroe's tried and tested formulae. Sure, there are moments here that feel like they could have been on Two Steps from the Move, like the bridge in All Fighter, but there are also subtle shifts. Can't Stop Falling Apart isn't that far from his usual style, but somehow it's also half Steve Earle and half Status Quo, which is quite a cool collaboration. There's a laid back reggae vibe on No Guilt behind the alt rock and Dearly Departed is an electronic new wave song, but a very successful one. If Monroe made an album in that style, he'd find a whole new audience.

There aren't a lot of guests here and only one you'd expect me to call out. That's Slash, who shows up on the sassy title track to lend his guitar talents and to weave a solo. It's a neat team up but it's not the event that it could have been. The song is another good one, with a memorable and catchy chorus, and I'm not going to fault Slash's solo either, but it's just one of eleven tracks here. In fact, given where Dearly Departed goes after it, it doesn't hold our focus as long as you might think. It feels like another good Michael Monroe song, whereas Dearly Departed plays much more like the departure it suggests and its uncharacteristic synths seem more notable than Slash's solo.

I like this album a lot. It was always a good one and I never doubted that it would be another 7/10, just like its predecessor, but I don't think that's fair. This is an 8/10 album. It just doesn't slap us in the face with how great it is. The more I listen to it, the better it gets and the less surprised I feel about that rating.

Servan - Tales of the Forest (2022)

Country: Italy
Style: Folk Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 25 May 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

I'm back in Italy again, it seems, this time in Trento in the south Tyrol for a folk metal album from Servan, who are debuting here in a rather schizophrenic fashion. I'm still trying to figure out quite what they're trying to do, because it seems to be two completely different things and one tends to cancel out the other.

Some of the time, they're a serious folk metal band. The evocative intro points the way, with flutes delivering plaintive melodies around bubbling brooks. Then it kicks in hard and fast, as Tiki Land is eager to convince us that Servan are a tasty mix of folk and death and thrash. There's a rough but not too harsh vocal and a separate clean vocal, so there's contrast and variety there, even before we factor in the constant contrast between chugging riffs and dancing flutes. The Forest continues in much the same vein, slower but with the same effect. It's good stuff.

But then The Goblins shows up and we realise that Servan, after they do a quick change into their superhero outfits, also make cartoon theme tunes. At least, that's the impression I got here, that flute playing a Pied Piper role as it leads a procession of goblins. Don't get me wrong, this is done well, like a more accessible Trollfest, only one reason why I immediately saw it animated, all those goblins walking in step, single file, with that odd skip that cartoon characters have to have. But it's not remotely serious and damn, it's catchy.

If The Goblins was the only example of this, then it would just have been a prominent track and we could get back to enjoying the serious stuff. However, it's not. This quirky, extra bouncy, animated processional music with cartoon goblin vocals shows back in Lovegati, only two songs later and on others as the album runs on. It's not the entire song this time but it's enough of it to matter and I can't help but feel sorry for Ode Agli Elementi. What's that, you say?

Well, it's the track in between those two. Listen to it in isolation and you'll see it as the decent folk metal song that it is. Listen to it on this album in between The Goblins and Lovegati and you'll lose track of the fact that it exists. There's nothing wrong with it, except that it's in the wrong place at the wrong time and it's hard to focus on flute melodies or guitar solos when we're focused instead on bouncing animated goblins. If The Goblins is the theme tune and Lovegati is the first episode, I guess that means Ode Agli Elementi is the first commercial break and that's not enviable.

After these two, I struggled with the album while appreciating both sides of the band's music. It's not that one angle is inherently more worthy than the other. It's simply that one overwhelms the other when they're alternated on the same album. The best songs, I feel, are the ones that play it seriously, avoiding that cartoon mindset, but keep the extra-bouncy melodies. Conjurers does that and, to a large degree, so does Drunk Troll. That title so obviously tells us it's going to be silly that it's almost a shock when the song isn't. These are more serious songs but you just won't be able to listen to something like Conjurers or the flute solo late in The Last Battle without your toes taking on a life of their own, tapping away like a lunatic.

It's probably fair to say that this is a problem now but potentially not down the road. Servan are a new band on their debut album. They're probably new to us and we don't have years invested into their sound. Ten years and four albums from now, we might expect this and appreciate both sides for the quality music they are. We might even cherish them for it, like we cherish Bad Brains for a career in hardcore punk that just shifts into reggae at points for no discernible reason. Right now, it's harder to do that, so let's see how they're received. There's some serious talent on display. I'm looking forward to watching them grow into themselves.

Monday 11 July 2022

Septicflesh - Modern Primitive (2022)

Country: Greece
Style: Atmospheric Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 30 May 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

OK, I thought I knew Septic Flesh, as they were before 2008 with a space in their name, but it's very possible that I've confused them with someone else. No, not Septic Death, as I have them clear for sure. However, I was thoroughly surprised by the sound of this album, though, and more so than I'd have been had I actually heard some of their earlier material before. Going back to cherrypick the early stuff, I see that they've always played symphonic death metal but they've continued to boost the symphonic part of that as time has gone by, eventually sharing the stage in Mexico City in 2019 with an orchestra and a couple of choirs in a memorable concert I've been enjoying on YouTube.

By this point, which is their eleventh album, that symphonic angle has been so integrated into the band's sound that it's inseparable. This isn't strings behind a rock band any more, this is one band with a hundred members. I'd say that the best example of this is Coming Storm, but everything on the album is a good example and Coming Storm is just the track that plays with the dynamics best. And, I should point out, going full on symphonic beyond most symphonic bands is far from the end of their evolution.

For a start, there's a lot of ethnic sound on this album, starting at the very beginning with a neat and intricate intro to The Collector, which is not played on acoustic guitars. In addition to the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and the Libro Coro choirs and a long list of choral vocalists, I'm seeing credits for folk instruments like mandolin, flute, oud and bouzouki, each of which I'm aware of, but duduk and santur too, which I'm not; they're a wind instrument and a hammered dulcimer respectively. There's also a female vocalist who sings in a wavering ethnic style on songs like Self-Eater. Each of these folk contributions deepens the band's sound and they're often the best, most joyous part, like on Neuromancer.

For another, while the majority of vocals are still the effortlessly harsh vocals of bassist Seth Siro Anton, who sounds like he's not even putting on a demonic voice but just using the one that comes most naturally, the way they're balanced with the clean vocals of guitarist Sotiris Anunnaki V are a fascinating thing. Sometimes, it's the usual contrast between harsh and clean, which is purely for effect and the sort of thing we tend to expect in bands with that dynamic. However, here it's often something far more theatrical and the orchestration and some of the other musical changes on a dime play into that.

When listening through the speakers on my desk, I sometimes got the impression that there were things happening that I missed because I couldn't see them. Surely, this is music that's intended to be seen as much as heard, a true metal opera, and I wasn't sitting in front of a stage watching the actors play their parts. When listening through headphones, though this feeling was enhanced to become sometimes overwhelming. I wanted to know what these people were doing visually, what stories they were telling with their bodies as well as their voices.

While Coming Storm stood out for me above the other tracks, none of them let the side down. This is a solid album and one I enjoyed a great deal over a few listens. If there's a catch, it's that there are also bonus tracks on this limited edition and, well, I kind of dig those more. These are entirely orchestral pieces, i.e. they keep all of that side but ditch the band, and I'm pretty sure that they'll want me to think of them as worthy bonuses. Instead, I'm digging Salvation and The 14th Part a bit more than I'm digging the rest of the album, Coming Storm excluded.

However, the third of these bonus tracks is Coming Storm, done entirely with orchestra, and I think that I prefer the proper version more. So, perhaps the question should be phrased like this: where are the heavy versions of Salvation and The 14th Part, the ones with a band and vocals and all that jazz? Answers on the back of a postcard please...