Friday 26 August 2022

Journey - Freedom (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Melodic/Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 Jul 2022
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Latest in the growing department of "let's release a new studio album after... holy crap, how long has it been", this is the fifteenth by American melodic/hard rock legends Journey—if we're strict—or the sixteenth, if we count their underrated Dream, After Dream soundtrack from 1980. Either way, it's their first new album in eleven years and it's a generous one, running almost an hour and a quarter, without ever seeming too long. That surprised me, though it should be pointed out that anyone who only listens to them on classic rock stations is going to get three serious shocks here.

The first is that, while Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain are still in the band and in strong form after decades of service—Schon was a founder member way back in 1973—that's not Steve Perry on lead vocals, because he left in 1998. The second is that the current singer is Arnel Pineda, who's Filipino and discovered by the band singing cover songs by Journey and others on YouTube in a band called the Zoo. So far, shocking but maybe not too shocking.

The third is that, given that Pineda joined in 2007 and has been with them consistently for the past fifteen years, performing on their previous two studio albums and a live one, he actually has more years with the band than Perry did. Sure, Perry had a twenty-one year stretch, but they were split up for almost a decade of that, which ought to count. Oh, and fourth just to throw in a bonus, you are not going to care. Pineda sings just like Perry did and he sounds fantastic.

That's evident on the strong opener, Together We Run, which sounds just like Journey should. The band's sound is pretty intact here for much of the running time, whether it's that obvious starter, a grower like Don't Give Up on Us or a ballad like Still Believe in Love. Journey have always done a good job with ballads, though they've never been my favourite songs by them. This one is soft but it's meant to be. I still liked it more than Live to Love Again, which feels like something taken from a musical. At least Don't Give Up on Us has a searing guitar solo from Neal Schon, however soft it gets.

There's a lot of music here, across fifteen substantial tracks, and I'm not going to run through that list one by one. Let's just say that nothing is bad, little is just OK and the highlights for me are You Got the Best of Me and The Way We Used to Be, with All Day and All Night following in their wake.

You Got the Best of Me is a clear standout. It's a relatively subdued rocker but its hooks got stuck in my brain quickly and effectively and the band milk those hooks well enough that it's the longest song here except for the epic closer, Beautiful as You Are. Now, that's only five and a half minutes, just to be clear; the closer is the only long song on offer at a breath over seven. I liked this one on a first listen but it kept standing out more on every repeat, until I was plucking it out for separate plays.

The Way We Used to Be is an odd song because it feels like it ought to slip into the background as a filler track, but it just refuses to stay there. I think it succeeds not because it's inherently great as a song but because it utterly nails its groove. It feels absolutely right. I prefer You Got the Best of Me as a song but this one just gets into my bones and I can't not move to it. All Day and All Night is another groove-oriented song. It feels loose, a lot looser than it really is, because there's no way this wasn't constructed very carefully. Again, it just feels right and that's enough for me.

What I ought to wrap up with is that the line-up isn't quite what it ought to be. Behind Schon, Cain and Pineda, there's Randy Jackson on bass and Narada Michael Walden on drums. Of course, both of them also provide backing vocals, because every member of Journey does that, including Jason Derlatka, who doesn't play an instrument otherwise, even though he's a keyboardist in the usual line-up. Jackson was the bassist at the time the album was released but left before its release, so anyone going to see them on tour will see Todd Jensen on bass. Stranger still, the band's drummer is Deen Castronovo, who's only here to sing lead on After Glow, because Narada Michael Walden is the drummer on everything here and he's particularly emphatic at the end of Beautiful as You Are.

And I'll add a further surprise. Given that almost every quality melodic rock album nowadays is on the Frontiers indie label from Italy, it's an eye opener to see this one come out on a major label, a suggestion that maybe BMG are realising how vibrant the genre is right now. After all, their prior album, Eclipse, in 2011, was a Frontiers release, at least in Europe. Whatever the reason, Journey are back and on top of their game. This is probably longer than it needs to be, but then it's been a long eleven years. I'm not going to complain about how much music there is here, even if it affects the overall rating.

Panzerfaust - The Suns of Perdition - Chapter III: The Astral Drain (2022)

Country: Canada
Style: Black Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 22 Jul 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

I'm not convinced I've ever heard Panzerfaust before, though I have heard the Darkthrone album of that name, which I presume was the source of the band's name rather than the Nazi anti-tank weapon. After all, they're Canadian and not associated with the NSBM movement, though they do write lyrics about war. This is their sixth album in total and the third in the series that's occupied them over the past few years, The Suns of Perdition. Chapter I was War, Horrid War in 2019 and it was followed by Chapter II: Render unto Eden a year later. I believe there are to be four albums in this series, so this is the awkward third before it wraps up.

That said, it doesn't feel particularly awkward. I haven't heard either of the first two chapters, so I can't speak to how it compares, but this is an impressive album that makes me wander to find that pair and experience the whole thing (thus far) in entirety. If there's anything awkward to mention, it would be the presence of experimental interludes in between the five songs proper that I don't see have a real purpose except to separate the tracks. Maybe that's all they intend to do, but they have an industrial tinged sound effect vibe to them that suggests they ought to achieve more than they do.

I knew Panzerfaust played black metal but that didn't prepare me for their sound here. There's as much doom metal here as black and much of the point seems to be texture, atmosphere if you will but I'd say that's a misleading word in this context, as this isn't really atmospheric black metal as a genre. Sure, there's atmosphere in the sound effect laden backdrops; every song starts and ends with one of those, as if we're listening to a Krautrock album. But then the guitars show up and the drums and we're into black metal territory.

If anything, the textures have a gothic flavour to them, due to lush feel and firm confidence, but I wouldn't remotely call this gothic metal. It's always surprisingly slow black metal, deliberate and dark and with rare enough ramps up in tempo that they're always noteworthy when they appear. I would say only one song, The Far Back at the River Styx, spends most of its time at the traditional black metal sort of speed, because it ramps up quickly and never slows back down again.

The songs aren't short, as we might expect from such a slow take on black metal, but only the first of them, Death-Drive Projections, could really be called long, clocking in at over ten minutes, with the others lasting a comfortable six or seven minutes each and change. They're patient creatures, the doom element dictating the tempo and the texture often suggesting ritual. There's a hypnotic quality to the music that I appreciate and I'd like to see how that manifests in the earlier chapters.

I have no idea what the overarching story is here, though I presume there is one, given that this is surely a single concept album spun over four full length releases. I'm enjoying this for the feel, an approach that's probably still in mind from yesterday's Nik Turner album, and every component is on board with the feel. Even the vocals play ball, because there are two singers here, Goliath, who only wears the one hat in the band, and Brock Van Dijk, who also plays guitar, and they hand off to each other as if it's important somehow for the lyrical delivery to continue without any pauses for breath.

Death-Drive Projections is just patient, steadfastly refusing to speed up, though it somehow gets a little more intense as it goes. Bonfire of the Insanities, on the other hand, rumbles along like it's an unstoppable creature, utterly confident in its eventual victory that it doesn't have to exert any more effort than it feels like at any point in time. It's a surprise when it ramps up to more typical black metal speed with less than a minute to go, but maybe that unstoppable creature is pouncing. Tabula Rasa is bludgeoning, not insanely fast but ultra-powerful and with a seriously hard hitting beat from a very impressive drummer, Alexander Kartashov.

After a few listens, I'm still not sold on the interludes, which range from only thirty-eight seconds of The Pain to almost six minutes with Enantiodromia. Almost ten minutes of interludes seems just a little excessive on a forty-seven minute album and this would be a safe 8/10 without them. Were they just not happy with thirty-eight minutes?

I think the songs get better too as they progress, the first two solid but the last two even more so and maybe Bonfire of the Insanitise right at the heart of the album above them all in my thinking. But this is all new to me. Clearly, I need to check out the first two chapters in The Suns of Perdition tetralogy. Maybe I've found another favourite black metal band from North America, after Wolves in the Throne Room.

Thursday 25 August 2022

Arch Enemy - Deceivers (2022)

Country: Sweden
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Aug 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

I've enjoyed Arch Enemy for years, partly because they were one of the few bands who I noticed in my nineties period of not noticing much because life had taken over from music for me for a while. Maybe the fact that they famously hired a woman as a harsh vocalist helped to grab my attention, but that novelty wore off quickly once that unlikely glass door was broken and Angela Gossow was able to become simply the singer, worthy of note for her musical talents not just her gender.

Their current singer, Alissa White-Gluz, is probably a better vocalist, but I still have a fondness for Gossow's voice. She spat out lines well and she's still who I see when I think of commercial melodic death metal. Now, this is a less commercial album than say, Anthems of Rebellion, with faster and more technical shifts, but the melodies are still there and clearly come from the same band. I may not have heard that album in a decade but listening to it alongside this one highlights just how much this is Anthems with crisper production and harder and cleaner edges.

I really like the balance that they've found here between an extreme death metal sound, with its double bass drumming and harsh vocals, and an older school power metal sound, with slower riffs, guitar solos and melodies. There are reasons why Handshake with Hell is the opener, because it's quite a lot of things all at once. It's a melodic death metal song, of course, but White-Gluz sings a line here and there clean, as if it's a straightforward heavy/power metal song too, and she drops into a tasty section in the second half with clean vocals that are almost folky, over a sort of dark ambient backdrop. Then a guitar duel between Michael Amott and Leff Loomis brings us home.

It's the most varied song vocally, because White-Gluz does stay harsh for the vast majority of the album, though she did impress me thorougly with what she did there. However, the music remains varied throughout. In the Eye of the Storm is slow and powerful and it's a firm nod to Judas Priest, even though White-Gluz is a few octaves below Rob Halford. Priest had a few songs with Deceiver in the name, so I was almost expecting that nod, given that there's a kinda sorta title track called Deceiver, Deceiver, but they shifted it elsewhere.

They speed back up on The Watcher, the elegant twin guitarwork of the intro soon giving way to a speed metal blitzkrieg, but it slows down for the choruses and wraps up with keyboards that flow smoothly into the strings that open Poisoned Arrow. And the choruses on both those songs, as on most of the ten songs proper on offer here, are epic in sound. It would only take a change in vocal style for Arch Enemy to become a pure power metal band. They don't even need to lower the bass in the mix, because that's already been done, which I'd suggest is the only flaw to the production.

Some of the songs don't even need the choruses to feel epic. My favourite here after The Watcher may well be Sunset Over the Empire, which has orchestral sweeps in it that may well be keyboards but which endow it with a timeless quality. The lyrics aren't particularly deep but it feels like they ought to be. Certainly it's about a pivotal moment in time, with talk of holy war and an end to one era with the promise of another ascendant. It's the sort of thing an epic metal band tends to sing about and I don't doubt that Arch Enemy would acknowledge that. The orchestral/choral section that closes out Spreading Black Wings is just another example of pure epic, almost a soundtrack.

I wonder whether the naysayers after the hiring of Angela Gossow are still dissing on Arch Enemy. They didn't like how commercial and mainstream the band's sound was getting, especially on the breakthrough Anthems of Rebellion album, and wished for the more technical, more intense days with Johan Liiva at the mike. White-Gluz may be a little more traditional with her vocal but all the complaints about Gossow's era are applicable here. There are catchy melodies everywhere. There are "hey, hey" sections in both Sunset Over the Empire and Spreading Black Wings. Mourning Star is a brief instrumental that wouldn't feel out of place on a Pink Floyd album.

But Arch Enemy seem to be shifting units, so plenty of people aren't upset about their sound. This is often powerful, fast, heavy, emphatic. Is it what the band were doing with Liiva? No, not particularly, but music is fluid and evolving. It seems somehow disrespectful to challenge a band who pioneered one genre for moving into another. It ought to be just as valid to challenge why they haven't changed more in the past couple of decades. Me, I'm just enjoying a quality melodic death metal album that, sure, may often be a quality power metal album instead.

Nik Turner & The Trance Dimensionals - Synchronicity (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Space Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 30 May 2022
Nik Turner: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website | Wikipedia
Steve Hillman: Bandcamp | Facebook
The Trance Dimensionals: Facebook

It would be fair describe the prolific space rock saxophonist and flautist Nik Turner as an acquired taste and pretty much everything I said about his previous album, The Final Frontier, holds on this one, credited to Nik Turner & The Trance Dimensionals. This is a more personal version of the style you might know from Hawkwind, the legendary British space rockers with whom he performed for a decade or so during their most successful period, albeit in two stints. He certainly hasn't moved too far adrift from their sound, referencing their Space Ritual album by name in Destination Void and The Enchantress, the first two tracks here.

When Turner sticks to making music, he sounds great. I love his instrumental work, because it's as trippy and weird as anything Hawkwind put their name to but more exploratory. Turner has stated that he's more interested in the feel of songs than any particular structure or components within them and that makes sense. Instrumentals like Sphinx Dancer are joyous journeys that I wouldn't mind continuing for hours. I wonder if this one was extracted from a longer jam, as it fades in and kind of fades out after its six minutes in the spotlight. It could have been as endless as the sands it evokes and which are so vividly depicted in the cover art.

However, when Turner takes the mike, the quality drops because he sounds less like a vocalist and more like an old man reading poetry, which I'm pretty sure he is on songs like Sekhmet. On others, I think the point is more to narrate an introduction, like on Destination Void, which also opens the album, and Thunder Rider Invocation. Even when he tries to sing, he sounds like he's providing the narration rather than singing a song. Fortunately, he hands over actual singing duties here to the various guests. Angel Flame, the dancer in Turner's Space Ritual band and also the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, provides excellent narration on a couple of tracks too.

I talk about Turner like this is his band, but it isn't. Last time out, on The Final Frontier, it was and I'm assuming that all the creative decisions were his. That's not really the case here, because this is a Trance Dimensionals album, with Nik Turner a guest of sorts, even if he's an acutely prominent one. The Trance Dimensionals are the band of Steve Hillman, who provides the guitars, keyboards and synths here, as well as writing all the music and lyrics, except for a couple of those overblown narrations, which are the work of Terry James Hawke, and the final song, Children of the Sun, by a partnership of Nik Turner and Dave Anderson of Amon Düül II, the Groundhogs and, inevitably, an album by Hawkwind.

So this is really a Steve Hillman album, with Turner adding saxophone and flute and, occasionally, vocals. Oddly his sax is relatively subdued in the mix, so I had to focus hard to hear it on favourites like Night of the Jewelled Eye, the longest piece here, which starts out folkier and ends up almost in carnival territory when it gets frantic, though it never ceases to be space rock and really good space rock at that. His flute is much more obvious, especially on a beautiful but much calmer instrumental called Cloudlands, but also on Sphinx Dancer.

It's telling that all my favourites here are instrumentals and very possibly jams. It wouldn't shock me to discover that this line-up, which includes a couple of musicians Hillman performed with in a prog rock band called Ra Rising, Clog on bass and Dai Rees on drums, could just jam for hours and never cease to be interesting. When vocals show up and aren't just recited poetry in some form of collaborative performance art, it's the guests who shine, especially Eleanor Rees, who provides a memorable vocal on Children of the Sun.

And so, this is another 6/10 for me, though really that's a midpoint between a lot of 7/10 material and a lot of 5/10 material. Guess which side of that is almost entirely instrumentals? I see that Nik Turner has also released a collaborative album this year that I should check out, featuring a slew of enticing names, including Robby Krieger, Chris Poland and Steve Hillage, along with legendary jazz drummer Billy Cobham and others. It's called Space Fusion Odyssey and I guess it underlines a rather busy period in Turner's career.

Wednesday 24 August 2022

Ted Nugent - Detroit Muscle (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Hard and Heavy
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 29 Apr 2022
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Sure, Ted Nugent is a right wing whackjob and he's about as subtle as the muscle car engines that introduce his sixteenth solo album or indeed the rendition of the Star Spangled Banner that closes it. He's a loud and obnoxious personality, but that doesn't mean that he doesn't rock. If you don't buy into that, just go check out Double Live Gonzo! and we'll talk. Songs such as Wang Dang Sweet Poontang are about as loud and obnoxious as he is but there are few ever released that rock much harder.

Sure, it would be easy to dismiss him into a right wing whackjob category with people like Kid Rock and that's fair on a single front, but only one. I didn't review Kid Rock's album, Bad Reputation, in March, because it's just awful, an embarrassment that should never be mentioned again, led by a cringefest of a single, Don't Tell Me How to Live, that beggars belief. This isn't. It's not Nuge's best but it's a rock 'n' roll record that doesn't embarrass anyone, least of all him.

And, of course, given how opinionated the man is, I should probably talk about lyrics before music. Surprisingly, they're not controversial at all, even if there are a few veiled references that we see through. We might look at song titles and cringe at their lyrical content in advance, like Come and Take It, Just Leave Me Alone and Feedback GrindFIRE, but there's nothing much to them. Mostly, I would call them generic and uninspired, as if Nugent simply didn't want this to be an instrumental album so had to come up with some words. Come and Take It has forty lines and over half of them are literally just the title.

Frankly, I'd have preferred this to be an instrumental album, because the best thing about it is the guitar. Nugent rarely unleashes his instrument and rips the way we know that he can, but he plays it well and in an interesting fashion throughout. In fact, he lets us wait for the blistering stuff, the WinterSpring SummerFall instrumental a real highlight but through subtlety rather than a gonzo genius. The wild guitar waits for Feedback GrindFIRE no fewer than ten songs in, one I'm sure he's going to absolutely blister through on stage, and it's still there on Star Spangled Banner to close things out. I wanted a lot more of the Motor City Madman and I didn't get it, but I see reasons why.

One is that Feedback GrindFIRE is the only vocal song here where the guitar truly plays a lead role in that it's higher in the mix than the vocals. On this one, those vocals are suitably wild too, mostly because I presume they're delivered by Nugent himself rather than his bassist, Greg Smith, who is a far more deliberate and controlled singer. He does a decent job and he's a better singer than his boss, but he feels out of place to me on a Ted Nugent album and he left me wondering if the guitar was more deliberate and controlled to complement his delivery.

And so this becomes a little underwhelming, even if the best, most raucous material is left for last and so makes us want to immediately start again to see if we misjudged it. But no, we didn't. It's a fair observation that the muscle cars in Detroit Muscle, one of two paeons to Nugent's hometown, are actually a sample of muscle cars, even though we know full well from Feedback GrindFIRE that he could have generated that sound in a far more interesting fashion from his guitar. To not do so was a deliberate choice and it underlines those first nine songs. He even gets a bit sentimental on Alaska and it doesn't work for me.

Of the pre-Feedback GrindFIRE songs, the most interesting to me are the ones that find a groove. Born in the MotorCity is another paeon to Detroit with banal lyrics but one that's performed as a blues song in ZZ Top style. That little old band from Texas do it better but it's neat to hear Nugent take on the groove. There's a southern rock undercurrent to Drivin' Blind, beyond the lyrical nod to Molly Hatchet and others, that's neat to hear too. They're decent, but it's the wild closing pair and the unusually introspective instrumental that I'd call out as highlights.

Satyricon - Satyricon & Munch (2022)

Country: Norway
Style: Dark Ambient
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 10 Jun 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

And there was I thinking that Satyricon had lost all their extreme metal edge and shifted well into mainstream heavy metal with admittedly killer riff-driven singles like K.I.N.G. This is not remotely that and, in fact, it's edgier than the black metal they started out making. The Munchmuseet says that this fifty-six minute track, "carries Satyricon's unmistakable signature yet breaks away from anything they've previously created through its format, length, and expression." They're right.

And why would the Munchmuseet, an Oslo museum dedicated to the art of the famous Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, have any relevance in an album review? Well, because this single piece was composed to accompany a selection of Munch's paintings and graphics at the Munchmuseet, in an innovative collaboration between two artists of different media. This is therefore less of an album and more of an installation piece. Which explains why it's so weird.

Satyricon & Munch, also the name of the exhibition, certainly isn't black metal or metal at all, but it's hard to label it. There's a lot here that's dark ambient, but it starts out abrasive, almost like a subdued industrial piece, pulsing over a repeated mechanical riff. It evolves from there, through the use of imaginative instrumentation, some of which provides what is clearly music and some of which is content to serve as sound effects. Rarely does it come close to what we tend to expect in a Satyricon album, making it a worthy piece of music but a surprising one to boast their name.

The first instrument to emerge from this dark soundscape, as everything thus far fades into it, just like the cover art, is an elegant cello that manages to be both traditional and experimental, as I'm pretty sure the strange noises around the expected rich sound are also cello-derived. It's the next section that comes closest to the Satyricon we know and love, with a black metal guitar delivering a neat riff, albeit entirely without the blastbeats that normally accompany it. Instead, there's an oddly upbeat percussive backdrop, that's half industrial and half circus music, a clarinet joining in for good measure.

And so we go, the motif developed thus far explored in a variety of instruments and timbres. This is certainly constructed like a classical composition, but with strong use of electronics and pulsing mechanised sounds. Of course, there's a serious crossover between classical music and metal in an array of different subgenres, but it's rarely delivered in such a form as this. In fact, it's probably a greater likelihood that you might hear this on a niche modern classical radio station than on rock shows. And really, whether that piques your interest or not is the most likely indicator of whether you might dig this or not.

I do, but then I like dipping my toes into the often avant-garde world of modern classical music. I'm not an expert and don't even have a complete grounding but I find it fascinating. Now, just like the modern art world, I don't always like it or understand it, but I find it fascinating nonetheless, just to hear instruments that I do understand doing things that I haven't heard them do before or in a way that I haven't heard before. To anyone who thrives on discovery, it's a fascinating place.

And it's that sort of listener who might dig this. You should certainly approach it with your mind as open as possible. You'll need to be patient, not only because it's one fifty-six minute track but also because it's often slow and ambient and it warrants multiple listens to fully appreciate. It's almost the opposite of an ear worm like K.I.N.G. in just about every way. This is rarely catchy, though a few sections find a groove that latter day Satyricon fans might recognise, often the ones that bring in a metal guitar and generate a riff to play with for a while. Of course, even when that happens, the cello remains a prominent instrument, often the prominent instrument.

So, if everything I've said makes you wonder what's wrong with the world today, then this isn't for you and, if you like Satyricon, you're definitely going to be pissed that they labelled it as such. But if you have a more open mind and are intrigued as to what Satyr and Frost have done here, then I do recommend that you check it out. You may still hate it and you'll still be puzzled about why it's identified as a Satyricon album, but it will, at least, have a shot to impress you. Maybe it will.

Tuesday 23 August 2022

Agathodaimon - The Seven (2022)

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

I haven't heard Agathodaimon since my EMusic days a couple of decades ago when I discovered an array of favourites on Napalm Records. It's been long enough that I don't remember exactly what they sounded like but I believe that they've evolved a little from more symphonic black metal into a gothic flavour of black metal. Both those sounds are in evidence on the opener, La Haine, which starts out as a grandiose form of black metal but shifts midway to a more emotional gothic sound midway, and it's a highly appropriate way to kick things off.

Initially, the black metal side of this bled through the deepest and I liked it, even though it didn't blow me away. Gradually, the gothic side of it came into focus and I liked it more, with the harsher black metal side an interesting contrast to keep this heavy. Gothic metal can often feel like gothic rock simply heavied up somewhat but this never feels like it's anything but metal, the harsh voices and frantic drums an unmistakable manifesto of extreme metal and their agreeable taint always floats there keeping its evil eye on us, even when the sound gets slower, richer and darker.

The song that emerged as a standout first was Wolf Within, which again starts out black but finds its way to a more evocative gothic sound, with a strong riff and an ambience of whispers, even before the achingly slow and dark section. There's some sort of narration late in the song that sounds like it's delivered by a pissed off witch. Maybe it's a sample and maybe not, but it's evocative however it was sourced. Putting all those elements together makes this quite the potent song.

And, while I'm not sure anything else here matches it, others gradually highlight similar qualities. I rather like the middle of the album, Mother of All Gods and Estrangement the logical end to one side and the beginning of the other. The former is the better song but the latter is interesting, as it's the least black metal song on offer, though there's plenty of double bass drumming going on and it keeps on speeding up until its finale. However, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's the most gothic, because the rich textures evident elsewhere don't show up much at all.

In fact, there's more velvet and mahogany in the sub-two minute prelude to In My Dreams which follows it than in this entire song, with In My Dreams proper kicking off with neat whispered sonic cobwebs before launching into a faster and more frantic tempo. The question really becomes what songs are the best place to start for the new listener. I'd say start with La Haine, just as the album does, and, if you like what you hear, follow up with a double bill of Wolf Within and In My Dreams (Part 2 - In Bitterness). If you're not convinced by them, this isn't for you. If you are, then you're all set and you can explore from there.

Oddly, my least favourite song is the one they've made a video for, which is Kyrie / Gloria. It seems too deliberate for me, as the spotlight section runs too long, a sonorous gothic voice playing a sort of counter to a variety of voices, some shrieky, others very different. It's an interesting idea, but it didn't work for me and the rest of the song doesn't make up for it. That's probably down to choice, which is a personal thing, so you may dig it. The band are very capable, so this ends up being about how the black metal merges with the symphonic and gothic aspects and which songs do that best.

I certainly like Agathodaimon more as a gothic metal band than a black metal one and, while they're a bit more of the latter than the former, they're moving my way. I would suggest that it'll be interesting to see how they develop over their next couple of albums, but they haven't been particularly busy of late. They split up in 2014, after a couple of decades as a band and half a dozen studio albums to their name, but they got back together in 2020 and this is the first output since then. So, welcome back, folks! The Seven is their seventh album. Let's hope it's a lucky one for them.

Children of the Sün - Roots (2022)

Country: Sweden
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 18 Mar 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook

I adored Flowers, the debut from Swedish psychedelic rock band Children of the Sün, in 2019 and it only missed out on being my album of the month for August 2019 by a heartbeat. This follow-up is a peach of a difficult second album. Sure, it didn't wow me as much as its predecessor but that has more to do with me being hip to their game now than any lack of quality. I know what they can do. They're not going to surprise me, but they're certainly going to entertain me.

It feels like a more mature release to me, as the band admirably diversifying their sound without losing any of their power. And that power is in full effect on the opener, Reflection, not only in the amazing voice of Josefina Berglund Ekholm but in the band behind her too. This one builds from a soothing start through a searing midsection to a soothing finish. It reminds me in fewer than four minutes why I love this band so much.

If Reflection is typical for them, their range is admirably highlighted over the next three tracks, in which they cover a lot of ground, some of it new. Leaves kicks off with an early seventies hard rock riff but the vocal shifts from Joan Baez through Dolores O'Riordan to Abba, so it's not all heavy. It isn't dark either, which Blood Boils Out is, from the very outset. It looks forward too, adding some eighties into the very sixties mix, even if it feels like it could always been a cunning cover of a Nina Simone song that we've never heard before. It's built out of small things: a minimal piano line, an omnipresent shaker, hand claps, some percussion. It grows magnicently.

It's where we hear something new in the Children of the Sün sound and that's backed up by what's in Gaslighting. There's still a lot of sixties here, a strident Grace Slick vocal leading the way, but it has plenty of eighties too. There's Siouxsie in here and post-punk in its gorgeous energy, even as it builds to a neat guitar solo from Jacob Hellenrud. It's loose in an Inkubus Sukkubus style and, if it's at all hippie, it's a much later All About Eve neo-hippie vibe rather than the old school Woodstock one we might expect.

And so we go. There are thirteen tracks here, though a couple are brief instrumental pieces, one a Epilogue because it says so and the other an interlude even if it doesn't. That's Willow Tree and it leads into the title track, which is hypnotic pagan ritual, even if it evolves into something more, as so many of these songs do, not least another vocal workout for Berglund Ekholm. She gets quite a few of those here, though I'm as impressed by her delicate moments in between as the spotlights. There are plenty of those, in songs like Eden, Man in the Moon and In Silva.

Really, there's plenty of everything. Those delicate songs feature an acoustic guitar that I'd swear at points is played by Jimmy Page. The Soul is a wild spiritual with a John Kongos groove. Thunder lets us believe it's going to rumble along like a heavy blues song but then switches gear on us as it finds a Heartless Bastards sort of vibe. Reaching for Sun may be the best example of the mix of old and new, because it has an old rock sound, like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, but filtered through a tighter, more modern groove that's sometimes reminiscent of Nick Cave.

I've been playing this album all day and I'm still discovering little details, as if it's an old coat that I bought used that fits perfectly and I keep finding new pockets with little treasures in them. These songs wax and wane on me, different ones standing out on each listen. Blood Boils Hot and Roots may be relatively static as my top favourites but others come and go. Right now Eden is rising and Man in the Moon falling, but the only song that I don't adore is In Silva. It's still a good song but it introduces a male voice that tries to match Berglund Ekholm's and inevitably fails, however much it tries. It's not a bad voice but it would need to be a special one to survive here.

And so I think this is my first 9/10 for the month, which means it's leading the way to the Album of the Month slot that its predecessor so narrowly missed out on. Let's see in a week's time.

Monday 22 August 2022

Wolfsbane - Genius (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 5 Jun 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

For all that Wolfsbane are a heavy metal band and I'm not arguing against that in the slightest, it has to be said that they don't sound like most, if any, of their peers. They didn't when the eighties were ending on their debut album and, if anything, they're even further apart from the norm now on their first studio album in ten years and fifth overall. The easiest way to describe this is to call it simply another Wolfsbane album. If you know what that sounds like, you're already golden. If you don't, then check it out.

They're an unusual band in that it's hard to define their sound by comparing them to others, but I think everything is fundamentally based in the seventies, whether any particular song owes more to Thin Lizzy or the Ramones or the New York Dolls. I heard each of those bands on multiple tracks here. However, they build on that with more modern sounds, whether that's alternative rock, pop punk, glam rock or some other genre, whatever might be vibrant and energetic enough to make a song feel even more like it was spontaneously jammed on the spot.

It's as much in their attitude as their music, because this is a band who feel like they're here to be entertained as much as to entertain. Maybe the two things are the same to them. They seem to be primarily having fun and only secondarily actually playing music, so there's a constant feeling that everything might go horribly off the rails in about three seconds time. Every song has to be a first take, right? Of course, it never falls apart because these four musicians are so highly capable and they know each other so well that this somehow ends up loose and tight at the same time.

Blaze Bayley actually sounds less like Bruce Dickinson now after his five year and two album stint as the Air Raid Siren's replacement in Iron Maiden than he did back in 1990 on one of my favourite Wolfsbane songs, All Hell's Breaking Loose Down at Little Kathy Wilson's Place. He's maintaining a solo career nowadays on top of fronting Wolfsbane and his fifth solo album, War Within Me last year was excellent. It didn't sound like this, though, because much of this band's sound is found in the guitarwork of Jase Edwards, who never seems to do what anyone else would at any given spot. He always has his own ideas about what to do instead and he's usually right.

And that means that a song like Rock the Boat, with its heavy staccato riffing that takes it from a somewhat Meshuggah level to Bauhaus, can be followed by a mainstream alternative rock song such as Small Town Kisses that's almost the Foo Fighters covering Thin Lizzy. And hey, both of them can be followed by the nearly rockabilly vibe of Things are Getting Better. Rock City Nights is straight ahead glam punk that ends up in Sex Pistols territory. I Was Born in '69 is even a ballad, I guess, but one that doesn't feel out of place in this company.

What's important is that all of these different sounds feel natural together because every one of them is connected by its live in the studio energy. Opener Spit It Out is surely the most energetic song on offer when it's in full motion, but there's plenty more to spare for the other nine tracks. I know these guys aren't young because they're older than I am and I'm not young, but this feels as if it was recorded by eighteen year olds eager to show the world what they can do. Respect to the band for that and welcome back! It's been a while.

Karthago - Máté Péter in Rock! (2022)

Country: Hungary
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 17 Jun 2022
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

Four years of deep diving into international rock and metal at Apocalypse Later Music has brought me in touch not only with the new stuff that's coming out everywhere but also with old stuff that's either still going strong or being brought back into the light. If I'm translating websites correctly, I think this album counts as two cases in point: both the hard rock band Karthago, who recorded for a few years in the early eighties and the music of a Hungarian pop singer called Máté Péter, a cult figure in his native country for a couple of decades from the mid-sixties to his death in 1984 at only thirty-seven years old.

Now, Karthago aren't entirely new to me but I've only heard one of their songs, courtesy of Milan Hubláček from the then Czechoslovakia who kindly sent Tommy Vance a copy of their first album in 1982, from which he played Do Not Stop on the Friday Rock Show. I didn't hear it until recently on a shared recording, as I didn't find that show until 1984, but I enjoyed it and other Euro-rockers that Tommy hauled out for that particular episode. It looks like they released five studio albums in the early eighties before splitting up in 1985, but they got back together in 1990 and eventually found their way back into the studio for ValóságRock in 2004. This is their second studio album since then.

However, if I'm still understanding correctly, none of this one is original material. Everything here is a Máté Péter song, reinterpreted within a rock framework. This works surprisingly well for me, even not knowing nothing at all about Máté and not a heck of a lot more about Karthago. At least I have Discogs to hand, so I can see that there are four tracks here from Máté's 1976 debut album, Éjszakák és nappalok, nothing at all from its follow-up, Magány... és együttlét—which does seem telling—but a trio of songs from each of Máté's two other albums, Szívhangok and Keretek között, the latter of which was released in 1982 at a time when Karthago were active. The rest, I presume, were originally singles.

What matters is that this material rocks, whether that was inherent in the originals or whether it was infused during the translation between genres. Zene nélkül, which opens up the album, is like Deep Purple taking on a Scorpions power ballad, and Elmegyek seems like that too. Egy darabot a szívemböl is a hard rocker out of the gate and stays that way, while Minden szónál többet ér ramps up nicely. To keep the variety in play, Otthonom a nagyvilág, which is old school bluesy rock 'n' roll.

Other tracks feel more like the ballads I'm assuming they were to begin with, even rocked up with a strong guitar like Most élsz or a harmonica like Szülöi ház. Some end up with a Nazareth feel, an epitome perhaps being Azért vannak a jóbarátok, but they're all powerful, even when they're not delivered with as much emphasis. Part of that is that Takáts Tamás's lead vocal, which didn't grab me on the opener, is particularly strong on these power ballads. It's interesting how he went from my least favourite aspect of the band to my favourite literally from one song to another.

It's fair to say here that by power ballads, I don't necessarily mean Still Loving You; many of these are closer to Bridge Over Troubled Water, especially Ott állsz az út végén, which features a highly recognisable four note section on the piano, even if it's also little bit country, as if it's translated a second time. It's not a million miles from a Johnny Hallyday cover of a Merle Haggard cover of the Simon and Garfunkel song.

I should mention here that the entire band is clearly very capable, even though I don't know if any of them have been with Karthago for their entire run or just the last five minutes. The guitars are by Szigeti Ferenc and Gidófalvy Attila, the latter of whom also provides the excellent keyboards, a background instrument here for sure but one that manifests in different ways throughout. There are delicate piano parts over here, texture swells over there, Jon Lord here and there and even a bit of Dire Straits on Szülöi ház. There's a neat bass section on Egy darabot a szívemböl too.

So Kathargo may not have stayed the course like Ossian, but they've hung in there and remained relevant over four decades. On an important Hungarian national holiday last year, the members were given the Máté Péter Award, which is presumably why they decided to record this album. I'm very happy that they did, because it was a discovery for me.

And that may be another reason why the most emotional song is the closer, Emlékezz rám, which I noticed was also the closer on Keretek között, Máté Péter's final album before his death. It really doesn't need three reasons to be there, the third being that it inherently sounds like a memorial, even if it never was until now. And, hey, it did its job, as did this album.

Friday 19 August 2022

Alan Parsons - From the New World (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 15 Jul 2022
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For someone who seemed to be retired from the music business, Alan Parsons seems pretty set on releasing a lot of new music. I reviewed his most recent studio album, The Secret, in 2019, but I last encountered him as an actor, in an unusual short film called Galactic Fantastic! in 2020. However, I see that he's issued not just one but two live albums since then, with One Note Symphony: Live in Tel Aviv released in February. The Secret arrived no fewer than fifteen years after its predecessor, A Valid Path, but only three years on and here's another one.

I have to say that I liked this a lot more than The Secret immediately and for a few songs, but that faded as everything softened up. That previous album often felt more like a collection of musical numbers to me than a rock album and this ends up there too, albeit not quite so overtly. Certainly for a while, it's more like the rock albums that we remember from Parsons, the early songs full of his instantly recognisable style, with keyboards and guitars merging together before a drop into soft rock with smooth vocals and careful but soaring guitars.

As with The Secret, Parsons brought guest vocalists on board here, which seems unmistakable on transitions like the one from Don't Fade Now to Give 'em My Love, two vocal songs that feature a pair of completely different voices. There are fewer guests here though, the seven from last time reduced to three this, with one caveat that I'll get to later, the three being Tommy Shaw of Styx on Uroboros, but James Durbin of American Idol on Give 'em My Love and David Pack of Ambrosia on I Won't Be Led Astray. Shaw's contribution fits comfortably with his background, but I know Durbin from harder, heavier material, such as his stint in Quiet Riot and his solo Durbin album from 2021, The Beast Awakens.

As that might suggest, this does play very much on the softer side. The Secret, which I surely ought to wonder was written for the previous album of that name, is bouncy, while Uroboros, which I first heard separately as a single, is the sort of mildly progressive rock that I know Parsons for, but then it gets softer and softer. Sure, there are effortlessly strong guitar solos dotted throughout, which shouldn't surprise anyone, but we can't help but wonder what Parsons would sound like if he took a more daring, less safe approach to his music nowadays.

There are moments early, such as with Uroboros and they show up later too. You are the Light has a perkier outlook, with nice Fleetwood Mac-esque harmonies. Halos brings up the keyboards, in a progressive pop fashion and I liked the new wave rhythms and the samples on a first time through but it got better with every repeat. It's this track and, to a lesser degree, Uroboros, that reminds us of just how great the Alan Parsons Project was on so many albums in the seventies and eighties. Had Parsons filled this album with songs like those, I'd be celebrating a return to form rather than highlighting a second underwhelming release in a row.

What else I should mention here is that there's a folk element here that I wasn't expecting. That's there on Don't Fade Now, which feels like a British folk song we might hear someone singing on a stool in a rural pub, and it's especially there later on Goin' Home, merely one that happens to be orchestrated with keyboards. It's an odd departure from the two styles in play here but there's a reason for that and it ties to it being a song dating back to 1922 that became the base for Antonín Dvořák's New World symphony.

I'm sure there are deeper ties here, beyond the album's title, but it's been a while since I've heard that symphony and don't recognise anything beyond the melody on Goin' Home. Certainly, that's not as odd an inclusion here as the closing track, an incredibly accurate cover of a Ronettes' single, Be My Baby, with vocals from a female vocalist I can't find a reference to but who's certainly up to the task at hand. And here's the caveat I mentioned earlier, because as good as this song is and as good as this vocalist is, it feels utterly out of place here.

So, this is definitely better than The Secret but it's a strangely structured album. The best tracks, a combination of the rockier and folkier material, are early and late, with a bundle of soporofic stuff in between. This would have been better with its middle eviscerated and its closer ditched, maybe to be released separately as the tribute to Ronnie Spector I presume it was meant to be, given her passing in January of this year. However, putting that all together means some easy 7/10 material and some easy 5/10 songs too, so I'll split the difference and go with another 6/10.

Sinner - Brotherhood (2022)

Country: Germany
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 15 Jul 2022
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I missed Sinner's 2019 album, Santa Muerte, so this is my first time hearing them in maybe twenty years, though I did review an album from Voodoo Circle last year and the latest from Primal Fear in 2020. Voodoo Circle are the side band of Alex Beyrodt of Primal Fear, which also features Sinner bassist and drummer Mat Sinner and Markus Kullman amongst its line-up. Sinner himself is also a long-standing member of Primal Fear so there's obviously a lot of cross-pollination going on in the metal community within the German state of Baden-Württemberg, Sinner hailing from Stuttgart and the others from Esslingen only ten miles down the road.

The three bands have different but allied sounds. Voodoo Circle play hard rock, while Sinner are a heavy metal band and Primal Fear more power metal. Beyond that, each band has its own certain sound that it sticks too consistently and they share a solid level of quality. If I tell you that the two best songs from the first half of this album are called We Came to Rock and Brotherhood, you may be able to conjure up something close to what Sinner do without even listening to them. That said, Sinner do what they do very well, and this is an enjoyable twentieth album for them, four decades on from the first.

Bulletproof sets the stage right from the beginning with a tasty slice of hook-laden metal, but We Came to Rock is a step up again, a hard and heavy song with an excellent riff and a catchier chorus. Reach Out and Brotherhood echo that opening pair, but with even more overt nods to Ozzy or Dio guitarists from the eighties on the former and a more AOR based hook on the latter. It all makes for a good first half with the suitably inexorable Refuse to Surrender wrapping it up, but, I'm going to suggest that the album ramps up again with The Last Generation at the heart of the album.

There's a grandeur to this one that elevates it above everything else here, not all the way to, say a Sabaton level, but it comes close. It's bombastic and anthemic. There's some excellent twin guitar work as well from Tom Naumann and Alex Scholpp, something I enjoyed throughout the album but especially on this track because it has a couple of minutes on everything except the closer and that gives it time for a more concerted instrumental section. I dug the emphatic intro too, something that the majority of these songs don't have, and the different vocal approach.

The Last Generation is my favourite song here, but it's followed by Gravity, which also follows it on the album. This one amps up the urgency, almost suggesting that the band hadn't been giving it a full eleven thus far. It's hardly speed metal but it's faster and I've felt the need to turn it up every time through. It also prominently features Giorgia Colleluori, who's here throughout, I believe, on backing vocals but rarely to the degree that I could distinguish her contributions. It's easy to hear what she can do on Gravity.

Talking of that closer, it's called 40 Days 40 Nights and it's the most atypical song here, turning the power back down after Gravity turned it up, to go for a Thin Lizzy power ballad approach. Sinner do it well, especially whoever is impersonating Phil Lynott's vocals. I believe there are no fewer than six guest vocalists joining the fray at some point on this album, as well as Sinner and Sascha Krebs, who may or may not actually be part of the band at this point, but I'm not finding any credits that say where. These guests include such luminaries as Ralf Scheepers of Primal Fear, Tom Englund of Evergrey and Dave Ingram of Benediction, not to forget Ronnie Romero of almost everyone else.

I liked this on a first listen but it didn't blow me away. I liked it more on a second time through and I have to say that it's growing nicely on me. I don't think it's going to reach 8/10 growth but it's an impressive 7/10.

Thursday 18 August 2022

Joe Satriani - The Elephants of Mars (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Instrumental Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 Apr 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

As with any Joe Satriani album, and this is his eighteenth, there's a lot here, but it plays far more consistently for me than last time out, on 2020's Shapeshifting, and it has a lot more soul too. Yes, it's still very carefully produced indeed—and I'd prefer a Satch live in the studio approach, even if there's going to be a lot of overdubs done afterwards to complicate things—and thus always feels at least a little artificial, but there's a lot more soul here than last time.

Mostly, the variety here is in the backing tracks, which can almost be separated from what Satch is doing over them. Those backing tracks run all over the musical map, from rock to dance to metal to funk to jazz to classical to ethnic; you name it, it's probably here in some form. Every track sounds different to the one before it and the one after it and I'm sure that was done deliberately enough to affect how the track listing was built. However, the solos are far more consistent in tone, even if Satch is experimenting with guitars and pedals and effects throughout. He's definitely fed through some sort of synth on Pumpin' for a start.

It's telling that this is a long album, twenty minutes longer than Shapeshifting, but it feels shorter because it's never boring for a second. Could it be shorter? Sure. Do I care? No. There are fourteen tracks on offer and they do a great job of exploring the album's overall vibe through a mountain of diversity. Sahara starts out Indian and adds a driving bass riff; there's a further sitar feel later on Doors of Perception that sounds like a raga turned film soundtrack. They feel just like Joe Satriani songs with a different flavour added to the usual recipe. And so it goes.

Where Sahara is laid back and evocative, The Elephants of Mars is sassy and urgent, though it has a neat shift to quirky and unusual in its midsection. The most quirky and unusual is surely Dance of the Spores, a classical piece filtered through the circus, especially during its second half. It's the highlight of the album for me, not least because it shines at both quirky chaos and a mellow groove. These apparent contradictions are eveywhere here. Night Scene could be Vangelis until it erupts onto the dancefloor. Blue Foot Groovy is slow and funky, but ends up in chicken pickin' southern rock territory.

Joe Satriani has been influenced by as many great guitarists as he's gone on to teach, but two are quick to mind here. Jeff Beck is one, because of the sheer variety on offer; Beck never sounded the same from one album to another, beyond being breathtaking. Satch emulates that in microcosm in the different approaches he takes here. The other is Allan Holdsworth because there are swathes of this album that leap headlong into jazz fusion, especially as the second half starts, with E 104th St NYC 1973 and Pumpin'.

And that leaves some pieces that get more unusual the more we think about them. There are two that leap out for me. The first is Tension and Release, which sounds like Black Sabbath but played in a completely different way, stripped of its distortion and reverb and turned into a backdrop for a guitar solo. I've never heard a song before that sounds so much like Sabbath without emulating the tone that they invented. The other is Through a Mother's Day Darkly, which is more ambitious than anything else here, with the guitar more closely entwined with the backing music, especially during the narrative sections. There are no singers on this album but this one has a lot of words.

So, hey, there's a lot here. I know, you're shocked, right? What's important to know with this one is that it a) sounds completely like a Joe Satriani album so, if you're a fan, you'll want to pick this up, and b) it works much more consistently than last time so, if you're not a fan, you may want to give this a go, unlike Shapeshifting. It might convert you from non-fan to fan. That's underlined by the fact that, while Dance of the Spores easily remains my favourite piece even after multiple listens, I couldn't tell you what comes next and there are thirteen choices to pick from. Maybe that means I should give the album an 8/10 instead of a 7. I'm almost there.

Krisiun - Mortem Solis (2022)

Country: Brazil
Style: Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 29 Jul 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Brazilian death metal band Krisiun have been around since 1990 with a consistent line-up across all twelve of their albums, perhaps because it comprises three brothers: Alex Camargo on vocals and bass, Moyses Kolesne on guitar and Max Kolesne on drums. They used to have a second guitarist in their demo days and they've included one on stage, but in the studio they're a power trio. I'm not familiar with their work, unless I heard some of their early material in the mid nineties when I was drifting away from death metal.

Krisiun do this well in an old school manner, as much as the opening notes of Sworn Enemies sound modern and I'd bet that the drums weren't this fast back on their debut album in 1995. The tone is pretty consistent throughout and the vocals, delivered in a deep rich growl, usually follow the riff in play at any particular moment. Camargo is clear enough that I could tell that he sings in English but not so much that I could follow the lyrics. The song titles are typical enough that I feel like I've heard this sort of material many times before.

And I could say the same for the music, as there isn't anything new to the genre on offer here, but, while that's true, it would be a little misleading, because it suggests that they're a one trick pony and they're not. There's a lot of variety on this album; it merely all happens to unfold within those long established boundaries that the more progressive bands routinely cross. That Krisiun clearly feel comfortable within those boundaries isn't inherently a negative because they're doing quite a lot within them.

For a start, while the tone is consistent, the pace isn't. They don't just blister along at a set speed for forty minutes, as many old school bands do (hi, Cannibal Corpse), because the songwriting has more in mind to allow these songs to distinguish themselves from each other. Every song here has a consistent tone with every other song, but it doesn't take a hundred listens to tell the difference between this one and that. There's no doubt that Serpent Messiah and Temple of the Abattoir are by the same band, for instance, but they're not easily confused. They're both highlights here.

Krisiun are clearly masters of the intro too, because pretty much every song here benefits from an easily distinguished and very capable intro. some are slow and effective, like Necronomical. Some start slow but ramp up quickly like Temple of the Abattoir (which also has a separate track labelled as an intro—and the middle eastern-infused Dawn Sun Carnage is easily the most original piece of music on this album). Some are faster, like Tomb of the Nameless. All of them work.

Even the less ambitious songs, like Swords into Flesh and War Blood Hammer, that do cruise along at the same speed for entire sections, alternate tempos between them to keep them interesting. The fast sections work, the slow sections work and there are bridges between them that highlight just how good a drummer Max Kolesne is. So even the lesser material on offer is solid and the best songs are excellent.

Because the mid-twenties version of me was bored with death metal back in the nineties, I tend to expect little from bands who play death metal without any of its subgenre prefixes. I might like an immersion for a while, because I do like the sound, but they often lose me pretty quickly because I want more than they're willing to give. What's surprised me most over the last couple of years is a discovery that there are death metal bands in the 2020s that are working exclusively within an old template but conjuring something interesting out of it. Krisiun are definitely one of those. I might even up this rating yet.

Wednesday 17 August 2022

Meshuggah - Immutable (2022)

Country: Sweden
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 5/10
Release Date: 1 Apr 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I've never felt particularly drawn to Meshuggah, the so called accidental founders of djent, mostly because I'm not a fan of djent or a lot of that modern style of metal that treats guitars like drums or percussion. Add in the lead vocals of Jens Kidman, which are delivered in a metalcore shout and they're just not my thing. That doesn't mean that they don't do what they do incredibly well. They do and that's why I'm listening to this, their ninth studio album, to see what I think of it nowadays.

To give this further context, I can't remember what the last Meshuggah album I listened to was. It may not have been their debut, Contradictions Collapse in 1991, because I think it was their follow-up, Destroy, Erase, Improve in 1995, probably around its release, which was the point when I was a young man drifting away from the metal scene towards the pub and life and a much wider range of music. So, given that I'm aware that their sound developed over time, my take on them up till now may be more based on my own musical prejudices as any actual merit.

That said, I'm not particularly enthused here and for exactly the reasons I expected. Meshuggah's sound is very much their own and it feels like they're staking out close boundaries to defend it in a vaguely post-apocalyptic setting. This isn't industrial, but it's stripped down to the essence of the band so emphatically that it's almost industrial adjacent for how mechanical it all sounds. All the instruments are really playing rhythm, just like this is a band of drummers who happen to have an array of different tones on their kits. Many of those tones sound like machines, especially on songs like Phantoms. Is that a bass or an industrial rivetting machine? Is that a keyboard backdrop or an array of industrial saws in the distance?

And these sounds combine to find a groove and a rhythm and then continue in a mostly monotone fashion for a long time. Most of the songs are in the four to six minute range, only Black Cathedral shorter at exactly two minutes and only They Move Below is longer at well over nine. However, the album is long, running notably over an hour, and there just isn't enough here to warrant that. Coil would have done more in twenty minutes.

I have to give some praise, because none of these rhythms are typical and that's why this gets the progressive metal label, and, if the point is to persuade us into some sort of trance state where an hour goes by without us really noticing, then they come close to succeeding. I found this less music to actively listen to and more music to by hypnotised by and feel instead. That probably warrants a further tag of experimental metal, which would serve much better than prog metal, because this is a long way from someone like Dream Theater, which is what prog metal conjures up in my mind.

Is industrial metalcore a thing? Maybe it should be. This Meshuggah isn't a huge distance from an early Einsterzende Neubaten covered on actual instruments by a metal band, instead of whatever metal pipes they could find to hit with other metal pipes. In fact, compared to something rhythmic and chaotic like Abfackeln!, this starts to seem almost conventional, and that song is almost forty years old. What I'd like to have seen, on a ninth album no less, is more invention, more melody and especially more variety. Unless you can fall into these humungous grooves, there's not much here to find.

And, crucially, it just keeps going. My thoughts after a few songs didn't change after a few more, a delightfully subdued guitar intro to They Move Below the first point where I heard something that went beyond percussion. That's track seven, over half an hour into the album, but it's also the first to actually grab me. It gets less interesting when it goes into the now expected rhythmic mode but it's more interesting, even then, than anything that went before or indeed most of what is still to come. That mostly has to do with the texture behind the rhythms though and the song still goes on too long. There are moments of imagination on The Faultless. Armies of the Preposterous is much more aggressive. Past Tense is a dark and interesting outro and easily my favourite piece here. That's not a lot to go on, I know, but it's something.

Were this a regular forty minute album, I'd probably go with a 6/10. Each song finds its groove and I doubt that the band's core fans aren't going to be too concerned that those grooves aren't much different from each other. However, at sixty-six minutes, this really dragged on me. Now, if you're into experimental metal or drone metal and you're OK with monotony, feel free to add a point. I'd prefer to see Sunn O))) live again and they hit fewer notes in their entire set when I saw them than any one song here.

Chip Z'Nuff - Perfectly Imperfect (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Pop/Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 18 Mar 2022
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I think there's a mindset, if anyone actually thinks about it, that pop music and rock music are two separate things and the modern split between the two was epitomised in the rivalry between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The former were pop and the latter were rock and you kind of had to choose sides back then, even though I'm sure most people really didn't. Generally speaking, it's certainly a lot easier to see the Stones in rock and metal, even if you have to really trawl through a long lineage if you're listening to Impaled Nazarene. Here's a great example why that isn't always true.

Chip Z'Nuff is, of course, the bassist and rhythm guitarist with Enuff Z'Nuff, a band who showed up at exactly the wrong time and got unfairly associated with the glam metal genre, which they had a tiny amount to actually do with. He's their lead singer nowadays too, but this is a solo album and a mindset that has seen Enuff Z'Nuff gradually morph into a modern American take on the Beatles infuses this solo album too, even with a line-up that features members of Whitesnake and Guns n' Roses.

The Church nails that primary influence on the door in a mere forty-nine seconds of intro. This is a late Beatles era album, between Sgt. Pepper and the White Album. The songs that follow confirm that but also highlight that Z'Nuff is updating that sound to a more modern setting, via a bundle of other Beatles-inspired pop/rock bands, some of which are gimmes and others that seem a little more surprising. From the former category, Cheap Trick are namechecked on I Still Hail You.

Heaven in a Bottle reminds just how much Cheap Trick owe to the Beatles, so it's not too shocking to discover that Daxx Nielsen plays acoustic drums on this album. Daxx is the son of Cheap Trick's lead guitarist Rick Nielsen, of course, but he's also their current drummer, with a full dozen years behind their kit. Roll On reminds just how much ELO owe to the Beatles too. There's plenty of ELO in 3 Way as well, though that also points the way to the Mott the Hoople cover to close things out, which is a perky take on Honaloochie Boogie that owes as much to T Rex and Tom Petty as it does to Mott.

There are other sounds here, especially early on, after the intro gets us in the mindset. Welcome to the Party is rather like the Beatles playing Nirvana (the nineties one, not the psychedelic band from the sixties), because they just wouldn't be able to lose that perkiness even if they're playing deliberately non-perky material. For much of its running time, Doctor is a typical Sgt. Pepper era song but there are points where it drops into Saigon Kick. Ordinary Man adds some Living Colour-esque riffing midway, which I'd like to have heard more often.

The lead guitar here is played by Joel Hoekstra, who keeps showing up on a variety of albums I'm reviewing—not just his own band, Joel Hoekstra's 13, but albums by Michael Sweet, Rob Moratti and Whitesnake, which I guess we could call his day job—and, as that suggests, he's a thoroughly versatile guitarist who can play this material any way Z'Nuff wants him to. What I like about what he does here is that it doesn't seem to be much at all, if we don't think about it. There's guitar on the album where it should be but we don't really notice it. Until we do. And then we start to grasp just how much Hoekstra is doing without it seeming like he's doing anything.

I can't say this is going to be my favourite album of the year, but a good part of that is because I've always been a much bigger fan of the Stones than the Beatles, even if I like the latter too. I have a feeling that the more you skew the other way, the more you'll like this. It's a solid pop/rock album, even if the best songs may show up late. I'd call out 3 Way as the best, with Heroin chasing it, if you pardon the pun, with its tasty western harmonica, and they're the last two until the Honaloochie Boogie cover closes things out. It's a good way to end an album, even if I'm not the target audience.

Tuesday 16 August 2022

Ronnie Atkins - Make It Count (2022)

Country: Denmark
Style: Melodic/Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 18 Mar 2022
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My gaps this year for COVID and research trips and whatnot have put me behind on some releases that I don't want to miss, so I'm going to knock out a bunch throughout August. This one came out in March, a year to the week since Ronnie Atkins's previous (and first) solo album, One Shot, which got a rare 9/10 from me and was just about a coin toss from being my Album of the Month. It was a peach of a melodic/hard rock album and this really isn't far behind it. The man has always been an immense talent, as his forty years for Pretty Maids have proven, but he simply can't do any wrong right now, even though he has stage four lung cancer and is living day to day.

The songs just keep on coming. I've Hurt Myself (By Hurting You) is a pristine opener in the patent Ronnie Atkins fashion, which means that it's a hook-laden song that's clearly all about melody but doesn't skimp on the oomph behind it. There are AOR songs written for maximum appeal on radio that don't have hooks this strong or this numerous and they usually don't have the power behind them that this does. It's so good that we wonder how Atkins will follow it up.

So he throws out Unsung Heroes, which is easily as good and might even be better. Then it's Rising Tide and Remain to Remind Me and we start to wonder when we're going to hear something that, never mind average, might be just a notch down in quality. What's perhaps most telling is that, on the few songs where we think we've found that, they build into killer choruses that we can imagine might warrant them becoming our new favourite. Maybe the quality finally dips on Grace, which is the beginning of the second side, were this a vinyl album. And that's a pretty damn good song! It's the sort of track that some bands have been trying and failing to record for years. Here it's a drop from holy crap to merely excellent.

Easily my least favourite song is the next one, Let Love Lead the Way, not because it's a ballad and just a ballad, not really even a power ballad until its second half, but because of keyboard tinkling that spoils the first half for me and doesn't quite vanish during the second. Blood Cries Out starts with keyboards too and they don't quite convince me. The songs ramps up nicely—and I mean that with bells on—just not to become another new favourite, that mindset being confined to the first half of the album.

The line-up is pretty consistent with that on One Shot, with producer Chris Laney providing guitars and keyboards, as indeed he does in Pretty Maids nowadays, Pontus Egberg on bass and a pair of former Pretty Maids colleagues on drums and keyboards, those being Allan Sørensen and Morten Sandager respectively. There are guests too, mostly on guitar, but I don't recognise all the names. Pontus Norgren is certainly a guitarist for HammerFall nowadays; Oliver Hartmann is a busy man who fronts Hartmann and guests on what seems like every other European album being released; and Anders Ringman co-wrote a Lovecraftian rock opera with Chris Laney.

I took those notes on my second listen through and I've had a couple more since, enough that I am comfortable saying that the thoroughly consistent first half of this is worthy of another 9/10, not a typical thing for me to say. However, the second half definitely drops in quality, not to the point of being a problem for someone wanting to just listen but easily enough to affect that score. It's less consistent, both in approach and quality, but it's still dotted with greatness. Blood Cries Out gets there eventually and the title ballad that closes out the album is epic grandeur even before it hits the power disco escalation button halfway through.

So this isn't quite another One Shot, ironically given that name, but it comes damn close for half a dozen tracks and finishes out with style too. The lesson we should take from these albums is that if we see the name of Ronnie Atkins on anything, it's going to sound amazing. At this point, he could sing the phone book and make other singers and songwriters jealous. All the best for a strong and lasting recovery, sir, and I look forward to another album from you next March.

Protector - Excessive Outburst of Depravity (2022)

Country: Sweden
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 1 Jul 2022
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When I was listening to Black Rose on the Friday Rock Show in 1986, my favourite band was shifting from Metallica to Nuclear Assault because, while I was eagerly listening to everything that might possibly have any connection to rock music, thrash metal had captured me. I don't recall Protector from that era, even though they formed in 1986 and knocked out their first two albums in 1988 and 1989. Maybe they were a little late, but I was listening to a lot of German thrash. And Protector was a German band back then, based in Wolfsburg, but they're apparently in Sweden nowadays.

I see them listed as thrash/death metal pretty much everywhere I look, but there's not a heck of a lot of death here at all, especially for a country that invented melodic death metal. Maybe that's where they were back in Germany in the nineties, when thrash was out and death was in. They put four albums out by 1993 before splitting up, but it took them a decade to actually do the latter, an inconsistent line-up performed occasionally without issuing any new product until 2013, with their reformation only a couple of years earlier, though they'd been playing live as Martin Missy & The Protectors for five years by then.

There's a darkness to the bottom end of their sound that could be seen as death and there's some harshness to Missy's vocals, but it's really just a hint towards a death influence. For the most part, this is thrash metal, whether it's mostly fast and frantic like the opener, Last Stand Hill, or mostly mid tempo like Open Skies and Endless Seas. They move between the two often but stay fast more often than not, which works for me. Their style is technical without being progressive and the slow sections add depth to the sound, especially through their transitions being so clean and tasty.

They also sound very German for a band who are technically three quarters Swedish now. Michael Carlsson's guitar as Pandemic Misery opens is straight out of the Destruction playbook and that's not the only time that buzzsaw guitar comes out to play; my favourite song in that vein absolutely has to be Perpetual Blood Oath, but it has competition. That sound isn't there throughout but the guitar remains agreeably Teutonic, whatever it's doing, and I love it. The only negative thing I can conjure up is that I do wonder what Protector would sound like with a second guitar, but that's not a reflection on what Carlsson does here, just an acknowledgement that he's only one person and can't duel with himself.

It's worth pointing out here that Last Stand Hill is an impressive opener, but Pandemic Misery is a clear step up again. It's almost a deliberate double intro, like Kreator provided on Hate über alles, but they don't stop there the way the Germans did. They start strong with Last Stand Hill, then up the ante with Pandemic Misery and just keep on going. The more I listen through the album, I find the tracks starting to rank themselves because, while everything is excellent, not everything has a little bit more, like Perpetual Blood Oath does. What's interesting is that the ranking changes, as the songs turn into old friends. Infinite Tyranny caught me quickly, but Shackled by Total Control is a real grower.

And I mentioned Kreator, so I should talk about the Big Three, even though I don't really want to. I get that there are three bands above all others who really forged the Teutonic sound and they do deserve the credit for that, but that doesn't mean that they're the best or the most endearing or the the most consistent or, quite frankly, the most anything. Never mind Tankard as a fourth, why aren't more people talking about Angel Dust, Exumer and Sieges Even? Just because they were a little later and they weren't as prolific? Based on this, I should add Protector to that list.

Of course, I need to check out their previous work. I get the feeling that, while this is clearly thrash and thrash done very well indeed, this is a musical shift for them, maybe a purification. If I dig into their previous seven albums, four from the first era of the band and three from this new one, I'm expecting to hear far more death than the echoes of it that appear here. And that's fine, because I dig thrash/death too, but it does put them into a different box.

For now, this is a much better album than Kreator's Hate über alles and a much more traditional thrash effort too. I'd call it a step up on Destruction's Diabolical too, and they've always been one of my favourites. Sodom are only releasing re-recorded stuff of late so the surface fans must look deeper for their fix and here's a great place to start. I'm going to be playing this a lot and I think my son is in for a treat when I let him in on the secret.

Monday 15 August 2022

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard - Omnium Gatherum (2022)

Country: Australia
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 22 Apr 2022
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Every time I blink, it seems like King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard have knocked out a new album. I reviewed both their 2019 albums, Fishing for Fishies and Infest the Rats' Nest, missed K.G. in 2020 but caught L.W. in 2021. I completely failed to notice Butterfly 3000, also a 2021 release, and Made in Timeland, which came out in March of this year. Only a month later, they knocked out this one, a wildly varied eighty minute trip through pretty much every style they've ever played in, plus a few more for good measure.

Just to highlight how long that is, The Dripping Tap is an opener that runs a frantic eighteen minutes but the album would still exceed an hour even had the band left this one off entirely. Fortunately, they kept it in because it's a pristine example of the core King Gizzard sound, a dense psych jam of epic proportions with relatively simple, repeated vocals that became almost hallucinatory, and an interesting spiritual pop theme that opens the song and returns every once in a while. It's exactly what someone new to the band and bewildered by their diverse output should start with, though I would still suggest their Polygondwanaland album first.

The problem here, should we see it as a problem and I think I'm leaning towards doing that, is that The Dripping Tap doesn't sound like anything else here and that's a solid trend. While, in the past, the band has tended to do their genre shifting from album to album, so that Infest the Rats' Nest was internally consistent but very different from Fishing for Fishies, for example, there's a heck of a lot of genre shifting going on within this one. That makes the album's title appropriate, because Omnium Gatherum translates from the Latin as a miscellany, the collection of different things into a single new package.

The psychedelia of The Dripping Tap does give way to more psychedelia in Magenta Mountain and that's followed by still more psychedelia in Kepler-22b, but the former is a rock jam and the latter pair are dream pop songs. They actually work well together as a reminder that psych is a versatile genre, but don't expect the album to stay even that consistent.

For instance, having gone through two different styles in three songs, Gaia shifts clearly from rock to metal. It has a completely different tone throughout, it's built on riffs rather than grooves and jams, and the vocals flirt with harshness. It's a decent song and there's some of that psychedelia in its midsection, but it mostly feels like someone switched the radio station on me and I couldn't find where to switch it back. Predator X is another song that leaps towards metal but doesn't quite get there, remaining in a trendier, more modern American territory, like Static-X than the Voivod meets Pantera style of Gaia, so explaining the song title, I presume.

And yet Gaia rolls into Ambergris, a funky lounge song that feels like it ought to have seen release on some obscure album on a laid back jazz label in the late seventies. What's important is that it's the fourth King Gizzard on this album in only five songs and that shapeshifting is only beginning.

Sadie Sorceress incorporates rap, which I haven't heard in the King Gizzard sound before, though I have to say that it's a fascinating piece of music that I'd actually call out as a highlight. They return to this on The Grim Reaper and that's a thoroughly enjoyable song too. I appreciate the skill that's needed to rap properly than I enjoy most of the results, but these are fun and vibrant songs.

Wherever King Gizzard goes musically, though, psychedelia is never too far away, something that's isolating to a song like Gaia that just doesn't want to do that. The Garden Goblin keeps a rap beat but adds a quirky scenario-based lyric approach that reminds of Madness of all people. It's almost like the Cardigans took acid to cover House of Fun, but wrapping up with a squealy jazz saxophone. Blame It on the Weather sometimes sounds like a mashup of John Kongos and the Bee Gees. Both have psychedelia in there too and Red Smoke returns to the dream pop psych from earlier, almost like a twee cover of the Doors, especially once it gets to the keyboard solo. Candles is even softer and The Funeral finishes up in that vein as a short coda with an ethnic flavour.

The big question that hangs over this album like the Sword of Damacles is whether it manages to find a way to make all this admirable diversity feel consistent enough to make sense. And that's a tough call. Much of it, sure. It's just psychedelic pop/rock exploring its boundaries. But some of it's harder to reconcile. Gaia is a jarring change, as good as it is, and so's Presumptuous in a different way because it's lounge and funk, a chillout with its psychedelia explored with a flute. Where I see the album coalescing best is Evilest Man, a blurring of much of what's going on with these varied songs. It has its psych jams and its dream pop but it's ramped up towards acid-drenched disco and, on occasion, even space rock.

I'm going with a 7/10 here because everything's done really well, even if it doesn't fit, but I realise that I'm stretching. It would be just as valid to give it a 6/10 for including material that would have played better on a different King Gizzard album or as a separate EP. After all, there's maybe forty minutes of consistent material here that would seem both diverse and consistent if the other half was shifted out and the band chose not to do that. I'm seeing it as a mistake. Maybe you won't.