Friday 23 September 2022

Red Hot Chili Peppers - Unlimited Love (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Funk Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Apr 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

This being a more fractured year for me than 2020, I'm still playing catch-up with the major bands who put out new material this year and that's why I'm reviewing the Chili Peppers's twelfth album right before they release their thirteenth. This is Unlimited Love, released in April, and Return of the Dream Canteen, due in mid-October, was recorded during the same sessions. Given that this is already seventy plus minutes in length, that means that they must have seriously felt the urge to create during that pesky COVID period of potential downtime.

They seemed like the logical contrast to follow Dir en Grey, because they're complete opposites in so many ways. In particular, they're almost comfort food. Dir en Grey are complex and ambitious, a band to listen to actively to figure out what they're doing on any particular song and whether that works for us or not. The Chili Peppers are chill music, easy listening for the alternative era, and it's fair to say that a new album by them feels comfortable and familiar even on a first listen. It's hard to find a second mood but they're so good at their one mood that it doesn't matter.

The songs here, and there are no fewer than seventeen of them, merely play with the sliding scale from laid back chill to bouncy chill, and the levels they're happiest with are mostly defined by the first four songs. Calmest is Not the One, which is ocean smooth. Then comes opener Black Summer, the first single, which is Californication-levels of commercial. Here Ever After is funkier, with Flea's bass ratcheting up in prominence and it's natural to move to it. Wildest is Aquatic Mouth Dance, a terminally funky number that continues to build throughout, from Flea's hyperactive lead bass to the layers of experimental brass that show up when he introduces his trumpet.

The big change this time out, because it's been six years since the band's last studio album, is the swapping of guitarist Josh Klinghoffer, who had been with them for a decade, for an old favourite. No, not Dave Navarro, who surprisingly only had five years to his name, in but John Frusciante for his third stint. He originally joined in 1988, so he was on their big early albums, Mother's Milk and Blood Sugar Sex Magik, where he strongly influenced a soothing of their sound. He left in 1992 but returned in 1998, for their most successful album, Californication, the logical end to that soothing.

When he left again, in 2009, it was to make electronic music, taking a wild left turn into acid house and other genres. There's an irony in that, even though he spent years as an heroin addict, almost dying because of it, he's far more prolific as a musician than the Chili Peppers themselves, having as many solo albums to his name, plus four more under the name of Trickfinger and a further trio of collaborative releases, including one with Josh Klinghoffer, who both replaced him in this band and who he then replaced in turn.

I wondered how his presence would change the band's sound, given that he absolutely did that on his previous two stints with them. I especially wondered how he'd introduce electronica into their music and I'm surprised to find that it isn't a huge amount, at least at this point. There's some on Poster Child, which is as notable for its sonic backdrop as for Anthony Kiedis's skilful cadence, and Bastards of Light builds out of his keyboards, but he makes his presence far more known on guitar and, quite frankly, he's the best thing about the album.

Remember when I said that everything here shifts up and down a sliding scale from laid back chill to bouncy chill? Well, that's true for the rest of the band, but not for Frusciante. He lets his guitar rip on The Great Apes, wail on Watchu Thinkin' and soar on It's Only Natural. He gives serious edge to She's a Lover, which is otherwise routine seventies funk/soul and serious urgency to Bastards of Light and These are the Ways, which are heavier than I remember the Chilis being in forever. Each of these songs sounds good but they're all chill until Frusciante mixes it up.

And now I'm eager to see what they come up with next which is a feeling I haven't felt for decades. The Chilis are one of the easiest bands in the world to like, because everything they do musically is inherently accessible, but we move right along after we hear them and go about our day. Maybe the return of John Frusciante will also return some balls to what they do. The seeds are obvious. I think it's fair to say that the second half of most of these songs is better than the first, when they let him loose. And he's exactly why I'm giving it a 7/10. I'd go with a pleasant but inconsequential 6 otherwise and add that it runs too long.

Dir en Grey - Phalaris (2022)

Country: Japan
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 15 Jul 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Dir en Grey are one of those infuriating or joyous bands, depending on your perspective who are impossible to categorise, which should make it no surprise if I tell you that they come from Japan, Osaka in particular. Just wrap your ears around Schadenfreude, the opener on this, their eleventh studio album and first since 2018's The Insulated World. It starts out quirky and alternative; turns gothic, even operatic with a male lead vocal that suddenly sounds female; crunches from rock into metal; and then goes full on extreme with death growls over a downtuned backdrop that's happy to match. After that, it only gets more complex, with technical progressive metal.

So yeah, they're a symphonic gothic metal band. They're a progressive death metal band. They're an experimental alternative rock band. And they're not uncommonly all of those things at once. It shouldn't shock if I highlight that the band's favourite albums include records by Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, David Sylvian, Pantera and, well, the Beatles. All of those bands can be found here and a whole lot more, across a multitude of genres, but they're all subsumed into a unique Dir en Grey sound. The most obvious is probably Pantera.

Schadenfreude, the pleasure generated by seeing someone else's troubles, is an ambitious track to open up here, which I'm sure is the point. It's a breathe shy of ten minutes long and it rides the intensity levels like a rollercoaster. There are points where it's almost music box quiet, but points where it's metalcore intense. The band leader is Kaoru, who plays lead guitar, but the wildcard of the band, who matches every instrumental shift, is vocalist Kyo, who reminds of a Japanese Mike Patton. He doesn't just sing in multiple styles, he vocalises in even more. To my mind, it's the best thing on this album, whether as a song or as any particular part of one.

In a way, if you like the sheer variety in this one song, you may like this album too because it does a similar job across fifty-plus minutes. However, it's not really that simple, because Schadenfreude's long enough to do those things but also short enough for our brain to acknowledge it as an entity of its own. The album is the former but not the latter, so we inevitably break it down into a bunch of eleven individual songs and most of those are not long enough to do what Schadenfreude does, so have to succeed or not with smaller sonic palettes.

The other song that is long enough to sit alongside Schadenfreude is its bookend at the other end of the album, カムイ, which translates to Kamuy, a divine being in Ainu mythology that exists in a state of spiritual energy. It's a strange track, not as fast or urgent as Schadenfreude but with a lot of fascinating texture. There's a tango in there and a whole lot of subtle operatics from Kyo that I found delightful. It's not quite as varied as the opener but it's just as grand and it highlights that the current Dir en Grey really need room for their songs to breathe.

By the way, that's not unusual subject matter for this band, who have generated controversy with their videos. The album title this time out references a torture device, the Brazen Bull, an ancient Greek statue built from bronze in which victims were burned alive, their screams manipulated into sounding like the bellowing of a bull. It was commissioned by Phalaris, a Sicilian tyrant, hence the album's title.

The video this time out is for The Perfume of Sins, which is a mostly up tempo death metal number that gets more complex with its orchestration overlays. It's not my favourite piece here by a long shot, but the video does feature the Brazen Bull and a whole slew of other torture devices amidst other dark imagery. It feels deviant for the sake of being deviant though, carefully tailored to its iconography, and that lessens the impact. It's not raw enough or visceral enough. It's deviant chic and that feels odd for Dir en Grey, given how wild Kyo can get.

I'm fonder of songs like Utsutsu, Bouga o Kurau, because it's far happier to be its own thing. There are all sorts of elements to this one that I recognise, but I haven't heard them in this combination before and the jagged beat ensures that it remains a fascinating collection of fragments that has a groove all of its own. Ochita Koto no Aru Sora also walks the line wonderfully between frantically out of control metalcore and tight death metal riffing.

And, excluding the epic bookends which are easily my favourite tracks here, this is what I like best about Dir en Grey, a feeling that everything's going totally off the rails but somehow never quite does, because it's all planned and very carefully and skilfully executed. It's a pretty decent album for their twenty-fifth anniversary. I didn't like everything, but I appreciated what I didn't.

Thursday 22 September 2022

Nazareth - Surviving the Law (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 15 Apr 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

I've heard a lot of albums lately by bands who were important in the seventies. I've heard a lot of albums too by bands who weren't even born in the seventies but have been drawn back to that era of music, some even putting out material that sounds like it could have been released back then. I don't have to let you know that Nazareth were important in the seventies, with ten albums in nine years that included Razamanaz and Hair of the Dog, and many of the songs on this, their twenty-fifth studio album, feel like seventies songs, but it's also contemporary in feel, as if they've heard what AC/DC have done lately and channelled their own sound into that direction.

Pete Agnew is the sole surviving member from the fundamental core line-up that ran unchanged, only added to, from 1968 to 1990. He's the bassist and he's been with the band all the way through. Original drummer Darrell Sweet died in 1999 and original guitarist Manny Charlton this year. The highly recognisable original vocalist, Dan McCafferty, retired from the band in 2013 because of ill health, though he did release a solo album in 2019 called Last Testament that I happily reviewed.

Nowadays, the drummer is Lee Agnew, Pete's son, who took over when Sweet died, and he dishes out a solid beat, utterly reliable and agreeably high in the mix to bolster that contemporary edge. He works closely with his dad, with the beginning of Better Leave It Out a perfect example of how they're the bedrock of this band. The guitarist is Jimmy Murrison, as he's been since 1994, and his guitar is often simple but effective, Better Leave It Out a good example of him being a little more dynamic. Much of the time, he's bolstering the beat with a straightforward riff that refuses to be ignored, just like Angus Young's riffs for AC/DC.

Carl Sentance didn't replace McCafferty directly, because Linton Osborne held that spot down for a little while in 2014 and 2015, but he quickly established himself as the new voice of the band. As a massively experienced singer in both hard rock and heavy metal, singing for bands like Krokus and Persian Risk, he has all the chops needed to do the job. What he brings beyond that is character, an important aspect for Nazareth who don't only write good rock songs, they write characterful ones with surprising hooks from glam rock and even pop music.

As such, a song like You Gotta Pass It Around can have a driving hard rock back end and a powerful hard rock vocal but also a catchy as hell and rather dominant backing vocal that makes us picture the band in bellbottom jeans on Top of the Pops. Even more obviously, a song like Runaway brings them all the way back to the Sweet and the Ram Jam Band. This may not end up quite as iconic as Ballroom Blitz or Black Betty, but it does the same sort of job and deserves to be heard by a more mainstream audience who might baulk at hard rock but happily see chart glam rock as pop music.

And so it goes. As the fourteen songs ran past me, I found myself constantly reminded of how this band work in two completely different eras. Most of these songs are mid-pace, Runaway flurrying along at an atypically fast tempo, but they're agreeably heavy in that old Deep Purple way, with a mere four piece sounding much denser than they have any right to do. The bass is high in the mix, as an easily located instrument in the band's sound rather than a general thing with everything at the lower end amped up on the desk. This is a hard rock band of the old school who don't just want to be relevant, they want to be heavy in an era when there are a lot heavier sounds out there than hard rock. Most of them don't feel this loud.

Yet their melodies are paramount and ones that would have flown into the charts back in the glam rock era. And everything is melody, not just the choruses. Sentence finds a way to channel both his predecessor in the band, who could croon and belt in the same song, and Bruce Dickinson, perhaps most overtly on Let the Whiskey Flow. He takes the band firmly into heavy metal at points, but to old school glam rock and even pop music at points too. Ciggies and Booze feels like it ought to have been a mainstay on many a pub jukebox in the mid seventies.

And we can't forget the impact of Jimmy Murrison, who generates strong riffs, repetitive ones for sure but catchy ones that drill their way into our heads. He doesn't generate Diamond Head style riffs that keep on evolving majestically as songs progress; these are more like AC/DC riffs that do nothing fancy but establish themselves immediately and continue to bludgeon us until we simply can't not hum them on our way to the bathroom. After a single listen.

Most importantly for a metalhead in 2022 wondering if he should pick up an album by a hard rock band who were formed in 1968 before his parents were born, every track is in your face until You Made Me at the very tail end of the album and that's hardly a ballad. Sure, it's laid back, with the guitar taking a break so that the seventies organ can take over, but it's no ballad. Even when they get soft, Nazareth still kick ass and it's been four years now since their 50th Anniversary Tour.

This band is older than I am and I have an adult grandchild. They have no business being this strong and heavy but, damn, I'm so happy that they're still turning out quality material like this to show up a lot of the kids who think they have it all. Quite frankly, I wonder who has the balls to tour with them because it feels like they're going to blow anyone off stage right now. Now, let me turn this up again and blast the neighbourhood.

The Hu - Rumble of Thunder (2022)

Country: Mongolia
Style: Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 2 Sep 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

This album is aptly named because Mongolia's best known musical export are rather like a rumble of thunder, initially heard somewhere over the horizon but who keep coming ominously closer till they're right in your face. What they do tends to be called folk metal, but it's mostly world music, heavier than the norm but not massively so. It's just that the aggression in their sound fits so well with the metal genre, because everything feels like a challenge, even if it isn't.

I loved their first album, The Gereg, and I loved them on YouTube before that, through the videos that went so effectively viral, songs like Wolf Totem and Yuve Yuve Yu. I hoped to catch them live in Phoenix last year and then this year, because they keep coming through town, but I had to enjoy a little vicariously through my son, who saw them while I was in England. He reported back that they were excellent and bought me a Hu shirt, which was much appreciated.

This is at once a better and a worse album than The Gereg, mostly because it's more consistent in approach. If you want an hour of the Hu bellowing at you, then you're not going to complain at all, because they start out doing that with This is Mongol, continue doing that in Yut Hovende and, for all intents and purposes, rarely stop doing that throughout the album, even when they cool their jets on more peaceful songs like Mother Nature. They're just naturally aggressive, even when the thinking is welcoming and open, and they play that up.

In fact, when they calm down a little and write pieces of music that could be considered songs, not just chants and challenges, they feel more mature than ever. Triangle is the first of these, because it has a serious bounce to it. It's almost alternative rock, but with jaw harp and throat singing. I'm very fond of it, once I got used to its friendly approach after the opening pair of musical threats. I like Teach Me too, which has a similar bounce but also adds a Celtic flavour behind its aggression. There's more of that Celtic feel on Bii Biyelgee, especially when it speeds up at the end into what could be considered a jig.

My favourite songs come late on, because the album is beat heavy. Everything drives forward and much of that is due to the drums, which are high in the mix, but every instrument plays along in an overtly rhythmic fashion, including the vocals. I wanted a lot more of the fiddles, especially given that two of the primary four musicians, Gala and Enkush, play them. However, with a few notable exceptions, like Black Thunder, they almost hide in the background. They're there and they sound great, but they're a background texture rather than a lead instrument.

Black Thunder does allow these horsehead fiddles to run loose and dominate for a little while like soloing electric guitars. I enjoyed everything here, especially the throat singing on Sell the World, but the album came alive for me in the second half, with the nine minute Black Thunder kicking off in style with patient morin khuur against a vocal drone and continuing to build, its sound getting progressively heavier as the song evolves. It feels like a complete song, as if the band deliberately chose to develop it further than the more simple, albeit highly effective, chant songs.

And that goes double for the closing couple of gems, Shihi Hutu and Tatar Warrior, which are the most complete songs here, to my thinking. There's plenty of that aggressive chant in the former, but the song develops with riffs, power chords and interesting transitions, as if it's a wild cover of a Led Zeppelin song we've never heard before. Black Thunder is more immediate but I think this is my favourite song here. It even has plenty of that wailing morin khuur that I crave so much. Tatar Warrior is more like a Metallica song and they've covered a couple of them in their time. This is a tribute in different form, but just as enjoyable.

The catch to ending so well is that it's easy to see that not everything stands up to the closing pair, so I think I have to go with a 7/10 this time. It's still a really good album and I wonder which angles they show here are going to be the ones that they follow most diligently in the future. Triangle is toe-tapping commercial fun but I hope they get more progressive the way that Black Thunder and Shihi Hutu do. Only time will tell. And when are they coming to town again? I can't miss them every time through.

Wednesday 21 September 2022

Rammstein - Zeit (2022)

Country: Germany
Style: Industrial Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 29 Apr 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I've been a fan of Rammstein ever since I first saw the video for Sonne a couple of decades ago, but I wasn't particularly enthused by their most recent album in 2019. They took a ten year break after its predecessor and it felt like an unsure return to action for me, with songs that tried new things and a surprising structure that left me wondering where they were planning to go in the future. In reality, of course, they went where we all went, which was lockdown during COVID, and that might explain why they've knocked out another one only three years later.

It's a better album to my thinking, on every front. There are still departures from the typical NDH sound but they're both more successful and more appropriate in the order they're presented. It's perhaps notable that they mostly constitute the beginning of the album, with Armee des Tristen a new wave song done NDH and Zeit and Schwarz mirror images of each other. Zeit is subdued, even when the heavy chords show up halfway or when it seriously swells late on, while Schwarz is just as slow but is immediately emphatic and remains so even when it slows down for a softer section.

It's Giftig where we get the Rammstein we know and love most. Nobody does crunch like this band and it's right there on Giftig and OK and onwards. Nobody does the prowl the way they do on Zick Zack either, that's at once ominous and playful. And they do these things almost instinctively, as if it's as natural to them as breathing. Whenever it comes time for them to turn up the power, it's an as one response, as if being this tight doesn't even take any effort. Then again, they still have the same line-up they had when they formed in 1994 and that's a rarity indeed nowadays. They have to know each other backwards.

In fact, the guitars are so effortless that they're almost not worthy of mention. We have to take it for granted that Richard Kruspe and Paul Landers are going to do their thing on guitar seamlessly and the rhythm section of Oliver Riedel and Christoph Schneider, on bass and drums respectively, is right there with them. As usual, we tend to focus on Till Lindemann's ever-confident vocals and a variety of musical decoration from Christian Lorenz. Take Giftig for example. Kruspe may be lead on paper and Landers rhythm, but they're really twin rhythm with Lorenz providing the melodies on his keyboards.

And Lorenz does a lot here. The more often the guitars take a back step, the more he comes to the forefront. He provides the majority of the intros and most of the melodies on top of the ambience that might be needed too. I find this fascinating because Lindemann is the iconic face of the band, especially given their penchant for memorable videos, and the guitar crunch is what springs most speedily to mind when people talk about Rammstein. Yet Lorenz is kept so busy on this album that it's arguably his above everyone else's.

Talking of videos, I've seen a couple of them this time out, for Zick Zack, with its almost fetishistic look at plastic surgery, and Dicke Titten, which isn't entirely as rude as it might seem from its title but only just. Yes, it's about Lindemann wanting women with big breasts, whatever other qualities they may or may not have. Only Rammstein can get away with that nowadays, beyond parodies like Steel Panther, where it's almost compulsory. I'm finding nowadays that the videos distract me too much from the music. I like Zick Zack on this album far more than in the video, for instance, even if it's the same song.

As always, it's the crunchier songs that work best for me here. I do like the title track, surprisingly so given where it goes, but it's Giftig and OK and, to a lesser degree, Angst that I'd call out as the standouts. I'd add Lugen to that, because it's another driving song that nails its groove, but it has a weird descent into the world of autotune during its second half that turns me away. Of the more unusual songs, I'd call out Dicke Titten, with its prominent use of a Bavarian oompah band while it kicks off. With these strong songs and the fact that the lesser material isn't at all filler, I'd have to give this a 7/10. It's far from Rammstein's best but it's a solid step up from its predecessor.

Oh, and the cover photo was taken by Bryan Adams. Yes, that one.

King Buffalo - Regenerator (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 2 Sep 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter

I haven't heard King Buffalo before, but I've seen the name increasingly often and, on the basis of this, their fifth studio album, that rise in prominence is well justified. They play psychedelic rock in an interesting fashion, because it's not remotely the instrumental stoner rock I expected. For one, Sean McVay sings as well as plays guitar, though he does do much more of the latter. For two, that guitar isn't downtuned and it's a liquid space rock vessel here rather than a fuzzy riff machine. For three, while Dan Reynolds's bass is clearly audible throughout, it's not extra-high in the mix.

What that sums up to is almost an old school sound. The opening title track starts like Vangelis but then shifts into a cross between laid back desert rock and Hawkwind space ritual. It's a peach of an opener, the first of a pair of nine minute bookends, and, like all the best psychedelic rock, it takes us on quite the journey. McVay's voice is soft and reserved, almost an alternative rock voice, but it floats in a swirl of instrumentation that's dense enough to shock us to acknowledge that this band is a trio. Sure, if we pay close attention, we can only hear three instruments but that guitar is like an orchestra all on its own. I'm assuming at this point that the keyboards I keep hearing are really guitar with serious reverb or other effects in play.

The rest of the album follows in much the same vein, albeit at shorter lengths, with McVay's guitar always the lead instrument, far ahead of his voice, and Reynolds and drummer Scott Donaldson an immensely reliable backing for him to shine over. Whenever he gives his fingers a rest, Donaldson shows just how much Joy Division he's listened to in his time. I wasn't expecting to reference them in this review, just as I wasn't expecting to reference U2 in the early sections of Mercury, though it does heavy up somewhat in its second half.

It's usually McVay who signals any shift in comparison. He taps the fuzz pedal late into both Hours and Mammoth to highlight a stoner rock mindset that I'd expected all along, though it's combined in both cases with melodies out of alt rock. He softens up on Interlude to remind of Ummagumma-era Pink Floyd. I wasn't expecting to raise a comparison to Grantchester Meadows here either, but it helps highlight how much depth there is to King Buffalo's sound. Moving from the jagged guitar of Hours to the pastoral hippie-esque chill of Interlude is quite the shift but it works.

Interlude excepted, because it is what it says it is and does its job well, I found that the longer the song the more I appreciated it. Perhaps that's because, while McVay does a fair job as a vocalist, that's just one more texture in the layers of the band's sound and I appreciate them more when a song leaves the vocals behind and they jam. Mammoth is probably the best example of this, with a perfectly capable opening vocal section that's left in the dust when McVay unleashes his guitar to blister his way through the rest of the piece. If I remember this one for vocals, it's not the singing early on, it's the vocalisations that wrap it up.

So Mammoth and Avalon sit a little higher in my estimation than Mercury and Hours, but it's that title track and its opposite bookend, Firmament, that I'll praise the most. Firmament kicks off with more hints to that soft Floydian approach, but it's perkier with chiming guitar. Later in its opening half, it heavies up in an unusual call and response fashion, between riff and what feels like a cloud. Then the second half returns us to the magic of Regenerator, because I simply get lost in this music. It lifts me up and carries me somewhere and the world ceases to exist for a few minutes, almost the perfect attribute to an album in these troubled times.

This is a majestic album, which makes me very aware that there are more King Buffalo albums out there, including two last year the band is combining with this one as their "pandemic trilogy", and an upcoming gig at the Rebel Lounge here in Phoenix. Let's see if I can make it out to that one.

Tuesday 20 September 2022

Motorpsycho - Ancient Astronauts (2022)

Country: Norway
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 19 Aug 2022
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Prog Archives | Wikipedia

Motorpsycho haven't been into the studio in the last five minutes, so it's about time they knocked out another album. While that might sound flippant, and I guess it is, the bizarre truth is that the quality of their albums absolutely does not suffer because of their prolificity. I found them in 2019 and this is the fourth album of theirs that I've reviewed since then, a release rate higher than any band I'm aware of except the inevitable King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. Yet I gave 2020's The All is One a highly recommended 8/10 and Kingdom of Oblivion an Album of the Month 9/10.

This one didn't hold up to those standards initially, with a pair of shorter tracks, especially by their standards, The Ladder and The Flower of Awareness. The latter is only two minutes long, hardly an expected length for Motorpsycho anyway, but those aren't particularly memorable two minutes to my thinking, just a sort of dark ambient interlude between The Ladder and Mona Lisa/Azrael. The Ladder itself runs a more typical near seven minutes, but it grows slowly from almost nothing and doesn't really kick in until the two minute mark. It's decent stuff and it gets better with each time through, but it's hardly the most inspired Motorpsycho track that I've heard.

Mona Lisa/Azrael is where my jaw started to drop in a way that I'm getting used to with this band. I should add that, while it begins at the halfway point as far as the track count goes, it's also merely nine minutes into forty-three, so the album's really just getting started. This one is gorgeous from moment one, the opening patient and pastoral with progressions highly reminiscent of early King Crimson and Bent Sæther's vocals soft but magnetic.

It perks up around the four minute point and then travels through a rollercoaster of emotions, its heavier sections marked by urgent and busy rhythms by Tomas Järmyr but its quieter ones with an almost tantalising peace, one that always feels as if it might explode into life in a heartbeat. For a majority of the time it does, though the piece does fade out rather oddly. If there's a flaw to it, it's that it doesn't reach a definitive conclusion.

It's rather telling that The Flower of Awareness felt long at two minutes but Mona Lisa/Azrael felt short at over twelve. The jagged guitar solo from Hans Magnus Ryan to open the second half is as unlike the opening vocal section as can comfortably be imagined, or indeed from the subtle fade at the end, but that's how far one track can take us. I was utterly absorbed by this piece of music, just as much on my fifth listen as my first.

And, if you think twelve minutes is long, the album wraps up with Chariot of the Sun - To Phaeton on the Occasion of Sunrise (Theme from an Imagined Movie), a stunningly verbose title that does suggest that the entire piece should be told through seventies Tangerine Dream synthwork. That doesn't happen, of course, even if it hints at it early on, but what we do get does something very similar because it's almost entirely instrumental (and what vocals we get do not deliver words).

I can't say that I did much visualisation of the movie that the band imagined but it does feel a lot like a sunrise in the way that it builds slowly and patiently into something transformational. It's a good piece, a very pleasant way to spend twenty-two minutes, but it's not as vibrant and essential a piece as its predecessor. And so this has to be a 7/10, my lowest rating for a Motorpsycho album since my first, The Crucible, in 2019. It's what I'd give Chariot of the Sun and The Ladder, while The Flower of Awareness is much lower but Mona Liza/Azrael easily an 8/10 highlight.

Anvil - Impact is Imminent (2022)

Country: Canada
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 May 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter | YouTube

Nobody is going to pick up an Anvil album expecting something unusual and innovative. They play pure and simple heavy metal and they play it loud in the traditional fashion. The guitars are front and centre, building songs out of buzzsaw riffs and barrelling beats. The usual question is whether they're on form this time out. Some of their albums are blistering, but some are just meh. I took a listen to their previous album, Legal at Last, and found myself a little closer to the latter than the former. I wasn't convinced by the opener here either, Take a Lesson, but it perks up from there to stand higher than its predecessor.

I think much of it is that, once we get past the plodding opener, this album is bouncier than usual. Ghost Shadow and Another Gun Fight are both bouncy and catchy, without losing any of the heavy sound we expect or the more urgent tempo that's welcome after Take a Lesson, especially on the former. After them, Fire Rain, with its gorgeous guitar sound, ratchets the energy up yet another notch before a short but excellent instrumental called Teabag, which is immensely playful.

Now, this is an instrumental in the same way that Tequila is an instrumental, namely that the only word delivered is the title, but it does the job and highlights in no uncertain fashion that Anvil are still eager to rock and, for that matter, rock hard. If this energy translates onto the stage, and I'm in no doubt that it will, the next tour ought to be a lot of fun. I should add here that there's also a second instrumental here, called Gomez, that's even more fun and does exactly the same job, all the way down to the same riffs because it's basically the same piece of music, merely with a highly prominent brass section. That makes it even more fun.

In between the two instrumentals are the usual mix of strong rockers and more filler material but the ratio is pretty much in favour of the former this time out. Once it all got moving, I was always going to give this a point more than the last one. And I firmly believe that this album is at its best when it's really moving, on songs like Fire Rain, Someone to Hate and Bad Side of Town. Lyrically, it doesn't do anything you don't expect, but it's easy to get caught up by the sheer motion of it all. I found myself singing along with Bad Side of Town and Wizard's Wand on a first time through.

Talking of Wizard's Wand, it remains perky and bouncy even with a slower riff that's straight out of the old Black Sabbath playbook, chugging along with ominous intent. Shockwave is even more a nod to Sabbath, with Steve Kudlow taking on that simple but utterly memorable Tony Iommi style with panache. Then he'll shift to a lighter, more elegant sound on songs like Lockdown or a lively and urgent one on Fire Rain and the appropriately titled Explosive Energy, on which he reminds of a UFO-era Michael Schenker.

I have trouble not liking Anvil. They're like an enthusiastic puppy that always shows up and makes us all fuss it because it's so effortlessly endearing. Translating that into heavy metal, they're the sort of reliable band who sit in the middle of a show, after the local wannabe talent but before an established headliner. They're the perfect band for midway through a long festival day, because a happy attendee will have a blast and a jaded listener will still engage. They're utterly reliable and this is a solid nineteenth album for them.

Monday 19 September 2022

Thunder - Dopamine (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 29 Apr 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Thunder aren't the most prolific band on the face of the planet, but they've continued putting out product for over three decades. Their debut, Backstreet Symphony, first saw the light in 1990 and it made quite the impression on me, even at a point when I was drifting away from new music due to changes both in my life and the new music I was hearing. Last year, they released lucky number thirteen, All the Right Noises, and I gave it a highly recommended 8/10. Only a year later, here's a new one and this one's a double album. Clearly the creative juices are flowing.

I found this one easily split between the two discs. The first one is traditional Thunder throughout but the second one sees them taking all sorts of chances to be able to play with other genres, both through departures into new places or through merging hard rock with other flavours of music. I'd be hard pressed to say which is my favourite, because both discs are strong. I might actually lean a little towards the second disc, because it feels like the band are overtly exploring their influences.

The first one shows us why Thunder have been such a reliable band for so long, especially over the first four songs. The Western Sky is an emphatic opener, as if it wants to play in heavy metal but is still a little hesitant to dip its toes too far. Black has a cool glam rock vibe going on. One Day We'll Be Free Again is a quintessential song, with effortlessly powerful vocals from Danny Bowes in the Paul Rodgers tradition. It has a huge build, aided by gospel-infused backing vocals and a seventies heavy organ. And, even though that one's a peach, Even If It Takes a Lifetime is the standout. It's odd that I blanked past this one on a first listen, because it grabbed me on a second and won't let go at all.

They're good songs, one and all, though the first side tails off a little for me after that. As each of these discs contains eight songs, for a seventy minute runtime, that means half of it spoke to me and half not so much, though I don't want to discount the second half. Every song on it is done well and they may be favourites for you; they just aren't for me. Unraveling feels too patient; The Dead City too straightforward; Last Orders too simple, even though it shifts nicely from an acoustic vibe to become an overt foot tapper.

That leaves All the Way, which feels like it should have been a Queen song, an approach that would have shifted it to the second disc. Instead, the second opener is Dancing in the Sunshine, which is a Queen song in a very different way, and that's well placed. It's less overt in its influence, so maybe should have swapped that place in the playlist, but it's also a perfect opener, so is maybe fine right where it is. It's deservedly one of the singles.

From there, we leap into influences. Big Pink Supermoon deliberately channels, of all people, Van Morrison, right down to specific chords, words and transitions that bring classics like Moondance immediately to mind. It features a strong saxophone solo. Across the Nation channels AC/DC in its relentless simple but very effective riffing, with a little Cult groove in there too. Is Anybody Out There is a ballad, sure, but it's an Elton John sort of piano song rather than a power ballad, right down to the orchestration.

Just a Grifter is the one that looks back further, because it's not a seventies song at all, instead a vocal piece that we might expect to be sung by members of the Rat Pack, complete with accordion in the French cafê style and a little fiddle too. I dug this one a lot, even though it plays more as an opportunity for Bowes than a true band piece, unless those less traditional hard rock instruments are played by regular band members. And don't worry, everyone in the band shines at some point or other, even if they don't get specific spotlight moments like Bowes gets here. The closer for that, because No Smoke without Fire gives everyone opportunity.

Other tracks are less in the style of one band and more just a different genre. I Don't Believe the World is sassy, a hard rock song for sure but one that's deeply infused with pop and soul and a few other flavours. Disconnected keeps the sassy but adds a grungy riff, along with a psychedelic part early in the second half that reminds of the Beatles. I guess that makes this disc a tribute in mind if not specifically in form. I don't believe any of these are covers, but they're still homages and not particularly opaque ones.

I'm tempted to give this another 8/10 because much of it deserves that but I don't think it's quite able to sustain that level throughout. As a double album, that it comes this damn close is a strong recommendation all on its own.

Vulcano - Stone Orange (2022)

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

It's good to see Vulcano knocking out releases nowadays. They're one of a handful of bands who we can thank for introduce Brazil to extreme metal and, while they've never been as interesting or as diverse as fellow pioneers Sepultura, they've stuck to the sound they found in 1984 and continue to be entertaining. That means that pretty much everything I said about their previous album, 2020's Eye in Hell, is just as applicable here, whether it was positive or negative.

The positive is that this is another large set of short songs that unfold in the proto-extreme thrash style that pointed the way towards where black and death metal would go. In fact, this particular set is a larger one, with sixteen songs on offer this time out instead of the thirteen from last time, though one is a very short entirely instrumental piece. However, those sixteen songs still come in under fifty minutes. Not one reaches four minutes, five don't make three and that instrumental, 418, doesn't even manage two. As you might imagine, they all get down to business quickly and are just as quick to wrap things up and hand over to the next track, like a relay race.

The core of the sound is thrash metal, with most tracks finding a decent speedy pace and infusing us with energy in the way that only thrash metal seems to do. The black and death angles to their sound mostly manifest in the guttural vocals of Luiz Carlos Louzada, who has clearly listened to an impressive amount of Destruction. They're clearly an influence on the band in general, but on the vocals most of all, right down to the inflections on The Altar of Defiance. Louzada takes that style from 1983 or 1984 and moves it forward in a slightly different fashion. Remember when we didn't talk about death growls and black shrieks, just demonic vocals? That's kind of where Louzada's at. Backing vocals don't show up too often, but when they do, they're more overtly death growls.

The negative is that most of the songs also unfold in pretty much the same way, meaning that it's tough to call out highlights because there's little to delineate one from another. That's not to say that there's no originality or quirkiness here because the bluesy intro to Rebels from 1980s states otherwise. That's what's going to stand out on a first listen but further listens highlight more that deserves praise, from the slower title track with its interesting cymbal sound to the two note bass intro on Witches Don't Lie, which is ambitious but works really well. However many listens you give this, though, a lot of songs just sound like other songs.

And that means that the value of the album isn't so much in the songs themselves as the album's overarching impact. I enjoy this style immensely and it's never a hardship to listen to fifty minutes of new proto-extreme thrash metal, especially when it comes with 21st century production values that may seem counter to the rough and ready style but work well nonetheless. I didn't quite get the opener, Metal Seeds, which is half album intro and half song proper, but everything kicks in as Putrid Angels Ritual gets frantically underway and stays there throughout.

Not everything is fast, not everything is heavy and not everything is intense, but nothing here fails to be at least two of those things. This general approach means that the album remains fresh but never really does much different. The title track slows things down and Trigger of Violence kicks in with a neatly slow riff too, albeit one that carries an inherent urgency that we know means that it will speed up soon enough, but these aren't huge variations and one bluesy intro to take us aback doesn't take them too much further. It's all about the way they energize us with combinations of a trio of things we like, in the way that cocktails can do different things with similar ingredients.

I should add that the final song is a cover, but an unusual and perhaps unexpected one, because it carries the name of Vulcano Will Live Forever. It's actually a song by Cadaverise, who wrote it for a demo that served as a sort of tribute to the bands they presumably loved most, the omnipresent Venom and a couple of fellow Brazilian acts, Armagedom and Vulcano. It's telling that this one is a natural fit for the Vulcano sound, suggesting that Cadaverise really know their stuff.

And so, if you're into this proto-extreme sound, I'm happy with another 7/10 here. It's not original but it's done very well. If you need progression in your music, you won't find it here. Like a host of bands I've reviewed lately, including Municipal Waste and Midnight, you know exactly what you're going to get from a Vulcano album and they're happy to oblige you.

Friday 16 September 2022

Placebo - Never Let Me Go (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Alternative
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 25 Mar 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I had no idea what to expect going into this one, because I haven't heard the earlier eight Placebo albums, but it wasn't this. Maybe I was imagining them to be a British alternative rock band like a Coldplay or a Radiohead, which isn't the case, though there are commonalities. Apparently, their primary influences in the early days were Sonic Youth and Depeche Mode, which makes sense. The sound they conjure up is punky but rarely anarchic and grounded in electronica with idiosyncratic pop vocals that are nasal but very clear.

And so I shouldn't be surprised that it all kicks off with jagged electronica and punky riffs. It's also a little progressive, though it's clearly alternative rock over prog rock. It's very commercial, even in the heavier sections, but then Pink Floyd got very commercial at points; there's definitely some of that approach here. There's David Bowie too, because the vocals are always high in the mix and they drive everything, so there's always a pop side in play even if the guitars are raging.

I enjoyed this and more than I expected to, but wonder how much is substantial enough to keep me coming back. I appreciated how unique Brian Molko's vocals are. After just one album, I know that I'd recognise his delivery on any song he sings that shows up in a dramatic scene on a TV show. It's also surprisingly versatile, because it changes whenever he gets sarcastic or happy, developing an interesting Johnny Rotten snarl on Hugz; a sardonic John McCrea edge on Try Better Next Time or Went Missing; and an Iggy Pop tinge whenever he goes for repetition for effect, as on Surrounded by Spies.

Talking of Try Better Next Time, it's the most overt standout here, because there's a general tone of pessimism riddled through the album, as if everything's going wrong and there's no longer any way for us to reverse that—I took the cover art to be an environmental message, with its decaying pixels and clash between foreground and background—and that mindset is found everywhere except in Try Better Next Time, which is perky, like Cake covering an uncharacteristically upbeat REM song. Sad White Reggae is a darker, heavier take on the same approach, but it ditches the perkiness.

Even though the early songs aren't perky, they're still pop songs and that means that they have to reach out to grab us. Whether it's the snarly punk of Hugz or the sad sarcasm of Happy Birthday in the Sky, even the orchestral swells of The Prodigal, these are songs meant to be heard. However, I found that, as the album runs on, the songs get more and more introspective, especially once the first ten are done and we're into the last three. These feel more like songs meant to be written, to be played, regardless of audience, like there's power simply in them being.

I wonder if that's a fundamental dichotomy that drives Placebo. Sure, they play a poppy flavour of rock music that's not a million miles from what I expected, even if their starting point isn't close to what I thought it was, but they clearly have things to say, not just lyrically but musically. The more I listened to this album, the more emerged from it. Sure, Try Better Next Time stood out on the first time through, because it's a standout sort of song in pretty much any company, but Went Missing, which is entirely different in every way except for its Cake-like vocal approach, is the one that will absolutely not leave me alone. It's far more subtle but it does a huge amount in five minutes. This one would be notable on a prog rock album.

Clearly, I should take a listen to how Placebo got to this point, while acknowledging the six years in between this and its predecessor, Life's What You Make It. I have a healthy level of distrust of any band that plays arenas but still gets tagged as "alternative" because they're clearly no longer an alternative any more; they're a new form of mainstream. I can see why a band who can write songs like Try Better Next Time can draw that sort of audience, but I particularly appreciate how they're going to hear something subtly subversive like Went Missing too.

Midnight - Let There Be Witchery (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Black/Speed Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 4 Mar 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website

Athenar, the jack of all trades who is the entirety of Midnight in a studio environment, is ahead of himself with this album, because it's only two years since the previous one, Rebirth by Blasphemy, and everyone knows that Midnight albums arrive like clockwork every three years. Maybe that's a positive impact of the COVID pandemic, a pleasant side effect to the unpleasant lack of touring of the last couple of years. Whatever the reason, I'm happy, because I like Midnight.

I should clarify that I like the other Midnight better, the live Midnight that expands the line-up by hiring a couple more musicians and blitzes through their set like a punk-infused speed metal band getting paid by the song, so they'd better finish this one quickly and start up another. I like what I hear from studio Midnight too, but they're a lot slower. These songs may end up as still more punk-infused speed metal on stage but, on virtual vinyl, they're more akin to proto-extreme metal, the sort of thing I was so enthralled by in the early to mid eighties as bands developed the sounds that would grow into black metal and death metal and what have you.

The most obvious examples of that this time out is Nocturnal Molestation, which is a catchy combo of Venom and Hellhammer, and Let There Be Sodomy, which features Athenar's most recognisable Cronos impression against a Teutonic power/speed metal backdrop. I dug both of these, of course, because this sort of thing is my happy place, taking me back to my introduction to everything rock and metal all at once, courtesy of Tommy Vance's Friday Rock Show, in 1984 and 1985.

The catch is that, nostalgia aside, the genre has moved on rather a long way since then and I can't honestly say that Athenar does this better than anyone else. This isn't Black Metal, let alone what spawned from it, and it frequently makes me think of Cronos way back in 1979, when Venom were a completely unheared of nightmare of a band, figuring out just how raw and deviant he could make the Motörhead sound. Songs like Devil Virgin could have been on a Venom demo a year later. And I came in with At War with Satan, so I knew how far that sound could go. Midnight don't go that far.

Half of me appreciates what Athenar does with Midnight, because he's utterly reliable. He churns out another ten songs every three, ahem two, years that are pretty akin to the ten on his previous album and the one before that. They sound good, especially if the revolutionary years in the early eighties in the UK and parts of the continent are special times for you. However, even if they were, you're going to be well aware that what was revolutionary then isn't revolutionary today and that realisation is the biggest downside to what Midnight do.

There are other bands out there trawling that same source material but they're doing it in a more contemporary fashion, bringing the sound up to date, even if it remains fundamentally old school. Athenor apparently has no interest in doing that at all, so Midnight sound less vibrant—on record—than bands like Reaper and Inculter and Bütcher, even an old school band like Sodom, given their most recent album. I highlighted "on record" because I've seen Midnight live and I know how much they blister on stage, but that's a different Midnight to what Athenor gets up to in the studio.

What that boils down to is that, if you know Midnight already, this is more of the same, but, if you don't, this is as good as any album to start out on. It'll do the same job as the others. If you want a sample first, check out Nocturnal Molestation or Snake Obsession or Let There Be Sodomy first on YouTube. If you like them, you'll like everything else. Maybe, for something just a little different, I would suggest More Torment, because it's Midnight as a slow and lumbering heavy metal monster in search of food. But variety isn't what you'll get here. You'll get Venom in 1980. And, if that's not a birthday present for you, knock a point of my rating.

Thursday 15 September 2022

Derek Sherinian - Vortex (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 1 Jul 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Prog Archives | Wikipedia

Here's something interesting from a name you may not know but a talent that you probably do. It might appear to be another instrumental guitar album, and it certainly includes large amounts of guitar solos, but Derek Sherinian isn't a guitarist. He merely plays his keyboards as if he is, with an array of very recognisable talent jamming along on guitar. This approach comes from very diverse background, his first three professional jobs being with jazz drummer Buddy Miles, rock icon Alice Cooper and prog metal legends Dream Theater.

I didn't hear a lot of Alice here, but I was often reminded of an inventive jazz fusion take on Dream Theater. It's primarily hard rock rather than metal, but it does heavy up at points, unsurprisingly a lot more on Die Kobra, with guests Michael Schenker and Zakk Wylde, than on songs featuring the likes of Nuno Bettencourt, Joe Bonamassa and Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal. The only guitarist to show up more than once is Steve Stevens, of Billy Idol fame, and he helps set the album in motion with a lively and spirited title track, which isn't wildly different from his other contribution, Seven Seas.

It's a good starter because it's warm and welcoming, but I think Fire Horse, featuring Bettencourt, still best known for his work with Extreme, is an even better way to continue. It starts out firmly as hard rock but quickly finds a bouncy jazz fusion riff that feels like it could have been lifted from an iconic seventies jazz fusion album. It focuses initially on guitar but becomes a very palatable duel between Bettencourt's guitar and Sherinian's keyboards. It's my favourite piece here and it gets a little more favourite every time it comes around.

I should mention that not everything is guitar and keyboards. There's a very noticeable bass from Ernest Tibbs on Fire Horse and he's one of five bassists here, the name I recognise most being that of Tony Franklin. The most obvious here may be Ric Fierabracci, even though he's only on one track, Scorpion, perhaps because it's the only one without a guitarist. I didn't know the name, but he's a massively experienced talent who's played with everyone from Tom Jones to Shakira, but perhaps more typically for jazz names like Chick Corea and Billy Cobham. In many ways, he plays lead guitar on Scorpion; he just happens to be using a bass while he does it.

Bonamassa's track also features Steve Lukather of Toto, which is an intriguing pairing. What they conjure up in Key Lime Blues is something in the vein of Fire Horse, but with weaving guitars set to a much funkier backdrop. While this often jazz over rock and often rock over jazz, there are plenty of other genres in play, a dabble in metal here and there and a few dabbles in funk being the most obvious. Nomad's Land is funky too, though as much because of Ernest Tibbs's work on bass as for Mike Stern's guitar. That's as jazzy as you might expect, with a central riff that feels like a jagged, deconstructed and rebuilt version of Herbie Hancock's Rockit.

I knew all the guitarists here, except for him, so it wasn't too much of a surprise to find that he has stayed primarily in the jazz world, albeit from jazz rock band Blood, Sweat & Tears to work with the likes of Billy Cobham, Jaco Pastorius and Miles Davis. The sheer diversity on this album is perhaps best highlighted by Nomad's Land being right next to the much heavier Die Kobra. Both are rooted in jazz, but they feel like they come from different genres and different eras, but not sounding out of place in each other's company. The dots connect in a lot of ways.

The most unusual song here, excepting Scorpion with its deliberate omission of guitar, is the closer because of its length and its approach. It's Aurora Australis, the guest guitarist is Bumblefoot and the ensuing organised chaos is over eleven minutes long, which is close to any two of the others. It starts out as a solo piano piece, with a little percussion—all the drums here are provided by Simon Phillips, last encountered guesting for Lalu and MSG—but it grows and keeps growing. There are a few surprising instruments here, including an obvious sitar to kick off Die Kobra, but the theremin of Armen Ra that's on five of these eight tracks, is most noticeable on this one.

And so there's a lot of variety here, wrapped up in prog rock/jazz fusion clothing. It sounds like an agreeable album from the outset but everything is done so effortlessly, not just the playing of the instruments but the way that they weave together and the way that the musicians were chosen so well, that it's almost inevitably a better album than we think it is. After one listen, it's obviously a very good album but it's only as we start to climb inside it after a few more times through that we come to terms with just how good it is.

Tysondog - Midnight (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Heavy/Speed Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 29 Apr 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter

From one NWOBHM band to another, but White Spirit and Tysondog are very different in sound, even though they were based only thirty miles apart in the north east of England. It isn't at all difficult to notice the unmistakable influence of seventies Deep Purple on the hard rock of the former, but the latter were always faster and heavier, often even approaching speed metal as befits their later arrival on the scene, though this album mostly slows down from that to be good old fashioned heavy metal. The opener here, a belter called Battalion, reminds very much of Toranaga, slower and tighter but fully aware of how emphatic it is. I liked the album immediately because of that.

I have to say that I enjoyed the vocals here, delivered by the new fish in the band, Alan Ross, who is especially good given that he's mostly known as a guitarist, his role nowadays in Blitzkrieg; he has vocal experience too, but I haven't heard his work for Cardinal Synne. I'd suggest that his voice is a pretty solid match for the current Tysondog sound, loud and heavy, clear and resonant, deliberate and emphatic. He may not have much in the way of nuance, but then he doesn't need to have. He's the absolute vocal equivalent to the Steve Morrison/Paul Burdis guitar assault that underpins the entire album.

There's a genre of music called lowercase sound, because it's so quiet and ambient. This is close to the exact opposite, something like uppercase sound, bolded and underlined, because it's slow and in your face and relentless, even when songs happen to start in a deceptive way. For instance, I dig the way Hellbound begins, in a sort of acoustic but manipulated alt country vibe, only for it to kick into a firm groove in almost Rammstein style. I'm sure Ross will be hoping that the crowds at gigs will sing that title at him the way that crowds sing Du Hast at Till Lindemann.

The fastest song here is Defiant, another highly appropriate title for a Tysondog track. It wouldn't be unfair to suggest that their sound right now could be defined by words like Hellbound, Defiant and Battalion, not to forget Midnight and It Lives, which are perhaps not uncoincidentally all the titles on the first half of this album. Defiant still isn't speed metal, but it's a gear higher than the songs around it, some of which almost take pleasure in not going faster than they do. Paper Cuts especially could easily have been more up tempo, but the band just won't oblige.

Now, it does make sense for some of these to remain slow, the inevitability in the rhythm of Dead Man Walking being highly appropriate. It's another song that reminds me of Toranaga, though it finds a groove metal approach for the bridge. In fact, there's enough Toranaga here that I double checked the line-up to see if anyone from that band is also in this one, but there are no surprises to be found there.

The core of Tysondog nowadays is the pairing of Paul Burdis on guitar and Kevin Wynn on bass, like it's always been when the band has been active. If I'm reading things correctly, neither has played for anyone else, even during the thirty years Tysondog spent on hiatus. Like Ross, Phil Brewis was in Blitzkrieg and also played live for Satan, whose new album I reviewed earlier in the week. Hes a solid and reliable drummer, again underlining how well suited these musicians are to each other.

The results are decent, but not spectacular. Tysondog released a pair of albums in the eighties but then vanished. This is their second since reforming in 2008, arriving seven years after Cry Havoc. I'd be lying if I didn't say I liked it, but I didn't like it as much as their old stuff and I think it's fair to say that the faster this got, the more I liked it. Defiant is a peach of a track and Battalion isn't a long way behind it. I'm a sucker for the Toranaga sound and it's good to see someone else taking it on, even if it's a band who predate them and I liked before they ever formed.

By the way, just as an aside, I recognise part of the cover art. That young lady crawling towards us here is the same young lady crawling towards us on the British cover of Mike Flanagan's fantastic movie Absentia, which I know well because it boasts an Apocalypse Later quote at the top, which is still a bucket list achievement for me.

Wednesday 14 September 2022

White Spirit - Right or Wrong (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Hard and Heavy
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 29 Jul 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Wikipedia

Here's something special for NWOBHM fans that you probably never thought you'd get to hear. If you remember those days, you probably remember White Spirit, a band from Hartlepool up there in the northeast of England, who impressed enough with a single on Neat to land a deal with MCA but vanished after their one and only album. That album is well worth your time, by the way, with plenty of biting NWOBHM guitarwork from Janick Gers, now of Iron Maiden, but also an incessant chug and heavy organ reminiscent of seventies Deep Purple. They even added some prog in there for good measure; just check out the epic closer, Fool for the Gods.

Everything was very promising indeed. But then Gers left to replace Bernie Tormé in Gillan, Toby Sadler replaced Phil Brady on bass and singer Bruce Ruff left, to be replaced by an unknown called Brian Howe. The new White Spirit recorded most of a new album under producer Colin Towns, also of Gillan fame, but they split up before it was done and everyone went their separate ways. While some joined bands as varied as Tank, Airrace and the Sweet, that unknown new singer made good on the other side of the pond, fronting Ted Nugent's band and then replacing Paul Rodgers in Bad Company, hardly the easiest challenge a singer's ever been given.

Fast forward almost forty years to 2020 and the death of Brian Howe of a heart attack. A day later, Mick Tucker, who had replaced Gers on guitar, and Malcolm Pearson, keyboard player all along, did the expected reminiscing about old times and remembered that second never finished album. The expectation was that the master tapes were long gone, but then Pearson started organising for a move to France and found them in storage. And so began the process of restoration, because four decades in a bedside cabinet is hardly the ideal place to keep master tapes.

Restoration went well, but not everything was salvagable. Tucker and Pearson therefore decided to re-record all the music and to replace the vocals where Howe's original work from 1982 couldn't be saved . They performed their own parts, of course, but brought in drummer Russell Gilbrook, of Uriah Heep, as original White Spirit drummer Crash Crallan had died in 2008, and bass player Neil Murray, who's played with everyone. Howe's voice remains intact on five tracks, making this a cool posthumous gem in his discography, with Jeff Scott Soto stepping in on two, Lee Small on two and FM's Steve Overland on the fifth. Towns finished up his production four decades on, while the mix was done by Pontus Norgen of Hammerfall.

So, these are old songs, written and originally recorded in 1981, but largely re-recorded by two of the original members, two new ones and a mix of original vocals with new ones by diverse hands. As a result, it sounds both old and new at the same time, as if White Spirit had done most of their job, but then magically hopped through a portal in time to finish up with 21st century technology. The Deep Purple sound of the first album carries through to this one, but the songs do change just a little depending on who's singing them.

Soto sang for Journey for a year, so it's hardly shocking to find that his two tracks, Right or Wrong, which is a stormer of an opener, and Better Watch Out, with a more prominent keyboard line, have a notable Journey feel to the vocals, but they're more like Heep and Purple behind him. Lee Small currently sings for Lionheart, Shy and the Sweet, so he has plenty of flexibility; he's a higher, more emotional version of Soto here, especially on The Dice Rolls On. Steve Overland helps Holy Water to sound exactly like Bad Company, a fitting tribute to Howe, who sang for them for eight years.

And that leaves Howe's half of the album. He does sound a little thinner than the others, but that has to come from his recordings are forty years old. Runaway sounds like it could have been on Van Halen's 1984 album, if Sammy Hagar had joined by that point. Lady of the Night and Gotta Get Out are keyboard heavy too, but in a different way, as if White Spirit was moving a little away from the NWOBHM sound and more into mainstream hard rock but in an interesting way, as Diamond Head did with Canterbury.

That said, the riff in Gotta Get Out feels like it could have been on White Spirit's debut album, and I actually went back to see if Wait a Little Longer actually was. It wasn't, but it's my favourite song here, happy to just barrel along. There are hard rock songs here that rock hard, but none of them harder than that one. Finally, there's Rock and Roll (Is Good for You) to close out, which is the most obvious single material here, completely unlike the closer of the debut except for the keyboard bit in the middle and a carnival version of Greensleeves to fade out at the end.

These are all fantastic songs to hear but the obvious response is that it's a real shame that such a promising band ceased to be so quickly. After all, they didn't record a third album before they split up that someone's going to find next week. However, Tucker and Pearson have apparently hired an all new rhythm section and a second guitarist to record and tour with. So White Spirit are back and I couldn't be happier.

Municipal Waste - Electrified Brain (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Crossover
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Jul 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Municipal Waste have never been the most prolific thrash band in the scene, but their every other year album release schedule slipped to every three years and it's now every five, with this coming five years after Slime and Punishment and that five after The Fatal Feast. What's increasing is the average ratings at Metal Archives, because each album released after Massive Aggressive in 2009 has garnered a higher rating. I'm not sure I can agree with that because Municipal Waste's brand of crossover thrash is ultra-reliable but also relatively predicatable. This is done well, because all of their music is done well, but it's hard to compare its merits.

For anyone not aware of what they do, the openers quickly establish their modus operandi and it's not one that they vary much at all as the album continues. Electrified Brain highlights how frantic their approach to thrash is, a speed metal assault with hardcore punk vocals that's over and done in fewer than three minutes, even with an intro, an outro and a set of swapped guitar solos in the middle. Demoralizer is a bit more metal, with even more Iron Maiden-esque guitarwork, but it's a song with a similar impact otherwise. Last Crawl is back to pure crossover, the vocals taking a lead over the guitars, and on we go.

I should comment on the lengths of these tracks, because they make those on yesterday's Soulfly album look positively epic. Only Thermonuclear Protection makes it to the three minute mark and Putting On Errors only reaches half that, with The Bite only a blip longer. There are fourteen songs on offer here and yet the album still only clocks in at thirty-four minutes even. It can't ever be said that Municipal Waste hang around.

The comparisons to draw are to the original crossover bands, so I won't even bother to list them, as they wouldn't surprise anyone. I got a lot of Suicidal Tendencies on The Bite though, with a dash of Overkill, a band that kept cropping in my mind from the thrash side of things. The most overt punk side is Tony Foresta's lead vocal and his voice defines the band's sound even more than the guitars of Ryan Waste and Nick Polous. Talking of Waste, he and Land Phil both contribute vocals here too, combining most effectively on Ten Cent Beer Night, deepening an already catchy chorus.

That song has a neat nod to the Scorpions at the end and I couldn't fail to catch a German bite in a prowling Accept vein on songs like High Speed Steel and especially Thermonuclear Protection. The latter may well be my favourite song here, even if Restless and Wicked comes as close to textbook as anything here, a two and a half minute blitz with rough vocals over tight riffs, the combination of punk voice and metal guitars apparently effortless but utterly effective.

And there's not much more for me to say, because Municipal Waste aren't one of those bands who might grow on you with further listens. They're utterly transparent about what they do and that's on offer on the first song, the last song and everything in between. If you like one of them, you're pretty much guaranteed to like all of them. Conversely, if you don't like the first one you hear, the rest of the album isn't going to change your mind. This is another short blitzkrieg of an album that will clean your clock in the best possible ways. If you're into that, check it and them out.

Tuesday 13 September 2022

Soulfly - Totem (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Groove/Thrash Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 5 Aug 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Soulfly | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

While I was a big fan of early Sepultura with co-founder Max Cavalera, both the early death metal stuff and the later stuff that brought in tribal rhythms, I haven't been as fond of Soulfly, which he founded in 2007. Sure, they had an interesting genre-melding approach and they were far heavier than most of the alternative stuff I was hearing from the States at the time, but it didn't connect with me. Now, I haven't followed their career religiously, but I have heard a couple of albums and some odd other stuff here and there, enough to know that it just wasn't my sort of thing.

Maybe I should have kept listening, because this isn't what I remember at all. This is much heavier and often much faster, though there's still a strong focus on groove metal. The nu metal elements are gone, it seems, which I'm not upset about, and there are riffs that shift clearly from groove to thrash to death, which I'm also not upset about. It's an interesting mix and it's backed up by vocals that are definitely somewhere on that same road; they may be rooted in hardcore shouts but they don't feel remotely out of place on thrashy material and have a tinge of death growl to them too. I hear some Tom G. Warrior in that voice, especially on songs like Ecstasy of Gold. And all of this is a lot further up my alley than what I remember on earlier albums.

Of course, the tribal aspect is not neglected either and Cavalera's son Zyon is credited not only on drums but also Brazilian percussion. This is more overt on the later, more experimental tracks, but it's discernable on the storming opener, Superstition, and on others like Rot in Pain and Ancestors. I like this approach and, frankly I'd like to hear a lot more of it, but I'm hardly going to complain, as Soulfly are one of the few bands doing this at all. What's odd to me is how this doesn't particularly feel like folk metal at all, even though it kind of is because of that ethnic Brazilian sound.

Superstition is a blistering opener, more thrash than groove but the groove elements present add a bounce to it, so it feels upbeat as well as up tempo. It's over in three minutes and that's average here, if we factor out the five minute title track and the epic nine minute closer. That makes these songs all the more urgent, because they show up, do their thing and then vanish into oblivion (or a dead tone on The Damage Done), so another short, punchy song can do the same thing. I dig that a lot, even though it's clearly a punk influence and this is a lot more of a metal album.

Talking of The Damage Done, not everything here unfolds at a serious pace. The songs are always urgent and ready for the pit to respond, but this one focuses on that effect, its fundamental riff a perfect example of what a thrash band would call the mosh part of a song. Add the chanting vocal and the bouncy groove and the pit ought to love this one, but I dug the guitar solo just as much. It definitely counts as a song to feel as much as hear.

With a brief note to point out that the title track is longer and so has more opportunity for wilder, more interesting things to happen, that's a growing approach on the album's second half that the title track kicks off. Ancestors plays a lot with the Brazilian side of things and morphs into a sort of conversation with the spirits. Ecstasy of Gold is my favourite short song here, not least because of the repetition at the end of lines, something that's there from Superstition onwards but finds its greatest effect here. Soulfly XII is an interesting instrumental built around what could have been a thrash metal intro, but deepened with world and electronic sounds.

And that leaves the closer, Spirit Animal, which is particularly fascinating. It kicks off riddled with spooky effects, like a Hallowe'en ride, then finds a groove metal riff to ground it, adds a chant to colour it and only gets more inventive from there. By the seven minute mark, it's unmistakably a prog rock song, atmospheric and imaginative and we start to wonder about the instruments that we hear. Was that a saxophone? Certainly horns of some description. What's being done over the clean vocals? Are those layered effects in post or some sort of filter? Something, I'm sure.

I've listened to this a lot today, partly because it connected with me and I'm not used to that from Soulfly but partly because it's really interesting material. The first five tracks are worthy of a 7/10 but the second five are even better and I don't think an 8/10 would be unfair. As the latter amount to a lot more minutes than the former, I think that balances a 7.5/10 upwards. This may become as low on my highly recommended list as anything gets this year, just squeezing on as a rounding up but I do think it deserves to be on there. That surprises me but it is what it is. Now, what else have I been missing out on by Soulfly? I'm seeing suggestions that they ditched nu metal a while back.

Satan - Earth Infernal (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 1 Apr 2022
Sites: | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

There are all sorts of odd little observations when it comes to Satan. The band, that is. For a start, they hail from Newcastle upon Tyne and yet didn't start out on Neat, like so many others. Instead, they released material on labels like Roadrunner and Steamhammer that were more prestigious than Neat but didn't have such a grounding in the NWOBHM era. The other observation from me is that I seem to have a lot more of Satan when they weren't called Satan, under which name they have existed for four out of the seven eras of their existence.

That's partly because they changed their name to Blind Fury in 1984, when I discovered rock music. So, while I've heard and thoroughly enjoyed the debut Satan album, Court in the Act, from 1983, I first heard them as Blind Fury, on yet another strong Friday Rock Show session (the 31st May, 1985 show when it debuted is one of my most frequently played recordings). Somehow I failed to notice their 1987 album as Satan, but did pick them again under another new name, Pariah, who played a heavier, thrashier form of metal. I remember their second album, Blaze of Obscurity, fondly. Now I see that they're back to being Satan again, and I realise that I've missed more of their work than I've heard.

It's good to hear Satan again, whatever name they're using this week, and this album took me way back to those days. Sure, there's nostalgia to that, because this is new music that fits right into my comfort zone. I kept expecting Tommy Vance to back announce the track I'd just played. And that's because the style they adopt here is emphatically the NWOBHM era one that they played early in their career, with deep and warm vocals from Brian Ross, who's on his third stint with the band. It would be fair to say that he's the most characteristic aspect to their sound, a clean hard rock vocal over a heavy metal backdrop.

The metal aspect manifests through the twin guitar assault of Steve Ramsey and Russ Tippins, the heart of the band. Each is on their fourth stint with Satan (not forgetting one with Blind Fury and two with Pariah), and they're just as capable as Ross, even if they're a little less iconic. They add a metallic edge to the band, ironically because they hint back to seventies Wishbone Ash as much as that band's most overt metal disciples, eighties Iron Maiden. Both of them manifest together on the first side's closer, A Sorrow Unspent, which is up tempo without ever quite becoming speed metal. I could listen to this pair of axemen duel all day. I've actually repeated Burning Portrait three times just now only to listen to them.

With such a grounding in seventies hard rock, as so many of the early eighties British heavy metal bands had, it's perhaps not too surprising that I should hear some Demon here, along with the more expected Angel Witch. Satan are a little heavier, for sure, but everything is still built out of melody, whether it's the vocals or the guitars. They also have a sort of epic feel, like Demon had, that isn't reflected in the length of their songs. None of the ten songs here make it to the six minute mark, though a few come close, but quite a few feel like they're epics anyway, not least the closer, Earth We Bequeath.

Of course, both Satan and Demon shared the side effect of appearing to be a Satanic band, which was cool and edgy until it became a problem when listeners expected them to sound as raucous as Venom. There's nothing worse than to disappoint people for no better reason than not being what they expected you to be. What surprised me here is that they seem to have embraced that Satanic angle again. Sure, they've hardly joined the Norwegian black metal elite, but songs such as Twelve Infernal Lords and Luciferic betray the interests that prompted their name to begin with.

It's actually hard to pick a favourite song here, because everything plays very consistently, even on a second or third listen. Maybe, if you twisted my arm, I'd reluctantly call From Second Sight out as the best song here. But I might say A Sorrow Unspent instead. Or Twelve Infernal Lords. Or, any of the ten songs on offer. On my current listen, I'd say Burning Portrait. And that just underlines how consistent this is. Nothing really stands out above anything else, not because this isn't good stuff but because it's all good stuff, from Ascendancy to Earth We Bequeath. And that's why I've cut my paragraph talking about why I'm giving this a 7/10 and going with a highly recommended 8/10 instead. Hail Satan indeed!