Friday 21 October 2022

Arena - The Theory of Molecular Inheritance (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 21 Oct 2022
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It shouldn't be too surprising that Arena play neo-prog rock, given that they were founded in 1995 by the current keyboard player of Pendragon, Clive Nolan, and the former drummer of Marillion, Mick Pointer. I remember both those bands well, but mostly from the eighties, even though I have thoroughly enjoyed more recent material. I gave Pendragon's Love Over Fear a rare 9/10 in 2020 and a still recommended 7/10 to Marillion's An Hour Before It's Dark earlier in 2022. I don't know Arena, because they're a product of the nineties, when I wasn't paying much attention to prog.

I'm also unsure as to how representative this tenth album is because there's another new fish on vocals, Damian Wilson, who joined a couple of years ago. He's their fifth singer and each of them has recorded at least one Arena album, so I presume their sound has changed quite a bit over the years because of the different voices who have led the band. Wikipedia tells me that they used to sound like Fish-era Marillion but have gradually moved closer to a different band of Nolan's called Shadowland, who play a poppier brand of prog rock.

That fits, because I'm hearing more Steve Hogarth-era Marillion here than Fish-era. Wilson's voice is clean and easy on the ears, but it's harder than Hogarth's and it commands our attention, even when he's being softer and poetic, especially early on in a slew of songs, like Field of Sinners. He's overt at the beginning of the album, leading an Iron Maiden-esque cheer to kick off Time Capsule, and he capably shifts between subtle and emphatic on that song and its even better follow-up, The Equation (The Science of Magic), setting a template for how he (and guitarist John Mitchell) go at everything here.

It's clear that Wilson is comfortable with going heavier, should it be needed. I'm not surprised to find that he used to sing for prog metal band Threshold, and the extension to his dynamic range is a facet that Hogarth doesn't have. He could do what Wilson does in the gentle sections of Field of Sinners or Under the Microscope and he'd do it in a similar fashion, but I don't buy into him doing any of the heavying up that happens on songs like The Equation or Pure of Heart. That lends this album even more versatility and versatility is never a bad characteristic for any progressive band to have.

What surprises me is that, while this is emphatically prog rock and never prog metal, everything I said there about Wilson goes for Mitchell too. He's played with a variety of prog bands too, but he currently fronts It Bites, who are a pop band, even if they're admittedly a progressive one, so even less likely to heavy up than Arena. Maybe he appreciates the different opportunities he gets here. Certainly he seems to be enjoying himself on this album, with excellent solos on The Equation and Part of You and an even better one on Life Goes On.

However, I don't see his guitar as the true lead instrument here, as we're used to it being in most rock music. That's because everything feels like it took the keyboard contributions of Clive Nolan as the bedrock on which to build everything else. It tends to be his keyboards that introduce songs, his keyboards that wrap them up and his keyboards that create the fundamental framework they follow and the tone they employ to make it happen. Mitchell's guitar is just one texture layered on top of that and, while I didn't count those solos, it wouldn't surprise me if Nolan got more of them than he did.

As seems to be the case this week, it took a while for this album to grow on me. Oddly, it was vocal hooks that caught me first, which surprises me given how keyboard-centric this is, but maybe it's a firm underline that Wilson is an emphatic success on his first album with Arena. It's a long album, nudging just past the hour mark, and it's the second half that's growing on me most. The Equation is surely the highlight of the first half, but I'd be hard pressed to choose between Life Goes On and Pure of Heart for the second, with Under the Microscope, Integration and Part of You all queueing up to say, hey, what about me?

And I guess that means that this is worthy of an 8/10. It's certainly an album I don't want to move on from yet, but I have others to review and can't stay here forever. I'm pretty sure I'll be back in a day or three though, to see how it feels in a different context.

Edenbridge - Shangri-La (2022)

Country: Austria
Style: Symphonic Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 Aug 2022
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Edenbridge have been playing a very pleasant form of symphonic metal since the last millennium, their debut album, Sunrise in Eden, seeing the light of day in 2000 with three more albums in only four years. That rate of output has certainly slowed down with this being only their third album in the past decade, but it still counts as an eleventh studio album, with three more live. I've always found them one of the more accessible symphonic metal bands, with a soft take on the genre that trawls in not merely classical and a variety of folk music, but prog rock and musical theatre. It's an easy combination to like.

This album is easy to like too, but it didn't grab me until the flutes came out on Savage Land. What makes that odd is that Savage Land is easily my least favourite song otherwise, very much unfolding like a Disney musical aria where a princess maybe thinks about the dark side but talks herself out of it, its teasing guitar hints refusing to blossom into something more. But then, three minutes in, it dives into a rainforest with fantastic drums and flutes and atmosphere. The song isn't far from being done at that point, but it's glorious and it grabs us right in time to hit us with the Accept-esque riffs that introduce Somewhere Else But Here.

And we're off and running. That song moves from Accept to a sort of Blue Öyster Cult groove and a quintessential symphonic metal chorus with all the grandeur we expect, but it's a good song and I felt the need to just start the album over again, finding new joy in At First Light and especially in The Call of Eden, which grew on me immensely, perhaps becoming my favourite song until the closer. Maybe I just needed to be in the mood for this album and I just wasn't for a little while until Lanvall hauled out his collection of unusual instruments and Gibbs slapped me into paying attention properly.

From there, I dug this album, from a strong riff in Freedom is a Roof Made of Stars to the piano in Arcadia (The Great Escape) and the evocative intro to The Road to Shangri-La. Sabine Edelsbacher has fun on the latter pair not just singing but vocalising in both the foreground and background as well. It's still commercial for symphonic metal and there are still sections that lost me, when they soften things up a little more than usual. I still can't get into the first half of Savage Land, but it's not hard to put it behind me when I'm enjoying the guitar solo in The Road to Shangri-La.

And that's a good point to pause, because this has been a very commercial album thus far with the band's poppy take on the genre paramount and the more overtly folk or world influenced sections the best ones. It's enough to make us wonder what happened to the progressive edge, indeed the edge, of Edenbridge and that's here on an epic closer, a sequel in five movements to the title track of their 2013 album The Bonding, called simply The Bonding (Part 2). And here's what I was missing all along.

It's on Alpha and Omega that Edelsbacher moves out of her Disney princess mode and gives some real metal attitude, deepening her voice and adding emotion. The Eleventh Hour is where we're treated to orchestrations and inventive choral work, along with some searing guitar as promised in Overture. Round and Round has that Abba-esque musical theatre sound, melodic voice over an acoustic guitar, but it doesn't outstay its welcome, moving into an intricate instrumental passage, and, when it returns, it's darker and more emphatic. There's prog riddled throughout all of these movements and it feels great after the much safer earlier songs.

And that's how this ends up for me, an album of uneven halves. The first runs a respectable forty minutes on its own but feels safe to me. There's enjoyment to be had, especially if you can find its mood, and I keep coming back to The Call of Eden because it continues to grow on me. However, it doesn't have the adventure for me that the second has. That's just one track, but The Bonding (Part 2) does more in my book in its sixteen minutes than the rest does in forty-one. This would have got a 6/10 from me without it.

Thursday 20 October 2022

Lillian Axe - From Womb to Tomb (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 19 Aug 2022
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I remember the name Lillian Axe a lot better than I do the music they made. I know that I've heard tracks from the first couple of their albums, back at the tail end of the eighties, but I may not have listened to the albums themselves and I remember little about them. I probably assumed that the grunge era killed them off, like so many others, and that was that. Well, it looks like it did, in 1995, but they got back together in 1999 and have stayed that way ever since, even if only a couple of the founder members are still in the line-up, lead guitarist Steve Blaze and bassist Michael Darby.

What's important is that Global Rock, who signed them last year, haven't just released this album, their first in a decade, but their entire back catalogue too, which bodes well for the future. This is a generous return, running enough over an hour to matter and feeling interesting throughout. I'd vaguely remembered them as a late eighties American heavy metal band, with leanings towards a commercial glam metal sound even if it wasn't quite what they wanted to be. And that's not at all what this is.

I'd call this hard rock, but of a flavour that occasionally nudges up to the tentative border with heavy metal. There are sections here that are more metal, especially during guitar solos and some riffs that crunch, but it's mostly happy to stay on the hard rock side of that boundary. What's more, it's progressive in a fascinating way. Some of it feels like prog rock born from musical theatre, mostly in sections where lead singer Brent Graham goes firmly into character mode. Some of it feels more like prog metal but light enough to stay rock without ever feeling like prog rock would be a fair descriptor. The end result sounds like a concept album, even if it isn't, with characters and story.

This, and the odd interludes that are sometimes very odd indeed—check out A as an experimental thirty-nine seconds—took me aback enough that the album didn't connect to me at all for half its running time. It was Dance of the Maggots that dragged me on board, because that's a song that refuses to be ignored, and Fall of the Human Condition right after it underlines how much there is here. It lost me a little late on but stayed strong and a repeat listen highlighted I am Beyond and The Golden Dragon as highlights I'd failed to acknowledge on the first time through.

Initially, I felt there was a Queensrÿche flavour to a lot of these songs, sans high Geoff Tate vocals. Gradually I realised that there's a lot of Saigon Kick here too, especially in the melodies and those sections where multiple voices combine and float around each other. Putting the two together is a good summary of what this sounds like to me. If there are other names that stood out, it would be through the hints of Voivod on I am Beyond and the Alice Cooper-esque vocal early on in Fall of the Human Condition, but neither are maintained throughout. Queensrÿche and Saigon Kick, on the other hand, are everywhere, with songs often moving from one to the other.

There are a bunch of good songs here, from I am Beyond two in to Feelings of Absinthe nine later in this collection of sixteen. I have to come back to Dance of the Maggots as the highlight though, as it's got absolutely everything and it makes it work. It kicks off with a choral intro that makes us think we're diving into an oratorio. Then it's sound effects, soft guitar, a controlled Roger Daltrey intro with harmonies. A minute and a half in, it escalates almost like a volcanic eruption with the relief at release evident and then runs in cycles until it gets to a wild guitar solo in the second half from Steve Blaze. It's an absolute gem of a track.

I don't think anything else can touch it, but other songs stand out, including The Golden Dragon, I am Beyond and Feelings of Absinthe, even one of the interludes, Endless Green Fields with its infectious Spanish guitar. The catch is that there's a lot of other material here that fits from a stylistic perspective but didn't engage me to the same degree. I'd be interested in hearing what a die hard Lillian Axe fan, presumably used to some of these approaches, might think about it with a better knowledge of where they've come from and where they might be going. All I know is that I'll be paying attention from now on.

Monasterium - Cold are the Graves (2022)

Country: Poland
Style: Epic Doom Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 10 Jun 2022
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Back in 2019, I reviewed Church of Bones, the second album from Polish epic doom metal band Monasterium, and the experience blew me away. I loved that album immediately and abidingly and it's right there on my 9/10 list for that year in company with only fifteen others. I completely failed to notice the release of their third album in June, so this review is a little later than it should be. Thanks to Rafał Borsuk from Nine Records for sending me a copy.

The bad news is that it took longer to grow on me than its predecessor, though perhaps I needed a little time to adjust. Most of the great albums I've been listening to lately are fast ones or at least perky ones. This is not remotely fast and it's only occasionally perky, even then in a dissimilar way to, say, Orianthi or Clutch. Then again, this is epic doom metal so fast is not in its repertoire. It has moments at a slightly faster tempo but, as enjoyable as those are, they mostly serve to underline the inevitable slowdowns that come next, which are exquisite. I grinned in admiration every time that happened on The Stigmatic.

The good news is that I adjusted. I started in on it last night after Orianthi and Blind Guardian but I've been listening it to it all day today. Coming to it first thing saw it improve, a couple more times through elevated it further in my estimation and, a few more listens later, it's almost become an old friend. I don't think that it's as good as its predecessor, but it comes pretty close, easily enough to make my Highly Recommended List for this year with an 8/10.

Once again, it's doom metal firmly in the Candlemass style, maybe not quite as obviously this time because they're finding their own sound, but it's simply impossible to miss that comparison. It's a given that, if Nightfall and Ancient Dreams are your idea of heaven, then Monasterium ought to be in your ears right now. Never mind reading this, just go out and buy their albums and thank me later.

The first element you'll love is the guitarwork. These riffs are immense and they sometimes come in hard, as on The Siege, or patiently, like with Necronomicon. Often they manage both, such as on Cimmeria or The Great Plague, because they absolutely nail power chords as crescendos and their production only emphasises those moments more. Sometimes Tomasz Gurgul and Maciej Berniak feel less like a guitarist and a drummer and more like human versions of the Clashing Rocks in the old Jason and the Argonauts movie. Gurgul solos well too, with my favourites on Necronomicon.

Before long, Michał Strzelecki's vocals will show up and you'll be whisked away into another world. He's Polish, of course, but he sings in English with a strong accent and a grandiose delivery that is one part Bela Lugosi, one part Ozzy Osbourne and a whole heck of a lot of parts Messiah Marcolin, operatic and theatrical. The result takes a little getting used to but I adore his diction and ability to effectively preach at us about ancient books of horror, mythological swords and the like.

He's a born performer who always conjures our attention, even on Remembered, whose acoustic intro keeps on going throughout the song. It feels like a tale that might be sung in an inn, but not as a song of cameraderie—as a sad plea for remembrance. If his accent and theatricality feel like they might not be your thing, do persevere because he will probably grow on you when you realise how cool it is to imagine a five hundred year old eastern European vampire fronting a doom band. Sure, that's partly the accent and little the theatricality, but much of it is the feel of age that he's able to convey. His vocals are as epochal as Gurgul's riffs.

Eventually, you'll remember that these magical vocals and immense riffs are part of actual songs. Given the epic nature of their sound, it's almost a shock to realise that nothing here is of a length we might associate with epics. The closer, Cold are the Graves, comes closest because the intro in a quintessentially old school Jimmy Page style, which later reprises under narration, extends it close to eight minutes. Most of the rest sit between five and six with that acoustic piece under four, and they use that time well but I stil wonder how they'd sound in ten minute epics.

I have a feeling that, even though some songs are elevated above others right now in my mind, I'm going to shuffle my rankings with each listen. Necronomicon caught me first, followed by the pair of openers, The Stigmatic and Cimmeria. The Siege wouldn't let me be, though it doesn't live up to its early urgency. Later, Cold are the Graves elevated itself and Seven Swords of Wayland too. That leaves The Great Plague, which has come from behind to enforce its presence on any favourite list, and the acoustic piece, which I have to say is my least favourite for now. Let's see if that changes a few more listens from now, because I'm not turning this off repeat any time soon.

Wednesday 19 October 2022

Blind Guardian - The God Machine (2022)

Country: Germany
Style: Power Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 2 Sep 2022
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There are certain voices in rock music that do all the expected things but somehow sit apart from the rest of the genre, occupying an iconic status. Many of those are the old gods, Rob Halford and Lemmy and Ronnie James Dio, but some came along a little later and, as I highlight Hansi Kürsch as one of them, I realise that it wasn't that much later after all. Blind Guardian have been around since 1987, three years longer if you count their early years as Lucifer's Heritage, and Kürsch was a founder member of both.

Where other pioneering power metal singers like Michael Kiske were content to take what Bruce Dickinson did in Iron Maiden and do it more and higher, Kürsch added a grandeur that seemed to have been missing from the genre until he came along. Even now, with Blind Guardian influential to a couple of generations of bands across the globe, there's still nobody else who quite sounds at all like him. It's a combination of accent and phrasing and how he holds notes, so that even if some other wannabe Kürsch tried to emulate him exactly, they'd come up short. He's often like an entire choir in one body.

Of course, while it's refreshing to hear his voice again in its typical context, as 2019's Legacy of the Dark Lands was so atypical that it was credited to Blind Guardian Twilight Orchestra and the prior album to that was Beyond the Red Mirror all the way back in 2015, he's not the band, however his importance in it can't be underestimated. André Olbrich and Marcus Siepen are founder members too and their twin guitar assault underpins everything that Kürsch does. They riff furiously on the opener, Deliver Us from Evil, and they solo viciously and they rarely let up throughout the album.

It's that combination of grandeur and speed that makes Blind Guardian so memorable to me, with every song elegant and blistering in turns but always huge, even when it's quiet and peaceful, like on the intro to Secrets of the American Gods. Everything feels visual, like the backing choir are an abiding fog and we're floating through it to discover those secrets when it finally clears. While it's an operatic and orchestral sound, even without opera singers and orchestras, I always visualise an epic Blind Guardian song—and they're all epic, even when they're only four minutes long— with a movie camera mindset. The sound is too big to be confined by a stage.

Talking of Secrets of the American Gods, it's the longest song here at seven and a half minutes and I'd call it my favourite. Everything here is solid, as if this band have been about only for a couple of years and they still need to prove themselves through energy and intent rather than resting on an impressive career of almost three and a half decades. As is often the case with Blind Guardian, it's often individual riffs or melodies that connect deeply with us and mine may not be yours.

So, for me, it's the vocal phrasing in Secrets of the American Gods and the riffing in Architects of Doom, which feels like we're being swept along by a chariot that's never out of control, however it might seem from the landscape whipping past us. Really, it could be any song here, the delicate intro to Let It Be No More—or indeed its slow but substantial build—or the barrelling speed of Deliver Us from Evil or Blood of the Elves that owes as much to the effortless pace of Frederik Ehmke on the drums as those twin guitars.

So this is a good one, a powerful one and a refreshing one. The worst thing about it is that it ends, both at all and in the way it does, because Destiny wraps up like a song rather than an album, so I was all prepared to roll into the next track after it was over and all was silence. Kürsch tells us that we're his destiny and then suddenly he's gone. Oh, well. I guess we can just play it all over again.

Orianthi - Rock Candy (2022)

Country: Australia
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 14 Oct 2022
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I liked Orianthi's previous album, O, released a couple of years ago, and I like this one too, for a lot of the same reasons. She has an unusual sound, because it's rooted in pop music but she's clearly a hard rock guitarist with fast fingers. That approach gives a lot of range to explore on an album like this and she obviously has fun doing that, including the two instrumental bookends, Illuminate Pt. I and Pt. II, which feel like they could have been on a Steve Vai solo album. In between are nine real songs that cover plenty of ground.

The first, Light It Up, is hard rock through and through, with a grungy guitar tone. Fire Together is softer, with a dance vibe to it as if it's a rocked up cover of a pop song. However, there's still a nod to Led Zeppelin's Misty Mountain Hop to underline its rock credentials. Where Did Your Heart Go is both pop and country, sassy from the outset with its fingersnap beats. And yet, whatever genre these songs start out as or hint towards, the guitar solos are always somewhere on the spectrum of rock music, from acoustic to hard towards metal.

And, of course, the guitar is why we're here because, while Orianthi's voice is good enough, not to mention versatile enough, to give her a day job using only that instrument, she's known primarily as a guitarist and she blisters on this album when she wants to. Conversely, what makes it work as a collection of songs is that she doesn't show off, letting her songs grow and do their thing before adding something special for the solo. And then, for the most part, she calms that down again so the song can wrap up the way it should.

While Light It Up and Witches & The Devil are the heaviest and most intense songs that the album has to offer, I'd have to call out Where Did Your Heart Go for its guitarwork. It's minimally acoustic to begin with, then adds a gorgeous fluidity in the Mark Knopfler style partway and ends up with searing purity. It's a good song, entirely apart from what the guitar does, but it's the one where I can't stop listening to that guitar, whatever else the song does.

And so it goes. There's a pop mentality to the melodies, presumably representing the candy in the album title, but the solos are all hard rock and they're joyous. I have to admit that I'd love to hear what Orianthi can do over forty minutes on an instrumental album, the way that legends like Joe Satriani or Steve Vai do. She has so much nuance that she doesn't just need to shred like those old Metal Blade albums; she can take that time to explore just how much she can do with her guitar. But that would be a very different album.

And, to be honest, I dug this from a guitar aspect but I dug it as a collection of songs too, whether they have a heavier feel like Light It Up and Void, a lighter one like Living is Like Dying, an acoustic country song, or somewhere in between. Whatever the tone, the song ends up perky, ever upbeat even when the guitar sounds grungy or sleazy. It's telling that they're all short, nothing here over four minutes and only four songs over three. Witches & The Devil doesn't even make it to two and all that means that the album feels like it's a lot shorter than the thirty-one minutes that it runs.

Because it's so perky, being that short means that it's almost instinctual to just play it again and that only serves to let the songs get their hooks a little deeper into us. After three or four times through, it felt like I'd been hearing these on the radio for weeks. And I think that's a good thing. It means that this is a better album than its title and deceptive accessibility suggests that it is.

Tuesday 18 October 2022

Soilwork - Övergivenheten (2022)

Country: Sweden
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 19 Aug 2022
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This is an important album for Soilwork, not because it's their twelfth or because it's following the highly successful Verkligheten, but because it's the last to feature David Andersson, who passed a few weeks ago. He was an excellent guitarist, as his work for both Soilwork and their moonlighting outfit, the Night Flight Orchestra, shows, but he was also half of the creative process. He wrote or co-wrote the lyrics for nine of the fourteen tracks here and the music for seven. To suggest that he will be seriously missed is a massive understatement. Thank you for the music, sir. RIP.

And, that said, this is another easy to like album from Soilwork, but I had trouble truly getting my heart around it. I liked the title track, which kicks off the album like world music and ends like Pink Floyd, but spends its time in between as the melodic death metal the band are known for. I didn't love it, though, and found the vocal delivery from founder member Björn Strid oddly rhythmic as if he didn't want there to be anything there that could even be considered fancy, an odd decision, given where the music behind him goes.

And, while his delivery absolutely varies as the album progresses, I found myself with a relatively similar reaction to almost everything else. It's immediate stuff, easy to like on a first listen. That's not too surprising, but what surprised me was how little it grew on a second. None of these songs have got their claws into me yet and I'm on my third time through. Does that make it a consistent album? Sure. Does it make it a disappointing one? Maybe. I'm still enjoying it and three times is a lot of music, because this is a generous sixty-five minute release. So I wouldn't use disappointing. Maybe I should use underwhelming instead.

One thing I noticed was how much this often feels like a prog rock album and a commercial one to boot. It heavies up at points but, once past the title track, I didn't really feel like it was a melodic death metal album until perhaps nine songs in, when This Godless Universe kicks in hard after its delicate piano intro. Perhaps part of this is that Strid's harsh voice nowadays isn't much harsher than his clean voice, with just a little rasp added for effect. There are points where he duets with himself, harsh against clean and I kept forgetting. Clean seems to be his default now and he's not too fussed about that.

Maybe it's just that the heavier material was shunted down the track listing. This Godless Universe is second half, where it feels far more at home with Golgata and the excellent closer On the Wings of a Goddess Through Flaming Sheets of Rain than it does the softer, more commercial material in either half but especially the first. There are songs here that feel like heavier versions of what the Night Flight Orchestra might record, especially Death, I Hear You Calling. Dreams of Nowhere fits that bill too, though it also heavies up when Strid goes harsh and the guitars join him.

Talking of On the Wings of a Goddess, it's the epic of the album and my favourite song, perhaps by a distance. As its seven and a half minute running time suggests, it covers a lot of ground, but one of the things that leapt out at me was how furious the drumming was. It's not just that the song is a heavy one, because it isn't throughout, but Bastian Thusgaard seems to want it to be. I would be stretching to suggest that he's run out of album and wants to finally let off some steam, but I'd be lying if the thought of it didn't spring quickly to mind, especially as the guitars don't play along in the first fast section but absolutely join in for the second, as if he'd talked them into it.

After this one, I'd be hard pressed to call out a favourite. This Godless Universe is up there, but I'd probably end up plumping for Morgongåva/Stormfågel, which is telling because it's an interlude, one of a couple here with The Everlasting Flame the other. It's nothing particularly special, but it features some gorgeous liquid rock guitar and it feels refreshing every time through. It's a great piece, but it's an interlude and the fact that it's up there fighting for my next favourite song tells me that I don't like this album as much as the last one.

Crippled Black Phoenix - Banefyre (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Post-Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 9 Sep 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Wikipedia | YouTube

Crippled Black Phoenix blew me away a couple of years ago with their Ellengæst album, an album of the month for me. This one doesn't do the same job but it's still an excellent release, a notably generous one that I presume is technically a double album, given that it's over an hour and a half long. It never feels too long, even on a second listen and even though many of these songs are slow indeed. Some are also very long, four of them making it past the ten minute mark and two of them by a long way. The Scene is a False Prophet wraps up the album with over fifteen minutes to call its very own.

As last time out, the genre is hard to define because Crippled Black Phoenix have no intention of being confined to just one and move effortlessly between quite a few. Post-rock seems to be safe, because much of what's here obviously owes a debt to the fertile post-punk era in the UK with its spawning ground of new genres that made the indie charts so fascinating in the early eighties. It isn't all post-punk though, because there are nods to punk itself and goth and what experimental bands remained relatively accessible, so maybe more Coil than Nurse with Wound.

My favourite tracks are highly varied. Ghostland is definitely the first of them, both in the order it shows up and in ranking. I adore this one, which has a vague industrial feel because the guitar is a relentlessly grinding machine. Beneath it, though, is a dark chant, with the vocals further down in the mix than the more traditional song before it. Wyches and Basterdz may eventually get under our skin, with its haunting lead vocal from Belinda Kordic, but Ghostland does that from the start hooking us immediately and irrevocably.

After that is probably Everything is Beautiful But Us, with a relatively straightforward post-punk groove but with Kordic an enticingly subtle siren floating around it. It may be the most accessible song here, but I know it's impactful because it keeps overwhelming The Pilgrim after it, which isn't a bad song at all. I'd probably go for that epic closer next, which deliberately references The Sound of Silence lyrically and, perhaps more accidentally, Celine Dion's My Heart Will Go On in its choice of phrasing. It's a simple but highly effective brooder, eventually flowing like a darker Pink Floyd, quite a journey from its opening that's reminiscent of Nick Cave's piano work.

While those were the standouts from my first time through, with a firm understanding that they only deepen with further listens, I should add The Reckoning to their company, because it's easily the album's grower for me and it was strong already. It has an alternative rumble to it and a vibe that's very English, heartfelt and working class, but also dark and elegant, like the Clash shifting into goth. Its build is magnificent, as is the norm for this band, and it benefits from a powerful hook. Nothing else lets the side down, even over an hour and a half, but the album certainly travels long musical distances and not all of them with equal success.

I was surprised to find that my standouts were as often shorter songs as epics. What surprised me most was the first of those epics because Rose of Jericho is atypical for this band. It's not that it's built out of a patient beat and laid back guitar. It's that it sounds acutely uplifting, even more so when Helen Stanley's trumpet kicks in. It isn't at all what I expected from Crippled Black Phoenix, who walk on the dark side for a living. It takes a while to shed that positive attitude, especially in sections with backing vocals that sound like a stadium of football fans cheering on their team, but it eventually gets there, maybe six minutes in.

I should listen to this more. Ellengæst floored me immediately and only got better. I dug this a lot and it's growing on me too, but not from as a high a level. Maybe that's partly because they're no longer new to me but I don't buy into that because, while there's some consistency to their sound, they don't ever rest on their laurels, always wanting to go somewhere new musically. While I feel pretty safe in awarding this one a lower rating than its predecessor, it's still recommended and I have a feeling it's going to get more so as I befriend it.

Monday 17 October 2022

Toxik - Dis Morta (2022)

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

Newest in the list of bands I remember from the eighties who ceased to be in the nineties but are now back in business are Westchester County based thrash metallers Toxik. I remember loving the World Circus debut and liking its follow up, Think This, just not quite so much. They stood out from the crowd because they played a very technical form of thrash that I'm sure could be seen through hindsight as progressive, though less so than, say, Mekong Delta, Hexenhaus or Sieges Even. I thought that was it for them and, for the longest time, it was. They split up in 1992 but reformed twice, an abbreviated attempt in 2007 and a more substantial one in 2013 that's still active today.

This is a grand return indeed, for a number of reasons. One is that it truly is a return, the first new studio album for Toxik in no fewer than thirty-three years. That's because 2020's Kinetic Closure is a re-recording album, in which the current line-up took on a collection of songs from the first pair, presumably during COVID. The other is that this is seriously good, deceptively so because it took a little while for me to truly come to grips with what it's doing. And that's as an album, because I'm almost in shock at how immediate songs like Feeding Frenzy and Straight Razor are.

What old listeners should know is that this is even more technical and progressive than they used to be. I went back to dip my toes into the first two albums, which I haven't heard in decades, and it feels like they've taken everything they did and squared it. There's no major shift in approach, but this is emphatically more. And while that's clear from the opening title track, with its fascinating shifts in guitar tone as it finishes up and the hymn it briefly becomes in the middle, it's even more overt on Feeding Frenzy, which lives up to its frantic title.

I seem to alternate between reviewing thrash metal albums where the songs are annoyingly stuck in mid tempo and those where everything's refreshingly fast. Feeding Frenzy is notably faster. It's alternately shred heaven and churning pit fodder. Listening to this song is what the water ought to feel like when a bleeding antelope is dropped into a shark tank. Your reaction is likely to be abrupt shock as you try to figure out what just happened around you. The same thing happens, albeit to a slightly lesser extent, with Straight Razor, which is speed metal from the Agent Steel playbook, and the escalation in Devil in the Mirror.

Needless to say, the band here is tight, because they have to be to play music of this complexity. It may not surprise to find that the relatively new band behind founder member Josh Christian, who has remained on guitar throughout every line-up, isn't without technical experience. In particular, Jim DeMaria, who handles the drums here, is the current drummer with Heathen and has played live with Demolition Hammer. He joined in 2016 while new fish Eric van Druten arrived on rhythm guitar in 2019, so they've had a few years to get inside each others' musical skins.

Dis Morta isn't an easy album to come to grips with. There's a lot here, sure, but it's how it seems to all happen at once that's disorientating. What's odd is that it isn't the overload that takes us aback, as it can be with bands like Fleshgod Apocalypse or Ghost Cries; it's the way it changes on a dime, as if it enjoys teasing us and then slipping through our fingers. Hyper Reality is fascinating, an artistic collage of samples, jagged chords and dissonance. It shifts from peaceful to frantic and there are some eye-opening vocal acrobatics that arrive entirely out of the blue. It feels modern, even futuristic, so Voivod shouldn't take long to manifest as a comparison.

Given that they don't entirely restrict their sound to the progressive thrash metal that serves as the bedrock, there are other names worthy of mention that might seem odd to place alongside a Voivod or an Agent Steel. There's a lot of Crimson Glory here, both in the vocals of new singer Ron Iglesias, who takes the already high pitched style of his predecessors and, like everyone else here, amps it up further, and also in the theatricality of some of the songs, especially the first minute or so of Devil in the Mirror, which is like a Broadway musical but darker and heavier. They go further into power metal too, especially on the closer, Judas, which reminds of Blind Guardian.

The question is probably whether your brain will shut down when hearing Toxik. Feeding Frenzy is worthy of replacing Slayer's Angel of Death as the go to brain meltdown song to put in front of the sort of YouTube reactors who haven't heard anything heavier than AC/DC yet. You got a kick out of Thunderstruck? Oh, you'll love Feeding Frenzy! The sheer pitch of what Iglesias does here is going to be a polariser too, because I'm sure a lot of people, even old school thrash fans, are going to be overwhelmed by his voice. But, if you get past those things intact, then this is likely to be the sort of album that's not going to leave you alone. You'll keep coming back to it for a couple of listens to see what emerges from it that time. And another. And... it's going to be a gift that keeps on giving.

Naked Soldier - Naked Soldier (2022)

Country: Switzerland
Style: Stoner/Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 Aug 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram

From Sixteentimes Music in Switzerland, who released Carson's The Wilful Pursuit of Ignorance in April, come Naked Soldier, which is a phrase you'll want to google with caution. Clearly, this Naked Soldier have listened to a lot of Clutch in their time and they emulate their style well, delivering a solid nine slabs of hard rock with a massive streak of stoner rock. The catch is that I also reviewed the latest Clutch album, as recently as last week and, while this rocks as hard and as efficiently, if not more so with additional fuzz, it pales in comparison to the versatility dished out on Sunrise on Slaughter Beach.

Green Pool is a perfect opener because it explains what the band do. They're such a wall of sound sort of stoner rock that I expected them to be a power trio and, sure enough, they aren't. They're the five musicians this depth of sound truly warrants, with a twin guitar assault from Jonas Nann and Oliver Corrodi and an easy to track bass from Noé Burger. Janick Sidler plays his drums with a hard hitting patience and that leaves a raucous Patrik Caminada to handle mike duties without a further instrument to steal his attentions.

It's the guitars that hit us first, because one of them deepens the back end while the other points the way forward on any song, so pointing their haboob of sound our way with a heavy melody right there in front. Then it's Caminada who takes over because he has a commanding set of pipes. It's a clean vocal but also one that's as abrasive as sandpaper, appropriately if he's going to be the voice of a mile high approaching dust storm. We almost need to put on masks to listen to him. I'd love to hear him play a revival tent preacher in a movie.

And so they go. The upside to this album is that they've found an excellent sound. The downside is that they've mostly only found one at this point. These songs mostly do similar things in a similar way and so they combine well to form the album without much likelihood of standing out from the crowd.

There are exceptions, of course. Wicked Man slows the pace a little. The title track slows it down a lot and gets janglier to boot. This is the first real variance in the formula six songs into a nine song album and it's still not a wild leap. The only wild leap arrives with the closer, Love Tree, which is an epic, well, the epic of the album, and, with apologies to Caminada who does such a good job here, the best this release gets is the first two minutes and change of that track before he joins in.

Before I talk about that, I don't want to suggest that there's absolutely nothing here otherwise. It has to be mentioned that the riffing is excellent, albeit so consistently excellent that it becomes a little unremarkable. There's another one. And another. Oh, and another. Cool. There are plenty of solos to highlight too and I'd call out those in Walk Your Way and Satellite as my favourites. Talking of Walk Your Way, I absolutely love the second half of this one, when we can easily follow both the guitars and the bass in different directions at exactly the same time. It's my favourite song here.

But, yeah, there's Love Tree and that glorious intro. It starts teasingly as if one of the guitarists is trying to turn his instrument into a flute, the sound hovering in the air with firm intent. The other deepens the sound, as it tends to on this album, and periodic distant cymbals threaten to turn this into a song at some point. What's great about it is that they take their sweet time. Even when the whole band joins in, it's so they can not so much duel but solo separately, always at a distance. The spatial awareness of this song is glorious, because it feels like the band are so far apart when they begin that they can't even hear each other but they grow together until there's a coherent sense of unified purpose. And then, three and a half minutes in, we get the song.

It doesn't hurt that it's a good song too, though it can't quite match the promise of that intro. It's a great way to wrap up a self-titled debut album. This is what we can do, world. Like and follow us and all that jazz and especially come to see us live. I have a feeling this band are going to be quite the force to be reckoned with on stage, as indeed are Clutch. They're never the fastest or even the heaviest band on any bill but they own their stage anyway and the pit gets seriously moving. I can imagine these gentlemen from Zürich doing exactly the same thing.

Friday 14 October 2022

Skid Row - The Gang's All Here (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Hard & Heavy
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 14 Oct 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Today's reminders that I'm getting old are that Sebastian Bach not only isn't in Skid Row right now, meaning that the gang technically isn't all here, but he hasn't been for over a quarter of a century now and he isn't even the the longest serving vocalist in the band, his decade rather skimpy compared to a sixteen year stint from Johnny Solinger. Now, Solinger died last year, so it isn't him singing on the record either. The new fish is Erik Grönwall, who's quite the success story, given that he auditioned for Swedish Idol in 2009 singing 18 and Life solo as as a dorky twenty-one year old who was still growing into himself. Now he's singing it to the world as the frontman for Skid Row. By the way, he won the entire show in 2009.

And he sounds damn good here, which helps to rejuvenate the band on record, as I'm sure it will on stage. It doesn't hurt that he clearly grew up listening to Sebastian Bach, because the escalations and sustains sound very familiar, but he's no clone. He's a solid replacement. Behind him are a trio of long term members, guitarist Dave Sabo and bassist Rachel Bolan, who co-founded the band in 1986, and guitarist Scotti Hill who joined a year later. And that leaves drummer Rob Hammersmith who may only be the most recent of seven but the one who's occupied that seat the longest.

I can't say there's anything new here, but this band do what they do very well. There's some biting guitarwork on the opener, Hell or High Water, setting the stage for more later. Bolan's bass kicks off the title track in style, as it does The Lights Come On. There's an urgency to Not Dead Yet that escalates those two strong openers to another level. If there was ever a fear that the first studio album from this band in sixteen years wouldn't be heavy, then this along with the grinding riff to Time Bomb right after it should end that. Yes, there's still some hard rock here in the vein of their debut album, but it's the heavier follow-up, Slave to the Grind, that's the real template in play.

And template is a good choice of word, I think. There's not a lot of variety here. The best songs are driving but playful, most obviously Not Dead Yet and The Lights Come On, which both carry a little Mötley Crüe swagger, but they otherwise don't sound particularly different from anything else on offer. They just have riffs that speak a little louder and, in the case of the latter, glorious bass from Bolan to guide it and a neat scream from Grönwall to wrap it up that highlights why hiring a talent show winner shouldn't be questioned. He can do this. That's all we need to know. For now.

If churning out ten variations on a good theme is all you want from Skid Row, then this will do the job for you. Well, nine variations, because October's Song is a power ballad, but the point holds. It all does what it does unashamedly and with a certain amount of panache. It feels fresh right now, the clear passion Grönwall has for singing in this style rubbing off on his band members who have been playing in it for decades. But, realistically, it's not going to stay fresh for long. This is a solid return for a band who have been away too long but they're going to need to vary the formula next time out to keep that freshness.

And, if you're looking for that variety already, then this isn't going to be the album that convinces you that Skid Row are going to bring anything more to the table than they have already. I enjoyed this, but the songs blurred together on a first listen and didn't start to delineate themselves on a second or third time through. The only thing that further listens did were to highlight how strong October's Song is, even though it's a ballad. It's the only song that grew on me, though it's fair to add that none of the others vanished with familiarity. That's why I'm staying with my initial 7/10.

Tankard - Pavlov's Dawgs (2022)

Country: Germany
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 30 Sep 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Metal Archives | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

When I was a teenager, Tankard always looked like they were having more fun than anyone else. It wasn't hard to see bands drinking beer because that was a part of the culture, but Tankard went a step further and wrote songs about drinking beer too, at a point when other thrash bands were all moving away from Satanism to the impending nuclear apocalypse and Metallica in particular were writing deeper lyrics. It was a refreshing break to throw on a Tankard album. Now I have grandkids and I'm in my second half century, it's somewhat quaint to see that they're still writing songs such as Beerbarians or the title track. In fact, as much as Lockdown Forever is very much about now, it's a rather timeless song.

What matters is that it still seems like they're having fun. Not every song here is about beer and a few are surprisingly poetic, like the environmentally focused Veins of Terra, but even at their most serious, they seem to be enjoying what they do. Maybe their liquid diet has kept them from taking themselves too seriously! Certainly they've never left the scene over four decades, even if they do have day jobs to pay the bills, and there have been shockingly few line-up changes, with two of the four members consistent since their founding 1982. And, crucially, they still play their thrash metal at a predominantly speedy pace, any slower section there to keep everything fresh.

And so it didn't take long for me to realise that I wasn't just enjoying this album just because it's a solid thrash album with fast riffs and clean vocals, my happy place for as long as Tankard have put out albums, I was enjoying it because the musicians who made it were enjoying it too. Who else in 2022 is going to write a song like Metal Cash Machine that talks about an increasingly crazy range of merchandise? And who else could write a song like that and not have us rolling our eyes? It even has a seriously good riff and the way it grows into a call and response song at the end is joyous.

What's more, they throw out neatly acerbic songs like Ex-Fluencer and Dark Self Intruder with just as much ease, as if thoroughly topical subjects like social media as an on screen job, the lockdowns for COVID-19 and a post-truth world of alternate facts have been around forever. These don't only cover surprisingly deep topics for Tankard, they do so with neat turns of phrase and some glorious lines that we just aren't ever going to see from anyone else. I adore Lockdown Forever, which isn't just the expected laddish response to getting stuck at home for the safety of the nation. Sure, we can stay home, drink beer and eat pizza, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. "Knitting and yoga! Never felt ashamed!" is telling. "It's my favourite outbreak!"

I was always going to review this album, but I can't say that I was entirely looking forward to it. The presence of Tankard in the Teutonic Big Four never seemed quite right to me, even if they were an important part of the rise of thrash metal in Germany in the early to mid eighties. I bought those early albums and, even when I was enjoying them in my teenage bedroom, I wasn't thinking of the band as ranking with the mighty Kreator or my personal favourites Destruction. However, I cannot remember the last time I had this much fun with a thrash album. I certainly didn't with the recent releases from both those bands.

So, at a time when the world's tortured with apparently insurmountable problems and nobody in a position of power seems to be doing anything to solve them, this is the positive antidote that I'd not realised I needed. It plays well as a thrash album, the band on the top of their game musically, throwing out effortlessly good riff after effortlessly good riff and keeping nearly an hour of songs utterly fresh with adept touches like the playful pauses in Memento. But it plays well as a pick-me-up too. It ends with On the Day I Die, a look back at a life well lived with no regrets. Pour yourself a glass of your favourite tipple and start this playing. Sláinte!

Thursday 13 October 2022

Trust - Propaganda (2022)

Country: France
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 30 Sep 2022
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Wikipedia | YouTube

Bernie Bonvoisin is back with another Trust album, this time with an incendiary cover that I can't say isn't timely. As always, everything here is in French and I'm not seeking out translations of the lyrics, so I can only assume that there's plenty of sociopolitical commentary in play. That wouldn't be surprising for Trust. Certainly the verbose title of the opening track, Cette prière sur tes lèvres et ce sang sur tes mains translates to This Prayer on Your Lips and This Blood on Your Hands. It's no stretch to imagine what that's about.

I did go as far as throwing the band's French Wikipedia page into Google Translate, as the English language version hasn't noticed this album yet, even though it came out on a major label, Season of Mist last month. As with their previous album Fils de lutte and, I believe, the one before that, it was recorded pretty much live, with minimal overdubs, the entire recording process taking only a week, and that live urgency is there in the sound. It's easy to carried away by songs like Le jour se lèvera and Salaud d'pauvre. There are also lots of moods here, as if this grew in the playing.

I found that initially I started out listening to individual songs. The opener is a strong one, Bernie explaining things to us. There's a voice box here and some soulful backing vocals, that are one of my favourite aspects to this album—I wish I knew who to credit for them—and the result feels like a seventies song that we don't remember. That's certainly the goal of the next track, which is faux early AC/DC. It's Tout ce qui nous sépare, or All That Separates Us, and it's as tight as it needs to be.

La première pierre, or The First Stone, brings those female backing vocals back and they're joyous. They're just as great on Dimanche soir au bord du gouffre (Sunday Night on the Brink) and Petite elle (Little She) and especially on Les vagins impatients, where they don't sound remotely like the Impatient Vaginas of the title, even though they really cease to be backing vocals here to take on the most prominent role, if not the lead. What's more, it's not an impatient song, not mellow but certainly a lot closer to it than impatient. It's one of many highlights for me, as indeed it was last time out too.

Talking of Petite elle, it's a bluesy ballad with an tinge of country and it highlights how the moods shift here. This is a rollercoaster of an album, a relatively calm one because they don't rock out to the max as often as we might expect, but it takes us up and down and we get caught up in the ride until we lose track of the fact that there are individual songs and start to just imagine the album as the soundtrack of our lives. I guess that's what closer Ma vie is all about, simply My Life. To the French hard rock audience, I guess Trust are a serious part of their lives, having been around for a long time, formed in 1977.

Bonvoisin is one of two founder members who have been with the band throughout, even though they've split up at least four times. The other is guitarist Norbert Krief, who's as rock solid as ever here. I'd suggest that, even with some of the harder rocking numbers located at the beginning of the album, this feels like Bonvoisin's show early but gradually shifts to Krief and Ismalia Diop, the other guitarist nowadays.

They nail that Angus Young guitar sound in Tout ce qui nous sépare and render it even more old school rock 'n' roll on Dimanche soir au bord du gouffre, which is arguably the point where this becomes a guitar album. Le jour se lèvera opens with vicious slices of riffage while Petite elle chills out with glorious swells. Both feature astounding solos, as does Le conteur, The Storyteller. They even leap into a punk blitzkrieg on L'Europe des 27, Bonvoisin reasserting his prominence behind the mike.

From there, I gave up taking notes because this feels like Trust just having a blast in the studio and it's blissful, as if they'd stopped writing songs and just let the music flow through them. Instead I'd acknowledged how much better this is than the last album. That's not to suggest that Fils de lutte wasn't a good one because it was, but it wasn't a great one and this is. I was lost halfway through and it was even better on the second time through. This is top notch Trust and I'm going to need to spend the next couple of days with it feeding my body. Does this come in IV form?

Tad Morose - March of the Obsequeious (2022)

Country: Sweden
Style: Progressive Power Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 26 Aug 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Wikipedia

I vaguely remember Tad Morose as a progressive metal band in the nineties and there's certainly some of that approach still in their sound today, but they've quite clearly moved into power metal and it looks like that was happening as far back as 2003, while I wasn't paying attention. Wikipedia tells me that Modus Vivendi was their first power metal album—but their sixth over all— and that trend only continued with current singer Ronny Hemlin, who joined in 2008 from a fellow Swedish power metal band, Steel Attack. This is their tenth album and power metal is at the forefront for sure, though it's certainly not the only sound here.

There's still some prog metal in the opening title track, not least through Geoff Tate clearly being a major influence on Hemlin, though I heard a lot of Midnight from Crimson Glory here too and on lower sections he emphatically goes for resonance. It's a decent opener, with slower sections that churn in old school heavy metal fashion, but it feels longer than it is. Witches Dance continues the approach but feels more complete as a song. It's catchier and more memorable. Pandemonium is where this album grabbed me, because it adds a darker flavour to the sound too.

In fact, I might be willing to call Pandemonium up tempo doom, if that's even a thing, given that it has a particular strong doomy riff but a much faster beat and more neat high pitched vocals from Hemlin. There's some Kai Hansen here too in his voice and the music behind him dips into obvious Candlemass territory. I dig this one a lot and it may still be my favourite song from the album, even if some of the later material shines out too.

Everything feels like it's pretty consistent in quality, but I'm not convinced that's really the case. I enjoyed every song, once I'd got on board with the Queensrÿche meets Gamma Ray with a crunch mindset. However, I kept adding notes on those three songs but nothing on the next bunch. Maybe I was just caught up in the album, but there's not a lot new to add on the second three songs that isn't there on the first three. It's late in the album that I started to realise how much the openings of songs were standing out for me. Hemlin's such an obvious attention grab that we kind of forget how impressive the guitars are, courtesy of sole founder member Christer Andersson and Markus Albertson, who joined in 2007.

They're not really intros, because they're mostly just introducing the riffs and setting what we'll hear later the songs in motion, but they stand out anyway. A Quilt of Shame has a neatly heavy riff and Legion's is excellent, with vocals that don't do what we expect from the very outset. These are songs that chug and soar at the same time, guitars taking care of the former and vocals the latter. Legion ends on a dime though, as if everyone forgot the next bit at the same time. It's one of the most Queensrÿche songs here, right down to the "Revolution's coming!" lyrics and it's a grower.

As I listened through again, songs like A Trail of Sins started to manifest as highlights, but what I'd call out the most is just how elegant this album sounds, something I think they took from Crimson Glory, not only because it's right there to hear but also because one of the band members in their photo on Metal Archives is wearing one of their shirts. Initially I heard them in the vocals, because of Hemlin's range, but it's there in the elegance of the music too. Add a large dose of Queensrÿche in the vocals and the songwriting and heavy it up a little with some heavy/doom metal, especially in a number of the riffs and you have a very palatable album.

It wasn't immediate for me, though Pandemonium and A Quilt of Shame stood out on a first listen, but it keeps on growing on me. I'm a few times through now and it's starting to feel like an album I heard and loved long ago but haven't heard in a while. Now I'm reconnecting to it, it's resurfacing all the emotions I felt way back when. And, as I write that, I start to realise how long it's been since I've listened to the Crimson Glory debut in entirety. I should fix that soon but I want to give this an extra runthrough first. And maybe another one.

Wednesday 12 October 2022

Muse - Will of the People (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 26 Aug 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Here's another major modern British rock band from the big mainstream gap in my knowledge. I'd bumped into Radiohead often, but somehow avoided people like Coldplay, Muse and Placebo, with the erroneous belief that they were simultaneously alternative and popular, which my brain can't compute. I should have checked them out long ago, of course, but too many bands, too little time. Apocalypse Later Music is giving me the excuse to do that now and my ears are being opened.

Of those bands, based on their most recent releases, I think Muse have to be my favourite. They're just as rooted in the music of Queen than the Darkness and, given who plays drums for the latter, I would suggest that's really telling. And they take every aspect from Queen, including the diversity that underpinned everything they did. Liberation is surely the most obvious nod to them this time out, from the Freddy Mercury-esque solo piano and vocal opening to the operatic vocal harmonies as it builds, but it's hardly the only one. Just listen to the guitar solo on You Make Me Feel Like It's Halloween and tell me that's not taken right out of the Brian May playbook!

In fact, Queen are all over this album, even if they're clearly not the only influence the band wants to channel. They're there on the opening title track, a stomping old school glam rock anthem, as if we're right back on Top of the Pops with the Sweet and Mud and the other legend from the era we don't mention any more. There's definitely some John Kongos in there too and some gospel too, a hand clapping pop take on it like Spirit in the Sky. It's impossible to ignore.

They're there on Verona, an emotional pop song driven by a Queen-like keyboard line that just has to have been somewhere on The Works, especially with the beat that joins it halfway through, and with another soaring vocal from Matt Bellamy from owes plenty to Mercury. They're there on the closer, We are Fucking Fucked, which, as its title might suggest, is as alt rock as this gets, but it's a grower, moving from a brooding tone into a Prodigy-esque celebration. It's the staccato nature of the backing vocals during the frantic breakdown at the end that's most Queen.

And, of course, they're there in Liberation, which is so Queen that it's shocking to acknowledge it's not a cover. The falsetto notes Matt Bellamy hits surely aren't as natural for him as they were for Mercury but he's certainly able to do the business and make them work. It's fascinating to hear a band that is so obviously influenced by one band but who take so many different aspects of their sound. The four songs I've mentioned are from different genres, but they're all Muse and they all have roots in Queen.

That ought to highlight how Muse aren't one trick ponies and the diversity on show here goes far beyond the songs I've mentioned. Compliance is arena pop, with slicing electronica, even with the rock beat and escalation like a rock song. Won't Stand Down is another pop/rock song that heavies up as it goes, which seems to be a habit for Muse. Ghosts (How Can I Move On) does that too, from being a ballad with a piano like a waterfall to being a clear power ballad.

That electronica trawls in a lot. We can almost hear the light show behind Compliance. Euphoria is poppy and driving and European. You Make Me Feel Like It's Halloween adds an organ to the Euro disco mindset, which is fascinating, especially when you add some Michael Jackson too. It's a funky take on the season and it surely has to end up with an animated video. And, as mentioned, there's plenty of crystal clear piano here too. It looks like Bellamy isn't merely the vocalist but the guitarist and the keyboardist too. He does a heck of a lot here, though there are other band members: Chris Wolstenholme on bass and Dominic Howard on drums.

Kill or Be Killed starts out with the most intense electronica and remains heavy otherwise, easily the heaviest song on offer. Initially it's simultaneously edgy and catchy like System of a Down, but it calms a little except for a frantic beat from Howard, and then crunches in with heavy guitar. The heavy riff in the second half reminds of a slow part from early Metallica and that's a clearly metal guitar solo too. Muse may get so poppy that they reach disco but they get heavy too. They have an impressive range and that's what I like about them the most.

And so, yet again, after concentrating so much on discovering obscure gems of bands to introduce to the world (and me), I find myself late to a mainstream party. This is Muse's ninth studio album and they've been huge since their second, Origin of Symmetry in 2001, so I have no excuses, but I'm very happy to have finally started to catch up.

Spirit Adrift - 20 Centuries Gone (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 19 Aug 2022
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I've enjoyed the last couple of Spirit Adrift albums, because Nate Garrett, who used to be the only member of the band, has been knocking them out relatively often. I gave Divided by Darkness and Enlightened in Eternity a 7/10 each, but that's a little misleading because they're albums I enjoy a great deal. They're traditional heavy metal, played with a strong emphasis on doom but with a lot progressive influences, and that's kind of against the grain in the U.S. right now, where a number of websites who should know better are using New Wave of American Heavy Metal as a tag for the most prominent batch of nu metal divas instead of bands like Spirit Adrift, where it would apply.

This isn't another new album to follow on from the ones in 2019 and 2020, but it's album length and it opens with a couple of new tracks. I really dig Sorcerer's Fate, the opener, which mixes the clean Iron Maiden guitarwork and heavy Black Sabbath riffing with a pacy doom feel and a psychedelic second half that's magnetic. This one feels like an epic of a journey, though it's only five and a half minutes in length. If this is what Garrett is writing nowadays, I'm even more eager for the next full length album.

The other new track is Mass Formation Psychosis, which is another good one, even if it hasn't stuck its claws into me as deeply as the opener. Again, there's a lot here, in its six and a half minutes, an impressive leap from a couple of acoustic chords to plodding heavy riffs in a heartbeat to get it on the road. It's a monster of a track, rhythmically stomping everything in its path, until it slows down into a Sabbath groove and mostly stays there. It's a less ambitious track for sure, but it's played as if Garrett and whichever of his new colleagues got on board in time really mean it. All of them are new to the band this year.

So that's a pretty impressive single, which is one way we can look at this release: two new tracks a new album would be proud to boast. However, instead of that approach, Garrett decided to tackle a diverse set of covers to boost this up to album length. There are half a dozen of them and I'd say that they count as unusual choices, if not the true deep cuts that Andy McCoy dug out of his mind for Jukebox Junkie. For instance, there's a Pantera track here and, as you probably guessed, it's a song from Vulgar Display of Power, but it may be the last such you'd guess, being the power ballad Hollow. It's an interesting choice that makes us wonder why and the others do likewise.

One reason might be the lyrics, because they're about personal loss, as are the lyrics to the track before it here, Type O Negative's Everything Dies. It's hard not to read something into those two being the first two covers here. Suddenly there's catharsis in the Hollow guitar solo. Sure, anyone playing in doom metal is going to drench themselves in darkness but this choice seems unlikely to be coincidence. I hope everything's copacetic with Garrett. I should add that I've heard both these songs before, but don't know either well, so I'm not hearing the originals in my brain as I listen to these versions. I wonder if Garrett was drawn to each for containing very different sections.

I do, however, know the other four very well and my questions are more about why such a diverse set of choices, questions that I probably answered right there. There's Escape, from my favourite Metallica album, Ride the Lightning, and it's always been an underheard gem in my mind, even if Hetfield hates it with a passion, so I am very happy to see it trawled out by Spirit Adrift. However, Garrett can't resist shifting to the riff in Creeping Death to fade out, as if he was at least a little unsure of his choice. Either would be solid and it's not surprising to me that he chose a Metallica song from the old days, given his choice of styles.

However, the remaining three are seventies rock songs and they're much greater departures for a traditional heavy/doom metal band. They're not the most famous songs by their respective bands and often not the most famous on their respective albums, but anyone who grew up listening to a diet of classic rock in the seventies or eighties ought to recognise them immediately: Waiting for an Alibi, Nasty Dogs and Funky Kings and Poison Whiskey. What's telling to me is that they're not reinvented here, just played in the styles of the original, right down to the guitar tone on that ZZ track, though the Skynyrd does end up in Maiden territory. I don't think there's any deep meaning here, just Garrett having fun. As did I listening to them.

Tuesday 11 October 2022

Amon Amarth - The Great Heathen Army (2022)

Country: Sweden
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 5 Aug 2022
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There's a genre of crime fiction called cozy mysteries, the opposite of hardboiled detective stories because all the awful things that happen—and they're still rooted in murder—are kept away from the fore and the often female, often amateur sleuths quietly figure out whodunit without a lot of fuss. And then they get back to their cats and their chocolate and whatever signature dishes they have in their ovens. The reason I mention this is because it's hard not to like them. They're like an antidote to a down day. Just pick one up and suddenly you're turning the last page and the clouds have receded a little. And Amon Amarth are kind of cozy death metal for much the same reason.

I find it really hard to not like Amon Amarth. Everything they release is immediately accessible, as pleasant on a first listen as on a tenth. Their best songs can take root in our skulls to come out and play at random moments that we don't expect, but the majority sound good going in but promptly leave again to make room for the next one. And that means that, like most Amon Amarth albums, I enjoyed this one from the opener, Get in the Ring, to the closer, The Serpent's Tail three quarters of an hour later, and then promptly forgot whodunit.

Maybe part of this is because their focus on Viking history and mythology lends a brotherly sense of cameraderie to their sound. They've never been Viking metal, per se, but it's not hard to listen to a song like Find a Way or Make One and imagine yourself sitting in a centuries old wooden pub clinking large glasses of mead with whoever's sat around your table. Some of it is in the pleasant melodies wrought by guitarists Oliva Mikkonen and Johan Söderberg. It doesn't matter how fast or slow Jocke Wallgren plays his drums, those melodies weave around the room like magic.

And, quite frankly, a lot of it comes from the vocals of Johan Hegg, one of three founder members still in the band today. He sings in a gruff growl that doesn't carry any of the demonic overtones of the early death metal genre. He's like a giant teddy bear. We appreciate his skill in delivery, especially when he adds a narrative section in The Serpent's Tail, but he never sounds remotely threatening. We sit back and listen and, when he's done, we just ask what he's drinking and get the next round in.

All of which means that this is another Amon Amarth album. If they're your favourite band—and I can imagine that a good percentage of their fans consider them their favourite band—then this is another one. It doesn't do a single thing that you haven't heard already but you're going to love it anyway because they do what they do incredibly well. They're so tight that we don't even notice it any more. It's just a given, just like the subject matter and the riffs and every other aspect, right down to the pristine production by Andy Sneap.

The rest of us, who can't help but enjoy them but don't believe that the sun rises and falls on their say, want something else and there aren't too many moments that stand out. Oden Owns You All starts out as one, because the album suddenly feels urgent, the drums faster, the guitars deeper and, well, a little threat apparent. The beautifully intricate guitar duel during the midsection of Dawn of Norsemen is another. And Saxons and Vikings is the pinnacle of more.

That's not because it feels playful from the outset, though that doesn't hurt. It's because, oh hey, that's not Johan Hegg's voice all of a sudden. And, every old metalhead will immediately know it's Biff Byford of Saxon, his appearance perhaps heralded by the song's title. Saxon have got heavier over the years, but hearing Byford over a comfortable melodic death metal backdrop felt as if he had come home. He's a natural. Maybe Saxon should heavy up a little more!

And that's about it. Nothing I say here will make any difference to whether you pick this up or not or indeed how much you'll enjoy it. It is what it is and that'll be enough if you're an Amon Amarth fan. And yeah, this wasn't the greatest day but I feel a little better for having listened to this. And yet on I go to the next album, feeling no real need to listen to The Great Heathen Army again.

Mike Tramp - For Første Gang (2022)

Country: Denmark
Style: Melodic Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 2 Sep 2022
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Mike Tramp is probably still best known for being the singer in glam metal band White Lion, but it wasn't his first band and it wasn't his last either, as he moved into Freak of Nature, who were very good indeed. He's been putting out solo albums for the last couple of decades but I've only heard the most reent one, Second Time Around, which contained re-recordings of songs previously on his 2009 album, Mike Tramp & The Rock 'n' Roll Circuz. It was decent stuff, firmly on the lighter side of classic rock, reminding of people like Jon Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen or John Cougar Mellencamp. It ended up averaged out to a heavy Bryan Adams sound.

This one, on the other hand, averages out to a light James Taylor sound. There are only ballads on offer and they range from Eurovision-style pop ballads to, well, not much heavier rock ballads. The best is probably the opener, Det Jeg Var, which could be a rock song if it wanted to be—it doesn't—and kept on growing on me. It didn't seem like much to start with, but I may have just needed to adjust, given that I've been listening to Behemoth and Amon Amarth, and get back into a melodic rock mindset. Halfway through, I was really digging it and, by the end, I'd started humming along.

For a while, it worked for me. Vejkort is infectious too, another rock song and one with guitars, an occasion worthy of note here because the most frequent instrument here beyond Tramp's voice is a piano. It also has oddly sticky sounding drums to keep a beat, again not something to take at all for granted here, as the drums fade in importance with the album until they're gone entirely on a closer, called Album, that places Tramp against piano and a mist of orchestration. I can't say that I didn't enjoy the soft brass that takes both Album—the song—and the album, home, but I'd expect it more on an early seventies Tom Waits release.

It's worth mentioning here that one important angle both works for me and doesn't and that's an entirely Danish lyric sheet. Tramp's prior dozen solo albums were all recorded in English but this is entirely in his native Danish. From a vocal standpoint, that's great because, as good as he sounds in a foreign tongue, there's a level of intonation in play that's difficult to find unless a language is completely second nature and has been since being a toddler. He sounds amazing here, better yet than usual. The catch is that I have no idea what he's singing, because I don't speak Danish, and it would seem that the words are important here. They certainly were for Tom Waits.

So, without knowing what the words mean, and assuming that they're rather meaningful, I have to rely on the music and that's tough here because it just isn't the focus. Whoever's performing here does the job they're asked to do, so I have no complaints. It's just that this album is all about voice and, to a much lesser degree, solo piano, and, while I can happily soothe an evening away with one of Suzanne Ciani's Pianissimo releases, I can't even dip into that listening mode here. I'm missing one of the most important angles to the album.

And that means that the second half fades for me until that brass shows up on Album and the first half shifts away from me with the title track. For Første Gang For Altid is much softer than the two openers, being a ballad that feels romantic to me. It's the most Eurovision song here, not only for its soft pop/rock ballad approach but because there's disco creeping in around the edges and ooh and aah backing vocals. They'd have lapped this up in the seventies, as indeed they did when Mike Tramp was the lead singer for pop band Mabel, who won the Danish Song Contest in 1978. It's not my sort of thing though.

And, as good as this is from a subjective standpoint, it really ends up firmly on the not my sort of thing list. I really enjoyed hearing Tramp's voice again and especially hearing it sing in his native language, but this may be the softest album I've ever reviewed and it may remain that way. I liked Det Jeg Var and Jeg Holder Fast and I'd actually put them both above Vejkort, which is as heavy as this album gets, not much of a bar in the same way that I'm sure there's a most brutal Tellytubby but it's not likely to be fronting a street gang, but the rest would seem light even for fans of Bryan Adams.

Monday 10 October 2022

Clutch - Sunrise on Slaughter Beach (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 16 Sep 2022
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This thirteenth studio album from Maryland hard rock touring machines Clutch sounds good from the outset but it gets better. I liked Slaughter Beach more than I did Red Alert (Boss Metal Zone). I liked Mountain of Bone more than I did Slaughter Beach. And I had a blast with Nosferatu Madre, which grabbed me immediately and is still probably my favourite song here. It's a simple song but a highly effective one from its opening riff, which plays up the Sabbath influence that's never far away with Clutch. The rolling drums over that simple guitar work so well. It's over and done in 3:27 and, if Mercy Brown hadn't kicked in with bells, I'd have just repeated it for a while.

Red Alert is a up tempo opener and it sounds good, especially when its urgency dissipates and the breakdown sounds fascinating, maybe in the vaguely mystical way suggested by the cover art. The kinda sorta title track is quintessential Clutch, at once overtly simple but deceptively ingenious. It flows along on another ocean of grooves, just like everything here because there are few bands in the business who are so effortless with their conjuration of groove. Mountain of Bone has one of my favourite grooves here, built out of power chords and rolling drums. They're all good songs.

But then Nosferatu Madre arrives and the album levels up. As it continues, we're treated to a set of tracks that all sound immediately recognisable as Clutch but shift into slightly different musical territories. We Strive for Excellence is another urgent song but it's sassy too, which isn't a typical combination and not an easy one to master. Skeletons on Mars finds a spacy groove, some synths adding to an impressive use of feedback to conjure the scene. This one absolutely demands more listens, because one isn't enough. Three Golden Horns follows suit, seeping into our skins.

After Nosferatu Madre, which I find myself having to deliberately keep away from just so that I can review the rest of the album, my favourites here are Mercy Brown and Jackhammer Our Names, a very different pair of tracks that move even further from the default Clutch sound. It's perhaps telling that the former is at the very heart of the album and the latter closes it out.

Mercy Brown feels epic and, I guess, for Clutch it is, given that it runs an expansive 5:15. Yeah, that doesn't sound like much but this is Clutch and not Dream Theater. That's almost two minutes more than Nosferatu Madre and a minute long than anything else on offer. These nine songs wrap up in not much over half an hour because this band has no fat on its bones. What Mercy Brown has are a few elements that shift into proggy territory for them, not just those bells but a second half with a Clare-Torry-style vocalisation solo over the music.

Jackhammer Our Names feels rather like Nick Cave, because it's brooding and poetic and also for a few very recognisable chord progressions. the haunting vocalisation that floats behind the late parts of the song helps that too. It's the quietest piece of music here, but that doesn't mean that it isn't heavy, because it is very heavy, just in a different way. Mercy Brown adds the departures to their heavy sound. This one replaces their heavy sound with a different heavy sound. While it felt a little derivative on a first listen, it keeps speaking to me on repeats.

And, quite frankly, so does everything here, though the early songs are taking longer to engage to the full degree. I don't think they're just overshadowed by Nosferatu Madre—yeah, I finally took those self-imposed restraints off and went back to it to find it as glorious as ever. They're merely Clutch songs that sound like Clutch songs, while everything else adds a little something new. Last time I saw Clutch live was in support to Motörhead, which immediately dates that gig. It's great to see that, thirteen albums in, they're still absolutely on top of their game.