Friday 25 November 2022

King's X - Three Sides of One (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Pop/Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 2 Sep 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Here's another band I unsurprisingly remember from back in the day who have released a heck of a lot more music that I'd previously known about. Surprisingly, though, I wasn't aware of their first album, because it was released under the name of Sneak Preview five years before the true debut I remember, Out of the Silent Planet in 1988. I'll have to seek that one out and see what it was like as a precursor to the band I know. Their second album, Gretchen Goes to Nebraska obtained a lot of positive buzz a year after the debut and I remember it being an excellent and varied album.

This is certainly varied too but some of it left me dry and some of it took a while to convince me of its merit. This is thirty-three years on, during which time they've released a further ten albums, a few of which I bumped into at some point in time but, tellingly, not one of which I remember at all. However, it's a been fourteen years since the prior album, XV in 2008, so I had high hopes for this one. Certainly, the musical talent of Doug Pinnick, Ty Tabor and Jerry Gaskill remains obvious, but the songwriting here is often lacking a certain something.

The easiest way to explain what is to send you to second single Give It Up, where everything is right there on display. It's a sassier song from the outset, a tighter song but one with more flair. There's a lot to enjoy in this lean and mean number that clocks in at three minutes on the dot, as if it's the perfect radio single. It kicks off with a wailing guitar from Tabor and finds its groove immediately, with a funky riff and funkier beat. The extra layers added in post are perfect, busying it up without ever becoming too much. It's easily the highlight of this album, but it's a long way out on its own.

In fact, the one that probably ranks next is the opener, Let It Rain, also the first single, which feels sparse in comparison. To be fair, it felt sparse anyway, resonating power chords replacing a riff in the verses and simple if emphatic backing during the chorus, before nodding to Led Zeppelin for a memorable three chord progression. It's not a bad song at all, even if Give It Up seems far better, but it's also hardly representative of the album as a whole, especially when followed by Flood, Pt. 1, the heaviest piece on offer, even if it doesn't stay there.

It's the Beatles harmonies on Flood, Pt. 1 that point the way, because the Beatles are all over this album, the more so the longer it runs. King's X aren't at Enuff Z'Enuff levels of emulation, but it's clear what they were channelling when they wrote this album because they weren't trying to hide it. It's very much a pop or pop rock album, Give It Up aside, with melodies and harmonies paramount and only occasionally a need to add layers of contrast in a Saigon Kick fashion.

The most overtly Beatles-influienced songs on offer are Take the Time, a smooth and layered pop song, and Festival, which is far more abrasive and modern but still sounds like Britpop. That these two songs sit at the very heart of the album, ending side one and beginning side two, is surely not accidental. Certainly, I'd think that listeners who chose the Beatles over the Stones in that stupid either/or might dig much of what's left here, though some of it is surely filler. For every Holidays, there's a Nothing But the Truth. For every Every Everywhere, there's an All God's Children.

However, the second half of the album is a grower, full of invention even if it's often on the lighter side. Every time I listened through the first side, Give It Up just raced on effortlessly all the more, Let It Rain tried valiantly to keep up and the rest mostly vanished behind me. However, every time I listened through the second side, I found myself more impressed at how much imagination that's still on show so far into their career. Swipe Up and Holidays did little for me on a first listen but are favourites now, growing more on me every time. Watcher is subtle but still strong and the others aren't without their merits, even if they're lighter. I love the guitar on She Called Me Home.

It took me a long time to get past awarding this a 6/10. Eventually that second half grew enough to warrant a 7/10, but it'll feel far more solid if you're a a pop/rock fan and you prefer the Beatles to the Stones. You may end up adding more points too, but I'm not that generous.

Eternal Candle - Lava (2022)

Country: Iran
Style: Progressive Doom/Death Metal
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 13 Nov 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter | YouTube

One of the earliest albums I reviewed here at Apocalypse Later was The Carved Karma, the debut album from Iranian progressive doom/death metal band Eternal Candle. I'd stumbled across that sometime in 2018 and adored it, even though I hadn't considered Iran any sort of hotbed of metal activity. Four years on, I've reviewed other Iranian albums from a variety of genres, so it's not just Eternal Candle, but it took until last year for prog rock band Atravan to join them on an 8/10, thus making my Highly Recommended List for the year. Now, Eternal Candle are back with a follow-up to their debut, so I was hoping for it to make three for Iran.

While I'd never stopped listening to rock and metal, back in January 2019, I hadn't deep dived into what was going on across the world in a long time. With almost 1,200 highly varied albums behind me (and the reviews to match), I'm much more aware of what's happening nowadays. I still have to point out that Eternal Candle are still doing things that feel unusual. Sure, their sound is clearly a derivation of doom/death taken in progressive directions, bands like Anathema and Opeth listed on their Bandcamp page as tags. However, that doesn't explain everything.

It might explain their approach to contrast. Their songs tend to include light sections that are sung clean and are often delicate and beautiful, as well as heavy sections that shift to a harsh vocal and intense musicality. It's far from unusual for this band to migrate back and forth between those two extremes and they do it really well. However, they don't do it in all the ways that other bands with similar approaches take. Even their escalations seem different, such as the way that the soft part early in The Last Verdict ramps up during a line rather than between two of them.

For one, however heavy those heavy parts get, the lead guitar tends to float above them with real ache in its heart. I'm sure they took that from bands like Anathema and My Dying Bride, but what it means to Eternal Candle is that even the heaviest material here or the most majestic, such as a late section in The Crows, never loses a sense of melancholy. It's one of the main reasons why I feel an Eternal Candle album as much as listen to it.

For another, I found myself fascinated by Josef Habibi's drums this time out. I'm not a drummer so I can't tell you what he does differently, but he does something very differently, especially during verses. It's like he's discovered a new beat entirely separate to the upbeat and the downbeat, and he's invented a new way of performing fills. Whatever it is that he does, I love it. Somehow he finds a way to make the drums more obvious, even when we're focused on melodies or textures, without actually stealing the spotlight from whatever else is going on.

And, for a third, I wonder if he took that magic trick from Armin Afzali, whom I highlighted last time out and will happily highlight again here. His basswork stands out for me because it feels at once completely apart from anything else going on at any particular point in time and also somehow a pivotal part of everything that's happening. It's as if he's standing away to the edge of the stage, or on a completely different stage, doing his own thing, his bass almost a subtle lead instrument in a different song that's playing only in his head, but somehow it underpins everything and gives it life.

I listen to so many albums from which the bass could be removed entirely without us noticing much except a slightly thinner overall sound. However, If we removed Afzali's bass from this album, what would remain would be completely different. I have a feeling that it would be rather like a human body still going about its day but without any blood. It wouldn't just lose most of its colour, though it would do that; it would leap into the uncanny valley and make us wonder what's wrong with it.

Like The Carved Karma, this is a pretty generous album, its eight tracks racking up nearly an hour of music and, initially, I enjoyed this as a single fifty-four minutes of immersive doom/death. Over repeat listens, the individual songs asserted their own identities and they're still doing that, even though they all stand out in their own way. The Nun was my first favourite track because it was the first track on the album, but Vortex took over a listen in. Then The Last Verdict made its case and a variety of others. It's got to the point now where my favourite track is whichever one I'm listening to right now.

And that means that this isn't another 8/10 for me after all. It's a 9/10. It just keeps getting better. As do Eternal Candle.

Thursday 24 November 2022

God is an Astronaut - Somnia (2022)

Country: Ireland
Style: Post-Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 4 Nov 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Tumblr | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I'm not sure if I've picked a really bad time to discover God is an Astronaut or a really good one. It certainly seems to be an unusual time. My first experience of them was Ghost Tapes #10 last year, which may be an anomalous release, abrasive and angry and driven by guitars not keyboards. My introduction was a suggestion that they were reminiscent of Tangerine Dream, which wasn't much in evidence on that album. It's much more evident on this, their eleventh album, but it's equally as anomalous, merely in the opposite direction, because it's a soft and dreamy abum driven entirely by keyboards.

What I didn't realise going in is that it's not a new album in every sense. Sure, nobody's heard the pieces of music here in this form before, but none of them are new compositions. While I may not have heard any of them before—until I searched them all out on YouTube—fans have heard all of them before, because all eleven tracks are new versions of existing ones sourced from six of their previous ten albums.

The earliest is 2006's A Moment of Stillness, where you can hear the original versions of Empyrean Glow and Crystal Canyon, which are combined here into a single track. The most recent is Epitaph, from 2018, where the original version of Komorebi can be found. The majority come from between those two, especially a three album run from Age of the Fifth Sun in 2010 through Origins in 2013 to Helios/Erebus in 2015, these three supplying seven of the eleven tracks.

I don't know why the band chose to look at these particular pieces of music afresh, but it feels like a deliberate counter to Ghost Tapes #10. Maybe that was born out of the frustrations of COVID-19 and this one is born out of a comparative calm that we've moved into or maybe a perceived need to retreat into dreams. What confuses me is that this isn't a compilation, even though quite a few of these pieces seem pretty close to their originals, especially during the first half. The Bandcamp page for the album calls them "ambient re-works/remasters", so they're fresh takes.

The biggest difference is that they're all softer, in tone and in impact, so that they don't tell us the story they told us before; they float above it and have us look down at it. Where there was obvious instrumentation, like the drums on Reverse World or the guitars late in Autumn Song, that's gone or at least suppressed further into the mix. Ramped up in counter is a backdrop of synths, which is easy to imagine as mist or clouds or something overt but intangible. Pieces like Paradise Remains and Finem Solis feel notably softer, though it's telling that the former feels darker and the latter lighter. Applying the same filter, in a sense, doesn't always have the same results.

The heaviest pieces are the last couple, Lateral Noise and Weightless, which are more overt, even though they're both incredibly ambient and even more devoid of structure than their peers. What struck me immediately with all these songs, beyond the dreamy sound, was that a slow pace and deliberate avoidance of structure makes these pieces feel longer than they are. We get lost in them, as if they're a sort of refuge where time has no meaning. I was shocked to realise, maybe twelve minutes into Finem Solis that it's only a five and a half minute track. They're not boring, just immersive.

The other feeling that I couldn't lose was that they all continue on after we stop being able to hear them, as if they just drift away past our hearing like a song played on a car radio that passes us on the road, just incredibly slowly so that we get a four minute glimpse. More than once, I wondered what it was sounding like further down the road where I could no longer hear it. Perhaps it's more akin to a long Tangerine Dream composition in which we become so lost that we can't initially deal with the fact that it's over and our brain continues to absorb it, even in silence.

What this all means that I'm still as in the dark about God is an Astronaut as I was. I've now heard and reviewed two albums, neither of which would appear to be typical. Maybe in 2023, they'll issue something entirely new that plays in their usual ballpark. Maybe not. Maybe I just need to take a few days and explore their back catalogue so I can see where they came from and how far they've travelled. In the meantime, I guess I need to rate this and I'll go with a 7/10 because it's all new to me and I liked it a lot. Fans may shift that wildly up or down depending on whether they see this as an essential new take on old material or a pointless near-compilation.

Mandragora Thuringia - Rex Silvarum (2022)

Country: Germany
Style: Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 4 Nov 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | YouTube

While that multi-syllabic name looks glorious, I presume the band are actually called Mandragora, given that they're from the German state of Thuringia, possibly to delineate themselves from the other Mandragoras out there, in the same way that Wrathchild America are really Wrathchild and Horse London are really Horse. The more complex name still sounds amazing though and I have to say that I adore the cover art to this, their second studio album. Even though they've been around since 2008, they didn't release anything until a 2016 EP and their debut at the full length was Der Vagabund in 2019.

They play folk metal in a few different combinations. Some of these tracks emphasise the folk half of that, with the metal half ditched entirely. Some do the exact opposite, by playing up the metal but minimising the folk angle, often relegating it to a particular section, except for droning pipes that provide a frequent sonic backdrop. Very few songs truly merge the two in the kind of way we expect, perhaps only Trollmelodie fitting that bill throughout.

The purest folk song here is an instrumental at the very heart of the album, called Waldgeflüster, or Forest Whispers. There are flutes here and fiddles and it all feels very pastoral, though there's a little more martial edge to the album's intro, Frühling, which begins affairs with flutes. Much of the pure folk arrives in intros, including to the songs either side of Waldgeflüster, namely the title track and Amygdala, as well as many more throughout the album. The pastoral tone extends to the very names of the songs, which translate to Spring and Autumn, as well as Falcon Flight and Green Sea.

The first song proper, Ausbruch, is mostly metal but it does find a lively folk melody in between its verses and a folk section in the second half. It's an up tempo track eager to live up to its title, that translates to Eruption. Drummer Kone demonstrates quick feet and I found myself wondering how many vocalists are in play. There seem to be two, one delivering German in warm clean tones and the other presumably also German but in a mostly unintelligible goblin-style extreme voice that's at least a little more accessible than Trollmannen of Trollfest. I'm only seeing one vocalist in their line-up, though, so maybe this is all Andor Koppelin. Maybe not.

Falkenflug has a jaunty vibe to it, as if its rooted in music that wants us to dance, but it's more of a metal song than a folk song. Kreaturen der Nacht opens folky but shifts to metal. Koppelin, if it's him, delivers a different vocal again here, one that's chanted more than it's sung and with decent intonation too, if not enunciated so overtly as by someone as theatrical as Till Lindemann. I ought to add that all these vocal styles work, whoever's delivering them. The only time I'd say otherwise is the intro to Sunufatarungo which should be smooth and isn't. Koppelin nails that approach later on Grünes Meer.

While these aren't bad songs, it's the combination of styles that impressed me early on. I wanted more folk in the folk metal, especially after hearing Trollmelodie, but it is there and, the longer I listened, the more it was there in subtle ways. However, the first song that grabbed me on its own merits was the title track, six in, because it nails every aspect that the early songs merely do well at. Waldgeflüster feels a lot like an orchestral folk interlude after that, but it's a fascinating one that I never lose patience with, and then it's on to the second half.

Initially I wondered if if it merely took me a little while to adjust to what Mandragora do, because I wasn't sold on this early on but found myself firmly on board by the second half. However, I'm on a fourth or fifth time through now and I still find the second half stronger than the first. It isn't any different in its sonic recipe, until Trollmelodie, but the songs pop better, the intros are immediate and the folk elements feel a little happier in their setting. I don't know that they're better songs, but they played that way for me, so I'd call out Trollmelodie and Amygdala as my highlights, along with the title track and Waldgeflüster.

I think it does enough to warrant a 7/10, but I argued with myself about that; in the end, I decided that the originality on offer was a fair counter to the lesser tracks. And now I need to seek out the Mandragora debut, because I want to know how their sound is evolving.

Wednesday 23 November 2022

Candlemass - Sweet Evil Sun (2022)

Country: Sweden
Style: Epic Doom Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 18 Nov 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Here's what I hope will be a lucky thirteenth studio album for Swedish doom legends Candlemass, which is also a third for Johan Längquist, the lead singer on their pioneering debut album, Epicus Doomicus Metallicus, when he was only a guest. He didn't actually join the band until 2018 and he impressed on 2019's The Door to Doom with a more lived in voice than three decades earlier. This makes three and only Messiah Marcolin has sung lead on more.

There are no surprises here, of course, because Candlemass are a genre-definer, the band behind the epic doom metal sound, so this sounds like them. There are no unexpected departures, and I'd say that the most surprising it gets is when Jennie-Ann Smith shows up to add some aching texture to When Death Sighs. Given that she's the lead vocalist of fellow Swedish doomsters Avatarium, a band that also featured Candlemass founder Leif Edling on bass for five years, it would be fair to say that the most surprising isn't particularly surprising at all, merely neat. By the way, I see that they have a new album out, which I should tackle here soon.

Doom lives and dies on its riffs and, while Längquist is relatively new (even if he was there at the beginning), everyone else is a time-honoured member of the band. They're all on their third stint with the band, the only difference between them being how early in the eighties they joined and when they came back for the band's first reunion. All showed up immediately for the second and I don't see a single change since, except for the lead vocalist, with Längquist the fourth in this era, also hopefully the last. As much as I love Marcolin's voice, Längquist is sounding better than ever and I'm enjoying this current moment of stability.

Everything here seems strong to me, with the minor exception of a brief outro darkly titled A Cup of Coffin. Wizard of the Vortex does the job right out of the gate and Sweet Evil Sun ups it with an impressive opening riff that adds urgency. The guitar tone here is as solid as ever and the riffs on a few of these songs bite nicely, especially Angel Battle and Black Butterfly, which may well be my favourite songs here. They come after the two openers and ramp up everything the album's done right thus far. I'm not sure about the narration, likely a sample, that closes Angel Battle, but that song itself is a gem and the riffs just keep on coming.

Black Butterfly also gives Längquist a couple of solo moments of emphasis, which work gloriously. I mentioned in my review of The Door to Doom that his voice has matured magnificently, though I'd be surprised if some of that isn't due to 21st century production values. It's even more obvious on this follow-up that his voice is stronger than ever and it just fits with the tone and mood. I see lots of people talking down Nightfall because they wanted Längquist to continue what he did on Epicus Doomicus Metallicus rather than seeing Marcolin join and take the spotlight. I'm not one of those people, but I'm still happy that Längquist is back and I'm happier that he's on top of his game.

There's not much more to mention really, beyond underlining that this is a better album than The Door to Doom, if not by enough to warrant a higher rating. Nothing much here stands out for that extra note. It's all reliably solid and I've happily listened through the whole thing five or six times today, enjoying it just as much and just as consistently every time, but it's not that extra notch up to make it onto my highly recommended list for this year.

I could add that Scandinavian Gods is heavy in a slightly different way, replacing the heavy riffage with held power chords and feedback, but that's not a huge departure. I could mention a teasing theatricality to parts of When Death Sighs. I could highlight the tolling bell that emphasises how heavy Crucified is, even in the company of another eight heavy tracks. I could suggest a Cathedral edge to parts of Devil Voodoo. But none of that will make a difference. If you're into doom, this is another solid release from Candlemass and that's all you need to know.

Thammuz - Sons of the Occult (2022)

Country: The Netherlands
Style: Stoner Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 28 Oct 2002
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram

Thammuz is an ancient shepherd god of the Mesopotamians, who's referenced in both the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Bible. As the son of Enki and the primary consort of Ishtar, he shows up in a few ancient cults. That seems rather appropriate for this Dutch stoner rock band, as some of the songs here, starting with Guayota, feel like they could be a suitable musical backdrop for cult activity in a movie. You don't have to be in a pharmaceutically altered state of mind to visualise some of those scenes.

I haven't heard Thammuz before, but they hail from Gelderland in the central eastern part of the Netherlands on the German border and this is their second album after Into the Great Unknown. I liked it from the outset because the opening track, Electric Sheep, is an instrumental belter to kick things off and Sons of the Occult adds a commercial edge through the vocals of, well, someone. I'd give you a name but I can't find a line-up, merely photo suggestions that they're a four piece. That surprised me, because I had a feeling that they would be a power trio, given how much they enjoy instrumental tracks and sections.

As much as I liked those two tracks, though, the album grabbed me with Guayota, which is far more patient, much more ritualistic and a good deal more imaginative. It's instrumental but controlled cleverly. The rhythm section creates a dense backdrop and the guitar decorates it. For a while, the mindset it follows dominates the album. Each track starts out soft but resonant with an intro that catches the ears but builds into something more intense. Some have vocals, which tend to play in a supportive role, but I would listen to this band even without them. The nail their grooves early and milk them well.

Those grooves often play in the same ballpark. Guayota is mystical, as if we're listening in from an opium den and sharing a hallucinogenic dream with everyone else there. Had a Blast is darker but accepting, the subdued vocals fitting the feel. Dumizid's Descent is a cross between the two, once again instrumental. Peyote is softer and sparser, which adds more of a cosmic feel to proceedings, a feeling that we're floating somewhere, maybe way out there. It heavies up, of course, because a sense of urgency is never too far away on any song here. It's certainly there on Insomnia, which is a fascinating closer because the calm vocals contrast with the frenetic energy of the music.

I haven't mentioned Death Songs and People from the Sky, because they ditch the intro approach and nod back to the more traditional stoner rock of the opener. They're good but they're not at all as noteworthy as the rest of the album. What's most noteworthy is Self-Taught Man, which takes a very different approach indeed, one that I keep coming back to. I honestly couldn't tell you if I like Guayota and those other songs from my previous paragraph more than this one or vice versa. They certainly sit apart.

Self-Taught Man has a jaunty groove from the outset that's unlike anything else here, a groove I'd almost call rockabilly but set firmly within a stoner rock framework. The music takes a step back to let the vocals lead the way, for the only time on the album, kicking back in when the song warrants some emphasis. And those vocals are much more overt, which shifts them from a passive croon to a commanding lead, sounding like a cross between Nick Cave and Glenn Danzig, with a serious side of Jim Morrison. That means that they're dark but tantalising. It's a fascinating song.

I should track down the Thammuz debut because I like this band and I'm intrigued as to where they came from sonically. I'd like to know what's new this time out to see which direction they're taking going forward.

Tuesday 22 November 2022

Machine Head - Of Kingdom and Crown (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Groove/Thrash Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 26 Aug 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

It's time for another history lesson, but hopefully a brief one. Robb Flynn, the vocalist and rhythm guitarist in Machine Head, founded the band in 1991 and has been the only remaining member of the original line-up since 2013, but there haven't actually been many line-up changes over a three decade period. Well, until 2019 when literally half the bend left—drummer Dave McClain, who had twenty-three years with the band, and Flynn's former partner in Violence, Phil Demmel who had a fifteen year stint on lead guitar—all because Flynn had unilaterally shifted the band's sound back towards nu metal for their ninth album, Catharsis, in 2018.

Now, I haven't heard Catharsis, but what I read about it suggests that I'd hate it. Certainly a huge amount of Machine Head fans hated it. The average rating from reviewers on Metal Archives is an embarrassing 18%, notably lower even than earlier nu metal-centric albums like Supercharger and The Burning Red, which at least make it into the thirtieth percentile. This return to a more groove and thrash metal approach currently sits at a much healthier, if not particularly desirable, 57%. It plays decently to me, but I'm far more of a thrash fan than I am a fan of groove or metalcore. This isn't a highly anticipated release for me, so it's actually better than I thought it would be.

As if to make a statement, the opener is an epic. It's Slaughter the Martyr and it opens with a long intro that's very much rock rather than metal, utterly unlike the Machine Head style. Eventually, it kicks in hard with swirling guitars and groove vocals, that raucous bellow that's half death growl and half metalcore shout. It's not my favourite style, but Flynn does it well and highlights just how versatile he is on this one. There's a point where he spits bars like he's almost rapping, the chorus shifts into power metal and the intro is all rock clean. He honest to goodness sings on this album, a choice that pays off in my book. The song is too long but, conversely, the longer it went, the less it seemed too long.

A strong opener leads into a couple more strong songs. Choke on the Ashes of Your Hate sounds as vehement as its title suggests, a powerful groove metal song. The guitars squeal, the vocals roar and the band are clearly very tight, even though half of them joined in 2019 and are appearing on a Machine Head album for the first time. Become the Firestorm follows suit, but with prominence given to the drums, which are fast and fond of fills. The bass rumbles too and the whole band is on fire. Halfway, it gets slow and djenty and Flynn almost tries for a Cronos-esque voice in a different genre. There's some neat melodic guitarwork from Wacław Kiełtyka and I loved the pace later as he delivers a more overt solo.

So far so good, but then we drift into a minute long dramatic scene, because this is supposed to be a concept album based around the Attack on Titan anime. Frankly, I hadn't noticed, because I was far more engrossed by Kiełtyka's lead guitar and, on that prior track, Matt Alston's drumming. It should be said that this album will succeed or fail on merits other than the concept. Maybe you'll gain something if you pay attention to the lyrics, but the album doesn't suffer if you don't do that. Well, beyond having to sit through three minute long dramatic scenes that feel out of place.

The real catch is that the album got away from me at this point. My Hands are Empty focuses much too strongly on a woah woah anthemic cheer which may work somewhat as a contrast to the song as a whole but it gets old quickly and feels artificial. The anger here is trendy metalcore anger, not the real thing which does, at least, return later. In the meantime, there are a bunch of songs that are just there. They're not bad songs per se but they're just more songs. In isolation—and I checked—they're loud and emphatic but, in the context of the album, they just fade into the background.

Things kicked back in for me late with the more overt thrash metal songs on the album. Maybe it's because Machine Head are only my third favourite Robb Flynn band after Forbidden and Violence, but Bloodshot feels more believably dangerous than anything else here. Rotten feels more thrash too but isn't up to the same standard. It seems that Machine Head fans aren't too fond of it, but I would call it out as my favourite song here, ahead of Choke on the Ashes of Your Hate, even if it's a long way from old school.

Arrows in Words from the Sky is an interesting closer with some heavy grinding sections and some soft clean singing sections too, but I think it's too little too late to prod me into upping my rating to a 7/10. I liked this more than I expected to, but it's still not really my thing. If it's yours, maybe it'll be a 7/10 for you. The bottom line is that it's far from Machine Head at their worst—even if I don't know Catharsis—but it's also far from Machine Head at their best.

Evraak - Evraak I (2022)

Country: Japan
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 4 Nov 2022
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | YouTube

Here's something interesting that was submitted to me from Japan. Evraak are a prog rock band, for the sake of placing them into a single bucket, but they're progressive from a sixties mindset of taking a bunch of musicians with completely different backgrounds and throwing them together in a melting pot of sonic ingredients. The resulting sound is variable but fascinating, as indeed it was when the Beatles went to India, Robert Plant met Alison Krauss or Frank Zappa sent out a batch of invites to one of his in-house salons.

There are six musicians here and that line-up has been consistent since their founding as recently as 2018. According to their biography, guitarist Hayawo Kanno and bassist Koji Kawashima are of a prog rock mindset, so I presume they're the starting point for this sound, though their influences are a mixture of English and Italian prog bands. Drummer Takeshi Yoshida is a Bill Bruford fan, so it's not surprising to hear a lot of King Crimson here, albeit without a lot of Yes. Miki Hasegawa is a keyboardist with a musical theatre background and Tengoku Imagawa is a jazz saxophonist. That makes for a fascinating mix, with vocalist Marina Seo skewing the band in a number of directions, according to her mood. She can be soft and traditional, but she can be overt and experimental.

What's most surprising is how heavy this starts out. The first thing we hear as Saethi begins is the sound of tortured guitar feedback and a lound and very deliberate beat. If we're not expecting it, and I wasn't from a prog rock album, it can shock us. It feels loud, even if we turn down the volume, especially as the second half kicks in vicious and angry, reminding us a lot more of Swans than King Crimson. Sure, Marina Seo delivers clean and clear vocals, Imagawa joins in with a smooth sax and it calms down a lot in the midsection, but it's an anomalous opener for a good chunk of its running time. But hey, it certainly has us pay attention!

While the band claim that Sacrifice is their signature piece, it's Stigma that stood out the most for me and that's where the album finds its feet. All these songs are long—the shortest takes up seven minutes—but this is the longest at almost thirteen. It's fascinating from the beginning, a deceptively simple groove giving way to a jagged King Crimson-esque workout. It's simultaneously jazzy and carefully constructed, a combination which always perks my ears up, and it covers a heck of a lot of ground. Parts of it are pure prog, technical and complex, while other parts are smooth and accessible. It grabbed me late in the first half when it juggled elegant middle-eastern themes with an ebullient squealing sax. It's quite the journey, especially during its second half, which keeps on getting better.

While that's the longest song here, I enjoyed the shortest two as well. Asylum Piece starts out as a strange ambient song with noodling piano but then a lively riff launches at us on what I presume are keyboards but which feel like bagpipes or accordion. This piece feels like world music hurled at jazzy prog rock, especially early and late, with a soft but confident vocal from Seo in between.

The other is Cure, which runs a minute longer at eight and a breath and seems the most obviously King Crimson influenced piece, from the opening riff which reminded me of 21st Century Schizoid ManSacrifice has some more of that. Seo was almost post-punk one song earlier on Into the New World but she's more traditional here in another song that expands musically whenever she gets involved. Again, the second half is my time, when it goes urgently exploring through the dark, to discover Seo in experimental mode.

Half of the six tracks here were previously made available on an EP, Cure among them, but Stigma is one of the new trio which debut here. That tells me that they were good two years ago when the band was new but they're putting out excellent new material too. Now, when can we expect Evraak II?

Monday 21 November 2022

The New Roses - Sweet Poison (2022)

Country: Germany
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 21 Oct 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

The New Roses seem to be insanely popular within New Wave of Classic Rock circles, which makes a lot of sense to me. It makes sense because their flavour of rock looks backwards with a scattershot approach to the history of rock, taking what they need at any point in time rather than emulating any particular band's sound. As a result, I keep hearing different moments that are clearly taken from this band or that band, without entire songs ever sounding derivative. The caveat to this, of course, is that there's nothing new here.

The base sound isn't really taken from any one band. It's just simple but effective riff-driven hook-laden high intensity arena rock. Whatever that long unpunctuated string of adjectives conjures up in your heads is probably pretty close.

The opening five songs probably cover the majority of the influences. My Kinda Crazy is anthemic commercial hard rock with AC/DC in the opening riff and Noddy Holder in the vocals. Playing with Fire is more of the same, but the riffing turns to seventies glam rock. We think we've heard these riffs before, but we probably haven't. The Usual Suspects brings in mainstream Def Leppard as an overt commercialisation of that AC/DC simplicity. Warpaint heavies up a little and adds a punkish attitude. And in the middle of that batch is All I Ever Needed, which lightens the mood a little and, in doing so, adds a country vibe.

I should explain that last bit, given that country seems to be the new enemy. This one isn't a ballad but it's on the way to being one and that plays up the roughness in the well named Timmy Rough's vocals. His vocal fry tends to be absorbed by the guitars in the harder rocking songs but, on softer ones like this, he ends up with a southern accent halfway between Bryan Adams and Jon Bon Jovi in Young Guns mode. That means country to me, a down home conversational tone, but it may have a different connotation to you.

The second half doesn't add much more to that list, but there's an outright ballad in True Love, an old school glam metal ballad with emotional vocals and acoustic guitars. This band generally has a high energy approach so we can almost see them pull up the barstools and sit down in a circle for a ballad like this one. There's also some overt pop punk in The Lion in You, which isn't that far a shift from simple but effective rock 'n' roll but far enough to be noteworthy.

Like last time out on their fourth album, Nothing But Wild, which came out three years ago, every song here is strong and, if you're into this style, it's going to seem like a killer of an album. It feels fair to complement them on the fact that there isn't a duff track across the twenty-four that span these two albums and I couldn't really call out a filler track either. That means that songwriting is a given for them and I hear they blister live too, which explains why they're such a pivotal NWoCR band, even surprisingly hailing from Germany rather the expected England. If you just want a good time from your rock bands, you'll absolutely get one from the New Roses.

All I have to throw out to counter that is that there's nothing new here at all, so people looking for imagination and originality aren't going to find it. Do we really need another power ballad in the True Love vein? No, we don't. Also, it's hard to pick out highlights, because all these songs do the business and then get out of the way for the next one. That, combined with the high intensity that the non-ballads thrive on, makes this seem like a short forty-one minutes and, after a few listens, I still couldn't list my favourite song. Maybe The Usual Suspects. Maybe Warpaint. My Kind of Crazy has a shot at that too. But really they're all the best song and the worst song at the same time and that's kind of who the New Roses are. You're either going to walk right on past them or they'll become your favourite band ever.

Desolation Angels - Burning Black (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 Aug 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Here's a name I wasn't expecting to see pop up on my radar in 2022. I remember Desolation Angels from back in the eighties, when they were yet another British band spawned out of the NWOBHM era. Technically they were part of it, having formed in 1981, but they didn't go past the demo stage until a single in 1984; their debut album arrived as late as 1986, which is when I first heard them on Tommy Vance's Friday Rock Show. They relocated to the US, knocked out a second album, returned home and eventually called it quits in 1994.

However, they've been back since 2012 and they put another album out in 2017, called King, which I didn't know about until now. But hey, I'm paying attention now and I'm always keen on hearing the lesser known British bands I enjoyed back in the day releasing fresh material in a new millennium. This year alone, I've reviewed new albums by White Spirit, Tysondog, Satan, Praying Mantis and Dub War, none of which I thought were still together and mostly haven't been for a long time. After this, I'm looking forward to the new Hydra Vein next week, their first in 33 years.

What's ironic is that I immediately thought about other bands I enjoyed back in the eighties who I would love to see back and the first one I looked up was Elixir. Not only are they back in action too, with a new album in 2020 that I'll have to seek out, but their lead singer, Paul Taylor, is also singing for Desolation Angels and he's right here on this album! He's newish in this band, having joined in 2015 and only guitarist Keith Sharp was with them in the eighties, but I do love coincidences. What matters is that he was an excellent vocalist for Elixir and he's an excellent vocalist for Desolation Angels, who aren't a huge distance away musically.

As with most of these albums from former eighties bands who are back in the game, this benefits from clearly 21st century production but otherwise sounds like it could have been released back in the day. Everything on this one is solid, reliable British metal, not particularly heavy but certainly on the metal side of the fence from rock, built out of riffs, hooks and solos. Nowadays, we could be forgiven for calling these songs melodic or commercial, given what we might compare them to on the metal spectrum, but none of them would have got airplay on daytime Radio 1; they would all have been relegated to the niche of the Friday Rock Show.

I could make a few comparisons to specific bands. The guitars on Stand Your Ground owe plenty to early Iron Maiden while Hydra has a slower, heavier Judas Priest approach. However, the closest I could suggest from bands still active would be Saxon, because this feels reminiscent of what they were doing in the eighties, from their pivotal early NWOBHM years to a more commercial feel at the end of that decade. Of course, Saxon have heavied up over the years while Desolation Angels have not.

It's pretty consistent stuff, both in style and quality. Living a Lie maybe opens up a bit lighter than Unseen Enemy continues and Hydra is certainly slower and heavier than both. Mother Earth finds a neat groove very quickly indeed. The title track plays for an epic feel from the slow intro onward and it does an excellent job. My choice of highlight, if I was tortured into choosing just one, has to be Walking on Water though, because it feels utterly natural, as if every component just fell right into place immediately. I'm sure it didn't but it feels like it did. It would have been the single back in the day and my ears caught some Demon in it.

And that's side one. The other side does much of the same job, just with different songs. There's a strong opener in Burning Black, one of two six minute tracks here that use that time to build quite the impact; the other is the closer, She Walks in Starlight. Eyes of the Assassin is a more up tempo belter with some hefty drumming from Chris Takka. This is the one that comes closest to deposing Walking on Water as the best song here and it's a more vehement one. The two together work as a solid example of what this group can do and indeed does. Check them out and welcome back, folks.

Friday 11 November 2022

Glass Hammer - At the Gate (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 7 Oct 2022
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Prog Archives | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Glass Hammer certainly aren't keeping us waiting for new material nowadays, this one being their third in three years and their twentieth over all. I gave Dreaming City a highly recommended 8/10 in 2020 but only a 7/10 for Skallagrim - Into the Breach a year later. I'm going with the same on this one because it's clearly a good album, especially after a couple of listens to sink in, but nothing on it stands out particularly in memory. Sure, I don't expect to be humming any Glass Hammer hooks in the shower because they just leap into my head, but this is very much an album to befriend over time.

It's a little softer, I think, than Skallagrim, but that had ratcheted up the heaviness from the album before it. Savage has heavier riffing and there's a neat grungy riff early in All Alone before it goes for the Sabbath sound, even down to Ozzy-esque vocal phrasing, though Hannah Pryor doesn't aim to sound like him otherwise, which would be weird. She's back again as lead vocalist, which in Glass Hammer means that she sings most of these songs, but with Fred Schendel and Steve Babb taking over every once in a while. I like Pryor's voice but it generally plays out as softer and folkier, which takes an edge off even the heavier songs.

She also often takes a lighter approach, starting with the opener, The Years Roll By, which is... well, it's very pleasant and if that sounds to you like a backhanded compliment, I guess you could take it that way. I liked the song and feel that it's inherently likeable, but it feels rather like a cool breeze on a hot day—it's nice and it's refreshing but there's no bite to it. Much later, because once again, this album nudges its way past an hour, she takes on a more pop-oriented style for In the Shadows. Again, that one's acutely likeable but you'll need to engage with it because it's too polite to begin that conversation.

Oddly, I found that I liked Savage not only because every instrument, from guitar to keyboards and not excluding Pryor's voice, gains edges, but because there's a neat if short drop into what sounds like a koto. I wanted a lot more of that sort of thing on this album, perhaps all the more given that I'm listening right after the latest Sigh album, but the band keep on rolling to maintain the groove that they've built on pretty much every song. Where they mix things up, which they do at points, it tends to be by shifting the groove between songs. North of North, as an example, plays out rather like Tangerine Dream, deploying their memorable pulsing synth approach with overlaid melodies. It stays instrumental, except for a vocalisation or three deeper in the mix.

It took me a couple of listens to get used to this album, but each song popped eventually and found its own identity. The catch is that they popped so well that, while all the best details stood out well for me to appreciate, so did the worst, though that seems like an overly harsh word to use. It's just that little decisions here and there bugged me, which isn't a good thing because I'm not remotely able to call myself a musician—the only thing I can play is the fool—and I should be trusting in the decisionmaking of talented and experienced musicians like those in Glass Hammer at every single time.

For instance, I didn't get why the bass was so high in the mix. I don't mean that the sound is made heavier by boosting the bottom end, just that this is the most audible bass I've heard in forever, a decision I don't get. The guitars and the drums are lower and the vocals below them. Maybe that's in part because Pryor has a strong voice but lowering it in the mix makes it feel more delicate and folky. That means that songs like All for Love, where she does a particularly good job, subdue her effect somewhat.

I love the opening keyboard riff to Snowblind Girl, but it transfers to guitar almost immediately in place of developing it more on the keyboard first. I liked In the Shadows but I don't get why it has a pop vocal instead of a folky rock vocal. I liked It's Love too, the epic of the album at thirteen and a half minutes, but it doesn't play out like an epic. It feels like other songs here, just longer with no special emotional resonance. It also begins with a single repeated piano note that gets annoying over repeat listens, even though it builds well from there, each additional layer elevating it more.

I should emphasise that these are minor things but there are a lot of them and they made my list of notes look far more negative than it ought to have been. This is another good album from Glass Hammer, even if it's not up to the standards of Dreaming City. Factor in that they're giving us over an hour of music every year nowadays and that seems even more impressive. Somehow, though, I would throw out North of North, the instrumental, as my favourite track here, even if I'm enjoying Hannah Pryor as lead vocalist. That's just another reason why this one feels just a little awkward.

Sigh - Shiki (2022)

Country: Japan
Style: Avant-Garde Black Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 Aug 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

There's so much going on in this album that I'm still not sure that I've truly come to terms with it. I know that I like it, but I didn't get a real grasp on it until at least a couple of times through. That's partly because Sigh have been around for a long time and have diversified their sound over a long career that I'm not overly familiar with. They were founded in Tokyo in 1989 as a black metal band in the Norwegian style. However, they soon added symphonic elements then shifted towards more of a more progressive, avant-garde style.

To highlight how long they've been shifting, they've named their albums acrostically for the band name since the beginning, so each cycle of four begin S, I, G and then H. This album marks the start of their fourth cycle, though the first G was technically an EP so this is a twelfth full length studio album. That G was Ghastly Funeral Theatre in 1997, the beginning of their experimentation, and I see that the most recent H, Heir to Despair in 2018, added traditional Japanese folk elements.

By this point, it's easy to see their black metal roots because lead vocalist Mirai Kawashima sings in a harsh demonic style, often spitting out lyrics with venom, and because there are fast sections where the drums ramp up to a serious tempo and the guitars follow suit, even if the result isn't an entirely traditional black metal wall of sound. These black metal sections show up in the majority of the eight songs proper on offer, but what's important to note is that they're far from alone.

They don't begin the album either. Kuroi Kage kicks off with a slow tortured guitar as if Sigh had a newfound passion for sludge metal. That song livens up during the midsection and there's a black metal part five minutes in, but it doesn't last too long. There's a much more gentle section after it featuring some soft alto saxophone from female vocalist Dr. Mikannibal, who otherwise provides equally demonic vocals that don't betray her gender. What's more, the guitar solos tend to be the sort of guitar solos we expect from traditional heavy metal albums, not that black metal has been ever known for guitar solos anyway.

So there are four clearly separate styles, three of which pervade the album: fast black metal, old school guitar solos and softer saxophone sections. Many songs include all three of these, plus the fourth, which is electronic experimentation that feels even older school than the guitar. There's a section in Satsui - Geshi no Ato that sounds like someone's changing the dial on a radio to float on through a slew of stations without ever stopping long at any of them. I did that on a demo back in the early nineties that I recorded in my bedroom, when my "band" was a couple of rulers, a desk and a Russian thrash album played at 78rpm instead of 33.

Oh, and just in case you thought that was it, there are all sorts of other tones and textures here to keep us on the hop. Shikabane starts out feeling like a punk song, before it goes experimental. Its percussion is absolutely fascinating, especially as its paired with electronic weirdness like ambient space rock. The second half of Satsui - Geshi no Ato couples a hip hop backing track with what feels like synth-driven harpsichord. There's a Metallica-esque groove on Fuyu Ga Kuru, but with a much more demonic voice than James Hetfield would ever deploy. More unusual drum rhythms prompt Kawashima to bring out his flute for a pastoral section.

I have little idea what to call out as favourites because I need to listen through more times. I felt a little confused early on, but Shoujahitsumetsu grounded me for a while. It's much more ferocious than Kuroi Kage, at least when it wants to be and oddly calming when it doesn't. Its primary shift away from black metal is the traditional guitar solo from Nozomu Wakai, which is excellent. Then I got lost again, but engaged with the more progressive sections in songs as the album ran on. Once I'd got to Fuyu Ga Karu, I was hooked.

However, the constant shifting between styles made it hard to get any individual song stuck in my brain. I stopped thinking about any of the songs individually and started thinking about this as an epic single piece, forty-six minutes long. It didn't seem to break down into a set of nine discernable movements, because each of those movements had movements and those movements reoccurred like themes, so where I ended up was that a strange concept where there are four versions of Sigh playing in different styles but they keep shifting in and out of the spotlight, resulting in us having impressions of each as well as impressions of the combination that coalesce within our brains at a later point in time.

For now, I guess I'd call out Fuyu Ga Kuru as my favourite track. There's the Metallica groove; that demonic lead vocal—even if it isn't spat out in a near rap the way it is on Satsui - Gesho no Ato; the pastoral flute part set against swirling keyboards; a black metal section that keeps dropping down to more traditional heavy metal riffs; more unusual rhythms to fascinate me; and eventually some of Dr. Mikannibal's alto sax to wrap things up. That might sound like an unholy mess but it works in that bizarre mixture.

After that, maybe I'd go for Shoujahitsumetsu but more likely the far more progressive Mayonaka no Kaii, which feels like a setpiece at the end of the album. It's the meat in a sandwich between a brief intro, Kuroi Kagami, and a less brief outro, Touji no Asa, but the three play well together. It's another fascinating mixture, not only including many of the elements that I've mentioned, along with a few more. There's a lot of Black Sabbath here, in the form of mellow but heavy psychedelic riffing, sometimes accompanied by flute. The vocals are demonic, of course, and the guitar solo as clean as those vocals aren't.

This is definitely for rock/metal fans with very open minds, but I think it's a gem. I'm very tempted to up my rating from a 7/10 to an 8/10 and probably well after a couple more listens. It simply isn't immediate stuff. We have to get to know this material to fully appreciate everything that's going on within it.

Thursday 10 November 2022

Therion - Leviathan II (2022)

Country: Sweden
Style: Symphonic Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 28 Oct 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I liked Leviathan, the seventeenth studio album by Therion, the Swedish pioneers of choral metal, symphonic metal, operatic metal, whatever else you want to call it, but I also struggled with it. It's easily recognisable as the Therion I knew and I loved from their heyday in the late nineties but the band's sound had shiifted and not always in directions I was happy about. The choral sections were as solid as I remembered and the folk elements were welcome, but the guitars were relegated to a supporting slot and I didn't find a strong riff until the eighth track.

Leviathan II, unsurprisingly, is more of the same, and for those completely on board with the band nowadays can expect a third batch of this sort of material when they wrap up the trilogy in 2023. It has to be said that I enjoyed this album too, but I'm still not convinced by it. I certainly wasn't on a first listen, the standout moments being just that—moments—like the Hammond organ that's so briefly present late in Litany of the Fallen, the violin in Alchemy of the Soul or the plucked intro to Lunar Coloured Fields. Later on, there's accordion in Midnight Star and flute in Cavern Cold as Ice. However, none of the songs leapt out at me.

They fared much better on a second listen, especially the songs that featured more prominent use of guitar. The opener, Aeon of Maat, ends too quickly but there's an excellent guitar solo that our expectations initially interpret as more of Lori Lewis's soprano soaring above Thomas Vikström's tenor. Lucifuge Rofocale and Midnight Star both start with honest to goodness riffs and, even better, the guitars don't just vanish when the vocals show up, as they inevitably do. There's definitely a little more guitar on this album than its predecessor, even if the riffs still feel anomalous in the modern Therion sound that lives or dies on its vocals.

To be fair, both Lewis and Vikström shine on this album, demonstrating their talents both solo and in duet, and there's plenty of choral work behind them to keep things varied and epic. I'd highlight Midnight Star not just for its guitars but for its vocals. Lewis is given the spotlight early so she can showcase her serious range (especially when we hear her in pop voice on the following Cavern Cold as Ice), but that spotlight shifts to Vikström later on. Both are excellent.

Other songs, more dedicated to the new Therion sound improved on a second listen too. Litany of the Fallen still felt clumsily theatrical at points early on, as if what they were doing trumped what it sounded like. However, it built gloriously and, by when it reached a closing demonic conjuration, I was completely on board. Lunar Coloured Fields grew until I was swaying in my chair to its sinuous movements. Even when I couldn't grasp a whole piece, as with much of the second half, I dug parts of the songs, like the middle eastern elements to Marijin Min Nar.

The question, of course, is how much these songs will grow. A third listen didn't add much and the cherrypicking I've been doing since to try to get a grip on individual tracks has only elevated those I'd already fallen for, especially Lucifuge Rofocale and Midnight Star. And so, I think I need to stick with a 7/10 for this second part in the trilogy. I liked it more than the first, but not by much, and it still feels a little distant to me. Maybe my expectations are leading me astray, because I want the operatic and choral work that's so quintessentially Therion—they're a rare metal band who simply can't be mistaken for anyone else—but I want the guitars too that they're moving away from. But I have a feeling that I'm still being generous.

Andaja - Pavidalai (2022)

Country: Lithuania
Style: Folk Rock/Pagan Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 25 Aug 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

I'm not sure what I expected from this album, which came to me labelled as folk rock, but it isn't at all what I heard and I wonder if what I read is simply out of date. Andaja hail from Lithuania and it seems that they used to play pagan metal in the noughties, active from 2009 to 2009 with an album to their name in 2006, Iš atminties. When they got back together in 2013, they shifted to Baltic folk rock, as evidenced by a second album, Atvaras, in 2017. And that's where the notes end, but this is a lot closer to pagan metal than folk rock to my way of thinking. Maybe they've shifted back to their original style.

It's obviously metal as much as it is rock, because of how it sounds, some songs dropping down to a calmer vibe but many powering ahead with emphasis. I found it just as obviously pagan, perhaps a little because Daiva Pelėdaitė reminds me of Candia Ridley of Inkubus Sukkubus, merely with a far heavier, crunchier backdrop behind her and a real drumkit, a backdrop more reminiscent of bands like Romania's Bucovina, especially on the heavier songs. The melodies are certainly similar and it doesn't surprise that they're both rooted in the folk music of eastern Europe, but I caught a more ritual element to Andaja, especially on tracks like Pieno upės.

I like that crunchy backdrop, especially given how much ground it explores, but Pelėdaitė is easily the highlight of the album for me. Their Bandcamp page says that "a brave female vocal flutters like a flag" and I get all that except for one word. There's a stubbornness to her voice that seems very much like victory in the face of adversity, so the flag and bravery aspects work really well. It's a strong voice that both commands and perseveres, and I easily imagined her leading her troops into battle on songs like Medžiojma and winning the day, as underlined by the galloping beats late on. What I don't hear is the fluttering, because this there's no fragility or hesitation in this voice, even on quieter songs. There's power even in her speaking voice, which opens Giesmė iš vandens.

That Bandcamp page also suggests that there are very few female vocalists in Lithuanian metal, a state of affairs I can't speak to. However, if that's true, I hope that others will listen to her clarion call and join the fray, because she's blazing a powerful trail here and I'm eager to see what voices make themselves heard in response. There are two other musicians in the band proper, Ričardas Matyženok on bass and Mantas Galinis on drums. Pelėdaitė also contributes piano and keyboards, which leaves the guitarwork to a guest, Karolis Lapėnis, of Lithuanian death metal band Gilzeh.

My favourite songs come early, after the album's warmed up. Perkūno sutuoktinė is pagan folk but Šilko siūlai heavies proceedings up with style. Then it's Medžiojma and Pieno upės, which are both highlights for me, the former more of a stormer and the latter more versatile but equally strong. After those, and the fantastic opening to Dangaus kalvis, all whispers and chimes and one note on the bass repeated with increasing emphasis, the album slid away from me a little, grabbing me on every listen with Giesmė iš vandens and its prowling bass and commanding vocal.

It ends strong too, with interesting sounds echoing through Slogi, which also builds magnificently, and another dominant performance from Pelėdaitė on Velnio vestuvės, where she teases us early before reasserting total control. The instruments behind her tease too and the song interrupts a strong build to tease us all the more. While Pelėdaitė owns this one, not so much singing lyrics as hurling out commands to us, Matyženok's bass is notable early and Lapėnis's riffs are excellent. It may well be the third highlight for me, above Giesmė iš vandens.

Now, I need to figure out where Andaja are going, because it doesn't seem to be where the notes I'm reading state or indeed where the cover art suggests. That's a post-rock cover if ever I've seen one, promising ethereal soundscapes built from electronics, precisely none of which happen to be in the music. This is folk metal to me, likely the pagan metal Andija started out playing, though I'm trusting my instincts there rather than any understanding of Lithuanian lyrics. And they certainly feel like they mean it. Even if they're relying on a guest guitarist right now, this feels like a band I expect to knock out albums every couple of years because they have a mission.

Wednesday 9 November 2022

Corky Laing - Finnish Sessions (2022)

Country: Canada
Style: Blues Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 14 Oct 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Wikipedia | YouTube

Older rock fans will recognise Corky Laing as the drummer with Mountain, a heavy blues rock band who helped to influence the rise of heavy metal in the seventies. They were an American band, but Laing was Canadian and, as the title suggests, almost everyone involved in this album is Finnish. It seems that, since COVID-19, Laing has spent half his time in Finland and working with musicians of that nationality isn't anything new for him. In fact Harri Väyrynen, the multi-instrumentalist who plays guitar on this album, along with bass on one song and drums on another, is also the engineer at Laing's Finnish studio.

Oddly, Väyrynen isn't primarily known for heavy blues, being most famous for his work in Accu, who Discogs tell me are an "electronic disco funk rock band", and he underlines how varied this line-up truly is. Conny Bloom had a stint in Hanoi Rocks, one of Finland's most famous exports, even if he's also a Swede best known for funk metal band Electric Boys. Talking of Hanoi Rocks, the harmonica on Totally Wrong is played by Michael Monroe. Bassist John Vihervä is a bluesman, best known for his work with the Ben Granfelt Band, and Maria Hänninen is a natural born blues singer who takes the mike for two songs here, including the first single, Whatcha Doin'?

It's a good single, a sassy number enhanced by the trumpet of Antero Priha and some tick-tocking backing vocals, but I prefer Backbone, the other song featuring Hänninen on lead vocals. This is a lot closer to what she does with Mount Mary and, while they may not be as famous as other bands who lent their talents to this project (yet), anyone who's heard their 2021 debut album should be salivating at the idea of Maria singing in front of people like Laing and Bloom. Now, let's see who guests on their much anticipated follow-up, given that Michael Monroe contributed harmonica to the first one and this collection of musicians clearly work well together.

And talking of Monroe, it's the song on this album that features his harmonica that I'd call out as the other highlight. That's Totally Wrong and it's the most urgent track here, a killer heavy blues number that blisters out of the gate with Monroe's harmonica leading the way like the whistle on a steam train. Laing had varied his vocal approach a song earlier with The Ball, narrating most of that one rather than singing it, and he practically chants this one, shouting out the lyrics as if the band had turned it up to eleven in the studio and he didn't think he'd be heard over them.

Like Backbone, Totally Wrong is immediate because it nails its groove from the outset but it only gets better with repeat listens because we start to hear everything else that's going on in them. I adore the second half of Totally Wrong, when the guitars take a back seat so we can hear just how damn good Laing is behind the kit. The same goes for Backbone in a different way, because it's the guitar and lead vocal that grab us from the outset but we gradually realise just how much Laing is doing on drums in the background, especially during the second half.

While I'm concentrating on those two tracks, because I keep on replaying both of them and finding new reasons to adore them, the rest of the album is pretty solid too. It starts out traditionally but well with Everyone's Dream, gets more contemporary with The Ball, which stands out because of a very atypical vocal from Laing, and calms down for a trio of ballads in the middle of the album. It's Laing's voice that becomes most notable on these, because he has a rough, lived in voice that has an emotional resonance on these ballads. He's good on Even More but better yet on Pledge, with a folky edge that's only added to by Hänninen's violin on My World.

It's perhaps telling that those ballads don't lower my rating because three of them at once seems like a lot, especially given that I tend to dread ballads on urgent blues rock albums anyway. These certainly aren't my favourites and I'm not going to be replaying them anywhere near as often as I have already replayed Totally Wrong and Backbone—and I'm not done with those yet—but they do the job well and somehow don't drag the pace of the album down. In fact, maybe they help a little to emphasise Backbone before we ever get to it, given that that's what comes after the ballads.

It's also telling that I want more from this. These nine songs don't amount to much more than half an hour but it feels like everyone was having an absolute blast in the studio making them. I would very much like to hear Finnish Sessions II next year and, even more so, a live recording from a tiny Finnish club where Laing can show off a little more and the core band, plus whoever else happens to show up to guest, can jam on new songs and old standards and the audience can have stories to tell to the friends who missed the experience.

Thanks, Maria, for sending me a copy of this one for review!

Venom Inc. - There's Only Black (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Heavy/Speed Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 23 Sep 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter

This second Venom Inc. album prompts a brief history lesson; if you already know this, then skip on to the next paragraph. The pivotal line-up of extreme metal pioneers Venom was Cronos, Abaddon and Mantas, the line-up that recorded Welcome to Hell and Black Metal, among others. However, while Cronos leads the current incarnation of Venom, he actually left in 1988, leaving control with Abaddon who brought Mantas back into the fold in 1989, along with Tony Dolan of Atomkraft. That line-up recorded Prime Evil and others and, after Cronos returned and took control, they formed a new band, Venom, Inc., to continue the Prime Evil era. Abaddon has since left again and the drums here are played by Jeramie Kling, as War Machine. Dolan is Demolition Man. Mantas is, well, still Mantas.

What that means is that there are now two incarnations of Venom: one led by Cronos and this one by Mantas. Abaddon is off doing his own thing, with an EP released earlier this year. I've seen the Venom incarnation live—holy crap, was that sixteen years ago?— and they blistered then, though the (lack of) production hinders their studio releases, like 2018's Storm the Gates. This album has much better production—just listen to that crisp drum sound at the beginning of The Dance—and, though it's less extreme and more traditional heavy metal, there are plenty of moments to whisk you back to old school Venom.

Certainly early songs like Infinite and Come to Me do everything that old school Venom did. They storm out of the gate and barrel along at a rate of knots. Mantas's riffs include a lot of rhythmic chugging, while Dolan's voice is effectively in our faces, even if it can't match Cronos for iconically demonic. Every aspect is controlled well, aided by that crisp production, so that this seems like it's just easy for them and they could play all night. They're not the fastest songs in the world, but they do blister and I can imagine how they'd feel live with a serious sound system.

The title track slows the tempo a little, which serves to remind us as much of Motörhead as Venom, as if we hadn't noticed how much the latter had taken from the former anyway. It also reminds us that Venom were never the fastest or most extreme band out there, even in their most influential days, and were influential for other reasons, like punk/metal attitude and lyrical content. In 2022, they have to rely on that all the more and it's the attitude that sells the more emphatic songs like Don't Feed Me Your Lies or Burn Liar Burn.

I come to Venom Inc. from an unusual place. I adore the Black Metal album and I love the tracks on this album that feel closest to that sound, songs like Man as God and Nine. However, I encountered Venom first through At War with Satan and I still have a real fondness for that twenty minute title track, an attempt by the band to highlight how they could truly play, even if they preferred to dish out a succession of three minute blitzkriegs. There's a lot going on in that piece and I hear a lot of it on this album, even if it's mostly in intros and breakdowns. Burn Liar Burn and The Dance spring quickly to mind. In fact, Burn Liar Burn's intro extends to half the song and it's fascinating before it launches into a full on speed metal assault.

Inevitably, I find that I have to compare this to the most recent Venom album and it comes off as a step up. There was good material on Storm the Gates but there was a lot of filler too and the awful production made everything sound terrible. This easily wins out on production but it wins out from the standpoints of songwriting and consistency too. It's not Black Metal or even At War with Satan but it's a good, reliable album with some standout tracks to elevate it further. And it sounds damn good. Now I understand why a number of fans have been telling me that Venom Inc. are the better band right now. The ball's in your court, Cronos. Let's have a killer new Venom album!

Tuesday 8 November 2022

Darkthrone - Astral Fortress (2022)

Country: Norway
Style: Black/Doom Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 28 Oct 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Wikipedia

I have to admit that I looked at Astral Fortress with a little trepidation, given how underwhelmed I was with Darkthrone's 2019 album, Old Star. It wasn't bad; it just wasn't anywhere near as good as it could have been. Well, it seems like I missed last year's album Eternal Hails..., which everyone is happily proclaiming a solid return to form, along with a deeper exploration of the doom metal I'd noted on Old Star. As the early reviews for this one seem positive too, I was certainly intrigued but a little worried, given that this a milestone as their twentieth album.

What I found was that the doom angle is certainly working out, at least when Fenriz and Nocturno Culto really want to throw their focus in that direction. The best songs here are the doomiest with The Sea Beneath the Seas of the Sea most notable among them. What surprised me was what the resulting combination of doomy guitar and black metal vocals ended up taking me, which is all the way back to Hellhammer's Apocalyptic Raids EP in 1984, which underlines how that was even more influential than I thought it might be at the time.

This is certainly more controlled than Hellhammer were back then, the musicianship is more solid and the vocals far more focused. However, it's just as bleak and uncompromising, the Candlemass style chugging riffs given an edgier guitar tone reminiscent of Hellhammer and the early years of the band they evolved into, Celtic Frost. Most obviously, the vocals remain black, even if they don't delve into the shriek bag and so remain goblin harsh. Add to that the liquid psychedelic bookends and a solid build that gets under the skin and it's a memorable ten minutes indeed.

The thing is that, while Darkthrone are successfully dipping their toes into the doom pool without ever leaving their black metal heyday sound entirely behind, they don't seem convinced that it's a confirme way forward for them. Caravan of Broken Ghosts is at its best when it ramps up in tempo and Kevorkian Times follows suit. Hellhammer were never as innovative as they became under the name of Celtic Frost and some of these songs drag in the way that some of Hellhammer's did, only without any of the benefit of being outrageously different for 1984.

They do try to be outrageously different at points, such as Kolbotn, West of the Vast Forests, but I have to wonder what the goal of that brief and dissonant instrumental was. It feels like it ought to work as an intro but not to the song that follows, which is Eon 2, a more traditional piece that may well be intended to be a sequel to Eon, the closer from the album at the other end of their career, 1991's Soulside Journey. However, they're very different, as Eon 2 is much slower than Eon, and it's a vocal track without keyboards.

And so this is another mixed bag. I was impressed by The Sea Beneath the Seas of the Sea and I'm pretty fond of Stalagmite Necklace too, the other overtly doom metal song on offer, because of its strong riff. However, some other songs take a while to get moving and some of them drag. Eon 2 is a decent way to wrap up but it's not the emphatic close that it perhaps intends to be, highlighting a twenty album career with a nod back to the beginning.

It's definitely a better album than Old Star but I think I'm going to stay with a 6/10. What I need to do is listen to Eternal Hails... to see what so many people were raving about.

Lovecraft - Can Abyss (2022)

Country: Poland
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Sep 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

Here's something tasty and unexpected. Lovecraft are a psychedelic rock band from Poland, not a power trio but a five piece who keep their identities secret, or at least so unpublicised that I couldn't track down who's in the line-up. Their Bandcamp page suggests that their influences are "way too many to mention" and they're probably right, tantalisingly adding that "we're still expanding our infinite musical journey."

The first of those influences is obvious because Awakening (From the Sea) kicks in with smooth but dark a capella vocals highly reminiscent of Glenn Danzig, especially given that they're set against soft cymbals and an occasional power chord that hangs in the air. What's odd, though, is that this song is acutely subdued, ever threatening to just explode into action but without ever really doing that. Maybe on stage it'll feel more emphatic, but the instrumentation is kept far lower than the vocals and, given that it isn't on the next track, that has to be deliberate.

The other influence that has to be trawled out here is the Doors and for multiple reasons. For one, those velvet vocals are just as reminiscent of Jim Morrison too, especially given how they serve to command as much as sing. Gather round, flower children, and the vocalist will tell us all a story, an important and subversive one set against an ambient backdrop that grows and swirls, just like the maelstrom in the cover art. There's at least one more, because there are screams that come in at points late on and they don't fit Danzig or the Doors, but I couldn't tell you who.

I can certainly throw out Iron Maiden on Mooneater pt.I, because it's clearly a prog metal song in psychedelic rock clothing. The guitars are shifted up there with the vocals now and the intro, right out of Di'Anno-era Maiden, leads only into more Maiden. There's some doom in there too, but it's a perky doom laced with prog and it's delightful. The only catch to this one is that the lyrics seem a little shoehorned into some spots, like there were too many words for the space but they felt that they couldn't cut any out. That also isn't how "tyranny" is pronounced. But hey, I'll shut up and let that guitar solo wash over me again. It's a gem of a track, even with a few flaws.

There are another five songs after this and they tend to play out with those same ingredients, just in different amounts and with others added for garnish. Another Damn Idiot starts like the Doors meets Danzig again, only to add harsher vocals, squealing guitars and a bouncy call and response vocal section. The soft midsection is absolutely delightful, the noodling bass providing the perfect ambient backdrop for the guitar solo. The escalation out of it is delightful too. Horrors in the Attic is similar but not as noteworthy. Bar Cannabis evolves into more Iron Maiden guitarwork.

Grasshopper adds a punk bounce to proceedings, only to drop off a cliff into another ambient part, this time with narration. It's a huge shift and I'm still not sure that it works, but each side does for sure. I'd be happy to listen to a whole album of these ambient sections. They're agreeably chill and they offer a fantastic opportunity for both the bass and the lead guitar. Lovecraft seem to be fond of these sections too, to the degree that Deep Dark Slumber starts out in one and has fun teasing us about when it's going to ramp up. Eventually it does and turns into a sort of occult rock ritual.

I really dug this album. My biggest problem with it is trying to figure out which parts of it I like the best. I'm pretty sure I should highlight Mooneater pt.I and Another Damn Idiot as my favourites as opposite sides of that Doors meets Maiden mindset. The former is more urgent and more Maiden, but the latter is more versatile and more Doors. However, I can't leave the opener alone, with its subdued nature and subtle broodiness. Now I want a psychedelic rock album from Danzig! I believe this is Lovecraft's debut album, so maybe we'll see that under their name as they develop. As the Archpriest of Chaos in the First United Church of Cthulhu, I salute them!