Friday, 11 November 2022

Sigh - Shiki (2022)

Country: Japan
Style: Avant-Garde Black Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 Aug 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram7 | 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
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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!

Monday, 7 November 2022

Grave Digger - Symbol of Eternity (2020)

Country: Germany
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 26 Aug 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

A couple of years ago, I reviewed Grave Digger's twentieth album, Fields of Blood, which served as a double celebration, because it was also their fortieth anniversary as a band. That suggests a two years per album schedule and they're maintainin that here because the twenty-first has shown up right on time. The best and worst things to say about it are the same: it's, well, another one.

I like Grave Digger, though my era with them was in the mid-eighties when they were a rough part of the German scene with their sound rooted in speed metal. Many fans see their heyday as being in the early noughties with their shift to power metal and epic concept albums like Rheingold. It's as fair to say that this album looks back to both those eras as it would be to say that it ignores the late eighties commercial era spent as Digger or Hawaii. They know what they want to play ongoing and they're rich in back catalogue to fall back on. The question is whether the new material stands up against the old and I can see mixed feelings on that.

I miss the speed and the rough edges, though the former shows up at points of emphasis, like the beginning of King of the Kings, and the latter shows up unexpectedly on the anomalous title track which does a lot of things I wouldn't have expected. There's a lot more of the power metal, with its slicker production and more overt hooks, and my comparison last time out to Sabaton is still valid, though there's plenty of Blind Guardian this time too. There's also some admirable variety but it's generally there to underline how this could have been much more than it is.

That title track is one example, because it starts out slow and doomy, Chris Boltendahl's vocals an exercise in roughness playing out over delicate guitar picking for an odd contrast. A rousing power metal bridge leads to a plodding but melodic chorus and the song would have been better had the evolution continued but instead it just runs through the cycle again. Saladin feels like a breath of fresh air after it, being a brief middle eastern intro to Nights of Jerusalem, but the song proper is not up to the intro, as a decent but undistinguished power metal song.

And most of what populates this album are decent but undistinguished power metal songs. I can't say that I didn't enjoy them, because I did—they're inherently likeable, enough that I almost sang along with a bunch on my first listen—but I also can't say that I didn't forget them as soon as they gave way to the next. In my book, that puts them a solid notch above filler material but only one, a notch done from truly being recommended.

What ranks above that level? I'd throw out King of the Kings, with its urgent speed metal opening, but it's the exact same urgent speed metal opening as Battle Cry two songs earlier. I don't believe the two songs are related, so why they should launch with the same riff, I have no idea. It feels off. So maybe it's only Grace of God, because that's easily the best and most successfully unusual track on offer, as memorable as everything else isn't.

It's another power metal song, of course, but this one benefits from strong orchestration and the mindset that the intro doesn't have to just be an intro. It's a delicate affair, vaguely mediaeval in feel, and it returns at points when the song drops into quieter sections. Some return to that neat mediaeval guitarwork, while others drop into unusual vocal sections. Some feel choral, some more theatrical but they all do much the same thing in subtly different ways, transformed only by their backing or the lack of it. All of them work well and I kept coming back to this song, even if it has no speed metal to be found anywhere in it. I almost felt bad that I didn't go back to King of the Kings in the same way.

And so, while some fans may be mourning how far this falls short of their choice of heyday, but I'm just seeing it as a disappointing follow-up to Fields of Blood. It's an easy album to like but it's not a release to remember.

The Dead Daisies - Radiance (2022)

Country: Australia
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 30 Sep 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

It's only been a year since the previous Dead Daisies album, Holy Ground, but they're back already with a new one, which is their sixth. I had an odd reaction to that one, because nothing popped on the first listen but everything popped on the second. That's not a typical reaction for me, where it plays that black and white, but this album wasn't far different. Once again, most of these songs, as capable as they obviously were, left me dry on a first listen, only to pop nicely on a second. If there was a difference, it was that a couple of songs grabbed me a little quicker.

They waited a while though. It was Kiss the Sun, which kicks off the second half, that made me pay attention first. I think that's because it has a real mood to it. It looks and swirls and feels like it's a lot bigger than it is, as if there are a dozen musicians behind Glenn Hughes, who gets plenty to do and clearly has a blast doing it. He's a highlight throughout the album, as we all expect him to be, but he doesn't showboat to steal the spotlight. In particularly, the guitar of Doug Aldrich is strong throughout too and both of them seem to enjoy pushing each other just a little bit further.

Courageous followed it up well, achieving much the same effect, albeit not to the same degree. An impressively simple Sabbath-esque riff impressed on Cascade too, so that was three in a row on a first listen. The rest waited for the second and, once again, they all play in a way that remind of an array of influences without any song actually sounding like it could be by anyone else. That begins with the opener, Face Your Fear, which is half AC/DC and half Bad Company, the first half being the music for the most part and the second half being the vocals.

There's more AC/DC in Hypnotize Yourself, but not as much and not for as long. Hughes channels a soulful David Coverdale style for the verses before going back to AC/DC for the chorus, but there's a nineties feel to it too, as if some famous band from that decade were covering the Aussies, even if I couldn't tell you which one. Shine On has a heavier take on the same vibe. The fundamental riff shifts from AC/DC to Metallica, commercial era, though Hughes remains himself and doesn't take on either of those styles. That slightly grungy back end remains throughout as a backdrop.

If Hughes is channelling an influence, maybe there's some Chris Cornell there, but I'm stretching a little now. Hughes seems to have been around forever, even if he didn't join the Dead Daisies until 2019, replacing John Corabi—not a line-up change I ever expected to acknowledge—and he has an enviable back catalogue to trawl through. After all, he'd knocked out a couple of Trapeze albums a few years before joining Deep Purple in 1974, the first of them a year before I was even born and I can't be described as a spring chicken in my second half century.

What's telling here is that he still feels fresh. He's a little further down in the mix than I'd expect, which means that it can feel like he's surrounded by four walls of sound. He often seems happy for that during the verses of a song, only to elevate himself into a more overt chorus with emphasis. I love that he still has such passion for music that he's still evolving his sound. I wonder if he sees his efforts with the Dead Daisies as a way to look forward musically as a counter to the way he's able to look backward with Black Country Communion. I realise that's an overly simplified take but it's not an unfair one.

And all this talk of Hughes means that I'm not talking about Doug Aldrich, which is unfair because he's actually the highlight for me across a swathe of this album. It's Aldrich who sets the tone on a song and he delivers some serious solos. The best one early is on Hypnotize Yourself but he's even better on Kiss the Sun and Courageous, the latter of which sneaks past the former to be my choice for the highlight of the album, perhaps with Cascade behind it and maybe Shine On or Not Human after that. He's hardly a new fish either, with decades of work with bands like Dio and Whitesnake going back to Bad Moon Rising and Lion. He's stronger here than I remember him last time out, but I've been a fan for a long time.

I should mention the other members of the band, given that David Lowy is the Dead Daisies' only founder member and the driving force behind them. He's on rhythm guitar as always, while Brian Tichy is back on drums, oddly on his third stint in a band that's only been around for a decade. This is his first album back and only his second with the band after Make Some Noise in 2016. They seem very tight but then this band has maintained a revolving door of a line-up throughout their time. I wonder if that's partly why they can keep knocking out albums and for them to keep sounding this good.

Friday, 4 November 2022

Megadeth - The Sick, the Dying... and the Dead! (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 2 Sep 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Tumblr | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Ah, Megadeth. I have a kind of a love/hate relationship with them and I have had for a long time. I came along too late to witness the birth of thrash metal, but only just. I found Metallica when Ride the Lightning came out, which was a second album and the same went for Slayer and Anthrax; the debuts were already out and I joined the fray when their follow-ups were released. However, I was able to buy Megadeth's debut when it came out, making them the last of the Big Four for me. It's fair to say that it was a memorable purchase, though, as I'd ordered it from my local W. H. Smith's, a British newsagent chain, with a gift voucher I'd got for Christmas, to the horror of the old lady at the counter. Remember that cover? I bet she does.

I played that first album incessantly and I appreciated the next couple as well. Eventually, I drifted away from them, though, in a way I never did with their peers, even Metallica when they abdicated from their thrash throne with the Black Album. I came to think of Megadeth not as a band but as a combination of snarling vocals and memorable riffs, half important reference point in the growth of the metal genre and half catchy WWE entrance theme. Intellectually, I know that they're a heck of a lot more than the killer first minute of Symphony of Destruction but that became the label I'd stick on all their music in my head.

How justified is that? Well, here's their sixteenth studio album in yet another try to shift them to a different bucket in my head. It's generous at fifty-five minutes, with a couple of bonus tracks on the deluxe edition to take it past the hour mark. Dave Mustaine doesn't mumble on it the way my son keeps telling he does at gigs nowadays, when he goes to see their support bands, even though he does seem to narrate as much of this album as he sings it. Whole sections of Dogs of Chernobyl, Sacrifice and others fit that bill and it's not hard to imagine it becoming mumbling on stage, even if not all of it on the album is him. He's not keen on converting me back to the fold.

The guitars are much more likely to do that. The worst riffing here is capable and there are plenty of excellent riffs to get stuck in our heads. The first one that stood out as a highlight for me was on Life in Hell but Night Stalkers is even better. While I'm not convinced there isn't a set of homages in the lyrics, given how many iconic songs by other bands are namechecked, it's ostensibly about a bunch of fighter pilots at war and the buzzsaw guitar appropriately mimics those planes diving out of the sky. Even lesser songs like, say, Junkie, are elevated by simple but strong riffs and excellent guitar solos. Better ones, such as Mission to Mars and Célebutante, simply start out better and so are elevated higher.

Mustaine is a good part of that, of course, and I've long appreciated him more as a guitarist than a vocalist, but the second guitarist here is Kiko Loureiro who dovetails with him wonderfully. He's been with Megadeth since 2015 but was with Angra before that, a superb power metal band from Brazil. Given that drummer Dirk Verbeuren is a Belgian best known for Swedish melodeath outfit Soilwork, that makes Megadeth pretty international nowadays. Apparently James LoMenzo is on bass again nowadays, having previously left in 2010, but that's not him on this album, because it's Testament's Steve DiGiorgio on bass throughout.

Oddly, such a different line-up to those I remember doesn't really help change them in my mind. I enjoyed the majority of this album, with the downside being that it's too long and could have well benefitted from ditching a couple of the more obviously filler tracks, but I found that enjoyed it in the same way I always do. The strong aspects are the guitars, which are excellent throughout, and the catchiness of some of the songs. My list of favourite songs is identical to my list of the catchiest songs on offer. I'd call out Killing Time and Soldier On! here except that Célebutante arrives right after them and seems like a breath of fresh air every time.

Where that leaves me is an album that underwhelmed but which features a long list of highlights, a contradiction that's at the heart of Megadeth for me. The better songs only improve with every repeat listen but the lesser songs only vanish further. I believe this would have felt much stronger at forty minutes, keeping early gems like Life in Hell and Night Stalkers, but ripping out the lesser material that starts with Dogs of Chernobyl, a bloated track that seriously drags the album down, far enough that it doesn't pick up until Killing Time, at which point everything should be kept. The last few songs are so great that Célebutante feels like a shot of adrenaline that Mission to Mars and, to a lesser degree, We'll Be Back live up to.

And so this is a 7/10 from me, but it's really an 8/10 album that occasionally makes me think about 9/10, especially as it's wrapping up, that happens to be wrapped around a 5/10 album. That means that Megadeth are still able to seriously deliver the speed and power but they're not firing on all cylinders. They need to find enough distance from their material to ditch the baggage and blister.

Mauser - Más Fuerte Que la Muerte (2022)

Country: Peru
Style: Hard and Heavy
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 18 Oct 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

I'm liking a lot of what I'm hearing come out of Peru nowadays, because it's consistently good and because it arrives in greater quantities than it does from other South American countries except for Brazil and Argentina, both of which are far larger. What's more, I'm not discerning any overtly Peruvian sound, so these bands tend to surprise by how different they are from each other, as they do from Finland and Greece too.

Mauser are merely the latest Peruvian band to show up on my radar, but they sound very good to me. They hail from Miraflores, which is a district of the capital Lima, and they're on the hard rock side of the boundary with heavy metal, even though they do cross it. This is an all important third album for them, following a self-titled debut in 2014 and a follow up, El fin, in 2019, which I believe means The End and thankfully wasn't.

I like their sound best when it's at its heaviest, which means a sort of early Dio sound, if you recall the stormers that he tended to start his albums with, songs like Stand Up and Shout and We Rock that were his most metal. That often happens early in songs here, including the title track, Voces and Llevas Dentro. Not all of them remain that heavy, which is fine because Mauser shift between genres well, but they do the urgent parts even better. What's odd is that vocalist Alex Rojas, who's clearly been listening to Dio for a long time, doesn't imitate him too often, though there are parts where it's unmistakable, especially in his sustains and in his phrasing at the end of Hey!, which is a combination of Dio and Chris Cornell.

Hey! is a great example to throw in here, because it fits seamlessly within Mauser's general sound but takes it in another new direction. This is a looser, bluesier song from the outset and it includes a stellar guitar solo from César Gonzáles that's hinted at in the opening. It's Gonzáles who may be most responsible for the variety here, because what tone his guitar has on a particular track is the most important element of flavour. Much of his influence seems to be from the eighties and I have no doubt that he's a Vivian Campbell fan, but there's plenty of nineties here too, as the grungier and groovier aspects of the title track suggest.

In fact, those two styles merge there, when the atmosphere of Cruces, the intro to both that song and the album as a whole, shifts into song proper. Initially, it's that Campbellian sound, playful and elegant. Then the title track kicks in almost like a melodic thrash song, as if Campbell had handed over to Alex Skolnick. And then, just to keep us on the hop, it shifts into groove metal, albeit firmly on the hard rock side of the fence, so making us think grunge. It's a very nineties sound built on an eighties base with some nods back to the seventies too.

While I automatically respond to those urgent songs, I think my favourite here is Explotaré, which is hard to define too, because it adds prog into the mix. It's initially accessible hard rock, the firm confident vocals of Alex Rojas leading the way but also in conversation with Gonzáles's guitar. But, right before the first minute is up, it drops tantalisingly into acoustic mode, only to power back up in a Nirvana-esque transition. The same thing happens again a minute later and then further into the song at greater length, because the acoustic side takes us home instead of transitioning back up again. It segues well into the piano and rain of Hey! too.

In other words, there's a lot here and the particular ways by which it's mixed sound like they might be unique to Mauser. To me, that's an automatic recommendation. I like bands who sound only like themselves, even if I can spot obvious influences here and there. Mauser kept me on the hop and I liked that a lot. Now I should track down their first two albums.

Thursday, 3 November 2022

Stratovarius - Survive (2022)

Country: Finland
Style: Power Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 21 Sep 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

It's been seven years since Stratovarius put out an album and that's a long time for them, given an interminable habit of line-up changes every five or ten minutes. However, they're as stable as they have ever been, the new fish right now being drummer Rolf Pilve who joined in 2012, meaning that they've gone a decade without a change for only the second time. Anything further would be new territory for them.

The flipside to that admirable consistency is that they've never gone more than four years without a new album until now but it's been seven since 2015's Eternal. It appears that the gap has worked for them though, because this is their highest charting album in both Switzerland and Japan and Switzerland and it topped the Finnish charts, as only three of their fifteen prior albums managed.

The opening title track left me in two minds. I loved how it kicked in hard with machine gun guitar riffs, an approach that sounds great on a few songs here—especially on the intro to Broken—, but didn't like how tinny it all sounded in a section that pauses most of the instrumentation for effect stopped, as if the producer threw a perfectly good song through a filter to make it sound edgy and contemporary. I wasn't as fussed when that filter applied to the vocals of Timo Kotipelto, even if it didn't seem necessary, but it affected the drums of Rolf Pilve and that's harder to accept.

That introduction to a new album left me paying extra close attention to see what else they might do that didn't work for me and the good news is that there really isn't anything else. Survive has a drive to it and a good hook and that mindset, rather than the tinny filter, is what pervades most of the album. Demand picks up the mantle with a good riff and an upbeat feel and we're in motion. I can't say the filter isn't there, especially on the vocals, but it's obvious from moments when songs pause the instrumentation for half a line of lyrics that it's turned down once we get past the title track. Mostly.

The catch is that, while it's all generally perky power metal that's delivered with emphasis and an ear for hook-laden choruses, making it very easy to dig the delivery, especially Matias Kupiainen's guitarwork and often the interplay between his guitar and the bass or keyboards, it doesn't really surprise at any point. The song that stood out for me on a first listen and a second was Glory Days, eight into the album, and even then not because it did something different or unusual but simply because it does the same job as everything else but notably better.

What that means is that, if you like one song then you'll like all of them but, if you don't like that first sample then nothing else is going to convince you. I liked it but I didn't love it. I gravitated to the instrumental sections, where Kupiainen dominates and Jens Johansson makes himself known on keyboards, because these are quintesential power metal with an edge of symphonic metal and I love that sound. However, during the verses and choruses, it often felt like this was pop music at a serious clip and a serious volume. Maybe that's a different filter: take a pop song and apply the symphonic metal filter.

There are only two songs that try something different, both of which start out notably calmly. The first is Breakaway, which takes a full third of its four and a half minute running time to bulk up. It's really a power ballad but an exquisite one. Kotipelto delivers that first third beautifully against a backdrop mostly of orchestration and the point where it heavies up is handled perfectly. The other is the closer, Voice of Thunder, because this is the album's epic at over eleven minutes. To provide a perspective there, only two of the ten others makes it past five.

What surprised me here is how Voice of Thunder ended up playing to me as just another track. It's usually the epics that stand out for me in symphonic metal or even power metal because they're a chance for the band to truly let a piece of music breathe, without boundaries. This one firmly hints at that early on, with a soft introductory vocal set against acoustic guitar and the crackle of a fire and a storm. It beckons us in effectively and the riff that heavies things up is an excellent one. Two minutes in, this was one of my favourites here. By four, it's still decent but no longer special. Once again, Kupiainen elevates it midway with another strong solo, but he can't keep it up there. It's a good song but it's not the favourite that it promised to be.

And with only Glory Days filling that category, I think this has to be an enjoyable 6/10 but nothing higher. I wanted more from a band who have been away from the studio for the longest time in an impressive career that's almost at the four decade mark. Let's hope that they find their way back to the studio soon and knock out something that resonates more deeply. And without the filter of tinniness.

Chez Kane - Powerzone (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Melodic Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 21 Oct 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

I liked Chez Kane's self-titled debut album last year, albeit not quite as much as its single, Too Late for Love, which was a melodic rock gem right out of the late eighties. This follow-up is even better, more like the single multiplied by ten to flesh out fifty minutes. It does all the things that the first album did but more consistently. There's a little bit more variety, but variety isn't the target here. That's to doubledown on the Chez Kane formula but make it bouncier and catchier and, well, more.

And everything is bouncy and catchy. I Just Want You is a strong bouncy and catchy opener, that's exactly what you think it ought to be, plus a great opportunity for Chez to demonstrate her breath control. (The Things We Do) When We're Young in Love is even bouncier and catchier. And so we go for a while. Sure, Rock You Up is a little poppier, especially early on, feeling like a sing-along party anthem, but it's definitely bouncy and catchy. Sure, Children of Tomorrow starts out a little softer with pop keyboards but it's bouncy and catchy and it builds well with a bagpipe sort of drone. Sure, the title track ups the tempo again. But none of these are huge variants on the formula.

What matters is that the formula works emphatically well here and it keeps on working through a solid array of ten tracks. Well, let's say nine because the closer, Guilty of Love, becomes something more again. It's a tenth solid track for four minutes, which includes a decent guitar solo by Danny Rexon, the lead singer of Swedish glam rock band Crazy Lixx, who once more provides almost all of the instrumentation here—Jesse Molloy handles saxophone, as he did last time too. But, from the four minute mark, it's pretty much all guitar for the entire second half of a song that runs neatly past eight minutes. It's a great Chez Kane song. Then it's a great Danny Rexon song. It's my clear highlight this time out.

In between, there's really not a lot to say. If you're into melodic rock with a strong female voice, a barrage of effortless hooks and an urgent tempo that constantly drives everything forward, then I'd be pretty sure this is right up your alley. Check out any one of these songs on YouTube, if you're unsure, but it really doesn't matter which. I'd suggest I Just Want You or maybe Love Gone Wild, a song with melodies and phrasing reminiscent of Femme Fatale's Waiting for the Big One, but with a less husky voice. Chez is more Pat Benatar than Lorraine Lewis, if you think of All Fired Up more than Love is a Battlefield. And there wasn't a saxophonist in Femme Fatale to add another texture.

And I could rabbit on for longer but there's not much point. Chez was clearly a star in the making a year ago on her solo debut and she's living up to that promise wonderfully. Not only is this a great follow-up, surely one of the melodic rock highlights of the year, but she's being invited onto other albums as a guest, like the debut from Ginevra, a new supergroup on Frontiers featuring Magnus Karlsson and members of H.E.A.T., Eclipse and House of Lords. The future couldn't be brighter for someone who seems to be as humbly down to earth as they come. Now go buy the album.

Wednesday, 2 November 2022

Lacrimas Profundere - How to Shroud Yourself with Night (2022)

Country: Germany
Style: Gothic Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 26 Aug 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I've been listening to this album, a hopefully lucky thirteenth for a band I enjoyed immensely back at the turn of the century, for a few days now and it's grown on me considerably. My first listen was a little underwhelming but each subsequent run through has improved its stature until I'm having trouble now moving onto the next release in my review queue. However, as much as I enjoy each of the ten individual tracks on offer, their hooks now old friends, this still plays to me as one complete forty minute chunk of doomladen gothic metal rather than a bunch of songs.

Mostly, that's because this is so utterly consistent. Wall of Gloom sets things in motion in style, an agreeably dense mood floating around the pleading vocals of Julian Larre, who had debuted very effectively on 2019's excellent Bleeding the Stars. Those vocals aren't just emotional; they actively reach out to us, involving us in the stories each song has to tell, each of which revolves in some way around the album's theme of being able to step back and disappear, understandable during these troubled times.

The riffs are dark and doomy, but there's a decadent gothic veneer draped over everything. It's all mood and it contributes to the density of this sound, because it isn't just heavy in musical terms, it feels heavy like it's handmade out of polished mahogany and deep velvet that have weight both in the physical sense and in weight of time. They've seen a lot. Much of this comes from the backdrop that hints at storms and fog and other things that can cloak us from the eyes of the world, as only a little creature easily vanished into the grandeur of creation.

That's there on The Vastness of Infinity, where it ought to be, but it's there throughout. That track stands out a little because it returns the album to its core sound after a couple of songs varying it just a little. The first four songs here are all outstanding but do a very similar job in a very similar way, from Wall of Gloom to In a Lengthening Shadow. They're all exactly like what I suggested over my last couple of paragraphs. But The Curtain of White Silence has a different vocal approach and Unseen another. I much prefer the latter to the former and, while it's tough to pick out favourites here, it's safe to say that that's my least favourite.

What The Curtain of White Silence does is take Larre's emotional vocal style and throw it through an emo filter. It's still emotional but it shifts from elegant pleading to unsophisticated whining. It isn't a good shift, though it doesn't clash with the music behind it. Maybe children of the nineties may dig it a lot more than I do. Unseen goes in the other direction, heavying the vocal up to more of a growl, underlining how a lot of this sound is the sort of gothic metal that evolved from doom/death. To Disappear in You has a neat double vocal, mixing the clean with the harsh and allowing both to continue in their way. These work a lot better for me.

And they lead the way to the final couple of tracks, which are up there with the first four. In fact, if I could ever truly separate these songs out to be able to think of them in isolation, I might suggest An Invisible Beginning as my highlight, with Shroud of Night, the kinda sorta title track, not much of a trek behind it. The catch is that I then roll back around to listen through the album again and find how much I dig Wall of Gloom and A Cloak Woven in Stars and suddenly it's all about how well this plays as an album rather than individual songs.

After a dozen listens, I'd call out the first four and the last two songs as the highlights, which is an impressive amount. They're all heavy and dense and emotional, but they also carry strong hooks, similar ones for sure but strong ones nonetheless. They all take me back to my days in Halifax and the rise of Paradise Lost from doom/death pioneers through gothic metal pioneers to heavy icons dabbling in the new wave. There's a lot from a few of those eras here, but combined into a gothic metal style that's much richer than the bleak sound of Paradise Lost's Gothic album. That's where Lacrimas Profundere live and I couldn't be happier.

Toehider - I Have Little to No Memory of These Memories (2022)

Country: Australia
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 9 Sep 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website | Prog Archives | Twitter

I hate using the word curiosity, because it conjures up ideas of novelty Christmas singles and that is absolutely not what this is. However, it's a curiosity to me because it does everything and that's kind of the point. That does not mean that it's not immersive and fascinating and worthy of many returns, because it is. Even Mike Mills, the one man behind all Toehider music, acknowledges that "it sounds like a sonic journey through the last 50 or so years of prog rock and metal." While I should clarify that this is far more prog rock than it is metal, he's not wrong.

This is a fifth studio album for Toehider in just over a decade, but that doesn't explain how prolific Mills really is. There are also a whole slew of singles and EPs, which include the twelve he released in 2004 alone, a gimmicky approach that makes him a little less prolific than Buckethead but more than most bands. And he's one guy.

To make this album as accessible as possible, he opens with the single version of The Hoarder, one lively three minute chunk of a larger piece. It's busy and upbeat and rather schizophrenic, because Mills covers a heck of a lot of ground in such a brief span. There's Queen here for sure, but there's plenty that's more modern too, including some post-production glitching for effect. Some of it's as light as a single release might suggest but some of it's pretty heavy too and there's an alternative vibe to what we could call the chorus. It takes a little adjusting to but it's a lot of fun.

And then we get the larger piece that it's excised from, which is the title track that runs for a full forty-seven minutes and forty-seven seconds, as if there's some sort of numerological meaning to it. It's a vocal piece, with the drive of the lyrics having to do with the modern take on memory, an abiding need to experience everything through recordings, even if we're there live. Some sections are clearer to catch than others, but I never managed to follow this lyrically. I was too absorbed in the music. And there's plenty of that.

Initially, though, it's only a vocal piece, because it features half a dozen parallel universe versions of Mike Mills harmonising together, sounding like a bizarre hybrid of Yes and Queen. There are an array of high and low pitches, words and vocalisations, eventually operatic grandeur. Then it shifts quickly into music, as immediately frantic as Liquid Tension Experiment would make it. And we will either find ourselves lost in a bad way, like "What the hell is going on here?" or lost in a good way, because we dig that we have no idea what's happening and let it wash over us until we figure out some of it.

And I recognised a lot of styles. There are ELP keyboards early on. There's some Ian Anderson type vocals a little later. There's some Genesis. There's definitely more Yes in the layering a quarter of the way into the song. That's a great period because it shifts into something sassy and funky, only to shift back to Yes again. The sheer variety on offer brings Mr. Bungle to mind, but this rarely has anything else to compare directly with that famously schizophrenic band. There's definitely genre-hopping here, but within the rock and metal spectrums rather than beyond it.

The first and only logical stop is at the sixteen and a half minute mark, where everything ends for a moment and the tone changes completely. My second favourite section is here, because the new sound grows as a swirling synthesiser from which a slow riff gradually materialises. There's Black Sabbath here, of course, and early Sabbath even if Mills's darker voice is closer to Dio than Ozzy, but there are hints of doom metal from much later too.

My favourite section comes later still, around the twenty-six minute mark. It's all bouncy seventies keyboards at this point, with obvious drum programming, but it grows into a sort of maelstrom of heaviness that bursts wide open into riffs. Somehow it finds a way back to keyboards, but they're 8-bit keyboards from the eighties. It's gloriously inventive and it ably highlights how magically Mills can segue from one style into another and back again before going somewhere completely wild in what seems like a completely effortless manner.

Who else is here? There's some Blue Öyster Cult, for sure, in the most commercial section, which is oddly sped up until it finally decides to slow down. However, I feel like I've only scratched a surface of the surface, because there's an astounding amount of depth here. I dig prog rock and I've heard a lot of it, not only from the seventies British standards but from much further afield. However, I'd love to watch a YouTube reaction video to this made by someone who dived into prog in 1970 and is rarely found listening to anything else. I want to know what else is here.

And that's either sold you on this album or driven you completely away from it, depending on your particular tastes. Which is fine. I should add that there are two different endings to this song, one on the CD and the other on the vinyl release. So if you find yourself in the former category, maybe you need to buy this twice.

Tuesday, 1 November 2022

Rage - Spreading the Plague (2022)

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

Spreading the Plague is an EP rather than a full length studio album, but then Rage knocked out a solid 8/10 album in 2020 with Wings of Rage and and very possibly another one in Resurrection Day last year, but I somehow managed to miss it. That one certainly did well commercially, with a shift to two guitarists, Marcos Rodriguez being replaced by both Jean Bormann and Stefan Weber. The three opening tracks here were recorded during the sessions for that album but kept back, not for quality reasons or even space reasons but because Peavy Wagner wanted, during COVID, "to have something special up our sleeve for our fans when we'll be able to tour again at last".

The something special for me is the third of these songs, The King Has Lost His Crown, but I'm not going to put the other two down. To Live and to Die is a punchy opener with some excellent solos in the second half from one or both of those new guitarists. I should mention here that Weber used to play lead guitar in Axxis and is currently also in Scanner, so Rage should be a comfortable fit for him. The title track serves as an almost laid back follow-up but it's catchier and it also features a top notch guitar solo. These are good openers.

However, it's the next track that speaks to me and that's The King Has Lost His Crown. It's a faster song and a more urgent one. The tempo is close to thrash speed from the outset and, while it does slow down, it initially slows down to a fast power metal speed and, after slower sections, it ramps back up to top gear again. Yet again, the guitars are highlights, but Wagner seems to be having a lot more fun singing this one too, with its hooks not reserved exclusively for the chorus, and Lucky Maniatopoulos has a lot more to do on drums too. Everything stands out here.

The good news is that the EP is only halfway done at this point, but the second half isn't remotely as strong as the first. I can't say that I dislike the acoustic version of A New Land, a track from the Resurrection Day album, because it has its merits, but it mostly serves as one more reminder that I should check out the album I missed. Sure, Wagner throws himself into this version and there's a neat electric solo behind the acoustic riffs, but this isn't ever going to be the focus of this release.

Neither is The Price of War 2.0, which was a single in 2020 right after Wings of Rage, so it has little purpose here except to fill a gap for any fan who didn't get round to buying it separately, even if it is a good song. Straight to Hell is even older, dating back to the 2001 album, Welcome to the Other Side, but this version is subtitled Live from the Cave, which isn't a concert venue but what must be a home studio, ironically given that it seems better produced than the original. It's a grungy song that often feels like groove metal, as did the original. This version feels less rough, as rough as it still feels, and it adds conversational callouts to fans across the world.

And so this is definitely one for the fans. The three new tracks are solid with The King Has Lost His Crown the highlight for me, but the other three are best placed exactly where they are, on the B-side of an EP where the die hard fans will enjoy them but the rest of the world won't ever notice. If you're interested in Rage but haven't heard them before, this isn't the best starting point and it's probably fair for you to drop a point off my rating because the second half won't interest you. You would be much be better off starting with a full album.

For fans, I have to say, a year late because I'm still kicking myself for missing Resurrection Day, I do like their new twin guitar approach. They haven't always been a trio—in fact, there were a pair of guitarists when I first heard them back in the mid eighties and again in the late nineties—but they have spent most of their career with just one guitar but I'm enjoying the benefits that two have to bring.

Exxasens - Le-Voyage (2022)

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

I'm still learning about post-rock and what Exxasens do doesn't meet the strictest definition I've found for that genre, given that they employ not only synthesisers but other non-traditional rock instruments like trumpets. However, the end result sounds exactly like I'm starting to expect from the genre, this set of eight pieces of music not so much instrumental songs as evocative journeys. Their Bandcamp page states that the goal of this particular album "is to make the listener travel to hitherto unexplored places within the EXXASENS universe" and I certainly felt like my passport had been stamped at a lot of places by the time it ended.

Le-Voyage opens ambitiously with a three part title track that accounts for about half of the total running time of the album. The individual titles suggest a cosmic journey—Departure, One Step to the Moon and Back to Space—and it's not too hard to imagine Departure in terms of a launch. The initial passages are rhythmic, as if a ground crew is going about its business. Then it gets dense as the ship launches in a burst of frantic activity. And then it gets quiet, because we're up there now. Sure, the drums tell us that there's a lot still going on but we can also see out of the window and it looks beautiful and calm.

Departure amounts to a nine minute journey all on its own, but there are five more in One Step to the Moon, with a patient beat perhaps echoing the climb down the ladder from the module and a growing sense of imagination perhaps representing discovery, and a further four in Back to Space, which is where it gets really interesting. This third part kicks off with bubbling liquid and a strange background drone. What have Exxasens found on the Moon? I guess that depends on how we feel about what else goes on within this title track and the beauty of instrumental music is that what I hear may not be what you hear and neither of us may match what the band hear. Welcome to the joys of post-rock!

The rest of the album isn't as deep and exploratory, because each piece has to do its thing in a far briefer amount of time, Alpha the most at five and a half minutes and Orbiting Mars shortest at a skimpy two and a half. When you're in the conjuring up environments business, more time is more space for imagination and two and a half minutes is just a glimpse. As such, they work the way that Tangerine Dream pieces work at glimpse length, which is to say that Le Parc is a fun album but it's not as immersive as Phaedra or Stratosfear, let alone Ricochet or Rubycon.

And that's not to say that they aren't successful. I particularly liked Black Hole, with its gloriously building darkness. Was that a cello during the initial build? It certainly sounded like one, even if it turns out to be the guitar of guest Magnus Lervik, who provides a searing solo that's the heart of the track, emphasised wonderfully by the rest of the band. That's certainly a trumpet in L'Etoiles, courtesy of another guest, Jordi Sacristan, and it lends it an utterly different tone, an exquisitely personal moment in a soundscape that's otherwise highly impressionistic.

He's there on Departure too, unless I was dreaming, which I might have been given how elegantly this one slows down after that point and how easy it is to get lost in the opener. When I went back to check, I kept intending to only listen to part one, only to become absorbed by it and realise that I was halfway through part two already or the liquid that kicks off part three told me clearly what point I'd got to. I enjoyed the second half, but the first half is where what Exxasens do can be best experienced. So this is half an 8/10 and half a 7/10 and I now have six prior albums to track down...