Wednesday 28 December 2022

Autopsy - Morbidity Triumphant (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Death Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 30 Sep 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Wikipedia

Here's an album I missed at the end of September, which I should address before I run out of year. No conversation about the origins of American death metal can exclude Autopsy, even though the band hail from California rather than Florida. I'm way out of date with them, given that I last saw them live in 1989, headlining over Paradise Lost at the late and lamented Queens Hall in Bradford a couple of weeks before I saw Obituary and Morgoth at the same venue. Looking back, they were my first death metal headliner, as Morgoth a few months earlier were supporting Paradise Lost, downstairs in the Cellar Bar.

Needless to say, those were early days for death metal and I was thoroughly enjoying a new form of sonic brutality. The heyday was still to come—this was a couple of years before Mental Funeral, though Obituary were touring to support Slowly We Rot—but I bored of what would soon become known as brutal death metal pretty quickly, shifting over to the newer melodic death metal when Dark Tranquillity put out Skydancer. All of which is a roundabout way to point out that I'm hardly a guaranteed fan of the genre but I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected to.

It's Autopsy's ninth album, arriving seven years after Skull Grinder, which wrapped up a busy time for them. They had reformed in 2009 after fourteen years away and they knocked out four albums from 2011 to 2015, before this fresh gap. I haven't heard any of those, but they feel invigorated on this one, so maybe the higher ratings at Metal Archives suggest that they used those years well.

What I'd forgotten over the decades is how much doom there was in Autopsy's sound, along with the death. This is very much death/doom in that particular order, as against the doom/death that I've loved for so long from bands like Paradise Lost and Anathema. While the latter tends to be an identifiable sound, this is a shift between two modes, one fast and frantic, the other a slow churn. It feels good in 2022 to hear that old combination with the benefit of 21st century production and it's far more interesting to me than the full on, always frantic approach of, say, Cannibal Corpse.

For instance, Stab the Brain leaps right into the fray with abandon, as do later songs such as Born in Blood and Knife Slice, Axe Chop. However, they're never going to be mistaken for Skin by Skin or Final Frost, which are guttural sludgy doom for a while, before they decide to go frantic. It's almost like they're giving the pit a rest. Churn to this one, then take a moment to feel and breathe before we ramp right up again and you'll be churning again. The Voracious One and Tapestry of Scars add a cleaner feel to the doom, starting out reminiscent of Cathedral.

The most frantic sections, whether in fast songs or slow ones, tend to arrive with guitar solos. Eric Cutler and Danny Coralles may take it slow for a lot of sections in songs, but they always blister on solos and the rest of the band always speeds up to match them. Otherwise, there's little rhyme or reason why a song might go from fast to slow or slow to fast. I can happily praise the variety that's on offer while being puzzled as to why the songs change they way they do.

It's as if whatever these musicians feel like at any point in time drives that particular section of a song and they're all very much aware of what they're each doing, like this is a complex jam session. Everyone tries to catch each other out but nobody ever does and there's a particular pickup back to speed in Knife Slice, Axe Chop that's so tight that it had me grinning. This is a fast song from its first moments but it slows down to a crawl midway with a solid plodding doom riff, first on bass and then echoed on guitar. When it ramps back up is a thing of festering beauty.

The only real song that doesn't either speed up or slow down is Maggots in the Mirror, because it doesn't have time to do that. None of these songs are long, most of them wrapped up in three or four minutes and change, and the longest, Tapestry of Scars, doesn't quite make it to five minutes. However, while Knife Slice, Axe Chop manages two tempo shifts in its sub-three minutes, Maggots in the Mirror has to be content with just blistering through because it's over and done well under two minutes after launching itself through the starting gate. And it's a highlight.

I liked this a lot. It reminded me of those early years when this was a new style that was confusing a lot of metal fans. After all, Autopsy's debut in 1989 came only a decade after Motörhead had hit everyone for six with Overkill. The sheer change within those ten years is hard to fathom. Now, in 2022, with death metal a genre that's split and split again into countless forms, this feels fresh in a way that I didn't expect it to be. Sure, it looks backwards rather than forwards, but it reminds us that death metal is supposed to be heavy as well as fast. I think a lot of bands have forgotten that in the assumption that they just need to downtune and growl and be done. They should dissect an Autopsy album and this seems like a perfect place to start.

Galahad - The Last Great Adventurer (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 24 Oct 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website | Prog Archives | Wikipedia | YouTube

I don't remember Galahad from back in the day because, unlike most British neo-prog bands, their output doesn't go back to the beginning of the eighties. They were formed in 1985 but, as founding vocalist Stuart Nicholson suggested, they didn't get serious until the nineties; their studio debut, Nothing is Written, arrived as late as 1991. I remember them winning an edition of the Friday Rock Show's Rock War in that year, so recorded a session, but sadly none of those shows are extant, so I may not have heard them before, even though this appears to be their eleventh album, with four more credited to variations, Galahad Acoustic Quintet and Galahad Electric Company.

And so, in 2022, I wonder where they've been all my life because this is excellent stuff. They play an elegant fom of neo-prog, relying heavily on the keyboards of Dean Baker, which are omnipresent. Never mind the first three minutes of Omega Lights, which are all keyboards until Mark Spencer's bass joins in, it would be difficult to imagine this band without his presence. However, the biggest discovery for me is Nicholson's voice, which is magnificent. It's not just his tone, which is warm and clean and effortless; it's his delivery, which is masterclass stuff, especially on a song like Enclosure 1764 which wouldn't be remotely as successful without it. It's hardly an emphatic lead vocal, but he commands our attention whenever he opens his mouth and he's more than up to the clever lyrics there, which are blistering.

They start out strong with Alive, which is an immediate highlight, but Omega Lights seems to have more space to breathe, even though it's actually shorter if we discount that intro. Neo-prog to me has always relied on a balance between knowing that patience in a song is absolutely a virtue and knowing that too much patience leads to overindulgence. It's possible to write songs of substance in between three minute radio singles and Tales of Topographic Oceans. Galahad are clearly aware of exactly where that balance is and they never lose it throughout this album. Every solo serves a song, whether it's on keyboards, Lee Abraham's guitar or even a guest saxophone that I presume comes courtesy of Sarah Bolter. Nothing is here that shouldn't be.

For instance, if you dissect Blood, Skin and Bone, which runs just over eight minutes, you'll find an impressive opening, carved out of bells, electronica and what sounds like an eastern call to prayer. You'll find some emphatic riffs and a searing guitar solo. You'll find a delightfully confident vocal, especially during the second half, after a sample from a carnival. It's not an easy section to deliver but Nicholson makes it seem the easiest thing ever. I wonder if he's studied plain chant. And you'll find a pristine ending that combines many of these things. As much as I like the two openers, this is a better song and it rolls into the timeless opening to Enclosure 1764. This album is on fire.

I'm not quite as fond of the second side, possibly because the title track is my least favourite here, which I feel a little bad about because it's a heartfelt tribute to Nicholson's father, who sounds like a character indeed. However, I don't mean to hint that the second side lets the album down, which it doesn't. It would be fair to say that "least favourite" on this album would still be the highlight of another one. Galahad set the bar that high. For instance, the second side keeps adding elements worthy of note, such as the smoky saxophone that takes the title track home and the Gary Numan that unexpectedly shows up in the second half of Normality of Distance. And Another Life Not Lived, which closes out the album, is a further highlight.

In short, there's a heck of a lot here to enjoy. It's immediate enough to suggest I tentatively give it a 9/10 right off the bat and it's deep enough to back up that decision all day long. And now I have a whole back catalogue to dive into. Nicholson is the only founder member, but Spencer Luckman is a thirty-five year veteran on drums, meaning that he's been with the band longer than they've been serious. Baker joined in 1997, so he has a quarter of a century with the band. That leaves two new fish, Lee Abraham on guitar and Mark Spencer on bass, but they're hardly newbies, especially with the latter a frequent member of Twelfth Night, as indeed was Baker.

Once again, the British prog scene keeps on giving.

Tuesday 27 December 2022

Sword - III (2022)

Country: Canada
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 25 Nov 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I remember Sword well. They arrived on the world's radar in 1986 with a killer debut album called Metalized that seemed to go against the trends of the time and that helped them stand out from the crowd. Glam metal ruled the roost then and the musicians who saw glam as a realm of posers were fusing NWOBHM with speed metal during the heyday of thrash.

Enter Sword, who played heavy metal unapologetically with a nod to both those sides. They began as a Kiss tribute band, though their glam roots weren't particularly obvious on Metalized, only in odd phrasing here and there. And they played slower and heavier than thrash bands, except when they turned it up on songs like Outta Control. Sweet Dreams was a solid follow up but times were changing and, like so many eighties bands, they didn't survive the nineties.

Well, they've apparently been back since 2011 and they've finally got round to knocking out a third album, which hits as hard as Metalized and feels as elegant as Sweet Dreams. What's more, their line-up is exactly the same as it's always been. Nobody's ever left, which is rare. Usually, someone decides they want to jump on a musical bandwagon and takes their bat home when the rest of the band vote them down. Or, if they go along with it, people gradually tire of being hypocritical in the holy name of success and start to desert the sinking ship. None of that ever happened with Sword. They did their thing. Then they didn't do it any more. Now they're back doing it again.

This is a decent return, no fewer than thirty-four years after Sweet Dreams, but it's no Metalized. It gets close at points, (I am) In Kommand the early standpoint and Spread the Pain joining it late on the album. These songs are on point immediately and they stay there throughout, reminding a fan from the old days exactly why they were so good. Their best songs always feel complete, every member of the band doing exactly what they need to do and not a single beat or chord more. That doesn't happen often but Sword at their best are kind of like Bad Company at their best, stripped down to the purest essence of a song.

Metalized was so good because that description can be applied to pretty much every song on it. I'd say that this album is more like Sweet Dreams, where that description is appropriate at points but not throughout.

For instance, Bad Blood is too emphatic vocally, like a slower Exciter. If you want a song where Rick Hughes demonstrates that he still has incredible pipes, then check out Unleashing Hell, which is a statement of past and future by the band. He shows us what can be done if you can combine sheer power with excellent breath control. Mike Plant's guitar rocks on this one too and the back end of Mike Larock's bass and Dan Hughes's drums are just as beefy as I remember, aided by 21st century production.

Talking of beefy, Dirty Pig boasts some powerful riffs and Larock finds a neat groove with his bass. The chorus is bouncy too, but somehow it can't follow (I am) In Kommand, which has that je ne sais pas that's there on Sword's best songs. Took My Chances is another song too that promises much but falls just a little short, possibly because it feels more derivative than Sword tend to be. It's an interesting cross between Rainbow and Judas Priest with an Iron Maiden style midsection, but it's not the purest Sword.

And so this is a solid album, as we might expect from Sword, if we remember them—and I've found that those who heard them back in the day remember them, unlike so many other bands—but not the killer return we might have hoped for when we noticed their name listed with new releases. Is that the Sword? Holy crap, they're back? Gimme, gimme! At its best, it's up there with the best of Sweet Dreams, maybe with some of Metalized. As its worst... well, there isn't really a worst, if we ignore the pointless interlude called Surfacing because it's only ninety seconds long. Everything is good and some of it's great. Welcome back, folks. I look forward to more and I'll be keeping an eye on your tour dates.

2 in the Chest - Heroes Blood (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 7 Dec 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website | YouTube

I very deliberately cover new rock and metal from across the globe, seeking out talent in the most unexpected places, but here's a band from just up the road from me, in Glendale, Arizona, where a number of family members have lived over the years. They're underground local legends, because you won't ever mistake them for anyone else. Part of that is because of their sound, which is a mix of southern rock, hard rock, heavy metal and what Lemmy would simply call rock 'n' roll, told in an overtly theatrical way with songs that tell stories about legendary outlaws. However, a lot of it has to do with their look as well, which we could dismiss as mere gimmickry if the music didn't back up why we should pay attention.

This is a long third album for them at over an hour, but there are an admirable variety of styles on offer, all of which fit within a certain outlaw framework. The early highlight is Davy Crockett, even though it includes an overlong intro that steals a full minute and a half from the song. These folks do like playing up the theatricality during intros and they tend to sound great first time out, only to get old fast, because they're not easily skipped over.

Davy Crockett fits this bill, notably better than the two boring minutes of war ambience that open Clarence the Hammer McGregor and the album as a whole. Later intros for Old Mexico, Twin Iron Dupree and Apple Picken Killer do a little better, not annoying as quickly and surviving through an engaging character. A Little Off the Top could have done with, well, a little off the top, closing out the album with another couple of minutes of drama that suggest that 2 in the Chest really should go whole hog and record a musical concept album framed as an audio drama. As it stands, the only piece that truly integrates its intro with the song that follows is Evil Horde.

Fortunately, Davy Crockett survives its intro and rocks hard once it gets going, with a glorious riff and an urgent beat. This is emphatic hard rock in the style of Wolfsbane—and they really ought to cover Kathy Wilson—something echoed later on Misfitville and A Little Off the Top. I love 2 in the Chest in this mode, because they feel like the perfect band to blow roofs off small bars when they enter this mode, even before we factor in the image that can't be ignored. I've seen them live, so can back up how good they sound on stage, in an unlikely venue to boot.

Picture this. I saw them headline the Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival back in the days before its owners dived into scary rabbit holes and turned a worthy local event into a toxic political football. If memory serves, 2 in the Chest followed the RPM Orchestra who accompanied a silent movie with avant-garde electronica, always a good time, and then the award ceremony. I'd just discovered my old colleague Tim Wildenhain selling chocolate at the back, which underlined the artistic fusion of the event. Imagine that and then add in a bunch of hard rocking Wild West zombies to the mix, as that's precisely what 2 in the Chest look like. They dress up like what fellow locals Creepsville 666 might call "undead rebels of the night", albeit a century earlier than the imagery they intended, with heavy dusters and quality masks.

But enough of the image. I'm listening to an album and should focus on the music. While I certainly prefer their upbeat songs, they play slow and heavy well too. Total Annhilation adds in Motörhead to the sound, not that they were ever far away from it, especially with singer Reverend Blackmore Jackson McBride's voice able to turn up the Lemmy-style grit whenever he wants. I Know My Way Home has a southern rock feel to it, albeit without chicken picking guitarwork, but it's a slow and heavy southern rock. Evil Horde adds folk music to the mix and Seven Angels opens with harmonica and echoey power chords. That's clearly a song I should blast next time I'm MC'ing the steampunk fashion show at Old Tucson Studios, not that the prospects of that look good with their change of ownership. Local events aren't what they used to be.

I like 2 in the Chest a lot, but I have to say that the intros get a bit much on an album this long, the running time expanded by maybe fifteen minutes to cater to them. That suggests that you should see them live as the primary way to experience them and buy the albums as appropriate support. Some of the songs are filler too, which wasn't needed on an hour plus album. Tightening things up would have helped massively, so we could move from bouncy songs like the title track through the standouts like Davy Crockett to the more imaginative pieces like Evil Horde a little smoother. On repeat listens, that one joins the standouts, moving as it does from a crying young girl through a plaintive folk song, Jameson Jack Coburn's guitar lurking in the background ready to strike at the most polite moment.

But no, the theatricality remains intact and the filler is there on repeat listens, so I think this has to land a 6/10. But see them live, dammit. You won't regret it. And say hi to them afterwards. They may look scary in costume but they're good people.

Monday 26 December 2022

Xentrix - Seven Words (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 11 Nov 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

As an old school Xentrix fan, I liked their 2019 comeback album, Bury the Pain, their first in twenty-three years, but it didn't blow me away the way I hoped it would. The technical thrash I remember from the band's early days was there and performed very capably but the attitude wasn't always, even if it built well across the album as a whole. This second album since their second reformation in 2013 feels like a stronger version of Bury the Pain, doing much of the same thing in much of the same way but doing it consistently a little better.

It starts out well with Behind the Walls of Treachery, but it's a patient piece that runs six minutes. Seven Words ups the tempo and is done in four. Both do what they do well, but I'll always go for the latter because thrash is fundamentally about energy and, the faster a band plays, the more of it is released to us and the more we can throw back at the band in a perfect feedback loop. Behind the Walls of Treachery is at its best during the second half solo, when it ramps up for a while, but it's a strong mid-pace track. Seven Words is at its best when its playing.

There's a lot of mid tempo chugging here. They do it very well, perhaps most notably on Everybody Loves You When You're Dead, but just like Warbringer, who seem to be the chuggers of choice to a growing audience of thrashers, I wanted them to speed up. Notably, the moment they speed up on that song is the moment it ends and Reckless with a Smile kicks in. That's more like it, my grateful neck tells me. Even when the guitars interrupt their riffing for the vocals, the bass takes over as a dynamic force. Now, even this one doesn't stay fast paced and it suffers because of it but it's much better at the mid-pace than the songs that never leave it, because it can ramp back up again.

When they're fast, Xentrix remind me of Testament. They've always had a Bay Area sound to them and songs like the title track or My War hammer that point home. Kristian Havard's lead guitar is the highlight for me throughout, but new fish Jay Walsh backs him up wonderfully on rhythm. The riffing is excellent here, whether it's a chug or something more overt, and the tone during solos is delicious. Walsh is also the band's vocalist, as original singer/guitarist Chris Astley left in 2017, but I see that he'll rejoin the band for their upcoming European tour as part of a dream line-up with a few other eighties legends, Violence, Whiplash and Artillery. Walsh hasn't left, but is taking time out while his partner has a baby.

When they're not that fast, I hear a Toranaga vibe. This is always thrash rather than power metal, regardless of the pace, but Walsh, who has sung for heavy, groove and thrash metal bands, has an impactful clean delivery that reminds me of Mark Duffy. It's a mixture of power and grit that has strength at its core and works really well with the aggression behind him, especially in the slower tracks, like Everybody Loves You When You're Dead. I'm particularly appreciative that he takes an old school heavy metal approach here, because it always plays better in a thrash framework to me than the more aggressive Phil Anselmo approach that became the default for many thrash bands once Pantera heavied up and became huge.

I should also call out the drums. While Havard has been with the band ever since it was founded as Sweet Vengeance in 1984, Dennis Gasser has been consistently there alongside him since 1986, two years before they took on Xentrix as their new name. He's as solid as a rock here and, even if those guitars speak to me most, it's the combination of Walsh's voice and Gasser's drums that serves as the heartbeat of this band nowadays. The guitars and bass, which prowls wonderfully on Reckless with a Smile, are enhancement layers.

And so this is Xentrix doing what they did last time out but better. I don't think it's enough better to warrant a higher rating, but it's a step up on an already good start to a new incarnation and I'd love to see them on that European tour. Now, let's see if their next album in a few more years will step them up again towards the levels that Exodus and Flotsam and Jetsam are working at lately.

Autumn's Child - Starflower (2022)

Country: Sweden
Style: Melodic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 21 Dec 2022
Sites: Instagram | YouTube

I haven't heard anything by Autumn's Child before, but I have reviewed an album by Last Autumn's Dream, to which this is something of a successor. They're both Swedish melodic rock bands, but the only musician to move from one to the other is founder Mikael Erlandsson, who sings, plays guitar and keyboards, and, I would assume, writes the songs. This is a tad heavier than Secret Treasures, the kinda sorta new last album they put out in 2018, but not by much. It's still melodic rock thinking of hard rock in its heavier moments.

It's agreeably varied though. Gamechanger kicks things off firmly in the melodic rock vein, but an edge of prog flavours it throughout. Aphrodite's Eyes ups that to far more than just an edge. It's a playful song from the outset and it moves through a lot of ethnic territory, reminding almost of a Rainbow song but with a different tone. I liked it immediately and it set the bar notably high early in the album. Welcome to the Show is a poppier piece, upbeat and sassy with a firm drive forward. And then there's Opera, which is something else again.

Opera isn't opera but it deliberately plays with the operatic, to accompany the lyrics. It starts out as a ballad with soft tinkling piano but builds in epic fashion, borrowing plenty from Queen during its second half. And I don't just mean the general feel, with its harmonies and grandiose nature; I recognise individual swells and changes and part of the solo from Bohemian Rhapsody, in a clear Brian May guitar tone. It's so epic that it feels a lot longer than it is, because it moves through all its phases in under four and a half minutes. It's not the longest song on an album without any long songs. It's not even the longest song thus far, as Gamechanger outstrips it by forty seconds, but it feels long.

So Autumn's Child remain firmly within melodic rock throughout, but they're stretching it in every direction they can think of. I Can't Get Enough shifts into straightforward hard rock, feeling almost undecorated on this album, even with keyboard accompaniment throughout that shines late on as those keyboards find a funky sound. 1995 looks backward, as its title suggests, almost seeming like Bryan Adams covering Poison at points, but filtered into the Autumn's Child palette. The Final Call adds pop rock to the mix, channelling some Cheap Trick into proceedings.

Most of this works for me, even though it's a little soft for my tastes. The sheer variety elevates it and keeps it fresh throughout. Every song brings something just a little different and I like that. I have to say that Opera tries far too hard to be the standout track which means that it loses out to Aphrodite's Eyes in my book and by a long way. I'd have to stretch to call out a second choice and I'd suggest that that's not a good thing, even if it partly speaks to the consistent quality otherwise.

It would be easier for me to pick my least favourite songs and, while Erlandsson's vocals are clean with just enough grit to be perfect for this style, they're also why I tend to think less of some songs here. Dorian Gray feels clumsy because of the way it's phrased, the title repeated far too often in a way that doesn't seem to fit. Erlandsson gives it the old college try but the lyrics feel shoehorned into the music and the song doesn't work for me because of that. Also, Love from Tokyo feels off, not because Erlandsson doesn't do the job he needs to but because it isn't the job I expected. The song has a soulful underpinning to it, as if it's an old and beloved ballad, but it's halfway between Thin Lizzy and Whitesnake with vocals different enough from either that it somehow feels wrong.

Given that Erlandsson successfully covers plenty of vocal ground here, from perhaps John Cougar Mellencamp to Ronnie Romero, via a whole set of stops in between, I don't think I can particularly blame him for not ending up precisely where I expected him to on a couple of songs. He does what he needs to here and melodic rock fans ought to appreciate his voice, as well as his keyboards. It's just that expectations have quite a lot of meaning here, so what you get out of this may be partly dependent on what you bring to the table yourself. I'd certainly like to hear more and, if Autumn's Child end up as prolific as Last Autumn's Dream, there will be plenty more on the way.

Friday 16 December 2022

Sabu - Banshee (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 9 Dec 2022
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Wikipedia

It's been twenty-four years since a Sabu album, 1998's Between the Light, but it felt like Paul Sabu has been writing and recording melodic hard rock anthems ever since then, just waiting for a right moment to release them as a killer sixth album. He's been an AOR legend for decades, ever since a successful shift away from pop music in the early eighties that found its pinnacle in the 1985 album Heartbreak, but this is heavier than I remember. It's mostly hard rock, with strong hooks, but it's a lot closer to that ever elusive boundary with heavy metal, a boundary it crosses more than once.

There are only two musicians involved this time out: Sabu himself and Barry Sparks. Sabu sings the lead vocal and Sparks adds backing vocals, while they divvy up the instrumentation between them depending on the song. I believe they both play guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, whatever else that might be in play here. That may be it because I didn't catch any particularly unusual sounds in the background. Nothing is particularly adventurous. It's just all good.

Blinded Me is a strong melodic/hard rock song to open things up. The guitars are solid, because I'd expect them to be, but the vocals stand out. They're rough but strong and emotional and seriously emphatic, like Graham Bonnet on steroids. That doubles up on the title, which is probably the best song here for Sabu's voice. He's just breathless enough to make it appear that he's giving it every ounce of his energy, but he's the exact same level of breathless at the end of the song as he was at the beginning. It's all very carefully done.

They're both good songs, as is Kandi, which feels like a pop song that's been bulked up. Everything has a level of machismo to it, a very traditinal male flavour with muscles and sweat and a dash of Brut aftershave, and that applies to this song too, which I could fairly describe as the lightest here but also mislead in the process. Even the lightest song is heavier than I expected and the heaviest are more so. They would include Back Side of Water, which has a real chug to it, as well as a catchy hook, but especially Rock and Rock the House, which are two separate songs, both of which have a Tank groove to their guitars and a Dave Meniketti feel to the vocals. I definitely wasn't expecting that!

There are other departures too, to keep this varied. Love Don't Shatter has a slightly alternative vibe to it. Skin to Skin adds a clapping singalong section to ensure that it gets stuck in our brains. I would say it does a good job but there are too many hooks here for any one to truly dominate until the album's over and we're still replaying it from memory. Turn the Radio On, a particularly solid single candidate, hints at rap at one point but also features the most overt rock wailing. There's a vaguely rap chant to end Dirty Money too and I should underline that these are mere flavours, not shifts in genre.

The most difficult job is calling out highlights, because every song here is a highlight. The catchiest are probably Back Side of Water and Midnight Road to Madness, both of which rock pretty hard as well. The title track's level of emphasis is a hook in itself and I found myself rather partial to Rock the House, which closes out the album. Not only does it play in that Tank style I adore but it drops down to hard rock for a while and even adds a middle eastern vibe for a while in the midsection. It ably demonstrates how Sabu and Sparks are comfortable across quite the range here.

When I saw that Paul Sabu had a new album out, I knew that it ought to be good. He has too much of a track record to expect otherwise, however long it's been since his last solo album. However, I'd be lying if I said that I thought it would be this good. This is an easy 8/10 and, if you're particularly into this rougher version of a traditionally squeaky clean genre, it's fair to say that you might add a point to that. Welcome back, sir!

Bucovina - Suntem Aici (2022)

Country: Romania
Style: Heavy Folk Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 12 Dec 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Wikipedia | YouTube

Hey, my favourite Romanian folk metal band has a new album out, so my holidays are happy ones. I'm talking about Bucovina, whose debut album, Ceasul aducerii-aminte, is way up there on my list of underheard gems. Sure, it couldn't boast the production values that this fifth album has, but it had heart and I absolutely adored its incorporation of eastern European folk melodies into heavy music. I tend to see the band listed as both folk and black metal, though that's never sat well with me. For the most part, I see them as a heavy metal band whose music is so infused with local folk melody that it's just inherent. The vocals were harsher on their previous album, Septentrion, but I don't miss that.

I think I like this more than Septentrion but not so much as their debut, even with a bonus track to take me back to it. This time, it's Napraznica goana, which appropriately translates to Impetuous Chase, and it's a glorious romp. Is that an accordion back there behind the guitars this time? And some strings too? It's the same old classic but with good production and many added textures. It's telling that, while it's my favourite song here, possibly in part because of its familiarity, it isn't so far ahead of everything else as Vinterdøden was last time out.

Tăriile văzduhului thrives on the same sort of effortless heavy folk riffs, as does the title track and Stahl kennt keinen Rost. In fact, the longer the album runs on toward that bonus track, the more I hear the style gradually morphing back towards it. When Bucovina are at their best, it seems like they're not even playing instruments; they're simply serving as conduits to channel the landscape into musical form. Cu mândrie port al meu nume feels particularly effortless here but to glorious effect.

And, if this album contains much that doesn't surprise me, feeling as it does like a visit back home, there are surprises to be found. The first arrives with Rătăcitorul, which starts out acoustic and at a few points drops into more acoustic. It's a natural approach for a band who play so well with folk music but, while it isn't noteworthy kicking off the title track, it feels different on Rătăcitorul, like it's not an acoustic guitar but some ethnic instrument I can't name that has a harpsichord tone to it. It works but it's notable, just as the notably NWOBHM approach taken on Valea regelui works but has to be called out.

The most obvious surprises can be found in Folc Hevi Blec, though, which starts out as an overt pub singalong, complete with many clinking glasses, before launching into the song proper, initially in expected, if unusually fast and punky fashion. However, some of the lyrics are delivered in English, which is a new approach for Bucovina, and, of all things, there's a reggae section in the middle. It was quite the shock to hear thatand I have no idea why it's there. That it somehow works anyway is a reflection the quality of this band and the range that they bring to the table, even within a close framework of heavy folk music.

My favourite song here isn't strictly a song, because it's an instrumental and I feel as if, yet again, I should underline that I thoroughly enjoy the vocals of the two guitarists in Bucovina, Florin Ţibu and Bogdan Luparu, to the degree that I feel that they're the central sound around which all this music is built. However, I adore Bucovina when they're on an extended instrumental break and, on this album, that's Cu mândrie port al meu nume, which feels like a manifesto even before I popped its title into Google Translate and got I Proudly Bear My Name in return. Once more, I have no idea if this is built on particular Balkan folk tunes, but it seems like it could well be, before it reaches a section of spotlights late on for Jorge Augusto Coan's bass and Bogdan Mihu's drums.

Now, let me listen to this as many times as I've listened to Ceasul aducerii-aminte. I can't say that I didn't like Septentrion but it didn't play this well to me or come as close to that debut. I didn't feel the need to keep on playing it, however solid it was. I do feel that need here. So it's another listen for me before I force myself to check out the last album for the week.

Thursday 15 December 2022

Defleshed - Grind Over Matter (2022)

Country: Sweden
Style: Death/Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 28 Oct 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Wikipedia

Album title notwithstanding, this is not grindcore. This is thrash metal with a serious side of death and it hails from Uppsala in Sweden, courtesy of a band who are back in business after a long time away. Lars Löfven formed Defleshed in 1991 and they put out five albums before calling it a day in 2005. Well, they reformed last year and here's the first studio offering from the band, featuring a line-up that's picking up where it left off on their previous effort, Reclaim the Beat no fewer than seventeen years ago.

I can't remember if I heard Defleshed back in the day. I probably did, but nothing particular comes to mind. I like this album though and I liked it as soon as it kicked in hard. This is a fast and furious album that sits maybe halfway between thrash and thrash/death. It reminds the most of Teutonic thrash stalwarts like Kreator and Destruction, whether we're talking the pace, which is frantic, or the rough but clean vocals of Gustaf Jorde. If you like them, you'll probably like this, right down to the phrasing of the instruments as they shift from verse to chorus.

However, Jorde's bass and Löfven's guitars are tuned quite a way down from either of those bands and there are strong hints of a death growl in that vocal too, especially early on with Bent Out of Shape, even though it remains entirely intelligible throughout. The result is a death/thrash hybrid that brings a band like Vader to mind but it's not quite so brutal. I'd place Defleshed a little closer to Kreator than I would Vader, if you drew a line between the two and asked me where. It feels like thrash immersed in death rather than the other way round.

The worst thing about the album is that there's very little variety between the eleven tracks that are included here. The only real change is that, however many times I listen through, it appears to have more death early on than it does when it finishes, as if the density of the sound shifts across half an hour and change. It may be merely illusion, as our subconsciouses acknowledge its balance between genres, but then again it seems to run me through that cycle again when I hit repeat. In reality, it's highly consistent, each song following a very similar template.

The best thing is that it's an excellent template to follow and the production helps it succeed. This is a power trio, with Löfven the only guitarist, Jorde doubling up on vocals and bass and new fish of long standing Matte Modin behind the drumkit. That means that we can easily hear everyone and they combine into a furious sound that's rooted in Löfven's strong riffing, which is a constant plus, with Jorde's dynamic vocals over the top and Modin a windmill of activity at the back.

Almost every song begins with a similarly sounding power chord, which explodes up to full speed in no time flat with Modin having full control over that accelerator pedal. Then Löfven establishes a riff good enough to take us through the three minutes or so each of these blitzkriegs lasts. Before long, Jorde's voice takes the spotlight so he can spit out a pretty straightforward lyric in English. We can understand everything he says but we don't care. We're focused on his intonation and the riffing that's carrying us through the song. And then it's over, because this isn't epic music. Even the longest songs here don't make the four minute mark.

Why I still get surprised at just how much energy a trio can generate, I have no idea, given that it's been almost forty years since I heard Ace of Spades and Black Metal and Just Like Something from Hell, but there's still a wonder there I never get when there's one more musician in the line-up. It seems fair to say that Defleshed generate a lot of energy. Set up a small club right at the centre of a reactor, wait for the pit to kick in and the result could power Sweden.

Maybe not every song is as relentless as Staring Blind or Blast Beast, my personal picks from this tasty bunch of eleven as a standout, but none of the others are far behind. In fact, the band only pause for a breather twice, during the intros to Blood Well Spent and Last Nail in the Coffin, both of which are back up to full intensity by the fifteen second mark. Defleshed simply aren't hanging around here. They've been gone for fifteen years and it feels like they're trying to make up for lost time. I'm actually tempted to give this an 8/10 but I think it needs a little more variety. If you don't care about that, then this is an 8/10 for you.

Welcome back, folks. This is as reliable as it gets and I want to see you on stage soon blowing away the headliners with sheer energy.

Fren - All the Pretty Days (2022)

Country: Poland
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 8 Oct 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Prog Archives | YouTube

If there's anything better than discovering an amazing new band at the point they release a killer first album, it's having your judgement validated by an equally killer second album. I can't say it's better than the first but it's certainly up there with it, distilling a whole decade of music into new forms that are recognisable without ever feeling derivative. This one may be a little more patient and possibly a little more mature, but it's clearly the same band delivering the goods, underlining why Fren are my favourite Krakówianin prog rock band.

Like Twin Peaks on the debut, Where Do You Want Ghosts to Reside, Hammill opens this one up tenderly. It builds, sure, but the majority of the piece is tender. It's presumably a tribute to Peter Hammill, the driving force behind Van der Graaf Generator and, even though Theme One was one of the most omnipresent pieces of music in my teenage years through its use in regular segments on the Friday Rock Show, I don't know them as well as I should. I know enough to have called them out as a influence on that debut album but I don't know enough to explain how pointed a tribute this might be.

Hammill is only a six minute song, which reminds me of how wildly varied the song lengths were on that debut. I mentioned in my review that they're as long as they need to be, whether that's three minutes or twelve. That holds here too, though there's twenty more minutes of music without any more tracks. Bajka is three, Hammill six and the rest extend on out to the epic closer, Turque, at an expansive 24:23. Two others make it past ten and yet not one of these songs feels too long. In fact, it always seems surprising when Turque wraps up because it never seems like it's been that long. I guess there's a pause and a shift ten minutes in so maybe it deceives us into thinking its two pieces instead of just one.

There's a lot here that echoes the first album, not in the sense that they're reworking songs but in the sense that they're taking similar approaches in a different way. As Hammill is a tender opener like Twin Peaks, Romantik begins with a waterfall of a piano, an echo back to my favourite track on the debut, Pleonasm, appropriately so because Romantik is my favourite track this time out. It's a hookladen piece, wih a delightful hook early on that moves into another heavier one. While parts of this feel like the reliable base for a jazz improvisation that doesn't happen, I never felt that the piece needed anything more than it has.

Surprisingly, given that I tend to like Fren songs that are long enough to seriously breathe, I'd say that Bajka is my next favourite and that's the three minute piece here, half the length of anything else. It's a gorgeous piece, starting out as tenderly as Hammill but shifting from introspective to demanding, with the sort of threat that Pink Floyd conjure up in their darker songs. It features a delightfully rich keyboard sound too midway that wavers like a theremin but in a deep and echoey fashion that fascinated me. The drop out of the heavy section is absolutely delicious too. It catches me out on every listen with its sheer beauty.

Fren have a habit of doing things like that. There's menace to the title track too, with the cymbals dancing while the bass prowls, and it moves into a middle eastern flavour later in the song. Torque is the epic here, though, even if the title track runs almost twelve minutes, and it closes out things with a grand sweep of the prog rock genre, as if deliberately cycling through every influence that the band has.

It kicks off with rhythmic keyboards in that Philip Glass vein I remember from the debut. It builds into a sort of Turkish gallop, then a section that feels vaguely like a spaghetti western theme and an interesting one with staccato notes contrasting with a drone. There's a longer section deep in the second half that's halfway between Pink Floyd and Marillion with some recognisable phrasing, then that adds menace and another gallop and more ethnicity appropriate to the Turkish title. It hammers that point home when the vocals show up. No, nobody sings here, but there is a section of vocalisations to wrap things up, as if someone's calling a rondo.

I haven't even mentioned the immersive Wiosna yet, which is hardly an inconsequential piece at a snip over ten minutes, but then this is a sixty-five minute album. There's a lot here and I'm finding things on my fourth time through that I didn't hear the time before. It definitely feels patient in a way that the debut didn't, a little more aware of space, but it's an excellent and highly consistent companion to an excellent debut. I am so looking forward to seeing what this band knock out over the next decade or two.

Wednesday 14 December 2022

Elder - Innate Passage (2022)

Country: USA/Germany
Style: Psychedelic/Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 25 Nov 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Wikipedia

Elder have gone through a lot of changes over the years. Nowadays, they've moved steadily away from the heavy fuzzladen stoner metal of their early years to a much lighter, far more progressive version of the same thing. The fundamentals aren't wildly different but, if you compare the debut from 2006 with this album, sixteen years later, you might wonder if they're the same band. Also, at the time I reviewed Omens, their fifth album, two years ago, they were an American band based in Providence, Rhode Island, not too far from their origin in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. However, this time out, while they're still an American band, they've apparently moved to Berlin.

And why not? Moving to Berlin has historically sparked highpoints in discographies, not just David Bowie's famous Berlin trilogy, but others like Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and Nick Cave too. I wouldn't say that this is up to those levels, but it's a good album and it's one I've been happily playing for most of the day. Much of it is akin to a psychedelic take on Yes, including the vocal parts, which I do still enjoy, even though I prefer the instrumental sections. I feel that Elder are always at their best on songs where they find an instrumental groove and just roll with it.

Some of those instrumental grooves took me by surprise this time out. There's one late in Endless Return that feels dancy in a Stone Roses style. There's another late in Merged in Dreams - Ne Plus Ultra that's almost ambient krautrock. And yes, most of the best sections come late on in songs, a trend that comes from Elder patiently building those grooves over the substantial length of their tracks. There are five this time out, with The Purpose, which closes out the album, the shortest at over eight and a half minutes. Merged in Dreams is the epic at almost fifteen.

For all that variety, there's a lot of consistency here, both in style and quality. I would be very hard pressed to pick out a favourite track, partly because they all play well but also because they all play well together, meaning that I've come to think of this as a fifty some minute piece of music instead of a set of tracks that happen to add up to that much time. Maybe I could highlight Endless Return as perhaps the best of a good bunch, but it doesn't seem right. I couldn't honestly say my favourite tracks here are tracks at all but parts of them, individual grooves or sections, even down to certain changes.

What's perhaps more important is that every time I try to write anything further, I realise that I'm four tracks on and haven't added any more notes because I'm just lost in the music. This definitely felt a notch up on Omens anyway, as well as The Gold and Silver Sessions from a year earlier, which may have started this softer approach for Elder, as a deliberate experiment. However, this level of immersion kind of cements the thought. It isn't vanishing into the background. I'm vanishing into the album. What's odd is that, usually when that happens, I feel like I'm on a journey somewhere, but I don't feel that here. I'm not drifting between galaxies, I'm just floating in the music.

I wonder what old school Elder fans feel of this new mellower version of the band. Are they pissed off because the bass sounds like a rich syrupy liquid instead of a fuzzy wall of sound? Do they miss the crunch of the guitars and find the power up in sound here weak in comparison? Or are they all on board because Elder are still doing what they've always done, just in a more nuanced way, with more depth and progression? I hope it's the latter because they seem to be getting better to me, even if I might be coming to their new work as an old school psychedelic Pink Floyd fan rather than a stoner metal devotee.

Mournument - Smouldering into Dust (2022)

Country: Chile
Style: Symphonic Doom Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 4 Nov 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives

This album opens so delicately that there are only two ways it can go. Either it will remain soft for the duration and soothe us for three quarters of an hour or it'll lull us into a false sense of security and then leap on us like an elephant on springs and crush us completely. Given the band's name, it won't be too surprising to find that Smouldering into Dust goes with the latter option. Doom isn't a style I hear a lot from South America, so it's surprising to hear it from a band based in Santiago, Chile, but it definitely comes in a different flavour to usual. Their Bandcamp page states that they incorporated "aspects of the deepest and most emotional tunes of traditional Chilean folklore".

The opener is On Rain and Thunder, which understands delicacy. The guitar is soft and delightful. The vocals are understated even when not whispered. There are strings before there are drums. They show up two minutes in when things get heavy but they do it even better six minutes in after another softer passage, this one focused on piano rather than acoustic guitar, with violins circling behind it and a narration floating over it all. It's definitely ambitious stuff, even before I realised that almost all this music is the work of one man, who goes by Niklas, probably because his clearly Scandinavian full name—Ulf Niklas Kveldulfsson—must seem a little unusual in Santiago.

Niklas plays all the guitars, both acoustic and electric, along with the bass, the keyboards and the piano, and even some of the violin, though most of that is provided by a guest, Caroline Salmona, which sounds a little more Chilean, even though she's actually German. Ironically; her other guest appearances are for bands based in Norway and Finland. The only other instrument here is drums, which are played by C Krono. The vocals come courtesy of A.P., who's obviously a busy man singing for seven current bands besides this one.

Niklas and A.P. are the driving force behind the band and I presume the Chilean folklore that they wanted to bring into doom is what I'm hearing primarily in the delicate sections, like the one that kicks off On Rain and Thunder, but also the entirety of the two shorter songs. That means the five minute Sea of Desperation and the three minute Rimü, which never take the plunge into doom at all, even if they share its melancholy. None of the songs that do clock in at under eight and a half minutes, with two making it past ten.

Those songs are built out of melancholy so play less like Black Sabbath or Candlemass and more in the vein of doom/death bands, the ones that don't have a foot in gothic metal. This is less about a hand crafted and polished texture, all mahogany and velvet, and more about the ache that builds out of isolation, whether that's across eternities or, as the cover art suggests, through being lost in the mountains. One of the four epics is called A Funeral Poem, but the lyrics suggest that all of them ought to count as funeral poems, so maybe the isolation stems from loss.

Interestingly, they're all sung in English, which isn't immediately obvious due to A.P.'s harsh vocal and its placement within the mix. He's an instrument here rather than a delivery channel for the lyrics. He aches at us and he wails at us in mourning, but we don't need to understand his words to feel his pain. It punctuates this and accentuates the mood but I found myself being carried along capably enough by the waves of the music behind him, slow and heavy but expansive and notably welcoming, albeit in the way that death can be welcoming. We can stay and absorb A.P.'s pain but we can be swept off into eternity by the immensity of the sound.

The only part that's in Spanish is a section in Grey Was the Chant of My Endless Autumn, easily the longest song here at almost eleven minutes. I believe it's the delicate section early in the second half, with a reprise at the end, after an unusual and subtle echoing drum part that's not ambitious enough to be called a solo. This one feels most epic here and that's saying something, given that a majority of the album feels epic and Chasm of Abandoned Souls comes close. It's surely the ending that nudges this one over the edge, not only with those drums but also the piano/violin duet that closes the song out.

I like this and I felt it deep in my bones. There's certainly room for musical growth, especially with the symphonic tag currently being represented entirely by a solo violin. However I could imagine a serious depth with full orchestration, which surely isn't here because of how expensive that would be. Maybe once Mournument are more established, they can expand that side of their sound. I'm interested to see how that comes out.

Tuesday 13 December 2022

Bush - The Art of Survival (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Alternative
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 7 Oct 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I thought Bush would be the latest in the list of mainstream alternative British bands that I hadn't heard before, mostly because I can't grok the concept that an alternative band can break into the mainstream and remain alternative. Bush's debut album, Sixteen Stone, has sold six million copies in the States alone. That's the definition of mainstream to me. So they don't sound like Madonna? Alternative should mean more than that. Anyway, I checked out Sixteen Stone and realised that I'd heard it before. I knew Everything Zen and Comedown and just hadn't associated the songs with a band name. I'd just dumped them in the Nirvana clone bucket, even though they did it well, and I'd moved it to the back of my mind.

Now, that was 1994. This is 2022 and grunge isn't the flavour of the month any more, but it's still a key part of Bush's sound. It seems to me that they've built on it rather than replaced it, with some more progressive elements added to the mix, especially in songs like May Your Love Be Pure. That means that what you get out of this may depend on where you're coming from. If you're a grunge fan, as most old school Bush fans presumably were, then this will feel familiar but adventurous in its way, so post-grunge if that's a thing.

If, however, you're coming to this from the hard rock side, you'll find much to like but you may also find it a little restrictive, only hinting at where it could go. You wouldn't find any of the keyboards here on an early nineties grunge album and some of the riffs wouldn't fit either, because they're a lot closer to other genres than traditional grunge. Kiss Me I'm Dead shifts towards the traditional hard rock sound but Identity goes full on nu metal, albeit without changing Gavin Rossdale's vocal delivery.

I'd noted down that I was surprised at how heavy this feels long before that song arrived eight into the album. The opener is appropriately called Heavy is the Ocean, because it's a heavy song, not a fast song or a particularly urgent song, but it's heavy from the outset, especially through the tone of Chris Traynor's guitar. It remains heavy all the way to Identity, after which Creatures of the Fire underlines how heavy it was by taking it away. It returns for Judas is a Riot.

Just like the Slave New World album I reviewed right before it, this isn't metal, but it's surely had thoughts about going there, as if it might be a future option. Of course, Occam's Razor would say that this is merely more Smells Like Teen Spirit than anything else on Nevermind, which wouldn't be unfair, but maybe it's just current trend in production. 1000 Years isn't the only song that hints that they could move more into commercial alternative rock, in the vein of Radiohead. However, I wouldn't expect them to do that either.

Bush are clearly very good at what they do, explaining those six million sales for their debut, even though Rossdale is the only founder member left. While that suggests another band in flux, there have been very few line-up changes over the years, each instrument only swapping hands once. In fact, the only change before the band split up in 2002 was Traynor stepping in when Nigel Pulsford left to spend more time with his family. Bassist Dave Parsons didn't return when they reformed in 2010, Corey Britz joining in his stead. The only change since then was Robin Goodridge leaving and Nik Hughes replacing him in 2019. That's pretty stable.

And maybe that explains that, while 1000 Years reiterates that they're "slowly sinking", it would be fairer to say that they're slowly evolving, at a steady enough pace that this doesn't sound entirely like that debut album eighteen years ago but hasn't pissed off band members left and right. And, if that suggests comfortable then that's probably a fair word to use. Appropriately, given its title, Identity hints at a paradigm shift into nu metal, which I wouldn't recommend, but this is otherwise pretty safe territory for a band who sounded like Nirvana eighteen years ago. Is the fact that they don't know enough? How you answer that question may determine what you think of this album. I see it as decent and capable but ultimately safe and forgettable.

Slave New World - Slave New World (2022)

Country: South Africa
Style: Hard & Heavy
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 9 Dec 2022
Sites: Facebook

There are a couple of bands out there called Slave New World, it seems. There's one in Emmerich, Germany who play new wave hardcore, and there's this one in Cape Town, South Africa, who play a commercial heavy metal with an American flavour. Maybe neither of them took their name from a Sepultura song. Maybe this Slave New World took it from Trivium's cover. Maybe they just thought it was a cool name because the influences here would seem to be trendier American bands, albeit with the trendiness turned down in favour of good old fashioned riffs and hooks. They're still there but maybe as remnants of an early sound.

Angels Falling and Break the Silence set the mould. Both flirt with nu metal but settle into a more hard rock base, bombastic with a big back end and catchy choruses. It's an interesting mix because it feels a little heavier than it is. This came to me with a heavy metal label but it's really hard rock through and through, just hard rock that needs to be played loud on good speakers. And yeah, I do realise that all hard rock should be played loud but not all hard rock begs for it. This gets down on its knees and begs for volume and it's every aspect of the sound that does that.

It's there in Andy Wood's vocals, which are clean and soar in the vein of a Bruce Dickinson or Geoff Tate, always demanding more space to expand into. He's fond of building not just within this song or that but within individual lines, starting with a particular level of intensity and then ramping up to another one by the end. He does that throughout Never Say Die, a spotlight song for him, but it pervades the album. If often feels like we're listening in a club with the bass pumped up, only for a song to end and we suddenly realise we've been shifted to a festival environment.

It's there in the back end too. Gabo Acosta gives the impression that he'll hit each of drums just a little bit harder with each speaker that gets added to the stack. Michael Naranjo's bass is high in the mix, which flavours the overall sound considerably. It's also there in the guitars, which are the most metal thing here. Darryl Burmeister isn't following Wood into Iron Maiden territory, playing in a slower and heavier vein, but I'd be surprised if he isn't the metalhead in the band. There's at least one point, a couple of minutes into Overdrive, where I felt that I recognised a section and it seems to me that it's from a Maiden song. I can almost sing it in my head but it's being elusive.

And it's in the overall sound, because many of these songs mirror what I said about Wood and his escalations. They don't have intros in the traditional sense; they have a different style of intros in which someone, usually Burmeister, sets up what we're going to hear in the song proper, but with a sort of suppression filter thinning out the sound considerably. Of course, they thin rip that filter away pretty quickly to boost us into the song with the full mix in effect. That happens immediately with Angels Falling and continues all the way to What Have I Become to close out the album.

Now, there is an exception to that gimme volume mindset. If You Bleed has a softer approach with a ballad mindset. It keeps that big back end but it's toned down greatly and, while Wood remains emotional, trying to build it, it's inherently a smaller song than everything else here so it doesn't really work. The song itself isn't bad and might play decently in an acoustic set but it feels as if the band, except maybe Naranjo, have just dialled everything down and that approach doesn't work in this company, especially partway through the album.

For the most part, though, this is hard rock that could easily become heavy metal if the band were in that mood. My impression overall was that it's similar to Queensrÿche but with the progressive metal translated into hard rock and the volume amped up to compensate. Of course, I have no idea if Slave New World were aiming for that or if it's just where they ended up in my ears, but then I'm without much information. In fact, while it seems clear from photos that there are four musicians in the band, I'm going off a two year old Facebook post to identify the actual line-up. Whether I'm up to date or not, it's good to hear some more hard and heavy music from Africa.

Monday 12 December 2022

Blind Illusion - Wrath of the Gods (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 7 Oct 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

As soon as I saw that Blind Illusion had a new album out, I was eager to dive into it. Their debut, The Sane Asylum, as long ago now as 1988, is an underheard gem that's holding down a 96% average on Metal Archives. I have to admit that I haven't heard it in decades, but I remember playing my vinyl copy almost to death and never tiring of their brand of technical Bay Area thrash metal. Sure, Larry LaLonde and Les Claypool went on to far greater fame with Primus, but they were already stars in my mind for their work in Blind Illusion.

I hadn't realised until now that they'd eventually got round to making a second album, twenty-two years on in 2010, but Demon Master has a rather less impressive average of 24%, given that it appears to be described less as technical thrash and more as hippie rock jam, with Marc Biedermann the only link between the two. Well, twelve years on again and here's album number three, which marks a fresh shift in sound because, while this certainly features some thrash, it's not the only style here and I'm still trying to figure out what the rest sounds like because it's not just one thing.

For instance, Straight as the Crowbar Flies feels like a groove metal song that's being covered by a thrash metal band. The tone is thrash but the feel isn't and the song doesn't quite fit into any of the clothes it's being given. What distracts us from that are Biedermann's vocals, which have zero interest of sounding thrash, instead being conversational, almost taking a rap approach but never actually rapping. It's an unusual approach and not a bad one, especially when the music behind it stops to let it do its thing. It feels like something Primus might do, even though those folks aren't present to suggest it.

Slow Death ratchets up the pace and hurls right into a guitar solo from the very outset. This one's a playful chugger for the most part but its frantic around that and there are technical shifts that fit exactly what I expect from Blind Illusion. It makes the underlining takeaway from the album as clear as day, namely that it's as its best when it's instrumental and up tempo and the guitars are front and centre. Fortunately there are many such sections and they're often extended, so there's a lot for old school Blind Illusion fans to enjoy, courtesy of Biedermann and Doug Piercy.

I initially saw the biggest downside as the production but that was due to a bizarre outside factor. It seems that when the washing machine is running on the other side of the wall to my desk, it has a weird effect on my sound. Sure, there could be more meat in the production but there's nothing particularly wrong with it. Listening afresh a day later, it's all clean and I was following the bass in the mix and everything. Every song sounds better now it's not being mangled by the wash. A poor one, like Protomolecule or Spaced, sounds good now and a good one sounds great. Slow Death is a real blisterer now.

While the best parts are still instrumental and primarily due to the guitars, I should call out Andy Galeon on drums. I know his work well, because I've been a fan of Death Angel since I was a kid. Of course, in his instance, he was a kid too. He's just turned fifty, which seems insane but he was only ten when he joined that band and fifteen when The Ultra-Violence came out. I'm almost exactly a year older than he is, so was still in school while they took him out on tour. That blew my mind and so did his drumming. He's solid here.

The good news is that there are a lot of these instrumental sections. There's one halfway through Slow Death that keeps on extending far into the second half, which just keeps on getting better. It isn't as long as The Ultra-Violence—time was when I could remember how long that was, down to the very second—but it's long enough to seem special. There are more glorious sections in Wrath of the Gods, from the intricate opening through the central chug to a far more urgent second half. There's more in Behemoth too and some fascinating shifts late in Lucifer's Awakening, with more in the heavy metal stomper that closes out the album, No Rest Till Budapest.

The bad news mostly goes away now I'm hearing the production as it should be. I have to say that I prefer Bidermann's guitarwork to his vocals, but his vocals are unusual and I applaud him for not following the traditional approach. On the crunch stoner blues of Spaced, it sounds like he's trying to be Clutch but keeps turning into Suicidal Tendencies instead. Not everything is at the same level but even the least songs sound interesting now, like that one. From a disappointment, this is now merely a lesser album than the debut, which is an incredibly tough one to match.

There's only one rating at Metal-Archives for this one, but I'm utterly unsurprised that it's 66%, a fair midpoint between the genius of the debut and the apparently ill advised paradigm shift that was taken by its follow-up. I'd suggest that there's a clear way forward for Blind Illusion to find an important place in the 21st century, but history suggests that we're not going to see another shot until I'm retired, so speculation feels moot. I loved some of this, I liked a lot more and I didn't hate any of it, now the washing machine's switched off. So out goes the uncharacteristic 5/10 I'd initially put on this and in comes a low 7/10.

The Riven - Peace and Conflict (2022)

Country: Sweden
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 25 Nov 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram

When I reviewed the debut album from the Riven back in 2019, I talked about it being blues rock or hard rock, because both applied. The band preferred "heavy blue rock" but for this follow-up, they seem to be going with "high flying power rock" and that works even better, as the blues aspect to their sound is toned down a little here in favour of good old fashioned hard rock, mostly eighties I would say but also seventies. There's a psychedelic edge and the folk angle is definitely still there, along with an occasional flirtation with proto-metal too. The result of this genre-melding is major energy delivered right in your face and it makes for a solid and arguably more consistent album.

The Taker has a bouncy Girlschool vibe to it. It grows into a more psychedelic feel but it never loses its NWOBHM energy and, once it was that obvious on track two, I heard it everywhere in On Time too, which is the opener. These are snappy sub-four minute infusers of energy and the pairing sets the album off well, even if I'd take The Taker over On Time any day with Arnau Diaz's urgent guitar and Olof Axegärd's infectious beat. Maybe it's second to ramp up from a strong opener before the album calms down a little for the title track with a more Thin Lizzy flavour to the guitars.

Like many songs here, it's built out of big power chords and big beats, but it finds a calmer vibe for its verses, which rumble along in vaguely psychedelic fashion behind Max Tenebring's bass. It feels like the openers are there for the band to get the audience whipped up, so that they can trawl this one out to vary the set. And, just in case anyone's not happy with that calmer approach, they shift into high gear for the solos, which ought to keep anyone happy. And I realise that I've given shout outs at this point to everyone in the band except Charlotte Ekebergh, the lady at the front with an immense voice to dominate the show whenever she wants, but, rest assured, she's still here and in fine fettle with more than one spotlight moment by this point.

I'll call her out on Sorceress of the Sky, because it's bombastic from the outset. Teasingly, it calms down when Ekebergh shows up but not for long, because she'll be soaring over the power chords soon enough and even more so over the glorious solos in the second half, which unfold with a clear middle eastern flavour. The only problem I have with this song is that it ends and far sooner than I wanted it to. Sure, there's a Spanish guitar intro called La Puerta del Tiempo, which is reprised at the end of the track proper, but this one feels like it deserves to be an epic and it isn't.

The epic of the album is Death, even though, at a breath over six minutes, it's actually just shorter than Sorceress of the Sky, if you factor in that intro. However, Death grows wonderfully and always feels epic, even before that build starts. It's phrased like an epic and it works like one. There's epic in On Top of Evil too, though it isn't played that way quite so overtly as Death. It's here that proto-metal shows up, because this one begins in the sort of quiet psychedelic mood that Black Sabbath dropped into every once in a while early on. It builds too, like so much here, and it all feels heavy, a definite nod to the early seventies rather than the early eighties.

Those are my three highlights—The Taker early, On Top of Evil later and Death to wrap everything up in pristine fashion—but I would be remiss if I didn't mention Sundown, because that returns us to the folkier aspect to the band's sound that was so prominent on the debut album. This isn't the Led Zeppelin style folk that Far Beyond tackled so well on the debut; this is much more of a singer/songwriter style with a loose acoustic guitar behind a much more subtle Ekebergh vocal, albeit an exquisite Ekebergh vocal that demonstrates the range of her power. She's introspective here, but she turns up the power and let's that voice wonderfully loose. The result is partway between Mary Chapin Carpenter and Tracy Chapman in its quieter sections, but neither of them can soar like this.

I expected to like this album and I do. I think it's a more mature release in terms of its songwriting but also a more even album in the sense that, as powerful as Ekebergh is, this doesn't sound like a solo project at all. All four of these musicians shine throughout and, on almost every song, it feels easy to let any one of them steal our attention, so that we follow them through it. In fact, Diaz is a power right up there with Ekebergh and this album is at its best for me when both of them are on fire at the same time. And, because the end of Death is one of those times, this definitely lives up to the old show business maxim of leaving us wanting more. However many times I listen through, I never once want this album to end.

Friday 9 December 2022

The Cult - Under the Midnight Sun (2022)

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

Billy Duffy has said that he loves making new music and sees it as a vital thing for any band to do, but also that the Cult don't need to simply knock out albums any more, so they can take their time and focus on quality rather than frequency. They're certainly not prolific lately, this twelfth album arriving six years after its predecessor, Hidden City, and it's only their fifth so far this millennium. It certainly feels crafted, the grooves that they're so good at generating subtler than I remember here but just as deep. More than once, I felt a little underwhelmed by a song only to realise that I was totally into it by the time it finished. A second listen elevates this album considerably.

"Forget what you know" sings Ian Astbury at the start of the album but not that's not particularly good advice. Beyond those subtler grooves, suggesting that the band simply isn't interested in hit singles any more, this sounds like the Cult, at least if we think of their entire career rather than a brief period when they were massively commercially successful. Jim Morrison is there in Astbury's voice, as he always was, long before he toured with Robby Krieger and Ray Manzarek in 2002. He's less dominant here, though, because David Bowie and Iggy Pop and even Peter Murphy are there this time too and they aren't hiding.

Fans who only know the Cult from Electric and Sonic Temple may be surprised by a post-punk song like Impermanence, but that sound has always been there, all the way back to their indie days as a post-punk goth band called the Southern Death Cult. This one sits somewhere in between Bauhaus and Duran Duran, which is a distance from the polished hard rock of Wild Flower or Love Removal Machine, but it shouldn't shock anyone who knows more than the big hits. I was actually surprised more by the orchestration on Outer Heaven and the title track, because that takes them in a very different direction.

Astbury channels Bowie on Outer Heaven but he's more like Nick Cave on Under the Midnight Sun, which closes out the album. The way the orchestra builds and swirls makes that song develop into Bond theme territory, which definitely isn't what I was expecting. I could almost see the stunts and explosions behind however much of this song they'd be able to cram into the trailer. Maybe I ought to forget what I know, after all.

And maybe I shouldn't rely on what I think I know now, after a couple of times through, as it's clear to me that this is a serious grower of an album that will reward the listener who digs deep. It isn't so impenetrable that what you get out is commensurate to the effort you put in, but it's an album to pay attention to. Listen to this as background music and it'll remain too polite to enforce itself, but take a deeper dive and you'll find gold everywhere.

Right now, after a couple of listens, I think my favourite song is Knife Through Butterfly Heart, the longest song here at six minutes. It starts softly, with a perky acoustic guitar and subdued vocals, but boy does this one build! Everything here feels exquisitely crafted, but this song feels like it was given a little extra time than the rest. That's a deceptively light guitar to open and a patient build to take us to where we're going to go. It doesn't heavy up until almost two minutes in, when a dark undercurrent joins in that sounds like it's a cloudy cello. It ends with insane care. A Cut Inside may be the only track fighting for top spot and that's an extra-subtle one too.

I should add that, if it's holding as my favourite, that doesn't mean I want to keep playing it over. It isn't a beer of a song that we just want to keep downing, like some of those eighties hits that keep us moving every single time they play. It's a fine scotch of a song that we can sip and savour when a moment feels right. There aren't any beers of songs here at all, though the openers feel about as close as the album gets. Mirror would be top of that list, though it's also full of subtleties, and it's not a long way down to Vendetta and Give Me Mercy, subtler songs again but still with firm hooks of their own.

So subtle is the word of the day, I guess, but that's certainly no bad thing in my thinking. I like this album and I can see myself sitting back on an afternoon here and there and letting it seep into my soul.

Avatarium - Death, Where is Your Sting (2022)

Country: Sweden
Style: Doom Rock/Metal
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 21 Oct 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

OK, here's a surprise for me! I enjoyed Jennie-Ann Smith's guest appearance on the recent album by Candlemass and noticed that her own band, Avatarium, had a new album out too, so I thought I should check it out. I saw that they were a fellow Swedish doom metal band, so the natural instinct was to expect some sort of similarity in sound, just with a female vocalist and that's not what this is at all. Sure, there's unmistakably doom in their sound and there's a weight to what they do that often feels heavy, but this is a rock album far more than it is a metal album.

However, rock just doesn't cut it. Is there a genre called doom rock that isn't goth, because this is certainly not goth, even with the prominent use of cello on the opening track. What do occult and pagan rock become if a band isn't owned by those themes? This isn't folky enough to become just folk, but that component can't be ignored. Is it simply alternative rock? Surely not, because that's laden with a whole slew of implications that just don't apply here. I have no idea what to call what Avatarium do, except something that I utterly adore. This speaks to me in ways that precious few albums have this year.

A Love Like Ours is slow and deliberate, somewhere between Hexvessel and the Bad Seeds, with a delightful cello from Marcus Jidell who's primarily the band's guitarist, a beautifully distant beat from Andreas Johansson and an aching vocal delivery from Smith. It's so immediately a highlight that I only got one more song into the album before I had to jump back to this one again. And that next song, the title track, is a highlight too, which is more urgent and adds an alt country vibe, not that alt country ever sounded this ominous or this smooth. Smith turns up the ache to remind me of a singer/songwriter called Natalie Farr, who seems to be a lot more obscure than I thought she was. She sounded like this on an excellent indie album called Swept.

And then Avatarium turn up the doom, because Stockholm opens like Black Sabbath covered by an unusual folk band who then drift into something a lot lighter and looser. At its lightest, it feels like it has a psychedelic flower power influence, not unlike Children of the Sün, but at its heaviest, it's a driving occult rock standard. Psalm for the Living is the lightest song on offer, a cross between a hymn and a Stevie Nicks ballad, but with a dark cloud floating around above everything. It may not be doom in genre but it's doom in feel.

God is Silent, on the other hand, is emphatically doom and is as heavy as this album gets, even if I can't call the sound particularly dense. This is surely metal, even if the album hasn't been up until this point. Nocturne is clearly metal too, a doomy chugger of a song with clean vocals soaring over the riffs with a perfect knowledge of when to add a hint of vocal fry. Transcendent becomes metal in its midsection, but it's psychedelic folk before and after, ably highlighting just how effortlessly this band shifts genres in ways that shouldn't work but emphatically do, every time.

This is such a good album that I actually dreaded it continuing because surely the next song wasn't going to be up to the same standard as the last one. Maybe it finally reached that point in Mother Can You Hear Me Now, because I felt myself returning to reality a little after being shook during a killer five track stretch, but it's still a damn good song that's elevated in its second half by a Jidell solo that shows how much he's been listening to Dave Gilmour and also truly learning what makes his solos special rather than just mimicking them.

I haven't heard Avatarium before, but this is their fifth album and it seems that they've moved to this sound over time. I understand that they were founded by Leif Edling, as a side project that he had hoped to work with Opeth's Mikael Åkerfeldt, a dream pairing if ever I saw one. However, the latter was unavailable so Edling proceeded anyway, bringing in Marcus Jidell of Soen and his wife, Jennie-Ann Smith. I still need to explore their back catalogue but it seems that they were initially doom metal through and through, but have diversified their sound over time.

What that suggests to me is that the admirable range exhibited here—none of these songs sounds like any other, but every one of them feels consistent in this company—is something that's still in the process of being explored. I have a feeling I'm going to like their previous four albums, two of them with Edling and two of them without, but I'm going to like their next one even more. It's fair to say that this was a rare 9/10 from me on a first listen but it doesn't lose any of its power after a repeat or six. It just provides us an opportunity to focus on details like the cymbal sound on A Love Like Ours, the delicious shifts in emphasis on many of these tracks and how well Mats Rydström is able to underpin crucial moments. There's a lot here. Relish it.