Wednesday, 25 January 2023

Imperium Dekadenz - Into Sorrow Evermore (2023)

Country: Germany
Style: Atmospheric Black Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Jan 2023
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I like this album, the seventh from Germany's Imperium Dekadenz, who play black metal from the Black Forest. I've had it on repeat for much of a day and a half and it hasn't got old yet. However, it refuses to stick, like charges on a corrupt politician who's still in favour with his party. I've come to the conclusion that this is dark mood music, very capably done but with little intention to do anything beyond setting the particular scene that the band wants this album to evoke.

For the most part, that's all it does. It's bleak, as black metal tends to be, but also somehow warm, as if this particular frozen forest happens to be our safe space. It's often fast, as black metal tends to be, but it's just as often slow, the guitars buzzing their wall of sound but the drums happy to be almost in slow motion. Even in the fastest sections, they seem to be dawdling, because the drummer is so comfortable that he could surely do this all day without taking a breath. It's bleak but it isn't at all threatening. Is friendly harsh a thing?

Initially it feels like atmospheric black metal, because that's exactly what it is, but it continues to be content with being atmospheric black metal. It doesn't do anything with the format that we've not heard before. Sure, it's done incredibly well, but it's never adventurous and it rarely wants to have us focus on any particular element. We do in the end, because we find we have to penetrate its secrets, but such moments are still rare.

Aurora is the track where that happens most obviously, because it features a delicate piano that continues under the wall of sound, leaving it more of a veil of sound. Beyond that undercurrent of piano, there's also a neat keyboard that mimics a violin. It's all seamless dynamic play, even if it's so effortless that it floats past us a few times before we realise what it's doing.

Elysian Fields finds both a solid riff and a clean narrative voice, but it bleeds away into the general mood of the album, which starts to feel more and more like a fifty-one minute slab of black metal than a set of eight individual tracks as we listen and re-listen. November Monument has a magical section that's all bass, whispers and a cacophony of cymbals. It's a fascinating section and we can't help but wonder what other magical moments there have been that we were too hypnotised by a mood to notice. Maybe that's why I kept on listening and listening.

At the end of the day, though, it remained elusive. It sounds great, don't get me wrong, but I can't give you a favourite track or a second favourite. I can't even give you a least favourite. Anything I'd bring up to elevate one over another would be followed by the realisation that everything else did the same thing and balance would be restored. My problem is trying to determine if that counts as a positive or a negative.

Part of me thinks that I've listened to the entire album about a dozen times and never had to skip anything, never wanted to skip anything and can happily keep on listening another couple of times through. That has to be a positive, right? However, part of me thinks that I really ought to be able to say something individual about something after those dozen listens and I can't, beyond the few minor points I've made thus far.

I guess that, if you want a warm black metal mood, this might be precisely what the doctor will be ordering for you today. If you don't, then this is a fifty minute placebo that won't do anything for you in the slightest but you may somehow want to take it again tomorrow.

What surprises me most, given this curious avoidance of individuality, is that Into Sorrow Evermore is the seventh album from a long established band with a consistent line-up—it's been Vespasian and Horaz divvying up instruments since their founding in 2004, except for when they bulk up to a five piece for live shows—and what appears to be a dedicated fanbase. They must be reaching the parts that other black metal bands aren't reaching but perhaps I don't have.

Massive Wagons - Triggered! (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 28 Oct 2022
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Massive Wagons are one of the more prolific New Wave of Classic Rock bands, with this the third of their albums I've reviewed here at Apocalypse Later. They're knocking out a new one every two years nowadays and they just snuck this one in at the end of 2022. It continues their growth too, in a few ways that I expected and a few that I didn't. It's the most immediate of the three, which to a fan of the band is rather like saying that this water is the most wet, and it's the most to the point, only two songs out of a baker's dozen making it past four minutes. There are no sprawling bluesy numbers this time out. It's just in your face pop/punk/rock that won't quit.

As I said last time out, with House of Noise, they're also one of the more recognisable NWoCR acts with this never mistakable for anyone else. Part of that is because their influences are a bit newer than the norm. Instead of nods back to Led Zeppelin and Bad Company, they're more interested in TerrorVision and Wolfsbane. Sure, there's some obvious AC/DC on A.S.S.H.O.L.E. and some Iron Maiden in the title track's guitars, but most of this comes out of the nineties. The Status Quo influence is a little less obvious here, but it's still there in the catchy three minute template.

I'm hearing a lot of pop punk on this one too. They're still a rock band at heart and they're always going to have a a strong following of ground level fans at rock bars up and down the UK who know everyone, have heard everything and just want to sit down at the bar for a pint, but have to get up when the Wagons hit the stage because they diffuse energy to every corner of a room and that's a rare and precious thing. However, their bouncy rock style crosses over into pop punk often here, to hopefully trawl in another set of fans. Fuck the Haters, the subtle manifesto of an opener, is a rock take on pop punk and it's not the last.

The other crowd I'd love to see at a Massive Wagons gig are pop fans, because I'd love to know how they'd feel about the band. Unlike Battle Beast, whose 2022 album I reviewed yesterday, you can't just swap filters on songs here to turn them from metal to pop, but it would seem like fans of a bouncy sort of pop music, say Taylor Swift, might just be blown away by this bouncy sort of rock music. The fact that they're very culturally aware in their lyrics probably helps. And, quite frankly, while this is rock not rap, Baz Mills is so precise in his delivery of those lyrics that he's goddamn spitting bars in a whole slew of tracks. Check out the closer, No Friends of Mine, to see what I mean.

If everything I've just set gives you the impression that they're selling out with this record, I would like to dissuade you of that notion right now. This is fundamentally a guitar album, from moment one to moment last, even if Please Stay Calm kicks off with such an eighties guitar that sounds like a keyboard that I'm still trying to figure out which Def Leppard song they snatched it from. It's the guitar sound on the title track from Hysteria but heavier and faster. Whichever doesn't matter, it's the poppiest part of the album and it's still guitar. This is guitar music. Don't forget that.

But, at their heaviest, on a song like Generation Prime, which explodes into action and only ramps up from there, they transition seamlessly into some sassy reggae just for fun and then back again. It's priceless and it's done incredibly well. It also plays into the primary driving force that keeps a band like Massive Wagons doing what they do and that's fun. Sure, they need to pay the bills and I have no doubt they have to play music because it's who they are and all that jazz, all the reasons to be in a band, but there are few bands who seem more like every member is simply having the time of their lives when the're playing music. This isn't five musicians. It's five individual limbs who plug into each other to become complete. They're a giant robot that's formed from a superhero squad.

I have a feeling that this is better than the 7/10 I'm going to give it but it's less varied than House of Noise and Full Nelson and it's a little too slick for my tastes. I think, at this point, I want to hear a live Massive Wagons album, because they're not touring in Arizona and that's going to how I get to experience what they sound like live, which I expect to be utterly involving. Even with that 7/10, nobody does this better.

Tuesday, 24 January 2023

Riverside - ID.Entity (2023)

Country: Poland
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Jan 2023
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Poland is fast becoming one of my favourite countries for progressive rock. Sure, there are other genres being plumbed well by bands like Vader, Velesar and Monasterium, but it's the land of Fren and Amarok and Collage and they all play prog, albeit in very different styles. Riverside are Polish and they've been playing prog rock since 2001 with this being their eighth studio album. The prior four all went gold in Poland so they're building a buzz, and it's time I caught up on that.

The first note to make is that they aren't like any of those three other Polish prog rock bands, but they're closest to Amarok because they have a very fresh contemporary sound for a band with two decades behind them, even though there's often a lot of neoprog in their sound. I see them listed in various places as progressive metal, but there's precious little metal here, perhaps only hints in I'm Done with You, but even there it's hard rock in its heaviest moments.

The keyboards of Michał Łapaj are the first obvious element, followed by a crystal clear bass from Mariusz Duda to kick off the opener, Friend or Foe? Over time, his vocals will take over frequently, but it starts with keyboards, as if Riverside plan to play in an Alan Parsons Project ballpark or even Queen from The Works era of commercial prog pop. The vocals, when they do arrive, are clean and smooth and, with a subtle shift in keyboards, anchor this in new wave as much as prog.

But whatever I pull out of any individual song, it all comes back to prog, because this is never just simple new wave or hard rock or even reggae, once we get to Self-Aware. It's progressive reggae, hard rock or new wave, and that's why this album is so fascinating. Friend or Foe? is reminiscent of Steven Wilson once it's over and we can look back at its seven and a half minutes from outside. Landmine Blast goes in different directions, most obviously funk because of how bass-driven it is, but there's still a Steven Wilson flavour to it. These are good songs but they're not my favourites.

I prefer the songs that dive more into neoprog, even if Big Tech Brother features heavy keyboards and more presence from Maciej Meller's lead guitar to take it away from that. Post-Truth is a prowling beast, again built on that confident bass, even if it's content to end with delicate solo piano. I'm Done with You frames its neoprog as hard rock, with a swagger (and some fuzz) to the heavy guitar but with the delicate keyboards dancing around it. It seems as if it wants to be simple but it doesn't dare, so settles for some elements either way. I like it a lot. However, these aren't my favourites.

Self-Aware is the closer, that combines elements I never expected to hear together. Initially, it has little intention of playing in the same vein as anything else here. The neoprog is dialled down and the Steven Wilson elements ditto. If anything, it starts out like Thin Lizzy, built from power chords and recognisable changes. However, just as we're getting used to a Riverside song that just rocks, it segues seamlessly into reggae. It's the first genre shift within an individual song that feels like an attention grabber, but it works very well indeed. And yes, the song eventually raises the white flag and goes full on prog for its last few minutes.

And that leaves The Place Where I Belong as the epic of the piece to kick off the second side with a sense of real style. By epic, I mean thirteen minutes and change with a patient build. It's acoustic guitar chords behind a storytelling vocal when it starts and that vocal dominates, even with some gorgeous sounds emerging from the mix and long instrumental sections that never feel too long. It's surely the most patient this album gets and likely the most neoprog. It's definitely my pick for standout track because this band seems to get better the more space they have to breathe.

Oddly, that means that, while the album doesn't consistently get better track on track, the second half is where the material that connected with me the most can be found. That rarely happens and I'm eager to see how this band got to this sound, given that it certainly isn't what I expected going in.

Battle Beast - Circus of Doom (2022)

Country: Finland
Style: Melodic/Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 21 Jan 2022
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This sixth album from Finland's Battle Beast didn't top any best of 2022 lists, though it did make it onto one of them, Metal Kingdom's Best Metal Albums of 2022, at a not unrespectable 11th, but I missed it a year ago and didn't want to let it slip by me entirely before I draw a line on 2022 and go full on dedicated to 2023. I liked the fifth album they put out in 2019, No More Hollywood Endings, or, more accurately, I liked a lot of it a lot. It started out well and it wrapped up well, with a bunch of outstanding songs at each end, but there was also lots of filler in between them and the vision of the band seemed to be all over the map. I wanted to find out if that was an anomaly or a norm.

And, based on this, I'm happy to suggest that it was an anomaly. This one is far more consistent in approach and I was especially happy to hear Noora Louhimo's voice dropped a little in the mix. It's not that I don't want to hear, because she's an outstanding vocalist. It's that she's so outstanding that she doesn't need to be out there in front as if this is a solo project, as it was last time out. On this album, she has to fight more for dominance and she's more than up to that task. Fortunately, so are the musicians behind her, starting with Pyry Vikki's drums, because the beat on the opener is just as emphatic as Louhimo's voice and it stays there throughout.

And it's not just him, because that opener is a very theatrical title track, appropriately given the subject matter. There are plenty of flourishes in the musical backdrop to keep us paying attention to everyone. Circuses are theatres in their way and this song is just as bombastic as the circus that it brings to life. It's a glorious opener, from its musical box intro through an initial vicious chug to the Flight of the Bumblebee style buzz and onward through the curtain into the ring, where we're treated to quite the show.

Wings of Light begins with a killer scream from Louihimo but also a guitar flourish. It isn't close to the opener in theatricality but it's just as emphatic. Master of Illusion kicks off with another huge vocal moment, so there's a clear trend in play. Those drums are in our face too and the guitars on Where Angels Fear to Fly refuse to leave us alone, even when they drop away during the verses. As the song moves towards its close, guitars and voice almost duet, like a game of tag with one doing its thing and handing to the other and so on.

I like all these little touches, Russian Roulette as full of them as Circus of Doom, with an intricate intro and outrageous late section on top of the flourishes during the song, but I honestly believe that Eye of the Storm is my favourite song here and that one plays it straight. It really doesn't do anything fancy until a brief and subtle outro but it's quintessentially urgent. Whatever defences we have left after the assault of the first four songs, it barrels right through them and bludgeons us into submission. It's content to just do the business for four minutes and twenty-six seconds.

Back to Russian Roulette though, I get the feeling that, as powerful as this song is, this could be a pop or even a dance number, something that might be at home at the Eurovision Song Contest in an utterly different presentation. I'd love to hear a pop cover of this to see how it works. Here, it's a heavy/power metal song and not a wimpy one in the slightest, but I bet it would play really well with completely different filters: keyboards instead of guitars, a soft voice instead of an emphatic one, pulses instead of rock drums. Someone cover this as a disco song, please!

If there's a downside, it's that the album doesn't end as strongly as it started but the second side isn't filler. These are good songs, just not quite as good as the ones before them. If they'd moved one of the killers, say Where Angels Fear to Fly, to the end, maybe I wouldn't have been seen it at all. And that means that either this is a big step up for them, which I doubt given the acclaim they have garnered throughout their career, or that last album was a step down they've addressed.

Monday, 23 January 2023

Obituary - Dying of Everything (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 13 Jan 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

While Barely Alive rips out of the gate and it's not the only song with a fast section here, this new Obituary album joins the Autopsy album from late last year as a firm reminder that I've forgotten what the original death metal bands sounded like. I saw both of them live back in 1990 but I moved on from the genre pretty quickly and apparently three whole decades went by while I blinked. I'd forgotten just how much doom metal there was in Autopsy's sound and I'd also forgotten just how much Celtic Frost there was in Obituary's.

John Tardy's vocals aren't even a growl, which is practically mandatory nowadays in death metal. Instead he sings clean but with a tortured voice that often reminds of Tom G. Warrior and others who sang in what felt like a demonic voice in the eighties. That's only underlined during what I'm going to have to call a spoken word section in Dying of Everything, because it seems to be spoken by a demon. The point is that it was an extreme voice when Obituary started out. It seems almost tame in 2023.

I've read comments by younger fans who don't understand how bands like these can even be seen as death metal, simply because they don't conform to their expectations of the genre. I don't buy into that at all, because I remember how extreme Autopsy and Obituary were in 1990 and they're still true to their core sound. This was death metal and it's still death metal to me. These are some of the bands who created the genre and heritage is important.

Also, this is heavy stuff, even if the second half of Without a Conscience and the beginning of My Will to Live, to cite just two sections from ten songs, are as solid for slow headbanging as anything that Status Quo ever conjured up with their famous three chords. Of course, this is downtuned and far heavier than Quo, but the comparison isn't unfair in those section. The clearer nod is to Celtic Frost, because it's not only in Tardy's vocals but in the tone of the guitars and the churn of many of these songs.

Talking of heavy, another band that came to mind here is Metal Church, especially late in My Will to Live after Tardy has finished singing and the band keep the piece going as an instrumental, the remaining vocalisations almost serving as sound effects. There's Metal Church there in the power chords, in the mosh chug and in the guitar solo. It's slow stuff but it's somehow melodic and heavy at the same time. I kept waiting for David Wayne to start singing.

This is only Obituary's eleventh studio album but, with this one, they've now released more since reforming in 2003 than in their original run from 1988 to 1997. The line-up has remained steadier than most metal bands, with three founder members staying the course throughout from a brief spell as Xecutioner in 1984 to the beginnings of Obituary and all the way to the present day. Tardy is one and his brother Donald on drums is another. The third is Trevor Peres on rhythm guitar.

That leaves two newer members but Terry Butler, who joined in 2010, is only the band's third bass player, and Kenny Andrews, is the fourth lead guitarist. He joined in 2012, so has a decade behind him, and both these later acquisitions are playing on their third Obituary album. They both seem highly comfortable and they both do the business, even if I'd have liked some more solo work from Andrews here. These songs tend to go for that old school bludgeoning rather than adding much in the way of decoration.

That's not to say that there isn't anything unusual here. War has an intro that's, well, war. It's not groundbreaking in the slightest but it adds a different texture, especially as it isn't just confined to the intro. There's also a surprising drop into an acoustic guitar, even if only for a heartbeat or three. it works well. The most unusual song is The Wrong Time, which sounds fascinating from the very beginning. There's a simple and memorable drumbeat, in the vein of Reign in Blood, but it's accompanied by what sounds like maracas and hints at a Satanic orchestra, before it launches into high gear thirty seconds in.

In short, I like this a lot more than I expected to, albeit not as much as the Autopsy album from the end of last year. These new releases in an old style remind me of how much I've forgotten and how much I really ought to go back and ground myself afresh in where death metal came from. I'm too used to what it's become in all its various directions. I moved on from it in the early nineties when it seemed like it was stagnating. Hindsight tells me that it moved on too and it's a lot more varied than I've given it credit for.

Visions of Atlantis - Pirates (2022)

Country: Austria
Style: Symphonic Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 13 May 2022
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I don't know Visions of Atlantis but it looks like I should, especially as this was FolkNRock's choice for Best Symphonic Album of 2022. It's their eighth album, because they've been around for a long while, even though their line-up has changed considerably across the years since they began back in 2000, the only founder member for well over half their career being Thomas Caser on drums. It's a long album too, running almost an hour but it never outstays its welcome. It remains vibrant and upbeat throughout and it's easy to buy into that energy and keep listening.

The most symphonic track is probably Master the Hurricane, which kicks off with nautical sounding flute and the sort of brass you would hear in an actual symphony, to provide texture rather than to replace a rock instrument. Then it ramps up into metal territory with a choral backdrop and all the elements remain in place throughout the song. It's almost an action movie soundtrack with vocals and we can see the pirate ship hurling through the titular storm until it reaches the eye four and a half minutes and everything drops away for a period of beautiful calm.

If structuring a song around its subject matter like a concrete poem suggests a playfulness in the songwriting, then check out Freedom, which turns down the tempo that was maintained through the first four tracks and leaps into musical theatre. There are two vocalists in Visions of Atlantis, one male and one female, and they both sing clean. The relish that the former, Michele Guaitoli, invests in his opening lines makes it seem like he's auditioning on stage for a Broadway show. The latter, Clémentine Delauney, promptly joins him, with a little less relish but not by much, and this turns into a musical theatre duet.

With the exception of Heal the Scars, which is a straight ballad, the rest play in a more traditional vein, but without ever really losing either of those aspects. Standouts for me include the opener, Pirates Will Return, and Legion of the Seas. Both contain grandiose operatic sections like Master the Hurricane and theatrical musical theatre sections like Freedom, but feel more satisfied with a straightforward approach built on riffs and swells. During these songs, Delauney is more obvious than Guaitoli, but they're both clearly there.

Because Caser is the only founder member, they're both relatively recent additions to the band, a surprising detail because they seem utterly comfortable with each other and the musicians on the stage behind them. Delauney joined in 2013, the fifth in a line of female singers but her decade in the band is twice as long as any of the others. Guaitoli is only the fourth male singer but he joined in 2018, so is the new fish in the band. I think my favourite song for them is Darkness Inside, which sees them singing mostly together, to great effect, but with occasional diversions for both.

Everything's solid, even over almost an hour, and I should call out the band members I know about. Beyond Caser on drums, who does his job throughout whatever the tempo a particular song needs, there's Christian Douscha and Herbert Glos. I was surprised to find that there was only one guitar here, because the sound is rich enough that it feels like two. That's Douscha's work, meaning that Glos provides the bass, which is reliable and often notable, because the mix is excellent so we can follow any instrument we like.

There's certainly someone playing keyboards, though I have no idea who delivered that backdrop of texture. However, the flute and bagpipes that show up on a trio of tracks, including Master the Hurricane, come corutesy of Ben Metzner, better known as Prinz R. Hodenherz III in Feuerschwanz. I dig those folkier elements, which work well on an album themed around piracy, and wish they had been used more often. Pirates Will Return in particular seems to ache for them.

Is this the best symphonic album of the year? It's certainly a good one in a year that boasted a few such, but I'd give the edge to SheWolf, I think.

Friday, 20 January 2023

Katatonia - Sky Void of Stars (2023)

Country: Sweden
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Jan 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I liked Katatonia's eleventh album, City Burials, and I like this twelfth that's so similar in approach that I could almost replace this entire review with one word: ditto. Wherever they've been in their musical journey over the years, they're a very comfortable prog band nowadays, sitting happily on the border between rock and metal, heavy for the former but light for the latter. And they have an uncannily consistent tone that means that, while the songs are all clearly different, they end up as a blend in our brains, which automatically aggregate them all together.

Maybe it's a little more immediate than City Burials, but it's still such elegant stuff that every one of these ten songs (eleven if you count the bonus track, Absconder) needs to to be fed and watered frequently for it to bloom in our hearts. Jonas Renkse maintains such a consistent vocal tone that it sometimes seems like he's being sponsored by a couple of specific pitches and he can only move away from them maybe three times per song. The guitars are more versatile but only if we focus a lot more than feels natural. And how you take that last sentence may be the key to whether this is truly for you or not.

The entire album sounds so comfortable that the easiest course of action is to to leave it as it is, to let it simply wash over us like a sweet smelling cleansing action. We feel embraced by its presence and so comfortable that we have to set it on repeat or lose an acute belonging. It's feelgood music that's almost addictive. Life seems better when it's playing and we don't want to return to the big bad world with its demands and expectations. Can't we just curl up in the arms of our beloved and close our eyes and let this album roll through our headphones for the next year?

It's so comfortable that it almost feels wrong to listen deeper. This is carefully crafted music, and it benefits from us actually paying attention to see what the musicians are actually doing, because a lot is going on here, regardless of which track is playing, and it's fascinating to focus in and follow the bass or the keyboards or the guitars. However, unlike what must be every other band, it seems like we're cheating when we do that and we have to look over our shoulders to make sure nobody's watching. In fact, it almost feels dangerous, like this was supposedly placed here by God and we're suddenly heretics to stone if we acknowledge that it was created by mere human beings.

If you're happy with the positive feeling, this is a peach of an album. It's seamless and immersive. It's kind of like Paradise Lost at their most commercial, on albums like One Second when they were a new wave band, all Depeche Mode with emphatic almost gothic hooks, only smoothed out with a serious algorithm so that the hooks are constant but exquisitely subtle. Everything's melody in an ever-extending set of layers. It'll be your favourite album of the year. It'll be home.

However, if you feel that sinister underbelly, like it's conning you into believing that everything's a paradise and you've put on the prohibited glasses that let you see past its facade, it's going to be uncomfortable. You're still going to feel that constant insistence of welcome, but you're going to know better and it becomes a beautiful nightmare. It's not home. It's the Matrix and you want to wake up.

With all that said, can I call out anything for special mention or is it just a consistent fifty minutes of being surrounded by amniotic fluid? Maybe. There's some sassiness to Colossal Shade's central riff. The intros to Opaline and Atrium are beautifully intricate, the former being a real grower. In the end, though, perhaps only No Beacon to Illuminate Our Fall steps out of the conformity to be a creature of its own. It finds some nice grooves and works through some complex prog changes, but it also loosens up to drop into something more exploratory.

Bottom line: it's impeccable stuff but it makes me increasingly uncomfortable.

Solar Corona - Pace (2022)

Country: Portugal
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 11 Nov 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Prog Archives

It's good to be listening to another Solar Corona album. I thoroughly enjoyed Lightning One back in 2019, though it isn't amongst their others on their Bandcamp page, and was eager to listen to a follow-up. Apparently I missed the follow-up because there was a second in 2019 called Saint-Jean-de-Luz. There's so much good stuff coming out nowadays that I can't even see it all. Solar Corona are Portuguese, they've expanded to a four piece this time around, and they play psychedelic rock with a serious side of space rock, enough so that a couple of pieces clearly nod towards Hawkwind.

One is the opener, Heavy Metal Salts, though it's a sassy drum piece when it begins. It's not long before it settles into a Hawkwind vibe, surrounded by an atmosphere of keyboards. It continues to build throughout, which means a heck of a lot of build over six minutes. The other obviously Hawkwind-influenced piece is Alpendurada, at the other end of the album, which is so Hawkwind that it becomes Motörhead. That frantic rumble sounds like the chorus to Emergency to me. However, it evolves later on into a pulsing Pink Floyd sound, shifts seamlessly into Tangerine Dream and pounds us with a finalé. It's quite the closer.

The best pieces of music here to my mind—and yes, everything remains instrumental—come after the opener, with the title track and then Thrust. These highlight what Solar Corona are so good at, which is to immerse us in music that reminds us of places we've never been.

Pace kicks off like Pink Floyd's Time, but these clocks aren't clocks at all. They're some imaginative percussion from Peter Carvalho and they continually build through the eight and half minutes the song runs. It's a much slower build than Heavy Metal Salts could boast but it's consistent and the effect changes as those faux clocks speed up and get more immediate. There's a point where they start to feel sinister, especially after a low guitar joins in, as if they're hissing at us. It's thoroughly effective at taking us to a very specific place.

Thrust is even better at that, because we're at ground zero for a spaceship launch and it's almost impossible to imagine anything else happening. It's urgent from the outset, with jagged guitar an evocative ignition sound but then garage rock drums kick in and they're furious. This spaceship is going up and it's going up in a goddamn hurry. This is wild and glorious space rock that keeps up a frantic pace and takes us way way out there. Imagine if the last minute of Space Truckin' had the urgency of Speed King and double the speed and you'll be on the right lines.

A.U. is so slow in comparison, it's almost a stop and it had to be very deliberate placement to put a slow piece right after a frantic one. We feel like we're still blasting off into the cosmos only for the engines to stop and suddenly we're floating. Parker S.P. is funkier stuff, a fresh drum atmosphere penetrated by a cool bass line. These aren't bad at all but, in comparison to the immediacy of the highlights and the vitality of the bookends, they're kind of just there.

I like the added density that comes with having a fourth member, but I'm not sure exactly what he contributed. The three primary musicians from Lightning One are back, which presumably means that Rodrigo Carvalho is still the guitarist, José Roberto Gomes is still on bass and Peter Carvalho is still sat behind the drumkit. There's no saxophone this time out, but Nuno Loureiro is credited as a fourth member. I'm presuming he's the second guitarist, given there's a Nuno Loureiro with a string of credits playing guitars in other Portuguese bands, but someone's handling keyboards on this album and I have no idea who that is.

Whoever's doing what is immaterial, though, because they combine their energies wonderfully to create a memorable team effort. Few bands are so well integrated that I can't really call out one over the rest for a special mention. They all do the business and they do it apparently effortlessly.

Thursday, 19 January 2023

VV - Neon Noir (2023)

Country: Finland
Style: Gothic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 13 Jan 2023
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Anything is going to seem light after listening to Wormrot, but this new album from Ville Vajo has a pop sensibility to it that's immediately obvious in the electronic drums and synths. If you don't recognise the name, Vajo, who goes by VV nowadays, is the former frontman for Finnish goth rock/metal band HIM. He and Mikko Paananen co-founded the band and remained there throughout a twenty-two year career, a few more if you count their brief earlier time as His Infernal Majesty. It shouldn't surprise that this sounds like HIM, but it's softer and poppier for the most part, with an occasional power up to the old HIM sound.

Perhaps anticipating his older fans worrying about that, he kicks off with a song that does bounce up to the heavier HIM sound, without ever becoming metal. That's Echolocate Your Love and it's a decent opener, just as Run Away from the Sun is an elegant melodic alt goth rock follow up with an agreeable dark croon from VV. I shouldn't even mention him any more, because everything here is him. He wrote the songs, plays every instrument on them and sings over the top. So whatever I say from here onward reflects on him alone. Nobody's stepping in to save the day or bring the quality down.

To my mind, this album truly arrives with the title track, though, three in. There are other strong songs here, but this one comes across as the most perfectly formed to me. It starts out with folky guitar, adds a succession of layers and then finalises the groove when the vocals arrive. It feels as if he's often duetting with himself, which is another layer, I guess, but the result is textbook stuff. It's almost hard to say anything specific about it, because it works like a black hole and just sucks us into it, however many times we listen. Does that mean it's smooth or just perfect?

Everything else sounded good on a first listen, but nothing felt as essential. On a first repeat, the songs all start elevating themselves, which tends to mean that it's a highly consistent album that has depths to explore. Loveletting is a tasty treat on a second listen, beginning with a heartbeat, a keyboard sound right out of seventies Jefferson Starship and an HIM crunch. It's a lighter track, almost ethereal folk at points, but it's a haunting piece. I could imagine Kate Bush covering it. The Foreverlost won't leave me be either, with a sound a little like All About Eve covering the Sisters of Mercy, soft but driving. Salute the Sanguine has a delightful heavier intro and it never quite loses it.

And so it goes. The majority of these songs play in that intersection of a slew of genres. They're alt rock, they're goth rock, they're folk rock, all drenched in those quintessential HIM melodies, with a dark romantic flavour to Vajo's lyrics. "Let's take the scenic route through Hell if you want to see what I see" he sings on Echolocate Your Love, but it's a romantic sentiment rather than emo rant or Hellraiser-esque perversity. Everything is fundamentally nice but with a dark twist, like a young lady who warms the heart of your grandma after spending four hours putting on her goth persona and scaring the neighbours.

I've only listened through a couple of times thus far, which is enough to confirm this as a light but strong album. It's everything that HIM do so well but with the guitars turned down and the synths turned up. And, while that still sounds like it reads as negative, I should underline that it isn't. It's exactly what it needs to be and it's exquisitely formed. Just as some of these songs stood out on a second listen, I'm pretty sure that others will on a third and a fourth. They're all good songs, even over nearly an hour, but they're so consistent that we have to sit down with them and get to know them to truly appreciate what each one brings to the table. It's an easy 7/10 but it wouldn't shock me if I up it to an 8/10 later.

Wormrot - Hiss (2022)

Country: Singapore
Style: Grindcore
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 8 Jul 2022
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Singaporean grindcore sounds exactly like the sort of thing I review here at Apocalypse Later but a lot of the mainstream press ignores. However, Wormrot have been press darlings for years and this fourth album has been consistently acclaimed as their masterpiece, as well as a swansong for vocalist Arif, a founder member, who left the band after fifteen years behind the mike. They get a lot of coverage and Hiss made at least five best of lists for 2022, as many as Amorphis, Rammstein and Meshuggah.

And I can see why because this is surely the most versatile grindcore album I've ever heard, much of that due to the sheer range of Arif, making his position in the band a particularly tough one to fill. Sure, there's a ten second blitzkrieg song here that does exactly what you expect and nothing more. This one's called Unrecognizable and it's just there, as the nineteen second Shattered Faith is just there later on the album. These aren't anything new and there are precise equivalents on every other grindcore album. The good news is that that's less than half a minute of time wasted, while they get on with the interesting stuff. And there's a lot of that.

In fact, there's so much variety on offer that it'll be hard to cover all of it. Yes, most of these songs are short. Twenty-one of them take up only thirty-three minutes, though the closer, Glass Shards, is an almost unimaginable four and a half minutes all on its own. That's an intro in prog rock but it seems like a sprawling epic in grindcore and the violin of Myra Choo is a standout element, mixing so well with the guitars of Raysid. Yes, most of these songs are fast, with Hatred Transcending the one that screams along so fast it's like Wormrot are riding a lightning bolt, but Pale Moonlight is slow and tribal and All Will Wither is slower still, Arif's snarling calmly over a slow beat, with zero input from guitars, just shimmering cymbals approximating feedback.

But let's talk about Arif, because he's the first reason for this to be so versatile. He pulls out high shrieks and low growls on the opener, The Darkest Burden. Then he adds a surprisingly rich clean voice to Broken Maze, almost like I'd expect to hear from Bucovina. For Behind Closed Doors, he's off into another genre, with old school chanted hardcore vocals before everything went shouty. In When Talking Fails, It's Time for Violence, he shifts again with an anarcho-punk singalong chorus. And that's jut the first four songs, which rack up about six and a half minutes between them.

Guitarist Raysid, now the only founder member left in the band, covers a lot of ground too. He can play incredibly fast, as you'd expect for grindcore, but often he lets Vijesh, who is an insanely tight drummer, run loose and doesn't even attempt to match him, playing much slower riffs in front and sometimes even just power chords. Regardless of how fast Vijesh is blurring, Raysid plays riffs on Behind Closed Doors that wouldn't feel out of place on the Metallica debut, which was really just Diamond Head a little faster.

My favourite songs come late on the album, when he's playing a highly melodic guitar behind Arif. Desolate Landscapes and Vicious Circle both almost sound like two different songs behind played in the same studio at the same time and they sound wonderful. This harmonic work is also there a little earlier on Voiceless Choir, which even adds some divvying up of lyrics that old school hip hop artists used to do. At the other extreme, there's experimental dissonance on Your Dystopian Hell and Hatred Transcending. Nobody here wants to just do the one thing that's always done and I'm unable to conjure up a better approach to take to any genre.

And, talking of things that just aren't done, there's that violin. Whoever came up with the bright idea to add a violin to a grindcore album deserves a prize. Myra Choo isn't omnipresent, like she'd be in a folk metal band, but, whenever she turns up, the music finds a whole new level that's unlike anything I've heard before. Grieve, in particular, is searing. It's a sub-two minute instrumental and it almost finds its way into industrial, because Choo isn't interested in playing sweet on this one. It starts out sounding like the band are in a factory, cutting sheet metal with a chainsaw. Then Choo speeds up and it's fascinating.

She plays much sweeter on Glass Shards, delivering an excellent solo, letting Raysid follow suit on guitar and then combining with him to even greater effect. I assume she's just here as a guest and that may or may not be a one time thing, but I hope she works with Wormrot more and whoever in the Singaporean extreme metal scene might be open to diversifying their sound. I caught a violin moment here and there, on Sea of Disease and Noxious Cloud and especially Weeping Willow, but sometimes so fleeting that I wondered if I was just adding her in my imagination.

All of which adds up to this not being your typical grindcore album, but still delivering the goods in every way that grindcore fans would expect. It's a groundbreaking album. If there's a catch here, it has to be that the few traditional songs suddenly seem like filler because so much else has moved on to new and vibrant territory. And that's the only reason I'm going with an 8/10 instead of a 9/10.

Wednesday, 18 January 2023

Necrosin - Necrosin (2023)

Country: Bahrain
Style: Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 7 Jan 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives

I've bumped into death metal from the unlikely source nation of Bahrain before, through a Smouldering in Forgotten album, but I like this more, even though, at only twenty-four minutes, it's what they call an EP and I'd call a mini-album. It's old school death metal, so much so that it reminds me of a few of the first death metal bands I heard, like Possessed and Morgoth, when the genre was still growing out of thrash and figuring out what it was going to become.

Necrosin mostly play a bouncy form of death, which is on show immediately in the opener, As It Is Above, So It Is Below, which leaps into the fray with such punk urgency that I wondered briefly if it might be a Black Flag cover, but it develops into a more chuggy death metal song with some neat changes when it gets to the guitar solo. Under a Violent Moon follows in much the same vein and that was enough to cement the opinion that this is a death metal band who would play well to an overtly thrash metal audience. Sure, they're downtuned a little and Möhämmëd Tael sings with a harsh voice but it's not a million miles away from a lot of early thrash bands.

For all that punk urgency, which was always a part of thrash too, they're surely more influenced by metal, because of the instrumental sections. It's not particularly progressive, but the changes are highly capable and they shift in and out of sections seamlessly. There's speed metal at the start of Banners of Hate and a hard rock breakdown halfway through to set up a strangely slow solo with a Metallica-esque backing. It's an interesting shift between styles that works well. There's plenty of Iron Maiden in the progressions late on as well as midway through Enslaved, when they highlight a fondness for the Powerslave era.

The most unusual song has to be the closer, Beneath the Waves (The Hymns of Decay) which flows well from Enslaved until we suddenly realise that Tael is singing clean. At least, I presume it's him, though Mahmood al-Ansari is credited for backing vocals, on top of what he does behind the drum kit. I'm not seeing a bassist listed and, for the most part, I can imagine that there isn't one, but it does seem like someone's there playing at a lower pitch at points behind Tael's guitar. Maybe I'm just imagining it. Maybe that's what shapes the sound a little differently to normal for death.

Anyway, Tael starts harsh, as he's been across the previous five songs, and he stays there for much of the song. When the tempo drops soon after the three minute mark, though, it transforms into a heavy metal song, a little progressive and a little power, but ultimately just rock music. There's a four note melody here that reminds me of the intro to Robert Plant's Big Log, which is about the last thing I thought might ever come to mind when reviewing a death metal EP from Bahrain. It's like the intensity is deliberately shifted down through the gears, so we can politely move on. It's a surprising ending, but I rather like it.

I like Necrosin more the faster they go, but they're not bad in chug mode either. Bow to Me sounds great early on, but it's slow. It promptly ramps up and it's all the better when it's got momentum behind it, but it's easily my least favourite song because it keeps slowing down again. It's capably done, so fans of that slower, chugging approach ought to dig it, but I was waiting for it to kick back into gear every time. My Necrosin is the faster, earlier stuff. Whenever I start again, I'm refreshed by the speed and urgency, but lose that as it runs on, focusing instead on the unusual aspects.

Best of luck to Necrosin though. Bahrain doesn't look like the most oppressive state in that part of the world, but it can't be the easiest job in the world to play death metal there. I appreciate their dedication to keep it at and to create something as strong as this, whether we call it a mini-album or just an EP.

Chat Pile - God's Country (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Noise Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Jul 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | Wikipedia

There were a few clear winners in the 2022 end of year lists. Blind Guardian and Ghost topped two lists each. Messa made it onto nine different lists. Ozzy Osbourne managed seven, three of them top tens, marking a notable return to form. I'd reviewed three of those already and caught up with the fourth last week, but the other two bands who made it onto seven lists are ones I let slip by. In both instances, they also made four top tens and three top fives and topped one list, so there's an impressively broad acclaim for both of them. They're Chat Pile and Undeath, both American but a long way apart in genre.

Undeath play death metal out of Rochester, New York and It's Time... to Rise from the Grave was a second album for them, but Chat Pile, from Oklahoma City, are on their debut with God's Country, and that's just enough edge to prioritise them for me this January. They call what they play noise rock, though enough fans and zines have described them as sludge metal for that to stick too. I'm happy to go with noise rock, because this feels like a heavy form of alt rock to me, rather than any metal genre moving the other way, even at their heaviest on a song like Tropical Beaches, Inc.

Certainly the influences seem to be more from the rock side of the fence, even if some have fairly called out Godflesh. They're also more from the American side of the pond, even though Godflesh are English. The obvious comparison is the Jesus Lizard, especially with such a prominent bass, but all the proto-sludge bands are here, from the Melvins onward. These songs are mostly slow, with a thoroughly dominant bassline and a tortured vocal from a singer who's three slices into his wrists because everything about the world sucks but he's not quite sure if he's really committed to killing himself. "This is the sound of your world collapsing" chants Raygun Busch on Anywhere and that's a fair description of his band.

That's the core sound, but there are exceptions sitting on either side of it. Tropical Beaches, Inc. is the heavy song, with monstrous drums setting a much more frantic pace. I Don't Care If I Burn isn't far off spoken word, with a subtle beat and a weird sound effect driven backdrop that reminded of Tom Waits's What's He Building? It's utterly minimal, though Busch's emotional outpouring remains paramount. "You weren't supposed to see this," he screams at us on grimace_smoking_weed.jpeg, and it's hard not to believe him. He's certainly magnetic, a riven soul bared to the universe.

The song that stands out the most is the one that combines those three elements and that's Why. It's built on a slow and sludgy riff from guitarist Luther Manhole and underpinned by bassist Stin, with Cap'n Ron's cavernous drums matched by the repeated title so well that we keep chanting it even when Busch isn't, so he can veer off onto a spoken word rant. He's not delivering lyrics, he's just struck by the ramifications that spring from the very existence of homeless people and so he rages at the inhumanity of it all for three minutes and thirty one seconds. To be fair, he's probably still going, even after we moved onto the next song and the next.

And whether you're going to like this album or not is going to depend on whether you're eager to dive into an album described as above or whether you know you're not going to touch it even with someone else's ten foot pole. There are some subtleties if you care, like the Joy Division vibe that starts out Pamela, but there aren't a lot of them. This isn't a subtle album and the people who are likely to love it the most aren't likely to be interested in subtleties. I like subtleties so this isn't my sort of thing, but it's done well and I can see why it impressed certain critics. If you're a fan of the Jesus Lizard, add at least a point to my rating and maybe two.

Tuesday, 17 January 2023

Turmion Kätilöt - Omen X (2023)

Country: Finland
Style: Industrial Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 13 Jan 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Wikipedia | YouTube

Latest in the list of established bands I haven't heard of are Turmion Kätilöt, understandably so as I've never delved that far into industrial metal. I know what it is and I've heard plenty of the major bands but unlike a couple of friends, I haven't dived in much further. Hey, Jim! Hey, David! I'm sure that both of you have been listening to Turmion Kätilöt for ever. As the title suggests, this is their tenth album, so it's about time I paid attention. They've been around since 2003 and their output's been pretty consistent, always between one and three years between albums.

For all that this is industrial metal, it starts out with a beat more dance oriented than anything on the Shape of Water album I just reviewed, even though that's an electronic alternative band. This sounds like the Prodigy until it ramps up and suddenly we're almost in NDH territory. The Prodigy vs. Rammstein? Why not? However, I'm not sure if you can call it NDH when the band in question is from Finland. USK for Uusi saksalainen kovuus? Answers on the back of a postcard to...

The line-up is telling, not least because everyone has dance music-style pseudonyms. The surviving founder of the band, Petja Turunen, goes by MC Raaka Pee, though his voice is almost harsh, using metal terminology. He provides the lead vocals and Shag-U sings too. Behind them is a traditional metal band, with Bobby Undertaker on crunchy guitar, Master Bates (a Captain Pugwash nod from Finland?) on deep bass and DQ on often fast drums. That leaves Janne Tolsa, who as RunQ, handles the electronic side of the house: keyboards, synths and programming, which are all integral.

I liked this a lot more than I expected to. There's almost a folk metal vibe to songs like Gabriel and Vie Se Pois, but with traditional folk instrumentation replaced with electronics. It's heavy but it's vibrant, designed to make us move, and folk metal is fundamentally just a different form of dance music. I like those and others that incorporate unusual musical elements over the straightforward industrial dance songs that would work wonderfully in a club but don't stand out as much to me at home listening in my office.

With a quick nod to the downright 8 bit chiptune sound in Pyhä Kolminaisuus, the interesting ones come during the second half. Isä Meidän has a fascinating intro, shifting from a furious Slayer vibe into polite folk music. It ramps up into the band's core industrial metal sound, of course, but it ends with a clarinet solo, of all things, which I wasn't remotely expecting. Käy Tanssiin is fascinating too, with one section that shifts into Caribbean chill but with no change to MC Raaka Pee's harsh vocal. It's as if the singer from Trollfest broke some cartoon fourth wall and ended up scatting all over a CD labelled Caribbean Moods.

Not knowing any Finnish, I have no idea what these songs are about, but I did throw their titles at Google Translate and I'm surprised to see an apparent religious theme. Gabriel doesn't need to be translated, but Pyhä Kolminaisuus means Holy Trinity and Isä Meidän means Our Father, and a few others include references to blood and kingdom and truth, so maybe there's something else going on here and maybe there isn't. It doesn't remotely sound like Christian music but unblack metal is just as unlikely. Maybe it's anti-Christian music and that isn't a Crux Decussata in the cover art. It certainly seems like it would play better at wasteland events than churches.

Whatever it is and wherever it'll be played, I like this. It's infectious stuff. I guess that means that I've been infected. That works for me. Now, Jim and/or David, what have I been missing?

Shape of Water - Amor Fati (2022)

Country: Italy/UK
Style: Alternative
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 28 Oct 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

I try to keep up with the New Wave of Classic Rock, because there's so much wonderful new music being released under that banner, but I inevitably fail because I'm covering a broader spectrum at Apocalypse Later and there are only so many hours in the day. As such, I'm happy to say that I have already reviewed the top two albums on the NWoCR Facebook page's end of year list for 2022, The New Roses coming out on top with Revival Black right behind them. However, I hadn't even heard of Shape of Water, who landed the third place slot, and now that I've heard this album, I see why.

Long story short, they're not really NWoCR at all. They're fundamentally an alternative rock band, with the obvious comparison on that front being Muse. However, the base of their sound is in their keyboards, making them an electronic band, and that allows them to seamlessly move in and out of new wave, post-punk and straightforward pop territory as frequently as rock. They self-identify as gender-fluid, which sounds pretentious but is actually spot on. At this point, I shouldn't see any surprise in them being two Italians based in Manchester in the north of England. It makes sense.

The opening track, Starchild, highlights how hard it is to pigeonhole them. It only runs five minutes but it's all Capriotti for the first three, vocals over keyboards. Somehow it's both progressive and twee, like Philip Glass joining the Cardigans, but the organic dance beat introduced halfway, shifts into a higher gear with much more intensity, De Falco's guitars kicking in heavy and escalating into almost a Rage Against the Machine vibe. And that's song one of ten, though Falling follows it with an almost shocking conformity as a decent but traditional alt rock song except for the jazzy piano break halfway through.

The Snoot is where the NWoCR kicks in and kicks in hard with a solid seventies riff from De Falco. It grows in a few different directions from there, but it's a guitar song with a tasty guitar solo, even if Capriotti's vocal still sounds pop, even when he's rocking it up. Of course, being genre-fluid, they don't stay in rock for long, shifting straight into new wave for Don't Leave Me in the Dark, and the longer the album runs on the more interesting and versatile it gets.

My favourite songs all come late, starting with A Ghost in Manchester seven songs in. This is a post-punk song, I guess, built on pulsing synths, but the verses sound like a centuries old folk song in an utterly contemporary framework. There are bells and what I presume is a trumpet to punctuate it all and then, halfway through, it explodes into intense action only to drop quickly away into a solo piano break. Just in case Queen never sprang to mind, it makes a very deliberate nod to Bohemian Rhapsody to ensure that they do. It's a magnificent song and it stands apart from everything, not just the other songs on this album but everything. It's almost Ghost Town levels of different.

Everybody's Gone feels like the Beatles during its first half but it ramps up to a much more intense mentality with another tasty guitar solo from De Falco. It even finishes with a flourish right out of classical music. Terraformer is back to a rhythmic Philip Glass synth sound, then alt rock, but with a screaming saxophone and a guitar solo to match it. Suddenly Words in Eternity, which closes out, is notable for being not notable, as a conventional alt rock song in the Muse vein.

This album grabbed my attention from the beginning of the first song and it impressed me with its uncompromising versatility, but for three songs it shook me. Few bands can be that good and that consistently different across three songs. Frankly, the only two bands I can name who excel at that are Queen and Saigon Kick; check out Sheer Heart Attack and Water for two albums that manage that throughout. This doesn't manage it across the entire album but it comes closer than anyone else I can remember and they nail it for those three songs late on.

Because this is rarely NWoCR, ranking highly on a list with that particular focus seems odd, but it should rank highly anywhere. Shape of Water are now firmly on my "must listen" list.

Monday, 16 January 2023

Ahab - The Coral Tombs (2023)

Country: Germany
Style: Funeral Doom Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 13 Jan 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

I'm happy to see a new album from Ahab, because they've been away from the studio from quite a long time, their fourth album, The Boats of the Glen Carrig, released in 2015. However, this is very different from the Ahab I remember, in a number of directions. I remember them playing funeral doom, shifting between ambient atmospheric passages and crushingly slow doom metal. A friend added their debut album, The Call of the Wretched Sea to the playlist in his car, after I gave him a copy, and it had quite the impact on his passengers!

On the face of it, this is a clear continuation of what Ahab do, because The Coral Tombs is another concept album fashioned from literature that runs long but with few songs, the majority of them reaching the ten minute mark. Sure, this is actually their shortest album, by about thirty seconds, but shortest for Ahab still means an hour and six minutes. This time the source material is Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea by Jules Verne, which means we're not just out there on a broad ocean, we're underneath it. And, thinking of it as a complete chunk of music, it's clearly still doom.

However, the opening track, Prof. Arronax' Descent into the Vast Oceans, which was also released last year as the first single, takes its doom in a couple of very different directions to funeral doom. It starts out much faster than I'd have expected, Daniel Droste's cavernously deep vocals joined by Chris Noir of Ultha, who delivers a bleaker black metal shriek that I'm used to in Ahab. And then it calms down, all the way to an almost Floydian ambience. It's agreeably slow now, but the vocals at this point are entirely clean and rather resonant and they stay that way into the first recognisable funeral doom section almost four minutes in, only finding harshness a couple of minutes later as it all shifts into a guitar solo.

Now, none of that is inherently bad, merely unusual enough to be surprising. I rather like this new approach, which almost seems the textures of funeral doom as an element of progressive rock. I'm especially fond of that clean vocal, which at this pace feels all the more emotional, an outpouring of despair into a deep abyss, appropriate given the context, though I recall Prof. Arronax in a state of wonder as the Nautilus descended into the depths. Maybe I need to re-read the source novel. It serves as a pivotal book for the steampunk community, after all. I should keep it fresh.

Colossus of the Liquid Graves, the other single, is much closer to what I expect from Ahab, even if it wraps up in an almost unfathomable six and a half minutes. It's slow and heavy throughout, full of epochal power chords under a slow melody line. Droste effectively duets with himself, alternating between his usual deep and guttural harsh voice and that soaring clean voice so apparent on the opener. It's an excellent contrast, especially for this material, because it feels like the harsh voice is underwater, while the clean one soars above the waves waiting for the Nautilus to broach.

And so it goes. I'm not sure if I ever heard The Boats of the Glen Carrig, even though I'm a William Hope Hodgson fan, so I really should, but I believe I've heard everything before then, certainly the first couple of albums, and I don't remember this balance before. The Ahab in my memory are like the heavier sections here, albeit slower still, with some of the lighter sections there to serve as a contrast. However, I'm remembering a 10:1 balance rather than the 2:1 balance we get here. Long passages in many of these songs are neither doom nor metal and feel much more like an ambient take on prog rock.

Now, it still sounds good so I'm not complaining and it's arguably rather appropriate this time out because I vividly recall page after page of the Nautilus steadily moving along underwater while its new passengers marvel at the sea creatures they pass. Verne was clearly an effusive fan of fish, so whole sections of the book read like an exhaustive commentary by an author who has visited a big aquarium and is aching to tell us about all the colours. Many of those sections here unfold entirely instrumentally, so we don't have to put up with that commentary except in shades of sound, which I'm not unhappy about in the slightest.

For old school Ahab, A Coral Tomb may come closest in toto to what you're looking for. I'm tempted to call out the opener as my highlight, but I dug a lot of the ambient sections that remind of quiet instrumental Genesis, so I'm not going to turn my nose up at songs like Ægri Somnia either. This is likely to be a shock to many Ahab fans, but it's a really good album. Welcome back, folks!

Manic Sinners - King of the Badlands (2022)

Country: Romania
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 18 Feb 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram

Last January, I asked the genial Chris Franklin of the essential Raised on Rock radio show to pick an album that I'd missed from the previous year. He suggested the Fans of the Dark debut, which was a peach of an album, so I was eager to repeat that question this year. I'll be listening to a couple of albums that he's suggested, one rock and one metal, this month and here's the former. It's not an immense surprise to find that Manic Sinners are released through Frontiers, but they're putting a lot of good music out nowadays and you can hear plenty of it on Chris's show.

The band is based in Romania, though Toni Dijmarescu lives in Germany, and they're a trio with an immense amount of experience. Adrian Igrișan plays drums and keyboards here for the most part, though he's best known as the current lead singer and guitarist for heavy metal band Cargo, who have been rocking Timișoara since 1985. Dijmarescu is a session musician best known for multiple releases by Reșița Rocks and Călin Pop. That leaves Ovidiu Anton on lead vocals, who's newer but would have represented Romania in the Eurovision Song Contest in 2016, had their TV company's debs prompted them to withdraw.

Manic Sinners play a form of hard rock that's obviously rooted in the eighties but with a variety of influences from across the spectrum. The first one that leapt out at me was Whitesnake, because they're here in Anton's vocals and Dijmarescu's guitars, but Europe sprang to mind quickly too and there's often some Dio in Anton's phrasing. It's definitely a commercial sound and, while there are softer songs like Anastasia and Carousel, there are moments where they move closer to the heavy metal border. That's mostly through the guitars of Dijmarescu but surely the heaviest song here is Nobody Moves, in large part because Igrișan contributes a much heavier bass.

I liked the album on a first listen but it didn't knock me out, even though there are a string of good tracks to open things up. However, the more I listened, the better it got. Drifters Union and King of the Badlands aren't just good openers, they're excellent openers, and Under the Gun and Nobody Moves keep growing on me too, to the point where they're clear highlights. Most importantly, the album runs a generous fifty-five minutes but none of the dozen songs here let the side down. Not all are highlights but none are filler and that's impressive on a debut album this long.

Also impressive is how that statement holds true even on the softer songs. Anastasia is a ballad in the style of Europe; Carousel isn't but it's still softer and still more melodic than what's around it; and Crimson Queen is a brief but tasty guitar piece. Even A Million Miles, which starts with a woah and brings it back during the chorus, is solid, though it's almost the epitome of something that I'd expect Chris to like more than me. It's almost textbook melodic rock, the guitars keeping back but always being ready to nudge things forward with a riff, the beat politely urgent, the vocals soaked in soulful vocal fry. There isn't an original bone in its body, but it does what it does well.

And so, while I liked this from my first time through, I like it more with each listen and I'm a few in right now. There's nothing here to challenge the listener. There's little that's particularly original, though songs like Under the Gun and Nobody Moves add some more unusual elements that would never feel right on material that's content with being traditional. The former boasts a delightfully prowling intro and the latter, after another neat intro, includes some fascinating backing vocals in a folky choral style. Mostly, it's just melodic hard rock done right.

So, thanks, Chris once more for picking out another strong one for me. Now I'm looking forward to the other one all the more.

Friday, 13 January 2023

Beyond the Black - Beyond the Black (2023)

Country: Germany
Style: Symphonic Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 13 Jan 2023
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Here's a fifth album for Beyond the Black, even though they haven't been in existence for a decade yet. They're certainly not hanging around, though it's been three years since its predecessor with COVID the likely cause for the delay. This feels exactly like the sort of album that might erupt from a band who have been restrained for too long and are aching to get back into the studio. They hail from a small German town close to the French border called Sankt Wendel and they play a form of symphonic metal that's built around the lead vocals of Jennifer Haben.

It's a relatively consistent and unadventurous symphonic metal sound, which may be a positive or negative depending on your tastes. These songs all tend to feature an urgent beat from drummer Kai Tschierschky, solid riffs from guitarists Tobi Lodes and Chris Hermsdörfer, with a warm tone to their guitars and a strong lead melodic vocal from Haben that seems effortlessly powerful but has little interest in stretching her abilities. I have no doubt that she can do more than she does here, but she didn't feel the need on these songs. I have no idea who contributes bass or keyboards but they must be session musicians.

The early songs are all consistently strong and set the stage well. Is There Anybody Out There? has all the elements listed above and a solid hook to stick in our brains. Reincarnation is better yet, as it builds from an ethnic atmosphere to a folky guitar and a playfully teasing vocal. However, there is also a surprising use of male backing vocals. They remind of the unneeded rap vocal that echoes Amy Lee's lead on Evanescence's Bring Me to Life, not because it's rap because it's guttural as we might expect from melodic death metal, but because it does exactly the same job and it's equally as unneeded. Free Me is more theatrical with some Nightwish-esque emphasis on the guitars but it plays in the same ballpark as the others, with another strong hook to sing along with.

The problem the album has isn't that it isn't good, because it continues to do what it does for half an hour more, but because it keeps doing it in much the same way and it drags at points. Winter is Coming is better than it might feel, as the fourth song in a consistent opening set, but it starts to fade a little from there. Into the Light can't bring anything new to the table so, even though it's a decent song, it fails to catch a hold. Dancing with the Dark starts out well with a nearly industrial vibe and a throat singing drone but it can't maintain that originality, even it remains a good song with a good solo. Raise Your Head adds some tasty wavering to Haben's voice but the song is lost in the mix too, even though it's another good one. And so it goes.

The only song that really tries to do anything different is Wide Awake, which starts out as a ballad and grows into something more. Hagen's voice is the highlight yet again, bringing musical theatre into the mix. That surprised me because I knew about her pop background as a member of Saphir, a girl band built around four separate winners of a German talent show for children. She certainly brings some of her pop training to this band but it's mostly there in the way she's able to let loose her voice to soar in ways that make talent show judges melt. That's a useful talent in a symphonic metal band too. I wasn't expecting musical theatre.

I appreciate that this is Beyond the Black rather than the Jennifer Haben solo project, but I'd like to hear the rest of the band step into the spotlight at points. These ten songs all wrap up within a minute of each other as if four minutes is too short but four and a half is too long. I'd like to hear a lot more intros, solos, interesting changes, moments for these clearly capable musicians to shine alongside Haben, who gets all the opportunities. Five minutes isn't unreasonable, maybe five and a half. That doesn't prompt sprawling epics that change who the band are. It just deepens it.

Def Leppard - Diamond Star Halos (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 27 May 2022
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I didn't deliberately avoid this album last year, as I was just back from my research trip when it was released in May and it took me a while to catch back up again. However, I'd have gone into it with a few hesitations, because I was never the biggest fan of Def Leppard's commercial sound and I had even less interest after they shifted into pop music in the nineties and noughties. To be fair, I don't remember what Slang and X sounded like but I remember not liking them. That said, I'd also have gone into it with an element of curiosity because I would have discovered various things that I've discovered going into it right now.

For one, they've stayed together throughout in Rammstein fashion, enjoying side projects during down times for Def Leppard; the last personnel change was to replace Steve Clark after his death, which is so long ago that I recall Tommy Vance airing a tribute segment on The Friday Rock Show. I see that they've continued to release albums too, albeit at a slow and steady pace; this one comes seven years after a self-titled effort in 2015 and that seven after Songs from the Sparkle Lounge. I have every respect for both of those details.

And for another, they apparently veered back into rock music once the grunge era petered out, to find a sort of Queen-like versatility. That self-titled album, which I haven't heard, boasted a set of songs that could have been gathered in from every period of their discography, from the earliest NWOBHM years through overproduced superstardom to their poppier years. Maybe this why was why Classic Rock magazine picked up the Def Leppard torch and listed Diamond Star Halos as their very best album of 2022, because it takes similar aim at their back catalogue and their influences before it, while still somehow feeling fresh and looking forward.

Perhaps inevitably, I found this a little inconsistent, especially over an hour plus running time. It's strong from the outset, with a couple of notably seventies glam rock tracks, Take What You Want and Kick. The album title comes from a T Rex lyric, from Get It On, and there's plenty of T Rex to be found in Kick. As you might expect, with Joe Elliott at the mike, there's plenty of Mott the Hoople too and a different angle to that shows up late on Angels (Can't Help You Now), a softer but much more straightforward rock song in the vein of David Bowie and Ian Hunter.

The pop angle kicks in hard with Fire It Up, but that's a strong pop song. Sure, it's pop through and through, even with emphatic guitars, and I heard a lot of solo Adam Ant in the chorus, but it's the most delightfully infectious song on the album. I found this pop approach is less effective on later songs like Lifeless and Unbreakable, their electronic drum sound annoying when it's a focus and a stylistic clash when the guitars fire up, especially on the latter. Worse still is an unashamed ballad, Goodbye for Good This Time, complete with manipulative orchestration.

At the other end of the spectrum, there's some vicious old school Leppard here. SOS Emergency is the first of these, with an excellent guitar riff to kick it off. Sure, it's softer than the early days but it isn't out of place in that company. From Here to Eternity, which wraps up the album, has a clear old school vibe. This one nails its groove immediately and maintains it well throughout, even as a long song for Leppard at almost six minutes; nothing else makes it past five. Gimme a Kiss starts out relatively generic but it builds well.

Even though it pains me given its awful name, I'd call U Rok Mi my favourite track here. It's utterly Def Leppard in every pore, but it's stripped down to its quick so it feels rather like a rehearsal. It's a great reminder of how raw this usually overproduced band can be, and how their patented hooks are at the heart of everything. Frankly, I'd love to hear the rest of the album this stripped down. It doesn' need an unplugged set to get back to basics and this is Leppard agreeably back to basics.

The most unusual song here is surely This Guitar and it moves as far from the core Leppard sound as U Rok Mi stays as close to it. It's another ballad but closer to country. Alison Krauss provides an excellent backing vocal, but she never duets with Joe Elliott as I had hoped to hear, given how amazing it sounds when she does that with Robert Plant. Instead, it falls to Elliott to lead it and, in this mode, his voice has a softness to it that's highly reminiscent of Jon Bon Jovi. It's another overproduced song, swollen with orchestration and polished until it has so much gleam it's almost blinding.

So this is a mixed bag. There's some excellent material here and it isn't only the old school guitar songs; Def Leppard as a pop band can be excellent too. However, there are some songs that I have no wish to hear again. Every time I get to This Guitar or Goodbye for Good This Time, I feel an urge to go back to Fire It Up and Kick, with its handclaps and na na na chorus, to remind me why I'm still listening. In between those extremes, there are filler songs and other tracks that have something but not as much as those around them.

And so this is better than I expected it would be but not as good as that number one slot on Classic Rock magazine's Best of 2022 list would suggest. I've reviewed seven of their other top ten choices and another five from the next ten and I'd put all of them above this except maybe the Porcupine Tree album.

Thursday, 12 January 2023

Finite Fidelity - Violeta (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Alternative
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 7 Jan 2023
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Like Messa, it's difficult to slap a genre on what Finite Fidelity do, though they're clearly playing in alternative rock as a base. They hail from Austin, Texas and I believe that this is their debut album, but they feel like they're veterans. Sure, the band was started at Austin School of Music and two of the four band members work in a music store, but t seems like they've been playing together this way forever and they've only now got round to putting down what they do on an album.

There's plenty of alternative rock on the opener, Yellow Sky, but it's far from alone. There's some older school rock 'n' roll in that one too, along with pop and rock, some progressive breaks and a surprising shift shift higher in the register of vocalist Scott Blanco. There's a little Spanish guitar too, but it's played on what sounds like a surf guitar instead. It's interesting and imaginative and if I was forced into citing just one band as an obvious comparison, I'd spring for Cake. While this is happy in shimmying into all sorts of wild directions, they're probably the most obvious influence throughout.

Hollow is funkier. There are moments that remind of the Red Hot Chili Peppers but there are Lenny Kravitz moments too and Beatles moments and others, while the song as a whole doesn't sound like any of them. There's punk towards the end and even a sort of college rock take on rockabilly, which is an unlikely combination that makes it another fascinating song. It's surely one of my favourites here, though this isn't the sort of album with clear standouts. These songs are coherent together but they explore such an array of approaches that which shine the most will likely always be due to personal connection over critical gimmes.

Merchant brings in some Tool and some world music elements, though it's far from as intricate as Tool. There's certainly a progressive element to what the band does, especially if you listen afresh with that firmly in mind, but it never serves as the focus, so it's not prog rock, it's just alternative rock that happens to be more progressive than usual.

Ghost is post-punk: a little Buzzcocks, a little Blondie and plenty more Cake. There's a psychedelic rock vibe on Mirage, which is a fascinating addition to the sound, especially as the versatility that is the most obvious constant suddenly reminds of King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. Las Armas en Flor reminds of the Clash, including some of the ethnic flavour they moved into later into their careers. There's more Red Hot Chili Peppers on Unabridged, but more Cake as well. They're never too far away.

And that's a lot of different flavours on one album, with more on the various other tracks that I'm not going to mention individually, but it never feels schizophrenic, like a band like Mr. Bungle can. Finite Fidelity always feels like musicians who really enjoy playing music each threw a solid stack of influences into a bucket, shook it up and collectively jammed on whatever they pulled out of that bucket in the morning. I like that idea. It means that this is commercially viable music but without commercial viability ever seeming like it was the point. I'm sure that these four musicians, with a day job each, wouldn't turn down success but it feels like they're here to play first and foremost.

They're almost a human equivalent to the material they play, in that, like these songs, they are all similarly capable and coherent when put together but they constantly shift the direction that the larger picture takes. Scott Blanco and Ryan Monahan are the founding members, the former as a vocalist and guitarist combo and the latter the drummer. Tim Moen joined soon after on bass and the new fish is Ian C.G. on a second guitar. They're a good band who play good and notably original songs, but I think it's their combination of relaxed confidence and infectious enthusiasm that gets through to me the most. I hope it's just the first of many albums to come.