Wednesday 8 November 2023

Soulkick - Hide the End (2023)

Country: Argentina
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Oct 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Lead vocalist Pablo Zuccalá kindly sent me a copy of Soulkick's debut album a couple of years ago. I was happy to review it and they were happy enough with what I said about it to send me the follow up. I'm glad that they lived up to the title of that debut, No Turning Back, because this is a slightly more mature version of the same thing and it sounds very good indeed. They hail from Argentina and play a contemporary form of hard rock that's rooted in the classic rock era but with touches of more modern alternative rock, toned down a little here in favour of glimpses at prog metal.

The word of the day is elegance, starting with the mix, which is absolutely pristine. That's elegant riffing to kick off Sign of the Times and a powerful back end to punctuate it. Soulkick remain a four piece band, so the bass of Charlie Giardina is easily identifiable throughout without dropping the sound into bass heavy mode. I liked that about the debut and I like it even more here. Zuccalá is a little reminiscent of Geoff Tate on this song and often throughout the album. He doesn't have the same range, of course, because precious few singers do, but he drops impressively low on Empty Faces given how he's much higher everywhere else, and he never stretches beyond his limits.

If there's a flaw, it's in how he sometimes tries a little too hard to emulate other singers or styles when he could have remained in his own style just as effectively. He doesn't need to, but it's easy to tell when he does. Empty Faces, for instance, may start out almost like an Outlaws song, but it quickly becomes a Metallica ballad with a grungy filter over it, mostly because of the vocals. I preferred The Rope, which starts out with riffage reminiscent of Motörhead but on which Zuccalá doesn't remotely try to sound like Lemmy. The riff remains, however, and it builds and even ends like a Motörhead song.

It's always interesting to try to figure out Soulkick's influences because guitarist Christian Vidal is also Therion's guitarist and has been for well over a decade now, but there isn't anything here of their sound. Instead, they draw from AOR, classic rock, NWOBHM and alt rock, and much of that is in the guitarwork. There's some Scorpions in Sign of the Times, especially during the solo, and Van Halen in Last Goodbye and Reasons. Make Believe ups the heaviness with a neat bass riff to start and there's an even heavier riff halfway through Carved in Stone.

Sometimes, of course, what I hear, isn't necessarily something that I could fairly call an influence. While those nods to Metallica and Motörhead are clearly deliberate, Last Goodbye shifts into high gear with a riff that reminds me of Jan Cyrka's Western Eyes, an instrumental that Tommy Vance used as backing music on the Friday Rock Show. Instead of Tommy's urgent voice running through another rock chart, though, this softens up a little for the sung parts and heavies back up for the instrumental sections, an approach that they employ on many of these songs. I don't expect that Soulkick tuned into the Friday Rock Show or heard Cyrka elsewhere, of course. It'll be coincidence.

Once again, there are no bad songs, merely those which connect better than others on a personal level. I happened to appreciate the attitude of Perfect Day, the sassiness infusing Reasons and the heavy riff in Carved in Stone, but you may focus on other details and be just as right as me. There are no definitive answers, just individual tastes. I might suggest that Voices in the Night and On the Road are the least interesting songs on offer, but I have to add that the former is almost textbook solid. I could see that being someone's favourite song of the eleven on offer. It just doesn't aim to do anything fancy because it doesn't need to.

My favourite song surprised me because it's the most alt rock song here, namely The Lighthouse. I heard that influence a lot on the debut and it's less evident here, but The Lighthouse is an alt rock song, even if it's clean and nuanced, especially in the vocals. Zuccalá betrays a slight accent there, but it just adds a subtle exotic flavour because he chooses to sing in English throughout, similarly to someone like Klaus Meine. Sure, we know English isn't their first language, but they're fluent enough to deliver and intonate effectively. Those accents add rather than subtract.

I have no idea how well Soulkick are doing down there in Buenos Aires or internationally, now that the internet has shrunk the world. Based on their first two albums, they should be doing very well indeed, thank you very much. I hope that's the case. Now, how about album three in 2025?

Tuesday 7 November 2023

Ozric Tentacles - Lotus Unfolding (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Oct 2023
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This is the sixteenth studio album for the Ozrics and surprisingly the first that I've reviewed here, because I missed 2000's Space for the Earth, though I did cover Ed Wynne's solo album, Shimmer into Nature, a year earlier. The core of the band nowadays seems to be Wynne, who's been there since the very beginning in 1983, and his son, Silas Neptune, who wasn't even born then, but who joined the Ozrics in 2009. Also in the current line-up is Vinny Shillito, who has been their bassist a couple of times before going back to 1990 but who rejoined this year.

If you haven't heard the Ozrics before, this is as good a place as any to be introduced to what they do, which is an enticing and unique combination of sounds. They play instrumental rock, but with a keyboard presence as fundamental as the guitar, individual pieces of music often moving from one to the other. Sometimes they seem to play entirely synth-driven landscapes, only for the electronic clouds to part so that an electric guitar can emerge from them and suddenly they're a guitar band again with us focused on the soloing. Needless to say, this is usually seen as psychedelic rock.

The thing is that there's a lot more in this sound than just keyboards and guitars. There are points when the Ozrics play space rock, as on Deep Blue Shade and midway through Crumplepenny, when Hawkwind inevitably spring to mind. However, they're looser and less driven, because they take as much from world music and new age as they do from, say, the Grateful Dead and Tangerine Dream. There is a drummer in the band, who's Pat Garvey, debuting for the Ozrics here, but there's also a lot of drum programming, so Storm in a Teacup opens up the album sounding more like pop music than rock. Of course, it soon develops into something deeper and more complex.

You probably won't be surprised that these pieces of music tend towards length. Storm in a Teacup runs nine and a half minutes and it's not the longest track on offer, Crumplepenny almost reaching ten. The shortest, Deep Blue Shade and Burundi Spaceport, are still over five. However, it covers a lot of ground. From that pop intro, it becomes a lively psychedelic rock track, but there's prog and space rock in the mix and it also moves through jazz and funk before it wraps. Like any good Ozrics track, it's all about immersion. You can lose yourself in these pieces of music like you're in a jungle and you haven't seen the sky in a couple of hours, but you're OK with that.

Each of the six tracks here works that way, but they explore different jungles, if you'll allow me to stretch that simile. It's not a bad word to use for Storm in a Teacup and Deep Blue Shade anyway, because they're both bright and warm and rich. If we could turn them into visuals, jungle wouldn't be inapplicable. However, Lotus Unfolding, befitting its title, is far more open. It's slower and far more interested in wide open space than dense jungle. Saskia Maxwell's flute takes the lead and we feel like we can see forever, even though life is bursting into bloom all around us. It gets richer and denser as it goes but the keyboards never stop emulating flying creatures.

That may suggest that immersion into Ozrics tracks is immersion in nature and that's roughly fair, the greens all over the cover art entirely appropriate, but it's not always the case. Crumplepenny feels far more artificial because it plays with odd sounds and rhythms that feel man made. It's not remotely industrial in tone, but it does the same sort of thing that industrial does, especially early on, in a new age kind of way. Also, when the guitar solo shows up three minutes in, it sounds like a guitar solo rather than a bird or a treetop or a meandering stream. Again, of course, it evolves to something more organic, adding some space rock in the process.

Oddly, while the titles of Green Incantation and Burundi Spaceport might suggest which way they lean, that's not entirely true. The former has artificial aspects in addition to organic ones, while the key word in the latter is Burundi rather than Spaceport, as it dips neatly into African rhythms. It all highlights just how diverse the Ozrics can be within the framework that they defined so long ago. It also highlights how much there is on this album to discover, once you've allowed it to wash over you a couple of times without digging deeper.

As with so much of the Ozrics' output, this is immediately accessible but also neatly immersive. It's not the best album they've ever put out, but it's consistently strong even if there isn't a standout track. Maybe that's why it's consistently strong, because whatever these songs are doing, they end up working well together and we end up happy for three quarters of an hour. Of course, if you're a fan of the Ozrics already, you don't need this review. If you haven't heard them before, dive in and see what you think. If it's up your alley, then there's quite a back catalogue for you to explore.

Diabolic Night - Beneath the Crimson Prophecy (2023)

Country: Germany
Style: Black/Speed Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Oct 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives

Diabolic Night have been around for a decade now and they released their debut in 2019, but they are new to me. They're Germans, based in North Rhine-Westphalia, and they play a combination of black and speed metal. I'd lean towards the latter as the primary component, because they sound old school when they play up the speed, more like a proto-black metal band. They often sound like early Whiplash with a veneer of black metal laid carefully over the top. However, many songs also feature sections where they tone down the speed and these have a tendency to feel far more like atmospheric black metal. Check out the beginning to Pandemonium for a great example.

Unusually for black/speed metal bands, Diabolic Night write longer tracks, all eight on offer here passing four minutes with a pair of more epic tracks that respectively approach seven and exceed eight. That allows them to set the stage on a track like Pandemonium, before launching into high gear to blister at us. It also allows them to take their time during the midsection for instrumental breaks. It's this structure that sells them to me, because it combines the blitzkrieg of black/speed metal with a more substantial proggy NWOBHM edge that I highly appreciate.

Each highlight for me does all of those three things, Pandemonium perhaps being my favourite of these tracks, with Voyage to Fortune close behind and pretty much everything else not far behind that one. Starlit Skies adds a couple of minutes, which doesn't remotely make the song too long; it simply blisters for longer in its core section and boasts a longer atmospheric outro. However, that song is followed by Vicious Assault, which ditches those extra subtleties and immediately finds top gear, reminding again of early Whiplash but with a Kreator-style chorus. It's the shortest track on offer at 4:12 and that makes a lot of sense.

Interestingly, they're primarily a one man band, that one man being Kevin Heier, owner of Mortal Rite Records, who performs as Heavy Steeler. He sings lead and plays all the guitars and bass, with occasional addition of synths. The only other musician in play is Christhunter, who may or may not be an actual member of the band as against a session hire. The generally reliable Metal Archives lists him as session only, but he served this role on both albums. It's telling that his approach is an old school speed metal one, rarely dipping into the traditional blastbeats of black metal.

I would guess that Heavy Steeler thinks of himself as a guitarist rather than a vocalist, because he shines brightest in that role, never feeling like he's overstretching himself, even at his fastest, but I rather like his vocals. They're raspy and deep but they're also mostly intelligible, so they're closer to thrash vocals than anything from black metal. He never shifts into growls or shrieks, though he does throw in a few death grunts here and there, underlining that there's a Celtic Frost influence here, along with Whiplash and early Bathory.

They collectively place the sound in the mid eighties but the slower sections are a little earlier. In songs like Starlit Skies and Arktares Has Fallen, they often reminded me of Paul Di'Anno-era Iron Maiden, of songs like Remember Tomorrow. That all works for me, because these are some of my favourite eras in metal, after the classic and prog rock of the seventies had been infused by punk energy and then started on the roads to extreme metal. I wasn't immediately sold on it, because Revelation is a long intro and Tales of Past & Mystery is my least favourite track proper, but it grew on me with repeat listens and The Sacred Scriptures and then Pandemonium were able to bring me firmly on board.

I don't believe Heavy Steeler plays with anyone else, but his tastes here make me wonder what he puts out on Mortal Rite. The only release I've reviewed here at Apocalypse Later is Lynx's Watcher of Skies, which I enjoyed, but as a hard and heavy band, they're at the lighter end of Mortal Rite's spectrum, which primarily revolves around speed, thrash and black metal, with those elements in combination more often than not. I should check out more.

Monday 6 November 2023

Cirith Ungol - Dark Parade (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Oct 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter | Wikipedia

Cirith Ungol have only been back for a few years now, having reformed in 2015 and played the first gig in their new incarnation in 2016, with four previous members of the band in the line-up, Jarvis Leatherby joining on bass at that point. However, they released a strong and very heavy album in 2020, Forever Black, and followed up a year later with a solid EP, Half Past Human. COVID over, it's time for another album and Dark Parade continues in the vein for which they're well known. I hope to hear more but the cracks are starting to show: Jim Barraza, who plays guitar again here has apparently left the band and I hear that they're about to retire from live performances.

I liked Forever Black a lot and relish any new release with Tim Baker's unmistakably raucous voice. There are bands who try to sound commercial and bands that try to sound extreme. Baker is more extreme than most of the latter and he isn't even trying. It's just how he is. It's a huge voice and it tends to feel louder than it is, however loud you happen to be playing his music. He hasn't lost any of his power over the years and, if anything, he's just as good today at sixty-seven.

This album isn't as good as its openers, but for a while it's an absolute belter. Velocity (S.E.P.) is an impressive opener, up tempo for Cirith Ungol with a guitar solo to lead off. It's precisely the sort of song to open a live set because, if the audience doesn't respond to this, then they're probably not going to respond to anything. Relentless is more like what I expect from this band, slow and heavy but with melody and drive. There's Metal Church in this one and Metallica but there's also plenty Accept. And yes, I'm well aware that Cirith Ungol predate all of those bands, having been formed as far back as 1971.

Nothing else matches those two, but there are some wonderful moments. There's a nice flamenco guitar on Sacrifice, not only as an intro but also within the song itself. Baker is on fire on that song too, its slow and impeccably heavy pace tailored to his recognisable raucousness. Talking of vocals, there's a joyous contrast on Down Below between Baker and an unknown female voice. It isn't the usual beauty and the beast contrast between a clean soprano voice and a harsh male one because it's a very different contrast between elegant calmness and unconstrained roar. The title track has a contrast all of its own, as it's a heavy one indeed mixing old school riffage with Baker's extreme voice, like Cronos singing for Black Sabbath.

Even the lesser songs shine at points. I'm not much of a fan of Sailor on the Seas of Fate, which has a monotone heaviness to it, but I'm certainly a fan of its instrumental sections, not just the pair of bookends but a stretch of a couple of minutes during the midsection too. Those are great changes and I could listen to that sort of thing all day. There's a gem of a guitar solo on Looking Glass, even if it feels a littleshoehorned into that particular song, and there are excellent riffs littered around the later songs, like Distant Shadows, Down Below and the title track.

This ought to play very well to existing Cirith Ungol fans, because it does everything they want the band to do and it does it well. Sure, it's a little top heavy, the pair of standout tracks being the two that kick it off and only Sacrifice, wrapping up the first half, coming close to them. It's that pair I'd certainly suggest to people who have never heard of Cirith Ungol before and want something very heavy indeed but not technically extreme. If they can deal with Baker's voice, then the band would have new fans, guaranteed.

However, the second half is much more for the die hards. If you relish the full immersion into Cirith Ungol's particular brand of achingly slow ultra-heaviness, then you'll be in heaven. If you're a little more picky about variety, it may become a little tiring because the four tracks do much the same thing in much the same way and they're all taken to the limit, because, as I said earlier, Baker has a habit of feeling louder than he actually is and the band happily follow suit. This isn't music to be played quietly but you'll need good speakers to keep turning this up.

I'm on board with the heaviness of the second half, if not for stellar songs, so I'm going with a 7/10. It's a weaker album than Forever Black, though, so unless you're also on board, you'll want to dock a point off that. Whichever side you end up on, I'm happy that Cirith Ungol are back and recording new material. They put out nothing in the seventies and four albums during their initial productive spell from 1981 to 1991. Now they're reformed, they're already at two and I'm looking forward to a third, even if they may need to find a new guitarist to replace Jim Barraza. I hope they find one.

Robby Valentine - Embrace the Unknown (2023)

Country: The Netherlands
Style: Melodic Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 21 Oct 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | YouTube

I came to this album knowing nothing except that Robby Valentine is Dutch and he records melodic rock, which I'm always keen to review because I get sent far more metal than rock and I like to keep a balance here. What I quickly found is that melodic rock is both an accurate label and one that doesn't remotely cover it to the degree needed.

He's all over the musical map, in a very deliberate manner that echoes the approach of Queen and it's very difficult not to hear their sound all over his. In fact, if you don't realise how much Queen is in what he does on on the opener, Break the Chain, then Life is a Lesson four tracks in takes care to staple a copy of A Night at the Opera onto your forehead so you can't avoid it. It doesn't shock me, reading up on his career after listening to this album, that he's recorded an array of Queen tribute releases. Any other comparisons I could conjure up, like Jason Bieler, share the same influence, so it really goes back to them.

What's important is that he does this very well indeed. In addition to writing the music and lyrics, he plays all the instruments and sings all the vocals, except a few overlays like the harmony vocals of Johan Willems on Never Fall in Line, a scream on Roll Up Your Sleeves that seems like a sample and a chorus deepening Break the Chain. This is emphatically all his work, not merely as a musician and a performer but as a creator too. He has a singular vision of what he wants to do, which I think likely starts with something small like a phrase, a melody or a rhythm, and builds it into something majestic.

Sometimes, as on Roll Up Your Sleeves, it's all three of those things at exactly the same time. The first thing we hear is a snippet of lyric a capella, but it's chanted in a very particular rhythm using a very particular melody and the instrumentation promptly picks up on that. The drums and guitar then echo it, drop into a solo bass doing the same thing, then the elements combine and we have a song out of nowhere, with Valentine adding details here, harmonies there and escalations to flesh out and polish the piece.

It's definitely a highlight because its hook is so catchy and it never drifts far away from it, but other songs are content to travel much further. The opener, for instance, changes often. Break the Chain starts symphonic, becomes arena rock, gets poppy and then progressive, and shifts on a dime from Journey to Queen to Styx. That chorus of voices adds action and samples underline that, initially a snippet of the Shelley poem The Mask of Anarchy and later brief and surprisingly grounded clips of speeches by conspiracy theory whackjob David Icke. There's a heck of a lot to digest in this one but it's all seamlessly delivered.

Don't Give Up on a Miracle seems overly simple by comparison but it's just a well formed pop song with a catchy hook bolstered by harmonies and orchestration. It's telling that the guitar solo isn't remotely close to the front of the mix, because, if Valentine is effectively playing every member of Queen, Brian May seems to be the one he identifies with the least. There are definitely moments in Break the Chain that sound like a May guitar, but Valentine's guitarwork here generally feels a little more contemporary in style and the most room he reserves for a guitar solo, which is on the closing title track, there's more Dave Gilmour there than May.

Of course, as a vocalist as well as a multi-instrumentalist, Valentine doesn't skimp on his Freddie Mercury. He's everywhere here, perhaps most prominently on Shadowland, but both John Deacon and Roger Taylor are often present too, perhaps both most obviously during Roll Up Your Sleeves. While the influence is so overt that I'm sure he's embraced it by now, this being at least his tenth album of original material, not counting tributes and other covers albums, it also makes for easily his most immediate songs. You can't get more immediate than Roll Up Your Sleeves and others like Don't Give Up on a Miracle, Life is a Lesson and Shadowland aren't far behind.

The catch to that is that his least Queen inspired pieces take more time to grasp. Show the Way is a decent track but it's also a subtle one that takes its time and so it ends up fading in comparison to most of the other tracks. Embrace the Unknown is a tasty closer and it's the longest song here, but it also takes a more subdued and elegant approach, so it doesn't leap out at us the way those with the killer hooks do. Clearly I need to check out more of what Robby Valentine's done over the past forty years or so, because he makes excellent music and he has a serious back catalogue.

Friday 20 October 2023

Rolling Stones - Hackney Diamonds (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Oct 2023
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"I'm not angry with you," sings Mick Jagger on the opener, called Angry, but this album feels like the product of frustration, as indeed the title suggests, Hackney diamonds being the remnants of windscreens in the street after someone's broken into cars. The Stones haven't released an album of entirely new material in eighteen years and that's an entire generation. It's good to see them getting round to it at last and especially to see them feel so urgent doing so.

Keith Richards credits the death of drummer Charlie Watts in 2021 as the point that prompted the band to get serious enough to get the job done, though they had come close enough a few times in the years prior that Watts appears on two of these tracks, Mess It Up and Live by the Sword. Steve Jordan, who's worked with Richards on many previous projects and who stepped in on the No Filter Tour in 2021 when Watts was unable to play, takes over his drumkit otherwise, working in the same style.

As with their previous album, A Bigger Bang, this often generally stripped down and raw, as if they created this album live in the studio. There are even studio comments at the end of some of these songs that highlight just how much fun they were having. In the case of Sweet Sounds of Heaven, it feels like the song actually ends but Jagger and guest vocalist Lady Gaga are enjoying themselves so much that they build it back up again. It's an infectious feeling and it helps the album. There are no bad tracks here at all but some are definitely better and more memorable than others.

The truest Stones song is that opener, Angry, which is quintessential stuff from them. It has a good beat to kick off that leads into a good riff and a good vocal line. Of course, as with most of the best Stones songs, it builds considerably and they utterly own the groove they generate. After a couple of listens, good becomes great in each instance and it starts to feel like the sort of track that could end up on yet another greatest hits album. The other track I'd call out as traditional for the Stones is Whole Wide World, which works well if we play it in isolation but is otherwise overshadowed by Bite My Head Off right before it.

And that's the angriest, rawest and most surprising song here, certainly angrier than Angry and so much so that it verges on punk. It benefits more than any other track from a live in the studio feel, right down to Jagger urging on the surprise guest bassist, who's none other than Paul McCartney. The Beatles were never just a pop band and he covered a lot of ground with later bands like Wings, but I don't recall any time in which McCartney played anything this angry and raw. He fits it so well that I want to hear more in this vein from everyone involved.

The other big surprise here is how well Sweet Sounds of Heaven works. It's a spiritual, with Jagger leading the way but Lady Gaga matching him and taking over at points. She's not the only guest on this one, as the joyous keyboards are provided by Stevie Wonder and there are contributions from Ron Blake on trumpet and James King on sax, even if the latter is more prominent much earlier on a song called Get Close. King steals that song, to my mind, because Jagger's vocal lines aren't all free and easy, some of them feeling a little forced.

Given that I've already mentioned a punk song and a spiritual, I should add that other genres are represented here too. Dreamy Skies is a laid back country ballad, Mess It Up has a funkier edge and Rolling Stone Blues, which feels like a bonus track rather than a closer, is the blues cover you might expect, stripped down all the way to Jagger and Richards. They're all decent songs, but I wouldn't call any of them essential, unless you have a particular vested interest.

For instance, if you're an old time Stones fan, you might appreciate Watts being on Mess It Up and Live by the Sword. You might also appreciate that the bassist on the latter is Bill Wyman, who last recorded with the Stones during the previous millennium. They're both decent songs, the former a funky one and the latter more subtle but built well. You might also appreciate that Richards sings lead on Tell Me Straight, but he underwhelms, especially when contrasted with Jagger and Gaga in the following track. If you do, you'll want to go straight to them. Otherwise, you'll find the best of this album elsewhere.

Poludnica - Poludnica (2023)

Country: Slovakia
Style: Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 15 Sep 2023
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | YouTube

There are few things I like more than to discover a new folk metal band and here's one who play in the vein of Bucovina, a favourite of mine, though Poludnica aren't as heavy. They hail from Trenčín, which puts them quite a way from Bucovina because Trenčín is in the far west of Slovakia and Iași the far east of Romania, with a good chunk of Hungary in between. However, both play folk metal in the Balkan style with warm metal under the folk elements. Those are more evident here because they're not only explored in voice and melody but with folk instrumentation, primarily flutes and violins but also a harp.

Those are obvious from the outset, with the flutes of Zuzana Gregušová leading the way, as indeed they do on so many songs. They're a highly prominent instrument here, so much so that there may be as many solo flute sections as on guitars, often with the violins matching the flute melodies. In either case, the backdrop is a little subdued, the riffs certainly there throughout but low enough in the mix that we can almost believe that they're bleeding through from the next studio over, as the soloists and vocalists play in the primary one without walls to suppress them.

That backdrop is utterly reliable, whether it's chugging along at mid-pace, perking up for a song as lively as Medovina to prompt us to dance, even if we're sitting down, or ramping up the tempo for a belter like Slnovrat. However, it's always content to remain in the background, rather like a good friend whose presence elevates the day even if they're not prominent in conversation. The closest the riffing comes to the foreground is Krajiny, or Countries, a plaintive rock ballad, as if the lead is pleading his case, probably to a girl rather than a court, and so the lead elements are toned down. There are also wonderful bass runs on the opener, Za duše padlých, or For the Souls of the Fallen.

The primary lead element is the voice and there are three singers here. The lead for the majority of the album is Anton Chochlik, who sings in a rough but accurate tenor, almost always singing folk melodies rather than rock. The other two are backing singers, though one of them takes more of a prominent role in Medovina, or Mead. That's a lovely and lively song, as the title suggests, and it benefits from more of a female presence at the mike. At various points during other songs, these female voices echo the male, more like co-leads than backing vocalists.

I should mention that all these people work double duty. Chochlik is one of a pair of guitarists with Adrián Perrot, though I don't know how they divvy up lead and rhythm duties. Presumably both do both. The backing vocalists are Gregušová, who also plays the flutes and adds harp, most obviously on the title track, and Martina Oriešková, who also plays violin. It's these three who dominate the album, against that reliable backdrop. The guitarists do get solos, albeit not as many as we expect because they're divvied up with the flutes, and Vladimír Krabáč's bass only claims the spotlight on that opening track.

That leaves the thoroughly reliable Michal Košúth on drums, who perhaps shines brightest on the closer, Slnovrat, or Solstice, which feels celebratory and so gets more ambitious. He starts out fast and then gets interesting, both through fills and odd rhythms. While this is the only track where I found my attention specifically following what he was doing, his work feels effortless, whether he plays fast or slow, steady or intricate.

I'd love to hear more Balkan folk metal, which often feels as authentic as it gets, as their melodies feel old. The Celtic style is appropriately popular but it's also commonplace. More niche folk styles get attention as much for being niche as for being interesting, the Hu being one great example of both. Balkan folk metal sits in between, not as well known or as well heard but still almost seen as a default sound, less worthy of mention by those seeking something new and unusual.

While I may never find a Balkan folk metal album that connects with me as well as Bucovina's first, Ceasul aducerii-aminte, I'm eager to find something that comes close. This doesn't, but it's still an excellent debut and I look forward to the next album from Poludnica, especially now that I see that they've added a bagpipe player to their line-up.

Thursday 19 October 2023

Nervosa - Jailbreak (2023)

Country: Brazil
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 29 Sep 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

It's only been two and a half years since I reviewed Nervosa's fourth album, Perpetual Chaos, but a lot has changed with the band since then. Traditionally a trio, they were a four piece at that point, with Prika Amaral the sole remaining founder member. She's the band's guitarist and has been for its entire run but, soon after Perpetual Chaos, Helena Kotina joined as a second guitarist. Amaral was also the lead vocalist for year when the band was formed in 2010 and now she is again, as Diva Satánica left in 2022. The rest of the line-up shifted too, as bassist Mia Wallace has been replaced by Hel Pyre and Michaela Naydenova is the latest in a line seven drummers, Nanu Villalba showing up after Perpetual Chaos and gone already.

Given such continual flux—perpetual chaos, we might say—we might expect this to be transitional material as the new line-up, half of which wasn't even in place at the beginning of the year, figures out what they want to do and how they'll do it. Well, that's emphatically not the case. They kick in hard with Endless Ambition, sounding not unlike Kreator, and they demonstrate just what they can do with two guitarists in a couple of instrumental sections that I only wish were longer. The tempo shifts a lot with some neat escalations and that continues into Suffocare too.

Both these are excellent songs but Ungrateful ups the ante and absolutely blisters. It's fast out of the gate but it gets faster and then it gets playful. There's a lot here to enjoy, with buzzsaw guitar, frantic drumming and some neat tempo changes. It may well be the best track on the album, which is why it isn't too surprising that it slows down afterwards so Seed of Death can have an intro. The best Nervosa songs are the fast ones and Ungrateful has a real competitor in Kill or Die, which is a particularly vicious old school thrash song. And then Gary Holt shows up for When the Truth is a Lie to add extra depth to the guitar sound.

It's definitely the guitars that I followed most here. I love them when they're buzzing riffs through my skill. I love them when they get elegant, as they do on Seed of Death. I love them when they do something more unexpected, the solo on the title track sounding rather like what Brian Robertson was doing for Motörhead on the Another Perfect Day album. However, I also have to call out both Naydenova's drumming, which is appropriately varied but always top notch, whether she's raging on the fast songs or adding layers to slower ones, and the solid production. This album is far more in your face than its predecessor and the drums are perfectly placed in the mix.

Pyre does exactly what she needs to do on bass without ever stealing the spotlight, so that leaves Amaral's vocals, which are also more vicious than her predecessor's. Diva Satánica wasn't without death metal in her voice, but Amaral's is harsher but still enunciated. It never quite reaches death growl territory but it comes close at points, like on Gates to the Fall. Check out her introduction to Behind the Wall to see how vicious she gets, spitting out her lyrics with fury. It all works nicely with the vicious guitars for a real in your face sound. I like this new Nervosa.

Now, I've always liked Nervosa because they tend to play their thrash fast and furious, which is how I like it best. However, they don't stay in full gear throughout, mixing up the tempos to keep these songs interesting, and rarely dropping into chug sections. I'm starting to dread them on albums of late, because so many new thrash bands seem to be happy at a mid-pace, but there's a stellar chug on Sacrifice, aided by Amaral's rough vocals that keep it from feeling too soft. There's always some abrasion in her voice and that maintains an edge on these songs even on those rare occasions that they might lose it otherwise.

Given that there were a couple of guests on the previous album and I've already mentioned one in this review, I should add that there's a second guest on Superstition Failed in Lena Scissorhands, a Moldovan vocalist who sings metalcore/nu metal for Infected Rain and more traditional hard and heavy for American band Death Dealer Union. She brings a new angle to this album, without going too far beyond Nervosa's style. Holt, of course, plays into it perfectly, so Where the Truth is a Lie is just a Nervosa song with three guitars instead of two.

This is their fifth album and I'm already looking forward to their sixth. I just wonder who might be in the line-up at that point, in addition to Prika Amaral. Keeping this line-up would not be a bad thing.

Twin Temple - God is Dead (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Satanic Doo Wop
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 13 Oct 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Here's a genre that I've never encountered before, but I don't see why it shouldn't be in scope for Apocalypse Later. Twin Temple hail from Los Angeles and play what their debut album's title called satanic doo wop. Yes, that's doo wop as in the vocal pop style from the forties and fifties that was inspired by barbershop quartets and made famous by bands like the Ink Spots. But it's Satanic and overtly so. Initially, we can't help but follow the lyrics and see this as a gimmick aiming to provoke a response, which, of course it is. However, this is Twin Temple's third album and they make this an enticing sound entirely apart from the gimmick, even if some moments lean towards the comedic, like the intro to Spellbreaker.

Part of that is because it's well written and well performed, by the duo of Alexandra and Zachary James, the former's delightfully sultry voice leading the way. Part of it, though, is in how the way in which they recorded it. For a start, they record in mono, because all their inspirations did, and it helps to age the sound. There's also a real dirtiness to it too that darkens even the perkiest parts, keeping the feel that this was originally released in 1950 but utterly buried until now. I believe the band records live, taking the best of a handful of takes of each song and that authenticity shines. It's also over quickly, wrapping up in under half an hour in a nod to history.

There are plenty of ties to rock music to call out, each of which helps explain why Twin Temple tour in support of bands like Ghost and Danzig. Opening track Burn Your Bible begins with a bell tolling in a storm, which always makes me expect Tony Iommi's guitar to follow up with an iconic riff, but, of course, it doesn't. Let's Have a Satanic Orgy isn't just doo wop, it's dark exotica, something that could easily have been recorded by Screaming Jay Hawkins, one of the true pioneers of metal. OK, Alexandra James doesn't attempt the hoots and hollers and animal noises that Hawkins peppered throughout his songs, but I heard them anyway. There's an actual guitar solo in Spellbreaker.

If the best aspect to this is how authentic the production sounds, all the way down to the dirty horn section and sleazy sax in Be a Slut, the next is how authentic the music sounds. Even if you dismiss this as nothing but a gimmick, you ought to acknowledge that these musicians aren't trampling on a genre, because they clearly know and appreciate it and have the musical talent to do this justice. "Why can’t you love Roy Orbison and hail Satan at the same time?" they ask and explore that over eight tracks that cover more ground than you might expect.

After that Sabbath style intro, Burn Your Bible sounds like a doo wop song and not a lot more, but it's very different to Let's Have a Satanic Orgy and both are very different to Black Magic, which is almost a Shirley Bassey song as it kicks off. Oddly, while seven of these tracks pop for me, meaning that the melodies and backdrop grab us as quickly as they need to in songs that rarely venture far beyond three minutes and don't always last past two and change, the one that doesn't is the title track that wraps up the album. It's the longest on offer here at four minutes and twenty and, even after a few listens, it always vanishes from my attention, sadly letting the album fade away.

I'm not sure what the audience for 21st century doo wop truly is, though I'd bet it's larger than we might expect, given how big the exotica and tiki scenes are. However, if Twin Temple didn't have a particular gimmick, I doubt they would have crossed my path and that of many other people. That they're damn good at what they do is what kept me and I look forward to seeing how long they can make this ride last before it becomes old and stale. Three albums in, it's still fresh and vibrant. God may or may not be dead but satanic doo wop is very much alive.

Wednesday 18 October 2023

On Thorns I Lay - On Thorns I Lay (2023)

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

On Thorns I Lay have been around for a long while, even if you haven't heard the name before, but they're not the same band they've been. They were founded in Athens back in 1992, with their first album released three years later, and they've experienced a slew of line-up changes, as tends to be the case. However, until their ninth album, Threnos in 2020, the band remained centered around a pair of founder members, lead vocalist Stefanos Kintzoglou, who also contributed bass until 2017, and guitarist Christos Dragamestianos.

That changed in 2021 when Kintzoglou left to reform the band that became On Thorns I Lay with a few former members. That's Phlebotomy, not to be mistaken with Phlebotomized, the Dutch death metal band. Maybe that's why this album is self-titled. Presumably Dragamestianos sees it as the fresh start the band needs, especially given that the rest of the line-up is very new. Vocalist Peter Miliadis, guitarist Nikolas Paraskevopoulos and bassist Kostas Mexis are each making their studio debuts for On Thorns I Lay here.

If you've followed On Thorns I Lay through those decades, you might be wondering what style they have adopted this week. They started out as brutal death metal, shifted to symphonic doom/death and then gothic metal, before eventually moving back to the doom/death style evident here. The new aspect is folk instrumentation, which I believe shows up here for the first time. There are lots of ethnic instruments on display here and the opener, Fallen from Grace, kicks off with ethnic voice and strings. However, it's still doom/death rather than folk metal, merely with new textures.

I'm a folk metal fan, so I'd be happy with more of the ethnic instrumentation, but it works well as a contrast, replacing the beauty and the beast vocal contrast from some earlier albums. This aspect isn't overused, but it is integral. One of my favourite sections in the album arrives late in Thorns of Fire when the heavy doom/death is accompanied by what I presume is some sort of zither. Many of the songs feature this contrast in some form, especially Crestfallen, both at the beginning and in the midsection, and Among the Wolves, both of which are favourites of mine.

The band's core sound nowadays is an elegant form of atmospheric doom metal, which is slow and crushingly heavy but full of melody, especially through the guitars. It's a rich and immersive sound that, at its best, feels apart from everything as if it's torn a hole in the space/time continuum and dragged us through to somewhere and somewhen entirely new. The death aspect comes mostly in a warm but harsh growled vocal from Miliadis, who I presume is versatile given that he also sings for a crossover thrash band, Double Square, and used to sing for a metalcore band, SlavEATgod.

The instrument that stood out the most for me was the guitar. I don't know how much of that is the work of Dragamestianos and how much his new compatriot, Paraskevopoulos, but the combination worked for me, whether they were soloing, providing melodic lines in a Paradise Lost style or even dropping into an acoustic or ethnic mode, using whatever other stringed instruments were sitting around. I've read that there were many of them, as many as fifteen different instruments, though I have no idea what or where.

The other aspect that deserves mention is that these aren't generally short songs but they're not epics either. Fallen from Grace opens up at just over eight minutes and Crestfallen exceeds it by a single second. The final three songs run seven minutes and varying degrees of change, with only a single track left to serve as the anomaly. That's Newborn Skies, which fails to reach five minutes, a strange and ironic fact given that it's the song with the most symphonic backdrop. We might think that that would be the epic but it isn't here and it's a fair length. The rest of the songs breathe nicely.

I'm new to On Thorns I Lay, as far as I'm aware, and I have to remind myself that this is a new start for them, but I'm interested in what they sounded like previously. The gothic tinges have been far more pivotal to their sound in the past, from what I read, and I've been a particular fan of beauty and the beast vocals since they were invented. Maybe I'll dip into their earlier work once I get back on track with reviews after the events of the past few months. In the meantime, I'm happy with the old school doom/death sound they have here, with heavier death growls and a teasing element of folk added for good measure. I like.

White Canyon & The 5th Dimension - Gardeners of the Earth (2023)

Country: Brazil
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 4 Aug 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

I hear a lot of intros on albums nowadays and very few of them have any reason to be there. There are some that serve to grab our attention and some that tease us into what's to come, but it's not particularly often that I hear an intro truly nail both those things but Caminho das Pedras is a fair example of an intro that does both. It sets the mood with a hypnotic swirling sitar that takes us all the way back to the late sixties but adds contemporary touches too, before rolling on into the first track proper, which is the title track. We know what we're getting into, we're placed into the right mood to receive it and we flow on into the rest of the album. It's a great start.

Gardeners of the Earth lives up to the intro too. There's that prominent old school Pink Floyd bass that I remember so well from White Canyon's prior album, Spectral Illusion, and it continues that hypnotic groove. Quite frankly, the more hypnotic this band gets, the better they sound to me. My favourite track here may be Black Holes, which is stripped down to its essence, almost like a garage rock song played at half speed. The guitar is prominent and then the voices, but I end up falling for the drums every time. It's so hypnotic that we could believe the band performed it in a trance. Its closest competitor is Harsh Down, which has been playing in my head when I wake up, and Chapter V - Mental Universe isn't far behind that one.

I mentioned voices plural and should explain that there are two vocalists here, whose names are a mystery to me, but one is male and the other female and both get the opportunity to lead songs. I remember a gothic vibe from the prior album that's here too but to a lesser degree. It's there on the title track for sure, with the male voice taking the lead and the female voice bolstering it like an echo, and it's there in Ancient Secrets of Green Leaf, with the roles reversed. As they move into Howling Pines, though, with the female voice leading the way, and Fireflies Dance, which returns to both singing together, the vibe is firmly folky rather than gothic. Others drift between the two.

Now, whether they're folky or gothic, they're always psychedelic rock with an occasional dip into a more poppy sound. Fireflies Dance maintains the American hippie psychedelia that pervades the album, but it starts out like the Beatles at their most psychedelic and never truly loses that. I love the organ in Howling Pines too, which has that perky sound that tends to belong to the earlier pop songs recorded by bands that evolved into rock music in the seventies. There's more of that within Ancient Secrets of Green Leaf, along with more hypnotic drumming, and this one feels like it could be a fascinating reinterpretation of a Nick Cave song.

In other words, there's a lot here and the songs are neatly immersive. It was clearly going to be an album to recommend from the very beginning but it gets better as it runs on. Those favourites of mine start at the end of side one and roll through side two, all the way to InnerOutside, a fantastic closer that reminds of John Kongos writing and singing for Hawkwind. Then again, I expected a lot from this band because they got a rare 9/10 from me last time out for Spectral Illusion, back in May 2021, even though they lost out for my Album of the Month to a killer Flotsam and Jetsam release.

The challenge for them was always going to be to reach and maybe even exceed the standard that Spectral Illusion set. I wasn't initially sure that it matched it, as the album wasn't as immediate for me, but it was clearly excellent and it grew and continued to grow. It reached the point where it's perhaps only falling behind it because it's not my introduction to the band. Had I heard this first, I might have been blown away just as much as I was when I heard Spectral Illusion. As it is, I'm loving it almost as much. Now I just need to stop listening to it so I can move onto another review. That is not going to be easy.

Tuesday 17 October 2023

Steven Wilson - The Harmony Codex (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 29 Sep 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I enjoyed Steven Wilson's previous album, The Future Bites, a great deal, but I surely like this more because it feels proggier and spends longer instrumental. As with that release, it's built on an odd combination of influences, namely Pink Floyd and Donna Summer, with the former most evident in the instrumental sections and the latter in vocal parts. However, it's not that simple, as there are other voices here too that do very different things. Ninet Tayab sings on Rock Bottom and Wilson's wife Rotem provides spoken word on the title track, each of them giving this album another angle. However, it only takes a couple of listens for everything to coalesce into a single vision.

I wasn't entirely sold early on. Inclination begins with a long instrumental intro that vanishes into the haze, to be followed by a vocal song that doesn't seem to tie to it to all. What Life Brings is also vocal and it's dreamier, as is Economies of Scale, if we isolate the voices and keyboards from a beat that's glitchy and fascinating. They're not bad songs, but Wilson paints in sounds and those sounds build moods that remind of colours and they're three very different pieces.

Where Wilson truly grabbed me here was Impossible Tightrope, which is the first epic of the album and the longest song on offer at almost eleven minutes. For a few minutes it reminds very much of Shine On You Crazy Diamond, but building quicker and into something more frantic. Everything's a highlight here, the overlapping layers of keyboards reminiscent of mountains behind mountains, but I have to call out the saxophone of Theo Travis. These few minutes are easily my favourite part of the album.

The rest of the song's pretty good too but, a dreamy interlude later, it moves into a territory that's part space rock and part jazz fusion. It's vibrant and perky and reminds of something I might hear from King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, not just instrumentally but because there are vocals but no lyrics, just voices as instruments. It's all highly immersive stuff and it doesn't remotely outstay its welcome. I could happily listen to an hour long improvisation on this track.

Much of the reason for that is that, as loose as a piece gets, and Impossible Tightrope feels like it's just a magical nexus of a host of instruments that was spun out of the air, Wilson is a very carefully minded composer. There's a huge amount of energy given to finding precisely the right sounds for every moment on this album. Perhaps the best example of that is Beautiful Scarecrow, which has a glorious and effortless groove to it, but one that grows in complexity the more we examine it, just like a Mandelbrot set.

That rhythm is a highly complex one with a very particular sound; I'm assuming those are electric beats created by Jack Dangers. Behind it, something is soloing, maybe Wilson on guitars or synths or Nick Beggs on Chapman Stick, but I see Theo Travis credited on duduk on this one. Now, is that a Balkan duduk or an Armenian duduk? Reviewing albums does take me down some odd rabbit holes. Whatever it is, it's a delightfully odd sound amidst a whole bunch of other delightfully odd sounds that were clearly placed exactly where they are because of an overarching vision.

This is a highly generous album, running over an hour in its shortest version, with quite the journey for an open-minded listener. It's pop and it's rock and it's electronic. It's catchy and commercial but it's expansive and progressive. It's smooth but it's glitchy. It's crafted but it's improvisational and loose. It's designed for Wilson's voice, both regular and falsetto, but the overall feeling is that his voice and the others he adds are just other instruments. It's a lot of things and the more you let it wash over you, the more you'll catch moments you'll want to explore. Our distance from the music as the title track begins is a clear invitation to come on in and make ourselves at home.

And if you fall into it that deeply, there are other versions available. There's a three album version that includes the regular ten tracks on one disc; a second disc containing remixes of most of them, along with a set of Codex Themes; and a third disc that repeats a couple of those but adds six parts of an audio play. I haven't delved into those other discs yet but it's The Harmony Codex that gets a seventeen minute long take rather than Impossible Tightrope. Whichever version you go for, you'll get plenty of Wilson's solo genius, which I'm appreciating far more than the most recent album by Porcupine Tree.

Kaunis Kuolematon - Mielenvalta (2023)

Country: Finland
Style: Melodic Doom/Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 13 Oct 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | YouTube

Here's another excellent new melodic doom/death metal album, but it's plenty different from the Wizards of Wiznan album that impressed me so much last week. Kaunis Kuolematon are Finns and they've been around for a decade and change, with this their fourth album. They play their doom/death with a heavy side of black metal, as is perhaps most evident as they start out, with Surussa uinuva. It's sweet and melodic, a sort of subdued epic, until a raucous black metal shriek bursts in and we're suddenly in something very different. It's definitely still melodic but it's heavy, fast and blistering too, more so than I'd expect from doom/death.

Now, this does slow down to find a more traditional doom/death speed, just as Elävältä haudattu does that the other way around, but these tracks enjoy shifting their intensity levels substantially, most playing out in what feel like movements, even though none are identified and only the closer unfolds at epic length, lasting almost nine minutes. Everything else ranges from just under five to just over six and a half, which is a consistent window and not a particularly epic one.

Elävältä haudattu is easily my favourite song here and it has a whole swathe of movements. It's a heavy doom song as it begins, with slow and patient drumming, but that grows into a section with a delicate melody unfolding in front of a building black metal wall of sound. The singer here is Olli Suvanto, the band's lead vocalist, who I presume delivers both the harsh vocals, halfway between a rich death growl and the wicked black metal shriek that ramped up Surussa Uinuva. Then it drops away for a long section with Mikko Heikkilä, the band's rhythm guitarist, at the mike, singing clean with a resonant voice. When it ramps up again, it's very heavy, but it finds another clean moment and ends with a cool harmonisation of voices.

It's a peach of a song and it does a lot. Elävältä haudattu translates to Buried Alive, so maybe this frequent change of movements represents actions in a story. I could see a battle as someone tries not to be buried alive, then to escape, only to fail and experience peace for a while in surrender, a feeling that doesn't last, leading to the heavy and frantic sections later in the song. I don't speak Finnish so maybe I'm projecting considerably here but the musical variation does imply a story and that seems to make sense.

Frankly, the contrasts are what make this special, not just in general but in specific moments. That initial black metal shriek in Surussa uinuva felt like a plane crashing into a hitherto flawless lake. There's a shift from melodic piano to harsh vehemence in Peilikuva that's especially delightful too. This band can shift entirely on a dime and they seem to enjoy the experience. However, it wouldn't be as effective if they couldn't sell both their core styles, the black metal infused doom/death and the peaceful slow and melodic diversions with clean vocals. They absolutely sell both and at points, like in Peilikuva, overlap the two with wonderful effect.

That's three songs and there are half a dozen more to come, starting with the title track, which is Mind Power in translation. However, there's not much more to say once we get past these. This one kicks off with what sounds like an ethnic horn but could be a voice, I suppose. It literally commands our attention and suggests a shift into folk metal that never comes, even with an excellent female voice in the midsection that utterly surprised me. The rumbling behind it and effective developing melody are exquisite atmosphere and then we slam back in hard, as we ought to expect by now.

The rest of the album continues in much the same vein, setting up new contrasts and creating new moments, but it doesn't add anything new. It also doesn't disappoint, though it rarely matches the early sparks of brilliance, and it doesn't get old. In other words, I may not like this as much as I did the Wizards of Wiznan album, but I've happily played it on repeat half a dozen times now and I still find new elements to enjoy even this many times through. It's immersive stuff and it's hard to pull myself away from it so I can focus on another album to review.

The best news is that Kaunis Kuolematon means Beautiful Immortal, which bodes well, and I'm not seeing a line-up change. This was created by the same five people as their self-titled debut EP back in 2012. That sort of thing always suggests a solid compatibility behind band members that allows them to grow their sound without growing apart. Now, I have three earlier albums to seek out and I look forward to the next one.

Monday 16 October 2023

Dogstar - Somewhere Between the Power Lines and Palm Trees (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Alternative Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 6 Oct 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Somehow I've never heard Dogstar before. I know the name because I'm a film guy and I'm set for a runthrough of Keanu Reeves's First Thirty films for a forthcoming zine. Of course, I knew that he also moonlights as the bass player in Dogstar. It's merely that I haven't actually heard their music before, even though this is their third album, arriving a heck of a long time after its predecessors, which came out in 1996 and 2000. What I found out immediately in opener Blonde is that they play a very pleasant form of alternative rock, so pleasant that I wondered about where the boundary between rock and alt rock truly is. What side of that arbitrary line are they on?

Now, I don't really care, beyond wanting to slap a vaguely appropriate label into the detail section at the top of my review and to get a grip on where they're coming from. I guess they're alternative enough to count, but only just. Bret Domrose's guitar is just a little bit jangly and his vocal is just a little bit edgy, but only so far as to compare to U2 and Tom Petty and I mean Jeff Lynne produced Tom Petty rather than rockier early stuff. They don't even reach Pearl Jam degrees of alternative early on, let alone the Melvins or the Swans.

The first song that really felt alternative was Overhang, starting with Reeves's bass intro that's an excellent imitation of Peter Hook's. However, while there's definitely plenty of Joy Division in this song, right down to the guitar feedback, it's perkier in the chorus than anything Ian Curtis sang. It still plays unusually dark for this album, though, which is as optimistically cheerful as Reeves tends to be in interviews. The only other edgy moments arrive late in Breach, the closer, which plays with a grungier feel throughout and an unusually harsh backdrop behind certain sections.

Unfortunately, those two songs aswide, the adjectives that come to mind all sound like left handed compliments. This music is nice music, pleasant music, inoffensive music. Yeah, sounds awful, right? Well, the most important thing here is that it isn't. Sure, it's not remotely challenging music but it sounds good and it feels like it has substance and meaning behind it. It's not surface music, even if it's nice, pleasant and inoffensive. It's also well worth repeat listens, which nice music tends not to be because we forget it as soon as it ends. This stays, whether it's due to the melodies, the grooves or the hooks.

And, again unlike most nice music, those do vary across tracks, which find identities of their own to distinguish them. There's a harmonica on Dillon Street that works especially well when Domrose's guitar starts to wail behind it. There's a neat middle eastern flavour to the midsection on Lust, the result I think of a synthesised sitar rather than a real one, but effective nonetheless. Sleep is most overt in its plumbing of early U2 for its vibe. It could be a cover, even though it isn't.

The other song that seems like it ought to be a cover is Lily, because it plays like a pop song in rock clothing. I even found myself thinking about who might have sung the original with its completely different filter and it's broad enough that two of the names I came up with are Leonard Cohen and Cyndi Lauper, maybe the former handling the verses and handing over to the latter for choruses. I can't fail to mention Tom Petty there too, but Domrose channels him on much of the album, which he clearly doesn't Cohen and Lauper. Again, it's an original song.

The result is that I suddenly feel the urge to check out those earlier Dogstar albums, which I never had a yen to do before, even as a fan of Keanu Reeves's films. It wasn't that I don't buy into actors also being musicians, because so many pop musicians whose music I can't stand have become oddly impressive actors. It wasn't that I thought they were some real world attempt to create Bill & Ted's music. I just assumed they played alternative rock in an American style and it wasn't likely to be for me. Now I know that they play alternative rock in an American style but I enjoy it greatly. Even if it counts as nice, pleasant and inoffensive.

Erode of Sadness - Enlivened (2023)

Country: Russia
Style: Symphonic Gothic Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 13 Oct 2023
Sites: Metal Archives | VK

OK, there's a lot here, especially early on, so I had to start afresh to make sure I was working from the right page. Vampire Coven is a forty-nine second intro that obviously plants the album's feet in gothic territory. The first track proper, The Dark Times, backs that up but initially does so using an entirely orchestral approach. The band eventually join in to add metal crunch but the vocals we hear are truly operatic in a way I haven't heard since Nova Malà Strana back in the nineties. They come courtesy of Vladislava Solovyova who doesn't just deliver a clean soprano like so many other female vocalists in symphonic metal bands; she actually sings opera.

This opener is a clear highlight, Solovyova's operatic delivery being wonderfully contrasted by the clean but dark vocals of Sinner Apollo. The worst thing about the song is that it ends and relatively quickly, under three and a half minutes into something I hoped would be an epic. What's important is that Apollo is the actual vocalist in Erode of Sadness and Solovyova is merely a welcome guest, a side opportunity to her own band, a symphonic metal band called Rabies that I'm especially eager to seek out to see how she sounds there. It's an odd choice, to bring in a guest lead vocalist on the first proper track on a debut album, because it gives the wrong impression, but it's a great song.

There's another guest vocalist, also female, but she doesn't show up until Supernova Remnant, so there are three tracks for Apollo to enforce his presence as the actual lead singer.

He sounds excellent and underlines that the core sound of this band is gothic not symphonic, even though orchestration continues to play a major part in the sound, especially the violins which start out Blood and Grace and are pivotal in Lie to Me. The other important note to make is that Apollo shifts to a harsh voice at points, unless there's another member of the band who steps up at those points to add further contrast. Certainly there's a section in Lie to Me where both clean and harsh voices sing together, an easy enough effect to achieve in post-production but not so easily in a live environment.

That other guest is Evgenia Frantseva, the singer for doom/death metal band Odium Throne, who sings clean here with an almost hoarse emphasis, while Apollo varies between clean voice, harsh voice and an electronically manipulated effect. I love these variations from the band's core sound, though, of course, they're most obvious on the two songs with guests, however often the choir has opportunity to vary the tone. There are thirteen tracks on this album, along with a bonus track and two intros, so Apollo gets eleven plus one and guests get two. It may not help that, as excellent as he is, I'm still thinking of this band as best with both male and female vocals.

But I need to review the album I'm listening to not the album that I'm imagining given one track on it. Apollo's voice is deep and rich, very much in the Andrew Eldritch tradition but with melody more like Finnish gothic rock bands like HIM and 69 Eyes. These songs certainly bear that influence but a heavier one too, from bands a little further afield like Lacrimas Profundere. There's an occasional shift into much heavier territory too, like on Blood from the Cross, which increases the tempo and prompts plenty of grit in Apollo's voice even when he's not singing harsh. If Erode of Sadness often drop into gothic rock on some other songs, this is the most gothic metal they get.

Given that this is a debut album, I wonder where they'll move stylistically. It feels like the majority of songs are gothic rock with rich male vocals, orchestration and hints at harshness, so maybe that will be the whole of their next album. Maybe, though, it's where they started and they grew into a more metallic sound that verges on extreme metal in those harsh vocals and the urgency of Blood from the Cross. Maybe The Dark Times has always been an anomaly, with Solovyova invited not for a general expansion of sound but just because she was there and could add something to it.

Who knows? I certainly don't, but I'll be keeping an eye open for that second album to find out.

Friday 13 October 2023

Roger Waters - The Dark Side of the Moon Redux (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 6 Oct 2023
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Fifty years ago, few fans of music would disagree that Pink Floyd released one of the pivotal rock albums ever made in The Dark Side of the Moon. It isn't my favourite by them, but it's a gem and it stands up half a century on. Roger Waters was in Floyd back then. In fact, he wrote the lyrics to all these songs, so it seems a little surprising that he would feel the burning need to remember it on its anniversary by re-recording it. Then again, some of my favourite versions of Floyd classics have come through the reimaginings he's given them live, such as Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.

What all that means is that that I came into this with open ears, even though everything I've read about it from those who heard it before me has been negative. It's more different than I expected, almost shockingly laid back; much darker in its reflections on life; and missing not just guitar solos but all of Alan Parsons's groundbreaking samples. It's not so much a solo reimagining of an album as it is a reimagining of Waters's part in it, as lyricist and vocalist, but with everything else cut out. Much of the negativity may tie to that approach, which does seem fishy to me, but there's plenty to praise too.

I wasn't sold early, wondering just what Waters was trying to do with Speak to Me and feeling that he just knocked out Breathe on a first take and approved it without listening back. It's talky and it doesn't seem to say much, more spoken word poetry with subtle accompaniment than an album of rock music. I gradually found myself tapping into his wavelength, though, and got on board. It was Time that did it, because he nails the intonation on this one and the dreamy feel of this version of the song gets under the skin, with its sparse strings and other instrumentation notably below the beat and voice. It lost me a little towards the end when the strings found more prominence, but it was strong for a while, especially during the theremin solo.

Money has its moments too, with the opening word delivered with absolute relish. Again, Waters's intonation is pristine and the words have more meaning here than in the original. However, this is an approach that drags, so the song feels longer than it ever has in this version. Us and Them does little for me vocally, but the guitarwork in the middle from Jonathan Wilson is delightful, as subtle as it is. It can't really be called a guitar solo, but it evokes atmosphere with precious few notes. All the instrumentation follows suit, but if Dave Gilmour is famous for playing one note where others would play a dozen, this seems to deliberately aim at one for each dozen of Gilmour's.

I rather like Brain Damage, though it's as close to a traditional cover as any of these songs get, as driven as it is by the vocals. The backing is subdued, of course, but that ticking cymbal is the same and the subtle theremin and distant organ work very nicely. I'm not as fond of the strings again, a sole instrumental element to disappoint me. Everything else works, as minimal as it is. Eclipse is stronger again, because there's an echo to his deep vocal that's a higher and far more produced voice, presumably Azniv Korkejian's, and the dual voices are highly effective.

So some of this is definitely strong, but it's far from the norm. I can't say that The Great Gig in the Sky is better here, Claire Torry's iconic vocal workout replaced by a wistful reminiscence of a dead friend told in abstract snippets of memory. It works once, because we surely want to know what he has to say, but it gets old quickly on repeat listens. Speak to Me and Any Colour You Like are there and there's not much more to be said. On the Run is missing all its vibrancy and iconic electronica and it's not remotely better for it.

And that leaves this as a curiosity. It's not a bad album. Some of these songs would be praised if we thought they were new. There's some gorgeous production in place to generate the tones behind a few of these songs, like Time and Money, even if the drums remain too prominent. Waters himself improves on his original delivery on a few of these songs, most obviously Money. However, nobody in a parallel universe where The Dark Side of the Moon didn't exist until this version would call out how revolutionary and iconic it is. It's no replacement. Maybe it's a complement. Maybe partially.

Wizards of Wiznan - No Light Has No Shadow (2023)

Country: Switzerland
Style: Melodic Doom/Death Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 29 Sep 2023
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I wanted to review something doomladen this week but the first few albums I tried out belted right out of the gate or lost me with sub-standard vocals. Four or five in, I found this one, the debut of a doom/death band from the small Swiss town of Nendaz, and it firmly hit the sweet spot for me. It's funeral doom as it opens, taking its sweet time to move but doing so steadily and atmospherically, but it spends much of its time a little faster at the pace you might expect for doom/death, ramping at points, especially late in the album, but never really becoming fast.

Frankly, I was firmly on board by the time that the vocals arrive. There are two voices here, both of them harsh but one easily warmer than the other. I'm not sure which of them is which, but it looks like one belongs to guitarist Marc Dalton and the other to bassist Robin Délèze. If I'm not missing the mark, they're there in that long intro to Seeds of Light adding texture as musical instruments rather than vocals. They certainly do that even when they're singing because texture is a huge deal here, and it's why this album often brought an obscure pioneer to mind as an inspiration.

That's Winds of Sirius, who came from Bourg-en-Bresse on just the other side of the French border from Switzerland, so further away in time than distance, their sole release being back in 1999. It's an album I go back to relatively often, because nobody does texture like them, but it's always good to hear that approach in newer bands, most often ones playing melodic doom/death. They aren't a be all and end all influence though, because I hear Celtic Frost here too and My Dying Bride, along with broader dips into funeral doom and stoner rock, maybe even a hint of Cradle of Filth.

Seeds of Light is a strong opener, patient enough to last just shy of nine minutes, which isn't wildly unusual for this band. There's only one "short" song here, La sorcière du Vegenand, which wraps in under five minutes, the other four stretching from almost eight to over nine. This seems natural to them, because all these songs wander and evolve, dropping often into slow and aching melody and eventually bouncing back up to a firm vehemence. There's a wonderful tease at a fast section late in Absolute Void that's all the better for following a long melancholy midsection.

Absolute Void may well be my favourite song here, but Feed the Fire is close and nothing's far from it, because the quality and imagination are consistently high. Absolute Void starts with emphasis, slow but heavy and bludgeoning, enough so that it moves into textured sludge metal, before that drop into a gorgeous midsection. Even as it grows out of that, it maintains a hypnotic rhythm that suddenly clears, as if the fog has moved aside, and we're in that teasing thrash section and then a set of stoner rock riffs, before it wraps up. It has quite the growth and every moment is blissful.

It would have been hard to match that one, but the Wizards give it their best. Feed the Fire trawls in stoner rock from the outset and stays there for a while, but eventually deepens to doom, adding some more sludge later too. La sorcière du Vegenand ups the tempo, starting out faster than any other song here gets, that one brief moment in Absolute Void aside. It's hardly fast though, just a steady step up from everything else here, especially early on. Reign, the longest song on offer, has its energy too to close out, and it doesn't outstay its welcome in the slightest.

While it's not hard for me to pick a favourite track here, it's harder to pick a favourite aspect. None of the four musicians does anything but build a coherent band sound. Nobody's trying to steal the spotlight or show off what they can do. I like the steady but solid drumming of Ludovic Bornet and how the other instruments often join it in providing rhythm, even the guitars. I like Délèze's bass, which gets one solo moment to shine, and I like his and Dalton's vocals, which walk that fine line of being both harsh and melodic. So few harsh vocalists nail intonation. These guys have it down.

At the end of the day, though, which is when doom/death has most power, it's the guitars that I'd call out for highest praise, because they nail every tone they aim for. They work perfectly in heavy riffing, keeping the weight of this music around us like a cave, and they work even better when in a sort of chime emulation mode, echoing through that cave. So kudos to Dalton and Adrien Bornet, but really kudos to everyone involved here for creating such a glorious texture. I don't know where Wiznan is but I can buy into these guys being wizards and I look forward to whatever they'll conjure up next.

Thursday 12 October 2023

Night in Gales - The Black Stream (2023)

Country: Germany
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 29 Sep 2023
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I'm not going to be flippant and post a skimpy one paragraph review saying that this eighth album from German melodic death metallers Night in Gales is melodic and deathly, but that is kind of what it boils down to. Throw it on and it's unmistakably melodic death metal. After it ends, eleven songs and three quarters of an hour later, there really isn't much more to say. It's kind of a melodic death equivalent to *insert random Cannibal Corpse album here* in the brutal version of the genre. This is textbook stuff, but it's nothing more than textbook stuff.

So, don't expect anything new to be found here at all, the only variance to the band's core sound a surprisingly long intro to The Black Stream, but, boy, is this elegant stuff. It's a pristine example of a sound that's hard hitting and heavy but also quintessentially melodic, down to its very essence. I couldn't escape the melody for a single second, the guitars running up and down melodies, always moving, but it never gets soft except for that peaceful single intro.

The very opening of the album, as Tears of Blood kicks off, is the precise opposite, a harsh, abrasive noise that reminds of a Merzbow album, but it's gone in ten seconds and, once it gets past that, it continues to be elegant melodic metal throughout with the harsh edge of fast drums and growled death metal vocals to perpetuate the contrast. So, from one perspective, this is a genre perfected with every moment doing exactly what it needs to do. If any of these songs popped up on the radio, I'd enjoy and think to myself that it was exactly why I like melodic death metal.

However, from another, it boasts very little imagination. Once through one song and into another, enjoying everything but forgetting it almost immediately, I thought that this would drift into the background. I was surprised to find that it didn't, but it's the same songs that stand out each time through.

Transition to Doom has a little more perkiness to it and the second half finds a neat groove. Much of the joy is in the guitarwork from Frank and Jens Basten and their stellar delivery continues into Final Place and Laughter of Madness, which may be my favourite song here. The best guitarwork is later though, in the solos on Return to Chaos, which absolutely shine. The other reason that I love Laughter of Madness is that it's also elevated by the vocals of Christian Müller, which hits the spot majestically, aided I think by echoing backing vocals. He's solid but relatively generic otherwise.

Then there's everything else.

The problem is that I'm starting to stretch to say anything, whether positive or negative. I brought up Cannibal Corpse as a comparison, because I enjoy them too but find it very difficult to tell each of the songs on their albums apart. They cease to be collections of songs and become long slabs of a particular genre instead. If we enjoy the genre, whether it's the brutal death of Cannibal Corpse or the melodic death of Night in Gales, we're going to enjoy their albums. We'll sit back or dive in and love the immersion. If we want something different, we're never going to find it with either of these bands and we'd probably be better off skipping past them and looking elsewhere.

So, if you love pure melodic death, add a point to the rating. If you want originality, then drop one instead.