Tuesday 31 January 2023

Atrocity - Okkult III (2023)

Country: Germany
Style: Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Jan 2023
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I do like when Metal Archives list a band's genre as "various". Atrocity started out as a grindcore band called Instigator but shifted to death metal with the name change. However, after a couple of albums, they brought in a wide variety of other sounds, Metal Archives listing "hardcore, goth rock, folk and industrial" as a start. Wikipedia adds that they even found their way into disco and acoustic material. Of course, the entire band also plays symphonic metal as Leaves' Eyes, with a female vocalist added when functioning in that mode.

They seem to have shifted back to death metal for their 2013 album Okkult and they've remained there for Okkult II in 2018 and now Okkult III in 2023. It's a tasty brand of death as it kicks off with a long intro to the opener Desecration of God, full of choral ritual, chattering creatures and searing guitar. And, of course, a solid riff to launch into the song proper. However, for a band with such an outstanding range, this is surprisingly traditional. It's good stuff that grew on me substantially on a second listen, but it's not particularly surprising stuff.

That's not to suggest that there are no notes to be made, but even when they venture into a fresh genre, it's still done within a death metal framework. Born to Kill, for instance, is such old school death that it's close to thrash metal, merely downtuned further and with a harsher vocal. Atrocity hail from Ludwigsburg, near Stuttgart, not crazy far from Destruction in Weil am Rhein, which is also in Baden-Württemberg. I would never confuse the two bands, but there are clear similarities, especially during the instrumental midsection, with solid chugging and effective guitar swapping between speakers. Of course, Alexander Krull's vocals are very different to Schmier's.

There's a gothic flavour on Malicious Sukkubus, introduced through more choral work but also an overt use of keyboards. There are a pair of guest vocalists on this song too, both female and both known primarily for symphonic metal, but there's little of that, if anything, discernible here. One is Elina Siirala, who is the band's lead singer nowadays when they're Leaves' Eyes. The other is Zoë Marie Federoff is an Arizona local who currently fronts the international project Catalyst Crime and has also recently joined Cradle of Filth. Maybe there's some of the latter in the theatricality that opens the song, as if it's setting the scene in a horror movie trailer. Either way, it sounds like one sings in a harsh voice and the other provides more of a spoken word approach.

The closer, Teufelsmarsch, also has a different approach due to the guests, mostly Misstiq, who's an Australian keyboardist known for YouTube videos in which she creates keyboard takes on -core songs. She adds an almost industrial flavour to this one, which opens with what I presume is the military march of the title. It ends up feeling quintessentially German, even though that edge is added by an Australian. It's also telling that most of the different textures that show up here are due to keyboards, even though Atrocity are clearly the guitar band we might expect.

Oddly, given that I usually gravitate to the more unusual songs on an album, my favourites on this one are more traditional pieces. That I'm fond of Born to Kill doesn't surprise me, because of my thrash background, but I rather dig the meat of the second side too, which is the traditional place to throw the filler, something that's thankfully absent here. I'm not entirely sure why I feel drawn to Faces from Beyond, Lycanthropia and Cypka, but it might be that they just get down to business and do it well without being diverted into anything fancy.

After all, if you're not going to do something new, then do something old really well and Atrocity do that here. It's a solid, reliable death metal album, done with agreeable pace and with some of the songs stretching a little by adding keyboards to shift the atmosphere here and there.

Solstice - Light Up (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 6 Nov 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Prog Archives | Wikipedia

It's the last day of January and so I'm drawing a line between 2022 and 2023 after this review. From here until the rest of the year, I'll be focused only on new 2023 releases and, whatever else I might have missed from the past year will stay missed. And that's why I'm listening to Solstice, because I was blown away by Sia at the tail end of 2020, so much that it was my Album of the Month and one of only ten 9/10s that year. This continues their fourth phase with Andy Glass accompanied by Jess Holland on vocals and Jenny Newman on violin, who shape the band's sound, and the same line-up as last time out.

That sound is a little different here, but rooted in the same prog and folk worlds. The keyboards of Steven McDaniel are more prominent than Glass's guitar and Newman's violin, though he's rarely soloing. He's creating ambience to be enriched by Robin Phillips's bass and Pete Hemlsey's drums, but especially by Holland's vocals. That's the mindset here: set the scene and let Holland define it, with Newman and especially Glass sitting aside waiting for a moment to step in and elevate.

For a band who are so drenched in folk music—and it doesn't need the violin on Mount Ephraim or the harp and sitar that kick off Bulbul Tarang to underline that—there's a lot of jazz in play here. The title track kicks off the album as much jazz fusion as prog rock, though Holland's voice remains prominent, blocking us from seeing this as an instrumental workout. Wongle No. 9 follows suit and finds some glorious balances: it's very loose but careful; it's funky but smooth. Bulbul Tarang tries jazz too but isn't ready to give up the folk or indeed the prog, so it's a less obvious example.

I liked every track here and, after a few times through, they're soaking into my skin so I can carry them around with me. Mount Ephraim is the one that stuck first, courtesy of that folky violin, but Run is the immediate standout. It's such a delicate piece that I was afraid of breaking it simply by moving in my chair while it was playing. The drums are soft and electronic, a beautiful sample of glitch. The vocals are tender and layered beautifully, occasionally weaving amidst themselves. It's as effortlessly calm as the unbroken sheen of a still lake.

It grows though. It ramps up at the five minute mark, albeit only to gentle violin. It ramps up again thirty seconds later, with Glass's guitar searing out of the peace. I can't recall any driving force of a band taking such a back seat as he does here but, when he feels the urge, he steps in with a solo that speaks directly to our souls. It doesn't even have to be a long solo, like the brief one early in the second half of Bulbul Tarang to temporarily spear the calm.

He returns soon enough with more but it's obvious that he has impact even when he's not playing. I love those guitarists—and it does tend to be guitarists—who speak volumes with the notes they don't play just as much as the ones they do. That's only one reason I hear a lot of Dave Gilmour in Glass's work here and on Sia. The almost liquid tone they share is another.

Run leads us into Home, which is a memorable track too, because it's the one most reminiscent of others. Solstice have found their own way in music so emphatically that, even when I catch a mere glimpse of this band or that artist, it's gone again. They're so clearly them. However, Home does remind us of other musicians, generally those who cross the border between pop and rock for fun, but do so with imagination and very deliberate craft. I'm thinking people like Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel, along with Dave Gilmour, though there's also some Suzanne Vega in Holland's voice here and the bass/drum combo that kicks it off is a calm take on Police's Every Little Thing She Does is Magic.

All in all, this didn't floor me the way Sia did but, having heard that, I was kind of prepared for this follow-up, the band's seventh album. It still drew me in though, quickly and effectively, and yet I'm still finding new depths on a fourth or fifth listen. It's another peach from Solstice.

Monday 30 January 2023

Vai/Gash - Vai/Gash (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 Jan 2023
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Well, this is very different to Steve Vai's previous album, the far more expected Inviolate. That's a guitar album, the sort of thing that showcases what Vai can do with his instruments, including an impressive new one, the Hydra. Of course, he plays guitar here as well and sounds amazing, but it isn't a guitar album. It's an album of songs, performed in a variety of styles, with an actual singer delivering the sort of hooks you never hear on Steve Vai albums.

That's because this isn't remotely a new project, as highlighted by the fact that the Gash credited alongside Vai passed in 1998. That's Johnny "Gash" Sombretti, a friend of Vai's who helped him to record half an hour of the type of songs that they both enjoyed listening to while out riding their motorcycles. The entire bunch were written and recorded in only a couple of weeks, in "stream of consciousness" mode, presumably just jamming and seeing what worked, though Vai had demoed them already without a vocalist.

What's notable is that Gash wasn't known as a singer at all. He was just a biker friend who Vai had a feeling about, so invited him into the studio for no apparent reason, only to find how damn good he is behind the mike. It's a shame that Vai wasn't able to find a way to release these back then, so they continued to sit on a shelf for over thirty years, taken down annually around the anniversary of Gash's passing so Vai could remember his friend in music. He doesn't know why the time is now right to share them with the world, but he felt the need and I'm glad of that.

Nothing here is particularly unusual, because it was very deliberately written in a particular style to meet a particular need. That style turns out to be an upbeat, swaggering hard rock sound from the seventies, brought into the eighties by Van Halen and promptly tuned into the party mindset of the city of angels. So there's AC/DC here, there's Montrose, there's Black Oak Arkansas, mostly free of what the eighties transformed them into, though Busted is right out of the solo David Lee Roth playbook.

So don't come to this looking for imagination or originality. That was never what this was meant to be and it's telling that Vai seems rather subdued, apparently enjoying just playing music without a need to dive into his already sizeable bag of guitar tricks. He was firmly established as a star back in 1991, a cult following spawned from his years playing stunt guitar for Frank Zappa and the indie release Flex-Able enhanced by commercial work for Alcatrazz, Roth and Whitesnake, with Passion and Warfare a new highlight. He'd recorded far more inventive, technical and daunting material than this but doing that sort of thing would have been out of place here.

Come to this looking for fun, because it's a whole bundle of that. I never knew Gash, of course, so I've never mourned his passing, but this is so upbeat and vibrant that it doesn't remotely feel like a memorial. It feels like a glimpse into two musicians in a studio enjoying the moment and pouring out emotion in the universal form of music. That's why I don't feel sadness listening to this. I feel gratitude for the songs and joy in their being.

If you want to dip, the sassiest track is Busted, over a set of solid rockers like In the Wind, Let's Jam and Danger Zone. New Generation seems tailor made to perform in a small club, and She Saved My Life Tonight feels like something better suited to an arena but to much the same effect. They slow the pace down for Woman Fever to focus on the bluesy underbelly of this style and, if I could throw out a concern from the imaginary mindset of someone listening in 1991, I'd want more of that sort of thing. The closer, Flowers of Fire, softens things up in a different way but still keeps a loose and engaging party mindset.

But hey, this isn't an album to deconstruct. It's an album to just enjoy. It's easy to see Vai listening to these songs while hurting around California on his bike, losing himself in the music and a sheer sense of freedom and it may be that that's the best way to experience the album. So, get on your bike and ride!

Evergrey - A Heartless Portrait: The Orphean Testament (2023)

Country: Sweden
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 May 2022
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Here's a lucky thirteenth album for Swedish prog metal band Evergrey, who I only discovered two years ago on their twelfth, Escape of the Phoenix. This follows that one pretty closely, so much of what I said there applies here too. There's power metal in here, but the prog metal is more overt. It's elegant too, but of such a consistent quality that it's hard to call out anything as a highlight, as each song gets lost in the company of its peers. The best way to enjoy any song here is to listen to it in isolation, as if it was being played on a radio show in and amongst a bunch of other bands. It's likely that almost any of them will stand out in that context.

What I can add is that there are definitely other genres here. While it's always a metal album first and foremost, there's a lot of straightforward rock here too. I've listened through a few times now and got interrupted twice. Both times, I lowered the volume but left it playing in an instrumental section and came back to it thinking that I was listening to a guitarist's album, the sort of thing I'd expect from a Steve Vai or Joe Satriani. That one of those times was during The Great Unwashed is pretty telling, because the guitarwork on that one is particularly fascinating.

That's understandable, of course, especially for a band who appear to have moved more and more towards prog as they've gone on. However, the other genre that I kept catching here is R&B, which is far more surprising. It's mostly in the vocals of Tom Englund, who's the one founder member left in the band. He appears to feel particularly drawn to vocal runs, those acrobatics you hear singers do on talent shows to wow the judges, who tend to be suckers for singers showing off like that. For the most overt example of this, listen to Heartless, especially the quieter spotlight section that's around the three minute mark, but it's there throughout.

I find it rather interesting because he sings like he's a lead singer, but he's always been a guitarist too and musicians in prog bands of any flavour tend to live for their instruments. I don't recall this being obvious last time out, so maybe he's moving in this particular direction. If so, I wonder what changes it will make to the band's sound, because they don't seem to be softening up otherwise. I wouldn't say that any of these songs are easily translatable to pop music the way that some songs on last year's Battle Beast album absolutely are. Just change the filter on them and they'll sound like a different genre. Change the filters here and you'll have prog metal that's been messed with.

And messed with is a good way to talk about the negative side of the album, something else that I didn't notice last time out. It's not obvious throughout, but more than one track features a vocal that's been digitally manipulated. It's there on Midwinter Calls and especially on Ominous, but it keeps crawling out of other songs too to brush its fingernails over my personal blackboard, as one firm annoyance. I'm talking about autotune or whatever it is that Englund is doing to his voice. He sounds great normally, so I have no idea why he wants to change it into something so frustrating. It's the primary reason why I'm not giving this album another 8/10 and not particularly wanting to keep listening.

The other problem isn't a negative, just a caveat and that's that it's far from immediate. It isn't a bad album on a first listen but it's an underwhelming one. It's better second time through and it's better still on each further listen. Songs are only now starting to come alive for me and I'm on my fifth time through. That means that, while right now I might praise the imaginative guitars on The Great Unwashed and the groove of Call Out the Dark, elevated as it is by some straightforward but highly effective keyboard work from Rikard Zander, I need to listen a lot more to call out real highlights. And that's a tough admission for a critic to make.

For now, this is excellent but highly consistent stuff, in the vein of the last album but with more of a shift in the vocals in directions I'm not fond of. For a change, I want to read your reviews of it.

Friday 27 January 2023

Uriah Heep - Chaos & Colour (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 Jan 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

British hard rock stalwarts Uriah Heep seem to be still celebrating fifty years in the business, even though they were formed in 1969 and their debut album came out in 1970. I can't help but mention that they were busy early in the seventies, as so many bands were, so they now have five albums to their name that are more than half a century old. This one's brand new, but it's the first to see the light of day since no fewer than three prominent members passed over the last few years: vocalist John Lawton in 2021 and both founding guitarist and keyboardist Ken Hensley and longest serving drummer Lee Kerslake in 2020. It's a fair tribute to all three of them.

What surprised me here wasn't that this was a good album, because I've been gradually finding an appreciation for their post-David Byron work which I already loved, but that there have been very few line-up changes in forever. In fact, there have only been two since Bernie Shaw and Phil Lanzon joined in 1986, when Russell Gilbrook replaced an ill Kerslake in 2007 and when Dave Rimmer took over on bass after the passing of Trevor Bolder in 2013. Guitarist Mick Box may have been the only founder member in the band since Hensley left over forty years ago but this has been a consistent outfit now for nearly that long.

And it sounds just like Uriah Heep should. Save Me Tonight and Silver Sunlight are decent openers. They're not the best tracks here, but they sound good and they drive forward nicely. Box provides solid riffs to both and Shaw's voice seems as strong as ever, just rough enough but always melodic. It's when we reach Hail the Sunrise, though, that the album starts to be notable for me, albeit for different reasons.

Hail the Sunrise isn't a bad song, with some gorgeous organ from Lanzo, an excellent guitar solo from Box and a striking approach that's impossible to ignore from its opening power chords, but it talks about building stone circles, which has been dubious lyrical territory since This is Spinal Tap in 1984. Nobody's going to listen to this without picturing dwarfs dancing around a tiny Stonehenge on the Uriah Heep stage and that is acutely unfair to the quality of the material. It's a damn good song.

While Age of Changes feels more generic, it also feels right and it's one of my favourite songs even if it might not be one of the best. Like Hail the Sunrise, the guitar solo is excellent and it hands off to Lanzon's keyboards and back with style. The intro and outro are impressive too, again courtesy of Lanzon, who shines on this album, as indeed he should playing for one of the pioneers of the heavy seventies organ sound. Hurricane is more urgent and Lanzon's keyboards mirror the lyrics well, so that we can easily visualise the oncoming storm that Shaw's singing about.

Just as the best songs on the first side are towards its end, the best on the second follow suit, the early songs decent but not essential. Rimmer is more obvious on songs like One Nation, One Sun, which is a ballad for its first few minutes and not much more than that for its remaining four, and Freedom to Be Free, but I'd call out You'll Never Be Alone and Fly Like an Eagle. The former was a stronger track anyway, with Shaw on top form, but then Box elevates it and so does Lanzon with a neat drop to piano from organ and again with an excellent organ solo late on. The latter is a good companion to Hurricane, with another solid riff and keyboards that mirror the lyrics.

And then there's Closer to Your Dreams, which is also the closer to the album, because it's the one that brings back that old school Uriah Heep gallop. The most obvious connection to the early days here has been the heavy organ sound throughout, but this one hearkens back to Easy Living, from one of those fifty year old albums, Demons and Wizards. I enjoyed Ken Hensley's 2021 solo album, if Lee Kerslake's not quite so much, and I adored the Blind Golem album that Hensley contributed to, but it's good to see the source band back and as strong as ever.

Faetooth - Remnants of the Vessel (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Doom Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 28 Oct 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter | YouTube

Intellectually, of course, I know that not everyone in Los Angeles plays hair metal and pretty much everyone stopped doing that decades ago, but it still seems somehow surprising that this band of unusual doom metallers hail from that city. There's something northern about their sound, and it would make more sense if they were from Seattle. They have a dirty take on doom that's not quite sludge, even when they ramp up the distortion, and the vocals on Echolalia, the first full track, are flavoured with grunge, even if they're melodic and drenched in melancholy.

I should mention that I have no idea who's singing there because there are three vocalists in this band, each of which plays another instrument as well: Jenna Garcia the bass and both Ari May and Ashla Chavez-Razzano guitars. They have different voices, because there's a harsh one that shows up late in Echolalia and adds a whole new level. It's a sort of hoarse emission of pain, closer to the shrieks of black metal than the growls of death but a long way from either. The difference in these voices is mirrored in the intensity of the music to make this a highly dynamic album.

There seem to be two primary modes. The most common one is a slow and warm reflection, a sort of look back at darkness. This singer isn't out there somewhere buried in the snow fighting off the wild animals, she's safe inside with a fire blazing in the hearth, but whatever experience she went through damaged her and she's trying to deal with that. The other mode is when she can't do that and the harsh voice takes over, screaming out not in agony but in trauma. With the guitars aiming to mirror that shift, it adds a real bite to the impact of the album. It makes it feel like these songs aren't over when they're over. They're always hanging over our shoulder.

The slower, warmer sections can be beautiful. The opening to She Cast a Shadow is a delight, those two guitars combining to unusual effect and the bass wandering between them. That beauty isn't always on the way out when the crunch hits, though that harsh voice is always ready to leap in at a moment's notice and remind us that that's a serious darkness here. I love She Cast a Shadow, but I recognised the melody in the middle section—it's Yallah by Page and Plant—and it bugged me for a while until I figured it out. Now I know, this one's solid without being distracting.

I'm reviewing it because it Spin magazine decided that it should tie with Messa's Close as their choice for the number one slot on their Best Metal Albums of 2022 list. Given that I was massively impressed by Messa, I clearly should check this album out too and I'm happy I did. However, it's not the songs per se that grabbed me but the mood. The more effectively they calm and soothe us and the longer a song runs in that mode, the greater the impact when they crunch up and crush us.

I'd call out Strange Ways for waiting the longest to do that. It's almost five minutes in when it has enough of being calm and the ritual turns dark with cavernous slow chords. This isn't doom to sing along with. It's a doom that's come for us and we feel the draw in our soul. The deceptive ending is particularly destroying because everything is whisked away to be replaced not by peaceful respite but by a hollow emptiness. It's beautiful but it sears us, just as Saturn Devouring His Son does as it closes out the album with a welcome violin.

This is strikingly mature for a band on their debut who have only been around for four years. None of the musicians involved—the fourth is drummer Rah Kanan—have other bands on their resumes and that's a real shock. It seems that they found some sort of magic when they founded their first band and that means that Faetooth is definitely a name to watch. This is hardly mainstream, but it ought to have quite the impact on the doom metal scene, especially given how well they nail this sound. It's harsher than doom but smoother, for the most part, than sludge and others will follow suit in mining that middle ground for gold.

Thursday 26 January 2023

Twilight Force - At the Heart of Wintervale (2023)

Country: Sweden
Style: Symphonic Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Jan 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter | YouTube

OK, here's something I need to be careful with my wording on, because there's a trigger word I can't avoid that might put a lot of people off, possibly unfairly. That word is Disney.

Twilight Force are a Swedish power metal band in the grand European tradition, who have making music since 2011 and still have half their founder members in place. It doesn't take much distance into the opener, also called Twilight Force, even though this is their fourth album, to see the nods to Helloween and Gamma Ray. This is grandiose and flamboyant and we can just tell how blissfully happy the band is being grandiose and flamboyant.

So far so good, and Twilight Force is an absolute belter of an opener. It's almost a checklist of what you might want in a power metal song, with every box checked off a minute in. The tempo is quick, albeit not Dragonforce quick, but everything is melody and I mean melodies layered on melodies, grandiose melodies at that. There are also a whole slew of flamboyant solos, keyboards passing a baton to the guitars and back and forth until we forget which is which. It's a serious rush and it's a strong candidate one month in for power metal song of the year.

However, it's impeccably clean power metal and I mean crystal clean without a speck of dirt and a conspicuous lack of shadow. As the album runs on, that started to weigh on me. There are bells on At the Heart of Wintervale, large bells rather than the tinkling Christmas sleigh bells on Twilight Force. The instrumental stretch in the second half is clearly influenced by classical music, though I didn't catch any particular homages. Dragonborn kicks off with a playful string quartet leading an energetic jig and it grows into a slower song that sits on top of a what feels like a metal take on a classical take on a folk tune.

It's all incredibly well done but I wanted to know where the darkness was, especially given the art on the cover with a huge dragon bursting out of a crystal cave. That screams danger, but the blues and whites are where this is at and that comes to a head on Highlands of the Elder Dragon. There are a lot of dragons in Twilight Force's world, but they're cuddly animated pet dragons who would never slice into your flesh even by accident. Everything here is safe, including the danger. You can't even stub your toe here. Try it and see.

Highlands of the Elder Dragon is where it gets too sugary for me. It's saccharine sweet all the way down to the narration by some genial grandfather with a twinkle in his eye. It's like the intro to an animated Disney movie but it does ramp up nicely, going full choral at one point. This is the first of two ten minute epics and it doesn't outstay its welcome, even though it's so quintessentially nice. I caught a line in Skyknights of Aldaria where "the people smile and dance the night away" that has to be telling. I imagined them continuing to do that as the dragon from the cover art soared over their village, because he's only there to breath fire on the huge bonfire they plan to keep them as snug as bugs in a rug on a chill winter night. It's just a grand lighting ceremony.

To be fair, there is a dark voice on Skyknights of Aldaria, even if I have no idea what it's saying, as effects-laden as it is. Maybe it's providing a recipe for the best cocoa. That would fit the tone, not least because it's followed by a mediaeval interlude, A Familiar Memory, a palate cleanser just in case anyone got scared by that wicked voice, all welcoming pipes, flutes and hand drums. There's another dance on Sunlight Knight and more bells and a particular grandiose classical finalé. What I want to call out is the calypso section, complete with steel drums, because it's delightful, but it's also overwhelmed by everything else.

This is far too safe for me and I really ought to despise it but somehow it's too likable, even when it leaps into drama towards the end of The Last Crystal Bearer, the other ten minute epic that closes out the album. Our genial grandfather shows back up, to sing this time, and a strong female voice joins him at points, before it all descends into full on animation with a host of voice actors in the house to make us visualise this like a two dimensional cartoon.

And so this is a peach of a power metal album for your six year old niece who aims to grow up to be a Disney princess with a ballgown the size of a house, make-up that never fades and hair that never moves except to dramatically flow in the breeze, but who also wants to ride her very own dragon, wield a flaming sword in battle and kick the boy three doors down in the nuts because he's stinky. If you have one of those, add two points to my rating, but, if you despise Disney even more than I do, then drop a point off.

Ardours - Anatomy of a Moment (2022)

Country: Italy
Style: Alternative
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 8 Jul 2022
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When I asked the Melodic Rock Merchant himself, Chris Franklin of the Raised on Rock radio show, to pick a blatant omission from my reviews in 2022, he gave me a couple of albums to choose from: Manic Sinners as his rock pick and Ardours as a metal pick and, as always, he chose well, because I thoroughly enjoyed both. However, while Ardours do have some serious metal credentials, given who put it together and who they've played with, I wouldn't call this particular band metal.

They were founded in 2015 by a couple of Italians, Mariangela Demurtas and Laurent Kris. She's a vocalist, most recently for Norwegian gothic metal band Tristania, though she didn't join till 2007 so isn't on my favourite album by them, World of Glass. Of course, they sadly split up last year, but there are a couple of Tristania albums out with her voice leading them. Kris is a guitarist, who put almost a decade into Italian black/gothic metal band Cadaveria as the Lynchian pseudonym, Dick Laurent, with a couple of albums and a whole string of singles to his name. They both have other bands, but this is a fascinating side project for both with this their second album.

I'm calling this alternative, partly because it's genre-fluid, moving from new wave to straight rock and back, but always with at least a tinge of the gothic, and partly because it avoids committing to one side of the ever-flexible rock/metal boundary. This is far more rock than metal and sometimes more pop than rock, but Kris's guitar especially ventures over to the metal side on occasion with a rpiping solo now and again to keep the door open to their collective roots, like on Identified and Chasing Whispers. It's a tasty mix. Would I have liked it to be a little heavier? Sure. Do I care that much? No. This is already good stuff.

I've only mentioned two people thus far, as they're the core of the band, but I believe that Tarald Lie, the drummer in Tristania, is involved here too, presumably playing drums. However, I have to wonder how many songs he's on, because these drums often sound like they've been programmed rather than played. That's most obvious on the title track and early in Dead Weight, as the album shifts into clear electronic mode. Dead Weight begins with programmed drums but then seems to move onto a regular drumkit and there are points where both seem to be happening at once.

Someone's certainly playing keyboards too, because they're the first thing we hear when Epitaph for a Spark opens up the album, but I don't know if that's Demurtas, Kris, Lie or someone else. It's done very well though, enough so that this would work if the guitars and whatever drums are real were removed entirely and this became goth-tinged electronic pop music. It's the keyboards that provide the melodies here to underpin Demurtas's voice and this album is at its best when they're doing that incredibly well. I do like Epitaph for a Spark, but Insomniac is the song that has stuck in my head the most, with Identified not far behind it.

The elegant Secret Worlds, which wraps up a killer opening quartet with patient melody and some lovely vocal runs, is another highlight but then we shift into less immediate material. That's not to say that the rest of the album isn't good, because it is, but it's more subtle and worthy of deeper exploration.

Initially, I wasn't particularly fond of that approach, hitting us with three catchy gems straight off the bat and a more elegent gem, then asking us to dig deeper, but over multiple listens, I think it's a pretty good approach. It merely relies on us not quitting when the hooks calm down after Secret Worlds. If we keep listening, we'll be rewarded, especially once we've cycled through the album a time or three. Unannounced eventually joined my highlight list, though I didn't really notice it on a first time through. And that's why this album keeps getting better for me. Thanks, Chris!

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! (2022)

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
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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
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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
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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.