Friday 24 February 2023

Lovebites - Judgement Day (2023)

Country: Japan
Style: Heavy/Power Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 22 Feb 2022
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Lovebites have been busy since I reviewed their third album, Electric Pentagram in 2020, knocking out a couple of live albums, a couple of full length videos, a compilation album, a split EP and one of their own, but they're back with a fourth studio album that starts off where the prior one left off, even though they've finally had their first line-up change. Bassist and bandleader Miho chose to leave in 2021 and her replacement is Fami, who is given a solo showcase moment at the opening of Stand and Deliver (Shoot 'em Down) to demonstrate why she's here.

The sound hasn't changed, though these songs are a little shorter than last time out, not by much but enough to suggest an even tighter approach. This is frantic power metal from the outset, not that we didn't expect it, reminding of Dragonforce and Yngwie Malmsteen, merely with less show off moments. Midori does go there, but never loses the mindset that everything is fundamentally built on melody. Just listen to the slow theme that sits behind the title track while everyone in the band is shredding at once. It does a fantastic job of allowing us to keep a grasp of the entire song while simultaneously getting lost in the technical instrumental wizardry.

I'm constantly amazed that this never feels like speed metal. Frankly, Lovebites often play faster than some speed metal bands and there are moments when they get their heads down to simply barrel along at speed, like on Dissonance, but they're always heavy/power metal. In fact, I caught a few earlier influences that they sped up to become something else. The oldest school song here is Stand and Deliver (Shoot 'em Down), which appears to be built on a Deep Purple sound, even if none of their various guitarists ever shredded like this. Similarly, My Orion almost has a Magnum vibe to it, merely played at about eight times the speed, right down to the old school keyboards.

Unsurprisingly, given the combination of older school hard rock and heavy metal and sheer speed that's always delivered as power metal, there's plenty of Helloween here too. Their influence has an effect on almost everything and I've read that drummer Haruna shifted her focus from rock to metal after hearing Helloween' Master of the Rings. I'd say that they're most obvious here on The Spirit Lives On and Victim of Time, the latter kicking off the second side and restoring the default sound after a temporary shift into old school with Stand and Deliver (Shoot 'em Down).

While I'd pick the title track as the album's highlight all day long and the unrelenting Dissonance right behind it, it's probably fair to say that Victim of Time is a particularly crucial song. Lovebites don't know how to slow down, which I'm hardly going to complain about, but their continued crazy pace means that the songwriting has to step up to keep us focused on music over speed. I recall a breather moment twenty minutes into the previous album that reminded me just how insane the pace had been. This doesn't let up either and I'd say that it falls to Victim of Time, in a typical slot for a filler track, to reinforce how strong the songwriting is. It succeeds.

And, while I enjoyed Electric Pentagram a great deal, I have to say that I enjoyed this a lot more. It grabs me with its unceasing pace and vibrant energy but it keeps me with its melodies and hooks. I could rank the songs on Judgement Day into tiers without much difficulty, but everything remains strong and that's particularly impressive. Here's where Helloween return to mind again because I remember them elevating their game with the first Keeper of the Seven Keys album, shifting from a damn good speed metal band to the pioneers of a new sound. Whenever I listened to them, I felt rejuvenated, more energetic and more alive than I'd been before I hit play, and that's the feeling I get listening to Lovebites.

The biggest problem I have here is stopping, because Judgement Day becomes a sort of rush and I have to restore reality, reminding myself that I have other things to do today, other albums slated for review, food to eat and sleep to release myself to. It would be too easy to just keep on listening to this for far too long.

The One - Sunrise (2023)

Country: The Netherlands
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 Jan 2023
Sites: Facebook | YouTube

Timothy van der Holst is primarily known as a jazz musician in the Netherlands, where he's made a slew of albums with bands like the Jazzinvaders, and he's dabbled in soul and Afrobeat, but he was a prog fan growing up in the eighties, listening to the pioneers of the previous decade. It feels like he was always going to make a prog album eventually and this happens to be it, with him playing a majority of the instruments—drums, bass, piano, synths—and British vocalist Max Gilkes on board to provide a voice to the music. Fellow Brit Frank 'Fish' Ayers wrote all the lyrics and added spoken word and slide guitar, while Edwin in 't Veld handles the guitars.

The Thoughts of Light is a thoroughly atypical opener, because it's an instrumental and it's a rigid piece, mathematically constructed and angular in its nature. The keyboards do add some curves at points and there's a pleasant guitar solo lightening the mood, but it sets a very different scene to the one that the album delivers, starting out with Time Out, which immediately puts us in mind of the Alan Parsons Project. From strictness, it softens up completely to play out with feel, brooding bass providing some weight under Gilkes's smooth voice. It doesn't do a lot but what it does is all notable, so that we listen to the vocals lead the song but take the song with us when we go.

I like Time Out a lot, but it's The Past Haunts Again after it that sold this album on me. It's a piano that kicks it off, doing the same job as the bass on the previous song, but the vocals aren't quite as smooth, making this a tasty midpoint between the angular and the smooth. There's definitely lots of the Alan Parsons Project again but there's a hefty side of neoprog, something that will creep in more and more as the album runs on, and it ends with spoken word over a cello-like bass, dancing flutes and whirling keyboards. Suddenly we're in Hawkwind territory, after a nine minute journey. It's easily the longest track on offer and it's a consistent gem.

That neoprog reaches its peak much later in the album with Between You and Me, which bounces along like Marillion. The title track that closes out, starts out like early Marillion too, with drums that punctuate in a particularly recognisable way—they've been there throughout the album as a form of punctuation, but these will feel familiar to fans of Marillion's debut—though it shifts into David Bowie territory. I believe that van der Holst is primarily a drummer, so I do find it interesting that I should focus on his bass and piano work more than his drums, but he resists the urge to show off on the latter throughout, which must be tough for someone used to jazz.

The other obvious influence I can hear is Pink Floyd, but it's the one that I feel is least successful. I should emphasise that the pieces that go there sound good, but they don't have the bite that they need to truly work. Remember feels like the Floyd filtered through Marillion, but it's a short safe instrumental, even if it ends up in a sort of Barclay James Harvest coda. The latter infiltrate Lets Laugh too, which has a little bounce to it, but The Time Stands Still goes even more pastoral with a layer of flutes and ethereal sections that sound good but don't enforce themselves, especially on an album with more vibrant songs to steal our attention.

All in all, this is an elegant prog album. While it's on the lighter side of the spectrum, with smooth, easy on the ear vocals from Gilkes and its instrumental workouts never take over fully, there's still depth to be found in the musicianship, much of it van der Holst's. It covers a lot of ground too and I would very much like to hear another album from the One, even if he decides to call it the Two on a second release, especially if he writes more songs in the epic vein of The Past Haunts Again.

Thursday 23 February 2023

Robin McAuley - Alive (2023)

Country: Ireland
Style: Melodic Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 17 Feb 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

No, this isn't a live album from Robin McAuley. It's his new studio album, his third as a solo artist, only two years after his second, Standing on the Edge, even though it took him twenty-two years to get round to that one. Then again, singing for Michael Schenker in a variety of incarnations is a fair excuse. He's also recently knocked out two Black Swan albums, so he's definitely keeping busy and he sounds as good as ever, his voice a lot more lived in than it was back in the seventies but as melodic and as powerful.

Even though this kicks off on keyboards to remind of that previous album, the opening title track is up there with the heaviest songs that time out, like Running Out of Time. The style isn't greatly changed but that was a melodic rock album, whereas this is a melodic hard rock album. It does the same sort of things but with more of a kick to it. It still drops down to calm melodic sections but it's also happy to shift up towards what Schenker might do, if without quite as fierce guitarwork.

Case in point, Dead as a Bone, which has to be my favourite song here. I liked Alive on a first listen but it didn't knock me out. It grew on a second time through and I'd happily call it a highlight too, but Dead as a Bone didn't need that. It grew on me as it was playing the first time. It started out damn good and it ended even better. I actually played again it immediately to make sure I wasn't dreaming, then I started the album over and Alive came, well, alive for me and I started to realise how good this album is.

It's not all that good but, just like last time out, there's nothing duff to let the album down. Some of these songs are merely better than others. Dead as a Bone includes a searing solo from Andrea Seveso and he throws a few of those out there this time, with more on Can't Go On, Feel Like Hell and The Endless Mile, not to forget Fading Away. Damn it, there are strong solos everywhere this time out. If I'm reading correctly, Seveso is responsible for all the guitarwork on this one, because there are no guests. Sure, Howard Leese only guested on one track last time but this is very much a guitar album as much as it's a vocal album and that one wasn't.

There are certainly a lot more powerful riffs on this album than its predecessor. My favourite is on Stronger Than Before, because that kicks off almost like Accept but with a layer of elegance over it and, of course, a much smoother vocal from McAuley than anyone who's sung for Accept across the years. Even on softer songs, by which I mean songs comparable to the hardest on Standing on the Edge, the guitar continues to make itself obvious, even if the busiest man at Frontiers, if not in rock music period, Alessandro del Vecchio, turns up his bass to keep that heavy feel underneath it.

Talking of vocals, McAuley turns up the emphasis on Bless Me Father and, to a lesser degree, on Can't Go On, but adds some sort of effect to start out Feel Like Hell rather like Klaus Meine of the Scorpions. Even with those heavy riffs on Stronger Than Before and biting guitar at points on The Endless Mile, I wouldn't say this ever reaches heavy metal but it certainly flirt with its, especially on the former track. I like this heavy, more emphatic Robin McAuley, but then I'd like a Robin McAuley album if he sang the phone book over the crumpling of paper. It always comes down to the songs with him.

And that's where I'm thinking that this doesn't quite reach the heights of the previous album but it's not far behind. Dead as a Bone and Fading Away are up there with anything on that one, with a heavier approach and an added emphasis but riffs and hooks just as strong. On the flipside, I'm pretty sure that, if I went back to Standing on the Edge and listened through, I'd be yearning for a punch like McAuley and his band find on Alive. I guess I should split the difference and give this an 8/10 too. I know it's still growing on me, after three times through. It's the sort of album I could be happy leaving on repeat for a couple of days. That's worth something.

Almach - Don't Look Back (2023)

Country: Afghanistan
Style: Atmospheric Black/Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 22 Jan 2023
Sites: Bandcamp

After learning that FFOBR is a thing a couple of days ago, when reviewing Grandma's Ashes' debut album, I learned here that there's a thing in black metal where anonymous musicians using faked or borrowed photos falsely claim to be from Islamic countries. Mostly, they seem to choose Iraq, as Mulla, Janaza and Seeds of Iblis do, but تدنيس claims to be one Saudi Arabian woman and Almach claim to be from Afghanistan. Now, those others tend also to claim involvement with a movement called the Arabic Anti-Islamic Legion and may have ties to the NSBM community, but this one does not, as far as I can tell. So maybe Almach simply haven't been verified to be from Afghanistan and will be in due course.

Wherever they're from, this is drenched in middle eastern folk music, to the degree that whether they're playing these ethnic folk instruments and providing the varied folk voices or not may be a clincher on whether they're authentic or not. It could be that whoever's behind Almach is merely layering guitars, drums and vocals over the folk music of others and nobody's figured out any of the sources yet. Either way, it sounds fascinating, because it's not integrated in the way that folk metal tends to be, with pipers, fiddlers and hurdy-gurdists playing key roles in the band.

Here, the folk music is separate and, while it may overlap with the black metal, it always seems to be doing its own thing, making me wonder about if these musicians even know they're on a black metal album. Sometimes it's the only element there, as on the album's three minute intro, Path of the Night and a minute more into Wolf, the opening track proper. Then it launches confidently into black metal. The drums are furious but not hyperspeed, the guitars have a richer tone than I tend to hear in the genre and the vocals are fierce more than bleak, but it's clearly black metal. And then the folk music returns as the metal cools off.

And so we go. It's a tasty mix, the contrast in styles a fascinating one that's overt throughout the entire album, except when it shifts all the way over to one side, which happens surprisingly rarely. I'm always surprised by how black metal can merge with so many other wildly diverse genres, from ambient to bluegrass, while still maintaining its image as the anti-social family member hiding in the corner while everyone else pretends to get along. Check out Immortal Sun, for instance, when the folk side is ouds and flutes and lovely female vocals, but the guitar turns the theme into a riff and the drums speed up the tempo. This is the most integrated song on the album, I think, but it's still surely metal musicians playing over a recording. They just do it well here.

What surprised me most, after how much the initial sound relies on that musical contrast and how much folk music there is here, is how the black metal varies in intensity. It's fast, of course, but it's slow or mid-tempo for black metal. Only Three Steps Beyond the Horizon has frenetic blastbeats to help generate a wall of sound. It sounds great, but it feels extreme given the pace the guitars and drums take elsewhere on the album. Given that it provides an even greater contrast, I do wonder why Almach didn't take that approach more often.

While I keep questioning the authenticity of this, because it really does sound like I wandered into a public park and discovered a performance by Islamic folk musicians, only for a fully electric black metal band to start up under the next ramada over, with the two weirdly compatible and with one rarely drowning out the other, I like it a lot. The most obvious negative for me is the keyboards on early songs like Wolf, which sound simplistic and obvious, as if they'd taught me a three note motif and suddenly I'm in the band like Mr. Bean was in the London Symphony Orchestra at the Olympics in London. Hey, I completed a level on Guitar Hero yesterday. I'm a musician, right?

I should add that Ritual feels out of place. Everything here is middle eastern and Islamic, from the instrumentation to the melodies, except for Ritual, which mostly feels Celtic. It's driven by violin, soft piano and eventually harp, with soft female vocalisations that feel less like call to prayer and more like Enya covering Dead Can Dance. Or vice versa. It sounds pretty good, but it sounds like a song from another album, one recorded by a band who aren't from Afghanistan.

At the end of the day, it doesn't matter where Almach are from. I could imagine them turning out to be one white dude in a basement in Inverness creating something he feels sounds interesting, a thought I'd echo. I could also imagine this being one Afghani with a sizeable collection of folk CDs and a love for the local sounds of Kabul, releasing four albums in four years without ever leaving his house, plus a couple of EPs. Either way, it feels to me like it's one multi-instrumentalist and I'm impressed by his originality.

Wednesday 22 February 2023

Avatar - Dance Devil Dance (2023)

Country: Sweden
Style: Alternative Rock/Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 17 Feb 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Tiktok | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

My youngest son, whose tastes often match with mine, especially when it comes to thrash, is a big fan of Avatar and that's a discrepancy between us. I've never quite got their thing, because they made a conscious decision to shift style in a way that feels off to me. I wouldn't say they sold out, a claim some might make, but they definitely moved to a carefully created commercial sound with a carefully created commercial image to match it. This ninth album isn't quite that straightforward, though, because they're all over the map and it makes the whole thing feel fresh.

The title track kicks off the album with a very modern sound. The riffs are simple but urgent, with a strong beat behind them, and there's an interesting counter sound to the riffs introduced that's almost Asian. The rough modern vocals are only the first vocal approach of many here, Johannes Eckerström demonstrating some serious versatility as he shifts style to fit whatever a song might be doing at any particular point. He often shifts between clean and harsh in the same songs, with On the Beach perhaps the most obvious example, delivering the verses in a clean rock voice, then shifting to a gurgly harsh growl for effect.

I like this variety, even though I don't always like the style in play. My 6/10 rating is because not all these songs enforced their presence. Even after half a dozen times through, a few still haven't got past names on the playlist. I couldn't tell you what they sound like. However, a few were absolutely able to grab me. On the Beach was probably the first, not because of the vocals but because of the guitars. This is a heavy song to start with, the opening seagulls giving way to a pretty boring riff in the modern style, but an industrial grind shows up behind it to make it interesting and then some calypso funk appears behind the verses, which is fascinating. The song ends with a guitar trying to be a music box and succeeding.

My favourite has to be Gotta Wanna Riot, which is a quirky and fun pop metal piece, right down to Eckerström's rolling Rs and the earworm harmonisation theme that we might expect from Abba or the Beach Boys. It's almost a pop punk piece but played metal all the way. I had a blast with it, even though I'm not as sold on Hazmat Suit, which tries to reach the same goals, unsuccessfully to my ears, because it ends up as one of those supposedly aggressive pieces that are too cute for us to buy into that. There's also a chant that sounds like a dance DJ trying to get a crowd moving.

The Dirt I'm Buried In is a sassy number, with some excellent clean vocals from Eckerström and some almost Police-esque guitars. It didn't take long for me to appreciate his vocal shifts, but songs like this one underline it. He runs all over the map here, from pop to rock to metal, from clean to harsh and where harsh might mean death growls or hardcore shouts, even some bleaker parts that nod towards black metal. I expect theatricality from him but that didn't really show up until Train, the most unusual song here, which hints at soft reggae but goes to a place that's like Nick Cave trying to mimic Iggy Pop. It's another fascinating song.

Clouds Dipped in Chrome may be the most interesting, because it's the heaviest piece here, but it also finds very different moods. It starts out almost crust punk, with furious drums and a grinding guitar, but then shifts to a stylish heavy metal guitar for texture and a powerful rock vocal behind it. It's a sort of hybrid of Crass, Venom and Pantera, with something traditional trying to burst out of it. At points Eckerström goes emo but at others he goes air raid siren. There's nu metal in here too, which I usually hate, but it's such a fascinating mix that I have to remain fascinated.

And so there's a lot here, whether you're into the carefully created commercial Avatar mindset or not. I'm still tempted to go with a 7/10 because I enjoyed a lot of this, but it seems unfair to bands I gave that rating who made much more consistent albums. This is strong and fascinatingly diverse when it's on the ball but forgettable when it's off it. There's definitely 7/10 and 8/10 material this time out, but a bunch of 5/10 songs too. If I used halves, I'd be happy with a six and a half. If you're a fan, add at least a point to that.

Red Beard - Die Trying (2023)

Country: Canary Islands
Style: Southern Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 3 Feb 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | YouTube

Coming in blind, there's no way anyone wouldn't guess that Red Beard aren't a band from deep in the American south. There are covers here of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Marshall Tucker Band—and maybe more, but I didn't recognise anything else—and it's quintessential southern rock with loads of soul, country and some funk too. The album cover art doesn't hurt either, being quintessentially seventies deepsouth. Dig a little online and you'll quickly discover that this was recorded at FAME Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, "where it all began".

So, here's where I point out that Red Beard is a person before he's a band, though there are four anonymous musicians backing him up. He looks the part too but it's only if you watch the videos, a question mark will suddenly appear. That's because Red Beard is really Jaime Jiménez, who hails from the unlikely location for southern rock of Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands, which are Spanish but located off the west coast of Africa, where Morocco ends and disputed Western Sahara begins. They're autonomous and have their own flag, so I guess I'm identifying them that way.

I don't know why I didn't find him sooner, but this is the sixth Red Beard album and it's good stuff. I'm not familiar with the earlier releases, so I can't say if his sound has changed at all, but this has a sense of celebration hanging over much of it which may flavour that. There's certainly biography in the songs and the journey leads to that celebration, from Never Sounded So Good telling us that he heard his first Skynyrd song at thirteen and "it's like a lightning bolt shot down and hit me and I knew what I was gonna do from that point on" to Die Trying, which is all about the making of this album, travelling over to Muscle Shoals in what's clearly a musical pilgrimage.

These are the most real songs here, because they're so personal, and they feel a lot more natural than the opener, You Can't Stop Me, with a stop/start approach and some overtly funky beats and guitarwork. I wasn't convinced by that one but the album grows, through Never Sounded So Good, a cover of Skynyrd's Down South Jukin' and Die Trying to country songs like My Kind, which I could hear Willie Nelson covering, and the Marshall Tucker cover, Can't You See, with an imaginative Spanish take on a particularly iconic opening that returns for the other bookend.

Covering a song from Skynyrd's debut album is a ballsy step for a singer, because Ronnie van Zant delivered a genre-defining performance on it. This is a good cover but, if you listen to the original, Ronnie didn't so much sing it as allow it to leap out of his mouth without him even trying. He slurs eight words into one like he's singing through a Jack Daniels bottle. But damn, he sounds good. It seems fair to say that Red Beard sings it with more technical skill but he loses every comparison to make otherwise.

There are huge southern rock riffs here and blues guitar and plenty of soul, but what stood out for me was the organ. I have no idea who to praise here, except to point at that dude in the Die Trying video, but he's fantastic. This is secular music but there are songs here where I could see an entire Southern Baptist Church leaping to their feet and giving thanks to Jesus. He's there from moment one but there are so many great keyboard moments here, from tinkling ivories in Never Sounded So Good to the sumptuous organ intros to Die Trying and My Kind and the piano showboating that kicks off Getting Loco.

The other note I'd make here is that the closing pair of songs are easily the strongest rockers that the album has to offer, with the band finding a slightly heavier groove and jamming. There's more guitar here, both riffs and solos, with the solo in Getting Loco the most obvious on the album. There's a lot more from the backing vocalists on these too, especially the one on I Got What You Need that gets close to being a co-lead at points. These songs are Red Beard and his band getting emphatic and I kind of want an album of that now, even if my favourites here came earlier.

I'd call out Never Sounded So Good as my pick for standout song, partly because it's the closest to a Skynyrd song we haven't heard before, so much so that the backing vocals end up segueing into Sweet Home Alabama for a brief moment at the end. Mostly, though, it's because it's so joyous, a jaunty country feel with a real swing to it. The title track deserves to be, because of what it means to Red Beard, and it sounds great, but I'd probably go with My Kind next, even though it's a slower country song. Add the riot of Getting Loco to that mix and that's quite the variety on show. I need to jump backwards now and find those earlier Red Beard albums.

Tuesday 21 February 2023

Delain - Dark Waters (2023)

Country: The Netherlands
Style: Symphonic Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 10 Feb 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Symphonic metal is clearly thriving in 2023. It's not the end of February yet and I've already taken a listen to strong albums from Beyond the Black, Twilight Force and Xandria. Well, here's another one from Delain, though this is easily the poppiest and most commercial of the three. It's a fresh start for them after six previous albums, because bandleader Martijn Westerholt took a chainsaw to the line-up, ditching everyone else, including the longest serving guitarist and bassist the band has had, along with lead vocalist Charlotte Wessels, who had sung on everything released up until that point. He supposedly planned to make it a solo project with guests but instead it became just a new line-up.

Westerholt continues, of course, on keyboards and orchestrations. In to join him are two old hands and two new fish. The old hands are guitarist Ronald Landa, who played on their second album and wrote a couple of its songs with Wessels, and Sander Zoer, their longest serving drummer, who left in 2014. The new fish are Diana Leah on lead vocals and Ludovico Cioffi, who I believe will be their bassist going forward but who only provides some harsh backing vocals this time out, the bass on this album provided instead by a guest, Epica's Rob van der Loo.

Of those, Leah is the most obvious, because she's easily at the front of the mix and she delivers an overtly poppy lead vocal that's all about hooks. It's not quite so obvious that a listener unfamiliar with Delain might assume that this is her solo project, but it's not far away from that, because it's a serious effort for anyone else to steal our attention whenever she's singing. They're lowered in the mix to give her more prominence and raised again when she's done for a while, which actually helps us focus on them when the focus shifts back their way.

If we can juggle the elements, then Leah shifts between pop and rock while the music follows suit but from rock to metal. She's definitely lighter than every other aspect of the band's sound right now, even when it's at its lightest and, when it heavies up, it leaves her quite a distance behind. It ought to go without saying that the heaviest songs are the ones with harsh male vocals, but there aren't many of those, the most obvious being The Quest and the Curse, which also benefits from a heavy prowling riff, but even that song's a trade off because it lightens up when it shifts back over to Leah.

If this intensity clash sounds like a problem, I should underline that it isn't. Sure, it's odd to listen to a symphonic metal band where the lead singer doesn't contribute to the symphonic sound, but Leah has a strong voice and she delivers some excellent hooks that keep us engaged. It's left to a combination of orchestrations and choral vocals to keep this anchored in symphonic territory, the pair of approaches shining on The Cold and especially Invictus, which also benefits from two guest vocalists, both Finnish. Paolo Ribaldini is actually on three songs here but Mark Hietala only joins him once. He's a heavyweight presence, having given Tarot three decades and Nightwish two.

While I don't dislike anything here, my favourite songs all come on the second half, when the choir is busiest and Landa is most successful at introducing heavy riffs. The Cold is the closest Leah gets to symphonic and the choir is all over it. Moth to a Flame starts out with Leah poppy and a capella but it finds a tasty and notably urgent metal riff. Then there's Invictus, musically strong and with those guest male vocalists. The album wraps up with Underland, with more choir and another big riff from Landa. Sure he delivers on The Quest and the Curse and Tainted Hearts too, but it's that combination of choir and guitar that gets me every time.

I can only guess at why Westerholt took such drastic action in 2021, but this is a fresh band with an entirely fresh sound and that sound is good. It's almost deliberately aimed at multiple audiences, close enough to symphonic metal that die hard fans of the genre will dig it but with enough pop in Leah's vocals to trawl in a new fanbase. The longer I listen to Moth to a Flame the more I hear Pat Benatar and that's hardly where Wessels came from musically. It's almost as if Westerholt heard Lady Gaga singing for Metallica at the 2017 Grammys or maybe got into Babymetal and decided a pop/metal hybrid would work for Delain. And hey, maybe he's right.

Grandma's Ashes - This Too Shall Pass (2023)

Country: France
Style: Stoner/Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 17 Feb 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram

Here's something interesting from France that taught me a new acronym. The genre here is up for grabs but I've seen FFOBR applied to it and I had no idea what that meant. It appears that Female Fronted Occult Blues Rock is a thing now and has been since at least 2015, when Doomed & Stoned journalist "Papa" Paul Rote put together a triple compilation of doom-stoner bands led by female voices, The Enchanter's Ball. I guess Coven have finally become leaders as well as pioneers, with a crop of bands in Rote's summation of the genre ones who have blown me away more recently, like Jess and the Ancient Ones, Wucan and Avatarium.

I'm not going to add Grandma's Ashes to that hallowed list quite yet, but I enjoyed this greatly and I can see it growing on me even more. They're folkier than any of the other bands I just mentioned but they range a long way, from the intro, À mon Seul Désir, which is mediaeval vocal harmonies, to something close to doom metal. Mostly, they sit in a middle ground that's sometimes psychedelic rock and sometimes prog rock but more often stoner rock. The shifts from calm folky harmonies to a raw stoner punk sound in a song like Aside, or, in the other direction, from heavy doom chords to a calm and even sassy pop sound on Caffeine are fascinating.

Frankly, everything here is fascinating. This is a debut album, though they released an EP a couple of years ago, and it's a startlingly mature mixture of different approaches. The vocals are mostly somewhere between folk and alternative pop/rock, whether they're aiming for traditional, jaunty or introspective. The guitars are the heaviest angle, with riffs right out of stoner rock and heavier bands. Borderlands ends by slowing down until it's almost recognisably Black Sabbath. The drums and, to a lesser degree, the bass represent prog or math rock, sometimes all the way into jazz, like on the saxophone assisted Interlude - Melt.

Reading interviews with the band, mostly for that EP, The Fates, highlights their influences, which are not remotely surprising. Guitarist Myriam El Moumni grew up in Morocco and so was exposed to copious amounts of African music but also grew up on classic rock before stumbling upon desert rock in Paris. Bassist Eva Hagen came up from British punk through stoner rock into a wider range of genres, like metal and prog. Drummer Edith Seguier favours math rock and prog metal. Myriam and Edith both studied jazz. All three sing here, but Eva is the lead, so I'm assuming the folky bits of the band's sound come from the dreamier aspects of desert rock.

I can't say that everything here worked for me, but that's almost inevitable with a release that's as broad in its reach. After all, this ranges from almost glitch electronica in Cruel Nature and that jazz saxophone on Interlude - Melt all the way up to doom metal in Caffeine. That's a serious range for a band on their debut album, but somehow they're able to collect all of those sounds into a single defining sound. If you played me carefully selected sections of half a dozen songs here, I'd say that they were by half a dozen different bands, but if you played me the entire songs, I'd see them as a single coherent band. That's impressive.

The catch is that it makes it tough to call out anything for special mention. What are my favourite tracks here? My cop out answer would be that you should ask me again after another few listens. I would, however, be surprised if Borderlands and Cruel Nature weren't in the shortlist, maybe with the closer, Lost at Sea, ahead of them. This adds experimental sounds into the mix and Eva's vocal is particularly emotional. Even though she sings mostly in English, I found it hard to focus on lyrics because I was too caught up in the emotional weight of the vocals which, like everything else here, have a considerable range, from fluffy soft to heartrendingly personal.

I know I like this a lot but I don't know how much yet. I need to come back to it a few more times as I get ahead of myself and free up enough moments to let it soak back in. So it's an 8/10 for now but it's not outside possibility that I'll shift that upwards at a later date.

Monday 20 February 2023

Doomsday Outlaw - Damaged Goods (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 3 Feb 2023
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

I liked Doomsday Outlaw's third album, Hard Times, a few years ago, but had some problems with it too. This feels more consistent and has a better flow, but I'm still unsure I can define what their sound actually is because they seem to be a few different things. Sometimes, for instance, they're as British as you might expect from their roots in Derbyshire or wherever they're actually from, as I keep finding different answers to that question. However, sometimes they seem to be aiming for a completely American sound, even though it's never a consistent one. They're a strong band. I just wish I knew what they were trying to be.

There's a lot of that British sound in a couple of songs early on. On My Way kicks off with a very down to earth glam rock sound, with the sass of the Dogs d'Amour and the approachability of Mott the Hoople. It shifts a little away from that but retains some jauntiness in its guitars. It's a good song because it feels big in its grand sweep but focused in its details, wrapping up with a soaring vocal from Phil Poole over the guitars of Steve Broughton and Gavin Mills. There's more Mott on If This is the End, with hints of piano and harmonica haunting the background, but it's also sleazier and more laid back than On My Way.

However, the American side creeps in even there. If This is the End has big choruses, emphatic big choruses that sweep and soar, Poole reminding of Scott Stapp of Creed, of all people, as he does a lot on this album. However, it doesn't feel like a song that should float over a Florida megachurch; it's a song for a small club, even if it would fill it so effectively that it makes us think the venue is a level larger and wonder at the same time why the band aren't playing venues a level beyond that.

There's a southern rock feel to the opener, In Too Deep, and the band keep revisiting that sound as the album runs on. It Never Gets Old is another example, even if those are quintessentially British riffs. It's often Poole who adds the American aspects, but here it's whoever handles the keyboards because they add a revival element to the song, as they do with Walking the Line as well. Nowhere Left to Hide highlights the Black Crowes as a comparison, as do other songs like One More Sip and Turn Me Loose, the latter of which adds some sassy Aerosmith too.

That's a lot of different sounds thrown into a big melting pot to flavour this elusive recipe, and I'm yet to mention just how much The Little Things, which wraps up the album, reminds of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I wasn't expecting that, so Doomsday Outlaw can still keep me on the hop, even with no songs that feel like intruders, something I felt last time out with the ballad Into the Night. This time, the closest contender goes the other way, You Make It Easy turning up the heaviness with an approach that could actually generate a pit. What's odd is that there are Pantera guitars here but Led Zeppelin transitions too. And it works as that sort of strange hybrid.

And so Damaged Goods plays better for me than Hard Times, but I'm going to stay with a 7/10 for it because, as good as it feels throughout, it rarely feels great. Every one of these songs is a worthy inclusion on a fourth album but none of them want to camp out in my brain. Oddly, the moment I'd highlight as most impressive is pushed to the very end of the album, because there's a guitar solo that doesn't start until three and a half minutes into the five of The Little Things. It's not the most emphatic solo I've ever heard but it's delightful and it hangs around in the background until it can get a very tasty final word.

While it prompts us to start the album over again every time, the catch, of course, is that we have to wonder where that sound is within the first eleven tracks. It's there, a little darker, when If This is the End opens, but the guitars get stuck into the riffing to support those big choruses and thus forget about soloing. When the solo does arrive, and it's a good one, it's a grittier one that takes us in a very different direction. And that's what Doomsday Outlaw seem to do, keep taking us over here and over there and back again until we wonder where we actually are.

Godiva - Hubris (2023)

Country: Portugal
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 3 Feb 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives

Ironically, I wrapped up last week with what I expected to be a melodic death metal but turned out to be something else, In Flames having shifted into metalcore and alternative metal, but this is an excellent example of melodic death metal that came to me as gothic metal instead. The vast bulk of Godiva's sound is melodeath, from the heavy, downtuned guitars to the snarling growl of Pedro Faria, though there are plenty of sections that approach a black metal wall of sound. For the most part, I'm not hearing any of the typical elements of gothic metal, but there are the contributions of André Matos that aren't rhythm guitar and we simply cannot ignore those.

It's these that set Godiva aside from every other melodic death metal band I've ever heard—and I've heard a lot of them. His other credit here is for orchestrations and they show up in a few ways. Initially, they're layers of keyboards, which serve as an atmospheric texture behind the usual rock instruments. There are also moments like the breakdown midway through the opener, Media God, which is keyboards mimicking a string section. The most obvious touch is the piano underpinnings that don't remotely take the approach you're thinking from that. They don't mirror the song as it is or add a new melody; they tinkle in runs like a waterfall.

And, quite frankly, how you respond to that piano may be the pivotal factor tipping you between a yay or a nay on this album. I found it delightful and wanted it to happen more. It's certainly not on every track, though it spices up the opener and returns on Hubris and emphatically on Godspell. I can perhaps see people interpreting these as gothic, but they feel more classical to me, adding a minor level of symphonic to the metal, something the guitars also play into at points. The same is true for Black Mirror, which begins in a symphonic fashion and features punctuation points that I presume are keyboards mimicking a brass section, and the pizzicato strings over violins that start off The All Seeing Eye.

However, I could buy into some people being acutely annoyed by the tinkling piano, like when your neighbours put up Christmas lights with built-in sound and you can't not hear them, even after you fall asleep. I hate those but I loved this, so it's entirely subjective. In a way, they serve as a counter to Faria's voice, because it's the only one here, excluding some choral moments on Black Mirror. It wouldn't be hard to imagine a soprano singing on these songs, but there isn't one, nor any backing vocals either. That means that it's all Faria and, while he has a very capable growl, it's a consistent growl throughout, so it takes other elements to play off it, like the tinkling piano or the guitars in Godspell which layer on a separate and vaguely middle eastern melody.

It's fair to say that, just as Faria's voice is the same throughout, the guitar tone follows suit, so all these songs start from the same fundamental place, whether they're bouncy like Godspell or pick a chug to build on like Dawn or Hubris, and it's down to the songwriting to impose variety. The vast majority of that delineation comes through Matos's orchestrations, but Ricardo Ribeiro often has interesting things to do with his guitar, having it almost dance around a song like Dawn pointing a finger at the lack of spontaneity and inviting the rest of the band to join the dance.

If it sounds like I'm being negative here, I should emphasise just how much I enjoyed this. Maybe I came in a little disappointed at not hearing the gothic metal I'd been led to believe would be here, but I quickly found a satisfaction in melodic death metal that sounds right only a day after finding frustration in the latest In Flames album. I have no idea if that affected how long I left this playing on repeat, but it kept on growing on me. I can see a lot of reasons why people might not like this. I don't subscribe to any of them. It's good stuff, especially for a debut—2007's Spiral, released as by The Godiva, appears to be a thirty-four minute EP—even if the band has been around in some form or other since the previous millennium.

Friday 10 February 2023

In Flames - Foregone (2023)

Country: Sweden
Style: Melodic Death Metal/Metalcore
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 10 Feb 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Sometimes being out of touch for a while is a good thing. I remember In Flames from their earliest years, when they helped to create the melodic death metal genre. My first experience of that was a promo CD of the Dark Tranquillity debut, Skydancer, which blew me away. Naturally, I followed up with albums from At the Gates and In Flames, the other two pioneers of the Gothenburg sound, at the point they got round to releasing their debuts. However, they took their own sweet time and it was too long for me because other genres were calling me by then and real life had asserted itself too. I heard the first few by each, but they didn't have the impact on me that Skydancer did.

Fast forward through the decades and it seems that In Flames in particular had a major impact on the melodic metalcore scene and, over time, while I wasn't paying attention, they appear to have shifted their sound towards it and beyond it. This fourteenth album is a comeback of sorts, with an array of critics acclaiming it for merging the band's two eras, melodeath and a modern alternative sound that owes a great deal to the American bands who took their sound in a new direction. As I only know that old sound—I found (This is Our) House on YouTube and regretted it, so quit there—this is a confusing ear-opener rather than a consolidation of styles.

Initially, it sounds great, not a huge distance from what I remember. State of Slow Decay, which is both the opening track proper and the first single off the album, is fast and heavy with agreeable pace and a really dirty bass underneath it. The vocals are harsh, even though they're very shouty for a death growl. Meet Your Maker has harsh vocals from the outset too, with a deep cleanse of an opening growl. The beat is angry and the bass dirty again. So far, so good.

Well, Meet Your Maker slows down to get jaunty and alternative, with some clean vocals. They're not bad clean vocals but they're drenched in teen angst, which is an odd angle for a band who are well over three decades old. The guitar solo is strong, but it took a while to get used to this style, especially after an impressive opener. And so we go. There's a bounce to Bleeding Out as it starts but a threat too, suggesting a strong song, but then clean vocals that sound like they might have autotune going on. It's definitely hard to get used to the shift.

The best and worst songs are in the middle of the album. Foregone Pt. 1 is the best, a furious song that outstrips State of Slow Decay, with a neat guitar sound that elevates a neat vehemence early on. It's unable to maintain that urgency throughout, but it wraps up with furious drumming from Tanner Wayne. It's a good song. I like how Foregone Pt. 2 starts too, though vehement and furious it isn't. It's not death metal but it sounds good and it feels like it's going to be a nice instrumental interlude. Except then it dives into electronic emo territory, which I'd say is jarring except I'd have to double that when it rolls into Pure Light of Mind, which is a pop song pure and simple with its high clear vocals and pulsing electronic backdrop, however heavy the guitars get at points.

It's like a weird nightmare where I blink and wake up in high school as a sixteen year old kid whose best friend is playing Pure Light of Mind and telling me how heavy it is. I look at him and suggest In Flames instead and he tells me not to be stupid. This is In Flames, he says, and I'm in the Twilight Zone. To be fair, it's not as awful as the old school fans seem to suggest—I had to seek out reviews of the past few albums to see what the general response was and it wasn't remotely good—but it feels acutely out of place here.

I get an inventive band moving through different genres and ending up combining them all—hey, I've been a big Paradise Lost fan since they were failing to not play Nuclear Abomination on stage—but these particularly genres seem to be in opposition. The older school melodeath on State of Slow Decay and The Great Deceiver seems to be about guitars and riffs and musicianship, but the alt rock on Pure Light of Mind and Bleeding Out is about vocals and grooves and raging emotions. I'm not saying that those approaches can't merge, but they're not merging well here.

I'd expect that old school fans, if they're still giving In Flames fresh chances, may well see this as a move in the right direction. There are good songs and heavy songs here. Even when the band are playing in a more modern style, some of it sounds pretty good. I rather like In the Dark. New fans, who have grown up with In Flames being some sort of metalcore band, may be more bewildered. I can see them seeing this as a partial shift in the wrong direction. What I'm fascinated about is if a third audience exists that digs everything here. Who isn't in the band.

Issa - Lights of Japan (2023)

Country: Norway
Style: Melodic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Jan 2023
Sites: Facebook

When I reviewed Issa's sixth album, Queen of Broken Hearts, a couple of years ago, I pointed out a few things that I wanted to test against her next release. The most pertinent one was that, while I thoroughly enjoyed that album, I felt there was a better one in her, not least because there was a single track that stood head and shoulders over everything else. If she could harness that level on a consistent basis across an entire album, she would be unstoppable. Well, this doesn't turn out to be that better album, but it's another good one. It doesn't live up to the potential but it does live up to its predecessor.

One other note was that that Queen of Broken Hearts felt like a cold fruit salad on a hot day. The sound here is pretty close to the sound there, but it's moved just a little, the shift in cover art an appropriate hint, I think. That album was a little more elegant, while this one has a little bit more grit. Issa appears to have moved out of the ivory tower and onto the streets. There's still elegance here but it's more grounded and more real. She's more approachable. That said, the most overtly fairy tale sounding song, a near-ballad called I Give You My Heart, is one of the highlights here.

Of all people, given that this is a solo project whose musicians are there primarily to back up their strong female lead, the band that kept popping up as a comparison is Bon Jovi, especially early on when they were very much playing along with the hair metal mindset. The keyboards that kick off opening track Live Again remind of Runaway and there are a slew of songs that feature the same sort of power chords and progressions that Bon Jovi used on their first couple of albums, not least the title track. Fight to Survive often sounds like Bonnie Tyler singing for Bon Jovi.

While Issa is still on Frontiers, I should add that the keyboards here are not the work of Alexandro del Vecchio, who's almost omnipresent on every release that label puts out nowadays. They're the work of James Martin, who I believe is Issa's husband and also plays with British melodic rock band Vega, who have been going strong for over a decade now. However, while there seems to be a firm line-up nowadays, it's missing a lead guitarist. Marco Pastorini plays rhythm and Michele Guaitoli, who's here to play bass, also contributes guitarwork, including solos on four songs.

And that means that there are a couple of other guest guitarists who step in to provide the solos. Robby Luckets of Italian hair metal band Sandness gets most songs at five, including It's Over, an impressive song with delicate keyboards behind a thumping beat. The guitars are strong on this one but the solo is even better. The other guest guitarist is John Mitchell of It Bites, who provides the best of the lot, on I Give You My Heart, all the way to its sustained final note that slowly gives way to building keyboards. I liked the respective contributions of Luckets and Guaitoli, but I can't help but wonder how strong this album would have felt had Mitchell stepped in as guitarist across the board.

While I Give You My Heart has to be my standout track, it's not so far above everything else as the title track last time out. It's Over is up there too, as is Seize the Day, which is emphatic, even if it's not particularly heavy. It just seems to be consistently a little more than it was intended to be, as if Marco Andreetto had decided to subtly increase the tempo on the song without telling anyone and they all had to stretch just a little to keep up. It's not a race, though, just a little more spirited exercise than was expected. Luckets delivers the solo on this one and it's good, if restrained.

If you like the softer end of the melodic rock spectrum, with a serious side of hair metal, then this may be right up your alley. Softer is definitely the default mode for Issa, though she's not singing ballads for the most part. These are rock songs, just soft rock songs, and, if we ever think that the album is ramping up in heaviness, then the keyboards are sure tamp it back down again. Moon of Love has a saxophone to bolster its melodies and it's not remotely out of place. If that all sounds like your sort of thing, check it out. It's the seventh album from Issa and it's yet another good one, even if I'm still waiting for that killer release.

Thursday 9 February 2023

陰陽座 - 龍凰童子 (2023)

Country: Japan
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 18 Jan 2023
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

I remember being surprised in 2019 by a Japanese band called 人間椅子, or Ningen-isu, meaning Human Chair, not because of their music but because they've been making it since 1987 and I had no idea until their 21st album. Well, here's another Japanese band who are completely new to me, even though they've also been around for a long time and they've knocked out a lot of successful albums in their home country. They're 陰陽座, or Onmyo-za, which apparently means "gathering of yin and yang", and this is their sixteenth album since they were formed in 1999, with 龍凰童子 or Ryou Doji meaning Legacy of the Dragon King.

Like Ningen-isu, who were a primary influence on them, all their releases are entirely in Japanese and they have a visual aesthetic drawn from Japanese history. In Onmyo-za's case, the entire band follows the same look, which is sourced from the Heian Period, about a thousand years ago. While they came to me listed as folk metal, I see that more as a visual thing than a musical one, with the sound only occasionally dipping into traditional folk instrumentation, like what I presume is a koto at the beginning of Ibaragidouji.

It's well within the bounds of possibility that the lead vocals of Kuroneko have a grounding in folk music too, but I'm not well versed enough to recognise anything here, unlike some of those early Babymetal songs like Megitsune, where I recognised Sakura, Sakura from matsuri and the "Sore!" chant from many a taiko performance. These melodies could be rooted in folk but it doesn't seem like they were actually borrowed from specific songs. Even if I'm horribly wrong there, and I could well be, they're the most obvious folk element here, that brief glimpse of koto aside.

The music behind Kuroneko, and sometimes her husband, the band's leader, Matatabi, is far from folk-influenced and rooted very clearly in old school heavy metal. Ryuusou is an urgent song to get the album moving, with strong riffing that's even more reminiscent of Accept when the bass kicks in. Houou no Hitsugi is unmistakably Iron Maiden when it begins, though that pulls back a little as the vocals show up, as so many of these songs do.

Not all the influences are that heavy, because Karura reminds more of a hard rock band who puts out radio friendly singles but rocks out more on their albums. I got Journey vibes from this one, a feeling that only grew when the piano made itself as notable as the guitars. However, there are a few nods towards more contemporary metal, Ibaragidouji sounding more like Pantera than any of the earlies eighties bands that tend to come to mind. It's often the bass that brings the sound into a more current feel, though the heavier chug on Kakugo doesn't weigh the song down as it ought to. It's another AOR infused song, merely with a riff that's more like Black Label Society.

Having no background in Onmyo-Za's music to go on, I'm reliant here on a very welcome review by a Dutch critic called Kevin Pasman who writes at Kevy Metal. He knows their music well and he says that this is "the most traditional-sounding Onmyo-za album released in quite a while". Matatabi's usually more prominent than he is here, where he takes a back seat vocally on many of the songs, to focus on his bass instead. I presume songs like Ooinaru Kappo and Akashita are more like their usual approach, where he steps up to alternate verses with Kuroneko. I'm eager to find out.

Pasman also calls out how long this album is as another anomaly. It's definitely a sprawling album, making it past the seventy minute mark, and there isn't as much variety as that length might hint at, but I never got bored with it, even though the last few songs started to blur together, finding a way to delineate themselves only by the addition of birdsong. OK, Tokimeki closes out in more of a bubbly J-pop vibe than anything else here, but that's not a plus either.

Maybe part of that is that this feels like a solid album that I must have missed in the late eighties, when I was enjoying Japanese bands like Vow Wow (usually Bow Wow), Loudness and Earthshaker, who were sorely underrated. Vibrant up tempo tracks like Gekkaninpouchou that mix heavy guitars, a strong bass underpinning and subtle keyboards would have been up there with many of the tracks on Vow Wow's Cyclone album at the time. It also stops on a dime too and does so with magnificent effect.

One marker that it's a long album is that we're almost forty minutes in when the epic shows up, a soft and folky ballad for four minutes before it ramps up into mid-tempo guitars and some hungry drums. It's Shiramine, which appears to mean Whitebait, and it's an eleven minute track with five more songs queued up in its wake. Somehow it doesn't feel overlong but it didn't seem like it was worth two others.

Onmyo-za seem to knock out their albums pretty consistently, with three years being the longest gap between them until now, because this one's been five years coming. I presume we have COVID to blame for that, along with so much else, but it's been well received, as their highest charting in their history thus far. It's not just Europe apparently; Onmyo-za only spent a week in the Japanese chart in mid-January, but that was at number six, even if it only sold a single copy for every twenty by Back Number, who debuted at the top spot. I guess that's a target for the next one.

Dark Princess - Phoenix (2023)

Country: Russia
Style: Gothic Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 20 Jan 2023
Sites: Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | VK

If I'm understanding correctly, Dark Princess was formed in 2004 as a solo project for lead vocalist Olga Trifonova, who may have created the first album on her own. However, there was certainly a band for the second album, which is when Stepan Zuev arrived on keyboards and backing vocals. It looks like they released four albums in total before splitting up in 2017, though Trifonova actually left after three, so the fourth is with a different lead vocalist, Natalia Terekhova. She returned in 2020 when the band reformed with a new line-up to support Trifonova and Zuev, each new member recruited from the latter's other band, Sangvis, who play melodic death metal and metalcore.

This is the first product of the new line-up and it's a far cry from those genres. This is gothic metal, mostly heavier than we'd call gothic rock but with occasional dips back to that side of the fence, at points when electronica joins in and the drum sound shifts. The intro to The Pain I Need adds violin too and could have been taken from a Dead Can Dance album. The song settles into rock and then heavies up to metal, before ramping back down to that intro sound at the end. That's not unusual for this album.

Generally speaking, the album aims at the elegance of gothic music, everything on offer polished mahogany and brass, with a clean symphonic metal lead vocal from Trifonova. Zuev doesn't join in on every song and how he does so depends on the material. He showcases a harsh vocal in support on the opening title track and especially on Falling to Fly, but he's also able to shift to a clean vocal, as he does on The Light and My Chance, to name but two. On a first listen, it was the heavier songs where he stood out most, but gradually I realised he was there a lot more than I'd initially heard.

I can see why this used to be a solo project, because Trifonova is certainly the most obvious aspect of the band's sound and almost everything else seems to be there to support it. That extends to an odd lack of opportunities for the backing musicians to move into the spotlight and shine. There's a decent guitar solo on Taste of Freedom from Denis Burkin that almost surprised me and there's a strange break between it and the rest of the song, as if they had no idea how to connect the two in a seamless manner, so just stopped and started again. The similar solo on The Light doesn't segue well either but it's much more effective, both as a solo and as part of a song.

Of course, then there's another solo on the next song, My Chance, which is shorter but seamlessly integrated, and then another one on Your Flame that's likewise, with a reprise no less, and it feels all of a sudden that this is a guitar band. However, once the solos are over, the guitar is lowered in the mix and we're back to a predominantly vocal outlook. And that's fine, but my biggest concern here is in the lack of hooks. Trifonova sounds wonderful and everything she does is melody but I'm not going to be waking up in the morning with any of these songs playing in my head and that's even more important if the focus is going to be so ruthlessly on the vocals.

What I found most odd here was that my favourite songs are the heaviest and the lightest. Anyone who's read a lot of my reviews won't be surprised to hear the former because, while I like bands to vary what they do and keep their albums interesting, I also dig the heavy stuff. However, the latter is a lot more unusual. I don't dislike soft and subtle music and I don't dislike ballads as a matter of course, but I do tend to be less fond of lighter material on heavier albums, which is Not Enough in a nutshell.

However, I'd place it alongside Falling to Fly, with all those harsh backing vocals, as my highlights here, because Trifonova is a delight and in her element in an aria that allows her to exercise some more subtle elements of her talent, like intonation and playing with emphasis. The orchestration behind her isn't entirely unpredictable but it has some nice subtleties to it too. That it heavies up in the third act is merely a bonus. It would have been a highlight for me even if it hadn't.

I wanted a little more from this album than the band seemed willing to give, but it's a decent and welcome return for a band who have been gone from the studio for over a decade.

Wednesday 8 February 2023

Ronnie Romero - Raised on Heavy Radio (2023)

Country: Chile
Style: Hard and Heavy
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 Jan 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | Wikipedia

I didn't review last year's Raised on Radio, a covers album by surely the busiest Chilean vocalist in rock music, Ronnie Romero. I heard some tracks from it and they sounded good, as well as deeper cuts from expected bands, like Bad Company, Kansas and Foreigner, but it came out while I was on my research trip to the UK and I never caught up with it. Well, I didn't want to miss out on this new covers album, which does the same job but with heavier music. Ronnie himself is as excellent as he ought to be, my biggest complaint being how there isn't much in the way of interpretation here. If you don't care about that, add another point to my rating.

I'd also suggest that the opener is a very strange choice. It's a Deep Purple song, which isn't at all surprising, but it's The Battle Rages On, from the 1993 album of the same name, the final release from the formed Mark II line-up. It's not a bad song and this isn't a bad version, but it's hardly as emphatic as the song after it, a take on Manowar's Metal Daze, from their 1982 debut. It's not my favourite Manowar song by a long shot, but it's absolutely emphatic and Romero seriously gets his teeth into the vocal. I can't see any reason why it wasn't chosen as the opener.

Romero seems to remember 1982 well, because that's only one of three songs from that year that made the cut, the other two being highlights for me. The first is Iron Maiden's epic Hallowed Be Thy Name, not just a well-known and much loved classic but one with massive opportunity for the right vocalist to showcase his chops. You know, like this one. His sustain is fantastic and he knows exactly how to soar. Sure, I've never him sound more accented than he does on this track, which is weird, but it's great to hear him sing on something this heavy.

The other 1982 track immediately follows it and that's Accept's Fast as a Shark, which turns out to be a great choice, even though Romero's voice is further away from Udo Dirkschneider's than any of the other original vocalists on any of these songs. No More Tears feels rather out of place after those two, as a keyboard-heavy ballad but Romero is excellent on it, as is Gus G as guest guitarist, suitably flash for a song by the great discoverer of flash guitarists. It's decent but unnecessary.

I've skipped over Turbo Lover, which might seem an unusual choice for a Judas Priest cover, given how poorly those guitar synths were received at the time, but it's a great pick for Romero. It's an underrated song and it gives him plenty of opportunity to shine, given how it starts so low and has a lot of patience in how it builds. There's a nice solo here from Nozomu Wakai of Destinia too. The guest guitarists generally do a great job, the other obvious one being Chris Caffery from Savatage who lends his talents to a take on The Shining, a Black Sabbath deep cut from The Eternal Idol, one of their most underrated albums. Romero fits the Tony Martin style well and Caffery does a good job stepping into Tony Iommi's shoes.

I'm not sure that we can call A Light in the Black a cover version, given that Romero has been the vocalist in Rainbow since 2015. I don't know if he sings this one live, but it's the easiest mindset for him to fall into here and he's seamless. There's no guest guitarist on this one, so that's Jose Rubio shining in an excellent, albeit very close take on the original, perhaps understandably in this one instance if nowhere else on the album. That's the oldest song here and Romero jumps from that to the newest, one reason why Kind Hearted Light is the first song that I didn't know. It's from the Masterplan debut that came out in 2003, which I haven't heard. Romero didn't sing for them but it sounds like he could have done. Roland Grapow, also known for Helloween, did play for them and he provides all the guitars here, so I presume it's highly authentic.

After another song I didn't remember,rather ironically given that it's called You Don't Remember, I'll Never Forget—an Yngwie J. Malmsteen song, in case you don't either—Romero wraps up with a really surprising choice, The Four Horsemen, from Metallica's debut album, Kill 'em All. That's not the obvious choice, even from that album, and it's fascinating to hear someone known for lighter material tackle it. He does a good job, even if his band needed more crunch to do it justice, and it works well as a closer.

Maybe I should go back and check out Raised on Radio, even if it's far too late for me to review it a year on, because this mostly worked for me. It's hardly essential, but it's thoroughly enjoyable. It also highlights why Ronnie Romero somehow sings for a dozen bands at once with guest slots on a further dozen every year. There's a big difference between quality and the ability to sing different styles well in a generally consistent manner. Romero has both.

Pyramid Suns - Reflections (2023)

Country: Malta
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 13 Jan 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

I'm calling this album progressive rock for the sake of a label, and there's certainly a lot of prog in it, but it covers a lot of ground, albeit mostly without getting too anything. It's always restrained, as if the band is camped out on a subway platform playing for tips and there are noise ordinances against too much volume that they must heed. I'm carefully avoiding the word soft, even though it sprang quickly to mind because that carries many implications and most are not applicable here in the slightest. This isn't surface music. It's music to dive into and explore. Just not very loudly.

The prog is most obvious in the drums of Luke Briffa, who may be the only change that the line-up has ever seen having joined in 2020. He drives the shifts in time signature and everyone's happy to follow his lead. It's easy music to listen to but Briffa kept me on the hop. Every time I thought I was being lulled into a false sense of security, he'd change it up again and I'd find myself focusing on a new rhythm. Songs like Dust don't play it simple from the outset and only get more complex with time. On occasion, it's almost like Briffa is soloing on his drums without ever getting flash.

The most urgent song here is probably the first one, The Desert, which sounds like it's a post-punk number with some anger left over from before it was post-anything. That mindset continues for a majority of the album with an array of influences popping out to say hi at odd moments. I caught a little Joy Division at points in the bass of Keith Fenech and some Ultravox in the subtle electronic rhythms in songs like Instinctive Lust. It's fascinating to catch little glimpses of bands when songs shift approach. I just wish I could remember all of them. The unusual percussion in Interlude feels very familiar but I can't place it.

The loosest song is surely Groove Academy, which flirts overtly with funk, that bass suddenly a far cry from Joy Division, and turns into jazz fusion. Cold Wind feels much more regimented than it is entirely because it follows Groove Academy. Leave the album and come back directly to that song and it feels tight, but keep the album playing so it rolls from Groove Academy into Cold Wind and it's almost military in its strictness. It's a vibrant song though, with hints of the Police underneath it pushing it forward.

Given the bands I've thrown out as comparisons thus far, it must seem surprising if I throw out the Allman Brothers Band on The Fool, but it's not a wild departure from the rest of the album. Their country-tinged southern rock translates here into a sort of post-punk Tool, which is wild. I think I'd call this one my favourite track, though Violet would fight it for that title, meaning that this ends on a couple of real high notes. Violet is the most psychedelic rock song on offer, but there's also a Jimmy Page vibe to the riff, a blues based No Quarter echo with its hints of the middle east, even though it's accompanied by didgeridoo rather than an Egyptian string section.

It's a fascinating sound and it's a fantastic way for this album to wrap up after travelling to all the places it's been up to that point. I presume Pyramid Suns have been collecting these sounds for a while now, because they've been around since 2014 but this is only their debut album. I have little idea what sort of rock scene there is in Malta, which is a relatively small country, and it wouldn't surprise me to find that there's just a music scene with diverse bands playing multiple genres at the same gigs. If this is an example of the product, the first album I've reviewed from Malta, then I'm intrigued as to what else is going on there.

Tuesday 7 February 2023

DeWolff - Love, Death & In Between (2023)

Country: The Netherlands
Style: Soul/Funk/Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 3 Feb 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Only yesterday, I reviewed the new Mono Inc. album, which was a new entry to the German album charts at number one. Today, I'm reviewing the new one from DeWolff, which I see was a new entry to the Dutch album charts at, guess what, number one. Their previous album, Wolffpack, which got an 8/10 from me back in 2021, only reached the second spot, held from the top by the Foo Fighters. There's something very positive going on over there in Europe. Checking other countries tells me that the top two albums in Finland in mid-January were VV and Turmion Kätilöt, both of which I've reviewed, even if I can't find newer data. Suddenly I'm a chart watcher.

I'm going with an 8/10 for this album too, even though it's a sprawling sixty-eight minute dive even further into genres in which I have little background. Wolffpack mixed its psychedelic rock and its southern rock with heavy doses of the sounds of the seventies: especially funk and soul, but even a little disco. This does the same but the ratios are different, keeping a rock base mostly intact but venturing far deeper into soul, funk, gospel and blues. Last time the balance was often between a laid back Lynyrd Skynyrd and Stevie Wonder, but here it's more like John Kongos and Nina Simone. There's a lot of Sinnerman here but with many nods to far less epic music too.

It starts of as it means to go on, as if we're tuning into a seventies soul show. Are you ready for the Night Train? It feels like an MC has given the cameraman approval to pan over to the stage, where DeWolff are about to erupt into motion. And they do exactly that, because this was apparently an entirely live recording, not in the sense of performing on stage but in the sense of recording right into the machines as a band without any overdubs added in post-production. This is precisely what they played in the studio and it feels vibrant for having that approach.

There are only three members of DeWolff, Robin Piso and the van de Poel brothers, but there are a host of others contributing to this one. I count eight of them, whether they're providing bass to the sound, adding vocals or guitar or keyboards, or jumping in with flute, trumpet or trombone as needed, with a special mention here due to Nick Feenstra for a fantastic saxophone solo to finish up Message for My Baby. Sometimes they sound like a trio, plenty of space between the band and the floating Hammond organ cloud behind them. Sometimes they become a full on party.

Because the album is so long, there are a dozen songs on offer, even with Rosita clocking in at the surprising length of sixteen and a half minutes. Only Wontcha Wontcha otherwise reaches the six minute mark, so this isn't bloated, especially given that that one is one of the party songs, finding its way into a full on carnival celebration in song form around the halfway mark. Rosita simply has more to tell and it does that in a set of movements that continually grab us into its mindsets. It's grabbing for us at the five minute mark when it goes quiet and introspective. It's grabbing for us halfway through when it turns into a revival meeting.

Pablo van de Poel, the guitarist in DeWolff and one of its vocalists, has talked about how deep the dives were that they were taking into old soul, gospel and classic R&B, checking out bands like the Impressions, the Clovers and the Soul Stirrers, along with bigger names we might remember such as Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and the Staple Singers. He's also mentioned attending a sermon by Al Green at his own church in Memphis, which he describes as "a life-changing experience, musically." This is Pablo and DeWolff treating music as religion, hurling emotions at the tape recorder to be recorded as waveforms.

There's a lot here, far more than I can do justice to within a sub-thousand word review. I must say that certain songs leapt out at me, but also that none of those that didn't are filler. The weakest song here is strong, merely overshadowed by its company. I gravitated towards the blues songs, a delightful guitar from Pablo van der Poel on Will o' the Wisp and even more delightful Hammond organ from Robin Piso. Mr. Garbage Man is a nice slow blues tune and Gilded (Ruin of Love) is laid back glory in four minutes. I liked the party songs too, when the band went full on church gospel or Caribbean carnival or just John Kongos groove.

There's so much here to enjoy, even if I can't tell you the derivation of much of it, and it's full of an obviously live energy. Congratulations to DeWolff on that number one on the Dutch album charts and I hope you stay there for quite a while yet.

Memoriam - Rise to Power (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Death Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 3 Feb 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter

Memoriam are a British band who have been building quite a name for themselves through a five album stretch, this being the fifth, across only seven years. They only formed as recently in 2015, apparently as a tribute to the late Martin Kearns of Bolt Thrower, but they got up to speed quickly with For the Fallen in 2017. Then again, nobody involved is remotely new to the business.

Vocalist Karl Willetts was the lead vocalist in Bolt Thrower for a couple of decades. Guitarist Scott Fairfax has played with Cerebral Fix and is also in Massacre right now. Bass player Frank Healy was also in Cerebral Fix, as well as a whole string of major bands: Annihilator, Benediction and Napalm Death, to name just three. Drummer Spikey T. Smith has even more bands on his resume, including Sacrilege, English Dogs and the Damned, and he arrived in 2020 to replace Andrew Whale of Bolt Thrower in the only line-up change thus far. Clearly it's about time I paid attention to what they do.

And what they do shouldn't surprise after band names like those, because this is clearly metal on a British punk framework. Willetts's vocals work for death metal, as they should, but they'd work in a punk band too without any shift in approach. There's a texture to Fairfax's guitar that's right out of crust punk, just better produced. Smith is clearly comfortable with speed, but he's playing much slower than I expected much of the time. Total War is a great example of both tempos, with some early sections almost doom speed but faster sections ready to leap into action.

And, of course, the lyrics are all social commentary. Total War doesn't need any explanation and it shouldn't take much imagination to figure out what Never Forget, Never Again (6 Million Dead) is about. Almost every one of these song titles, from I am the Enemy and The Conflict is Within to All is Lost and Rise to Power via Annihilations Dawn, is clearly riffing on our polarised society, politics hindering rather than helping. I'm shocked that they're still on Twitter. I thought they might have been the first band that I'd find on Tribel.

I've never delved too deeply into the British punk scene, beyond seeing the early days on television and experiencing it live through the emergent grindcore scene in the late eighties. I saw Healy in 1990 in Bradford playing for Cerebral Fix, though Fairfax hadn't joined yet. But I listened to a lot of the bands who came out of those eras and either formed metal bands or turned metal for a while. For instance, Cerebral Fix were supporting Napalm Death, who were shifting from grindcore over to death metal at that point. I saw Bolt Thrower a couple of times in 1989 and 1990 and, even back then, when Whale was playing with blastbeats, I felt they had a foot firmly in both worlds.

It's been a while since I've listened to Bolt Thrower, but this feels like a fair sequel. It may be more thoughtful in terms of riffs and runs and fills, but it may be just more obvious given the benefits of twenty-first century production values. They didn't have this tech to work with back when they put out Realm of Chaos! Notably, while this is much better produced than early Bolt Thrower albums, the music doesn't lend itself to crystal clear mixing. There's still a sludgy sound to what they do, as there was in Bolt Thrower, even live when they were a wall of sound.

I liked this album on a first listen. A whole bunch of moments stood out the first time I heard them, from the unusual but memorable choir of samples building up the message "I am the enemy" that oddly introduced Never Forget, Never Again rather than I am the Enemy, onwards. Looking back, a majority of them tie to the guitarwork of Scott Fairfax, not least the doomy gothic guitars in I am the Enemy, the intricate intro to The Pain and the echoey doomladen guitars late in All is Lost. The more I listen to this clearly death metal album, the more I hear Fairfax playing doom and it works.

The catch is that it doesn't really grow from that first listen. It always sounds good but it falls into the background somewhat and I keep finding myself ten minutes further in than I thought. Paying attention, I might call out the title track, which grows with repeat listens, but the rest steadfastly refuses to do that, which is surprising given the talent involved and the buzz they're generating. I would call this a decent album but not a special one. If this is your thing, then add a point, but you would need to be a die hard fan to rave about this one.

Monday 6 February 2023

Mono Inc. - Ravenblack (2023)

Country: Germany
Style: Gothic Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 27 Jan 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Pinterest | Tumblr | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I hadn't heard of Mono Inc. until I caught sight of the cover art for their eleventh album, The Book of Fire, and checked it out. I'm glad I did, because that's a peach of an album that got a 9/10 from me and only just missed out on Album of the Month. I'm especially glad I did, because I don't think that I'd have done the same with the minimalistic cover art for this follow-up to their first German number one album. I'm listening now because I know what music they make and I want to keep on hearing more. Apparently, the German people do too, because this only came out last week and it currently sits at the top of the album chart there already, above fellow new entry Uriah Heep just three places below them.

I liked The Book of Fire from its opening track but fell for their sound on the next one, the urgency of Louder Than Hell pointing the way towards my reading this as the Sisters of Mercy gone power metal. This album is certainly consistent with that, but it's a little more subtle than last time out, the opening tracks full of commercial gothic hooks on steady driving beats. However, the first that grabbed me the way the previous album did is Princess of the Night three songs in.

No, it's not the Saxon song, but it may be just as memorable. It's one of those Mono Inc. songs that sounds immediately great but still grows as the hooks take grip on our brain and we find ourselves humming them on our way to the bathroom ten minutes later. It doesn't hurt that it sets out with excellent guitarwork from Carl Fornia. Mono Inc. tracks tend to rely far more on their hooks than their riffs or solos, but this would be a different band without what Fornia brings to it.

To prove me wrong, the next song is Angels Never Die, which starts out with piano, remains much slower and more focused on keyboards and adds a perfectly timed vocal contribution from Katha Mia, otherwise the band's drummer. As the song features Sanz, I initially thought it was the name of the guest vocalist, but Sanz are an all-male band on the same label as Mono Inc. They don't add the female vocal but they do add extra punch to the song throughout. It's a different highlight to Princess of the Night but it's another highlight nonetheless.

And so's Heartbeat of the Dead, which features a neat shift from electronic beat to Mia's drums. It's as driving as The Last Crusade last time out and this sort of relentless but never fancy beat is the absolute heartbeat of this band, above Martin Engler's vocals and every other contribution. I would be tapping my feet and banging my head even if I could only hear the drum track. The rest is just a bonus, every layer adding more depth and meaning and fleshing out the material from that solid grounding to the Mono Inc. sound we know and love.

It took me a while to warm to the title track, but I got there. The beat is a little slower and there's a crazy repetition going on in the lyrics but it does actually work. Now, it may get annoying with a lot of repeats, but it hasn't yet. Lieb Mich restores that driving beat and Engler (and Mia) shift to German for one of only two tracks here, the other being the tasty ballad that wraps up the album, Weidersehen Woanders, which is built on cello and piano. Lieb Mich goes with guitar to emphasise the beat and that isn't the only Rammstein touch they play with, because the explosive ramps up are another, such as in Angels Never Die. Never Alone is a more singalong ballad, until it does the ramp up, but with a little less explosive impact.

I don't think Ravenblack is quite as good as The Book of Fire, but it's a strong album nonetheless. I liked it immediately and like it more after a second listen. It's remains strong on the third and the title track's repetition hasn't got annoying yet—I'm watching for that moment! It's easily an 8/10 though, with a strong consistency over fifty minutes. However, nothing leaps out me the way that Louder Than Hell did last time, the closest perhaps being Princess of the Night and After Dark, with guest appearance from folk metal band Storm Seeker. So, no second 9/10 from me but a still highly recommended 8/10 for Mono Inc., who are at the top of their game right now.