Friday 31 March 2023

Tanzwut - Silberne Hochzeit (2023)

Country: Germany
Style: NDH/Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date:24 Feb 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

I liked Tanzwut's previous album, Die Tanzwut kehrt zurück, released two years ago, and I like this one too, which continues their gradual shift from medieval metal through NDH to industrial, even though this isn't really a new album. It's a celebration of an album, a sort of greatest hits package to commemorate a quarter of a century as a touring band, but each track is a re-recorded version from the studio. They've recorded a dozen albums but everything here is sourced from three very specific releases that came out before they'd found their way into a particular sound.

Now, to be fair, I wouldn't say that they've cemented their sound yet, each succeeding album a bit further down a musical path, but this deliberately takes tracks from their second, third and fourth albums and retells them in a style similar to what they play today. Labyrinth der Sinne is easily the most represented, with seven out of twelve tracks coming from that second album from 2000. That leaves three from their third, 2003's Ihr wolltet Spass, and a three song set from Schattenreiter in 2006. It's fascinating to see how varied these remain, even played with a consistent approach.

The first four set most of the tone for the album. Labyrinth, the kinda sorta title track to Labyrinth der Sinne, opens up and is immediately a highlight, bouncy and in your face throughout, bagpipes leading the melodic line over a driving NDH beat. It's worth reminding that five of seven members of Tanzwut play bagpipes and two are dedicated to pipes and shawms, so they're never far away. In most of this material, they hold back to serve as emphasis when the song needs it but then soar on top of everything else when it gets going.

Ihr wolltet Spass and Meer, both from the third album, add new elements. The latter is softer with a drop down from the typical opening to a warmer sound. Even when it ramps up in the bridge, the usual edges are still smoothed off. The former is a gem, dropping into Gogol Bordello-esque punky folk music. I'm sure I've heard some early Tanzwut but it's been so long that I can't remember the albums. This is the point at which I regretted that and wanted to dive back into those early albums to remind myself what they sounded like.

The fourth of the opening quartet is Was soll der Teufel im Paradies, another from Labyrinth der Sinne and the first of four tracks in a row to hail from that album. This one adds orchestration as a layer, mostly behind the sound but occasionally with strings taking the foreground. It ends with a tasty duet between pipes and strings, which is a fascinating touch and one exclusive to this track. Each of these four has its own unique touch, while staying true to the overarching sound. Most of what follows works with those approaches afresh, just in different proportions. That doesn't mean that there aren't other touches worth mentioning though.

Lügner is a stalker of a song, slow and heavy but with serious emphasis, so we're unable to ignore it. In its quieter sections, the pipes take a strong lead and the electronics trawl in some distortion for effect. In its more urgent sections, it plays up the NDH aspect to the band. There's Rammstein in all of these songs but none of them consistently sound like Rammstein with bagpipes. This one is closer than most, even though it sounds like a regular bagpipe band at points too, sans all metal elements. The one that plays my local renaissance festival has released albums that pair the pipes and drums with electronica and they're not unlike this.

The most unexpected touch comes on Im tiefen Gras. It starts with a guitar line that wouldn't be at all out of place in alt country and quickly develops into a psychobilly bounce. This is one of a trio of songs from Schattenreiter and it's the other track that makes me want to follow up by visiting the original. It suddenly seems odd that these two aren't from the most represented album, but that may not mean much. Then again, if there's a third, it's the urgent punk of Nein nein, another one from Ihr wolltet Spass, that closes out the album.

I'm not sure how essential this will be for Tanzwut fans who remember the originals. I'd have to go back to hear them again to comment and I want to do that free of motive. I'm not a die hard fan of the band, but I like what they do and I like this, even if it isn't essential. It's an odd marker for this live anniversary and I wonder why they didn't put out an equivalent recorded live. Maybe that will be next.

Altın Gün - Aşk (2023)

Country: The Netherlands
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 31 Mar 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I fell in love with this as soon as it started. If I'm understanding correctly, the core of Altın Gün is a pair of musicians who are Turkish by heritage but born in the Netherlands. That's Merve Daşdemir and Erdinç Ecevit Yıldız. Both sing lead but divvy up the songs between them, so that some are led by Merve's enticing female voice but others by Erdinç's deeper male voice. Both play keyboards as well, with Erdinç adding the saz or bağlama, which is an Anatolian lute. Between all this, Altin Gün sound exquisitely Turkish, to the point where this is world music at heart.

However, behind them are four Dutch musicians playing traditional rock instruments—guitar, bass and drums—and between them, they channel this world music through a psychedelic filter so that it comes out as an exquisite merger of east and west. The opener, Badi Sabah Olmadan, is a strong track, clearly psychedelic rock with a Hawkwind drive to it. It's not alone here in rocking it up, but the album often aims lighter with songs that could be seen as psychedelic pop or even a keyboard driven prog.

One of the key components to define which is the bass of Jasper Verhulst. On Badi Sabah Olmadan, he's a rock musician and he adds fuzz on Rakıya Su Katamam to shift from psychedelic rock over an easy border into stoner rock. However, starting on Su Sızıyor, he reminds me of a reggae bassist in that he relies on the guitar and drums to work a groove so that he can provide a riff to underpin a song. However, we can't just label songs based on what Verhulst is doing, because he goes with the reggae approach on Canım Oy, which is clearly psychedelic rock, even if it adds in plenty of Turkish disco at points.

The keyboards help shape genre too. Çıt Çıt Çedene throws Mike Oldfield style keyboards over the reggae bass, as if he'd set up a salon at his house and some Turkish musicians joined him to jam. It comes back on the closer, Doktor Civanım, which is the most western piece here with an electronic beat and the least overt Turkish vocals. I felt like I wanted to pull Crises off the shelf after this one, which is progressive pop through and through. However, other songs use the keyboards to take us on a wild cosmic trip, especially during instrumental stretches in the second half of songs like Dere Geliyor, and Çıt Çıt Çedene. Güzelliğin On Para Etmez feels like a Turkish folk song set against Pink Floyd keyboards.

For the most part, my favourite songs are the rockier ones like Badi Sabah Olmadan and Rakıya Su Katamam, but that's not always the case. When Dere Geliyor isn't taking us on a cosmic journey, it plays very minimalist indeed. We get Daşdemir's haunting voice but accompanied only by a sparse echoing guitar and keyboard swirls. It only leaps into action a couple of minutes in as hand drums provide the engines beneath an organic vessel of keyboards. And then there's Kalk Gidelim, which arrives out of the blue eight tracks in with a thoroughly different approach.

This is an exquisitely sassy song that sashays up to us with a serious purpose, bells shimmering in a sultry haze of sensuality. The melody is a delight and the beat even better. It never quits teasing us and we find ourselves effortlessly lost inside it, as if we dived in but never surfaced. Daşdemir has the lead again but, while she's as sweet as ever, she layers on seduction as if it's going out of style. It's hard not to read sexual metaphor into the point almost three minutes in when everything gets instrumentally frantic.

Generally speaking, there's a light heart at work here. There's sadness to be found in some songs, like Güzelliğin On Para Etmez, but precious little darkness. The most obvious is probably a theme that shows up after each instance of the title being sung on Leylim Ley, like it's call and response. Even there, it's a delicious darkness that teases us rather than threatens. Every time I listened to this album, which I did under different moods over a few days, it seemed clear that I left it happier than I found it. And with that thought, I threw the band's name into Google Translate to find that it means Golden Day. That makes sense, as does Aşk meaning Love.

They've been around for seven years, though I was surprised to find that Verhulst was the founder, seeking Turkish musicians rather than the other way around. This is their fifth album, suggesting a prolific work ethic. However, two of those albums came together, Yol and Âlem in 2021. At this rate, we ought to expect another one from them in 2025 and I'm already looking forward to it.

Thursday 30 March 2023

Those Damn Crows - Inhale/Exhale (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 17 Feb 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedi | YouTube

This third album shouldn't stop the rise of Those Damn Crows, because it's another strong album, even if I don't believe it's quite up to the standards of its predecessor, 2020's Point of No Return. It does reach those standards but not across the board, so this is a recommended 7/10 instead of the highly recommended 8/10 that I gave their previous album. It does much the same thing, knocking out a string of energetic but deceptively simple hard rock songs, full of hooks and destined to take a season ticket inside your brain. I don't do half points but you could think of it as a 7.5/10.

To my mind, This Time is Ready is when the album kicked into gear this time out but that's the fifth song. Wake Up (Sleepwalker) before it is pretty solid and interesting because it aims to do exactly what the title suggests. It's initially muzzled in post-production, as if we've been asleep but we're waking up in phases and we're stuck for a moment in that twilight zone between the two. Then it's happy to lift the muzzle, turn up the energy and bring us effortlessly back into the day. It feels like an excellent song to wake up to.

There are three songs before that one and they're all decent, but they didn't connect with me. The opener is Fill the Void, which barrels along with an electronic edge as if it wants to do a Powerman 5000 approach, but it's too smooth for that, ending up like an amped up Prodigy remix of a slightly slower song. Takedown ought to work. It's slower but just as urgent as the opener. I think it feels a little lacking because it doesn't build the way that most Those Damn Crows songs do, including the majority of what's still to come. Man on Fire does, so I'm not sure why it feels off. It seems to have all the necessary components but it doesn't have whatever Wake Up does.

And it's a long way short of what This Time I'm Ready does and that's because this one is a pristine grower. It's a little underwhelming when it kicks off, a soft song with an almost country edge, but it builds to a perfect hook of a chorus and there's all the effortless power that this band can bring to bear. Then there's the last third, which is glorious, almost finding a punchy Tool vibe as it takes us home. It's a peach of a song and, while it isn't technically a title track, it's as close as this album gets on that front, the title chanted behind the lead vocals.

And, after Wake Up woke us up and This Time I'm Ready got us ready, the album suddenly finds itself up there with the last one. I Am has a gorgeous groove to it, reminding me of a commercial Paradise Lost, which is weird because this is a long way from the Coridian album I reviewed before it. There, it was in moments but here it's in the grand sweep of the song. See You Again feels like a singalong song after about five seconds and it's exactly that. Both of these have that magnificent Those Damn Crows build too. Waiting for Me has some real character to it to close out the album, with some tasty bass from Lloyd Wood as it kicks off.

I've missed out two songs. Lay It All on Me is decent and I like Ronnie Huxford's drums as it wraps, but it's a lesser song to the others around it. However, Find a Way is my favourite song this time round. It boasts a particularly bouncy riff and I was moving so much to it that I started to miss the keys while I was taking notes. Shane Greenhall nails the vocal even more than he did on This Time I'm Ready and I Am. Once again, it builds, and even if it can't touch the last third of This Time, it's a better song overall.

The worst thing I can always say about Those Damn Crows is that they've never really carved out a firm sound of their own. The reason why they're so good is because they're talented musicians who consistently find that sweet spot where good musicianship and better songwriting meets palpable energy. They mean what they do and they always have and that's what resonates with people. They batter their way into our attention through sheer dedication and then their songs stay because of how memorable they are and, finally, get us moving because they're infectious. If that's what you want in an album, you can probably add a point to my rating.

Coridian - Hava (2023)

Country: New Zealand
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 10 Mar 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

I haven't heard Coridian before, even though this is the last in a set of four themed releases about the elements: two EPs, Oceanic and Caldera, to cover earth and water, then two full length albums, Eldu and Hava, to cover fire and air, specifically wind. However, they've sold me on their sound here even though I wasn't convinced on a first listen. It's very clean and modern and doesn't easily fit in only one bucket. I'm not even sure whether it's rock or metal, because it straddles the boundary so well. I'm calling it prog metal for the sake of a label, but there's more here from alt rock and post-rock than any of the usual suspects from prog metal. Dream Theater this isn't.

There's also a very American flavour here, but not so far that it turns me off, probably because it's so good at layering textures and because it's never exclusive. State of Mind, for instance, feels like post-everything. It's American post-grunge but also British post-punk and some post-rock textures fleshing it out. It's built on a System of a Down kind of riff but some commercial era Paradise Lost in breakdowns and with everything smoothed and polished to the exact shade of brushed steel on the cover art. The vocals are in between, full of melodies I'd expect from the Foo Fighters but with a grungier edge and even a drop into softer Coldplay territory at points.

That's an interesting mix and the rest of the album continues to play in that sort of area, but with odd departures here and there. It was initially awkward for me because I have a feeling the major influences are often going to be ones I don't know. Rakshasa adds a screamed backing vocal right out of emo, for a start, and that's not a genre I know, mostly because I'm not a fan of that style of vocals, but it works here because it's just another texture rather than a deliverer of fake emotion.

The contrast between the clean vocals of Dity Maharaj, which remain in front, and that scream by Michael Murphy of Written by Wolves, makes for a neat texture. The same goes in a very different way for the other guest vocal, by Jessie Booth of Ekko Park on Redefine, a tasty duet between two different but compatible vocal tones. I ought to check their bands out too, given that both of them are prominent and successful and I haven't heard anything by them before. It seems notable that Booth isn't the vocalist in Ekko Park though she guests here in that role. She's their guitarist.

I mention fake emotion not as a dig towards emo music, but because there's a further paradox for me here. Everything feels carefully constructed, as tends to be the case with prog, but it's battling hard to feel organic, the way that the best alt rock does. However smooth this felt, there's always a hint of grunge in the sound and I think that's what keeps it music to make us feel something, not just admire. Emo is all about making us feel something and it never works for me, because it feels manipulative. This doesn't. I feel that Coridian feel their own music. It's honest and I can easily see them on stage totally lost in the flow of these songs, even on their hundredth time through them.

The first half is solid, but I like the second half even more. It kicks off with Wicked Game, a song we all know that comes out of the blue. Maharaj's voice gets smoother here and Nick Raven's bass is a lot more obvious. It's not Diana Ankudinova but it's a tasty cover. I adore the opening to Coexist, a hint at Tool, I think, but I also adore the fact that the song proper maintains its high standards to become easily my favourite here. It's one of those songs that would sound great in a tiny club in a rundown corner of Auckland but just as great echoing over sixty thousand people at Eden Park.

I should mention The Unkindness too, because, as an atmospheric instrumental, it isn't the sort of song that I'd expect to mention but it's absolutely worthy of it. It isn't the only such piece here, as Algorithm is a capable intro and Exist is an interlude late on the first side, but this one is the best, because it serves both as a perfect buffer zone serving to help us down from Coexist's grandeur to become ready for the rest of the album and as a a worthy instrumental on its own merits. The last three songs are strong too, including the album's epic closer, Naya Din.

I've been listening to this album for far too long, because I have others to move on to, but it caught my attention. It sounded decent but not my sort of thing. The more I listened to it, the more it got its hooks into me and, after a month of mostly 7/10s, I have to bounce this one up to an 8/10.

Wednesday 29 March 2023

Galneryus - Between Dread and Valor (2023)

Country: Japan
Style: Neo-Classical Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 14 Feb 2023
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I don't know why Galneryus aren't better known in the west. Maybe they just haven't played live a lot outside of their native Japan, but this is music ought to would play well in Europe. That most of the songs are sung in a combination of Japanese and English shouldn't matter at all. What should is that this is furious power metal with such a focus on the frenetic guitarwork of Syu, the one and only remaining founding member, that it could easily be classified instead as neo-classical metal. Syu shreds but he does it within a very power metal framework. Only the relatively brief bookends are instrumental but I'd happily listen to an instrumental version of this album.

The vocalist here is Masatoshi Ono, who's been with Galneryus since 2010 but also maintains a solo career, which has led him to perform the theme tunes to a number of anime series. He's clearly an immensely capable singer and the bonus track at the end of this album is a cover version of one of his own songs, but he has a constant challenge to make his vocals stand out above the guitars. He does good work from the opener proper, Run to the Edge, a nine minute epic, but he doesn't truly make himself obvious until Let Us Shine, ironically given that it's that song that also features the most outrageous guitar solo. Bravehearts allows him to break through too, but only , the bonus track on which he covers himself, is truly a vocal piece.

Everyone else in the band acquits themselves well, Lea's drums perhaps the most obvious behind the guitars, but it all comes back to Syu. The album starts out with a guitar solo, literally fading in to a guitar workout that could well have been running for an hour beforehand. This is the intro, a short piece called Demolish the Wickedness! that's entirely instrumental. The other instrumental piece is the outro, A Piece of Souls, which is surprising because it's a keyboard piece, to give some time in the spotlight for Yuhki, who does good work throughout but, like Ono, is rarely the focus in earlier songs. He does get a few decent solos of his own, the one on Time Will Tell particularly tasty, with Taka's bass taking up the baton before Syu takes over once again.

Run to the Edge is not instrumental, but it often seems like it is, because the guitar takes over so well and so frequently that we almost forget that Ono is there to dish out lyrics. There are enough of them to make it seem like being in this band makes sense to him, but not so many that we would ever believe that this is music led by vocals. Even when he's in full flight on a song like Bravehearts where he soars like a pirate ship in full sail, we're still often listening to whatever Syu is conjuring up behind him, which usually tends to be frantic and dynamic. Only that bonus song is his, because it literally is.

I was sold on Syu's talent on the opening intro but he gets better as the album runs on until he's a constant backdrop and we start to take his contributions as the reality we live in and start to focus on the other things happening around him: Ono's vocals and the drops to quiet piano or keyboard atmosphere. He's so relentless on Let Us Shine, though, that he steals our attention back again, a solo that transforms into a videogame, like he's an ever-growing snake shimmying every which way to avoid touching anything and impossibly making it through the five hundredth level intact while we watch. It's a blistering solo and we have to remember to breathe throughout.

I'm not sure if I've heard Galneryus before, but they've been around since 2001, starting in Osaka but later moving to Tokyo. This is their sixteenth album, with no gap between exceeding two years, even during COVID. Had I been paying attention, I could have reviewed Into the Purgatory in 2019 and Union Gives Strength in 2021. Hopefully reviewing Between Dread and Valor in 2023 will keep them on my radar and maybe add them to yours too.

Peter Storm & The Blues Society - Second (2023)

Country: Portugal
Style: Blues Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 10 Mar 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

This band aren't remotely what they seem, which is not a bad thing. The one thing that the cover is clear about is that they're a four piece blues band and a good one as well. However, they're not an American band or indeed a British one, which seems to cover the majority of blues rock bands even today. They hail from Porto in Portugal, even though they sing in very clear English. And that's not because the very Anglo sounding Peter Storm happens just moved there, because Peter Storm has no part to play in this band, unless he's the dog on the cover. The vocalist and guitarist who clearly leads the Blues Society is João Belchior.

However, while he has a rich and warm voice with excellent inflection and he has plenty of time for his guitarwork to shine, Bino Ribeiro steals the album out from him only twenty-three seconds in. It's guitar that kicks off Write Down the Blues, though very possibly Ribeiro's rhythm guitar, but a few bars later, it's his harmonica that takes over. It's not omnipresent here, because Ribeiro has a percussion credit on top of those other two roles, but whenever it manifests, it's immediately the sound of the album for me.

For a while, there's a pattern in play. The Blues Society start out with a storming rocking blues and then slow it right down with a slow blues song, and they keep that alternation throughout the first half of the album. Write Down the Blues is the first rocker, just to get us in the mood, and Blame is the first slow blues, with a tasty groove, an elegant guitar and a haunting harmonica. Every time I start to think about how good Belchior is, Ribeiro wanders in and steals my attention right back. It would be fair to call Blame one of my favourites, a creeper of a piece with a Mark Knopfler vibe to the vocals and sometimes the guitar too.

Go Down and Play shifts back from subtle to blatant as a sassy up tempo piece even if it isn't quite the rocker Write Down the Blues was. It's more inexorable and there's that squealing harmonica to make me grin like a madman again. Then Meditation Blues lives up to its title, another slow but tasty piece. And, because you're seeing the pattern, the gloriously titled I Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody's Home Tonight ramps things back up again, adding some talkbox that works, even if it grounds the song in the seventies. What are the odds that 52nd Avenue will be a slow blues song?

Well, it isn't, just to mess with our minds, and the pattern shifts over the second half. However the songs order though, there are clearly two modes that the Blues Society mine well. The best of the rockers are early, I think, Write Down the Blues setting a high bar from the outset. However, when it comes to slow blues, all these songs resonate. Blame is an early highlight but I Told You (Not to Treat Me Wrong) may be even better. Never mind Mark Knopfler, this one trawls in Peter Green in especially its vocal approach and some in the guitarwork too.

The question I can't help but ask myself is which is the better approach of the two but I haven't got much reason to answer it. They do both well and even if, over a few listens, I might start to favour a few of the slow blues numbers over their rocking peers, I have no interest in being picky. In either mode, the songs succeed for the same reasons: Belchior's guitar (and, a little behind it, his vocals) and Ribeiro's harmonica. And even if I favour the latter without hesitation, the songs where it fails to show up at all succeed too. Just check out the delicate guitar solo that constitutes the first half of the second half of Meditation Blues. A harmonica wouldn't add anything to this piece because it's all it needs to be with that guitar. And, hey, it's all the more glorious when it shows back up on the talking blues, 52nd Avenue.

I'd have liked to have heard José Reis's bass more, but he's not interested in being flash. He stays back in the mix adding texture to the songs for the most part, though he dominates the early part of I Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody's Home Tonight. The remaining member of the band is Jorge Oliveira, who goes by Mister Shuffle, and he's a thoroughly reliable drummer who's exacty where he needs to be in the mix. He doesn't seem to shine initially but, the more we get used to what the album does, the more he stands out on repeat listens. He does a lot more on Blame than we think on our first listen. Everyone here is excellent.

I guess there's one more thing that the cover is honest about and that's that Second is the second Peter Storm & The Blues Society album. I bet you can't guess what their first was called! Of course you can and that means that you already know what title they'll slap onto the next one.

Tuesday 28 March 2023

Karfagen - Passage to the Forest of Mysterious (2023)

Country: Ukraine
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 Mar 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website | Prog Archives | YouTube

Anthony Kalugin is a rather prolific musician. This is my third review of a Karfagen album in a short four year span, though I'm only tackling the new studio half of the release; there's a bonus disc of what they're calling a Director's Cut instrumental version of 2020's Birds of Passage album. Back in January, however, he also put out a Sunchild album with many of the same musicians, called Exotic Creatures and a Stolen Dream. If that wasn't enough, he put out a Sunchild box set in February of four earlier albums but with eighty minutes of bonus material. He's a gift that keeps on giving.

Back to the job at hand, though, and this is another delightful pastoral prog rock album that often hearkens back to the genre's heyday in the UK in the seventies but with a variety of new elements. As always, the track lengths are wildly different and often misleading, because of how Kalugin has his music collated into suites or broken up into parts, especially when those parts continue across a multitude of albums.

Case in point: this album kicks off with Kingfisher & Dragonflies, Pt. 4, only three minutes long but a return to a piece that started in 2007, continued in 2010 and then kicked off the previous album, 2022's Land of Green and Gold. It's very pastoral, bringing to mind the names that you may expect: Genesis and Yes primary among them. It's unsurprising that parts of this piece, if it has a coherent sense of being, begin albums because they're great mood setters, none of them long but all with a presence to bring us into this delightful setting. Once done, we can imagine ourselves sitting on a green field by a sweetly flowing river with nothing but blue sky above us.

And then Kalugin can get his teeth into an album with another piece, here Mysterious Forest in an off balance pairing of parts. The first continues in this pastoral vein, complete with the chirping of creatures, but there's an ominous tone from the outset that leaves often but never stays gone and gradually leads the piece into a more classical and experimental vein. That means plenty of depth if you're a prog fan who wants to dig into a piece of music, even if it often feels slickly commercial in outlook. Sure, we can let it flow over us but we can also immerse ourselves in it and find more.

I say pairing of parts, because Pt. 1 and Pt. 2 follow in quick succession, leaving Pt. 3 to wrap up the album after a few other pieces of music. Pt. 1 is the most progressive of the pieces, the second an amalgam of prog with jazz and the third far more celebratory in nature. The latter two play out in shorter fashion too, only amounting to two thirds of the first if put together. They're all good but the first part is the one with the most fascinating depths.

And that's not unusual for Karfagen. To Those Who Dwell in Realms of Day is a fascinating blend of old school Ummagumma Pink Floyd and more new school commercial. Through the Whispers of the Wind has its moments, even though it's a mere minute and a half long, a conversation between an acoustic guitar, keyboards and flute. However, neither can remotely compare to the piece that sits in between them, the nineteen minute suite called Birds of Passage and the Enchanted Forest, the magnum opus of the album, an expanded version of a previously much shorter piece.

It's a more neoprog piece to my ears, especially early on. There's some Marillion, both old school and new, the vocals far more Hogarth than Fish but the music occasionally looking way back at the early days, some of it drifts further back still, to the golden era of Yes. There are other touches of note, like the percussion that sounds like woodblocks over deeper drums, that make this pleasant on the surface but fascinating beneath it. It shifts into a new movement six and a half minutes in that changes things completely. Part two gets seriously playful. Part three, if I'm even counting on an appropriate scale, gets more experimental again with some angry saxophone and some wilder orchestrations.

There's a heck of a lot to explore in that track and in the album as a whole. I don't feel that there's anything groundbreaking here, so I'm going to give this my third 7/10 in a row for Karfagen, but it remains recommended. This consistency also suggests that Antony Kalugin is a musician to follow wherever he takes his talent. He's prolific as Karfagen and slightly less so as Sunchild and he isn't done there, because he also performs as Hoggwash and Akko. I don't know how these differ, but I feel increasingly driven to find out.

Trémolo - Sin Llorar (2023)

Country: Peru
Style: Hard & Heavy
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 3 Mar 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter | YouTube

Trémolo have been around for a long time, since 1995, but they've been sparing with releases, this being their first in no fewer than fifteen years and only their fourth overall, but I wonder if line-up consistency has played its part. Only Elías Fuentes, lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist, was on all of their albums and, in addition to him, only lead guitarist Reynaldo Rojas was on Detrás de la puerta in 2008. Rojas is easily the highlight of the album for me, his fluid guitarwork elevating everything he touches from the very opening of the opening track.

The title track kicks off the album with a Rojas solo and there's another, more substantial one still to come in the second half that's delightful. Márchate opens with excellent guitarwork too and the rest of the ten songs on offer don't find him resting on his laurels. He's somewhere between Slash and Michael Schenker and that's not a bad place to be. What's especially notable is that he clearly has the talent to perform outrageous solos but he mostly chooses not to, focusing instead on a far more simple but always elegant approach. This album would be elegant without him, because that is inherent to the songwriting, but it wouldn't be as good.

He channels Slash most obviously on Márchate and Enamorado de un Ángel, but neither ends up a Guns n' Roses song, for a number of reasons but mostly because Fuentes doesn't sound at all like Axl Rose. He has a much sweeter tone that fits well with the elegant musical approach, though he can turn on emphasis whenever he likes, whether that's by ratcheting up emotion or power. While he sings in Spanish, so I don't understand most of the lyrics, he has excellent enunciation so those of you who do speak Spanish will be able to understand both his words and any further depth he's layering into them.

Between the two of them, they create a strong album. It has all the melody of melodic rock but in a framework with a bit more kick, usually hard rock but occasionally a little heavier again, such as Zorro y la Llama, which is built a clearly heavy metal riff. Rojas's solos tend to feel more like they're designed for metal songs than rock ones, even if they fit perfectly with whatever everyone else is doing. Enamorado de un Ángel, for instance, is surely a rock song, packed with emotion and more of that seventies organ floating in the background, but there are points where we can believe it's being performed by a heavy metal band aiming for a power ballad.

There are lots of other touches that suggest that something heavier will come. Rosas Negras has that power ballad approach too but, like Enamorado de un Ángel, it's not soft. Vencerás has a sort of Somewhere in Time-era Iron Maiden vibe when it kicks off, though it moves in other directions when it grows. Tal Vez kicks off with elegant piano that suggests a symphonic metal song, but it's got other ideas again. Before the organ shows up to flavour Corazón de Luchador, it kicks off as if it's a Dirty Looks song, Oh Ruby without the Bon Scott impersonation in the foreground. There's a comradely backing vocal too that wouldn't be out of place in folk metal, appropriately given that even I can translate that title.

Less overtly metal, for the second album running for me, after the latest Godsmack, there's a song here that reminds me of Like a Stone. Here, it's Te Besaré and that feel is in the first solo, which is different to any other on the album, and some of the vocal escalations. There's even a melody on Tal Vez that's surely borrowed from the old "Here we go! Here we go!" football chant. Trémolo do a lot on this album and it all works to some degree, often a high level. I've listened to this for a few days now and really need to move onto something else, but I'm not quite ready to do that yet. It's good stuff and every song's a winner.

Monday 27 March 2023

Godsmack - Lighting Up the Sky (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Alternative/Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 Feb 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I haven't heard Godsmack in forever. I'm trying to remember if I've heard them since I Stand Alone, their contribution to The Scorpion King, but I'm coming up empty. I guess I've lumped them into an unwanted category in my head with a bunch of early nu metal bands and that's unfair, because the Godsmack sound was always hard rock, even if it was built on a commercially grungy base. I have no idea if they were ever nu metal, but I've never given them much chance to persuade me otherwise.

This is certainly a hard rock album, but with a crunch to the guitars that comes from commercially minded metal. To my surprise, the most obvious comparison here is Metallica, if we try to think of what they might sound like as a rock band—and, yes, they're still a metal band, even if you believe they wussed out with the Black Album. Everything about the sound here is big in the Metallica way and Sully Erna's voice often pays homage to James Hetfield. Even when Godsmack crank down the power to deliver what could almost be described as a ballad in Growing Old, it comes across like a Metallica take on Audioslave's Like a Stone.

That said, for something that sounds so quintessentially American and modern, there are a bunch of moments here that bring much older bands to mind. There are glimpses of Thin Lizzy here, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, even someone like UFO. They don't direct the style, but they're there in solos and bass runs and chord changes and it tells me that this isn't a band who came out of nowhere to play trendy American music and didn't care about what went before. Even on a song like Truth, which is carefully constructed to sound powerful to kids who haven't listened widely enough to understand what power can be, there are still looks backward that I appreciated.

I'm not a big fan of that song or that approach, which looks as much at the S&M albums Metallica did with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra as the Black Album, but the album as a whole is far more likeable and far more nuanced than I expected. I like the opener, You and I, even after the 22 second evolving power chord that kicks it off, as if this was ever going to be a Sunn O))) album. It's a stalker of a song and there's a lot more power in this one than Truth can even dream of. There's a funk edge to it as well that helps give it character and it drops the riff in between lyrics to give a stronger emphasis to the vocals. It's a great way to kick things off.

I have other favourites too. Hell's Not Dead feels very familiar, because it flows along gloriously on a relentless AC/DC base with a thrust that reminds of Motörhead's Killed by Death, especially as it runs towards its conclusion. The only pandering to the modern is the staccato riff early on and that doesn't bring the song down, just underlines how much better it is when the band stop doing it. I'm very fond of Let's Go too, because of its midsection, which is wonderfully loose and groovy. There's an excellent atmospheric solo from Tony Rombola, but I dig the bass here too. This is something I'd not expected on a Godsmack album and I love it.

The other end of the ranking for me isn't actually Truth but Red White & Blue, which rubbed me the wrong way. Generally speaking, I like these songs or I don't because of what they do musically with Erna's voice being just another instrument. However, this one appears at first glance to question the idea of blind patriotism, which seems to be highly topical in 2023, especially given events right now. The first verse states: "I never thought I'd say one day I'd question my faith to a country that made me who I am today". Yet, when we get to the chorus, it becomes exactly what it questions in a big turnaround: "The only colors that stand true are the red, white and blue, so I stand by you." Adding politically charged lines like "Just don't you tread on me" don't help either. Is this a parody of patriotism? If so, it's not very clear about it.

Fortunately there's not a lot of that here. For the most part, this is a pretty good hard rock album for Godsmack to go out on, as they're suggesting that it will be their last studio release. I had very little expectation going in, but it surpassed it and I found that I enjoyed it, even with the veneer of alternative rock draped over the top, especially on Erna's voice. He sounds good, but he also feels like he's carefully controlling it to maintain some sort of post-grunge credibility that doesn't need to be there. If they just want to rock, then they should just do it.

Burden of Ymir - Heorot (2023)

Country: Canada
Style: Black/Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 10 Mar 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

Here's a great example of just how much good music is out there and how hard it is to keep track. I liked Burden of Ymir's debut album, Jötnar, in 2020, and I was happy to tackle this follow-up three years on. However, it turns out that debut actually came out in 2019 and Joe Caswell, the one man who plays everything here, knocked out another three albums in between these two, which I failed completely to notice. I need more eyes.

So this is his fifth album as Burden of Ymir, which is a blackened folk metal project, and I like it just as much as I expected to. It's built around synths, not just because Caswell plays them but because he has them pretend to be a lot of other instruments as well and we can tell. The sophistication of his equipment is not enough to make us believe that the accordion is an accordion and, if you care about that sort of thing, which I don't particularly, you'll notice it here. The synths don't mimic all the instruments though and I presume he plays the guitar and bass, very probably the drums too because they don't sound electronic to me.

There's an intro and an outro, as there was on Jötnar, so the folky vibe is established when we get to the first track proper, which is Recounting on the Seas. It kicks off with bass and, with prominent bass on The Great Mead Hall after it, I had to wonder if Caswell composes his songs from the bass. If so, it's working, because it's a good opener, shanty-esque with harsh black shrieks for vocals for the verses and clean folky cameraderie for the chorus. Behind all of it, though, is an epic feel that I don't remember from the debut. This is a seven minute song, longer than anything on Jötnar, and it works well, with excellent chord progressions playing up its stature.

It's chord progressions that elevate Revenge Found in the Night too, very probably my favourite of the six full tracks on offer. Here, they're bouncy chord progressions and they add some strut to the song. It's one to get people moving and not just in the usual circle of the pit. This is a song to stomp to like a troll. There's also a furious keyboard solo to raise it further, with a coda to bring it back to earth that echoes the bounce almost in a quack. It's a lively song but it has character too.

I love that bounce and it works well on speedier songs. There's more sway here, though, with both the opener and Monsters of the Lake dipping into shanties, but that's a sort of bounce too and it's played up in much of the material here.

The obvious track that doesn't do that is the album's true epic, The Ninth Hour Approaches, whose patient intro helps to nudge it past nine minutes. I like this one and it does what it does well, but it replaces the engaging bounce with a slower, majestic sweep. It takes its time building because it's aristocratic in outlook and knows full well that it's important enough for us to wait for it to get to us whenever it deems fit, and it almost becomes a sort of processional at points. While the album is folk metal with blackened edges, this reminds me of early doom/death.

I know it does its job well because it overwhelms the track that follows it, Threat of Fire. After I'd listened through a couple of times, the songs had started to distinguish themselves from each other and I was able to appreciate them on their own merits, except for this one because it exists in the shadow of the epic before it. I had to skip directly to it in order to get my head around it. It brings back a bounce and plays up a new choral side to the vocals. I think it's still just Caswell, but he's singing clean and I believe layering himself to sound like more than one person. It's a neat approach and his harsher voice emerges from it wonderfully.

And so this is a good fifth album, even if I initially thought it was a good second. Let's see if I can be aware enough to notice the sixth rather than the ninth.

Friday 17 March 2023

Rick Wakeman & The English Rock Ensemble - A Gallery of the Imagination (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 24 Feb 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I'm calling this rock for the sake of something. It's certainly not progressive rock, even though it's by Rick Wakeman, who's done five different stints as the keyboard player in Yes. Some of his solos go there, but there's little prog otherwise, with the primary approach here being vocal pop/rock with a prominent keyboard backing. There's not a lot of guitar, with some notable exceptions, and Hayley Sanderson's voice rarely ventures into rock territory. She's somewhere in between jazz and musical theatre, but phrasing as if this is a pop album.

I like her voice, which is versatile and nuanced, but it's soft and sweet for most of this album. That isn't a bad thing and it works for this material, but it's less interesting to me than the music. What exceptions there are all stand out to me because she's doing something a little more. She's neatly dynamic on A Mirage in the Clouds, effortlessly ramping up to soaring levels from what's almost a whisper. She layers herself at one point on The Eye of the Child. She gets loose and Caribbean on Cuban Carnival. And, best of all, she goes much higher on The Visitation to become reminiscent of Kate Bush.

My favourite pieces here tend to be instrumental though. The best for me is Hidden Depths, which opens up the album. It gives lots of opportunity to Wakeman, of course, but also to guitarist Dave Colquhoun. Between them, they cover a lot of ground: sometimes light and airy, sometimes with a hint of menace, sometimes like an instrumental take on an AOR vocal song. After that, it's surely The Dinner Party for me, which has real sass to it. It's swing but done on piano with faux brass and some wacka wacka guitar. It's the most attention seeking song on the album, with The Creek and Just a Memory soft and introspective piano solos.

Of the vocal songs, I'd probably call out A Mirage in the Clouds as my favourite, because it gifts Lee Pomeroy with something notable to do with his bass. He and Ash Soan on drums do good work over the whole album but it's rarely about them, being alternately Wakeman's and Sanderson's album.

When it's instrumental, it's usually Wakeman who takes the fore, trying to persuade us that there are a dozen different instruments on his rack. He conjures up a lot of sounds, all the way to what is possibly supposed to be a theremin or a saw, but is probably just keyboards. He reserves plenty of opportunities for keyboard solos, but they're never long and they're never the point of the piece, the piano solo songs excepted. Beyond Hidden Depths, his best solos are probably on The Man in the Moon, Cuban Carnival and My Moonlight Dream, the former and latter the best moments for Colquhoun's guitar too.

Prog fans might want to check out The Eyes of a Child, because there's some prog in the backdrop when it gets going, Colquhoun has some neat guitar runs over a soothing base and the moments when Sanderson duets with herself are gorgeous. However, if that's not prog enough for you, and it may well not be, then nothing else is going to pique your interest. This was never intended to be a throwback to his seventies prog excesses. It's an attempt to paint pictures in music, something a piano teacher taught him back when he was a five year old kid starting out.

And that's really how this is best taken, as an introduction. Imagine yourself walking around your local art gallery. You're going to like a bunch of what's on the walls but not care particularly about them. Maybe you'll go back to one on the way out and spend some time with it, sink your eyes into it with some exploration in mind, read about the artist and check them out later online. There are no masterpieces here that prompt essays, just good work in a variety of styles that takes care of a lost afternoon. And, if you find something you like, then the artist is Rick Wakeman and you'll find him a deep, prolific and pioneering creator. Go explore his work.

The Fallen Prophets - Perpetual Damnation (2023)

Country: South Africa
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 10 Mar 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Much of what I review nowadays is from Europe, given that there's far more invention in play over there than in North America at the moment, but I try to keep my eyes focused on the globe. There is a lot of amazing music coming out of South America right now and some from Asia too, even if it seems to be underperforming when compared to population. Oceania is a gift that keeps on giving and that leaves Africa, which I'd love to cover more often, if only the continent produced more in a rock and metal vein. Much of what I do see is from South Africa and the Fallen Prophets are a fresh name to me, hailing from Cape Town.

They seem to like their metalcore in South Africa and there's an element of that here, but mostly I hear death metal, more melodic than brutal and often technical too. There are two vocalists, with Pieter Pieterse the lead. He delivers a deep death growl in relatively traditional fashion, with lots of relish, if not as much intonation and variety as I'd like. Occasionally, Francois van der Merwe has something to do behind him and, if I'm identifying him correctly, his contributions are more in the black metal vein, higher and more of a shriek than a growl. He doesn't get the spotlight often, but there are moments in the closer, Rotten from the Bone.

The music follows their lead, with tone particularly important and melody behind it. If I'm reading correctly, there are three guitarists in play, which explains why the sound is so dense. Daniel Louw covers lead duties and the two vocalists add rhythm. They chug well and they speed up well too, if not particularly far. There's some thrash here, especially on the second half, but they rarely think about going full tilt and the fastest aspect is often Dylan Haupt's drums. Given van der Marwe's vocals and Haupt's drums, a black metal influence is clear, even if it's never particularly overt, just sitting underneath everything else winking at us.

The Fallen Prophets have been around since 2011 and this is their third album, with a couple of EPs in between. As such, it's not surprising that the band are tight, even if two of the musicians joined after COVID and a third not long before it. They feel seasoned and they fall into grooves easily. The catch to that is that I wanted more from them than just falling into grooves. There are moments in which they provide something extra, like the wonderful intro to album opener Let the Weak Suffer and a brief moment for the bass to take the spotlight in Fatal Invocation. These things elevate the music and they do them well, so I wonder why they don't do them more often.

Instead of evolving their sound to provide something different from other death metal bands, I'm hearing far more focus on simply doing what they do very well indeed. It's like they care more that an audience leaves a gig thinking that they're better than anyone else on the bill than different in any way. I'm all for bands trying to being the best they can be, but death metal is a crowded genre and there needs to be something more to distinguish one band from a scene. Maybe this band are more technical than anyone else in Cape Town and damn they're tight, but there's not a lot that's going to make them stand out against other tight technical death metal bands on the internet.

And so, this has to be a recommended album because it's good stuff, but it's going to play best to a strict audience of death metal connoisseurs. Listeners with broader tastes would dig the solos on Asphyxiation Chamber or how well they shift from a slow chug on As the Dead Swarm to what may be the fastest pace on the album, but these are second half songs and they may not get that far if they're not die hard death metal fans. I like the second half more than the first, not just those two songs but also Fatal Invocation after them. This is the Fallen Prophets at their thrashiest and that appeals to me.

They're a good band and this is a good album, but I feel that there's a better one in them yet. This is reliable good rather than inventive good. The hints of invention tell me that they could knock it out of the park with their fourth album, but they'll need to figure out what to add to their sound to take them to the next level.

Thursday 16 March 2023

Sortilège - Apocalypso (2023)

Country: France
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 3 Mar 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

I've reviewed a lot of comeback albums here at Apocalypse Later, from bands who were important a long time ago, i.e. way back in my day. I discovered rock and metal through the Friday Rock Show in mid-1984 and I dived in deep. For a few years, I felt I knew about everything, until other passions arose and real life as an adult got in a way. Sortilège are very much of my era. They formed before I knew about rock music, back in 1981, but their debut album didn't come along until 1984, when I'd just stumbled onto the genre. They released a follow-up album in 1986, like the first in both English and French editions, and that was all she wrote.

And now they're back. Well, they're kinda sorta back, because their history of reformations seems to be rather complex. They got back together a bunch of times without ever finding their way back into a studio. One of those was in 2018, which lasted a couple of years before the band fragmented into two separate incarnations. This is the one based around vocalist Christian "Zouille" Augustin, who co-founded the band and has been with them all along.

The other, based around Didier "Dem" Demajean, who also co-founded the band and who played rhythm guitar throughout, is also called Sortilège but with an awkward subtitle—Sortilège (Dem, L'Anguille, Snake)—to reflect that it features two other founder members, Stéphane "L'Anguille" Dumont and Bob Snake, their lead guitarist and drummer respectively. What a tangled web they weave. I hope whatever differences they have can be resolved and that this first new studio album in thirty-seven years can mark the beginning of a new era for the band.

The good news is that the opening track, Poseidon, is a stormer. It's a straight forward heavy metal song with a fast pace and plenty of power that just scoots along like nothing could stop it. Zouille's voice sounds as good as ever and Bruno Ramos delivers an excellent guitar solo. I'd call few songs here as inexorable as Poseidon, only Le sacre du sorcier really challenging it, not so fast but just as firm in its drive forward. I do like these straightforward songs. Because they're not doing anything fancy, they have to absolutely nail the basics—the riffs, the hooks, the solo—and Sortilège do that with aplomb.

Attila is a more applicable template, in that it slows things down acutely without ever making it to doom levels, but keeps every ounce of heaviness. Most of what follows starts out in this vein, even if a song might choose to add another element to the mix: the middle-eastern flavour on Derrière les portes de Babylon, the folky chorus of Le sacre du sorcier, the atmosphere of Vampire. Some of the riffs are exquisitely simple, like the core one on La parade des centaures. it really doesn't have much to it but it does exactly what's needed.

Even when Sortilège decide to soften up, on Encore un jour, they don't leave the heaviness behind and they allow the song to build considerably. It never speeds up, but it keeps its power and a less dense sound gives Ramos's guitar all the more opportunity to shine. And, when they decide to go for a majestic sound, as on the closing title track, it sounds like they should never do anything else. It's a real stalker of a song, slow and powerful, but lively and huge. I'd call Apocalypso a highlight, even if it's very different from my other two, Poseidon and Derrière les portes de Babylon.

Talking of the latter, it's still a highlight even though the opening riff seems rather familiar. For a song exploring the exotic east, with an agreeable amount of folk instrumentation and backing, it feels a little cheap to borrow from a pioneer in that vein as acutely recognisable as Led Zeppelin's Kashmir. That said, it moves on and finds its own grooves, which are worthy. If I were to choose just one song from this album for radio play, I might plump for that long one over the three and a half minute Poseidon that ought to be the logical pick.

This album is old school enough that I'm surely more inclined to like it and I do. If you're younger than me to the tune of a generation, you might find this a little old fashioned. Then again, it may shine as another example of the burgeoning new wave of classic heavy metal and thrill you with a blissful lack of nostalgia flavouring your opinion. It's good stuff, whether it was made in 2013 or in 1988, either of which would be believable, if we discount the modern production values. Welcome back, folks!

Özgür Aydın - Harvest (2023)

Country: Turkey
Style: Blues Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 17 Mar 2023
Sites: Bandcamp

This is going to seem like easy listening after ...and Oceans and the sweater Özgür Aydın's wearing on the cover doesn't help—no, I'm not judging, because I covet both those chairs—but it's perfect as a palate cleanser. It's bluesy but it feels uplifting and song titles like Joy, Harvest and Circle of Energy feel entirely appropriate. It's also entirely instrumental, because Aydın is a guitarist—not to be confused with the concert pianist of the same name—and he sees his job as conjuring moods out of his guitar. I could easily see some of these pieces being used on soundtracks.

It actually starts out lighter than it ends up, because there's a long intro to Earth Mother to set us in a calm frame of mind before Aydın's electric guitar joins in around the minute mark. From that point, we're firmly in the vibe of the album and the rest continues in much the same vein. It's soft music but it has substance and it feels delightful. For comparisons, I'd suggest Mark Knopfler with no hesitation, but there's some Dave Gilmour in there too. Like them, Aydın is economical with his notes but he plays and manipulates all the ones that need to be there to do the job at hand.

Earth Mother is a decent opener, enough to keep me listening, but I found myself enjoying this all the more as it ran on. From Earth Mother to Air and Water—if you're waiting for fire, you'll be out of luck—and a more thoughtful piece. Much of what Aydın does is introspective, but this one has a story arc like, say, Knopfler's Going Home, and the backing emphasises its build well. I should add that this isn't just solo guitar; someone, maybe Aydın himself, is playing bass and drums, often keyboards as well. I can't find credits online, only the suggestion that there isn't a standing band behind him.

What's important about the backing musicians, whoever they are, is that they rarely seek out the spotlight, content to accompany Aydın in relatively simple fashion, a clear contrast to the guitar, which has plenty to say. Also, the backing tracks don't vary much from track to track, so leaving the guitar full control to change the tone, mood or anything else. For instance, Aydın is vehement on Land, in the sense that he's more forceful with the strings rather than playing faster or heavier. I heard a lot of what Robbie Blunt did on Robert Plant's Big Log on this one.

For a while, every track seems to be better than the last, but Food plays more like an extension to Land than the next track. I like Land so much that I'm not sure I'd put anything else here above it, but Circle of Energy is exactly what it suggests and it gets me every time. It's certainly the perkiest piece on the album, with a real bounce in its step. Joy follows it well, even if it just stops when its time is up, and that leaves the title track to close out, which is oddly the shortest piece on offer.

In fact, not only is Harvest the track the shortest on Harvest the album, but the latter feels a little skimpy, only just sneaking past twenty five minutes. I don't know if it's being considered an album or just a mini-album, not that it particularly matters except that if it's advertised as the former, I would have preferred a few more tracks tacked onto the end. Aydın has a pleasant laid back style that's very easy to listen to, so he could easily get away with longer albums than many far better known guitarists who impress wildly but only in smaller doses.

Maybe that's simply a prompt to go and check out his five previous albums, which are all available on his Bandcamp page. This one isn't, for reasons of which I'm blissfully unaware. The prior three are similarly short, following the same seven song template, but the first couple seem longer, with 2018's 12th Street far more generous, boasting ten tracks, most of them in the four or five minute range. Maybe I'll pick that one up and see how he's developed in a decade and a half.

Wednesday 15 March 2023

...and Oceans - As in Gardens, So in Tombs (2023)

Country: Finland
Style: Symphonic Black Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 Jan 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Wikipedia | YouTube

I was surprised to see an album by ...and Oceans pop up out of the blue in 2020. It was their first in eighteen years, after spending plenty of time as industrial band Havoc Unit and death metal band Festerday, their original incarnation. But suddenly they they were with a long overdue fifth album and, only three years later, here's their sixth. I absolutely do not want to go back to eighteen year gaps, but this wasn't as successful for me as its predecessor, gorgeous cover art notwithstanding.

Like Cosmic World Mother, this is mature black metal with symphonic textures wrapped around it and plenty of odd little diversions into other realms. The first of those comes halfway through the opening title track, when the black prog suddenly vanishes as if we've bumped the dial on a radio and accidentally tuned into some sort of crossdimensional eclectica channel. There's what sounds like carnival music with effects, as if someone's playing an American Fotoplayer, the device used to accompany silent movies. Maybe our signal is being hacked; I could see this being the work of Max Headroom. And then we're back to where we were. Very strange.

I wasn't a fan of the first half of the title track. The drums sound OK but the cymbals are awful and I wondered what happened to the glorious mix that I enjoyed so much on the previous album. I was happy when it perks right up after that strange interlude, with beautifully slow melodies laid over frantic blastbeats. I might complain about how it ends just like that, but then The Collector and His Construct continues as if it's the second part of the very same song, so I won't. I like that one a lot, because it plays with that mix of slow melodies over frantic urgency and it does it throughout.

This is the ...and Oceans I want to hear, a band who manage to combine the overwhelming mindset of traditional black metal with elegant melodies that seem utterly effortless. It's as if the album's some sort of vehicle that sits on a thousand mad but highly effective legs that speeds away from us in jagged lines without any hesitation. It seems like it'll be impossible to keep up with it, except that somehow we find ourselves floating in serene fashion above the maelstrom of activity below us and we're able to look down on the fury from a safe place.

Given that this approach is hardly the most immediate to grasp, the question always comes down to how well the songs grow on us with repeat listens. A first time through isn't going to be enough but a second should start to feel right and a third should allow us to start calling out highlights. It played that way for me, the first listen mostly disappointing but the second much improved and a third time through the charm. I'm still not particularly fond of the first few minutes of the album, which seems like the point it ought to grab me hardest, but it kicks in soon enough and maintains its momentum throughout.

The Collector and His Construct is better than the title track, but Within Fire and Crystal is better again, because its contrasts are brighter. I like how it gets doomy in its midsection too. It's a song that gets more interesting the further it goes and I do appreciate those. Carried on Lead Wings is a third strong song in a row, which bodes really well for the album as a whole. Eventually, though, my struggles with the mix took over.

A song like Likt Törnen Genom Kött, with its epic flow lurking in delightful shadows under the main thrust of the music, ought to feel blissfully immersive but I couldn't find how to dive in. I have zero knowledge of how to be a studio engineer, but I can see where the problem is. At my regular level of volume, I found myself focusing extra hard on the backdrop, because it seemed to be too low in the mix. I wanted to hear more of it and the band kept getting in the way. So I turned it up to see if it would burst through at a higher volume, but the drums became annoying in the foreground and they took me out of the experience, even as the bass crept out to be noticed.

Early on, it didn't seem quite right but I was able to cope. Maybe the early songs are good enough that they can climb above the problem, but that doesn't ring true because songs like Likt Törnen Genom Kött and Inverse Magnification Matrix feel like they should be too but the mix stops them from reaching their full potential, from delivering the oomph that they deserve at any volume. I seriously want to hear Antti Simonen's epic keyboard sweep on Inverse Magnification Matrix but it's too hidden.

I don't know to fix this, but it would seem to me that it could be done by pushing and pulling sliders on that mixing desk and that's someone else's job. What's oddest is that it feels inconsistent, as if the engineer changed between sides, which makes little sense. It's certainly more of a problem as we drift out of the first side than earlier. Long story short, I'm happy that this particular group are continuing as ...and Oceans, at least for the present, but this isn't as good an album as it could be. It doesn't seem as progressive as its predecessor, with the dips into wild material asides instead of integral components. I still want to see them live though. I want to see how this translates to stage.

Warp - Bound by Gravity (2023)

Country: Israel
Style: Stoner Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Feb 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives

Here's a lively stoner rock album from Tel Aviv that's clearly driven by the guitar of Itai Alzaradel from the very outset, and even though all three members of the band lend voice to the fray, we're never left in any doubt that its natural state is instrumental jam with that guitar always the focus. The opener is The Present and it does different things, even finding a more furious mentality with some punk chord changes midway, but it's at its best when the bass of Sefi Akrish and the drums of Mor Harpazi are laying down a massive backdrop for Alzaradel to solo over.

My other immediate impression is that this is loud music and I mean really loud. I actually turned my volume way down, to the point where it might not disturb a theoretical someone sleeping in a corner of my office, just as an experiment, and it still felt loud. Back up to normal volume, it feels crazy loud. At crazy loud levels on stage, Warp must be quite the experience. Much of the credit is owed to that backdrop, which is cavernous in size, but the guitar easily fills that space.

The vocals don't, which helps the feel, because it seems like they're always struggling to be heard over that mighty guitar. They're never hidden and they're sung in English, but I quickly took them as a sonic texture rather than a set of delivered lyrics. I've listened through a few times and I have no idea what any of these songs are about because it never seems like it matters. What I got from the album is a feel and it's a gigantic combination of punk confrontation and, rather oddly, quite a lively stoner rock approach, because the only threatening done here is by volume. This is a good trip.

Maybe that's because, while of course there's some Black Sabbath here, it's very loose and bluesy rather than rigid and solemn. During the midsection of The Hunger, the bass is delightfully organic and the guitar is happy to follow suit. I feels like I'm in the ship in Fantastic Voyage being hurtled down the rapids of some giant's bloodstream, with a little break in the middle as we transition to a smoother current. Did we just go through the heart and straight out the other side? The intros often highlight different influences too. The guitar that introduces Bound by Gravity reminds of a less self-important Danzig but on Dirigibles it's more like a smoother Celtic Frost.

And, as good as Akrish and Harpazi are here, it always comes back to that guitar. One reason that I think it's so acceptable is that there's fuzz here, as you might expect for stoner rock, but it's a very palatable level of fuzz. Even when a song goes for a more bludgeoning approach, like Your Fascist Pigs are Back, it doesn't have any of the dirtier edges of sludge metal. It's always stoner rock, even if it's so loud that Warp ought to land a support slot on a Manowar tour, and threatens often to go into doom metal. However, it would be fairer to compare them to Iron Butterfly than Candlemass.

I enjoyed the whole album, though the looser it got the more I liked it. I can appreciate a song like Your Fascist Pigs are Back, but I much prefer The Present and Impeachment Abdication, where the guitar just runs loose and shines in its own special light. I also rather dig the closer, I Don't Want to Be Remembered, because it extends that looseness to the vocals, where three voices harmonise in neatly chaotic fashion. There's variety here, if we pay attention but, once we get past the first trio of tracks, the songs do start to blur together a little. This seven minute closer, on the other hand, is stubborn and refuses to blur into anything else. It goes all over the map and can be a little hard to see in entirety, but I love it for that.

I believe this is a second album for Warp, after a self-titled effort in 2019, so I should check that out at some point when I'm not behind on reviews. I'd also like to know what else is going on in Tel Aviv that doesn't remotely fit any expectations we might let bias our judgement. Their Facebook page highlights a whole bunch of others they're gigging with who I'm intrigued to throw an ear at.

Tuesday 14 March 2023

Heidevolk - Wederkeer (2023)

Country: The Netherlands
Style: Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 Feb 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

There are folk metal bands who are folk metal bands because they play folk instruments, bagpipes and fiddles and hurdy-gurdys. Then there are folk metal bands who are folk metal bands because they play metal but sing about folk subjects and that's where Heidevolk come in. They check all the boxes there: a name with a folk connotation—Heidevolk means People of the Heather in Dutch; a choice to write lyrics in their native language, those lyrics having a fascination with the history of their home region of Gelderland and wider Teutonic myths; and a vocal style that suits the subject matter, not just from lead vocalists Jacco Bühnebeest and Daniël Den Dorstighe but all the other band members who contribute backing vocals too.

All those vocals are deep, lending Heidevolk an acutely masculine feel, especially given that they stay clean and melodic, albeit rough to fit the mindset that this is music from regular people, not the elite. This is music for comrades to sing together in communal places, especially with a steady supply of beer in large tankards. Drink met de Goden (Walhalla) is only the best example, not the only one, which shouldn't surprise, given that the title translates to Drink with the Gods. I may not be tall enough to feel like I could join in, but I think I have every member of the band on length of beard and, for the first time ever, that seems important. The kilt ought to give me bonus points.

I liked this album immediately. It's heavy but not fast, as if it rarely feels the need to speed up. The sound is exquisitely clean and everything is deep. The drums are at the front of the mix but they're never in the way. The guitars are prominent too, though they're clean enough to scythe through a more troublesome mix than this one. The vocals feel buried to exactly the right degree, except on tracks where they just take over. Schildenmuur, for instance, sounds like a work song, even if it's an attempt to keep time for a blacksmith rather than a road crew. There's nothing to accompany the singers there but hand drums.The intros to Hagalaz and Oeros do the same thing.

There are folk instruments here too, but they're not prominent, that angle covered primarily with voice. In addition to his mike duties, Bühnebeest plays the accordion, but that's only really obvious on one song, Ver Verlangen, and even then it's deep like everything else, not the lively instrument we hear in Korpiklaani or the quirky one we hear from Weird Al Yankovic. There's a flute, but only on Klauwen Vooruit, provided by Fabi, who's Fabienne Kirschke, who's best known for singing and playing folk instruments for Brisinga and Storm Seeker, usually hurdy-gurdy and recorder.

Those are the only ones I'm seeing credited, but there's definitely a horn of some description that announces the arrival of Oeros, a wonderful plodder of a song that guarantees to move your feet and your neck. There seem to me to be violins on there too, as indeed there must have been on De Strijd Duurt Voort and will be immediately again on the title track. Maybe there are others that I missed. Like the accordion and the flute, these are obvious enough that they won't escape us but not so much that they feel like any particular song would seem stripped if they were removed. The only instance where I think that would be the case is the violin on the title track.

Wederkeer means "again", which the band are interpreting as a return or a revival, which has two meanings. One is that they're back after the longest gap between albums in their discography, as it's been five years since their previous album, Vuur van verzet in January 2018. The other takes a different form, namely an invitation by Heidevolk to take a break from the deluge of mass media and look inside for a change. That's a quintessential approach for folk music, which usually does it in a far more subtle way, with ethereal vocals and pastoral instrumentation.

Needless to say, Heidevolk don't do either of those things. What they do is connect us to the power of the land. Never mind the power of electricity that connects us to so much, they want us to feel a connection to the land that infuses us with power just as we return that to the land. What they do they do with emphasis and inexorable might. They're not a speed metal band whizzing around the battlefield picking off targets at will. They're a slow but unstoppable behemoth making its way to its next stop, shrugging off obstacles as if they were nothing. Just check out how IJzige Nacht kicks into motion. That's pure undistilled emphasis. My muscles grew just listening to it.

Sound of Smoke - Phases (2023)

Country: Germany
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 Feb 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | YouTube

Here's a unusual psychedelic rock out from Freiburg in Germany, which I believe is the second from Sound of Smoke after a debut called Tales last year and an EP back in 2017 that's just as long as the albums. Musically, they launch into the sort of incessant grooves we expect from Hawkwind, with a bass high in the mix but not downtuned. There are very different songs, but that's the default for them and it's a warm and welcoming sound. What makes them unusual is that the vocals, courtesy of Isabelle Bapté aren't remotely Hawkwind. She's perky but airy and free too, as if she's singing in a pop band that's deep enough to dip into blues and post-punk and whatever she wants to bring to bear on any particular song.

Ocean Drive feels like an alternative pop song shifted into a psychedelic rock framework. It builds and as it does the vocals shift more into post-punk, Bapté chanting like Siouxsie chanted early on with the Banshees. There's most post-punk in Empty Streets, a much calmer song than normal for this album, and it's the one where I paid most attention to her lyrics because she delivers in such a stream of consciousness style that we can't fail to listen, the sort of thing Suzanne Vega might do. It's as inherently inconsequential as R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet, but it still sticks in the mind.

The most pop song here is Candy, which kicks off with an outrageously memorable organ and turns into a bubblegum psychedelic pop song from the late sixties. I could imagine Syd Barrett writing a song like this, but it's fundamentally American. It feels like the sort of obscure sixties single that a lot of latter day garage rock bands cover. There's an odd narrative part, given that Bapté is clearly female, even with effects on her voice in Phases, and she sings in English, but this is delivered by a male voice in German.

Those are the poppier songs but the pop element never quite leaves. The flutes that we first hear on Phases come back for Chasing the Light, which opens up the sound massively. The bass is clearly in a rock song but the flutes take over. We could watch Sound of Smoke in a small club and yet still believe we're outside the moment we close our eyes. There are more keyboards in the second half and they're as delightful as they are different. Bapté handles those too and she has a firm habit of doing something different with them every time. There's old school organ on Preacher, right back in the sixties, but it plays church pop music on Candy and moves to a wonderful spooky sound on a gem of a track called Darkness.

The band are usually heavier than just pop music, as you might expect from the myriad Hawkwind references. Phases is reminiscent of Hawkwind not only through its driving grooves but through a post-production echo placed over Bapté's voice, not to forget the middle eastern vibe that's there from the outset. Sheriff drifts into acid blues, which is natural for Sound of Smoke. Whiet Raebbit, spelled exactly like that, trawls in some Dick Dale surf music. The verses are odd, because the bass plays lead and the guitar plays rhythm. Desert Road is heavier and ploddier in a proto-metal way, but it has a lift in its step and Bapté's vocalisations keep it lighter.

I might call Desert Road out as my favourite track, not just because it's heavier but because it has a searing guitar solo from Jens Stöver, easily his most outrageous and most proto-metal anywhere on the album. However, the drums shift into tribal rhythms too, so there are plenty of depths for us to plumb. It's a really cool piece. Darkness is quintessentially cool in exactly the same way that Ghost Town was cool. Oddly, the chord progressions in the chorus reminded me of Metallica's The Four Horsemen, which is a terrible comparison to make because this isn't close to Metallica in any other way. Once more, the band to bring up is Hawkwind, because the rhythm section turns into a fresh juggernaut driving the song unstoppably forward.

There's so much here that I could just keep on writing and I need to shut up so you can go and find a copy for yourself. Bapté is easily the most obvious element, because she's so unusual for modern psychedelic rock, even if she seems utterly natural on Candy and she channels some Grace Slick on Preacher, this time with some soul on the side, as if to presage the blues solo. I love her vocals but I might actually love her keyboards more, because they steal the show every time she plays them. I loved Jens Stöver's solos late in the album, especially on Desert Road, and wanted more of them. Behind them, the inexorable rhythm section comprises Florian Kiefer on that warm and rich bass and Johannes Braunstein on drums, who are just as obvious in their way and highly versatile.

I like this album a lot. It's an easy one to listen to but it's never background music. It's always there to welcome us and invite us to listen deeper, because there's a lot going on and it wants us to love every aspect of the music. Now I want to find out what was on that previous album.

Monday 13 March 2023

Wig Wam - Out of the Dark (2023)

Country: Norway
Style: Glam Rock/Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 10 Feb 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Wikipedia | YouTube

I mentioned last time out, when I reviewed Wig Wam's reformation album, Never Say Die, that the band had heavied up and that was a change that I firmly appreciated. Well, it seems that they are still heavying up and I'm definitely not complaining. This is still hard rock rather than heavy metal, but the opening title track runs pretty close to the elusive border between the two, closer than I'd say they've ever been. The heaviness is mostly in Teeny's guitars, but the rhythm section backs him up emphatically. That continues, most obviously on Uppercut Shazam and a little less so on High n Dry, but it never really goes away even on the most overt ballad, The Purpose.

The glam roots of Wig Wam show in a number of different ways. Forevermore is a lower key stalker that builds through a singalong glam chorus. Bad Luck Chuck adds in some southern rock and some old school sleaze, before finding a ruthless AC/DC-esque drive. Ghosting You swaggers the way we might expect Wig Wam to swagger and there's plenty of their patented glam stomp. Just to play a bit more with those alliterative movements, the closer, Sailor and the Desert Sun includes a neat middle eastern flavour, so that one sways. The bottom line is that we generally want to move when we're listening to Wig Wam.

There are odd songs that do something completely different and I liked all of those. The Purpose is a ballad, I guess, given that it's notably softer than anything else here and it gives far more of the focus to vocalist Glam. It builds substantially, but never to the point where it could be compared to the heavier material here. It's always the ballad, just not as soft as we might expect. 79 is a guitar instrumental that feels like it waltzed in from an instrumental album. It's a tasty piece, a lot more akin to something Gary Moore might have recorded than, say, a Vai or a Satriani, let alone Yngwie Malmsteen.

Mostly, though, this is just a heavier take on glam rock with chunkier riffs, heavier production and all those glam elements layered over the top. However close to metal it gets, and let's face it, it's over that line on Uppercut Shazam, with razorblades in Teeny's guitar riffs that we might expect from Megadeth, we're never far from a strong hook or a singalong chorus. They're merely laid over chunkier grounding as if this has to be played louder than you're playing it. However old you are or aren't, do you remember that magic first gig when you discovered that soft rock bands aren't so soft on stage as they are on record? It seems to me that this is rather like coming back to the record and not finding it softer at all.

As much I appreciate this everything louder than everything else approach that Wig Wam seem to be firmly moving into, I'd suggest that Out of the Dark, their sixth album, is just as good as Never Say Die, their fifth, which I reviewed a couple of years ago, but no better beyond the crunch. There are still standout songs, like Out of the Dark and Ghosting You, whose lyrics talk about Vanilla Ice for some reason, but most of the album is a notch down from that level, still strong but nothing a certain superhero show would leap at. That material came a little in their career. I wouldn't raise complaints if I heard Uppercut Shazam on the next season of The Boys, but I don't expect it.

And so I wonder how this will fare in the marketplace. Sure, it's heavier, but it's still Wig Wam and I'd expect their fanbase to stay with them, whether they adore the new punchiness or bitch about how they didn't used to need it. Will it bring in anyone new? Maybe. This is all decent stuff, no bad songs among the eleven on offer and the weakest still pretty solid. Maybe it'll be a gateway to the fans of heavier music who might have looked past Wig Wam in the past, even if I don't expect them to acquire a page on Metal Archives quite yet. Time will tell. I'm interested in what they'll do next.