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.

Megaton Sword - Might & Power (2023)

Country: Switzerland
Style: Epic Heavy Metal
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 24 Feb 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives

I've been listening to this album for a week on and off, with a convention in the middle, and it just keeps getting better and better. It's epic heavy metal from Switzerland, which means that it's slow but heavy with clean vocals and it remains inventive throughout. The most obvious influences are traditional American heavy metal bands like Manilla Road and Cirith Ungol, though they're slower than the former and less raucous than the latter. Instead, there's a pivotal emphasis that suggests that the entire album is underlined.

The Raving Light of Day kicks off with an old school Manowar flavour that's happily free of cheese. That's a very recognisable canter, a ride full of so much confidence that it's unnecessary to take it faster into an Iron Maiden gallop. It's an excellent opener, patiently heavy without the need to dip into doom and with a strong hook in the chorus from Uzzy Unchained that elevates everything. It's a statement and the only reason it doesn't stay high in my estimation is because it's followed by a still better song, Iron Plains.

This one has seeped into my soul. It's faster and denser and I love everything about it, from its riff to its power chords via a wonderfully clipped cymbal during a glorious instrumental stretch, but I'd have to say that it's the vocal structure that captured me most. I never can seem to get my brains around how the verses and chorus works. Either the chorus takes up most of the song, wandering in some complex geometric pattern that I can't see, or it's there in absentia, a sort of hollow echo that follows every mention of the title. Whatever it is, it works wonderfully.

Cowards Remain has the best riff on the album and it ups the tempo a little too, though it's Might that takes that the furthest, launching in hard and fast and with both feet firmly in power metal. All Wicked Schemes Unite opens in glorious fashion, with such a rich drum sound that I have to call out the producer, Yvo Petrzilek, for special merit. This is a superb production job. Just listen to the bass running through Power. Why aren't all heavy metal albums produced like this? I remember a time when Joey de Maio kept talking up Manowar's new drum kit in interviews as if it would make the difference between them and every other band. This one kind of does.

Really I need to call everyone out for special merit. Uzzy Unchained is a magnificent vocalist who's powerful throughout, delivering with relish that never becomes over-theatrical, but with another gear available when he wants to really turn it up, like on the epic closer, Babe Eternal. What's odd here is that every song sounds epic but not one makes it to even six minutes. This one's the slowest and most emphatic, in large part because of that searing vocal from Uzzy. However, this is a guitar album and Chris the Axe and new fish Seth Angel, who wasn't on their debut album, are a force of nature. They go to delicate and intricate and characterful, all of it well, but they utterly nail power chords. Every chord sounds like a new pillar in a temple and the album ends up like a city.

I've already praised the production on the bass and drums but the musicians actually playing them deserve credit too and they are Simon the Sorcerer and Dan Thundersteel respectively. Both shine the brightest, perhaps, on All Wicked Schemes Unite, the latter especially early and the latter late but both throughout. It's appropriate that both end the song together, just a hint of bass creeping past the final beat but it's another highlight song for everyone in the band.

And most of them are. There are eight songs here. I'd probably call five of them highlights and the other three aren't far behind. It would be a fool's game to try to rank them, but right now it's Iron Plains and All Wicked Schemes Unite for me, with Cowards Remain and Babe Eternal behind them, then The Raving Light of Day, and finally the title tracks, Might and Power, which are two separate songs here, and, somehow, Raikaszi at the bottom of the pile.

If Raikaszi is the worst song here, with its atmospheric intro, beautifully toned guitar, characterful bass, killer power chords and effortless hook, then it serves well to underline how impressive this album is. Everything I review at Apocalypse Later is recommended to some degree, but it ought to be safe to say that many of the bands I've reviewed this year would love to create even one song as good as Raikaszi. For that to seem like the also ran here is what guarantees a rare 9/10 for me.

Tuesday, 7 March 2023

The Winery Dogs - III (2023)

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

There may not be a more overused word in rock music than "supergroup", which nowadays ends up slapped onto any group of musicians who used to be in other bands but are now in a new one. That covers about half the bands I review and I'm trying to dig deep. If there's an actual supergroup out there nowadays that lives up to that spirit of that name, it's this one, reuniting Billy Sheehan with Richie Kotzen, after a stretch together in Mr. Big decades ago, but with the best rock drummer on the planet added for good measure, Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater fame. Supergroups don't get much more accurate than that.

This is their third album as the Winery Dogs so they clearly know each other well and that's exactly what I got out of Xanadu, which is a killer opener and, as far as I'm concerned, the best song on the album. Everyone shines on this one, each member demonstrating clear virtuosity but showing off in such a way that it never hurts the song. It's a sassy number in the Van Hagar style, right down to the handclaps, and it's Kotzen who shows off first, turning what some guitarists would consider a solo into a mere riff. It works magnificently and I could listen to this one all day.

The album stays good but not that good. Kotzen is often the most notable musician, unsurprisingly as both the band's lead vocalist and only guitarist, but I appreciated that he never goes wild on his solos. None of them are outrageous. They're all good, but they're hard rock guitar solos not stunts and, especially in such virtuoso company, it must have felt natural for him to show off and he kept away from the temptation, even during what could be comfortably be described as duels between him and Sheehan on songs like Rise and Gaslight.

I think of Kotzen as a guitarist but he's a capable singer too. He reminds the most of Sammy Hagar but there's some Paul Rodgers in his voice and some David Coverdale too. Sometimes one shifts to the fore but then fades back again and that always feels natural. Occasionally he tries something different and it feels exactly like he's trying something different. That's most overt on two songs that dip into grunge: Breakthrough introduces that and Pharaoh brings it back. Neither of them is restricted to grunge, but there's definitely some Pearl Jam in there.

The default style is hard rock, with fancy guitarwork that never wants to be still, a prominent bass that sometimes refuses to not play lead and thoroughly serious beats. Sure, they get delightfully loose late in Pharaoh but they don't drift too far from that mindset for most of the album. The two grunge songs end up there too, even if they start out as departures, and there aren't many others that look to something different. Lorelei gets bluesy, just to underline how this old fashioned hard rock grew out of the blues, and Stars gets softer, a melodic rock song with a very recognisable bass line. Is that Strange Kind of Woman? I think that's Strange Kind of Woman.

Beyond those, I'd have to stretch and talk about how loose Pharaoh gets late on. It's still hard rock in much the same vein as most of the album but, soon before the four minute mark, Mike Portnoy decides to relax his ruthless timekeeping and let everyone jam for a few minutes. It's delightfully loose and Kotzen especially feels freed by the shift in mood, delivering the most flamboyant solo on the album. It's feelgood stuff, for the band as much as for us. It would be much too easy to state that I wanted more of that, because I don't know that it would help the album. It's there when the time is right, as a wlecome change, and then they kick back into high gear for the next song, which is Gaslight, demonstrating the highest gear that the Winery Dogs use here.

I like this a lot, but I don't know that I'm willing to give it an 8/10. Xanadu is too clearly a standout and, while nothing lets the side down, quite a few are songs I don't feel much of a need to go back to. So this is a 7/10 from me, but it's an effortless 7/10.

Nuevo Orden - Rehenes del tiempo (2023)

Country: Uruguay
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Feb 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

For a band whose name translates from the Spanish as New Order, this album looks backwards far more than forwards. It's heavy metal without anything extreme layered over the top, and it has a clean production that makes it easy to track any instrument we like, the distortion-free bass being especially audible. It's also very much a child of the eighties and nineties, but not in the way that I usually tend to mean. It doesn't feel like a throwback and that production makes it very clear that it's new, even if the drums are far less prominent than they would usually be nowadays. Nobody's going to mistake this album for one that fell through a time portal from 1985.

It also doesn't sound like anybody in particular, though it sometimes sounds like a lot of bands all at once and the constant little reminders arrive like a barrage that kept me out of the moment. It took a while for me to adjust to actually hearing new songs by Nuevo Orden instead of these hints and snippets and glimpses of older material by other bands. Once I got there, I dug this a lot. It's a good album. It's just weirdly reminiscent for something that never sounds derivative.

I think that means that the influences are in the details and the originality of the band is in their unique way of putting all those building blocks together. For instance, Rehenes kicks off the album with a brief drum intro not unlike something Cozy Powell might have thrown into a Rainbow song, placing us immediately in the seventies. But then the guitars and bass kick in and we're in a power metal song, part Crimson Glory and part Metal Church. There's Guns n' Roses in the guitar tone in the first instrumental break. The chorus feels like thrash metal slowed down to heavy metal speed, with Cliff Burton-esque solo bass moments. The guitar solo is reminiscent of restrained Steve Vai. And the vocals don't sound like any of the bands above.

Nuevo Orden shift through these influences like they're going out of style. Cerbero begins like an epic Helloween track, shifts into Dream Theater and Iron Maiden and even moments of Primus, all without ever leaving a traditional heavy metal sound. Once more, the solo could easily have been included on an instrumental guitar album. Mar de absolución opens as European power metal but shifts into Japanese heavy metal. Brian Alfonso sings it in Spanish, as he does throughout, but it's weirdly reminiscent of someone like Loudness or Vow Wow on this track. And so it goes, more and more moments taking me to old directions that seem to change every time.

It's not just because I gradually got used to this that the album gets better as it runs on. I'd say the songs get better too. Heredero de la desolación opens like a cover of a Metallica song that I never heard before. Carroñero is another thrash song slowed down to heavy metal speed, this time like Megadeth would have done it but without Dave Mustaine's sneer. Even with the slowed pace, it's able to maintain the urgency of thrash intact and the solo is faster and more furious. It makes the result more powerful to my thinking and it's probably my favourite song here, even with Grito del viento after it kicking off with a characterful opening indeed and some excellent and patient riffing.

And, of course, just because I feel like I've come to understand what Nuevo Orden are doing here, they end the album with an almost nine minute track that itself wraps up with a minute and a half of solo piano. They certainly like to keep us on the hop.

I like this band, which Alfonso formed back in 2015. Others joined in 2016, including Andrés Sena on bass and Fabián Sabaté on drums, though Damián Montes de Oca replaced Joaquin Silva in 2018. They put out an EP in 2019 and a couple of singles from this debut album last year, oddly including that nine minute closer, En la tempestad, albeit in the form of a six and a half minute radio edit. While I like Alfonso's voice, because it does exactly what it needs to without ever sounding like he copied the style from anyone else, I like his guitarwork more.

Everything here comes back to the guitars for me, which sound so clean compared to a lot of what I've been listening to lately. Alfonso does double duty, but Montes de Oca only plays guitar. I don't know who plays lead and who plays rhythm, or whether they switch, but the guitars are definitely the highlight of the album to me. Every solo is solid, with some far more ambitious than others. It feels like they tailor the solo to the song, which seems like a gimme, but many bands clearly tailor the song to the solo or just don't even bother. The more I hear these guitars, the more I like them.

Now, let's see what they come up with for a follow-up. I'm paying attention.

Monday, 6 March 2023

Insomnium - Anno 1696 (2023)

Country: Finland
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 24 Feb 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

While I didn't intend this in the slightest, this ninth Insomnium album starts out strikingly similar to the Burgundy Grapes album that I happily pointed out was unlike anything I had ever reviewed at Apocalypse Later. Of course, it does darken a little and it has more edges, but it's still calm folk music. A hoarse spoken word voice shows up a couple of minutes in and then it launches into what we expected all along, because Insomnium are a melodic death metal band and Burgundy Grapes are about the exact opposite of that. Those couple of minutes aren't dissimilar but the rest surely is and that long intro worked well as a transition.

Now, even at their fastest and heaviest, Insomnium still have firm roots in folk music, with plenty of folk storytelling on this album too, given that the songs, based on a short story by bassist Niilo Sevänen, explore the witch hunts of the late 17th century, such as the Torsåker witch trials. These events have resonance today and their emotional impact is most felt in Godforsaken, which kicks off with haunting guest vocals from Johanna Kurkela that sometimes feel Celtic and sometimes remind of the lilting voices of the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir.

This is a real gem of a song, by the way. It's fair to say that I enjoyed both opening tracks, a kinda sorta title track called 1696 and then White Christ, but Godforsaken takes their epic feel and ups the ante considerably. It's a cut above from the outset, easily eclipsing the earlier songs, but the second half is especially devastating. Kurkela certainly set the stage for it, but it's the mood that the song finds once it drops to spoken word and inexorably works its way forward from there that truly nails the song as a highlight.

The album can't maintain that level of quality, but it's a tremendously high bar to keep up and it's not far off when all is said and done. The aspects I expected are still here: a strong sense of doom, even when Markus Hirvonen's drums are furious; melodies everywhere, even with an overtly dark sound; and some prog in the how Insomnium handle dynamic play, breaking songs into movements and shifting back and forth between peaceful sections and more aggressive ones. I'm still hearing Paradise Lost in the guitars and early Marillion in the guitars and keyboards.

What leapt out this time was the richness of the sound. There's a weight to it but also a lightness, as if it's a dense and heavy solid but with enough balloons attached to it that we can make it move with little effort. The keyboards are a huge part of this, even though they're not always obvious, a texture behind everything else. If we try to focus on them we won't always be able to, but it's safe to say that Coen Janssen is there anyway building a fog of sound for the regular musicians to play inside. The fact that there are three guitars helps too, because they've found an effective way to divide duties so that there's always bedrock and embellishment. It's a step beyond the traditional lead/rhythm split to ensure that ther'es always something interesting happening.

Whatever they're doing, they're doing it impeccably well and they do it on each of the eight songs on offer this time out. Godforsaken is easily the standout track for me but, the more times I listen through this album, the more The Rapids stands up to be counted alongside it. I don't know if it's just due to its slot as the closer, but it feels more urgent than anything else here, as if Insomnium establish their level of intensity, maintain it for seven tracks and then decide to push past it for the eighth. It's an epic too, albeit a slightly shorter one, and the song I might rank third behind these two happens to be the third epic on the album, Starless Paths. Clearly, the longer the Insomnium song, the more I'm able to immerse myself into it.

And so this is an easy 8/10 for me. The only question I have, as I reach the point where I've listened through enough times for the songs to start to become old friends, is whether I should up that to a 9/10. I don't remember feeling that way on their previous album, Heart Like a Grave, so I guess this is another step up for them. Either way, I see that I wrapped up that review by noting that my son has seen Insomnium live twice now and I have yet to see them. I was aiming to do so in April 2020. I wonder how well that worked out...

Burgundy Grapes - Quadrella (2023)

Country: Greece
Style: Folk Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 Feb 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website

This must be the quietest album I've reviewed yet at Apocalypse Later but it's a damn good one, a core of soft folky acoustic guitars surrounded by fascinating sounds from a variety of instruments played by guests. Burgundy Grapes ares at heart a duo, George Kolyvas and Alexandros Miaoulis, who don't list what they play, beyond those guitars and presumably the drums, as nobody else has a credit for that. They may well play more between them, but guests add wilder instrumentation to the mix too maintain a progressive edge: a double bass here, an organ there, even theremin or stylophone when needed.

The base sound is folk rock, often with a psychedelic angle, as if they recorded this in a park in San Francisco while under the influence of acid rather than at home in Athens, Greece. It's very quiet, as if every musician is deliberately playing their respective instruments very softly and trying not to breathe to put off the extra-sensitive microphones, but that doesn't mean that it's without an intricacy. It must be the easiest album in the world to put on and automatically like as background music, but it's well worth a deep focus from the listener to catch everything they're doing. All of it is engaging and fascinating.

Tickle Road is a soft opener, but Possibility Song is a darker counterpoint, quietly threatening and making us aware of our surroundings. Wander to Stride is more overtly folk, but it's not pastoral, even if I could absolutely imagine a flute soaring over it. Instead of adding that element, it drifts into Pink Floyd territory, if you remember the Meddle album. There are hints of organ and double bass that remain tantalising. While a gentle riff repeats over and over like waves, I was listening to the chimes or xylophone or whatever's tinkling in the foreground, almost as a solo.

Sometimes there seems to be an organic flow to the guitars, as if this was aimed at anyone who's into the first couple of Leonard Cohen albums but doesn't want to hear his poetry, focused instead on his rippling guitarwork. It reminded me of Philip Glass's Glassworks album, merely slowed and transcribed for acoustic guitar. Initially, the tone felt like acoustic Wishbone Ash, but that goes as quickly as it arrives, replaced by the subtly psychedelic folk angle. Dream Echo has African guitar melodies, again slowed down, but overlaid with a lap steel straight out of country music. I heard a lot of Norman Blake here too, but, yes indeed, slowed down and softened. Burgundy Grapes don't want us to get up and dance. They want us to sit around and listen, maybe join in.

What surprised me the most was how few of these eleven pieces of music feel like they could have been the backing tracks to singer/songwriter songs. Crystal Friend certainly does and I kept trying to imagine what sort of unique voice would surely join in any moment now. However, this remains entirely instrumental. The title track is another example, though I felt Crystal Friend would work with a tender female voice but Quadrella a more raucous male one, maybe not a full on Tom Waits but on the way towards it. He would certainly respond to the carnival beat and the theremin that kicks in too for an enticing touch.

But then we're back to pieces of music that feel like they were always instrumentals and couldn't be anything but. Sure, the baritone sax of Thodoris Rellos on Curtains does kinda sorta take the place of what a vocal might do, but it's meant to be instrumental. Most of them are driven by the guitars but a piano takes over on Green Door, almost duetting for a while and eventually taking over the piece. It's yet another reminder that this would work effortlessly as background music, just something a little breezy and natural to lighten your day, but it also rewards the listener who pays attention to see what's going on.

And that's where I'll leave this, because I have to move on to another album, as easy as it would be to just let this play out the week on repeat. I'd say that you need to be in the mood for this, but I'd correct that to say that, if you're not in the mood for this when you press play, you will be soon into it. It's a refresher of an album. Take one after lunch and it'll better your day.

Friday, 3 March 2023

Killer - Hellfire (2023)

Country: Belgium
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 27 Jan 2023
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives

I remember a few bands called Killer back in the eighties. This is the Belgian outfit, who got some airplay on the Friday Rock Show in 1984, from their Shock Waves album, who are not to be confused with the Swiss band who were played a couple of years later, from their Young Blood album. These Belgians have moved through a number of styles, starting out as hard rock but moving into metal and shifting up to speed metal gears. This eighth album, also their first in eight years, is elusive in its sound because it trawls in most of their eras and some from band hiatuses too.

Argus Eyes is straight ahead heavy metal, but it's a disappointing opener because it's too clean. It has a decent riff but it fails to make an impression and the rest of the album, which happily adds a little dirt, quickly leaves it in the dust. It finds its feet with Money, which is an old school NWOBHM track. Cuts Me Like a Knife is the sort of blues-based hard rock number that I could imagine Deep Purple recording after Mark II broke up, but it also has a wailing guitar over the top that's clearly heavy metal. It's almost like two songs in one, the guitarist showing up to a different session and adding a new layer on top of what could have been a completed song, but I like it.

The album's predominant sound shows up in Rat Race, which barrels along like Motörhead or, with a little more accuracy, Tank. For a while, it tries to combine approaches—Different Worlds has the NWOBHM style but also that metal guitar over a bluesy rock base, Nightmare is NWOBHM over a blues base too and From Bad to Worse moves all the way back to hard rock, designed to be played loud in a small pub—but eventually it gives up the effort and settles into that Tank sound. And, to be frank, it's when I expected the filler material to start showing up that I really started to dig the album.

There's nothing particularly special about War at Home, Medicine Man and House of Glass, except that, sitting late on the second side with nine songs before them and the token ballad to come, it's generally expected that they be the weakest tracks and they simply aren't. Trouble is right before them and, while it's still NWOBHM, it happily hints at doom. War at Home adds an urgent tempo, albeit nowhere near speed metal. Medicine Man and House of Glass have nothing notable for me to call out. However, all four of these songs just sound right and they sound right together.

They're all basic heavy metal songs, with decent riffs and, with the exception of Trouble, a decent pace. They have decent hooks and they don't outstay their welcomes. They also all feature strong guitar solos from Paul van Camp, now as then generally known as Shorty. He co-founded the band in 1980 with drummer Fat Leo, who passed in 2012, and has remained in place throughout. Spooky isn't here though, the bass player who joined soon into the band's lifetime and stayed most of the way through—including a blues band called Blues-Express that Shorty and Spooky played in while Killer were on hiatus between 1991 and 1993 that I'm sure fuelled songs like Cuts Me Like a Knife here—because he left in 2010, shortly into their third run. So now it's Shorty on guitars and vocals, Jakke on bass and vocals and Vanne on drums. They're still a power trio.

It's clearly Shorty's show now and it's hardly a shock that he gives himself so many opportunities to launch into searing guitar solos, sometimes at serious length. They're in the Michael Schenker style but with a continual raw edge that I really like. In fact, I'm happy that he did prioritise these solos because they were the highlights of the album for me. I dug Rat Race anyway, but it's better because of its solos. Those songs late on the second side are all elevated by solos. I ought to point out that they're almost entirely done in the same style, so it could be argued that they're not far off interchangeable but I don't care. I loved them anyway.

I should also add that, if the 2023 Killer are far more a reliable mid-card band than a headliner, it has to be said that this is a generous album. For a regular price, you get a new album that comes close to reaching an hour and, in fact, does if you count the two bonus tracks. What's more, if you happen to be new to the band, there's a best of compilation on a included second disc. That's a lot of music and it's well worth the price. Welcome back to the studio, folks.

Moonlight Benjamin - Wayo (2023)

Country: Haiti/France
Style: Blues Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 Feb 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Here's something wonderfully primal from France via Haïti, where Moonlight Benjamin was born to a voodoo priestess. She grew up singing hymns in an orphanage, moved on to western rock and then studied jazz after moving to France. She'd already released world music albums by the time she had her own initiation into voodoo back in Haïti, but shifted to her very own voodoo rock style in 2018 with an album called Siltane. She followed that up with Simido in 2020 and now Wayo. It's a strong style, emphatic and commanding but full of excellent grooves.

Initially, I was reminded of Yma Sumac, of all people, even though the style is very different. Sure, both moved from poorer countries in the Americas to rich first world nations and incorporated an array of western styles of music into their sounds, but I'm thinking more of the way that they both create songs through vocalisations as much as by delivering lyrics. There's a lot going on vocally in the opening title track, but there aren't a lot of sung words. Of course, beyond some vocalisations that sound like birds chirping, the two sound very different indeed, because Sumac was thrown at exotica and Benjamin at garage rock. That shifts as the album moves on but it never quite leaves entirely.

There are other formative rock sounds here too. The guitars on Haut là haut remind of songs like Spirit in the Sky, but Benjamin dips the song firmly into Dr. John territory for a cajun swamp blues approach with plenty of handclaps. Sing along, cher! There's gospel here too and spirituals, some straight ahead blues and a smattering of shock rock. Moving her music in this direction was always going to trawl in Screamin' Jay Hawkins as well as more sedate personae as Dr. John.

The album moves along quickly. None of these songs are long, most of them in a range from under three minutes to three and a half. Only three of eleven exceed that and only comes close to five minutes, not remotely outstaying its welcome. It's probably my favourite song here, because it's a pristine combination of world music and rock 'n' roll, Benjamin's low croon a sultry delight while a tribal beat and a rhythmic rock guitar fashion a groove behind her. It adds further world elements as it goes, the punctuating guitars and the vocal chants reminding of African music. It's simple for us to think of this as a voodoo ritual.

I say probably my favourite, because Freedom Fire right after it gives it a firm challenge, with a deliciously dark invitation of an opening that's utterly evocative. I saw this song as much as heard it and those are dangerous visions. I wonder what Benjamin does on stage, because this ought to have some sort of visual element to illustrate the danger. I checked out some of Benjamin's early world music and she didn't sing remotely this low on them. This is clearly for effect and it's a very good choice because the effect is powerful. I'd love to hear Benjamin tackle Earth Kitt's I Want to Be Evil, translated, of course, into French and shifted into this voodoo rock style.

There are other strong tracks too. Taye banda just won't leave me alone. Bafon has a real swagger to it that rolls along inexorably like a tank. Lilè does something similar but with more of a focus on those deliciously round sounds that Benjamin pours out. Sometimes it feels like she's only singing vowels and it sounds amazing. The core melody in Alé sounds very familiar, enough that I was with it singing along on my first listen, even though I don't know the words. It's a jaunty song with some of the most memorable guitars on the album, which combine with the tribal beat to nail another groove.

I like exploring world music and it's rare that I hear someone so clearly world music manage to find a strong synthesis with rock music. It happens but not so often as you'd think. What's more, for an artist to do that and end up in an original place is precious. It's not unprecedented, of course, with the names I've mentioned thus far clear influences and probably more too, but it's not something I've heard in a new album in a long while. I like.