Friday 28 April 2023

Ihsahn - Fascination Street Sessions (2023)

Country: Norway
Style: Progressive Rock/Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 24 Mar 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Fascination Street Sessions is only an EP rather than a full length album and its trio of songs count for only thirteen minutes of music, but I've heard a lot of buzz about this release and ought to take a listen. And hey, Ihsahn seems to be releasing all his new music as EPs lately, this being his third in five years since his most recent album, Àmr in 2018. I didn't review Pharos in 2020 but I did take on Telemark earlier that same year, so I guess I've set precedent.

Both those EPs featured three original tracks from Ihsahn, along with a pair of covers, each one of them an interesting choice that we might not expect from a pioneering black metal musician. The choices on Pharos were songs by Portishead and a-ha, while Telemark tackled a Lenny Kravitz song and an early classic by Iron Maiden. Those choices ably highlight how broadly Ihsahn is casting his musical net nowadays. Not only is this not black metal, even though he brings in a harsh voice on a couple of tracks; it's often not even metal, dipping frequently from a prog metal mindset to a prog rock one.

If we took that three/two combo as a template, Ihsahn chose to ditch it here. Instead we only get a pair of original songs, The Observer and Contorted Movements, along with one cover, this time of a song by Kent, an alternative rock band from Sweden, called Dom andra, or The Others. This take is a little heavier, but still clearly a rock song, and it doesn't otherwise bring anything new to it, so it's much more important here as a further guide to what Ihsahn is listening to and is impacted by than as a new piece of music. To me, it's an introduction to Kent.

It also plays more consistently as rock music than the two originals. The Observer especially has an impressive range, starting out prog metal, dropping down to prog rock and then adding emphasis by trawling in that black metal harsh vocal and leaping back to metal. It's all about emphasis. The initial verses are softer, delivered as prog, perhaps even alternative rock, but the ramp up is pure metal and, however many times it goes back and forth, that's where it ends up, in prog metal with a harsh voice.

It's a good song, but I like Contorted Movements even more. It kicks in with a guitar solo from the old school hard and heavy era, when bands had become heavy enough to stretch the boundaries of hard rock but weren't quite at the point heavy metal would become when it found a need to mark a delineation from extreme metal. It softens like Contorted Monuments, but the ramp up is much more subtle, the harsh aspects of Ihsahn's voice creeping in rather than just taking over, and the music behind it follows suit, gradually accelerating into high gear rather than shifting up a gear to snap into it.

And that's about it, because three songs isn't a lot to talk about. This is a good release, but it's not the killer that I'd been led to believe. It also feels skimpy as an EP, even if that's just because we've been spoiled by the previous two. By comparison, it's short and there's enough room to bond this material together. In many ways, it is three individual tracks in the same packaging rather than an EP that says something new. It's a 7/10 for the music, but I've dropped a point for the length.

But, with that, I have to wonder about what we might expect from an Ihsahn full length. He's never gone more than three years without one as a solo artist until now. A blip during COVID lockdowns is understandable, but he's definitely been busy with his music, knocking out more than an album's worth since Àmr. I wonder if he's seeking a new direction and isn't sure if he's found it yet. Frankly, whether he is or isn't, I'm still listening.

Shem - III (2023)

Country: Germany
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Apr 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Prog Archives

You know someone's not aching for commercial acceptance when they call themselves a collective of musicians performing improvisational sound pieces and then kick off their third album with an instrumental piece of droning space rock that lasts for sixteen minutes. It's called Paragate and it finds its groove quickly, with drones underneath and space rock chirps over the top. Gradually the bass makes itself more obvious and it moves into a more traditional space rock mode as it speeds up. It ends more like Hawkwind than it begins. It begins like krautrock, which is probably the most effective way to look at this.

We could easily call Paragate a test, because less open minded listeners aren't going to make it to the second song and that's probably fine, because this isn't for them. Anyone who does will find a song of an altogether different length, Lamentum not even making it to three minutes but doing what it does just as well as Paragate did over sixteen. That bass, courtesy of Tobias Brendel, finds its purpose easiest here; even though it only has a five note refrain, it provides the melody that's crucial to the piece, until the vocals show up to serve as a counter. There are no lyrics here, just an instrument that happens to be a human voice.

There's a Tangerine Dream vibe to these pieces that seems counter-intuitive, given that this is an actual band playing the usual instruments we expect a rock band to play: guitars, bass and drums, along with synthesiser work from Alexander Meese. Tangerine Dream weren't always just synths, but that tends to be how we think of them, and Shem try to achieve the same thing here that they did in the early seventies, as they shifted from purely experimental mode into the unlikely success of the Virgin years. Refugium, the twelve minute soundscape that wraps up the album is the most like Tangerine Dream, merely framed as a post-rock band.

In many ways, Refugium is a combination of the first two songs. It's pure soundscape, built on the sounds of space rock, but a long way from Hawkwind. The vocal here is buried so far behind any of the instruments that we wonder if it's actually a vocal. Again, it's all vocalisations rather than any attempt to deliver lyrics, but it could easily be a musical instrument mimicking a voice. For all I can be sure, it could even be a sample, but I'd guess at one of these musicians in the studio. That bass makes its presence known again, even though it's almost submerged under the synths, and it has an even more stronger focus on drones.

In between is my favourite piece of music, which is Restlicht. It's much longer than the short song and much shorter than the long songs, but that still leaves seven and a half minutes for it to build. It's a stalker of a piece that finds a new influence that I wasn't expecting in the slightest. Often, it sounds like listening to the Bad Seeds without Nick Cave's voice ever joining in. It drifts further to krautrock as it goes, finding an almost industrial texture five minutes in. It plays with intensity at this point, testing how intense something intense stays if it stays intense, if that makes any sense at all. Contrasts are difficult when we don't move from one thing to another. This is almost asking us to contrast what it does with everything else we know.

And there's some of this in Refugium too, which makes it all the more appropriate piece to wrap up the album, somehow more of an epic than the opener, even though it's four minutes shorter. It has the bigger build, for sure, and it's more of a journey. There are moments late on where we almost end up in a guitar solo, but Alexander Gallagher resists the urge to get that traditional. There's an industrial feel here too, but one generated by bass and drums rather than synths, so it plays out in a very different way.

I can totally buy into this being improvised music, but music probably improvised on themes that a band of musicians already had in mind. As such, it feels loose but also focused, because everyone's working from a common inspiration. I liked this on a first listen, even though that daunting sixteen minute opener is my least favourite track here. However, I like it all the more on further listens. It's fascinating music, even if it is improvised, and I'm eager to check out those previous two albums, II, as you might expect, in 2021, and before that, The Hill AC in 2018.

Thursday 27 April 2023

Metallica - 72 Seasons (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 14 Apr 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Tiktok | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

It still boggles my mind just how big Metallica got. It's not that they didn't deserve it—those of us listening early on knew that they were gamechangers—but that they've achieved a level of success that's unparalleled for heavy music. People will happily splurge on expensive Metallica tickets who have no interest in listening to metal because it's Metallica and I'm sure that will hold true even as they return to the thrash metal from those early years. I wonder what the naysayers who felt that the band had betrayed their roots when they went commercial with the Black Album think of this.

Now, it has problems so it's not a match for any of those original four releases, but it reaches their heights at points and does so in much the same way that they did. The opening title track is maybe a little cleaner in production than Master of Puppets but it wouldn't be out of place on that album and that's high praise indeed. Initial single Lux Æterna is the closest they've sounded to Diamond Head since Kill 'em All and it has all the energy that came pouring off their debut, which came out an almost unfathomable forty years ago this year.

That all suggests that this is aiming at nostalgia and that's partly true but the album is at its best when it's looking way back or looking forward. 72 Seasons took me back to the eighties and Tommy Vance playing something from an upcoming album on The Friday Rock Show and I couldn't wait for the show to finish so I could fast forward through my tape to listen to it again. I remember exactly where I was when I first heard One; it was that impactful a moment. But the intro to Sleepwalk My Life Away is new, a combination of prominent bass, unusual drum rhythms and memorable rhythm guitar, all building to Steve Vai-esque stunt guitarwork. It's moments like this that stand out here, but we have to wait until the end of the album for another one.

Of course, not everything is up to that standard. Sleepwalk My Life Away drifts on and other songs aren't as ambitious to begin with. Shadows Follow feels too long at six minutes, a problem that the album struggles with throughout, while Screaming Suicide feels too derivative of earlier Metallica songs. It's like It's Electric crossed with Through the Never. It sounds good but I still can't hear it as its own song rather than a couple of earlier ones. You Must Burn! is the first of a few plodders that I can take or leave. They do this well and there are points when it prowls menacingly, but mostly it just feels like it's played in bold print for no reason other than emphasis.

Those first half dozen tracks tally up thirty-six minutes and there are plenty of entire albums that wrap up sooner than that, but this one's not even half done. Perhaps because they spend so much time touring and the years add up between albums, they feel the need to make them generous. In this case, there are forty minutes still to come over a further six songs and it ends up feeling quite a lot, especially when they kick off with more plodders in Crown of Barbed Wire and Chasing Light. The biggest problem the second half has, though, is that it's much less versatile in approach than the first half, so that the songs blur together.

Now, it's all immediately recognisable as Metallica and it's enjoyable enough. It's certainly easy to listen to, but nothing stands out until we get to Room of Mirrors, which is a long way. This one's an up-tempo song that feels light on its feet and Kirk Hammett delivers a neat extended guitar solo, but it takes almost twenty-five minutes for the second side to get to it. I wonder if these songs are able to stand out if heard in isolation, like on the radio. Certainly I heard a teasing amount of Thin Lizzy in Too Far Gone? and I'll check that out separately to see how well it plays on its own merits. Is that going to apply to the other songs on the second side? I don't know yet.

And, sixty-four minutes into the album, Metallica start up Inamorata, which is the longest song on any Metallica album at over eleven minutes and it's worth waiting for. It's slower than the rest of the album, but it has quite the story arc. Initially, it's a doom metal song and a lively one too, and, whenever it threatens to descend back into plodding mode, it does something interesting. Around the five minute mark, it drops into mellow Black Sabbath and the build back out is a tasty one. It's something new from Metallica, even if it looks a long way back for its inspiration, and it's welcome.

And so, this is excellent when it's feeling extra-nostalgic and it's great when it's imaginative, but it isn't either of those things for long enough. It's a good album, don't get me wrong, but there are a few points where it threatens to be something much more than that but never sustains it.

Matt Elliott - The End of Days (2023)

Country: France
Style: Dark Folk/Jazz
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 7 Apr 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Wikipedia

Here's something fascinating. Matt Elliott is British but he lives in France where he's a noted folk musician in the neo-folk movement. His music is dark and melancholy and the one immediate and abiding comparison is to Leonard Cohen, but it doesn't take long to realise that this is something different. His voice, as we hear quickly on the opener, The End of Days, is whispery and beautifully broken just like latter day Cohen, but his hypnotic Spanish guitar rhythms is more reminiscent of Cohen's first two albums. That's an interesting pairing and it works very well indeed.

The biggest difference between Elliott and Cohen is that Cohen's songs were fundamentally about delivering lyrics, with the music, as glorious as it often was, serving to support that task. Elliott is a musician perhaps before he's a singer and poet, and he's keen on taking these folk songs into jazz territory, not just playing guitar but also saxophone, in a way that mimics a clarinet. One of the six songs on offer is an eight minute instrumental and the others feature long instrumental passages that work wonderfully on their own and somehow bring a strange focus onto the words.

Elliott is not the poet that Cohen was, though there are some wonderful phrases to suggest that he could be—"Sweep away the broken glass; some things were never made to last" begins Song of Consolation—and he has the brevity that the best poets find, discarding a thousand words to keep the one that matters. He's been a solo artist since 2003, previously known for indie electronica and remixes, usually credited as the Third Eye Foundation. I believe he's still active under that name, a primary band that's become over time a side project to his solo work in neofolk and dark jazz.

These two elements mix gloriously and the title track is a fantastic example. It starts out folk, just like a Cohen song, but the words don't stand out, maybe being an angry response to COVID, the guitar standing out far more and growing into jazz, as a sort of mad funeral dirge which is utterly gorgeous, not unlike the funeral procession for the elephant in Santa Sangre. It unfolds over ten minutes and they're ten unfathomably short minutes, even though it feels when they're over that we've just listened to an entire album, not just a single song.

January's Song takes us back to the folk. When the vocals arrive, they appear to be in choral form but it may well just be Elliott accompanying himself through echo and overlay. This is even more of a melancholy piece than the opener, but it's that rich sort of melancholy that Cohen mastered and which always lifts me rather than depresses me. It always tells me that times are dark but there's still beauty to be found and both are inherent in this music. There are precious few lyrics here, an isolated verse, but they seem to respond to COVID in succinct fashion. It's all about mood, the jazz swirling around the guitar like a tiny storm.

The most beautiful piece is the instrumental, Healing a Wound Will Often Begin with a Bruise. It's almost a vocal piece with the guitar providing the voice, because it's that sort of lead instrument, but it feels like an instrumental immediately. I was almost wary of Elliott's voice showing up but it never does, until the next song, Flowers for Bea, the twelve and a half minute epic of the album. It also has few lyrics, so after a a slow verse, it shifts into instrumental mode, driven this time by the cello of Gaspar Claus. Eventually there's a second verse that fades out in an echo, as if we're in an empty hall that still contains the ghosts of its years. It's all grief, but the emotions behind that do change over the dozen minutes.

There's a lot of emotion here, even when Elliott isn't singing, though his voice adds fresh levels to that emotion. Unresolved, for instance, is just a short piece to wrap up, but it's a sort of refusal to acknowledge that a loved one is gone. Never mind Flowers for Bea, which are exactly what you're thinking because she's gone, this one asks when she's coming back, even though she never will. I'm sure there's a word in another language to describe that feeling.

I like this a lot and need to dig back to see how Elliott got to this point. Not everything solo seems to be in this vein, but it may have moved more and more towards this dark folk/jazz hybrid. It may be that it's primarily for the Ici, d'ailleurs label in France. At this point in time, it's special. I feel a need to know when he got there.

Wednesday 26 April 2023

Magnus Karlsson's Free Fall - Hunt the Flame (2023)

Country: Sweden
Style: Symphonic Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 14 Apr 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Wikipedia

The ever-prolific Magnus Karlsson, of Primal Fear fame, among a whole slew of other projects that have benefitted from his talents, usually as a guitarist and sometimes as a keyboardist, is back for another Free Fall album. That's his solo project, where he performs everything himself, except the drums, and whichever lead vocalists show up to guest on tracks. Anders Köllerfors plays the drums here, as he did last time out, on We are the Night in 2020. Lead vocals change on a per song basis, with nobody doubling up. I believe everyone's new to a Free Fall album too, which isn't typical.

As always, the style is power metal with clean vocals and virtuouso guitarwork, drenched in layers of keyboards. It's all capable stuff and the worst songs here are decent, simply unable to carve out a special place in our attention above their peers. Of course, with this multi-vocalist approach, the best song here may depend on which singer meets your personal taste in power metal the closest. As Karlsson is a constant throughout, I'll suggest that his most adventurous guitarwork is on Hunt the Flame and The Lucid Dreamer.

Hunt the Flame is the opener and it may well be the best track here, with six minutes on the dot to flesh itself out, excellent solo sections and a versatile vocal from Anders Köllerfors, best known for Crowne nowadays, I think, even though he's sung for Art Nation longer. He has a a very clean voice, so it's incredibly easy to listen to, but he has technique and power, showing off a little towards the end but impressing more with more subtle sections earlier in the song. It's countered well by You Can't Hurt Me Anymore, which is more commercial, less frenetic and more elegant, guest vocalist Jakob Samuelsson veering into arena rock for his melodies.

All these guests do exactly what Karlsson wants from them, though they do blur together a little, mostly working to very consistent approaches. Most are Scandinavian, the initial pair Swedish, as is Jake E of Chyra and Dreamland and, I presume, Kristian Fyhr, of Ginevra (wth Karlsson) and Perpetual Edge. I'm seeing a pair of Norwegians, Michael Eriksen of Circus Maximus and Terje Harøy of Pyramaze, and one Finn, Antti Railio of Raskasta Joulua, who gets the closer, Summoning the Stars, onto which he can stamp his authority. It's another strong song, perhaps not quite up to the opener but coming close. It's also the longest song here, suggesting that Karlsson nails those songs that have time to breathe, but not so long that it could be called an epic.

Other singers hail from further afield, starting with James Durbin, formerly of Quiet Riot and now of his own band, Durbin, who's American. I appreciated Durbin's debut album, The Beast Awakens, a couple of years ago, and he fits in well here, on an elegant song called Thunder Calls. I see Girish Pradhan here too, of Firstborne fame and lately Girish and the Chronicles, who get a lot of airplay on Chris Franklin's Raised on Rock show. And that leaves a couple of South American singers, both of whom shine here.

The first is James Robledo, a Chilean singer who fronts Sinner's Blood, and his song stands out for its hints at middle eastern melodies early on and for his delivery. It's Far from Home, which seems fair, and there's some grit in his voice that elevates it in my mind above many of his peers here. He works in much the same style but that grit feels like he's giving more and we can feel the energy, especially when he escalates. It's a good song too and that never hurts.

Best of all, though, is Raphael Mendes from Brazil, who's guested on a bunch of European albums before releasing anything in an actual band setting, his band right now being Icon of Sin. I love his voice, but I have to acknowledge that it's hardly the most original here, given that he could easily be mistaken for a certain Bruce Dickinson. His song here is Following the Damned, which would be less of a standout if one of the other vocalists here fronted it. It's a bit more symphonic, perhaps, but not a huge departure from other songs. However, he makes it his own as soon as he opens his mouth and suddenly we're listening to Iron Maiden as a symphonic band, which is neat. Mendes's sustain is fantastic and I'd love to hear him take on Hallowed Be Thy Name.

If you know Magnus Karlsson in any of his various incarnations—and, if you've been following my reviews at Apocalypse Later for a while, you'll have seen him pop up on a solo album called Heart Healer; an Allen/Olzon album, Worlds Apart, and a Primal Fear album, Metal Commando—you'll know what to expect from him. This is more of the same, without any disappointment, but it plays better for me as an exploration of a bunch of vocalists, most of whom I hadn't heard before.

One Horse Band - Useless Propaganda (2023)

Country: Italy
Style: Garage Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 7 Apr 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | YouTube

I was planning to review the third album from John Diva and the Rockets of Love today, but I found myself digging too far into why it underwhelmed me to quickly acknowledge that, if I wrote a review, it would be the sort of negative review I try to avoid. Instead, I checked out a few others and came up short until this one, from a band from Milan who play an interesting form of garage rock. I came close to ditching this one too, because the opener, Santa Claus, doesn't start out like that at all, its approach more like an attempt to merge Tom Waits and Shane MacGowan into a cool unique voice. And that's fine, but it wasn't what I was looking for.

However, I didn't turn it off because I was interested to see where the album went, and it went in a very different direction a couple of minutes in and especially once Killing Floor showed up. This is where the garage rock kicks in, with a drummer who sounds like he only has three drums in his kit but he's happy to beat the crap out of each of them for us. The vocals are still deliberately whiskey soaked but far more emphatic and driving melodies rather than singer/songwriter introspections. The guitar rocks and the kazoo... well, let's just say that it sounds very much like someone's playing a kazoo here and I sure ain't judging because it sounds great, like a bunch of interesting musicians jamming in their garage.

As the album goes, it sounds like the band shift further backwards in time. Supersonic ditches the kazoo but keeps everything else and feels primal, like something the Sonics might have recorded a lot more decades ago now than is comfortable to think about. It's a Gimmick emphasises that they like looking back, because it sounds like a fifties pop song rocked up in loud but simplistic fashion, a sort of Dion & The Belmonts type of song. It feels unusual because whoever the lead vocalist is in One Horse Band sings the verses but leaves the chorus to a backing singer. Also it heavies up when we don't expect, which is another tasty touch.

As you might expect for garage rock, there's a punk sound here too and that's clear once we get to Useless Propaganda and Hello Charlie. That rough voice suggests traditional punk influences but a post-punk mindset in the melodies. I hear the Clash here, both original first album sound and later adventures beyond it. Of course, this isn't the only layer, because Useless Propaganda ends with a sort of Supremes refrain and Hello Charlie adds a trumpet to give it a more avant-garde edge. It's a heady mixture and it highlights how much energy there must be in One Horse Band's garage on rehearsal nights.

Now, the energy does drop at points for effect, because One Horse Band aren't a one trick pony. In Ice Cream, the power is stripped away in a flash to leave the singer returning to the Waits whisper on the opener, set against a loud slow blues backdrop, and I Sing opens up with a delicate folk tune that sounds like it's being played in a hip coffee house, before it launches into full on garage punk, just to shock the hipsters sipping their expensive artisan coffees. A Little More is delicate too, but it stays that way, even as it builds. It showcases a different side of the band but it's effective. What I find strange here is that I wasn't sold on the quiet voice on Santa Claus but I love it on Ice Cream and A Little More.

What this all adds up to is that, if I was wandering past the One Horse Band garage during one of their rehearsals, I'd absolutely stop and listen. I wouldn't think they were anything special initially, just good at what they do, but, as time would pass and song would move to song, my estimation of their worth would continue to increase. There's a lot more on this album than the initial approach suggests and it's all tasty stuff.

And, all that said, I've probably misled you, because the key word in One Horse Band isn't Band but One. That's because there's only one musician here, ignoring the trumpet Tom Moffet contributes to Hello Charlie, and he's called One Horse Band because he wears a fake horse head everywhere public, in the same way that Buckethead wears a fried chicken bucket. Oh, and yes, he performs as a one man band in the sense that he plays multiple instruments at the same time on stage. That's why the drum sound is so simple. And this is his third album.

So, what's his name and what's he's hiding? I haven't the faintest idea, but he sounds great. Which famous musicians live in Milan but are never seen at One Horse Band shows? Inquiring minds want to know.

Tuesday 25 April 2023

L.A. Guns - Black Diamonds (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 14 Apr 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

Ever since Phil Lewis and Tracii Guns resolved their differences in 2016 and merged their versions of L.A. Guns back into one band, they've been reasonably prolific, knocking out an album every two years: The Missing Peace, The Devil You Know and Checkered Past. That schedule means that they are due for another one and here it is, another gritty hard rock album that owes as much to bands who influenced what would become hair metal as to those hair metal bands themselves.

Mostly that means American punk because there's plenty of the New York Dolls and the Stooges in this sound, stripped of all the later excess of the eighties down to its sleazy core with a deceptively set of simple riffs and hooks, all delivered with a near garage-band level of production. Babylon is the most overt glam punk song here, right up there with anything Hanoi Rocks ever released, but Lewis snarls his way through songs like Got It Wrong just like a Dolls devotee who's just found the validation he needed after hearing Too Fast for Love on release day back in 1981 and aches to tell everyone on Sunset Strip about it from a variety of stages.

However, there's also a more traditional rock and pop sound here too. You Betray kicks everything into motion with a very Jimmy Page guitar from Guns and Lewis follows suit with a grungy Robert Plant style vocal. It all feels so down and dirty, I wanted to wipe the grime off it. There's more Zep at points throughout the album, especially on Gonna Lose, but it's shifted into an almost southern rock framework there with unusual rhythms. In a different direction, Crying sometimes sounds as if it used to be a bubblegum single from the sixties before the Guns sleazed it up.

I liked Checkered Past, but much of it didn't truly engage me. This one does much better, because many of these songs get under the skin. You Betray is engaging from moment one, as is Diamonds, which starts out like a ballad but gets tougher and more memorable as it builds. These songs have simple but highly effective grooves, whether they slide into them immediately, like You Betray, or take their time for effect, like Diamonds. With repeat listens, other songs demonstrate their own grooves and more and more of them engage each time through. I didn't find that on the previous album. I found it here and it makes it tough to move on, rather than listen through one more time to see what pops next.

While this sounds like a step up from its predecessor on a first time through, it continues to grow with repeats to the point that I started to wonder if it really counted as two steps up. I wonder how much Lewis meant a repeated line in Diamonds: "I know we're broken but we shine like a diamond now." It certainly sounds like a good way to describe the L.A. Guns of 2023. The riffs on Babylon and Wrong About You may be acutely simple but they're as effective as riffs get. The riff that rumbles under Shame fits that too; it's just more hidden under Lewis's more outrageous delivery, just as a teasing harmonica is hidden under the guitar.

But that's five winners out of five and they're followed by Shattered Glass, with an almost AC/DC riff to kick it off. I'd call the first half stronger than the second, especially with Gonna Lose turning down the emphasis, but nothing lets the album down on this one. Got It Wrong picks up the baton again, but then Crying softens things back up afresh. Lowlife and Like a Drug sit somewhere in between them with regards to intensity. I should emphasise that these are still good songs. I'd call Gonna Lose a clear highlight and Like a Drug isn't a bad closer at all, but lowering the energy level changes the impact of the second half.

And so this is easily a 7/10 but it deserves more than that. I'm not sure it does enough to warrant a highly recommended 8/10, but it's pretty damn close. Suddenly I wonder why I don't use half point ratings again. This is the epitome of a 7.5/10 album and it bodes very well for the Guns' next album, presumably due in 2025. At least I hope so. Their website seems to have mysteriously vanished.

Elysion - Bring Out Your Dead (2023)

Country: Greece
Style: Gothic Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 17 Mar 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Wikipedia | YouTube

Elysion are new to me but they've been around for a long time, even though this is only their third album, arriving almost a decade after its predecessor, Someplace Later in 2014. They're prominent enough to have a Wikipedia page, but there's not much there. They're from Athens, built around a couple of guitarists, and they've held a pretty stable line-up since their formation in 2006. The only change since their early days is Andreas Roufagalas stepping on bass last year to replace founder member Antonios Bofilakis.

They play gothic metal, but with a very commercial, alt rock edge. This isn't old school gothic metal drenched in velvet and mahogany and with either a deep and resonant male voice or a beauty and the beast contrast. There's little here that's reminiscent of Tristania or Lacrimas Profundere. It's radio friendly gothic metal, like Evanescence but heavier, so maybe more like modern Lacuna Coil. It's built out of simple but effective crunchy riffs and led by a clean and powerful female voice that knows exactly how to turn on the emphasis. It's telling that this seems to be metal over rock, but I do not see a page for the band at Metal Archives.

Blink of an Eye is a strong opener that never lets up. Crossing Over adds more commercial sheen. Raid the Universe adds samples and more electronica. Those three, between them, provide the band's sound in a nutshell and all three of them sound good. This is a very easy album to listen to, as if an initial listen is actually a tenth or twentieth time through. I'm sure that's very deliberate through careful songwriting, because the music behind Christiana Hatzimihali's voice is thoroughly simple, designed to underpin her rather than to show off. Sure, Nikos Despotopoulos manages to carve a little space out of songs for decent guitar solos, but then it's swiftly back to the vocals.

Frankly, this lives or dies on those vocals and what balance Hatzimihali can find between melody and power. The verses are all melody and they build to the title or the chorus or whatever's there to stand out just a bit more than the verses, with Hatzimihali turning on that emphasis for effect too. As long as she does that, and she manages it consistently across the album, then this is good stuff and a whole slew of these ten tracks ought to find themselves friendly to radio stations.

The question you need to ask yourselves, if you're into gothic metal of any description, is whether that's enough for you and that's because there's not a lot more here. Blink of an Eye does tease a little, with a decent guitar solo and a teasing operatic voice soaring behind whispers at one point. I like the keyboard work that's mostly confined in the background to Crossing Over. Those are the first two tracks here, so it's all promising for a while, but there's not much else added after that, so, if you're looking for more than crunchy guitars and powerful female vocals, the songs will blur together somewhat. Was that a sample during This Time? I probably dreamed it.

And that puts this album in an odd place. Because it's so consistent in approach, these songs serve as variations on a simple theme and that means that, after a couple of times through, there was a lack of anything to keep me paying attention and it all faded into the background, maybe a guitar solo or vocal line pulling back here and there. However, the songs, as simple as they are, never got old, so that, even when this became background ambience, I was still listening on some level and it entertained me.

I ended up thinking of it like a dentist's surgery. You know when you're lying there, waiting for the numbing agent to work and all you can do is listen to the radio station to which they're tuned. If it's a good one, then you feel OK because whatever pain you're in will soon be gone and you can listen to good music until then. If it's a bad one, then you feel uncomfortable, as if you're being confined against your will and you're already failing to manage the ordeal even before the dentist arrives. This album would serve as a good radio station for my next visit.

Monday 24 April 2023

Cruachan - The Living and the Dead (2023)

Country: Ireland
Style: Folk/Black Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 Mar 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | YouTube

It's been a decent year for folk metal and here's a new one from one of the pioneers of the genre, Cruachan, from Dublin. They've been around since 1993 and this is their ninth studio album, which arrives five years after its predecessor, Nine Years of Blood. It's as if they've never been away on a sparkling opening instrumental, The Living, which feels like a celebration of life, everything we're expecting from folk metal. It has driving riffs and lively fiddle and just makes us bounce, as does a later instrumental, The Festival. These may well be my favourite pieces of music here.

Before you ask, yes, the other bookend at the tail of the album, is called The Dead, with a suitably opposite approach. Not only does it start and end with slow and sombre passages, but it's a vocal track, that midsection erupting into an extreme outpouring of emotion. Technically, its lyrics rail against the intruding Christian church in favour of an earlier pagan alternative, an abiding topic for Cruachan that surprisingly doesn't occupy the entire rest of the album, but it's easy for us to interpret it as anger and grief.

Lyrically, it mostly focuses on pagan subjects, but the epic that kicks off the vocal songs, The Queen, relates a historical character, Grace O'Malley, known as the Pirate Queen of Ireland, focusing especially on her interactions with Queen Elizabeth I on the mainland. This one lasts not far off seven minutes and there's a lot going on within it, beyond its long lyric sheet. To me, it highlights just how much the band is clearly enjoying being back in the studio and it introduces the first in a string of guest musicians to, well, grace the album.

This one boasts Geoffroy Dell'Aria of the French medieval/folk band Les Bâtards du Nord, playing bagpipes and a variety of whistles. He guests on seven of the twelve tracks on offer in some form or other. Also, Kim Dylla, an American singer likely best known for her work for the Canadian black metal band A Winter Lost, shows up on backing vocals on four tracks, starting with this one. She's good here, even finding an Irish lilt behind Keith Fay's lead vocal on The Crow. Jon Campling lends some backing vocals to a couple of songs too.

The most obvious guests are lead vocalists, because there are two here who get a song each. The impressive vocals on The Ghost are credited to Vreth, but that turns out to be Mathias Lillmåns, a veteran Finnish singer of ...and Oceans and Finntroll fame, singing more in the vein of the former but with a hint of the latter. In a completely different style, Nella, an Irish singer best known for a video game series, World of Warcraft's Legion, sings The Changeling. Both of them elevate their respective songs and bring a different angle to this album. The third big name guest is Stu Dixon, who delivers a solid guitar solo on The Witch. As Rage, he's been the lead guitarist in Venom since 2007.

All this talk of extreme metal bands suggests that this would be heavier than it is, but it's merely folk metal doused in plenty of Celtic flavour and delivered with a strong crunch. There's not a lot of black metal on show, but what there is shows up in the faster edge and more vicious bite than, say, the recent Adavänt album, which betrays a strong Cruachan influence. This is more Celtic, of course, especially through copious use of Audrey Trainor's violin, Fay's bodhrán and Irish bouzouki and a couple of guests playing tin whistles. I should probably mention here that The Witch mostly reminds me of Deep Purple, so it's not all extreme.

There is plenty of extremity in the vocals, but Fay, who has always been more comfortable with his harsh delivery than a clean one, has found a strong balance between the two. He feels natural in either mode nowadays and it feels like he splits his time between each approach about evenly. In another fashion, there's a tasty extreme side in some sections of songs that wouldn't be at all out of place in a thrash band's repertoire. The midsections of both The Ghost and The Crow have that heads down approach and ought to generate quite the response from the pit at gigs.

It's good to see Cruachan back. They've only broken up once, for a year in the late nineties, but the five years between albums seems long, even if it isn't unprecedeted, five years elapsing between their fifth and sixth albums too. I hope we won't have to wait as long for the next one. For now, we have this decent return to keep us occupied.

Yossi Sassi & The Oriental Rock Orchestra - Prediluvian (2023)

Country: Israel
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 13 Mar 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

I hadn't heard of Yossi Sassi before, but I've heard his work because he's one of the founders of the Israeli progressive metal outfit Orphaned Land, who notably combine eastern and western music in their sound. If you don't know them, you should. Check out the double whammy of Mabool (The Flood) and The Storm Still Rages Inside from their 2004 album Mabool: The Story of the Three Sons of Seven. He's released solo albums, whether as Yossi Sassi or Yossi Sassi Band, and at least three albums as this side project, Yossi Sassi & The Oriental Rock Orchestra.

While Orphaned Land are prog metal, the Oriental Rock Orchestra play prog rock, so the sound is less crunchy and completely shorn of harsh vocals, with the world elements even more overt. That starts with the intro, On Shoulders of Nephilim, which is played on a stringed instrument that I bet isn't a guitar. I don't know which, but he plays seventeen different varieties, including one that he invented himself, the bouzoukitara. There are acoustic sections in Orphaned Land songs, and some acoustic songs. If you were blown away by the two tracks I mentioned above, keep listening for the acoustic outro after them, Rainbow (The Resurrection), and it'll work as a good transition to this.

That's not to suggest that this is an acoustic album, because it isn't, outside equivalent sections or songs, but it is very much rock rather than metal, even in its heaviest moments. It's also primarily instrumental, built out of what sound like folk tunes and ethnic instrumentation, but played in an obviously rock fashion, with a full band including a rock drumkit. Uriel Machine is led by guitar, as we might expect, but with plenty of flutes above it and hand drums below. It's almost slow shred, if that makes sense, a virtuoso guitarist on best behaviour, perhaps to emphasise what he's doing to the children staring wide-eyed at him in a classroom. Check out this next bit, kids...

If Sassi shows off here, it's primarily by finding a broad variety of tones. While Uriel Machine is an impactful piece that hints at metal without quite going there and Sirius does much the same later on the album, Oopart is a funkier piece, with Sassi teasing his guitar into generating neat sounds the way that someone like Jeff Beck would. Atlantis kicks off tenderly and, while it bulks up, it's to an introspective guitar piece that brings to mind a few guitarists who see the notes not played as being just as important as the ones that are. One tone that doesn't come from guitar is the intro to Architect of the Stars, which is electronica. Are those trap rhythms? I'm no expert in that side of music, but someone who is would be able to call out a lot on this piece.

The only vocal track here is Armoros Fall, in the sense of a song with a singer delivering lyrics. Both are provided by a guest, Ross Jennings, a British vocalist best known for prog metal bands Haken and Redados. This is softer than prog metal but it's the most obvious rocker on the album, with an arena rock feel when it's not working jagged rhythms. It's a vibrant song that often suggests that Jennings is stalking the stage and the entire band is following him step for step, like a pantomime entourage. And, of course, it also has an eastern section, because it can.

There are vocals on Anelo too, but no lyrics, because they're vocalisations, sustained repetitions of a single word that doesn't seem to be quite the title. While Sassi leads the way on one of those many stringed instruments, an acoustic one this time, it becomes a song for the flute. That's been evident from the opening but, the longer the album runs, the more prominent the flute becomes. It's played by Yossi's daughter, Danielle Sassi, and she's comfortable not only providing texture or taking part in instrumental call and response sections, but also becoming the lead, as she does on Anelo and especially Kumlar.

All in all, this is a tasty album. It's an easy and accessible listen but there's a lot going on if you're wanting to dive in deeper. For instance, while it's primarily guitar or other stringed instrument—Sassi also plays bouzouki, charrango, saz, ukelele and bouzoukitara here and Sarel Ha'cohen adds kanun and Ben Azar contributes further seven and eight stringed guitars—there's that flute and other instruments fleshing out the sound. Emil Guseinov plays viola and Roei Fridman a variety of percussion that goes beyond the traditional rock rhythm section of bass and drums.

It all combines to provide something unique and, while nothing stands out above anything else, it all sounds consistently good. It could serve as an excellent rabbit hole to dive into Sassi's music.

Friday 21 April 2023

Enslaved - Heimdal (2023)

Country: Norway
Style: Progressive Black Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 3 Mar 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

When the Caravans to the Outer Worlds EP arrived only a year after Utgard, Enslaved's fifteenth album, with a set of songs that sounded good but mostly in isolation, I wondered how much of its material would end up on the next full length. The answer to that is not a lot: just its title track, a song also released separately as a single. Enslaved also issued three further tracks from Heimdal as singles ahead of its release, plus a live version of Bounded by Allegiance. That means that die hard listeners heard four out of seven Heimdal tracks before it ever saw release in entirety.

And, given which songs they were, I expect that the die hards were licking their lips in anticipation. I don't dislike Behind the Mirror, for instance, which opens up the album, but Congelia after it is a glorious effort, a song from an entirely different league, and that's the one of that pair that saw single release. It's a weaver of textures that becomes almost hypnotic. It's a quintessential track to transform the black metal for which Enslaved used to be known into a prog rock soundscape, as they've generally moved towards over the decades. It grows too, those textures gaining emphasis and eventually joined by clean vocals and a guitar solo. It's a peach of a song.

Forest Dweller is another of those singles and it's another strong track. It starts out as softer folk prog but erupts a couple of minutes in to a more traditional black metal assault. Even there, it's a progressive piece because it incorporates a jazzy keyboard solo out of nowhere that works rather well to my ears. This is exactly the sort of thing that they've become so good at, almost throwing the early fans a bone with an old school section that reminds us of way back when, only to add this gorgeous and unexpected touch.

The other single is Kingdom, which shows up next. From a thoughtful prog metal intro and a clearly acoustic vibe, it adds layers of electronics and eventually builds to something furious. And, when it does, there's a thrash/death mindset to much of this one that shows up at a few points on this album, such as on The Eternal Sea. At these points, they just barrel along like a juggernaut. I haven't gone back to Utgard in the past couple of year, but I don't remember this. When that was furious, it was clearly black metal. Here, the black combines with other genres, especially thrash, for something very tasty indeed.

That goes double when you factor in another wild keyboard solo from Håkon Vinje. He has a habit on this one of chipping in ideas completely out of left field that can't possibly ever work but always do. The band as a whole is clearly happier with a progressive angle to their sound that their early albums didn't have any room for, but much of that comes from a different form of contrast, taking a song in a particular mood or style and then shifting it into another, with every musician working in unison to make it feel seamless. Only Vinje chooses to layer on something completely different, apparently seeing an opportunity that nobody else in the band did. And every time he's right.

That's not to say that the rest of the band are playing it safe. There are all sorts of textures here worth calling out for special mention. I'd throw out the vocals late in Kingdom. They're kinda sorta clean, so I don't know if they're Vinje or drummer Iver Sandøy. I have a feeling they're just cleaner vocals from lead singer Grutle Kjellson. They're subdued but still menacing and they have a strong effect on the end of the track.

The other is the bass/drum interplay that closes out Caravans to the Outer Worlds. I talked about this one in my review of the EP that bears its name, so I won't get in depth here, beyond pointing out that it fits on this album much better than it did with the other tracks on that EP. Everyone is on top form for this one, including some searing guitarwork from Ivar Bjørnson and/or Arve Isdal, but it's the bass of Grutle Kjellson combined with the glorious rhythms of Iver Sandøy that make it special for me.

And so, this is a slightly inconsistent but generally strong album. I gave Utgard an 8/10 and I think I need to follow suit here. The bookends, Behind the Mirror and Heimdal, don't play as well to me as the rest in between. They're still good, but they're not as good. However, those four singles are all clear highlights, with Congelia chief among them, worth every second of its eight minutes. Think of it as a couple of 7/10s, at least four 9/10s and The Eternal Sea in between. So another 8/10 it is.

Host - IX (2023)

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

Mentions of Paradise Lost in my review of the Black Harvest album yesterday prompted me to take a look to see what they're up to lately. I'm up to date with their primary releases, having reviewed their 2020 album, Obsidian, but they've apparently been indulging in some side projects, guitarist Gregor Mackintosh in particular. He'd already formed one side band, Vallenfyre, who played death metal and put out three albums, but they split up in 2018, the same year he formed Strigoi to play a crustier form of death. Now, to shift in an opposite musical direction, he's teamed with Paradise Lost vocalist Nick Holmes to go back to their synthwave era with Host.

I have no idea why the debut Host album is called IX. Of course, the seventh Paradise Lost album, a synth-driven release, was called Host. Of course, the band have famously disowned their eighth as it was not their musical vision at the time. While they absolutely stood by Host, they called out the interference of their record label in the making of Believe in Nothing as removing their control of their own music. Therefore, I could see this being an alternate history follow-up to Host, as if they had never made Believe in Nothing, but that would make this VIII rather than IX. Maybe they're a little more onboard with it nowadays and see this as a continuation of the sound from those two.

While I've been a Paradise Lost fan since their demo days, I never really took to their EMI albums. I adore One Second, which was just as commercial, but Host and Believe in Nothing felt much more sanitised and this follows suit. There's little warmth here and little emotion, Holmes remaining in a more subdued voice throughout. There are escalations, because Paradise Lost is always great at escalations, playing softer or less dense sections of songs and then launching into magnificent hooks like a xenomorph erupting from the chest of its, well, host. However, they're often subdued too, as if these are demo versions polished enough to hand over to the rest of the band to add the bass and real drums but not yet ready for release.

The earlier songs do this most obviously, especially the opening trio—Wretched Soul, Tomorrow's Sky and Divine Emotion—which all fit that demo mindset. What's odd is that they're clearly good songs. This isn't Mackintosh and Holmes writing lesser material. It's more like they're distilling an array of good songs down towards their essence, excising the crunch and stripping away the tones they invented for doom/death and gothic metal. If that sounds like Paradise Lost lite, then that's precisely where I'm at with about half of these songs. I want to hear the finished versions with all the power restored that the band deliver time and time again. In the meantime, I'm hearing the recognisable melodies and key changes so quintessential to their sound.

However, the others, especially late in the album, including the closing trio—Inquisition, Instinct and I Ran—feel more complete. They're also good songs, but they feel more like they were meant to be driven by synths and play in a softer, more impersonal way. I Ran is elevated by a tasty guitar solo, but I never felt like these later songs needed a guitar. They work as they are, including those patented Paradise Lost escalations, without the usual means to deliver them. The earliest of the naturally keyboard-driven songs is Hiding from Tomorrow, especially while it grows, which it does with some serious style.

And so this is half successful for me and half not so much, but the songs remain good throughout. I wonder if they'll tour as Host or incorporate some of these into Paradise Lost sets, perhaps making them heavier and more substantial as full band songs. Maybe they'll do neither, but they'll keep at this approach on the side. It certainly feels like this is a continuation of an earlier sound that they miss as much as something new that they want to explore. The only way to really do both of those things is to keep going and see where it takes them.

And, while I'm always going to prefer their other eras, as epitomised by Gothic, Draconian Times and One Second, not to forget Obsidian, over their EMI albums, I'm happy to tag along and see if this side project ends up generating something to stand alongside them. It hasn't yet and part of that is that the imagery accompanying this release seems highly appropriate because it takes all the colour out of a notably colourful band. If that's the point, then they've succeeded but I feel it needs something new to replace it.

Thursday 20 April 2023

Paul Gilbert - The Dio Album (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date:7 Apr 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Somehow, after I'd listened through this entire album which generously comprises almost an hour of music, I found that I'd thoroughly enjoyed it even if I'm still not sold on its basic concept. I'm not sure how those two views can sit comfortably together, but there it is. Just in case the cover leaves you in any doubt, this is a covers album, with each of the dozen songs on offer known for its vocals by the inestimable Ronnie James Dio. That means not just songs by his solo band, Dio, but earlier ones from Rainbow and Black Sabbath. Interestingly, they're evenly divided: four songs from each of those three bands.

Of course, songs suggest vocals and these are legendary songs with legendary vocals from Dio. I'd suggest that there are easily a dozen more to populate a sequel album, should Gilbert want to go there, with only one of these feeling like a deep cut, that being Country Girl, from Black Sabbath's Mob Rules album. It's an inspired choice though, giving Paul Gilbert much more opportunity than on the previous track, Dio's Stand Up and Shout. I'm sure that's why he chose it over Voodoo, The Sign of the Southern Cross or The Mob Rules, all iconic Dio/Sabbath collaborations.

And by opportunity, I need to explain. You see, while we know that, when Kill the King begins with a sample from a live gig with the audience calling "Dio! Dio! Dio!", he isn't going to step up to the mike—it seems surreal to suggest that he's been gone for thirteen years now—what's important here is that nobody else does either. These are instrumental takes on the man's discography, a wise choice perhaps given that few vocalists could fairly step into his shoes. However, Paul Gilbert thinks he can, with his guitar, so he delivers all of Ronnie's lines with his guitar and that's hardly a typical approach.

Of course, he also handles the actual guitarwork, so he's not just Dio here, he's Ritchie Blackmore and Tony Iommi and Vivian Campbell. I think what makes the album work is that he handles these two very different tasks in very different ways. It never feels like he's moving between a vocal line and a guitar line. He's wearing two hats and doing two different jobs in two different ways. Just to mess with that thought, he also plays the bass and keyboards, so he's really being the majority of these iconic bands, hardly a minor challenge. The only instrument he doesn't play here is drums. I presume this multi-instrumentalist didn't feel confident enough to do that too, so brought in Bill Ray to sit behind the kit.

None of this should work. Sure, we listen to these classics to hear the iconic guitarwork of legends of the genre, but we also listen to them to hear Dio deliver those timeless lyrics and that doesn't happen here. What I found that I interpreted these as karaoke songs.

Gilbert, who's been a stellar guitarist for forty years now, in bands like Racer X, Mr. Big and more, does a fine enough job as a Blackmore/Iommi substitute to make these versions very listenable, a prerequisite I think for us continuing to listen. This is a very clean album, almost clinical compared to the originals, but that works because, while we're listening to these versions, we're playing the original ones in our heads anyway. On Heaven and Hell, I was listening to Gilbert but just as surely hearing Dio and Blackmore in my head. If Gilbert didn't do the job here, it would just sound wrong and I'd switch off.

And so, when he puts on his Dio hat and plays the vocal lines on his guitar, we take that as a guide for us to take over as the singer ourself. In essence that guitar becomes a little bouncing ball that keeps us untrained heathens in time as we attempt the impossible and belt out these songs in our offices, cars or bedrooms or wherever we happen to be. And it isn't just the obvious signature bits on Heaven and Hell or Don't Talk to Strangers, which must be the best redux here; it's the entire album. This really isn't Gilbert being Dio, as much of a tribute as he's paying the legend. This is us being Dio, right down to every "ooh", "yeah yeah" and "jump, jump" on Holy Diver.

Thus I'm still not sold on this concept but it works. It sounds great, it gives us a clear opportunity to exercise our lungs and it prompts us to go back to some of the best rock albums ever recorded. I had to resist the urge to spend the rest of the day immersing myself in Dio's albums for Rainbow, strong candidates for the best three rock albums every made. Thanks, Paul.

The Black Harvest - Mortuary Dogma (2023)

Country: Chile
Style: Doom/Death Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 29 Mar 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | YouTube

I've been listening to this album for a few days now as I wrap up some books for publication and it's soaked into my skin. It feels immersive to me, the beat steady rather than slow and the production excellent. The music reminds me of Winds of Sirius, who put out an amazing album back in 1999 and vanished, but with production that the French band could only dream of. Every component is easy to follow, so we can go to ground with the dirty bass and rhythm guitar and watch the clean lead a long way above us, soaring in beauty. The vocals move between the two.

The Black Harvest have been around for a long time, formed as far back as 2004, though it took ten years to get round to a demo. That may be because it was initially a much smaller project, with the guitarist today, who goes by D.b, playing every instrument and M.v providing vocals over the top. I see that line-up on both demos, but it fleshed out in 2016 to a full band. I'm not sure when current vocalist Jorge Quilape joined, but everyone else showed up at that point, so they've been solid for seven years now.

I haven't heard their debut album, a self-titled effort in 2017, but this feels like exactly the sort of thing that should show up after a six year wait because it's well worth waiting for. The opener is a strong way to start and it establishes a sound, just as any self-titled song ought to, but Torment of the Damned promptly takes it all up a notch. This is an epic, almost ten minutes in length, and it's one to really sink our teeth into, from the tasty opening riff into the echoing opening guitar solo. It feels exactly right to the degree that if I played you ten seconds from it at random, you'd be able to tell me where in the song I'm at. That's a breakdown in the midsection. That's the home stretch with everything doubling down on the groove. That's soon in, as the intro gives way to a build and the song starts to grow.

The more I hear this album, the more I love it, but that goes double for Torment of the Damned. It keeps throwing out fresh details that I didn't notice before, little touches in the background that don't do much individually but do something that deepens the song just a little and those touches add up to a heck of a lot once it's all said and done. Nothing else here matches its length but these don't tend to be short. Insurrection Path at the heart of the album is only four and a half minutes long, putting it a couple of minutes shy of anything else. Theater of Blood comes closest to being a second epic at eight and a half, which ought to count.

There are five musicians in the band and they all play a key part. Lino Contreras is excellent behind the drumkit, but what he does is emphasised by the bass of Manuel Vera Barria and especially the rhythm guitar of Moisés Alvarado, which is a wonderful contrast to the lead guitar of D.b. The lead is always clean and it soars and sustains, in the style of Paradise Lost's Gregor Mackintosh, echoing over the other instruments. Alvarado, however, plays a vicious rhythm that's built from edges and dirt and grittiness. When he's laying down a riff and D.b's soaring over him, as happens often, the contrast is magnificent. I'd almost call it the signature sound of the Black Harvest. I'm not sure if I prefer that stretch on Insurrection Path or The Succubi Delight.

And that leaves Quilape, who underlines how genre-fluid the band are. This is doom/death, with a doom pace and a death bite, but it often moves into gothic metal. Part of that is inherent in those Paradise Lost comparisons, but Quilape emphasises it. He alternates between a death growl, that feels warm and neatly rumbling, and a deep resonant clean voice. There's some Nick Holmes in his delivery but plenty of Andrew Eldritch too and something that reminded me of a powerful monk who renounced his faith to sing darker rituals. That's at the fore during the first half of Theater of Blood, before Quilape shifts back to his death growl halfway.

Perhaps most important of all, the combination of all the above may work on individual songs but continues to work throughout the album, with every song in contention for a highlight, so that the best song becomes the one that you're listening to at any particular moment. Each one of the five musicians also has multiple moments to take the spotlight without anyone appearing to show off. Contreras remains the solid backbone to the band but even he gets moments, like the very end of From Flesh to Ashes. It may be the simplest thing he's done on the album but it stands out.

And that means that this is another 8/10 for what's been a tasty week. Notably, all three of my 8s have come from the lesser known bands I'm reviewing first before a more established band. That seems telling.

Wednesday 19 April 2023

Floor Jansen - Paragon (2023)

Country: The Netherlands
Style: Pop/Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 Mar 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

I'm not sure what country to list here, given that Floor Jansen is Dutch, lives in Sweden and fronts a Finnish band. This is a solo project though, so I guess I'll go with the Netherlands. It's her first of likely many and it isn't surprising to see its release, given how much publicity she got from singing on a Dutch singing show, Beste Zangers, with most of the songs she sang, in a wide variety of styles and languages, going viral on YouTube. She's been touring solo as well and clearly relishing being able to sing a wider range of material than she can in Nightwish. So this was inevitable.

From the outset, it's as much pop as it is rock, but it ought to play well to both audiences. This isn't as soft as, say, Mike Tramp's For Første Gang album last year, but it features plenty of ballads. The approach seems to be to trawl in some of both sides of the pop/rock boundary on as many songs as possible. My Paragon, for instance, kicks off the album with a poppy bounce but rock drums. When Floor needs to soar, Floor soars and she has such power to bring to bear that that always becomes rock, even on a pop song. Hope is an intimate ballad but it isn't soft, even without drums.

All that said, it's fun trying to think who might have sung these songs if Floor wasn't around. They aren't covers, but they all could be if other artists feel an urge to tackle them. I could hear Carole King singing Hope and a few wildly different singers taking on Come Full Circle. Would Irene Cara do a better job than Meat Loaf? Storm would go to Billie Eilish without any doubt. Some would be difficult to cover, because of Floor's range. She goes low on Me without You but she soars later on, so it would take someone with the vocal chops of Lara Fabian.

And, of course, that's much of the point of this album. Nightwish are a symphonic metal band, the flagship band in the genre, and there's always a lot going on in Nightwish songs, even if you ditch the orchestration angle. I wouldn't say that Floor has to battle to be heard in Nightwish, because her voice leads the way, but she's one of many talented musicians in that band, all of whom shine because Tuomas Holopainen writes music that gives all of them opportunity to do so and they all have the chops to meet the challenge. Here, it's all about her and her voice.

Probably the biggest reason for it being a success is that she never seems like she's showing off on any of these songs, even though she absolutely is. She dials it down so that she can ramp it up and she's impeccable with both of those approaches. I don't know who performs behind her here, but I would call them thoroughly capable but eager not to steal the spotlight. The result is that I would be surprised if some of these songs—and it could be any of them—start to show up on vocal talent shows, with ambitious contestants adding what Floor thankfully doesn't: an intricate R&B run here and an octave leap there just to impress the judges.

The one they might pick first is Fire, which is an especially strong closer. Floor initially plays it soft, with piano accompaniment, but there's orchestration and a dynamic beat hinting at where she'll take it and, damn, she takes it further than anyone who hasn't experienced Floorgasms is likely to expect. There are moments when she explodes into power and the band joins her and it's moments like those that have judges on their feet applauding with their mouths open. Of course, anyone on one of those shows who can do it justice deserves that response, but they'll have to be damn good to take it beyond Floor. As we might expect. I mean, c'mon.

What's telling is that this is the sort of album that I'm not likely to like. It's far from as varied as it could be, as anyone who's watched all her Beste Zangers songs will know. She only sings in English here, for a start. There are so many directions she could have taken this, but she chose to go for a pretty consistent and relatively straightforward pop/rock approach, but it wasn't to be safe. It's a sort of establishing shot, I think. Here's what she can do when doing what other singers with huge voices do.

What I think it might be is the establishment of a baseline in a studio setting for listeners who are not metal fans and may not know what Floor can do. Now this is out there, she can go beyond it. It isn't a bad album at all. I liked every song here but what I want to hear is the next album that will mix it up and test some of her limits. After all, when it comes to Floor Jansen, those limits are way beyond what most singers would consider. How far is debatable, of course, because I don't believe that she's reached them yet, but those who want that variety will need to go to Beste Zangers for some answers rather than here.

E-an-na - Alveolar (2023)

Country: Romania
Style: Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 10 Mar 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | TikTok | YouTube

Yeah, I've reviewed one folk metal album already this week and I try to keep things mixed up but, while that's an entirely apt descriptor for Adavänt, it's only a starting point for E-an-na, who don't sound like anybody else in any genre of music. I had a blast with their debut album, Nesfârşite, in 2019 and was eager to jump onto this follow-up. I'm reviewing after Lordi entirely by accident, with the band actually from Transylvania and another Eurovision hopeful—they were a finalist in 2022 in the Romanian selection contest, Selecția Națională. They sound as much like Lordi as Adavänt, which is not much at all. They don't even sound like Bucovina, who are what you might be thinking of if I say Romanian folk metal band.

While they don't sound like any other folk metal band, it's clear that they sound like an amalgam of folk and metal. The folk music is everywhere, all sorts of ethnic sounds whirling around in a mix that's all them. It's primarily folk music from the Carpathian mountains, but that doesn't mean a single sound. The harmonising vocals towards the end of O, Romaniţa may come closest to what a non-Romanian like me might think traditional music in the Carpathians might sound like, but that is merely one string to their Romanian bow.

There's wild and wacky carnival jazz on the intro, Mioretic Metal, that could accompany a Looney Toons cartoon. Doi kicks off with flutes and hand drums and it finds a neat combination of jagged rhythms and accordion groove. Călăuză matches prowling bass with gypsy dance music. There's a humming duet to kick off O, Romaniţa and it soon trawls in middle eastern rhythms and melodies, on both violin and drums. The intertwining vocals of male vocalist Andrei Oltean and female vocalist Roxana Amarandi late in the song is fascinating. And that's just the first four songs. E-an-na have no interest of skimping on this diversity as the album runs on.

While there's more folk than metal, there's a lot of metal here. It's there on Mioretic Metal, as it ought to be. The end of Călăuză is furious. Ies is heavy from the outset, like the roof has fallen onto us and the band carry on playing while we collectively hold that weight above them. 'colo 'mbia is crunchy guitars and hardcore shouts, surprising given that all the vocals have been clean thus far. It's arguaby alternative metal, even though it drifts into an extended accordion solo later on. Parts of the second halves of Fântânile de la Capătul Lumii and Floare de Fier are utterly crushing, even if they're accompanied by acoustic guitars or flutes. Suit în Nor could often be called nu metal.

All this is par for the course for this band, I should add. When you think you know what's going on, they turn on a dime and that's emphatically what I like most about E-an-na. I didn't hear anything here that fascinated me as much as the double whammy of Pielea and Pânda on Nesfârşite, but I'd only be disappointed if they didn't include new things that I haven't heard before and they happily delivered there. Biba sounds like someone playing the wires inside a piano, accompanied by some ruthlessly mechanical vocal rhythms. The final forty seconds are absolutely glorious but the entire song is fascinating.

Oddly, my favourite songs are in between the extremes. Mioritic Metal and Cenuşiu are gleefully lively, leaping around like a hummingbird on acid. At points, it's electronica. At points, it's metal. At points, it's a whole slew of things. Ironically, Cenuşiu translates to Grey, which this song utterly isn't. Floare de Fier is another bouncy one and a heavy one too, with chunky guitar and earworms of melodies. I also dug a couple of songs that are almost routine for this band, as surprising as it got for me. Fagure Negru has a gorgeous post-punk groove to it and Dulce is smooth as well, as it ought to be with a title that translates to Sweet.

So this may not have the peaks of Nesfârşite, but it's another fascinating album from a fascinating band. There are precious few bands on the planet who can keep their listeners guessing this much without losing the plot and E-an-na know exactly what they're doing. Roll on the next album!

Tuesday 18 April 2023

Lordi - Screem Writers Guild (2023)

Country: Finland
Style: Hard & Heavy
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 31 Mar 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Damn, I must have blinked in 2021 because I didn't just miss one new Lordi album, I missed seven of them. I reviewed Killection in 2020, which was a fictional compilation album, collating music from a bunch of different phases of a fictional band's career. It was a lot of fun for listeners and it appears that it was just as much fun for the band, because they promptly knocked out the Lordiversity box set in 2021, which included entire albums in some of the styles on offer in Killection: one prog rock, one AOR, one theatrical rock, and so on, even one disco. So I'm suddenly way behind, but they have an unrelated new eighteenth album only three years after their tenth.

This one opens up heavy with Dead Again Jayne, clearly a heavy metal song, even if it's the sort of heavy metal we might expect Alice Cooper to knock out at his heaviest. The bass on this one sounds like a machine gun at points and Mr. Lordi himself lets out a nice scream at one point. I like it a lot, but it's just a teaser here because the rest of the album softens up to a bombastic hard rock level. Or, as the framing story to this kinda sorta concept album would have it, it's the gorefest that kicks off a horror movie marathon before we leap back to the cheesiness of the eighties for the rest. It's introduced by a guest horror host, Nosferiuz, but he doesn't show up again until The SCG Awards a solid nine tracks later for another skit before the final two movies.

Instead, we just get movies, erm songs, most of which have theatrical intros. Inhumanoid's sounds like a robot fellating itself. Thing in the Cage has a strange a capella opening that hints at throat singing but never gets there, even after the minute it runs. Vampyro Fang Club starts with carnival organ and coins jingling in pockets. And so on. Each of these songs is hard rock, hooks very much on display and driving the songs more than the riffs. Alice Cooper is the most frequent comparison I'd conjure up, which shouldn't surprise as Lordi have modelled a lot of what they do on him, both with regards to image and sound.

Inhumanoid may be the strongest of these songs. The album's pretty easy to listen to overall, even if some of the intros get old pretty quickly, but few of the songs want to stand out. The best are at the beginning of the album, Inhumanoid especially but also the bounce of Thing in the Cage. It's a slow but emphatic one that flows along effortlessly. I'm sure Lordi have probably got fed up of the Eurovision Song Contest by now, but this is the song that would do best there, I think. It's firmly a rock song but it's built on melodic pop underpinnings and the hook is everything. It's also a strong commitment to togetherness, even if it's phrased as "This freakshow needs a geek like me."

The album started to lose me when The Bride showed up. Sure, it ditches the need for an intro and launches straight into the song but it's a ballad, so equates to the tame horror movie that eschews blood and guts and tries instead for a subtle psychological approach. That's fine and I'm sure it has its time, but that time isn't six movies into an all night marathon. It's the movie where everyone is happy to take a quick nap before starting into the home stretch with a firm favourite. Here, that's the first single, Lucyfer Prime Evil, and it's a good one even though I missed it first time.

On that first listen, The Bride took me out of the album and I didn't reconnect until Lycantropical Island, missing this first single and Scarecrow. Lucyfer Prime Evil remains hard rock but it's heavier than anything else on offer except the opener. The guitars are a little more vicious than the norm and the keyboards provide good emphasis. I should mention here that the line-up has changed in the three years since Killection and indeed since Lordiversity in 2021, but only to replace Amen for the first time. Every other position in the band except Mr. Lordi as lead vocalist has changed over the years at least twice, but Amen has stayed the course since 1996 until now.

His replacement is Kone and he's the best thing about Scarecrow, which isn't a ballad but feels like one. It's not bad but no wonder it didn't register on a first listen. Lycantropical Island restores the norm, bringing us more hard rock with eighties keyboards and plenty of hooks and the album stays there throughout. The other two notable tracks are The SCG Awards, which is a skit featuring our host, Nosferiuz, and End Credits, which is a good way to end. This album could have run any length but Dead Again Jayne was always going to be the opener and End Credits the closer. It's less ballad and more softer rock song almost in a Pink Floyd vein but it's also a goodbye, with another strong guitar solo from Kone to cement his place in the band. He gets a few.

This is what it is, I guess. It's Lordi playing theatrical hard rock with a horror theme, which ought to be exactly what you expect. It's decent stuff, but there are few songs that stand out as highlights, Inhumanoid chief among them and Thing in the Cage and Lycantropical Island in its wake. It isn't a concept album, just a loose theme shoehorned into a couple of skits, and that gets old quickly. The album has to live or die on its songs and it ends up in between. Undead, I guess, like Nosferiuz. It's a 7/10 of an album that's a bit too long and a bit too routine to maintain that rating, probably just like this review.

Ghostlight - From Above (2023)

Country: Poland
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 16 Feb 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram

Everything I seem to review from Poland lately seems to be progressive rock and here's another to add to that list. It's a tasty album that's far more mature than its debut status might suggest, so I would love to know the background of the musicians involved. The sound is elegant and thoughtful to the degree that I started to think of this music as being in black and white or, more properly, in many shades of grey. I have little idea why, but maybe it comes from black and white film providing a very different sense of nuance to colour film.

For something so thoughtful, it feels clean and commercial, even with In the Ashes opening up the album at almost ten minutes in length. That's not likely to ever see daytime radio play, but it feels like it's built out of components taken from melodic rock: smooth keyboards, a clean guitar, even a pair of voices intertwining, even if they, as I suspect, both belong to Paweł Hinc. There's some post-punk here and even some AOR in the chord choices, but it's all filtered into a prog rock framework. That guitar often reminds of Steve Rothery and there's plenty of Steve Hogarth in the vocals and songwriting, but I kept hearing progressive Fleetwood Mac too. Think The Chain rather than Little Lies. However, Ghostlight have a sound all their own.

This is not a short album, so there's twenty minutes in the first three songs alone, enough to seem like a serious chunk of music. I found all three of these songs immersive, in the sense that I let the album just flow over me, never quite becoming background music but certainly partway to it. With repeat listens, I'm finding all sorts of depths in each of these songs that are well worth exploring, but initially they played in a similar style that lulled me into a false sense of security, with a guitar solo from Maciej Snowacki grabbing my attention here and there.

And that all changed with The Reason for My Pain, which is an absolute peach of a track. It's a fresh epic, one of four tracks here to reach eight minutes, but it does a heck of a lot in that time. It finds a neat groove early, with intimate vocals by Hinc and teasing piano by Mirosław Skorupski, but it's always ready to do something new. There's a cool moment a minute and a half in in when the core riff suddenly shifts into bold print. Then it finds a melodic groove that works gloriously as a grand sweep and we're off and running. Except then, almost at the three minute mark, it suddenly leaps into a theatrical staccato reminiscent of Sparks.

It's a song that wants to keep us paying attention and it's almost impossible not to deep dive into it even on a first listen. I paused the album after this song so I could replay this one a few times. It got better with every listen, with new details coming to the fore—the synth lines, the way a violin plays with the piano, a Spanish sounding guitar and, increasingly, what Rafał Nycz does on drums. The longer the song runs on, the more the drums steal my attention, especially once we reach six and a half minutes and they get vehement. It even has a good ending and it's that rare song that's all subtlety but which needs serious volume.

I liked this from the outset, but it was The Reason for My Pain that totally sold me on Ghostlight. The best news is that it's not alone. It's still my favourite track here, but others challenge it with solid claims to be listed as highlights. A.M.O.C. is close, with excellent use of Hinc's violin, but the stellar basswork under the opening of Colorblind elevates that one too. Eternal Rain, in between those two, has a tough job to enforce its presence but it's a solid track too.

Crucially, nothing here is eager to outstay its welcome, even though the album lasts an ambitious hour and fourteen minutes. Albums that long tend to get old quickly because the imagination runs out before the songs do, but that's not the case here. The best songs get better and the rest keep on improving with each further listen too. It's a pleasant album on a first time through but it's an impressive one on a second and it only gets more impressive with repeats. Ghostlight may not be Amarok or Collage yet, but they're up there with Fren already for me and this is a debut album.

Now, can someone explain why there's so much fantastic prog rock coming out of Poland lately?