Friday 19 May 2023

Jethro Tull - RökFlöte (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Folk/Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 21 Apr 2023
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Excepting the select few who study historical agriculture, the first response most people are going to have to the words "Jethro Tull" is likely to be "a rock band with a flute". Given that, it may be an excellent time to remind that this rock band with a flute have gone through a number of styles in a career that's now closer to sixty years than fifty. They started out playing jazz and blues, moved to rock, turned progressive, shifted back to folk, went commercial, heavied up and eventually turned back to folk but with more of a world perspective. All with a flute, sure, but also with the guitar of Martin Barre, who was a mainstay from their formation in 1967 to their split in 2012.

I mention that, because the newly reformed Jethro Tull, which featured an entirely new line-up in addition to main man Ian Anderson, does feature a guitarist but we often forget that, listening to the music. Last time out, on The Zealot Gene, released only one year ago, that was Florian Opahle, while here it's Joe Parrish, but both of them, as capable as they are, stay firmly in the background. As such, it's easy to think of this band less as Jethro Tull and more as Ian Anderson's current band. With that in mind, I'm happy to hear this album, especially so close on its predecessor's heels. The last time that Tull released two albums in consecutive years was 1979 and 1980.

RökFlöte is a nonsense word, of course, but it's there for a few reasons. For one, they remain rock with a flute, but there's also a pair of heavy metal umlauts to remind us of that Grammy they won instead of Metallica and there's a strong focus on Norse mythology, so this isn't so much RökFlöte, it's really RagnarökFlöte, which doesn't look as cool. The more I relisten, the more I hear Parrish's guitar, providing heavy but subdued backing to the songs, but Anderson's flute soars over them as if we're listening to a bird on the wing and everyone else in the band is the blurry landscape we're not seeing in the distance because of our narrow focus.

It's there solo as the female narration in a Norse tongue ends on the opening Voluspo. It's there in Ginnungagap, so much that it feels like the piece is going to be entirely a flute instrumental, with a little assistance from the guitar. When Anderson starts singing a minute a change in, it seems to be a little out of place. The same happens on Cornucopia, because it feels like a solo flute piece for a minute and a half until suddenly there are vocals. And the same applies on Guardian's Watch, an even more obvious instrumental, because it's a dance piece right out of folk music, but one that is channelled into vocal song sooner, only forty seconds or so in.

In short, it's there on a majority of these songs, as if it's keen to enforce that Jethro Tull are not a rock band with a flute,they're a rock band with a lead flute and that's a crucial distinction. Now, it sounds like I'm being negative here and I don't man to be. I'm not putting these songs down. I'm a number of repeat listens into this album and I'm still having a blast with it. It's just to point out the order of Anderson's focuses nowadays. It's flute first and foremost. Then it's on what used to be his primary role, as lead vocalist. Then it's on songwriting. A little further down the line, it's everyone else. And that's fine, as long as you know what you're getting.

However, it may be telling that my favourite songs here are the most playful ones, that hearken in aim back to the folk rock era of the band. On these, the flute is a Pied Piper of an instrument with a wink and a cheeky grin, eager for us to follow it who knows where. I'd probably pick The Feathered Consort as my favourite here, with Cornucopia behind it then Guardian's Watch and Trickster (And the Mistletoe). But some of the songs have touches that are playful, like Ithavoll, the outro with a fresh instance of our female narrator in Norse. Anderson duets with himself, one voice coming out of the left speaker and another the right. The song itself isn't up to the others I've mentioned but it's still alive.

And so I'm happy to hear this album, even so close to its predecessor, which is at once a better and worse album, depending on what you want to focus on. Ian Anderson was always one of the pivotal characters in rock music and he's continued to be unique for well over a half a century now. It's fair to say that this new Jethro Tull is pretty much entirely him, with no insult intended for the various other talented musicians involved, but he has the talent and the charm to swing it.

Dave Lombardo - Rites of Percussion (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Progressive Rock/Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 5 May 2023
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The name of Dave Lombardo needs no introduction because he's arguably the best drummer that extreme metal of any description has ever seen. It isn't just his work for Slayer, which is enough all on its own; he's built a career that's seen him play in a variety of different styles for diverse bands as different as Philm, the Misfits and Suicidal Tendencies, not to forget his work with Mike Patton, less in Dead Cross and more in Fantômas and Mr. Bungle. One of the few things we have to thank a global pandemic for is confining him to a home studio so that he could write and record a first solo album after forty years of influencing everyone.

As an aside, of course, if anyone's seen that recording of him playing Battery with Metallica at the Download Festival in 2004 after Lars Ulrich had an anxiety attack and went to hospital instead, you know the future we deserved but never had. James Hetfield's cry of sheer joy when Lombardo hits the double bass and absolutely nails it in the way that Lars never did is one of my favourite seconds of recording on YouTube, right up there with Terry Lin's unbelieving reaction to Dimash.

But back to Dave Lombardo. He brings a little of each of those styles to this album but in ways that make them sound completely different. This is a progressive, experimental drummer's album with no vocals at all and very possibly no instruments either beyond his drumkit and a versatile array of percussion instruments, many of which sound Latin. There are some sort of synths in there too, but it's possible that they may be triggered by the sort of digital pads that Neil Peart uses in his solos.

That Latin sound comes from Lombardo looking back at his musical heritage. He was born in Cuba, though his family moved to California when he was young so he grew up there, but I've read that it was Mike Patton who introduced him to Tito Puente's 1958 album Top Percussion. I'm a fan of those old percussion albums and I checked it out; it's easy to hear some of what Puente and others, like Mongo Santamaria—yes, that's who that line in Blazing Saddles references—did then, especially on its instrumental second side, in what Lombardo builds here.

However, he brings a lot newer influences to play too. This feels modern from the very outset, with sections in Initiatory Madness dark in outlook and incorporating industrial textures. That happens all the more on Separation from the Sacred, which often reminds of Coil. Also, there's a Halloween flavour to that track and Inner Sanctum after it, as if this could be used as the ambient backdrop to a haunted house or on the soundtrack to a horror flick. It's wild to hear something that reminds of both Tito Puente and Coil, but they're both there. Also, like Coil, many pieces are short and feel as if they were improvised fragments that could be developed into more substantial pieces later.

I'd love to know what the instrument line-up is here, how much the background atmosphere relies on keyboard layers and whether there are guitars on Inner Sanctum or Maunder in Liminality. The vast majority of the sounds are percussive though, even if we don't recognise what instrument he happens to playing at the time. I recognise a bunch of them—maracas, gongs, congas, wood blocks, cymbals, djembes, etc.—but there's a lot more going on than just those. Looking up details, I see a variety of others: timbales, as Puente used, but also batás, ibos, darbukas, octobans and cajóns.

The result is a rhythmically dense sound that often becomes strikingly visual, if not always in ways that conjure up horror imagery. On Despojo, for instance, it felt like I was hacking my way through a jungle with twin machetes, not because something was chasing me but because it just felt right, as an ebullient expenditure of energy. Blood Let feels like I'm in a samurai film but I can't see the swords because they're hiding elsewhere in an ocean of wheat above me. The ritual nature of the music, as suggested by the title, manifests most obviously on Omiero, which could be a ceremony.

However, the majority of the textures play with horror imagery. Despojo later shifts into a horror vibe and Interfearium after it never pretends to be anything else, what I presume is a slow piano under atmospheric swirls and a diabolically playful beat that's part Tom Waits, part John Zorn and part György Ligeti. Wherever we are in the album, especially early on either side, we're never far from something that reminds of the horror genre. Even there, though, it's telling that some of it's threatening, as if whatever's happening is being done to us, and some of it isn't, as if we're merely watching from the safety of a cinema seat.

All of it is evocative, with Lombardo playing with texture throughout. That puts this apart from the sort of percussion albums I tend to listen to, which are centred on rhythm, whether they're created with taiko drums, middle eastern percussion or a gamelan orchestra. Even that Tito Puente album is fundamentally about rhythm, in yet another different way. However, this takes rhythms as just a starting point to build some sort of atmosphere around, to impart a mood and tell a story.

Clearly, this isn't going to be for everyone and it helps to not come into it expecting Slayer or Philm or Fantômas. This is something different, obviously experimental in nature but fascinating in how versatile and, quite frankly, how inquisitive it is. There's a lot here to take in but, if you can bring a certain openness to it, it's massively rewarding.

Thursday 18 May 2023

Jason Bieler and the Baron von Bielski Orchestra - Postcards from the Asylum (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 14 Apr 2023
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If there's anyone working in the rock/metal genre who has a better understanding of melody than Jason Bieler, I have absolutely no idea who it might be. This is a double album of new material with fifteen songs on offer and they're so loaded with melodies and harmonies that we start to believe that everything is a hook. Sure, the choruses are hooks but the verses are also hooks and the riffs and often the beats too. He's so apparently effortless at this that it can be hard to believe that it's new material and we didn't just grow up with all these songs as cultural atmosphere.

Bombay is a particularly strong opener, a lively and bouncy alt rock piece with all those hooks and plenty of harmonies too. The bookends are as steampunk as the cover art suggests yet again and they set a scene that I was surprised not to see visited more during the album. However, the style in between that reminds us how much Bieler enjoys the Beatles is consistently explored across the other songs. The question often comes down to how much he wants to rock out at a point in time, as he does on Heathens or Sic Riff, and how much he doesn't, as on Mexico, which is layered hooks and strings, even though he adds a tasty guitar solo.

Well, I say he adds a tasty guitar solo but I'm not sure who does what here, beyond expecting that Bieler does most of it. There are guests, most obviously Andee Blacksugar and Edu Cominato, who are currently touring with KMFDM and Geoff Tate respectively. Both of them appear on a slew of tracks, the latter for drums and the former for "extra guitars, noises and solos". There are a whole lot of others, but I'm thinking the vast majority are Bieler under various wild and wonderful noms de plume, such as Wormsby Troutlick and Stralinksi Waka-waka. Quite a few of these names have a connection to food, like Baklava Jones and Stilton Shoebaggies, so I'm guessing Bieler was hungry when he conjured them up.

The actual other people lean towards multi-instrumentalists who perform with a broad variety of artists but only appear on one track, usually Beneath the Waves. That includes two bassists, Chris McLernon, formerly of Bieler's primary band, Saigon Kick, and Todd Kerns, currently working with Slash; as well as Ryo Okumoto of Spock's Beard on piano and keyboards. Elsewhere, there's Marco Minneman, a German drummer who's played with everyone from Nena to Necrophagist, and Ricky Sanders, also ex-Saigon Kick, who was on the previous Baron von Bielski Orchestra release, Songs for the Apocalypse.

It doesn't surprise me that Bieler should attract such a versatile set of musical partners, but they aren't here to do anything particularly flash. They're here to collaborate with him in ways that are reliant on having an open musical mind. That works gloriously on the first of the two records, with everyone making wonderful contributions across the board that always fit with Bieler's melodies. Bombay is only the first of a number of highlights, because Heathens bounces with edges, Birds of Prey is beautiful and elegant, Flying Monkeys is full of fascinating rhythms and Sic Riff grinds.

That's not to say that the second disc doesn't work because it does, just not quite so effortlessly as the first. Deep Blue is probably my favourite track there, with its prog pop rhythms and langurous drive, but I'd put that behind all five of the earlier highlights that I mentioned above. Other songs stand out in other ways too, often lighter ones. There are keyboard touches that elevate 9981 Dark and electronica is even more fundamental to Bear Sedatives, with its delightful vocalisations that serve as both rhythm and backing vocals. Human Head closes out in an uncharactistically folk vein, the most unique song here and my second highlight behind Deep Blue.

That uneven balance between discs doesn't help the album, but nothing really lets it down. Quite frankly, the worst songs here would seem good on someone else's album because everything that Bieler does is worth hearing. It goes without saying that everything here is instantly recognisable as his work because his style is not easily mimicked and nobody else does it quite like him. I think I would award the first disc a 9/10 but the second only a 7/10, so this averages out to a second highly recommended 8/10 album in a row for Bieler. Just buy everything he's ever done and absorb it.

The Damned - Darkadelic (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Gothic Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 28 Apr 2023
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The Damned are one of those iconic bands who have been around forever and may well have done everything. Their early days, starting in 1976, including releasing the first British punk single, New Rose, and the first British punk album, Damned Damned Damned. A decade later, they moved into goth and, eventually, into a more psychedelic take on both punk and goth. They're an idiosyncratic band, partly because of that unique blend of styles and partly because it all sits behind the iconic smooth voice of Dave Vanian, the band's mainstay since their inception.

Vanian has kept the band alive ever since, through they've never been particularly prolific. This is their twelfth studio album in a career that's now closing in on half a century, their first since Evil Spirits in 2018. It's a varied affair, as you might expect, veering from punk to goth and back again, with psychedelic sections here and there and a surprising dip into what sounds to me like fifties pop.

I've read that they aimed for the seventies here a lot, but You're Gonna Realise and Beware of the Clown both sound older to me, like they're fifties songs shifted into a goth punk style, almost as if these are covers of songs that didn't exist until now. Western Promise is the most fifties, because it's a ballad at heart, with Vanian's croon at the fore and a smoky use of brass late on. In between the fifties sound I'm hearing here and the seventies sound they aimed at, there are songs such as Follow Me that have a sixties garage rock drive to them, in addition to the seventies punk that saw that as an influence.

Perhaps surprisingly, I tend to dig the more extreme songs here. I've been struggling for a couple of weeks with illness, my energy levels sapped, so I've been listening to this album for much longer than I'd normally allocate a new release and it's become something of an old friend. It's telling to say in that context that I haven't tired of any of these songs, though some are clearly better than others. While I didn't have the energy to write it up sooner, it wouldn't have been difficult to turn it off and I simply didn't want to. It's a strong album that doesn't get old.

But it's the songs at the extremes that have stayed with me most. Western Promise is the softest piece here, so probably the least likely to engage me but it's a firm favourite. At the other end of the spectrum, The Invisible Man and Motorcycle Man stand out as rockers. The former is a strong opener, a punky goth rock song that ramps up halfway and gets even more interesting. While the back end's going rockabilly, the front end's getting mystical. Motorcycle Man changes too, from a truly emphatic opening with a riff so punk that it's almost metal—no, it's not the Saxon song—to eventually become a laid back sort of beach song.

They're far from all that's going on here though. Bad Weather Girl ratchets down the tempo after the opener and adds a spooky keyboard backing. It's dark carnival music with an old school guitar solo right out of psychedelic rock. Walk the Dead is very seventies, trawling in a prog atmosphere remiscent of Pink Floyd and occasionally Genesis. Apparently Captain Sensible, on his third stint in the band, learned that fans were having Damned songs played at funerals, so decided to write one specifically for that purpose. Overall, it's as pure goth as this album gets.

Roderick closes out the album in fascinating style, as unusual as Leader of the Gang isn't a couple of songs before it. The latter is all about the meteoric rise and fall of the un-late and un-lamented Gary Glitter and feels as seventies as it should. The former, though, opens up as spoken word with accompaniment. It's a dramatic horror performance that becomes a song, Vanian's voice backed by a solo piano, only to transform into a ritual chant in Latin. Then it builds substantially to strings, with ebow guitar from producer Thomas Mitchener and more trumpet from Chris Coull, as enticing here as on Western Promise. And, with all that said, it's often rather like an unconventional James Bond theme. There's a lot here.

Now I have energy back again, it's going to feel odd moving on from this new old friend to listen to something else, but I'm a few weeks behind on my reviews and need to at least attempt to catch up a little and get back on track. I've always liked the Damned but I've never really dug properly into their work, merely enjoyed it when I've noticed it. Clearly, I should be paying more attention. The joyous jam in the second half of Girl I'll Stop at Nothing is worth the cost of the album all on its own, and that doesn't scratch the surface of what it has to offer.

Wednesday 17 May 2023

Tygers of Pan Tang - Bloodlines (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 5 May 2023
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The Tygers of Pan Tang have been around for a long time and they've long been one of those bands who show up on lists of criminally underrated metal bands, but they're on top of their game lately and it's surely time for them to reap some more mainstream success. Their previous album, Ritual, was their twelfth and it got a rare 9/10 from me; it only missed earning my Album of the Month for November 2019 because I'd reviewed the latest Opeth a week earlier. It featured a relatively new line-up, with only guitarist Robb Weir surviving from the old days and they're still not quite stable, it seems, with two further changes since Ritual.

First up was Francesco Marras, who replaced two-time guitarist Gavin Gray in 2020, and the guitars certainly sound tasty as the album begins. Edge of the World kicks off with a swirling of keyboards and a vague middle eastern flavour, before the riffs kick in and Italian vocalist Jacopo Meille joins the fray. This isn't remotely as fast and heavy as its equivalent from Ritual, Worlds Apart, but it's a peach of a song and it does rather a lot in only five minutes, even slotting in a Latin guitar early in the second half before some searing guitar solos. Marras is going to fit in fine.

Edge of the World sounds good on a first listen but it warrants a few times through to appreciate it properly and that's not uncommon on this album. It's a little less immediate than Ritual, with the exception of tracks like Fire on the Horizon that blisters out of the gate like classic Diamond Head and carries us effortlessly along with it. It's a fast song, which ought to fit new bassist Huw Holding down to a tee, given that he's also a member of Holosade right now. It's a tailor-made song for me and an instant favourite, but it's hardly the deepest song here. It does what it does and moves on.

There are plenty of deeper songs on offer. In My Blood follows Edge of the World's lead as another elegant grower. The hook reminds me of REO Speedwagon's Riding the Storm Out but the song as a whole doesn't. The same could be said for Taste of Love, which starts out like a ballad but grows substantially until we forget how it began, even though it only runs four minutes and change. The band get sassy on Light of Hope but never stop being heavy and there's another guitar solo that's worth praising, even if it's not as ambitious as some here. I like the ones on Kiss the Sky too.

Perhaps the most interesting song for me is Back for Good, because it feels rather like Sean Harris of early Diamond Head and Mick Tucker of Tank teamed up to record a glam metal song, halfway in between Great White and Skid Row. That's an odd combination of names to throw at one song, but that's how interesting the Tygers are getting. Meille doesn't always sound like Harris, but he has a tremendous range that doesn't seem like one. Everything he does here is consistent but there are points where he shifts into blues rock, hard rock, arena rock, melodic rock, you name it, without an interruption in that consistency.

Diamond Head do keep popping up as a comparison, but that's hardly a bad thing, especially when it comes to riffs. There's a lot of Mick Tucker here but there's also a lot of Brian Tatler and there is no better riffer on the planet than him. If the Tucker influence is most overt on Back for Good and Kiss the Sky and the Tatler influence is most overt on Fire on the Horizon, the rest of the album is often somewhere between the two, at one point channelled through an intermediary, because the album ends with Making All the Rules, which has Metallica guitar touches and we know where they were influenced. It's great to see that feed back in turn.

In short, I don't think this is quite up to Ritual but it's another excellent album from the Tygers. It's easily a highly recommended 8/10 but it's more of a grower so it's within the bounds of possibility I might up that later. It's a perfect example of an album that never feels short but never outstays its welcome, only just shy of three quarters of an hour, with ten solid tracks. Not all are highlights, but none let the side down and every one of them is well worth listening to in isolation. They're also all clearly Tygers songs but none sound like each other. It's almost a textbook for what a heavy metal album by an older name ought to sound like in 2023.

I've been a fan of the Tygers since I discovered rock and metal in 1984 but I'm finding that I'm more of a fan than ever with each successive new release. And can I think of a gig I'd rather see right now than a Tygers and Diamond Head double header? No, I can't.

Smokey Mirror - Smokey Mirror (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy Psychedelic Blues Rock
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 5 May 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram

Boy, have I been waiting for this album. The last gig I went to before COVID closed everything down was a psychedelic blues rock band from Dallas, Texas called Smokey Mirror and it's no hyperbole to suggest that they were the most devastating live band I've ever seen. What made that even more special was that they were technically there in support of local stoner metal band Loserfur and the venue, which was about the size of my front room, wasn't full and largely included members of the other three bands on the bill. My brief gig review on Facebook stated that "they gave it everything like they were playing in front of 20,000 people who had paid $200 to get in, rather than 35 people for $8 cover".

They were a trio then, with only an EP out, but they've bulked up to a four piece—Cam Martin has replaced Josh Miller on drums and Caleb Hollowed has stepped in on a second guitar—and signed with Rise Above Records. That's important because this band generated a sound that was hard to believe was generated by only three people and there are now four of them. Along with the boost in production values that comes with an important label, this ought to seriously blister and it very much does that, aided I believe by engineer Paul Middleton, formerly of seventies heavy rock band Blackhorse, also a trio, who did his thing at a studio that uses only vintage analogue equipment.

The result is that this feels authentically seventies, the sort of ultimate crate digger find, surely an album lost in obscurity because nobody could believe how intense it was in 1975. Imagine the most furious psychedelic rock from that decade, drench it in acid and stretch it out for forty minutes and change and you might have an idea what Smokey Mirror sound like. I thought of them on stage as a cross between Aeroblus and Black Sabbath, with some of Motörhead's ruthless heaviness and an intricacy from the Allman Brothers. That translated well to the studio, though there's not as much of the Motörhead as I remember.

They tellingly start with a crescendo, pause a moment and then launch into full gear with Invisible Hand, a song from their debut EP. There are three songs here that are previously released but all benefit from being re-recorded here, not just because of the production but because they're even tighter as a band now than they were, which is hard to imagine. The others are Magick Circle, also from that EP, and A Thousand Days in the Desert, which saw release as a single. All three are on a compilation CD I picked up from the band in 2019 which combined the EP, the single and a further song as a bonus.

Invisible Hand is a killer opener, an ambitious statement of intent, and Pathless Forest matches its intensity but with more obvious melodic lines. Both these songs blister, but Magick Circle blisters a lot harder, which is saying something. It ran to six minutes on the EP but it's eight here, even with a faster pace. The first four minutes there are done in three here, with a neat slower section before some feedback worship wrapped around a bass solo, and, eventually, of all things, a drum solo. It's a ballsy move to include a drum solo on a debut album, but it works because Magick Circle is easily defined as a showcase. The only thing more ballsy would be to kick off the album with it.

From there, it's new material for a while and wildly varied new material at that. I believe they put out Alpha-State Dissociative Trance as a single, which is fantastic because it's particularly wild and full of jazz fusion. It's a jagged and vicious sub-three minute blitzkrieg to cleanse our palates after an eight minute epic with a drum solo and, just in case we needed to cleanse our palates after that level of intensity, Fried Vanilla Spider Trapeze is old school roots rock, only a minute long but music that wouldn't be out of place on a Hot Tuna album. Nice harmonica too.

My favourite song here has to be Sacrificial Altar, another epic workout with a crescendo to start it into motion. I didn't know what Smokey Mirror meant when I saw them live, but then I read Ernest Hogan's books, especially Smoking Mirror Blues, and now I get it. It's a reference to the Aztec god Tezcatlipoca, their trickster deity, and, while Los Tricksters were a fictional band in Hogan's novel, it's not a wild stretch to imagine that they sound like Smokey Mirror playing Sacrificial Altar. It's a gem of a track, short at seven and a half minutes, and more perfectly formed than anything before it.

And, while that's enough for an 8/10 album already, we're not done yet. What's to Say underline a Black Sabbath influence, just in case we hadn't noticed it during much of the album thus far, but it does it at Sabbath's speed here, slow and doomladen, before the bass goes hyperactive and both guitars start to shred psychedelia. It's another strong song on an album full of strong songs and it has to be said that I wanted that to carry on forever. However, this avoids overstaying its welcome by wrapping up with a brief Latin solo guitar exploration called Recurring Nightmare.

And, because I can, I can then just start the album again. And again. And again. I've been eagerly awaiting this album for four years and it showed up better than even I expected it to be. Now I just need to stop listening to it on repeat because I have other albums to review.

Tuesday 16 May 2023

Overkill - Scorched (2023)

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

14th April, 2023 was quite a red letter day for thrash fans, though it was also a curse for me due to my very deliberate policy not to duplicate genres within any week. Of course that was the day the new Metallica album dropped, but I was just as enthused seeing new albums from Holy Moses and Overkill. Of those three, Metallica may have found their way back to thrash after major depatures and Holy Moses took a long break, but Overkill have kept at it throughout, diversifying their style, sure, but never truly leaving it and they always deliver live.

I have to say that I wasn't convinced by the first couple of minutes of the opening title track. It was good but not great, which is what I thought of their previous album, The Wings of War. It wasn't a bad album but I wanted more from it, because I'm used to more from Overkill, who in a whole slew of ways are comparable to Therapy? Both have their roots firmly in punk and both firmly kept their musical integrity in the face of trend changes. However, Overkill were earlier, during my formative time with music, so they're ingrained in my musical identity; they emphatically turned to metal, a retained punk attitude notwithstanding; and I kept checking in with their new material even after I drifted away from music into the demands of adulthood.

The good news is that Scorched the song picked up for me, with a neat if surprising drop into Black Sabbath territory a couple of minutes in. I particularly dug the instrumental section in the second half, with a hyperactive bass from D. D. Verni and a tasty guitar solo from Dave Linsk. I'm still not sold on it as a complete track, even after a few listens, but it does a lot that's excellent. But Goin' Home is quintessential Overkill, right down to its gorgeous escalations and blitzkrieg of an finalé that will surely have your head banging in your office chair. The Surgeon picks up precisely where Goin' Home leaves off, Bobby "Blitz" Ellsworth spitting out bars in his patented fashion. Suddenly, this album feels a lot stronger than its predecessor.

It's definitely a mixed album, but there's a lot that's good here and it isn't remotely all the same. Goin' Home and The Surgeon remain my favourite songs, but Harder They Fall is another stormer, even if the band mix up the tempo rather often. I do like my Overkill fast and every fast song here is a highlight. My other favourite, though, is Won't Be Comin' Back, which shifts firmly into power metal. It kicks off like Iron Maiden and gets even more interesting when the vocals show up. It's a new sound for Overkill and I like it. I like Wicked Place too, even though it's a stubbornly mid-pace song. There are a couple more drops into Sabbath territory and there's a neat cello to wrap up.

The other song worthy of mention is one that I'm not as sold on but it's far more unusual than the brief vocal experimentation on Won't Be Comin' Back. This one feels like a breather after a set of energetic thrash tracks, whether mid-pace or faster. Of all things, it reminds me of the Police for a minute, a much heavier approach to the Police but the Police nonetheless. It crunches in, naturally, but it stays slow, and drops back into the opening mindset as well. Kudos to the band for taking on something very different, but I wouldn't call it the success it could be.

I don't want to dismiss the other tracks, because there are a host of moments that stand out even on the lesser material. Twist of the Wick has some interesting phrasings, both on guitar and in the vocals, while Bag o' Bones has the sort of chantalong chorus that some bands would kill for. This is at its best when it's fast though, or shifting up and down between high gears, and a few songs are screaming out for one of Overkill's patented injections of speed. The one stylistic shift I'm eager to hear more of is the power metal explored in Won't Be Comin' Back that sometimes sounds like an old school NWOBHM influence but just as often more recent European power metal.

Where this leads me is an odd situation because I'm going to give this the same 7/10 rating that I gave The Wings of War. However, this is clearly a better album to me. I thought about a 6/10 when I rated that one and decided that it wouldn't be fair. Here, I often thought about an 8/10 but I don't feel it's at that level consistently enough to make that fair. So think of the previous album as a low 7/10 and this one as a high 7/10. This is something a rating out of 100 would solve but I'm not going there. Let's just say both these albums are worth your time if you're into punky thrash, but this is the one you should start with.

Therapy? - Hard Cold Fire (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Alternative
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 5 May 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I remember Therapy? from their early days but only in passing. They were a prominent member of a new crop of British rock bands who showed up at the point that Kerrang! shifted alternative and Tommy Vance left the Friday Rock Show and I drifted away from mainstream rock music. And so I've not heard their rise to prominence, their drift away from it and their reaffirmation as a force to be reckoned with once they got old enough to sit apart from the trends. I had no idea that they were still a band, but they've kept going throughout and this looks like their sixteenth studio album. So it's about time I took a listen.

This is a short album, only just nudging past half an hour, because the average runtime of its songs is pretty close to the standard radio friendly three minutes. If that suggests a punk mindset, then you'd be absolutely right. This is alternative rock with all the energy of punk but little of the more downbeat seriousness that I've always caught in American alt rock of the same era. It doesn't feel like a band wallowing in grungy self loathing, even on a song like Joy which could easily have been called No Joy. This is a band who want to rock and just prefer to do it in an alternative framework.

I can see why this approach didn't connect with me in 1991 or 1992 but it's quite interesting in 2023. I hear a lot of pop punk here, but it's grittier and more down to earth than anything I've heard by Green Day or the Offspring. It's not so reliant on hooks, but the hooks are there. Oddly, I also hear Metallica here, but not in any of the usual ways that bands tend to employ to channel them, such as their crunchy guitar tone or James Hetfield's vocal style. However, I kept hearing moments of Black-era Metallica in shifts and breakdowns, and especially in escalations and backing vocals.

I guess the lesson is that they're happy with keeping toes in a bunch of genres, so much so that it's hard to determine what drives them the most. This isn't metal but there's a lot of metal here. It's more punk than it is rock and it often sounds like it wants to be pop music, but never to sound that soft or clean. To Disappear is so grungy that it's close to sludge, but it's stubbornly up tempo so it doesn't sound remotely like any sludge band I've heard. Andy Cairns's guitarwork often plays with dissonance and feedback, to the point that there's a subtly experimental edge.

Talking of Cairns, he's also Therapy?'s lead vocalist and he takes the opportunity to sing in a whole slew of styles. His go to style is a clean punk voice, like you might expect from pop punk, but it has more raw edge than any of the usual suspects in that genre, especially given that he clearly likes a variety of post-production jobs to suppress or torture his voice for effect, to meet a mood or a tone that he's driving with his guitar. He also has a theatricality to him that renders him the centre of attention, whatever else is going on. He even dips into sections of almost spoken word on Mongrel, which has quite a creepy effect.

While I respect a lot of punk musicians, I've always been too much of a metalhead at heart to see a punk-driven album like this as my particular cup of tea, but I'm happy I listened to it and I wonder if it'll stay with me and, if so, how much. I certainly loved the opener, They Shoot the Terrible Master, and if that isn't an esoteric yoga position it should be. I loved its urgent verses and its earworm of a chorus, from its opening drunken a capella rendition onwards. I dug Mongrel with a weaponised take on feedback and its relentless bass. Ugly is a real trip, from its weirdly folky opening.

My eighties brain still thinks of the nineties as new and it seems odd to find that its leading lights are celebrating their thirtieth anniversaries. It seems especially odd to discover that they weren't just there to jump on a trend but to help create one, so explaining their longevity. All power to this bunch of Northern Irish lads who have stuck to doing what they want to do throughout. So this isn't my favourite genre and I have next to no background in Therapy? and their peers to bring to bear. I can still see that this is clearly a good album.

Monday 15 May 2023

Hawkwind - The Future Never Waits (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Space Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 28 Apr 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

Hawkwind have been around forever and, for the longest time, were the only band working in this space rock style. There are plenty more now, because half a century of leading a path will get you followers, especially over such a huge catalogue. If I'm counting correctly, this is their thirty-fifth studio album, if we count the albums released as Church of Hawkwind, Hawkwind Light Orchestra and Psychedelic Warriors. Of course, that also excludes pivotal albums like Space Ritual, in my book one of the greatest live releases of all time.

I'm out of date with Hawkwind, so I'm a little surprised at what I heard here. What they do is solid and smooth and apparently comfortable, even over an ambitious sixty-nine minutes, so I assume it isn't much of a stretch for the modern Hawkwind, even if it seems unusual to me. That starts with a ten minute instrumental opener, which I'd call ambient space rock, a warm up and an introduction at the same time. Skipping over The End for a moment, that continues with Aldous Huxley, a piece driven by its samples, surely of the man himself, so that it's almost performance art rather than a song.

I preferred They are So Easily Distracted to both of these, even though it takes a wilder genre shift than the opening title track, that ambient space rock track that's driven by keyboards and so feels like electronica, even though there's clearly a bass in there too. This starts out as lounge music, an odd thing to say but an accurate one, because it's initially all ambient noise and light funky rhythm and soon brings in soft jazz piano and saxophone, which makes the swirling space aura even more outrageous than usual. I'm well aware that that description suggests that it really shouldn't work but it finds a wonderful groove and we gradually forget that it's built on lounge music.

I'll go back to The End here, because that isn't merely a more traditional style for Hawkwind, it's a very old school traditional style done with a very old school raw level of production, surely with an eye for nostalgic authenticity. This song wouldn't have been at all out of place on one of those key albums from from the early seventies and could even have seen release as a single. Nothing else is that old school, but Rama (The Prophecy) walks a similar path, just with a much smoother modern production job, and there's some old school drive in I'm Learning to Live Today with a neat churning bass, even though it almost finds a reggae beat at points too.

It's good to hear that old school style, whether it's simple and raw like The End or taking it forward like I'm Learning to Live Today, but that's not the majority of the album. It goes about it in a set of different ways, but much of this seems to play with psychedelic rock in a variety of ways, whether it trawls in ambient, as on The Future Never Waits; acid rock, as on Outside of Time; lounge and soft jazz, as on They are So Easily Distracted; or even late sixties Beatles, like the piano section towards the end of The Beginning, an homage made even more overt by the refrain of "whatever gets you through the night".

While I was taken aback by some of this experimentation, from a band that I'm used to hearing set new boundaries but in very different directions, I liked this a lot. It's admirably varied, to a degree I don't recall from any Hawkwind albums from my era in the seventies and eighties, and that helps the length not feel too long. Hawkwind were always so good at finding grooves and that holds true here, even with only Dave Brock left from the classic era and Richard Chadwick on drums from the late eighties. Everyone else is reasonably new, having joined within the past seven years. Some of these pieces, especially the long ones that are either entirely or mostly instrumental, could have ended up too long had they not nailed their grooves and kept us in them throughout.

I've missed the last few Hawkwind albums, like All Abourd the Skylark, Carnivorous and Somnia, all released while I've been reviewing at Apocalypse Later, though I have tackled a couple by the late Nik Turner, their former flautist and saxophonist. After this, I'll definitely be keeping my eyes open for the next one, which, knowing them, is not going to be far away. They haven't missed a year since 2015, even through COVID, Carnivorous being an anagram of Coronavirus and that album recorded partly remotely and with fewer members. So, what's next, folks?

Crime Scene - Dark Tidings (2023)

Country: Belgium/USA
Style: Crossover
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Mar 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Instagram | Metal Archives

It's time for another transatlantic week, I believe, with each day covering something from the USA and something from the UK. This is something of a cheat because the majority of Crime Scene are from Antwerp in Belgium, including guitarist PC who put the band together to tackle songs he had lying around during COVID. However, while he's known for Toxic Shock, that's the Belgian crossover band of the present day than the German thrash band of that name that I know from the eighties and nineties, so the biggest name here is surely the vocalist, Jerry A from punk band Poison Idea, who are from Portland, Oregon. So hey, it counts.

This is definitely a lot more metal than Poison Idea, who demonstrated serious chops on guitar and bass for a punk band but never pretended to be anything but straight ahead punk. These musicians behind Jerry A lay down some controlled thrash metal, mostly at a slow to mid-pace but with some faster sections, so while his voice is recognisable, this doesn't sound remotely like Poison Idea. It's part of the point, I'm sure, because he's been doing a lot of collaborative work lately that doesn't play in the style he's known for.

I do prefer my thrash fast, but this pace works for Crime Scene and it works for the punk vocals laid over the top, which is precisely how they did this. The Belgian contingent recorded all the music in October 2020 in a studio in Laakdal, but Jerry A recorded his vocals completely separately, and at a different time, five thousand miles and six months away, in Portland in early 2021. I have no idea if they knew all each other beforehand or have got together since then to play these songs live, but I have to say that it sounds like they're one band in one physical space.

As a metalhead at heart, I'm always going to be paying more attention to those metal instruments than the punk vocals, but the Belgians are mostly content to sit back and play the supporting role, generating riffs and keeping the pit moving. Dave Hubrechts gets some decent solos but nobody's spending a lot of time in the spotlight. They're there to do a job and they do it well, cleanly in the technical, often chugging style of the Bay Area. They leave the attitude to Jerry A, who seems to be on point and in the moment throughout, whatever the lyrical content and some of that definitely speaks to neither being on point nor in the moment.

It's pretty clear that Never Stop, for instance, speaks to his time in Poison Idea just as much as the many other bands who found that they may have had all the talent in the world but came up short on discipline, losing themselves in alcohol or worse. It's not a hopeful song, kicking off with a dark line, "It looks like the same, same day when I drink myself to sleep" and doesn't get more positive as it goes. It's not an affirmation song, it's an illustration of a tough reality. It doesn't offer hope, just kinship, I guess.

And the rest of the EP follows suit, this comprising five tracks and sixteen minutes. Four are short but sweet at very close to the traditional three minutes and Never Stop wraps up the EP at almost four and a half, elongated by an emphatic ending that kicks in around the three minute mark and makes it seem like we're in a warzone, with sirens, feedback, smashing glass and repetition of the title that turns it into a sort of protest chant that we shouldn't listen to when our shadows hurl it at us. It's a powerful ending to a powerful song.

And that's about it, because sixteen minutes isn't a long time to do much out of the ordinary, with the genre not known for that anyway. This is crossover, thrash metal instrumentation with a punk vocal, so it's straightforward stuff, just done capably well. I haven't heard this style in quite a long time, because the trends are more towards more aggression, with heavier groove metal behind a hardcore shout. This is old school, like the early crossover bands I remember from the New York of the mid-eighties, and I like that. It's good to hear the style again as it used to be.

Friday 12 May 2023

Anthem - Crimson & Jet Black (2023)

Country: Japan
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 21 Apr 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Here's another band I haven't heard in far too long. I remember Anthem from the mid-eighties as one of a slew of Japanese bands that suddenly became known to the west. Vow Wow may have hit biggest, because they moved over to England and changed their name from Bow Wow to fit better in an English speaking country, but Loudness did well and Earthshaker got noticed too. That was a good time for Japanese bands in the west and I picked up a few early Anthem albums from English record shops, four out of the first six, and they were all solid.

However, that only took me to 1990's No Smoke without Fire. They knocked out another one before splitting up in 1992, but they reformed in 2000 and, if I'm counting properly, this is their eleventh original studio album since. I say "original" deliberately, because their first album back was a sort of best of with Graham Bonnet stepping in as vocalist for one album only, Heavy Metal Anthem. A couple of decades later, Explosive!!: Studio Jam is exactly that, a COVID-era set of covers, with the support of Bonnet again along with current vocalist Yukio Morikawa.

This is a good one that showcases quite a range for a band who haven't changed their style much over the years, shimmying a little more into power metal from a heavy metal base. For a change, the representative songs aren't just the first few, but some of them are important to get a grasp on what Anthem do.

Snake Eyes is a stormer of an opener, very reminiscent of the sort of up tempo belters that Accept so often used to kick off albums. I like it a lot. Wheels of Fire isn't as heavy but it still rips and it's a much more accurate guide to what's coming. It's hard to define a Japanese flavour to heavy metal, especially when Yukio Morikawa sings in English, but it's there if we pay attention, especially in his vocal delivery on songs like this one. Roaring Vortex slows the pace a few songs in to give us a real churner of a track that ought to generate a serious pit. Its title is highly appropriate.

If you're getting an idea of what they do already, let me throw another few tracks at you to make that seem rather premature. Blood Brothers ups the tempo again after Roaring Vortex, but it's a lot sassier, almost like it's a glam metal song on speed rather than power metal done fast. I could hear a lot of bands covering this, but the ones who might do it justice are likely to sound different indeed. Similarly, Mystic Echoes sounds like a hard rock song translated into a metal style, a track that screams classic Rainbow. It got to the point where I started to imagine I was watching Ritchie Blackmore and listening to Ronnie James Dio or indeed, as it runs on, Graham Bonnet.

Oh, and then there's Void Ark, which is an instrumental showcase, especially for Akio Shimizu, who has a lot of fun demonstrating his chops on guitar. Oddly, he isn't the band member who played for Loudness—that's bass player Naoto Shibata, in between stints for Anthem—because I heard a lot of Akira Takasaki in the first couple of minutes. However, he shifts wildly into a sensitive emotional mode reminiscent of Gary Moore, which screams for our attention, and then shifts again into even more of a spotlight moment, with Shimizu's fingers shredding the fretboard.

All these things are Anthem and Anthem do all those things well. The best song here for me has to be Snake Eyes, which is a perfect way to start, but the most fun song is probably Master of Disaster and I had a lot of fun with Howling Days and Burning Down the Wall too. These are definitely more traditional metal songs but they're good ones nonetheless with top notch riffing and a thoroughly reliable rhythm section in Shibata, the only founder member left in the band, and drummer Isamu Tamaru, who's top notch throughout without ever showing off, yet another reminder of Accept.

What's perhaps most notable is that this doesn't feel like another album in a long string. Anthem are hardly reticent about stepping into the studio. This comes four yers after Nucleus, but that's a sign of COVID messing up everyone's schedules more than anything else. They haven't gone more than three years without an album since their reformation in 2000 otherwise. Maybe it's stronger than the last few, which I haven't heard, because they've had longer to put it together, but maybe they're just this good all the time. It's not groundbreaking, but it's damn solid throughout.

Mike Tramp - Songs of White Lion (2023)

Country: Denmark
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 14 Apr 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

The most recent Mike Tramp release I reviewed here at Apocalypse Later was an album of original pop songs, For Første Gang, which he sang in his native Danish, that only rarely felt like trawling in rock. It was the one before that, Second Time Around, that comes to mind here because it was a re-recording of a 2009 album called Mike Tramp & The Roll 'n' Roll Circuz, with all the same musicians, possibly because it was only previously released in Denmark and, hey, maybe there was some sort of rights or ownership issue. That's why Taylor Swift is re-recording all of her early albums.

This is another album that's like that, because it's a look back at the catalogue of White Lion, that late eighties band that brought him most success, with re-recordings of select songs, including the bigger hits. What's especially odd here is that he's done it before, with 1999's Remembering White Lion, which has seen release under a number of different titles too. There are five crossovers that are both on this album and that one, though the musicians are all brand new again, meaning that on those particular songs, Tramp is re-recording a re-recording with a third version of White Lion. Why, I have no idea.

The good news is that it all sounds great. White Lion were usually classified as glam metal, but the sound they had was always firmly rooted in hard rock and this is a more overtly hard rock take. The opening of Lady of the Valley feels like metal, all Marcus Nand guitars, but it softens up a lot more than the original and it doesn't just benefit from 21st century production values. Tramp's voice is wonderful here, as clear as ever but with a delightful hint of age. It's been a while since 1987 and I believe he's continued to mature that voice ever since. Maybe there's the answer. He wants to see those old songs sung by the voice that he has now and I can't blame him for that.

Lady of the Valley is one of the highlights here for me. I remember Pride from its original release, but I was getting more and more into thrash and other proto-extreme metal at the time and so my sister would have listened to it a lot more than I did. It's the most represented White Lion album in this retrospective, with five tracks redone compared to four from Big Game, a couple from Fight to Survive and only one from Mane Attraction. It prompts me to go back to the originals but that just highlights how these do sound better. Production has moved on and the only expectations now are Tramp's, not his record label's. The ending on this one sounds even more like Mountain and it does not fade out this time.

I remember Pride being a big album and Big Game followed suit. It shouldn't shock that the songs here from those albums sound good. What surprised me the most about this is that two of my five highlights are the pair from their debut, Fight to Survive. I'm sure that I heard that album back in the day but I don't remember it at all, just the two that came after it. Clearly I should check it out afresh because Broken Heart stands out here, playing like a heavier Bryan Adams song, if he had taken up hard rock, and All the Fallen Men is even better, heavier again with a neatly churning riff. I woke up this morning with this one playing in my head. Tramp relishes both.

I should highlight that Broken Heart opened up Fight to Survive and my other two highlights were also album openers, so suggesting that I like emphatic White Lion songs rather than ballads, which were a good part of their repertoire. Other fans may well go for hit singles like Wait and When the Children Cry first, but it's apparently the openers that get me going. Hungry opened up Pride and Goin' Home Tonight opened up Big Game. Everything else was apparently a bonus in my book. It's perhaps telling that Lady of the Valley wasn't an opener in 1987 but is here and it's easily the best song on the album for me.

I should confirm that those bigger hits sound good too, just in case you wondered if they didn't sit well with taste a few decades on. When the Children Cry is particularly strong, which is why it's at the tail end of the album to wrap it up, as indeed it did on Pride. Tramp's voice sounds fantastic on this version. Listening to the original, he was clearly trying for an effect and the fact that it was so popular merely suggests that he nailed it. Here, he's not trying for anything, that effect is simply there in his voice. There's a lot to be said for the flexibility of young voices but there's just as much to be said for the maturity of old voices that have been there and done that, but not broken. Nand provides a huge solo too, that's all the more effective for the contrast of soaring over a soft piano.

It's a bit of a cheat to give this an 8/10, given that it's effectively a best of album that reaps some benefits that a traditional best of album wouldn't have. Sure, they did it right, which is important, but it ought to be this good. White Lion were an underrated band in the eighties, painted into one of those media-friendly buckets that never quite fit them, and they're well worth checking out. It's fair to say that this would be a good starting point because of the better production and because Tramp's voice has never been better.

Thursday 11 May 2023

The 69 Eyes - Death of Darkness (2023)

Country: Finland
Style: Gothic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 21 Apr 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I'm sure there's something superstitious I could read into it, but Death of Darkness is yet another thirteenth album. My second review each day is always of a more established band than my first, a deliberate approach that allows me to cover new bands and keep up with the old ones, and this, by sheer coincidence, is a third thirteenth album in a row after Holy Moses and Kamelot. Tomorrow's will not be a fourth. I just checked.

This time, it's the 69 Eyes, a Finnish band who have only ever had one line-up change in their thirty-four year career, but who have moved through a number of genres in that time, starting out more in a glam rock style but moving gradually towards gothic rock, with occasional ventures over onto the other side of the ever shifting rock/metal boundary. This is gothic rock, in a western style, but it also delves rather palatably into pop music on the ironically named Gotta Rock. Sure, it's a rock song but most of it builds with a prowling bass that wouldn't be out of place on Michael Jackson's Thriller. Needless to say, lead vocalist Jyrki 69 doesn't sound remotely like Jackson.

He sounds a lot more like Andrew Eldritch nowadays, with a deep and deliberate voice that chants and echoes at us with a teasing hint of breathlessness. Last time out, on 2019's West End, one song in particular screamed the Sisters of Mercy and the same applies here. It's Call Me Snake and it's an upbeat song with a gorgeous groove and a memorable chorus. Call me Snake, Snake, Snake... It has to be said that I much prefer the modern 69 Eyes when they're upbeat and energetic, but that only really applies in full on two songs. Call Me Snake is the best of them but Drive isn't far behind and it doesn't surprise me to discover that it preceded the album last year as the lead on a three track EP, with Call Me Snake sharing its grooves.

They're at very different points on the album. Drive shows up after the broody opening title track but Call Me Snake doesn't arrive until it's called on to kick off the second side. That places it after Gotta Rock, as well as California, with a Cult-like drive, and a particularly notable track called This Murder Takes Two. It's notable for its guest appearance by Kat Von D, which works well, her voice contrasting neatly with Jyrki's, but also because it has an alt country murder ballad vibe, filtered through goth. It's quite a memorable piece, much more low key than Call Me Snake or Drive, but a highlight nonetheless.

Even with Call Me Snake kicking it off, the second side doesn't feel as strong as the first. The other standout there is Dying in the Night, which feels like a Billy Idol song, with an incessant drive from bass and drums, but with the guitar dialled way back. It's all vocals and beat, which isn't the worst decision on this song, but I did miss Bazie's lead guitar. It's there on Something Real, with another Billy Idol sort of vibe and a faster pace. The albums wraps up with Sundown and Outlaws, a further Cult-esque song and another slower song to showcase Jyrki's resonant voice and what I presume have to be guest synth melodies.

And so this is another decent album, as we might expect from the 69 Eyes, but it's not the killer it could have been. I should run it past some of my goth friends to see what they think of it. It may be that they really dig the slower material and relish every new release the band puts out. I like it too but the metalhead inside me always wants them to speed up. When they do, on songs like Call Me Snake and Drive, I'm in Heaven. Until Eldritch figures out how easy it is nowadays to self-release a full length album while retaining complete creative control, it's these songs that satisfy my need for new Sisters material. Only after those can I truly settle into the slower, more offbeat stuff on a modern 69 Eyes album.

Compassionizer - As Smoke is Driven Away (2023)

Country: Russia
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Apr 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Prog Archives

I've reviewed a couple of Compassionizer albums now and the Russian chamber prog collective are usually pretty concise with their songwriting, even if they split a song up over multiple parts. Each of the albums I've reviewed has featured just one long piece of music, the thirteen minutes of Bear Ye One Another's Burdens on An Ambassador in Bonds and the fourteen of Kramatorsk on Narrow is the Road; nothing else on those albums came close. Well, here's what I guess we should call an EP, because "single" doesn't seem to cut it when the one track on offer is twenty minutes long. As you might imagine, there's a lot going on in this instrumental, which is easily the most expansive I've heard from Compassionizer.

The other surprising note is in which instruments are dominant. Ivan Rozmainsky has always been the driving force behind Compassionizer and he's primarily a keyboard player. Sure, he does add a kalimba and a vibraphone here too, but much of what he plays is on various different synthesisers. As such, he's all over this track but mostly in the background for a change. He seems to be content this time out with providing an atmosphere for the track against which the lead instruments can perform. Sometimes that's minimal and sometimes more expansive but he's rarely the lead. Even when he's dancing around that vibraphone late in the piece like he's the whole twinkling night sky, there's a clarinet or a guitar there to dance with him.

Mostly, the lead falls to the clarinets, which have never been a typical rock instrument the way the flute became because of Ian Anderson, but which felt right on the first Compassionizer album and ongoing. Clarinets are such inquisitive instruments, almost the raccoons of the musical world They are always seeking out new truths or new absurdities and that makes them a flexible way to help us visualise music. The bass clarinet here is played by Leonid Perevalov and the rest come courtesy of AndRey Stefinoff.

And there is a story here, or at least a theme, for us to visualise. The concept here is all about "the Mystery of the Victory of Good over Evil". Certainly there's a general sweep from dark to light and from jagged, avant-garde rhythms and phrases to more beautiful, traditional ones. I would expect that the bass clarinet is playing a dark role here, whether it's meant to be specific or general, and what I presume is a soprano clarinet represents its eternal counterpart. However, if the piece aims at deeper storytelling like we might expect in thematically ambitious pieces in classical music, I'm not hearing it. This feels more abstract, so that we can all conjure up our own interpretations but never be far wrong.

Talking of rhythms, the drums are a player in this game too. Not everything features percussion, a state of affairs that may be in part because Serghei Liubcenco, who plays traditional drums, doira and other forms percussion, is also the guitarist and bassist on this piece, so he's wearing a lot of hats this time out. When the bass clarinet is dominant, the drums often back it up like an army, a show of force to overwhelm delicacy. His guitar is even more fascinating, showing up not to play a rhythm or a riff but perhaps to depict the power of chaos.

I wasn't intending to assign characters to the different instruments, like Peter and the Wolf, but I guess I'm kind of doing that anyway. Unfortunately, I don't have a cast list and there may not be a cast list, so I'm stabbing rather blind. For a start, there's a firm transition halfway through that's done on viola and I have no idea what that represents. Of course, it may not represent anything at all and so I'm never going to find that answer. The piece also drifts away and it feels like there may be a reason for that which I'm blissfully unable to see.

Of course, there's never been a requirement to make sense out of any piece of music, even if it has a conceptual theme. You can just back and enjoy. This is certainly an engaging piece that ought to keep fans of Compassionizer happy until their next album, but the longer the pieces they play, the more I feel like there are meanings to be found. Maybe there are no answers and Rozmainsky just likes prompting us to ask questions. And should that ever be surprising in progressive rock?

Wednesday 10 May 2023

Kamelot - The Awakening (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Melodic Power Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 17 Mar 2023
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Not every power metal band from Tampa, Florida got stupidly caught up in the insurrection, but I don't think we can call Kamelot an entirely American band any more. Sure, Thomas Youngblood is still in place on guitar, as he's been since they were founded in 1987 as Camelot with a C, and Sean Tibbetts is there on bass, as he was briefly in the early nineties and has been since 2009, but every other member is European—vocalist Tommy Karevik is Swedish while drummer Alex Landenburg and keyboardist Oliver Palotai are both German—and only two of thirteen guests are American. It shouldn't be surprising that Kamelot probably sound more European than any other Florida band.

This is their thirteenth studio album but, like Holy Moses's thirteenth yesterday, it took a while to arrive, after the longest gap between albums that they've ever had. The Shadow Theory came out in 2018, so it's been five years. It's good to see them back but this does not feel like the first album back after a long break; it feels more like another album in a long string of them that's destined to end up lost among the rest. I enjoyed it while I listened to it and it's certainly professionally done, but none of these songs stuck in my brain, even if I thought that it might.

I found myself remembering moments rather than songs, especially intros, which are often strong points. Eventide has a quirky intro that's almost Victorian fantasy. One More Flag in the Ground is elevated by an opening vocalisation, presumably the "operatic ghost voice" of Kobra Paige, leader of Kobra and the Lotus and Karevik's fiancée. Opus of the Night (Ghost Requiem) also begins with atmosphere. Midsummer's Eve starts with Celtic folk, courtesy of Florian Janoske's violin, and an evocative soft section. Bloodmoon opens as folk too, a sort of eastern dance with a modern beat. Nightsky has synths and choral emphasis. The Looking Glass has electronica and melodious piano. And so on and so on.

It's not just the intros though. Cellist Tina Guo lends her talents to Opus of the Night and is better still on Midsummer's Eve. There are particularly strong melodies on One More Flag in the Ground and Nightsky. The Looking Glass gets neatly prowling in some sections. There are a couple of songs where the usually clean vocals get harsh, My Pantheon (Forevermore) adding in a fast section too that I absolutely loved. The other is New Babylon, featuring a couple of major guests lending their vocal talents: Melissa Bonny of Ad Infinitum and Simone Simons of Epica, a major band whose very name was borrowed from the title of a Kamelot album.

The problem is that these great moments don't necessarily make great songs. I'm on my seventh or eighth time through The Awakening in search of something that will make it stick but very little has. Of the traditional melodic power metal songs, I'd call out Nightsky, because its hooks seem to be much more likely to stick. It's not remotely original and neither is The Looking Glass, but they're both done very well indeed and ought to stand alone outside the context of the album, played in a radio show set or as discoveries on YouTube.

The only song I'd truly call a highlight though is New Babylon. It's has another of the strong intros that are everywhere here, a gloriously bombastic choral approach. It drops into electronica, with two of the three voices in play, and then builds, back to the bombast but with lead vocals soaring over it and eventually a harsh section. It has more emphasis than every other song put together, perhaps even counting the harsh fast section in My Pantheon. The guitar solos are a cut above the rest of the album too. Kamelot have released three singles thus far off The Awakening and this is not one of them. That probably explains as much as the rest of this review.

All told, it's not a bad album. It's just not a particularly good album either. I don't regret listening to it. I may regret listening to it so much trying to find something that clearly isn't there. However, it remained entertaining even after that many listens. It's certainly not a waste of your time, but it's mostly just there, providing a pleasant backdrop to your day, and Kamelot albums ought to be a lot more than that.

Tryo - Iodine Clock Reaction (2023)

Country: Czechia
Style: Alternative
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 30 Mar 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website

I haven't heard Sustainable Gardening, the 2021 debut from Czech band Tryo, but their Bandcamp page suggests that it was an indie/art rock album. Two years later, they've moved to what they're calling "darker and rawer music" on their follow-up and it's certainly an interesting sound because it's a hybrid of completely different eras of music.

The earliest is a pastoral folk sound that's very sixties. It's there mostly on the second side, in the quiet parts of Haze, early in Unity and especially on Home. At the opposite end of the spectrum, a couple of sections on Haze are pure krautrock, right out of the early seventies. The core sound is a clear derivative of the mid eighties, when post-punk and new wave were at their most interesting, and the early vocals of Šimon Podrazil are right out of eighties alternate rock, because they're so clean in delivery. However, everything's phrased as soundscapes, owing much to the post-rock and shoegaze genres of the nineties and noughties, but with vocals delivered over the top.

Given how confusing that sounds, I should emphasise that it all merges together rather well and it opens up with the most conventional of the six songs on offer, Droplets. This one was writen in 2015 when Tryo seem to have been a more conventional band, but it's been massively changed, mostly a new song built on the bones of the old one. Karabach is edgier, but more commercial too somehow and it reminded me of the way that Paradise Lost got retro-new wave, merely slower and subdued, so that it's clear to us that, unlike them, Tryo were never a metal band who calmed down.

Tree is a decent song but it's a little lost in between the commercial edge of Karabach and the wild experiments of Haze. It works well as a transition between the two but it works in isolation as well, finding a delightful groove early and milking it for over seven minutes. That doesn't stop it being a little overshadowed though, because Haze quickly takes over, not just grabbing our attention but chaining it to a bed and having its wicked way with it.

Haze is where the "darker and rawer music" really comes into play, because it's a tasty exercise in contrasts. It's softer initially with some of that sixties folky psychedelia but, when it ramps up, it's not holding back. It does that twice, the first time feeling rather like a nightmare descending upon a soft, dreamy soundscape, not unlike a late escalation in Tree but more. That nightmare passes, but it returns and the wheels come off, with Hynek Čejka soloing on drums and Podrazil's guitar a seriously abrasive weapon. Only Čejková's bass keeps us grounded as we move through it to come out the other side intact but changed.

What's telling is that it's hard to pick highlights here. Droplets is the most conventional. Karabach is the most commercial. Haze is the most experimental. Home is the most pastoral. Those are easy adjectives to assign, but it's not so easy to pick the best or even my favourite. I like Karabach a lot, but I recognise some of those chord changes so it has an unfair advantage. Haze is the most overt song here, enough so that it climbs out of the middle of the album to slap us across the cheeks and cry, "Me! Me! Me!"

At the end of the day, I might have to consciously ignore its attentions and call out the subtle songs with their impeccable grooves, wich to me means Tree and Home. It's not an easy call, but that's a good thing. It felt like the album had depths from the very beginning, on those more immediately accessible tracks, but it takes a few listens to truly grasp how much it's doing and to appreciate its subtleties. I'd never have called out Tree and Home on my first listen, but they grew on every fresh listen until they staked a serious claim to being what the album's about.

Here's where I'd normally say that Tryo are a fascinating band who are new to me, so I should look back at their earlier material. The first half of that holds true, but I don't think I do want to check out Sustainable Gardening at this point, because I don't want to suddenly find them conventional. They're not here and that's why I like this so much. I think I'll sit back and wait for the next one.

Tuesday 9 May 2023

Holy Moses - Invisible Queen (2023)

Country: Germany
Style: Speed/Thrash Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 10 Apr 2023
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I was a little surprised when I saw a new Holy Moses album being released in 2023, but I was also a very happy chappy indeed, because I loved what these guys were doing in the late eighties and I'd no idea at all that they were still around. It turns out that they continued until 1994, perhaps due to the changes wrought by grunge in the States not being quite so emphatic in Europe, and stayed gone until the new millennium, reforming in 2000 and adding five albums to the seven they put out during their original incarnation. However, this is their first in nine years, a long gap indeed for a generally prolific band.

Holy Moses play thrash metal in the Teutonic style, rooted in speed metal with rough but not harsh vocals. hardly surprising given that they're a German band from Aachen. I remember liking them a lot but I haven't heard them in decades and this reminds me just how unusual they were. For one, I remember them getting much more technical than many of their peers, with intricate guitarwork and instrumental passages that put them more in parity with Sieges Even and Mekong Delta than Destruction and Kreator. For another, they had a female vocalist, Sabina Classen, who's the one and only constant in the band throughout its lifetime.

Now, she wasn't alone, given that Doro was pioneering heavy female vocals with Warlock, but she was much rougher in delivery and became quite the pioneer, along with Ann Boleyn, Debbie Gunn and the late Dawn Crosby in the States. She's certainly one of the invisible queens of metal, from a time long before Angela Gossow shocked the world in 2000 when she took over as the lead vocalist of Arch Enemy, and she's sounding on the top of her game here. I ought to dive back into The New Machine of Liechtenstein after this review, with Finished with the Dogs as a tasty chaser. And then I should catch up with the far too many albums I haven't heard.

This sounds like Holy Moses from the outset, but a little more so in almost every regard. Classen is a little harsher than I remember, but not by much. Maybe she's just benefitting from 21st century production, given that the albums I loved are around thirty-five years old now and technology has moved on massively. The guitars, here played by Peter Geltat, seem more biting and more urgent, with possibly the same cause. Gerd Lücking keeps a little faster pace on drums, which is never bad in my book. I always like my thrash fast, even though Holy Moses manage midpace sections neatly as well.

The biggest difference between this and my possibly faulty memory is just how overt the basswork of Thomas Neitsch is. Like Geltat, he used to play for a thrash band from Berlin called Desilence, so may have brought him into the band, and they work together well. There are moments here where it sounds like he firmly believes that he's playing lead, which I'm never upset to hear a bass player do. The early gem is Cult of the Machine and he's all over that song like a rash, with a peach of an encore in Order Out of Chaos, before continuing in this vein throughout the album.

And, while I might prefer Cult of the Machine, Order Out of Chaos may be the defining song of the current state of Holy Moses. There are points where it feels like it's going to veer so wildly out of control that it's going to fail horribly any moment now, what with Neitsch soloing in one direction and Geltat in another, but it never does because these guys know exactly what they're doing and the result is something that had me throwing up my arms in admiration. It really is what it says on the label—order out of chaos—and that's the defining message of the album. Invisible Queen is a worthy and appropriate title, but Order Out of Chaos may have been better still.

There's a lot more to come, because the title track shows up next and that's only marks a third of the way through a dozen songs. What's more, there's an edition with a second disc that covers all the same ground but with guest vocalists. I haven't listened to it yet because I'm concentrating on the album proper, but I will because it features a teasing list of replacements for the one constant in the band, an interesting approach indeed.

The most obvious are fellow German thrash legends, Tom Angelripper and Andreas Geremia from Sodom and Tankard respectively, but Bobby Ellsworth of Overkill and Jens Kidman of Meshuggah get a track each too, and there's a string of modern female vocalists who owe plenty to Classen's blazing of the trail, like Marloes Voskuil of Izegrim (now Haliphron), Diva Satanica of Bloodhunter, Rægina of Dæmonesq and, most obviously, Dani Karrer of German thrash band Headshot.

Not everything is up to those openers and I'd say that the most obvious highlights all arrive early on the album, but nothing lets the side down and everything is enjoyable and refreshing, with so many other German thrash bands making firm departures from their sound lately. This sounds like Holy Moses throughout and it's agreeably uncompromising about that. Outcasts and Too Far Gone are the closest on the second side to matching the early highlights of the first. Like the Choose the Juice album before it, I think I have to go with an 8/10 here, because it's definitely closer to it than it is to a 7. And I think it's growing on me more with each listen. Welcome back, folks!

Choose the Juice - Meteoria (2023)

Country: Switzerland
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 10 Apr 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

I've been listening to this album a lot over the past couple of days while I work on book reviews and it's really got under my skin. It's psychedelic rock, for want of a single label when Choose the Juice work through at least half a dozen others—they call themselves a trippy alternative psych garage surf shoegaze tinnitus stoner space acid rock explosion, not unfairly either—but it's sublimely pure psychedelic rock because it feels organic, like a trip inside rather than outside. They're not taking me out to see the cosmos, they're drenching me in acid taking me inside my own brain.

It's patient stuff, featuring a notably high male voice that reminds me of the early seventies when certain singers favoured singing an octave or two higher than what everyone else might consider a norm. The singer is Mo Bernasconi and he also plays guitar here, as do two others, though both of them also have double duty: Andrea Kuster also plays harmonica, though I'm not sure if he does so much on this album—it's only overt on Acid Cowboy—and Andrea Künzle provides the synth work, which often dominantes the mood. And mood is everything here.

The Body Mind Split Orchestra may be the weakest offering for me, bizarrely for an opening track, until it unexpectedly but rather naturally trawls in folk music halfway and elevates itself. There are some very subtle harmonies here and I seem to hear more every time I listen. The guitar impresses late on as the song escalates and it's there right at the beginning of Photograph to set the tone, a sort of early Wishbone Ash delicacy but psyched up, as everything here is. This is a tasty song and I heard more early Ash on Sail too, an epic closer which has eight full minutes to build and knows just how to use them to their best advantage.

The Ballad of Cucumber Salad feels longer than everything else here, because it builds so well and from almost nothing, but it's actually the shortest at just over five minutes. It starts with a single soft drone and gradually layers on more and more until it's something completely different that's still a natural progression. Sail is the longest, albeit not by much, but it feels longer too. Much of it is exceedingly loose, but it reaches some wonderful intensity later, with a gem of a sustained note from Berlusconi.

Sail may be my favourite song here, but it faces tough competition indeed from Acid Cowboy, which isn't loose so much as it's carefree. It's constantly in motion and in an incessant straight line that's so typical of the deserts of the American southwest. The cowboy of the title, who's represented in musical form by Kuster's harmonica, sits back and enjoys the ride and doesn't appear to care much where it takes him. It's almost like the movement itself is the goal. Here's where elements such as surf and garage show up, not overtly but enough to remind me of the Shivas, a Portland surf rock band, who accompanied a different title character in Wade Chitwood's short film The Prospector.

That leaves the title track, which is may be the loosest piece of music here, appearing almost like a set of instruments playing in isolation but close enough to realise that they're utterly compatible with each other, including Bernasconi's vocalisations. Its organic bedrock reminded me of the Pink Floyd of the very early seventies, up to but including The Dark Side of the Moon, but thrown into more of a krautrock environment with maybe Hawkwind performing down the hall at the same time. Matheo Sabater is a jaunty accompanist here on drums and Nicolas Kölbener has more to do on bass as well.

Bernasconi's voice is there but it doesn't deliver lyrics and he was only a guitarist on Acid Cowboy, so that's a good chunk of the album that unfolds instrumentally and it doesn't seem remotely out of place. I think that's because, while he does sing on other tracks, I never really thought of him as a deliverer of lyrics, even though he sings in English in a very clear voice. I have no idea what any of these songs are about because I'm hearing that voice as an instrument and I'm enjoying it like the others, getting lost in the moods that Choose the Juice muster up.

This is an 8/10 for me, because the entire second side is comprised of highlights and I'm rather fond of Photograph as well, with its guitarwork hearkening back to Pilgrimage and Argus. It's music that I consciously listened to on every time through, because I was trying to figure out all its subtleties, but it works as a mood enhancer in the background too. I've been happier and more relaxed with it playing and that's never a bad thing.