Friday 23 June 2023

Sirenia - 1977 (2023)

Country: Norway
Style: Symphonic Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 May 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Wikipedia | YouTube

Another band whose most recent album came out a couple of years ago, Sirenia's highlighted that their sound had changed considerably since their early years. This follows suit, a firm underline to their current musical approach. What that means for old school fans is that there isn't as much of a gothic aspect to their sound as there used to be, though it isn't gone entirely, and the vocals of founder Morten Veland are mostly gone, showing up on the odd song here and there to serve as a contrast and to pique our memories.

Mostly, this is symphonic metal to showcase the voice of Emmanuelle Zoldan, who sounds excellent but, as with the previous album, doesn't attempt to show off. The songwriting is pretty consistent, these songs generally kicking in with electronica that's characterful and highly versatile but often more in a pop vein than rock, let alone metal. Then the guitars add crunch with a wistful eye firmly on the gothic metal they used to play, as if they're nostalgic but not so much to truly go back there. The beat is up tempo and lively rather than fast, but it speeds up at points for emphasis. And then Zoldan's vocals arrive to take the song where she will.

It's the electronica and the beat that fundamentally drives this album, because Veland trawled in an eighties pop aesthetic to flavour the band's sound that's highlighted by his very unusual choice of cover to close the album. It's Twist in My Sobriety, Tanita Tikaram's biggest hit from 1988, which features a moodiness to her vocal but a perkiness to the beat. That translates well here into a pop metal song, with the moodiness in the gothic crunch and the perkiness still there in the beat. And, really, while this cover closes the album, it could have started it as a mission statement. Instead it wraps up proceedings as a nod to the degree to which everything could have gone.

It's easy to see where this could have gone horribly wrong. Pop metal is a dangerous territory, the two approaches very different and needing to contrast each other well to work in collaboration. It may be the electronic decoration that saves it, because Veland infuses it with enough invention to keep the songs from fading into pop mediocrity. Without it, they might seem enough of a likeness to lose us. With it, the songs are able to delineate themselves and shine on their own.

If you're worried by this pop metal approach, I'd suggest that you listen to Twist in My Sobriety, to see where Veland is coming from this time out, then check out some highlights to see if this works for you. I like the opener Deadlight mostly for its subtle touches, so Wintry Heart may be a better choice as a sample; it has a real bounce to it and a neatly catchy melody. Nomadic is a strong track right after it, kicking off with violin and Jew's harp but then launching into a tastefully aggressive riff. Timeless Desolation features the most elegant melodies, but A Thousand Scars has grandeur to it, with Zoldan getting operatic in its second half, and that returns on Delirium, which is clearly the heaviest song here.

And talking of heavy, while this is still symphonic metal, it's so driven by a pop mindset that it gets easy to forget. Nomadic has an edge but Fading to the Deepest Black is the first song that believes that it's truly metal. Michael Brush generates a much faster beat early on and the guitars go past their standard crunch mode, only to recede for the more elegant verses, even if the keyboards are a constant reminder that this is a darker song. Veland steps up to the mike on this one but keeps it clean for now. He returns and gets harsh for the only time on Delirium, with Zoldan adding serious weight to her voice during her operatic sections.

I like this, even though the proliferation of pop melodies and thinking ought to put me off. There's a song here, The Setting Darkness, that kicks off just like Abba and never really leaves that even as the crunch hits. I don't like it as much as Riddles, Ruins & Revelations, which got an 8/10 from me in 2021, but I do like it. It feels odd to be giving it a 7/10 right after doing the same on Joel Hoekstra's 13, because I like this a heck of a lot more, but that speaks only to how this one connects with me a lot more effectively, not to any difference in quality. I wonder how you'll compare them.

Joel Hoekstra's 13 - Crash of Life (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Hard and Heavy
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 16 Jun 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I've listened to this album a few times now and it still hasn't got its talons into me. It's decent stuff without question and all the expected elements are here. Joel Hoekstra's guitarwork is clean and apparently effortless, however technical he's getting on a particular solo. Girish Pradhan's vocals, replacing Russell Allen's as the only change in line-up since 2021's Running Games, mix his similarly clean melodies with a little grit in ways we recognise from his day job in Girish and the Chronicles.

And the band behind them is entirely populated with insanely talented and experienced legends: Tony Franklin on bass, Vinny Appice on drums and Derek Sherinian on keyboards. If you don't know these names, then pop over to Wikipedia and read about them. You've certainly heard their work. Between them, they've played for pretty much everyone from Black Sabbath to Dream Theater. It seems hard to imagine a better backing line-up and they do everything expected of them with such tight integration that it's hard to not listen to the musicianship rather than the songs.

But this still doesn't grab me the way it should and I'm not seeing why. The riffs are there and the solos are very much there, enough that I'm still enjoying every track on a fourth or fifth listen. The hooks are there too, maybe not quite as prominently as last time, but that just means that they're in a more perfect balance with the riffs. On paper, it seems like it ought to play a little better than Running Games, but it doesn't, at least not for me, and why probably comes down to that je ne sais quoi that critics are supposed to explain.

I think part of it may be that every song impresses while we're listening to it, but none of them are still there in mind when we wrap up after all twelve of them. These sound like great hooks but they aren't sticking in my brain, still playing from memory while I'm wandering down the hallway to the bathroom or when I'm waking up in the morning, already tapping my toes. They're impressing now coming out of my speakers and promptly vanishing again until the next time around.

Maybe I'm subconsciously rebelling against how slick it all feels. Everything is seamlessly done but it's so seamlessly done that it feels like these folk aren't even trying. Maybe they aren't, because they're all that damn good, but I want it to feel like they are, like they're not just showing up to an easy session gig, that they're passionate about this music and they're pouring the soul into it. That isn't something I'm getting, even from Pradhan who's easily the most obvious source of passion. It all feels too textbook, too perfectly generated to elicit the desired response from a listener.

The question has to be how much that matters. Most of the rock bands on the planet would sell all their combined testicles to sound as good as these musicians do, but I can't pick a favourite song to highlight. Maybe Far Too Deep has a little more bite to its riffs. Maybe Pradhan gets a little more passion into Over You, which, with Through the Night, is as close as this album gets to a ballad. Maybe I Would Cry for Love is a little more able to find an old school Deep Purple steamroller vibe in the second half, Sherinian's solo shifting perfectly into Hoekstra's. Maybe there's a funkier groove on Find a Way.

Don't get me wrong. This is easily a 7/10 album. It does what Running Games did, with a new singer who sounds great with the rest of the band, maybe not quite as well but pretty close. The die hard fans ought to lap it up. Technically, of course, it's impeccable. It just isn't working for me and I have to stop listening to it again and again in the hope that it will suddenly click. It's got to the point I'm almost disappointed in myself for not enjoying it more and that can't be good.

Thursday 22 June 2023

Schandmaul - Knüppel aus dem Sack (2023)

Country: Germany
Style: Medieval Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 10 Jun 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Here's another medieval folk metal album, which means that you're already fairly presuming that this band are from Germany. They're based in Munich and the four male musicians also play in the rock band Weto, with the keyboard player from Regicide. There are two female musicians too, who add notable textures, especially given that Birgit Muggenthaler-Schmack is responsible for all the shawms and bagpipes. They both have their own side projects too.

Between them, they cover a heck of a lot of musical ground on what is their eleventh album. I have no background in their work and failed to tackle Artus, their previous album in 2019. I'm absolutely sure that they've changed their sound over time because there's far too much on offer here to see anything else. Just check out the first four songs to see how they vary their formula massively.

Knüppel aus dem Sack is initially driven by metal riffs from Martin Duckstein and a solid beat from Stefan Brunner, but then Muggenthaler-Schmack sets the tone with bagpipes and Thomas Lindner spits bars in a raspy Teutonic voice. Köningsgarde gets majestic, as the title of King's Guard might suggest, but it bounces too with a bagpipe melody very reminiscent of ELP's Touch and Go and the anthemic chorus feels like Rammstein, as if we're somehow bringing prog rock and NDH together at a Renaissance Festival, especially once she shifts to shawm.

Das Gerücht is extra-playful, as if its depiction of The Court often focuses on a jester whom Lindner is more than happy to bring to life, down to fingersnaps and theatrical tease. We can just tell that there's a gleam in his eye when he's singing this one. When it's quiet, it plays with us entirely like Gogol Bordello do. When it ramps up, Saskia Forkert makes her violin prominent and it barrels on with folk energy. Der Pfeifer, or The Piper, continues in that vein but with a focus on melodies from a recorder alongside audience participation, whether hand clapping or dancing.

The rest of the songs here tend to play in one of those approaches, most frequently folk metal that often drops into rock. As that might suggest, it's relatively light, always focused on melodies from Lindner's clean voice and Muggenthaler-Schmack's bagpipes without any intention of bringing in a harsh voice or a crunchy back end. The traditional instruments, not just the bagpipes, but also the accordion Lindner plays when not strumming an acoustic guitar and the violin and hurdy-gurdy of Forkert, aren't there to sneak in a spotlight moment but to shape the songs throughout.

That's clearest when they drop out of metal entirely, such as on Der Quacksalber, which is all lively drums, fingerpicked guitar as a backdrop and a tender fiddle as a solo instrument. It's easy to see Lindner sat on a tall stool in a pub singing this one while we all either twirl our partners about the room or stand there and tap our feet. The same goes for Luft und Liebe after it, which kicks off as a calliope song only to liven up and then quiet down with Matthias Richter's bass replacing those guitars and a flute replacing the violin. This one shifts back up into the folk metal approach when it wants though, because that's never far away.

It's hard not to like this immediately and emphatically. There's technical wizardry going on and all these musicians are very capable indeed, but at heart it's just music to dance to, as medieval music tended to be, and that's the only criterion it knows it wants to nail. That lighter mindset is where it may divide people, because most folk metal, as if I might dare to generalise that most versatile of genrese, has far more crunch than this. There's a personal nature to this sound, as if the studio is unnatural territory to them and they would much rather just play this music to half a dozen of us as we walk down a grassy road. And that's fine. I appreciate that mindset, but I still feel like I want a little more crunch.

Weapon UK - New Clear Power (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 19 May 2023
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter

I remember the name of Weapon UK from back in the day more than I remember their music. Part of that is because they were just before my time, Tommy playing Weapon on the Friday Rock Show in 1980 four years before I found it 1984. Part of it is because they'd already split up by then, with a brief reformation in 1984 after a two year break not lasting. Most of it, though, is that, like many NWOBHM bands, they only released a single back in the day and the albums came much later, with their debut, after renaming from Weapon to Weapon UK because of a bogus legal threat. This is a third for them and it sounds very tasty indeed.

Now, it took me a moment. Even after the intro, Drumbeats of War begins far less vigorously than I was expecting. Danny Hynes sounds good at the mike, but he lags behind the guitars in emphasis and his vocal feels a little too comfortable for something with that much punch behind him. On the opener, he channels Phil Lynott, while Oscar Bromvall is going for more of a Tank sound on guitar, a few escalations into something more thrashy. And I kept thinking about this as the album ran on. Even half a dozen times through, it often felt odd that Hynes wasn't giving it more energy.

However, my conclusion was that he really doesn't need to. He has a smooth voice and he knows it and he nails the hooks here, so much so that we're absolutely glued to what he's doing, even if he doesn't have to command us to pay attention. And that conclusion underpins why this is such a seriously good album. This band, with Hynes leading the way, are so confident in these songs that they know they only have to put them in front of our ears and we'll be on board. A minute into Drumbeats of War, I wasn't convinced. Two minutes in and it was a favourite track that felt like an old friend.

Crucially, the same goes for most of the rest of the songs on this album. Sure, Drumbeats of War is a highlight, but so's Take It or Leave It and so's Electric Power. In for the Kill may be the best track here. The second half took a little longer to grab me but grab me it did and now Remote Control is up there too and Shoot You Down and Riding with the Angels. The entire album is a highlight! Well almost. I'm not as fond of the ballad, Live for Today, but it's done very well and I do love the guitar solo that introduces a welcome ramp up in the second half.

Talking of guitars, they're the work of Oscar Bromvall, presumably the same Oscar Bromvall who I am always impressed by on Fans of the Dark albums. I'm just as impressed here too, because he's a riff creation machine, setting them down one after another as if he can just pluck them out of the air at will. There may not be a single killer riff here but every single riff is excellent and they keep on coming. Similarly, there may not be a single killer hook but Hynes keeps them coming thick and fast and every one of them works. There are eight tracks here and maybe eight or nine are going to have to duke it out for which will be playing in my head when I wake up in the morning.

The combined effect is kind of like a traditional NWOBHM band jamming with an arena rock band. Bromvall delivers riffs that remind of Tank at their finest, with elements of Diamond Head and an odd nod to AC/DC, as on Remote Control. Tony Forsythe and Andreas Westerlund do nothing flash but firm up everything Bromvall does so well that we start to take them for granted. Hynes adds a sense of melody that screams of huge stadiums, because it's the verses as much as the choruses. I don't think Journey don't have this many hooks.

Right now, I'm hoping that mentioning Diamond Head is appropriate not only because of how they inform the guitars here, but because, after a long but troubled existence, they've found a notably stable period matching a killer guitarist with an excellent vocalist who can keep up with him. It's a little early to suggest this, but I truly think that the musical partnership of Bromvall and Hynes is just as promising. It took Weapon UK thirty-four years to release their debut album and only half this line-up was on its predecessor. If they can keep it together to knock out another album or two like this with the same line-up, they could be huge.

And from immediately thinking this was a 7/10 album, I soon upped that to an 8/10 and, goddamn it but I've only given out two 9/10s over six months but this will be my second in two days.

Now, why do they have a Wikipedia page in German but not English? Inquiring minds want to know.

Wednesday 21 June 2023

Rival Sons - Darkfighter (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 2 Jun 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

It's been four years since Feral Roots, the sixth Rival Sons studio release, which was also my second Album of the Month here at Apocalypse Later, way back in February 2019. However, we do not have to wait four more years for the next one, because that'll be a companion piece to this one due late this year. This one's Darkfighter and that one will be Lightbringer, so a pair of Rival Sons albums in the same year. We're in for a treat and that's exactly what this feels like. While it's trivial to boil a sound like this into that pervasive New Wave of Classic Rock banner, there's a heck of a lot more in what Rival Sons do.

For instance, Mirrors opens the album with a very seventies organ vibe as if the band are warming up in church. Then they kick into an in your face riff that's all energy and soulful vocals, only to fall away from loud to quiet and add some country vibes. It's kind of like Bad Company in Nashville with a modern day punk attitude to temper the older sounds. By the way that drop from loud to quiet is a signature move for Rival Sons and there are few bands who can match their ability. Just listen to the closer, Darkside, for a perfect example.

It's when they're quiet that Jay Buchanan shines the brightest, though he can also bellow and soar with the best of them. He's actually quite fun on Nobody Wants to Die, the most urgent song here, on which he even cuts off some syllables for effect. However, he's at his best when everything's at its quietest and there's nothing whatsoever to distract from him showcasing the subtleties of his voice. Many of these songs play with dynamics but none so much as Darkside, which is a fantastic closer.

In between Mirrors and Darkside are six other tracks and, while I'd call out the huge anthem that's Bright Light as an easy highlight for me, nothing else lags far behind it. Never mind that there are no filler tracks, there aren't any songs that languish so low that nobody will call them a favourite. I may see Bright Light as well above the similarly anthemic Guillotine, but both are standouts and it may be you that you see them the other way around.

Similarly I'd go for Rapture, which shifts so far into country at points that it's close to being gospel, over Bird in the Hand, which slows things down and adds a jaunty beat that has some Beatles in it. I only have one Rival Sons album behind me but I'm expecting the usual set of seventies rock bands as obvious influences, the Bad Companies and Led Zeppelins and Lynyrd Skynyrds of the world, but there's a surprising amount of the Beatles here, most overtly in the melodies. I heard Lennon and McCartney's fingerprints on Bright Light too.

And that leaves the hyper-energetic Nobody Wants to Die over Horses Breath, which kicks off in a psychedelic swirl that doesn't come from any band I've named thus far. What Rival Sons do is distil down decades of music, though the seventies most of all, into their essences and flick them into an immense melting pot to brew up their songs. There's folk in Horses Breath, but the guitars remind of Neil Young at his most raucous. It breathes a lot more than Nobody Wants to Die but I know the one I'd pick. As with each of these pairings, though, you might pick the other and neither of us would be wrong.

The line-up remains the same as last time out and the two albums before that, the only change in personnel thus far Dave Beste replacing Robin Everhart on bass after their third album. They're all excellent musicians who deserve individual credit for their work here—especially Scott Holiday on guitars, with a whole slew of riffs to choose favourites from, but also Beste heavying up everything on bass and Mike Miley keeping some glorious beats. For all the swirl behind Horses Breath, it may well be that they just sat down in the studio and jammed all these songs. It certainly feels like they did and on something like a four track setup too like bands used to do way back in the day. It's clear as a bell but it's simple and thoroughly effective.

The question is whether this deserves an 8/10 like Feral Roots or whether I spring for another 9/10. I haven't done that much this year, only for Megaton Sword and Smokey Mirror, but I think it's time for a third. I've had this on repeat for a couple of days now and it doesn't just seem as strong as on a first listen, songs like Darkside and Bright Light capture me all over again every time through. It probably means that I should go back to Feral Roots to see how it compares to that, but then I have five earlier albums still to check out too. Too many albums, too little time. I just wish they were all as good as this one.

Phlebotomized - Clouds of Confusion (2023)

Country: The Netherlands
Style: Progressive Death Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 26 May 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

There are few bands out there right now who merge the brutality of death metal and the delicacy of light melody better than Phlebotomized. This is their fourth studio album and their second since reforming in 2013 after sixteen years away. The other one was 2019's Deformation of Humanity and that was one of my early 8/10s here at Apocalypse Later back in my very first month, January 2019. I listed that as doom/death, while noting that it tended to be faster than most doom/death I hear. There's still some doom/death here, but this is a faster release again, with points reaching thrash speeds. Is it as good as its predecessor? Maybe not, but it's still a damn good album.

What I like the most about Phlebotomized is that they've found a way to be three different bands all at the same time, while making it seem like the most natural thing in the world. They find a mix of the brutality of death metal, the elegance of prog metal and the delicacy of melodic rock, each of those elements present in quantity in pretty much every track here. It doesn't feel like it ought to be an effortless mix but Phlebotomized make it seem natural.

The brutality is primarily there in the vocals of Ben de Graaff, which are consistently a deep growl that finds a little bark at points. It's also there at the back end when the band are shifting, with a rumbling bass and pounding drums. However they tend to shift more into the elegance, especially during guitar solos and what I'd call orchestration, even if that's all generated on Rob op 't Veld's keyboards. There are points where this swells up like symphonic metal and finds a depth in sound that's deeper than the already expansive seven member line-up might suggest.

That leaves the delicacy and that's there in a host of ways. It's there in the piano on the intro, Bury My Heart, and a host of other songs later. It's there in the grand sweep of the melody in Alternate Universe. It's there in the choral swell behind the narration on Lachrimae, one of an odd couple of tracks to build up to Destined to Be Killed, alongside the heavy and pounding Desolate Wasteland. It's there in hints and swells and textures and melodies and we're never that far away from one of them. Everything here is melody, just as everything is heavy, whether it's doom/death heavy or an upbeat thrash heavy.

And I've mentioned thrash twice, which is odd for a doom/death band, but Phlebotomized have an obvious goal of stretching that genre way beyond its traditional boundaries. The doom/death may be most obvious in the second half of the closer, Context is for Kings (Stupidity and Mankind), but I would suggest that it's more often present with a perkiness that shifts its tone, like on Death Will Hunt You Down. Other songs up the tempo to different degrees until we get to Destined to Be Killed, which they're pushing a video for. It's heavy from the outset, but with op 't Veld's melodies dancing like sprites over everything else. However, it shifts firmly into thrash for the chorus, enough to quickly remind of Kreator. Of course, there's still an elegant prog metal guitar solo in the middle that turns into a surprisingly bouncy sound for something so heavy.

I liked this album on a first listen but it wasn't as immediate or as emphatic as its predecessor. I've had it on repeat for a day or so though and it keeps on growing on me. Every song, except perhaps those two sub-minute long oddities, has fleshed out and established itself as its own track, worthy of standing on its own two feet, even if they tend to look over at their peers with a knowing wink. It all plays consistently but with versatility and that's a neat trick to master.

Destined to Be Killed is definitely a highlight here, but Pillar of Fire may have nudged past it in my personal esteem. That's a real grower and it may demonstrate the most seamless amalgam of the three different styles the band plays, the heavy death, elegant prog and delicate melody, down to the spoken word section. The other track that won't leave me alone is the awkwardly titled A Unity Your Messiah Pre Claimed, which kicks off with quirky jazz and builds into a swaggering song, with a high riff that almost sways along.

And so this matches the last album and may exceed it, so I think another highly recommended 8/10 is due. The downsides aren't particularly negative, but Desolate Wasteland doesn't add anything, Death Will Hunt You Down is a less successful version of Pillar of Fire, if still a good song. I'm not a huge fan of the two Bury My Heart tracks either. They're good, one intro and one instrumental at double the length of the intro, but they're not up to the highlights. But hey, that's two 8/10s now. I want to hear the next album already.

Tuesday 20 June 2023

Godflesh - Purge (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Industrial Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 9 Jun 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Wikipedia

It's pretty much a given to point out that Godflesh are an acquired taste, but their extreme sound is a fascinating one. I'm no expert, but I'm told that this ninth album by them hearkens back to an earlier release, 1992's Pure, which has been retroactively regarded as one of the first releases in a genre that's become known as post-metal. What it boils down to is a combination of wall of sound guitars right out of extreme metal, shouted vocals that doesn't always remind of hardcore shouts and programmed drums that often drift into hip hop beats.

It's a unique and fascinating approach and it trawls a lot of different influences together that we'd rarely hear in the same sentence. Land Lord, for instance, sounds like a merger of the Prodigy with Monotheist-era Celtic Frost. Justin Broadrick certainly channels some Tom G. Warrior in his vocals on this one. However, his guitar often shifts into a sort of Rage Against the Machine feedback vibe for emphasis. There's also a serious reliance on repetition, which works for heavy industrial metal, of course, but also reminds of early avant garde pioneers like Coil or Einstürzende Neubauten and the experimental rock band Swans.

With such a focus on repetition, it's often easier to listen to these pieces of music as a form of dark meditation or a mood setter rather than as songs per se. Industrial was named because of how its sound resembled the sound of an industrial society and this album is often like hanging out in a big and noisy factory and filtering out the people to soak in the ambience of pounding machinery and, in the spirit of John Cage, hearing its rhythms and pitches become music. As such, it's not perhaps too surprising to hear Kraftwerk here on pieces like Lazarus Leper, even Philip Glass in the opener and initial single, Nero.

Another way to look at it is the way that Broadrick himself looks at it. Purge isn't just the title of a Godflesh album, it's the word he uses to describe the way he uses the music he creates with bassist and fellow programmer Ben Green as a "temporary relief" from autism and PTSD. It seems like it's a dark refuge but then Broadrick was a member of Napalm Death for a while; he's on the first side of their debut album, Scum, but left before the second was recorded. This slower, but just as heavy music, with its rigid repetition, could easily be seen as a hypnotic dirge for fans of extreme sounds. I salute it even more if it has therapeutic qualities.

Which tracks leap out to grab people may depend on taste but I'm not finding any real logic to it. It doesn't surprise me that I dig Land Lord, with its up tempo beats and echoes of Celtic Frost, but I'd suggest that Mythology of Self trawls in the Frosties too and I'm not as fond of that one. Why? I'm not entirely sure. It's slower and even more bludgeoning and the vocals are harsher. I ought to dig it more than I do, but it just didn't connect. On the other hand, I'd easily list The Father as another favourite and that's far more subtle, with the guitars lower in the mix and a very different texture.

At the end of the day, of course, this isn't going to convert anyone. If you're into Godflesh's brutal and uniquely uncompromising sonic assaults, then this is another must purchase for you. If you're not, then this isn't going to be a Road to Damascus moment for you. You're not going to discover a sudden appreciation. The only new fans it's going to find are those who hear Godflesh for the first time here, which is not particularly likely in an algorithm-driven era of tailored recommendations. And, right now, you know which of those three categories you are. If you're not the first two, what does this review prompt you to do? If it's to run screaming into the night, it's not for you, but, if it's piquing your interest, let me be the one to introduce you to something new.

Black Rainbows - Superskull (2023)

Country: Italy
Style: Stoner/Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 9 Jun 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter

If I'm counting properly, this is the eighth studio album by Italian stoner rock band Black Rainbows, who formed in Rome in 2005, but it's the first time I've heard them. I like what I hear, because they play a very bouncy stoner rock that's very engaging. The two openers bounce like Clutch, surely an important influence, but they pale in front of the bounciness of the next track, Children of Fire and Sacrifices, which sounds older. I'm not sure there's a stoner rock band in existence that doesn't feel like Black Sabbath at some point and that's definitely here but they mix it with Clutch and, as we'll soon find, Hawkwind.

There's fuzz here on Edoardo Mancini's bass but it's relatively clean, so shifting into hard rock, and that's eventually where we find the final track, Fire in the Sky, which kicks off with a riff that could have been lifted from a Paul Di'Anno era Iron Maiden track but quickly shifts into full on Hawkwind territory, with that patented driving bass and clean vocals from Gabriele Fiori that are delivered in unaccented English. This track is so unmistakably Hawkwind that it's clearly an overt homage.

And it isn't the first one, though the others forgo the drive for the space rock acid trip. The Pilgrim Son and King Snake both shift notably into space rock, keyboard generated atmospheres building a swirling maelstrom around Mancini's bass. The former evolves back into the regular sound during the second half, albeit not quite so bouncy as the early tracks and with the keyboard swirls there in the background behind everything else, until it drops back into peaceful space rock noodling to go home. The latter is more subdued, a mellow trip throughout. Desert Sun kicks in emphatically as a deliberate contrast.

The question is which of these approaches work best and I'm not sure I have an answer. They do the bouncy stoner rock thing so well that I'm tempted to go for those songs. I'd surely call out Children of Fire and Sacrifice as my favourite track, but Lone Wolf won't leave me alone. It's extra playful so it's not only the bounce that sells it. I adore the riff on this one and I love how it evolves during the instrumental second half even more. I'd also highlight All the Chaos in Mine, not because it does anything fancy but because it has no interest in doing anything fancy and stands out anyway. It features such a simple riff, in contrast to Lone Wolf, but it's exquisitely effective, turning the song into some sort of unstoppable behemoth.

I like the space rock songs too, but not as much. The Pilgrim Sun runs eight and a half minutes and I don't think it has enough to warrant that sort of cosmic journey. King Snake feels more effective at only five minutes, a laid back Hawkwind vibe with everything drenched in acid echo. It certainly has a more effective approach to taking me somewhere, which space rock always ought to do. If it's not taking me way outside on a colourful journey through the cosmos, it should take me way inside and feel hypnotically insightful. The Pilgrim Sun aims for the former while King Snake does the latter.

And, just when I'm forgetting it's there, every time through I get captured all over again by Fire in the Sky. Sure, it's the most derivative song here but it simply pulsates with energy and ought to be an absolute blast live. In its way, it's a combination of the two approaches above. It has the bounce of the early highlights, like Apocalypse March and Children of Fire and Sacrifices, but it also has an obvious keyboard presence, those cosmic swirls surrounding everything like a dry ice machine that won't switch off. The echoes are fantastic too, especially when applied to the riffs so that they rise above us and float in the ether.

Whichever style works best, the album's pretty solid and there are seven earlier studio albums to track down, starting with 2007's Twilight in the Desert and proceeding irregularly from there. The covers are all glorious too, so I could totally see picking up vinyl copies and sliding them into clear covers on the wall. This may feature their best cover yet, courtesy of a Brazilian artist called Pedro Correa, who's done posters for Phish, Eddie Vedder and Coheed and Cambria. His portfolio is very cool indeed. It's the icing on top of this tasty psychedelic cake.

Monday 19 June 2023

Liv Kristine - River of Diamonds (2023)

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

Following very much in the vein of her 2021 EP, Have Courage Dear Heart, this is Liv Kristine in her gothic rock mode, approaching and sometimes embracing pop at one end of the spectrum but also thinking a little about crunching up into metal at the other. While we might expect a lot of Theatre of Tragedy here, the gothic metal band she co-fronted for a decade, given that every original song here was written by Tommy Olsson, who spent three of those years as a guitarist in that band, it's only really approached in a couple of tracks, like Our Immortal Day and Maligna, and never with a real intention to go there.

Oddly, the first words we hear aren't Liv's. There's a male voice on the opener, Our Immortal Day, that functions less as a duet partner and more as an introduction. It belongs to Østen Bergøy, the clean voice in Tristania for a decade who's now with Long Night, also Olsson's current band. He's a perfect presence in this opener, setting us up for what Liv has to bring and supporting her with his velvet voice. My favourite duet partner here is Fernando Ribeiro of Moonspell, who lends a deeply Andrew Eldritch-esque voice to the title track. Liv's husband and sister also show up, the former a tender partner on Pictured Within and the latter less obvious on Love Me High.

The album starts off well with Our Immortal Day but escalates to No Makeup and Maligna, which I would call out as the two standout tracks on the album. The former plays like a waltz, a wonderful groove that's slower than the songs either side of it but contains so much detail to keep it skipping forward elegantly. The latter is a strong song, with symphonic metal in the vocals but goth rock all over the music, upbeat and driving like the Sisters of Mercy, and with tough lyrics about an abusive relationship. It's almost surprising to hear Liv drop an F bomb but it's perfectly placed here.

I've mentioned the Sisters a couple of times now and that's appropriate but there's another name I should throw out too, because this takes a few journeys into pop music, of the progressive sort we might associate with Kate Bush. When the songs are up tempo, we tend to hear the eternal beat of Doktor Avalanche behind them, even if Liv's isn't far off what we'd get if we inverted Eldritch's, the light to his dark. However, when the songs slow down and get playful or introspective, Kate Bush is the influence we hear. She's there on Maligna but she's unmistakable on Gravity and especially on the closing cover of Cyndi Lauper's True Colours.

Liv has always had a crystal clear quality to her voice, as if it's made of air and ice. Gravity is such a tailored song to that crystal aspect, turning her ethereal, as if she's indeed "flying with gravity", as the lyrics suggest. It does heavy up a little late in the song for emphasis, but True Colours is her voice solo with only piano accompaniment. These are songs painted in shades of white, beautifully rendered, and they're a far cry from the gothic metal I first heard her sing but just as worthy.

If you've been paying attention, you'll realise that the majority of the songs I've mentioned so far arrive early in the album and that's because it is a little top heavy. The first four songs are close to being the best four songs, the only one matching them in my mind being the title track, which still sits on the first side, wrapping it up before the tender ballad Pictured Within kicks off the second. That doesn't mean that the remaining songs are poor but the best of them can't match the worst of the first half, which I guess means In Your Blue Eyes because it's the only other song there.

Pictured Within is very well done but it doesn't grab me. True Colours is a stellar cover but it's just Kate Bush singing Cyndi Lauper without any further depth to it. If you twisted my arm, I might call out Shaolin Me as the best second half song. It sounds like a Shaw Brothers movie as it begins with a synth note building the way Pink Floyd might do it. The song grows and somehow floats, as if Liv has found the zone in a kata and nothing else exists but movement. I could imagine her singing in a blindfold for this one.

And so this is another 7/10, the same rating I gave Have Courage Dear Heart. However, there's far more of it, being a full length album, Liv's sixth solo effort and it certainly flies higher. I could have easily stretched to an 8/10 for the first half but it can't sustain that level in he second so that 8/10 surely drops to a 7/10, but I wouldn't go further. Even the least song here is still enjoyable even on a third or fourth listen, even if I'm tempted every time through to cut Pictured Within short to leap back to the beginning.

Anoushbard - Abandoned Treasure (2023)

Country: Iran
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Apr 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

I don't post many reviews at the 5/10 level or below. That's because I have no interest in being yet another hatchet job critic who just slates everything he doesn't like. There's much too much good music coming out now to spend time focusing on the bad, unless it's a disappointing release by an important name that warrants a warning. One rare 5/10 review that I did post was of Anoushbard's debut album, Mithra, but my rating wasn't reflective of songwriting, musicianship or uniqueness, rather of issues with line-up and production, most obviously that they didn't have a drummer and what I presumed was a drum machine didn't work in the slightest and sounded awful.

That left me in the odd position of recommending the band but not their album. The band seemed to be full of good ideas; had an intricate touch on the guitar, surely in part because both members were guitarists; and found a good balance between quiet sections and heavy ones. Once my review was done, I was happy to put that drum sound behind me but I wanted to hear more from the band. Well, fast forward three years and Sherwin Baradaran and Siavash Motallebi are back with a more traditional line-up. They've added Arman Tirmahi on bass and Nima Seylani on oud, an instrument I'm not used to seeing in metal. There still isn't a drummer proper but there's a guest playing real drums and a real producer capturing them with a good quality sound.

And so this is much closer to Anoushbard sounding like they should, which means that this is worth a lot more than 5/10. The question was always going to be how much. Well, this is easily a 7/10 and I thought seriously about a highly recommended 8/10. The guitars still sound great, with some tidy riffing and some elegant solos. The album begins with an elegant electric guitar over an acoustic guitar, which is an excellent touch. The bass is mostly there as a rumble and a depth to the guitars, but the drums are massively improved, so much so that they're exactly what they need to be, with dips into ethnic sounds too.

In true prog form, it all kicks off with a three part track, The Righteous Ardaviraf, which suggests a story about a journey to the next world because The Book of Arda Viraf was a Zoroastrian text from a millennium ago. Musically, it's an interesting piece, with Preparation the calm intro, a folky and proggy track with a clean vocal. There are no drums until a couple of minutes in and then they're a return to the unusual sound I compared to beating a wall with rushes sound on the debut, the one good aspect to the drumming on that album.

Journey ups the ante, making its quiet sections heavier, introducing the drums in traditional metal form and adding a lot of emphasis. It immediately reminds of Orphaned Land but Queensrÿche too and that means tasty songwriting even before the crunch hits fifty seconds in. Suddenly we're in a metal song but it's not content with staying there, mixing it up until the guitar solo at the end. It's wrapped up by Return, which stays with the Orphaned Land vibe, elegant guitars over tribal drums and a host of tight breaks. There's even a choral moment to wrap it up.

While there's metal in The Righteous Ardaviraf, it's far more prog rock than metal. That shifts with the next couple of songs, which are heavy metal with a serious side of up tempo doom. Destructive Spirit (Angra Mainyu) is more extreme, adding a harsh lead vocal in the form of a confident growl that speaks from a position of confident power. It's inherently commanding, especially in lines like "Your soul is mine!", but the guitars back it up. A clean backing vocal shows up eventually and it's a nice contrast. There's more of the same on Tower of Silence (Dakhma), which shines because of an exploratory guitar solo over solid crunchy riffs. There's some fast double bass drumming here but the guitars don't even attempt to keep up and that makes for an interesting effect too.

There are other tracks here, but the one that I'll call out as a highlight, up there with Journey, the second part of The Righteous Ardaviraf, is the title track. It opens with an unusual atmosphere, the oud of Nima Seylani soft and intricate but playing within an ambience that sounds like a sanctuary for birds, somewhat reminiscent of Staff Benda Bilili recording in the Kampala zoo. Once it finds a pace, there are soft, clean vocals and a brief but evocative electric guitar solo. As on Mithra, these musicians clearly enjoy setting up contrasts and the tender Persian oud music stands its ground in the face of crunchy modern metal.

I'm so happy that Anoushbard have managed to flesh out a line-up. Mithra underlined the promise they have as a band but they simply didn't have the infrastructure to be able to deliver that album in the form it deserved to have taken. This follow-up has that infrastructure: other musicians and a strong production. This is what Anoushbard should sound like and they sound very good to me, one more progressive metal band from the vibrant middle east, but this one hailing from a nation that not only doesn't support rock and metal but often actively suppresses it. I salute the dedication it must have taken to make this band and this album happen. That it's damn good is a bonus.

Friday 16 June 2023

Burning Witches - The Dark Tower (2023)

Country: Switzerland
Style: Heavy/Power Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 5 May 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

I've heard a lot about Burning Witches, a Swiss quintet who play a fast and powerful brand of heavy metal, but I don't believe I've heard anything they've done before. And that's on me, because two of their previous four albums were released while I was writing reviews at Apocalypse Later and it seems abundantly clear now that I should have given them a shot. They started out in 2015 and this is their fifth album in only seven years, so they're prolific, but that rapid pace does not result in an inferior release. There's almost an hour of music here and it's all strong.

Sure, a minute of that is dedicated to an intro and there's another minute for an haunted house of an interlude halfway but otherwise this barely slows down for a breath. The only time you'll get an opportunity to relax is Tomorrow, which is the closest thing to a ballad in this style. Otherwise, it's a solid slab of metal, built on a bedrock of classic Iron Maiden before they started extending songs into epics, but with a host of influences to heavy that sound up. Start with Powerslave and pour on a slew of influences, so quickly that they'll often zoom past in glimpses before the next arrives.

Generally, I caught the crunch of Metal Church, the melodic drive of Lizzy Borden and the punch of Arch Enemy, but that's just the start. For instance, I also caught plenty of Judas Priest in the hyper opener proper, Unleash the Beast, but there's Blind Guardian in the chorus and Helloween in the guitar solos, along with some Metallica chug under it all. At the end of the day, it stands on its own as a Burning Witches song and, let's face it, a statement of intent to kick off this album. It doesn't hang around and, while it may remain the most up tempo song after it's all done, it's not by much.

The vocalist is Laura Guldemond, a Dutch singer who joined this group of Swiss musicians for their third album, and she's an excellent front for the band. She has plenty of Doro grit in her voice and a a relish in her delivery that works very well with this material, especially on songs with emphasis and attitude like Evil Witch with its samples to set the bar, and Into the Unknown, where she comes close to a Martin Walkyier approach, spitting out lyrics with venom. However, it's the musicians on the stage behind her that I found myself increasingly focused on, because they're utterly reliable, nailing glorious groove after glorious groove as they barrel along.

I first felt that on Evil Witch, which is a standout track four into the album, but World on Fire isn't far behind and I started to realise how strong the drive is on every song here. I don't know how the two guitarists, Romana Kalkuhl and Larissa Ernst, divvy up their duties between lead and rhythm but, as fun as the solos are, it's the emphatic drive of the rhythm that I found myself amazed by. I can't ignore the crisp production, which helps too, but these two have a habit of building a riff into a juggernaut that's hurtling towards us and has absolutely no intention of stopping.

Once you hear it instead of just taking it for granted, you can't not hear it on every track, from the fast Priest-influenced ones like Unleash the Beast to the slower more Sabbath-inspired songs like Arrow of Time. There's a new Metal Church album out that I'm very much looking forward to, but I started to realise just how much those mainstays of heavy/power metal are going to have to bring their A game to match what Burning Witches did here on songs like Doomed to Die that come right from their songbook.

Add Jeanine Grob's bass to deepen the bottom end and this is a rhythm section so textbook that I'd imagine they're taught in classes. The drummer underpinning them is Lala Frischknecht, who's not just effortlessly there with them throughout but always ready for the magic moment we sit back to admire how tight everything is, because then she'll add another beat to the mix and so increase the emphasis again. As impressive as Guldemond is at the microphone, she's really a bonus in the captain's chair on top of one of the most reliable engine rooms in the business.

I liked this on a first listen, because it's right up my alley, even if I tend to prefer a little more speed in my metal. It was clearly good stuff from the killer opener, but it just got better with every song and every repeat listen. It's clean and melodic, but as powerful and emphatic as power metal gets with a tight delivery that most bands would kill for. How effortlessly tight and heavy is the opening to The Lost Souls, the closer to this album, almost an hour in? I seriously need to check out the four albums that came before this one. I'm certainly not going to miss out the next one. I'm very much on board now.

Edges - The End of the F***ing World (2023)

Country: Belgium
Style: Jazz Fusion
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 31 Mar 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | YouTube

Edges may be a debuting band, but they're a project of a Belgian guitarist, Guillaume Vierset, who has a few solo albums out, along with others with Harvest Group and LG Jazz Collective, plus guest appearances for a variety of other Belgian jazz artists. As that might suggest, this is jazz, but it's a fascinating fusion album because Vierset started playing country guitar with his father, then went to school to study classical guitar and jazz, and diversified from there. He's brought folk music into jazz and a number of songs here play with electronica, rock and even punk.

The vast majority of the album is instrumental, the only vocal piece being the closing title track, a melodious song that's the longest on offer at five minutes but also the most underwhelming, with a lounge music base and almost a subdued Iggy Pop style vocal. It's a far cry from the opener, First Round, which is probably my favourite piece here, a jaunty jazz fusion piece with some fascinating rhythms. It gets a little experimental in its second half but nowhere near to the degree that other pieces will soon relish in. It's a very good entry point to the album.

Of course, if you don't have a background in jazz fusion and you dig this opener, you may be rather confused by Better Call Pam, perhaps my other favourite track here. It starts out as electronica, a pulsing synth that sounds like it's a machine trying but not quite managing to emulate the speech of a human being. There's plenty of glitch early on, but it settles into a comfortable groove, full of movement, as if the piece is walking down the road, all chill and laid back. As it builds, it gets more and more fascinating because the process of walking appears to become more difficult, the stride veering away from what's expected and muscles starting to seize and spasm. Somehow it manages to make it to its destination without tripping over its feet, but it's a constant challenge.

While we wouldn't know this without an explanation, apparently there's a story running through a majority of this album. The first two tracks feature a man declaring the end of the fucking world, a memorable title even with censoring asterisks, because he finds himself torn between a world that is rational and structured and sane and another world "where everything is blown apart". The rest of the album is therefore a struggle between order and chaos, some pieces more structured, but a few far from it. Just as this man thinks he's figured it out on Back, it's time for a Second Round.

And, even though First Round and Better Call Pam are my favourite pieces, I'd give Second Round a place alongside them as a highlight. It starts out delicate and introspective, but gradually finds its way into chaos, the dynamic shift between beginning and end surely the most pronounced that the album gets. In its way, it's the album in microcosm but the album doesn't follow such a direct shift. It wends and weaves and shifts from the world of order to the world of chaos and back again with a playful edge.

After First Round, the most approachable song may be AC Blues, which is tender and fascinating, a lounge music piece to presage the closer but one that doesn't need a voice and whose instruments are constantly interesting. The lounge feel threatens to soothe us into slumber, but nothing being played is willing to let us, so our attention never wavers and we stay very awake and listen actively. I'm reminded here of some of what I've heard from Bill Frisell with some Mark Ribot in there for a bonus.

I don't know any of the musicians, but Vierset played all the guitars and wrote the music, leaving a trio of others behind him. Dorian Dumont may be the most prominent otherwise, as the keyboard player and pianist. Anders Christensen contributes bass and Jim Black the drums, which, in keeping with the overarching concept, often shift from rock structure to free jazz chaos. They cover a lot of ground here, all the way from the punky vibe of I Love Triads to the minimalist, near ambient intro to the title track, simply called Intro, to name just two tracks next to each other on the album.

I may know a lot more about every other genre I've covered this week than I do jazz fusion, but this is a fascinating album that's perked up my day.

Thursday 15 June 2023

Winger - Seven (2023)

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

Like most people, I remember Winger from their heyday in the charts in the late eighties. I hadn't realised that they'd split up in 1994, though I'd kind of assumed it, and I hadn't realised that they'd got back together not once but twice, briefly in the early noughties and more sustainably in 2006. While they've stayed together ever since, with very few line-up changes—John Roth joined as a co-lead guitarist in 2001 but otherwise it's just been rhythm guitarist Paul Taylor hopping in and out of the band as he deems fit—they haven't been particularly prolific. This is their first album in nine years and Better Days Comin' in 2014 was their first in five.

The good news is that this is a surprisingly clean and fresh sounding release and it feels great from the outset, with three highlights in four amidst a pretty solid opening five. The highlights are the more energetic pieces, which holds true throughout the album. Proud Desperado kicks off with an impressively clean production, lively but patient riffs from Roth and Reb Beach and huge patient choruses with a soaring vocal from Kip Winger himself. Tears of Blood does much the same but it's even better, building on an almost AC/DC riff with a vocal that grows through a Rainbow style bridge to a big chorus.

These are both excellent early tracks, but Resurrect Me is even better still, an elegant glam metal tinged hard rock anthem. This felt like the best song on the album on a first listen and, given that the lyrics are all about the phoenix that decorates the cover, it's surely the featured song, if not a true title track given that Seven merely counts this as their seventh studio album. Voodoo Fire is a strong track to follow it, a bit looser and sassier and with a tasty a capella closing, and the one I've skipped over, Heaven's Falling, is strong too, a bit softer and thinner but a good song nonetheless.

So far so good but, while the rest of the album can't really match that opening, it doesn't do a bad job of trying, especially given that it features some admirable variety within its mainstream hard rock framework. The best track after these is Stick the Knife in and Twist, much later on, which has a slight Megadeth vibe to its riffs, so plays a little heavier, but is otherwise the same high energy Winger as on Tears of Blood and Proud Desperado. One Light to Burn finds a deeper groove that I found reminiscent of Vow Wow and Do or Die adds some symphonic metal swells while staying in a steady glam/hard rock vibe.

The rest are a little softer in demeanour but still play well, just without quite so much emphasis. It feels odd to say, given that I'm generally not as enthused about the softer songs as those with high energy, but the softest song is probably my other highlight, but it's a real grower. It's Broken Glass and it's the first half of a tasty pairing with It's Okay at the heart of the album. It starts out with a set of keyboard swells and piano notes that we're conditioned to see as signs of impending power balladry and I guess it counts as one of those, but it's deeper than that, building a real groove. I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't a fan on a first listen but it gets better every time through.

And, quite frankly, so does everything else. Winger went away when grunge came along, like much of my youth, but they weren't so glam metal that they would feel like a modern throwback to that old sound. They were based in New York rather than Los Angeles and they had a more elegant hard rock sound that combined the blues rock of Whitesnake, the arena rock of a plethora of American mainstays and some of that LA glam metal vibe as a bonus. It actually translates very well to 2023, with some modern touches to make it feel contemporary.

In short, I thought it would be good but it's better than I expected. Much of this is an 8/10 album, a rating I'm still tempted to throw at it. However, it shifts softer as it goes with Stick the Knife in and Twist a rare exception on the second half. It's fair to say that I like this more whenever the band up their energy levels and that approach is very biased towards the first third of the album. I don't dislike where the second side ends up and It All Comes Around is an elegant closer, but these songs don't connect with me the way the earlier ones do, so think I'm staying at a 7/10.

Sporae Autem Yuggoth - ...However It Still Moves (2023)

Country: Chile
Style: Doom/Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 19 May 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

While Sporae Autem Yuggoth certainly play doom/death metal as advertised, that doesn't give an accurate impression of what they really do.

The doom at the heart of their sound is deep and slow, surely rooted in funeral doom and it's aided by the keyboards of Johanna Sánchez, which add a tantalising visual element to their sound, as if a song isn't just a song but a portal into a mediaeval castle, a torture dungeon or an ancient abbey. I know that most of what she does is texture, but that probably extends to sound effects, like an odd bell or scream or gust of wind. On rare moments when the band speeds up, which they do at some point in most songs, they sound fast but they're actually just catching up to the tempos that many doom/death bands use to begin with.

The death aspect is primarily in the vocals of Patricio Araya, who doesn't sound at all like his fellow Chilean namesake, Tom. Patricio's voice isn't so much a death growl, as a hoarse croak. It's an ache of a voice that adds more to the textures the keyboards are conjuring up, bringing age and history with it, as if he's been stuck in those castles, dungeons or abbeys for centuries. Finally he's got the chance to tell his stories, but he's been so long without a voice that he has to fight to get more out than the whisper at the heart of The Pendulum of Necropath, managing it across the album with a time-honoured rasp.

Sánchez is the new fish here, as everyone else has been in place since the band formed in 2019, and their only previous release was an EP back in 2020 called The Plague of the Aeons, which featured a slightly different line-up: no keyboards, but a second guitarist, Juan Drey, who left a year later. I'm intrigued as to what that sounds like, because the keyboards here often creep in through cracks an additional guitarist wouldn't leave so obviously in place. There are songs when Sánchez sees those keyboards as a sort of second guitar, as on the gloriously titled ten minute epic Colosus Larvae: The Crimson Coffin & The Scarlet Worm. There are points where she fills in like she's a mad organist in a different part of the building who delights in joining in, but surprisingly subtly.

I should add that this is a long album and the length may be its toughest challenge, as it reaches a breathe over an hour, ambitious for a debut album. That length works for me, because this isn't a typical set of songs, it's an immersion into a particular atmosphere and that lingers even after the music is done, so time ceases to have meaning. The fact that this feels ancient, gothic not in music genre so much as in literary genre, aids that because it feels like it's taken centuries to arrive with us. If a song could be dropped, maybe Disintegration would be a good candidate because it's faster and more traditionally built for the most part and so brings us out of that atmosphere a little.

On a more traditional album, it would be a highlight and it's a tasty and mature piece, built out of rollicking riffs rather than atmosphere. It also helps to underline how delicate Disguise the Odious Spirits is on its heels. This is the true epic of the album, running twelve and a half minutes, putting it a couple ahead of Apparition of Internal Odes, Colosus Larvae, Through Dominion to Interlude, a trio of songs that run around the ten minute mark. This is the one among them that truly takes its time to set the scene and ease slowly into a build. The others all tell stories, while the third has fun with the band's roots, hinting at the Funeral March in a less overt way than Candlemass.

And I do wonder which bands combined in their minds to distil this particular sound. It used to be a given that doom/death bands owed a serious debt to Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride, but that's not obvious here. I'm hearing a more continental flavour than a British one, finding inspiration in Celtic Frost, Winds of Sirius and, especially as the album builds, Candlemass. I'm sure there are an array of funeral doom bands in the mix too and likely classical composers too, thinking far beyond a Chopin nod to the way they write in such a visual fashion and play with space, especially during the elegant closing instrumental, The Night Ocean. I'll seek out some interviews to discover how they reached this sound.

I'll seek out some interviews to discover how they found this sound. I'll also play this a bit more in between reviewing other albums, because I think it's going to grow on me even more than it has.

Wednesday 14 June 2023

Yes - Mirror to the Sky (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 19 May 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Prog Archives | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

It's only been two years since The Quest, but Yes had already started work on this, album number twenty-three, before it had even been released, citing a strong creative zone. However, they went for a different approach and, to my thinking, it worked well. There are fewer songs, but they have the time to breathe, even though they don't bloat up to anywhere close to the levels of legendary indulgence they sometimes reached in the seventies. The longest song on The Quest ran a breath over eight minutes, but there are four longer than that here and three of them are highlights.

The result is that everything feels less rushed, even the songs that don't boast epic lengths. As an example, the opener, Cut from the Stars, is merely five and a half minutes, but it feels as natural at that length as All Connected and Luminosity do at nine and the title track does at fourteen. It simply does what it does, which is to be lively and playful within the framework of a song. Everyone shines but I particularly enjoyed Billy Sherwood's highly active bass. All Connected isn't dissimilar but it stretches out the fun. This is playful Yes.

By comparison, Luminosity is more of an exploratory piece. It's as if the two openers put the band onto the walkway in Roger Dean's cover art to gaze into the reflection of stars in such an expanse of water and then improvise music on the theme, but this third piece has them dive in and discover that the water is a portal so they're way out there. For a while, they're content to simply watch the marvels around them with wide open eyes but, by the halfway mark, they've become comfortable enough to join in and jam with the majesty of creation. Eventually, they have to sit back again and let it all wash over them. It's a real journey of a song.

Talking of the long songs, the longest is the title track and I'm not as convinced by it. Of everything on offer here, this is the one that falls into being background music at points, especially during the instrumental second half when it gets all orchestral and resembles a film soundtrack. It starts out well, with a southwestern feel, as if someone inverted the cover art and the ocean turned into the desert. It's outlaws waiting for a train music. There are southwestern touches in Unknown Place as well, combining a Native American sound with a dominant bass.

Oddly, Circles of Time, the sub-five minute piece that wraps up the first disc, feels more like a title track than the actual title track, because it's fundamentally calm and reflective. What elevates it is Jon Davison's voice echoing into Billy Sherwood's like pebbles skipping over a calm pond. I'm not as fond of the short pieces here, but they're still fascinating, especially the album's true closer, an odd throwback to seventies vocal music called Magic Potion. I caught glimpses of Copacabana and wondered how something like that could be translated into a dynamic prog framework. The other surprising short piece is Living Out Their Dream, which oddly sounds like Yes covering Hawkwind.

For me, it's All Connected and Luminosity, the early nine minute songs, and a second disc number called Unknown Place, which runs eight and is easily the most immersive song here. The opening is wonderful, from yet another iconic guitar flourish from Steve Howe, whose work is once again the highlight of the album, not in a grand sweep but in a thousand little touches, to Sherwood's power bass and some simple but emphatic beats from new fish, Jay Schellen. Last time out, the drummer was Alan White, as it had been since 1972, but he passed in 2022 after half a century with the band and was replaced by Schellen, who has been their live drummer since 2016.

Unknown Place isn't just its intro though. It finds one of those deceptively simple vibes that's full of quintessential Yes detail, but also moves into some of the best peaceful moments on the album. There are many of those, so this one isn't alone, but it has a few and they're exactly right. At other points, of course, it focuses our attention on little details that continue to elevate the song on the fifth or sixth listen because we suddenly catch something else that one of these musicians is doing for the first time, usually Howe but also Geoff Downes on a variety of keyed instruments and with Sherwood and Schellen contributing their fair share of wonderful touches too.

This is a much stronger album than The Quest for me, even though it arrives so closely on its heels. Other critics rated The Quest much higher than I did, but one fantastic opening song apart, I didn't connect with it much at all. I connect with this one much more, especially on the majority of longer songs that give a band of serious musicians the opportunity to let their songwriting breathe. I may only give it a single point more but I'm tempted to add another one. This is much more like it.

Savage Grace - Sign of the Cross (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy/Speed Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 5 May 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Metal Archives | Official Website | Wikipedia

I remember Savage Grace peripherally from their heyday in the eighties. They formed in 1981 with the name of Marquis de Sade, perhaps appropriately given the cover art they would come up with over the years, but quickly renamed to Savage Grace, which is a quintessential heavy metal name. They put out two albums and an EP in only three years but then fell away, eventually ceasing to be in 1992, at the same time as so many other heavy metal bands in the face of grunge. Well, they're back, with guitarist and former lead vocalist Christian Logue hiring a variety of foreign musicians to give him one more shot.

That's probably an unfortunate turn of phrase, because his activities in between attempts to keep Savage Grace a viable entity, apparently include "practicing medicine without a license" under the name of Dr. Richard Santee. Quite why a fake doctor needs an arsenal of military-style weaponry is an open question, but hopefully this album means that he's back on the straight and narrow, with a go forward plan to dedicate himself to music. It also may explain why this Los Angeles band has a Puerto Rican singer and a Brazilian rhythm section nowadays.

If memory serves, they never sounded like a Los Angeles band, even when they were based there in the eighties before moving to New York. There is some of that glam rock sound here in Stealin' My Heart Away and especially in the closer, Helsinki Nights. The former reminded me of a band such as Tokyo Blade who played power/speed metal when I found them but shifted with the climate to find their way into other genres, including glam rock. The latter feels like a cover of a Mötley Crüe song performed faux live by Krokus, but it's actually an original. It's raucous rock 'n' roll and it's a heck of a lot of fun. I'd call it a highlight even if doesn't sound much like the primary approach here.

For a power/speed metal band, that primary approach is old school heavy metal with an occasional burst of speed. The most common influence seems to be Judas Priest, with three songs here taken right out of the Priest playbook. Automoton (sic) is the first, a little slower than the opener, but it builds its energy wonderfully and wraps up at speed. A few songs later, Slave of Desire returns to a Priest sound, lead vocalist Gabriel Colón doing a fantastic Rob Halford impression. A final take from the Priest textbook is Star-Crossed Lovers, the three songs dotted across the album to keep it fresh.

The other obvious influence is Iron Maiden, though Colón only tries a Bruce Dickinson impression on the title track. Maiden are all over the album in moments, as indeed are Priest, but these are a quartet of songs so rooted in their single influences that, like Helsinki Nights, it wouldn't actually surprise much if they turned out to be covers of songs that we've never heard before. What's very telling is that these pastiches are arguably the best songs here, along with the opener, Barbarians at the Gate, which storms into action like it's still 1985 and Savage Grace are leaping at the chance to delve into this newfangled speed metal thing.

The other songs are all decent, nothing letting the side down, but they're missing something that would elevate them to the same level as those I've already mentioned. They're the sort of songs I heard on a lot of Friday Rock Show sessions around the time that Savage Grace were at their peak that underlined how much potential a young band had and why someone really ought to sign them to a record deal. These would make it onto their debut album, probably hindered by poor production to remain an underrated cult favourite, but they'd be forgotten if a killer second or third album showed up because the band had held together long enough to make it.

And so that leaves Savage Grace as a cross between those two scenarios. Half of this feels like the songs that sound good but would be soon forgotten as a band builds, but the other half seems like the sort of material they turned out after they made it to their third album, which, of course, this is. Sure, it's been thirty-seven years since their second, but it's still a third album. Now they're on that milestone, back together as a coherent band and putting out decent material, let's see if the next couple will grow them into something more than a welcome return.

Tuesday 13 June 2023

Babymetal - The Other One (2023)

Country: Japan
Style: Kawaii Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 24 Mar 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

It almost seems surprising to say that this is a surprising album from Babymetal, because it's not a fresh expansion of their sound, as their previous album, 2019's Metal Galaxy, surely was, but more of a contraction and a re-focus on what they do best. For those not in the know, they play what they call "kawaii metal", which means the bizarre placement of cute JPop vocals and electronica over a crunchy and sometimes almost extreme metal backdrop. However, Metal Galaxy, a concept album that brought in sonic flavours and guest appearances from each of the countries in which the band has toured, stretched that template in all sorts of wild directions.

In comparison, this felt almost like an assault on a first listen. It's very loud, some of the knobs on the mixing desk surely turned up to eleven, and it's often very fast too. The only world music that I caught was on Metalizm, which has some Indian flavours, and there are no guest appearances that I could identify. It's Babymetal reinforcing that they play metal rather than global pop and finding their way back to basics. Oddly, the album both benefits and suffers from this approach. I wasn't at all sure on that first listen but it's grown on me with every subsequent time through.

Importantly, I think there are a few reasons for this. One is that there are only ten songs on offer instead of sixteen and they're all of a consistent sort of length. Only two songs sit outside a range between 3:23 and 4:18 and they all do much the same thing, with variations to keep it interesting. Those exceptions, by the way, are Time Wave, which extends to 4:50 because of a longer electronic intro, not hitting top gear until a minute of driving pop music in; and the opener, Metal Kingdom, a minute longer than Time Wave, partly because of a longer intro but mostly because it has an epic flavour to it.

Another is that almost everything feels like metal, with occasional dips into electronica. Last time out, I noted that "rarely do the songs seem to start out as metal" and that's just not the case here. Even when the electronic angle takes the fore, as it does on Time Wave and Light and Darkness, it isn't long before the metal takes back over. Only The Legend, which closes out with a more mellow outlook, down to the use of a saxophone, avoids that and it's still heavier than half of what was on Metal Galaxy.

Perhaps, most tantalisingly, Su-Metal, who sings lead, seems to be shifting away from the cuteness overdose of JPop to a more rock-based delivery. There's still a pop edge there, but there's also an overt use of power that's more typical of rock music. She belts here, even if it's a sweet belt. She's willing to soar and sustain, even in verses and especially in choruses. Most importantly, she does it all on Divine Attack -Shingeki-, which is the first Babymetal song on which she wrote all the lyrics. I would call her delivery entirely hers and she chose to go for power.

It's clearly one of the highlights, as is Metalizm, but the more I listen to this, the more it clicks into focus for me and the more individual tracks stand out to approach that pair at the top of the heap. Maya has a seriously driving riff and Mirror Mirror even grinds at points. Monochrome is quite the earworm and The Legend holds up at the end of the album, even though it's easily the softest song on offer. Talking of softer, I have to admit a fondness for the first minute of Time Wave that's clear pop music but catchy and powerful.

And so this is a surprising album, not because it doesn't sound like Babymetal but because it feels a lot closer to what Babymetal are than anything in a long while, consistently and emphatically. It also surprises because it does that while making the cute JPop side of the band fit a lot closer than anything on their previous album. There are points where I could see three kawaii girls dancing in synchronicity even without visuals, but Su-Metal's voice is much more natural and overt, without a lot of the digital manipulation done to it in the past. Autotune is not a big problem here, the intro to Believing notwithstanding.

I wonder how this is going to be received. From being underwhelmed on a first listen, I now think it may well be their best album yet.

Dirty Deep - Trompe l'œil (2023)

Country: France
Style: Blues Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 7 Apr 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | YouTube

It would be easy to call Dirty Deep a blues rock band, as indeed I did above, but this fifth album by them is a magnificently versatile affair and, while it's all built on the blues, it also ventures into a lot of other realms. The other common threads are a simplicity of approach, which sometimes has them sound like a garage rock band recording in one blissful take, and a rough attitude, which has the effect of lending them an edge of punk and outlaw country.

Given that, I'm not sure if Broken Bones is a good opener or not. It's a good song, but it's a teaser of some of what's to come rather than a stormer to grab us in. It stubbornly refuses to speed up to the tempo it could easily be played at, but it sets a tasty tone and there's an emotional harmonica pleading with us to stay the course. It begins beautifully, a solo voice over chords so quiet we have to stretch to hear them but which build until the song explodes into action.

There are up tempo songs here, most obviously Shoot First, which absolutely blisters along, as if a band happy to shuffle along in third gear suddenly find top gear and, liking the sensation, floor it. It's garage rock with a serious punk attitude, though it never quite loses the blues, especially with another tasty harmonica solo from guitarist and lead vocalist Victor Sbrovazzo. It's a song to take your breath away and it stands out all the more at the heart of the album, a seventh out of fifteen tracks, because of the two around it.

Before it is From Tears, an acoustic ballad that's sweet and open and embracing. This is Dirty Deep playing the blues with a folky country vibe. It's a beautiful song and a subtle one, moving as much through swells of what I presume are keyboards doing the job of strings as anything else. There is a drummer in the band, Geoffroy Sourp, but he doesn't do anything on this one, unless he also has a responsibility behind the keyboards. What rhythm the song has comes from its guitar.

After it is Donoma, easily the tastiest piece on the album but another subtle one. It takes over a minute to conjure up an atmosphere with what sounds like a cello, then effortlessly turns into the sort of progressive roots song that we might not expect on an album so buried in the simplicity of garage rock and especially after the blitzkrieg that is Shoot First. However, it's here and it shines a bright light with plenty of gospel in it. These are three thoroughly different songs but each is well worth your attention because they're all highlights.

While I'm all about the middle of this album, the half before it is a notch above the one after, but I wouldn't divide them quite like that. The first has Juke Joint Preaching, a laid back number in the style of the Black Crowes with all sorts of little touches that sell it more than the big sweep. It has Don't Be Cruel, which follows suit but also finds a mellow vibe midway with a saxophone. It has the wonderful instrumental harmonica interlude called Hipbreak III, a tease of a shift into a stalker of a song in What Really Matters with Sbrovazzo roaring out his lyrics.

So the first side is strong, but the second has Your Name with an almost reggae beat, a light touch compared to so many songs that have a semblance of darkness to them. It has Hold On Me, a truly back to basics garage rock stomp to stir the blood. It sounds like Sourp only has one drum on this one but he's especially happy to beat the crap out of it just for us. It also has Waiting for a Train, a brief country song that even finds room for a yodel, and a slow, extra laid back closer in Medicine Man, driven by a sparing slide guitar, which combines impeccably with a sparing harmonica. However, it also has a song called Never Too Late that's just there, a routine blues rocker with alternative touches.

The result is an excellent and sublimely surprising album. I haven't heard Dirty Deep before, but I have every intention of hearing them again. It's been a while since they released an album, though they did get through the COVID years with an album of raw unplugged sessions and a mini-album of odd covers, each featuring a different guest. It's been five years since Tillandsia in 2018, but the first four arrived in only seven. Here's to hoping they're back on a regular sort of schedule with an admirable versatility ready to roll into future material.