Monday 31 July 2023

Buckcherry - Vol. 10 (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 2 Jun 2023
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This is a more straight ahead rock 'n' roll album than Hellbound, Buckcherry's ninth full length, but it's a good one and it starts out great. The most obvious success on this one is how the band storm out of the gate with This and That and keep up the momentum and energy for four songs before a dip into softer material with Feels Like Love. The most obvious failure is that those four are always going to be the best four songs here. It felt that way on a first listen and it feels that way after four or five times through.

This and That kicks off proceedings all downhome with claps and stomps. It bulks up, of course, but the entire song is a hook. It's an extra bouncy opener with some neat slide guitar, an aspect that's strong whenever it shows up to play. Good Time is a solid follow up, heavier but not quite as bouncy or catchy. Then again, not quite here is rather like the 36 year old Lionel Messi not quite being like his 24 year old self. He can still run rings around almost anyone else. It's another strong song, as is Keep on Fighting, with a prominent bass from Kelly LeMieux, and, to a slightly lesser degree, Turn It On. It's still a good one and it has another excellent solo, presumably from Stevie D., after a first two songs earlier on Good Time.

I don't want to give the impression that it just tails off after that on an inexorable slide to the end of the album. However, Feels Like Love is a softer song that hints towards the influence that shows up in the form of a cover to close out, namely Bryan Adams's Summer of '69. They do this well, but I would suggest that Josh Todd's snarl fits their more up tempo rockers more than softer songs like Feels Like Love. Also, Summer of '69 is a perfectly palatable cover, but it feels unnecessary, because it's a classic that most of us already know and they don't add anything to the original.

And, crucially, while none of the songs in between the dip in energy and the cover are bad, they're never quite the first four, especially the first three. The best of them is probably With You, with its elegant guitar tone and effortless riffing that reminds of the Scorpions, though, Todd has no plan to attempt Klaus Meine's range, staying in that clean but grunge-tinged snarl of his throughout. Pain is interesting too, starting out like it wants to be the Beatles but then shifting into something more like Guns n' Roses covering them. The rest are just decent hard rock songs in the Buckcherry vein. None disappoint, but none carry the energy of the openers.

And that's about it. If you're into Buckcherry, then you're going to love this album. It's a purer and more focused effort than Hellbound and it has a few more highlights. They merely happen to stack the first side. And with half of this an easy 8/10 but the other half more like a 6/10 and the bonus a decent but unnecessary cover, this was always destined to be a solid 7/10 album from a solid band on their tenth full length studio release. A more pivotal album would have been welcome, but this isn't going to disappoint the fans.

Thantifaxath - Hive Mind Narcosis (2023)

Country: Canada
Style: Avant-Garde Black Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 2 Jun 2023
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Here's a fascinating album from Toronto that's led off by a fascinating track, Solar Witch. The band describe what they do as avant-garde black metal, but this one starts out firmly in doom territory. Those are Candlemass chords, even if the guitars are doing weird scales around them. What black metal we hear at this point is in the vocals of, well, someone. This is a band of mystery and they're not interested in letting us know any of their names or responsibilities, though photos highlight a trio. That vocal is a raucous cry, somewhere in between a black shriek and a death growl but much closer to the former. The tempo does speed up and also gets increasingly jagged, but it shifts back and forth like a stuttering vehicle, an incredibly tricky slow fast slow fast slow that oddly works.

Solar Witch won't leave me alone, but other tracks joined it and I'm still not sure which I might call highlights. Die hard black metal fans, and I know how fanatical you get, are going to be happiest in Surgical Utopian Love, because it starts out as pure black metal as this album ever gets. For three minutes, it's fast and sheer and built out of jagged edges tortured into compliance. However, it's a long track, running eleven minutes and it has movements to explore. Three minutes in, it goes back to doomy and theatrical. Eventually it transforms into a sort of atmospheric krautrock.

What I found over repeat listens is that the album gradually shifts too, from the jagged rhythms of Solar Witch through the black metal wall of sound of Surgical Utopian Love slowly downward to Sub Lilith Tunnels, which starts out like krautrock and moves into avant garde classical. What triggered me to what was happening was an interruption. I came back to Hungry Ghosts, which I was enjoying as a smooth piece and suddenly found it jagged and deliberately awkward. That's because I'd gone back to it afresh and focused on what the guitars are doing behind the keyboards. Listening within the flow of the album, its jaggedness has much smoother tones than what went before.

It's almost like these songs are rocks that are laid out in a particular order. When we press play on the album, a waterfall starts to flow over them, smoothing them out. While we're listening to the first track, it's only just started that process. By the time we get to Hungry Ghosts, it's worn away many of the edges. By Sub Lilith Tunnels, everything's smooth. The only exception to that is Mind of the Sun, which closes out the album, because it speeds back up and returns to black metal. It's a good one too with a very neat cutoff to plunge us into sudden silence.

The best songs to me come early and late. I like Solar Witch more than Surgical Utopian Love, but I would guess that the die hards would reverse that. There's Mekong Delta in these songs, twisted a little more into an even more extreme direction. Hungry Ghosts is a delightful challenge and I dig Sub Lilith Tunnels a lot, as it shifts almost into a György Ligeti style dense choral vein, initially with Tangerine Dream overlaid but eventually pure. Mind of the Sun is a great and far more traditional closer.

In between, I have more trouble. The Lost Wisdom of Wolves is imparted through subdued whisper and distortion. It builds into that core black metal sound but spends a lot of time outside it. As on Surgical Utopian Love, the riffs are often constructed of mathematical patterns, as is Thantifaxath take as much influence from Philip Glass as from Emperor. As they get more fluid, the positive side is that these rhythms become hypnotic and draw us almost into a trance state. The downside is the way they can also lose us. Burning Kingdom of Now doesn't really do anything different from those songs around it but it never quite registers on me, more a point on the way somewhere.

What all this boils down to is that the "avant-garde" label that Thantifaxath stuck onto their genre is appropriate and challenging but not outrageously so. This remains accessible music, even as it's doing all sorts of things that we don't expect. It also becomes more accessible as the album moves along, from the weird tempo shifts of Solar Witch and the blastbeats of Surgical Utopian Love to a piece of atmospheric weirdness in Sub Lilith Tunnels that's almost entirely without drums. They do show up but only for a minute or so out of six and that late on.

I like a lot of this a lot but it's experimental enough that not all of it lands and the old chestnut of your mileage will vary firmly applies. If you're a black metal fan who's open to experimentation, as an increasing number of fascinating bands are doing, you should dig this. If not, then probably not.

Friday 28 July 2023

Legion of the Damned - Poison Chalice (2023)

Country: The Netherlands
Style: Thrash/Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 9 Jun 2023
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Here's another album from a band I've reviewed before that does pretty much the same thing in pretty much the same way. Legion of the Damned are Dutch and they've been around since 2005, a further thirteen years before that as Occult. They play a hybrid of thrash and death metal that's a lot more focused on the thrash side of that, with a little death as a texture, mostly in the vocals of Maurice Swinkels. Last time out was Slaves of the Shadow Realm in 2019, their seventh album, and that makes this their eighth.

I haven't heard that since reviewing it, but most of what I said about it holds true here. However, I clearly like it a little more than its predecessor, because this is a 7/10 for me rather than the 6/10 I gave to that one. Their biggest drawback is that the songs are so similar in approach that they blur together into a solid clump of metal that cleans out our systems for three quarters of an hour and then ends.

Maybe they're doomed to that middle ground where they're clearly very good at what they do but what they do is so invariable that a stronger album will be a 7 and a lesser one will be a 6. They're just too good and too consistent to drop any lower but too unwilling to vary their formula to climb any higher. And, while I'd usually see that as a negative, it can sometimes be a positive. There are days when I want to sit back and close my eyes and deep dive into the music, eager to hear things I have never heard before. However, there also days when I just want to show up to a gig and let the band bludgeon me into oblivion for an hour. Legion of the Damned seem like a good choice for the latter.

What that means to the listener is reliability. Every song here, and there are ten on offer, blisters along at a thrash pace and ought to generate some serious activity in the pit. Maybe Skulls Adorn the Traitor's Gate is a little faster and a little more emphatic than the rest, but it's a close call. I'd definitely call out the solos in the middle of this one as the most furious on the album though. It's an impeccable song that reminds me just how much I love thrash metal, as if I'd ever forget. On the other end of a very short spectrum, maybe The Poison Chalice closes out with a little less emphasis and a little more atmosphere. For a while, it's more Seasons of the Abyss than Reign in Blood, but it ramps up to the usual tempo soon enough.

And while that comparison is fair, it speaks specifically to the distance between a band's extremes rather than between that band and this. The sound here is always Teutonic, so Kreator are the key comparison rather than Slayer or anyone else American, and when they move away from a Kreator sound for a moment, it's only to go as far as Destruction. The only real difference is the added dab of death, which is there in the tone being a little deeper and in the added growl in Swinkel's voice.

For an album almost inherently devoid of anything interesting for a critic to say—either you'll love this or you won't—that's about it. There's nothing much else to add. So there's a softer intro to the opener, Saints in Torment? It doesn't matter. When the intro's done thirty seconds or so in, Legion of the Damned leap immediately up to full gear and stay there pretty much throughout. Do I have a favourite track? Not really. Maybe Skulls Adorn the Traitor's Gate because of those killer solos. It seems fair to call out Progressive Destructor too as so quintessential Teutonic thrash that it almost felt like I knew the vocal cadences on a first listen. It's a textbook.

Bottom line: this is good stuff. It's just the same good stuff throughout. Do you care?

Twilight Road - Trapped (2023)

Country: Italy/UK
Style: Melodic/Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 9 Jun 2023
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You probably won't know the name of Twilight Road because this is their debut album, if indeed it isn't a one off project, but you may know the names involved, the primary pair being Dario Mollo, an Italian guitarist, and Carl Sentance, a British vocalist. They have worked together before, on an album by Dario Mollo's Crossbones from 2016 called Rock the Cradle, which was apparently strong enough to generate fans wanting another one, but I haven't heard that.

Mollo is best known for his pairings with famous vocalists: four albums in collaboration with Tony Martin, three more in Voodoo Hill with Glenn Hughes and another in EZoo with Graham Bonnet. I heard him last on the fourth of the Tony Martin albums, Thorns, from last year. Sentance first found fame in Persian Risk, Phil Campbell's old band, but also fronted Krokus for a few years, knocking out an album with them, and has been the lead vocalist in Nazareth since 2015, after Dan McCafferty chose to retire. My last experience of his work was Nazareth's Surviving the Law album, also from last year.

If those sound like diverse bands, you'll have figured out in advance how versatile this album is. In fact, it's almost deliberately set up like a trawl through a lot of the history of rock music. Trapped, for instance, is straightforward guitar-driven hard rock with soft keyboards behind it to open up a door to airplay. Dirty Rock 'n' Roll is harder and grungier and has a Guns n' Roses feel to it in both vocal delivery and structure, but a whole bunch of other names leap out at points, some Steve Vai here, some Def Leppard there, some Alice Cooper here, some Warrant there. Dark Angel travels a little further back in time and delivers a delicious back and forth between guitar and organ.

This sort of changing goals between tracks is so overt that I could imagine the song choice chosen by a randomising machine like they use on talk shows or Whose Line is It Anyway. The next one will be in the style of... *spin wheel*... seventies blues rock. Ah yes, Madonna. Then... *spins wheel* an outtake from Rainbow's Down to Earth album. OK, so Turn It Up. That's not quite the core riff from Since You Been Gone but it's close enough to bring it immediately to mind. Next up? *spins wheel* Bruce Dickinson but less sonically dense than Iron Maiden? I like that idea. So here's Empty Mirror and Warning. Take your pick.

Actually that vocal approach shows up before then, because there are parts of Dark Angel where Sentance channels some Dickinson, but that reaches its peak on Empty Mirror, where he hurls out lines like boomerangs to float in the air and maybe come back to him from the audience. It's not a difficult approach for him, more akin to his Persian Risk days, I'd think, than anything he's doing in Nazareth now, but he's a versatile singer. He's one of the key reasons that Perfect Strangers has a pretty high success rate. And yes, I'm talking about the Deep Purple classic.

This is one of those iconic songs that should be covered with extreme caution, because it's just not likely to work. Either you do it so well that it sounds like the original, in which case why bother, or you don't and it sounds like a poor knock-off, hardly the effect you're going for. I had my doubts in advance but this is a rare exception to those two scenarios, because Sentance sings it firmly in the style of Ian Gillan but not exactly how Gillan sang it, so it feels less like a cheap knock-off and more like a live version by Purple that we haven't heard before.

That holds true for how they treat the song too. It's close for a few minutes, enough so that we're singing along and not only with the words, because after all we know the guitar and organ riffs in this one the way we know a lot of lyrics. However, then it veers off into another direction entirely, into an instrumental workout that echoes what Purple might have done in a live environment, all the way down to a brief Rainbow homage at the end, but doesn't copy what they actually did. I'll say it plainly: I wasn't expecting this to work but it did and that may be the biggest success here.

In short, there's a lot here and while not much of it is particularly original, it's all done well, from the blues rock of Madonna to the prog metal elegance of Mafia, Sentance shifting his voice from a Bruce Dickinson sustain a little closer to a Geoff Tate one. Most of it sits in between in these two, exploring the range of what hard rock has done over a few decades and filtering it into a bunch of new songs. Mollo's excellent, my favourite moment from him being the core riff in God is Red, but Sentance makes the album for me.

Thursday 27 July 2023

Аркона - Kob' (2023)

Country: Russia
Style: Pagan Black/Folk Metal
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 16 Jun 2023
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I'm no expert, but my understanding is that Arkona, or Аркона in their native Cyrillic, started out as a folk metal band with black metal elements but gradually swapped those elements around to turn into a black metal band with folk metal elements. That start was a couple of decades ago, in 2002 and, by this point, ten albums in, they've moved a little beyond both, to become something a little less classifiable. This could be easily called post-black metal or simply progressive metal with extreme elements.

As their albums tend to be, it's an hour long, so there's a lot of material to explore, but it's focused into a small number of long tracks. Kob', which I'm unable to translate, lasts for seven minutes and Razryvaya plot' ot bezyskhodnosti bytiya matches it, a name that translates into the almost Celtic Frostian Tearing the Flesh from the Hopelessness of Being. That's pretty black metal right there, I might suggest. Ugasaya, Mor and Na zakate bagrovogo solntsa surpass nine. I'm unsure what Mor means, but the others mean Fading Away, apparently common enough that it only needs one word in Cyrillic, and At the Setting of the Crimson Sun. Ydi, or Go, almost reaches twelve.

The bookends are neither folk nor black metal. They're dark ambient, brimming with atmosphere but half of it's whispered horror and the other half a visitation from Russian cyberpunk gods. It's a long intro, as well, over four minutes of it, to get us into a certain mood. The whispering continues throughout the album as a segue between each track. There's dark ambience within the tracks as well, often as what could e called interludes between parts but shouldn't be because they count as parts all on their own.

Part of this is because the keyboards that drive the more ambient sections are provided by Masha or Scream, the only founder member in the band, though both guitarist Sergei (Lazar) and bassist Ruslan (Kniaz) have played on all ten albums. She's the driving force in the band, because she's the songwriter and lyricist and she handles the lead vocals too, though it's hard to tell which they are, because she does so in a host of different styles, both clean and harsh, soft and strident, chanting and brutal. I'm guessing all the voices are hers except the most obvious male voice, which may be either Sergei or Vlad, who's provided many folk instruments since 2011.

I like the title track, which works through quite the dynamic range, but Ydi surpasses it effortlessly and only gets better with repeat listens. It begins with a soft guitar that's almost a brook babbling over the whispers. It escalates soon enough, with a strident vocal from Masha that's underpinned by neat melodies. It builds into a more epic black metal style, almost martial in its assault, like the band are playing this as they hurtle over a hill towards us, the drums galloping horses. Sergei adds a screaming guitar solo around the three minute mark and then it all turns into a threatening folk chant, like something from the Hu. There's so much here and we're still only four minutes or so in.

Much of what follows is made of black metal components, but it's misleading to suggest that it's a black metal song or indeed a black metal album. The drums are often very fast, but the guitars are rarely interested in simply generating a wall of sound. They're often sharp. Some of the voices are bleak, though others are far cleaner and folkier. It's often black metal, but it's approachable for it without becoming soft and it's approachable because of those folkier elements. I should note that Arkona don't toggle between the two approaches, rather combining them with fascinating effect, which often takes the form of chanting vocals floating over the hurtling drums.

The folk elements show up in other ways too, often without us expecting them. Late in Ugasaya, for example, there's a strong black metal section but it suddenly gets bouncy and, however versatile a subgenre it's proving to be, bouncy is not a typical black metal attribute. Then again, Ugasaya was almost synthwave as it opened. One of my favourite Russian musicians is a pop singer called Linda, who trawls folk elements into a more electronic style that's moved through a lot of genres. Masha isn't unlike Linda as this one starts out, though she moves a long way beyond her as it runs on. She gets there in Razryvaya plot' ot bezyskhodnosti bytiya too.

The dynamic play here is fascinating and the changes and shifts in emphasis are just as fascinating. That's why it's easy to think of this as progressive metal or at least post-black metal rather than a purer form, not that "pure" doesn't come with its own problematic impressions in this genre. The whole thing becomes problematic. Just don't think of this as black metal, even when it is. Think of it as prog metal because then, when it shifts off into synthwave or folk or whatever else, it's going to make a lot more sense. Sometimes, as with bands like Opeth, labels become unhelpful except as indicators of how varied an album truly is.

I like this a lot. It wasn't what I expected but it impressed me on a first listen and, as I delve deeper into these songs on repeat listens, it impresses me even more. For highlights, Ydi stands above all this but Ugasaya is stunning, Mor continues to grow on me, especially from its midsection onward, including some fascinating flutes, and, frankly, everything here is worthy. I feel like I should listen another half a dozen times before posting this, but I have other music to move onto. The curse of being a critic is that I can't spend long enough on any particular release. Here, I really want to. It's not a pool to dip into. It's an ocean to explore.

Revolution Saints - Eagle Flight (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Melodic/Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 21 Apr 2023
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If you don't know the name, Revolution Saints are one of a number of supergroups conjured up by the president of Frontiers Records, Serafino Perugino, almost like a fantasy football team that he can actually put together. If you could create a band featuring absolutely anyone from the history of melodic rock, who would be in the line-up? Perugino asks himself that question often, then gets on the phone to see what can actually happen. In this instance, the band was originally made up of Jack Blades of Night Ranger, Deen Castronovo of Journey and Doug Aldrich of Whitesnake, to just cite the most obvious bands on their expansive respective resumes.

Nowadays, on their fourth album, only Castronovo is left from that original line-up, as Aldrich and both Blades left last year, but that's not a problem for Perugino. He just gets back on the phone. With Castronovo still there on lead vocals and drums, he chose to bring in the insanely busy Joel Hoekstra, who replaced Aldrich in Whitesnake and who also released his latest Joel Hoekstra's 13 album in June, on guitar and Jeff Pilson of Dokken on bass, though he appears to be in Foreigner nowadays.

These are all seasoned veterans and they each do good work here, but it's Castronovo's vocals that elevate this beyond the levels we might expect it to occupy. It shouldn't surprise that the songs are all grounded in Journey, but he brings a rasp to the style of soaring melodic vocals that Steve Perry would deliver impeccably clean. While Perry was and is an amazing lead singer, I found that I enjoy that rasp as it grounds this music and makes it a little more real and down to earth. The elegance found in the early songs like the opening title track and Talking Like Strangers is pure Journey but we can hit these notes at karaoke.

I like also that it has a guitarist like Hoekstra to keep everything heavy. If Journey were to tackle a song from this album, any song, it would be softer. It doesn't matter if it's an actual ballad, like I'll Cry for You Tonight, or not. It would inherently be softer with smoother vocals, more overt use of keyboards and a lighter touch on guitar. Hoekstra does tone it down somewhat on that ballad, but, even there, we can feel that he want to rock out and Journey didn't always want to do that. So the default sound here is like the heaviest Journey song ever and that's not a bad thing. Pilson's bass emphasises that too, never doing anything particularly flash but adding that back end efficiently and becoming more obvious the more we look for it.

It's telling, for instance, that I don't tend to be much of a fan of ballads on rock and metal albums, but I'll Cry for You Tonight is a highlight here. It starts soft but it builds and, while it never gets as heavy as the rest of the album, which I should emphasise is still hard rock rather than heavy metal, it gets closer to it than a lot of ballads would. Oh, and there's only one. Some songs may be a little softer than others, but that's just an admirable variation in texture. They're all emphatically hard rock songs and only this one among them truly counts as a ballad.

So far, so good. The core sound here is wonderful, that heavy Journey approach with grittier vocals and livelier guitars. The catch is that it's top heavy. Eagle Flight is a clear highlight at the start and Talking Like Strangers is another right after it. Need Each Other isn't quite as good but it's close, a strong third number. I'll Cry for You Tonight wraps up the first side as the fifth song and it's clearly another highlight. That's four out of five hits and Kids Will Be Kids isn't a miss, just a song that's a little lost in and amongst such stellar company.

However, the best song on the second side is the first one, Crime of the Century, and it's looser and less emphatic than those earlier gems. It's a good one, with particularly solid bass from Pilsen and another excellent vocal from Castronovo, not to forget a neat riff midway from Hoekstra, but it's a step down from the first half. And what's still to come is a step down from that. And that puts me in a similar place to where I was yesterday with Raven.

There's certainly a lot of 8/10 material here, but it initially felt a little generous to go there for the album as a whole. However, I ended up doing that because the stronger songs don't get weaker on repeat listens but the lesser songs get stronger. I'm getting to the point now where it feels wrong odd to call Set Yourself Free a lesser song. I think it's become a highlight and that nudges me over into thinking this is an 8/10 album. If you like the idea of heavy Journey, this is a must for you.

Wednesday 26 July 2023

Raven - All Hell's Breaking Loose (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 30 Jun 2023
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When I reviewed Raven's fourteenth album, Metal City, in 2020, I suggested that they hadn't much changed from their early days in the eighties, the style still fast and raucous without any apparent care to update for the modern era. This fifteenth album follows suit but I do have something more substantial to say this time out because the songs are a lot better. In fact, I ended that review with the suggestion that, while I enjoyed it, "I'll surprise myself if I remember any of these songs when I wake up tomorrow morning." I was right, but some of these songs are already sticking in my brain.

Quality is really the only difference. The line-up is the same, John & Mark Gallagher still the focus, as they've been since founding the band back in 1974, with Mike Heller still behind the drumkit, as he's been since joining in 2019. The sound is the same, heavy metal rather than speed metal but in a fashion that reminds us that Raven were one of the latter genre's key influences. The songs are relatively straightforward, with simple but powerful riffs, almost out of control vocals and speedy but catchy results. The biggest difference from the early days is Heller's use of double bass pedals.

Last time out, I enjoyed the album on multiple listens, but could still only find one song to call out as a highlight, which was the one they kicked it off with. It wasn't that the songs were bad, simply that they weren't particularly good either. Here, they're much stronger, kicking off well again but keeping going this time. Medieval is another solid opener, but Surf the Tsunami is a better follow-up, my first highlight of the album. The drums are frenetic, as Heller is keen to keep them, but the riffs are excellent and the hooks are strong. Two songs in, it's already better than its predecessor.

And there are other highlights to come. All Hell's Breaking Loose is pure Raven, energetic British heavy metal from the opening roar. John Gallagher in particular has a blast on this one, speaking these parts, singing those and screaming the rest. The chorus, delivered in backing vocals, is very memorable too. Desperate Measures echoes much of what I just said, but with an even better riff that absolutely stuck in my brain—I found myself humming it while doing the dishes, which has to be about the least metal activity there is— and a little more of a single-minded approach. It just doesn't want to be quite as fancy, not that fancy is a particularly good word to use on a Raven LP.

Invasion is a grower for me, because it starts out slower and heavier but kicks into gear with style, barrelling along through its midsection. It becomes a blitzkrieg and the only track left that has to follow it is more than up to the task. It's Go for the Gold, which features another storming chorus, another couple of excellent wild guitar solos from Mark Gallagher and even more drum fills than ever from Heller, who's been steadily working through his repertoire throughout the album and I should add that he's not just a drummer, he's a drum teacher.

In fact, Heller is an absolute dynamo on this album, an excellent choice of new school drummer for Raven's old school style. It's like the Gallaghers are throwing everything they have at him but he's keeping up with it all and relishing the challenge. I won't say that he manages it effortlessly, as I'd say there are a couple of moments when it feels as if he's actually having to work hard, but I would absolutely say mostly effortlessly. When Raven started out, it felt like they were unprecedentedly fast, pushing the envelope. They haven't changed much at all but metal has moved on. They're not remotely the fastest band in the world any more and Heller can almost keep up in his sleep.

So that's five highlights on an album with ten songs, which is a pretty strong hit rate, especially in comparison to the one last time out. What's perhaps most important is that the lesser songs here are probably all better than the lesser nine on Metal City and that means that this is more than a little bit better, it's a lot better. It's an easy 7/10 but I'm wondering if I should nudge it up to an 8. I find myself in two minds there. The pro is the consistency, because it's strong throughout, nothing letting the side down. The con is the lack of originality, because absolutely nothing here is close to new. Ditch the double bass pedal and Raven could have played these songs live in 1982.

So I think a 7/10 it is but it's a high 7/10. If you're a Raven fan and you don't care about originality, which seems like a redundant pairing, add another point to my rating because you're going to be a lot happier with All Hell's Breaking Loose than Metal City. You're going to replay this one a lot.

Saint Karloff - Paleolithic War Crimes (2023)

Country: Norway
Style: Stoner/Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 2 Jun 2023
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I haven't heard Saint Karloff before but how can I resist that name? They hail from Oslo and play a brand of stoner rock that starts out right from the Sabbath playbook but varies considerably as it goes until it surprised me. My first impressions are that they're excellent musically, with the main musician Mads Melvold, handling guitars, bass and keyboards, presumably not all at one time. It's redundant to suggest that the band seems to be very tight, when most of it is one man recording a set of overlays in the studio, effectively playing along with himself. The other musician involved is Adam Suleiman, who contributes the drums.

Just in case Melvold holding down triple duty wasn't enough, he also handles the lead vocals and I was less sold on those. Initially, on the opener, Psychedelic Man, he comes across as somewhat like Glenn Danzig with a sore throat, though he has a cleaner, less raucous vocal reserved for the more psychedelic sections, such as when the space rock keyboards show up. I was a little taken aback by how smooth the instrumentation was and how the vocals stood in contrast, but they were never a problem and I warmed up to the contrast in time. The vocals are certainly the weakest aspect but they work nonetheless.

I liked Psychedelic Man on a first listen but I like Blood Meridian still more after it, because it's an acutely playful piece that hearkens back to other seventies bands than just the inevitably Sabbath. While the song seems nineties, the bounce of Queens of the Stone Age with the fuzz of Kyuss, it's a song that looks backwards too. There's Budgie here in how the melody is inherently built into riffs and changes. There's seventies organ that reminds of Uriah Heep. I like this one a lot.

Talking of looking back, Saint Karloff look back further than that. After a mellow interlude, Among Stone Columns, and another frenetic stoner rock song with a punk urgency, Bone Cave Escape, they shift into epic mode and trawl in Led Zeppelin for Nothing to Come, which is a peach of a song. It's acoustic Zep initially, even including a flute, with very Jimmy Page guitarwork but vocals nothing at all like Robert Plant. It builds, of course, heavying up a couple of minutes in, but, even with the more frenetic sound of the midsection, it's tempered by a less frenetic lead guitar. And, just as we get used to that, it shifts back to acoustic but remains frenetic, like utterly in your face folk music.

There's another epic to wrap up the album, Nothing to Come running seven minutes but Supralux Voyager taking up eight and a half. It opens in a similarly epic vein, but it's less hard rock and more psychedelic rock, taking the band in another tasty direction. Both these songs are highlights and I only realised at this point that the songs are generally longer than I'd expect from a commercially minded vocal stoner rock band. The rest aren't epics, but only the interlude and Death Don't Have No Mercy clock in under the five minute mark.

And, frankly, there's the biggest surprise for me, because I know this song well but in versions very unlike this one. It's a slow song for this album, but it's heavy and the vocals suggest that Melvold is shouting through a megaphone like Rudy Vallée used to do in the thirties. The song isn't as old as that, but I first heard it on the debut album by Hot Tuna, Jorma and Jack's roots-focused side band from Jefferson Airplane. That came out in 1970 and it was one of many of their covers of Rev. Gary Davis tunes. He sang blues and gospel, being ably qualified as a blind black preacher man, but he's one of my favourite guitarists. Nobody plays guitar like a blind bluesman and precisely none of the inventive intricacy they have is present on this song, which makes it very weird indeed.

Kudos to Saint Karloff though for covering such a deep cut and transforming it into something new in the process. Now let's see what you can do with Sally, Where'd You Get Your Liquor From? Kudos also for such a varied stoner rock album, shifting from seventies to nineties and from hard rock to psychedelia and touches of space rock. On first impressions, this worked as a frenetic workout but, the more I listen to it, the more it's all about the subtleties that come elsewhere. This is the third album by Saint Karloff and I'm all the more interested in hearing the previous two now.

Tuesday 25 July 2023

Eloy - Echoes from the Past (2023)

Country: Germany
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 23 Jun 2023
Sites: Facebook | Prog Archives | Wikipedia | YouTube

Eloy are another band I remember from back in the day that I'm surprised to find still around and releasing new material. Most such bands date back to the eighties, maybe the late seventies, but this German prog rock band is older, starting out as far back as 1969 and releasing their debut the year I was born. Their brand of prog rock is heavy on keyboards, founder member Frank Boremann the only guitarist but Hannes Folberth and Michael Gerlach both playing keys.

That's one reason why they often drift into space rock in my mind, though those keyboards remain orchestral rather than driven by sound effects. Perhaps symphonic rock would be a more accurate term to use but a less useful one. There's a lot more Tangerine Dream here than the Moody Blues, especially in instrumental sections, such as the beginning of Warning Signs or the last two thirds of The Pyre, which are primarily keyboards. When Conspiracy, the opening track, kicks in, it has an interesting vibe to it that's sometimes Pink Floyd and sometimes Hawkwind.

It seems that they've only really split up once, from 1984 to 1988, but they've not always remained active. Even with that gap, they released more albums in the eighties than nineties and then took over a decade to bring out Visionary in 2009 and eight more years to kick off a duology, The Vision, the Sword and the Pyre. Now, only four years on, they've put out another album and this one has been much better received, it seems, than anything else they've done this millennium. I have next to no time to delve backwards so probably wouldn't have been able to check those out anyway but that may be the best option aesthetically too.

Their sound is as rich as ever and the grand sweep of these songs plays very well to me. In fact, the longer the songs get, the more impressive they become. The shortest, Compassion for Misery at a skimpy three minutes, is a decent song but it tends to get lost in between the dynamic opener and the highly memorable title track. The longest is The Pyre and that's a nine and a half minute epic that only features vocals for its first two. It gets its teeth into those extended keyboard solos and textures and could have continued on for another nine.

The Pyre is my highlight, but a few others trail strongly in its wake. The title track isn't far behind it, with some fascinating drumming from Stephan Emig, a solid beat and a wild set of fills, as if it's two separate drummers on two separate drumkits. Warning Signs is another highlight, kicking off like Tangerine Dream, pure synths working with each other, but growing into something more, an almost perky pop setup over more interesting drumming and prog time changes. It also features some honest to goodness singing from Bornemann, which comment I should explain.

I don't remember this from back in the day, but the least successful aspect to the album has to be the vocals, which Bornemann most often delivers in what's best described as spoken word. That's appropriate for the opening track, Conspiracy, simply because of its lyrical content and theme, but it gets a little offputting as the album runs on, as if the four other musicians in the band are there only to accompany his poetry. Now, I'm not suggsting that's the case, because there simply aren't enough vocals to warrant that assumption, but it feels that way. A singing voice is just another of many instruments and they merge together into a song. A spoken voice has a different effect, like it has something important to say and we should blot out everything else to listen.

It's telling that my favourites here are The Pyre, a primarily instrumental epic, and Warning Signs, with Bornemann's most obvious singing. Echoes from the Past takes its time getting to vocals too, with a fascinating intro that's part Alan Parsons, part Phil Collins. Those vocals do arrive and they arrive spoken,but they give way to a delightful guest vocal from someone I sadly can't credit. They feel celestial, as if they emerge from the sky and beam down at us. The cycle is spoken word, then melodious guest vocal, then Bornemann singing, and the contrast works.

I've had this on replay for most of two days now and I'm revelling in the lushness of the keyboards. It's great to hear new material from Eloy, but it's clear that the more Bornemann holds his spoken word approach back the better the results. It works as a contrast in Echoes from the Past and as an introduction to The Pyre. It doesn't work as a replacement for a singing voice on other songs. That means that a bunch of this is worthy of an 8/10 but as much and probably more is fairer at 6/10. I'll even that up for a 7/10 overall.

Mortal Blood - Fate's Overture (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Gothic Doom Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 29 Jun 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Following on from yesterday, here's another EP containing five tracks, though it really isn't, given that it's over half an hour in length. Dan Krell, the musician behind everything here, as composer, performer and producer, may well think of it as an EP but I'm thinking of it as a full length album. Maybe he sees it as not substantially longer than its predecessor, last year's Unholy Feast, which was three minutes shorter. I think my criteria nowadays is whether it's longer than Reign in Blood or not, so that counts as an EP and this an album. Is there a better guide?

Krell infuses this with an interesting sound from moment one. It's advertised as gothic doom and I can't argue with that, but there's a band that sprang out of this immediately for me that doesn't feature on the influence list on Mortal Blood's EPK and that's Celtic Frost. It's most obvious in the vocals, which are delivered in a tortured style that reminds me of their Monotheist album, a dying god sort of voice that has to be distorted because it's more vast than our comprehension, speaking to us from beyond whatever veil separates men and gods, even dying ones.

The music behind it isn't as slow or as bleak, though it does fit both of those adjectives, even if the drums constantly suggest that everything else should speed up. It's more patient than aching and the bleakness is tempered by richer guitars. It's the guitars that add a gothic feel, but even when they try to soar, the vocals chain them back down again, even if they're just rumbling rather than delivering verses. I never caught lyrics here but I got the mood immediately and the voice keeps it mired in that mood.

Speaking to Krell's cited influences, I can hear a bunch of them here. There's some Candlemass in the majestic drive of Fury and Sorrow. There's some Paradise Lost in the more gothic guitar parts from Fate's Overture onwards, especially A Monster Approaches. There's some My Dying Bride in the sonic assault during the second half of Fury and Sorrow and the melancholic flow of A Monster Approaches. If there's any Gorgoroth here, it's in the vocals. I'm not hearing much Mercyful Fate, Dark Tranquillity or Amon Amarth. This is less theatrical and more soundscape, crew rather than cast.

It's as a soundscape generator that it's most successful, an approach that brings us right back to a Celtic Frost comparison, with the vocals leading the way. Krell's voice stays tortured throughout, fascinatingly so. It's primarily that vocal that makes this so ruthlessly uncommercial, in a way that we might associate otherwise with black metal, but almost every other instrument follows suit, an exception obvious only for the drums, which mostly pander to convention with double bass. All the influences Krell cites maintained a level of commerciality in their sound, even if it was just through melody. Mortal Blood has no interest doing that, just as the Frosties never did anything that they didn't want to do, even if it turned out to be a misstep.

Now, I'm a big Celtic Frost fan, going all the way back to their Hellhammer days, so I'm on board for this approach. However, I like the first three songs a lot more than the fourth, A Hell Dream, though it is growing on me. It's a little less focused than the others, which anchor the searching gothic guitarwork with the tortured vocals. It finds itself late, but it takes a while and it lost me a little as it got there, with guitars that know exactly what they're doing but drums that feel unsure. The final track, Empower the Warrior, finds itself immediately but it has a different feel, even using the same component parts. It plays to me like a black/doom metal take on a punk song, simple at its heart but weighed down by textures.

I like this but I appreciate the unconventional and uncompromising. Krell has a particular musical vision and he's focused on that so emphatically and singlemindedly that it's almost surprising that he acknowledged the real world by releasing this material. It's going to find people and many will hate it. However, the few who appreciate its sound will also appreciate its integrity. Even when it's at its most commercial, perhaps on A Monster Approaches, it refuses to play ball with anyone but Krell himself. It is what it is and that's all that should matter. I dig that.

Monday 24 July 2023

Ghost - Phantomime (2023)

Country: Sweden
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 11 Feb 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

As I mentioned in my review of their 2022 album, Impera, I enjoy Ghost but I've never fallen for the band in the way that so many of my friends have, often those who aren't overt rock/metal fans. In a way this EP helps, because it sees the band consistently walking a very difficult line that few are able to manage. I'm talking about cover versions and the tricky balancing act that is making them your own without reinventing them. Somehow these five songs sound like the originals, which are a diverse bunch, but also like Ghost. That's an impressive feat.

Well, I presume they all do, because I don't know the opener at all. It's See No Evil, a Television song that isn't Marquee Moon, the one that everyone seems to cover and nobody really has a reason to, except a wildcard like the Kronos Quartet. I've probably heard the original but I don't recognise it, so can't compare it without looking it up and I want to preserve my ignorance for now to counter the fact I know the other four. Well, again, I don't know the second one, which is an unusual Genesis choice, Jesus He Knows Me, but I do know Genesis and this sounds acutely like Phil Collins-era Genesis, so I can assume it's pretty close.

The rest I do know. In keeping with an apparent punk mindset, there's also Hanging Around by the Stranglers, released in the same year of 1977 as the Television track, and Phantom of the Opera, a Paul Di'Anno-era Iron Maiden gem that I've always felt was a tasty combination of old school prog rock that was firmly out in the British musical landscape of 1980 and the energy of NWOBHM that was firmly in, with Maiden's debut album at its vanguard. Of course, those two Di'Anno led albums have plenty of punk in them too, but there's no punk in Tina Turner's We Don't Need Another Hero except in the wastelanders in the music video.

That's quite a range, from pop songs from Genesis and Tina Turner through the post-punk sound of Television and the Stranglers to the energy-driven heavy metal of Iron Maiden. However, these are somehow true to their originals, maintaining something of their essence and with Papa Emeritus IV shifting his voice a little each time to cater to that, but also consistent to the Ghost approach. It feels like a Ghost album, or at least EP and given that it's done and dusted in twenty-four minutes, as well as a bunch of covers.

That unusual accomplishment is the most impressive aspect to me. They're all good songs that are good together here, even if it doesn't sound like they should be, and that's quite the feat. Is there something that will convert me to the rabid Ghost fanbase, though? No, but I'll raise my respect a notch. As enjoyable as these versions are and as well as they're slotted into the Ghost framework, none of them are essential. They're all enjoyable but none were really needed.

And I can't really call out a highlight because they all do the same job in the same consistent way. I might end up plumping for Phantom of the Opera just because it was my favourite going in. Sure, Papa Emeritus doesn't provide the "oh yeah" at the beginning and they don't keep the hidden bit at the end that has been catching DJs out for forty plus years now, but it's a cover that doesn't at all piss me off, which is one win, and actually impresses, which is another. It's not Maiden, shorn of a little of its energy, but that's OK. Few bands carry the energy they had back then.

I wasn't planning to make today an EP day but that's how it worked out. I placed this one second as Ghost are easily the bigger name nowadays, not just here in the States but internationally, but, if I could only keep one, it would be the Pendragon without hesitation. And then I might throw on the Iron Maiden debut because it's been a while.

Pendragon - North Star (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 1 Jun 2023
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Prog Archives | Twitter | Wikipedia

Having perhaps not heard Pendragon since their debut album in 1985, I was blown away by a stellar eleventh album from them in 2020, Love Over Fear, which was a rare 9/10 album for me. Pendragon uberfan John Tymon kindly let me know about this EP, which was available during their recent tour and has now been released digitally, so I should follow his advice and take a listen. Even though it's an EP with two tracks on offer, that still means twenty-four minutes and they're glorious.

The bulk of that time is taken up by the title track, which appears in three parts, and there's a lot going on within it. Quite frankly, there's a lot going on in the first minute of A Boy and His Dog, the first of those parts, and it only grows from there. The overall feel is pastoral, as if we're outside in a meadow with birds above us and a brook rippling not far away, but there are hints of darkness at points, like the dissonant tone that takes us into part two, As Dead as a Dodo.

What I like about the beginning of A Boy and His Dog is that it feels alive. There are guitars going in one direction, keyboards in another and then the rhythm section in a third, with others added a little later, all competing for our attention. However, they're all compatible, stretching the song in gentle ways but promptly handing over to the next to stretch it back again. Being simple creatures at heart, we aren't sure which direction to follow but eventually we let the song stretch us in all of these directions at once and that's immersive and delightful.

It's a very folky piece, even when Nick Barrett's guitar solo suggests otherwise. The folky element continues through the album, but in different ways. As Dead as a Dodo begins with American style fingerpicking, that sounds like it ought to have been played on a banjo but isn't because it isn't the tone being sought. Then it gets very British, back to the Runrig sound I heard on Love Over Fear, or maybe a Waterboys sound with grand commercial melodies. As with A Boy and His Dog, though, it evolves into something far more complex, with some special fury reserved for the drums.

Phoenician Skies aren't something I want to hear about, actually living in Phoenix, where the sun is eager to kill us all. We're shattering heat records right now. Every day in July thus far has reached 110° and there's no sign of stopping. The Phoenician skies that Nick Barrett sees are more benign, it would seem, whatever the lyrics suggest. It's a more open song, a little folk, a little psychedelia and a little calming inevitability infused into its prog roots. It's a happy song, not truly celebratory but blissfully at peace and able to explore on the side while waiting to reach the destination with some delightful soloing in the second half, both on guitar and keyboards.

The three parts of North Star play very well together, each with their individual styles but working capably as a single journey that takes us eighteen minutes or so. That just leaves Fall Away, at just six and a half, and the first minute of that is Spanish style guitar to build us into a mood. It's clear that Pendragon have found their own identity in the three and a half decades since I last paid any attention and so comparisons are more glimpses than guides. I caught a lot of Pink Floyd on North Star but in details rather than sweeps: this section, not the song. Fall Away trawls in a lot of Peter Gabriel.

Occasionally I wonder if I should call out in the header that something I'm reviewing is an EP rather than an album, but this underlines that it's not needed. It doesn't matter that this is shorter than a regular studio album. It does the things that albums do and it does them to the same degree. It doesn't even feel shorter, though of course it is. It certainly doesn't feel short. It feels like it's only ever been an album with clear movement and much to explore. I'm still finding little touches on my sixth or seventh time through.

I haven't yet looked back at all that back catalogue I've missed since maybe The World in 1991 and Love Over Fear in 2020, but it's clear that the latter wasn't a one off. They're impeccable right now and I'm even more eager for their next full length studio album. This makes me extra happy as the bigger British prog bands are all putting out excellent material, even if most of it isn't quite up to the levels of Love Over Fear or Solstice's Sia. Maybe we've acknowledged the Norwegian threat and we're ready to counter it.

Friday 21 July 2023

Extreme - Six (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 9 Jun 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I remember Extreme from back in the day, of course, because Get the Funk Out was a statement of change in rock music and it worked. Of course, More Than Words was a megahit and Extreme were on their way. Those songs were second album material and I remember III Sides to Every Story as a capable followup to Pornograffiti, but I lost track of them after that. I figured that they'd suffered the same fate as any mainstream rock band in the wake of grunge, but it seems like they knocked out one more album in 1995 before calling it a day a year later. I had no idea that they reformed in 2007 or that they put out a fifth album, Saudades de Rock in 2008. That was thirteen years on from its predecessor and this one arrives fifteen years after that.

So what are Extreme up to now? Well, this is a wild ride indeed, one that takes them to all sorts of new territory, as if they're deliberately trying to catch up with what the genre has done since they left it. Case in point: it starts heavy, as if they're no longer a hard rock band delving into metal but a bona fide metal band not losing their hard rock background. Rise and #Rebel are heavy songs in a grungy metal style, downtuned a lot further than ever before and with Pat Badger's bass much of the driving force. However, however much darkness that approach lends the sound, this is still a hard rock band singing catchy hard rock songs.

Banshee starts out the same way but transitions into something very different and far more like a sound we might expect from Extreme. In short, it struts like the sassiest Aerosmith way more than anything I've heard from Aerosmith of late. If the first two tracks are new school, then this is very much old school and Other Side of the Rainbow follows suit, channelling Queen not only through a soaring Gary Cherone vocal but through Nuno Bettencourt's acoustic guitar. I challenge you not to hear Aerosmith in the one and Queen in the other.

And then it's ballad time. There are two ballads here, Small Town Beautiful being a textbook song and Hurricane being much more, so much more that it's a clear highlight even though I'm rarely a fan of rock ballads. This one's a comfortable piece, full of introspective harmonies and eventually a swell of orchestration. There's folk in this one and country as well and it turns, of all things, into a Simon & Garfunkel style duet. And, just in case we thought they were softening up, Hurricane is followed by X Out, which is another highlight, arguably the best song on offer, but something very different indeed.

Extreme had flirted with industrial on an earlier song, Thicker Than Blood, which finds a vocal vibe somewhere between Rob Zombie and the Prodigy. The choruses are quintessential Extreme, right back to their funky metal origins. However, there's a lot more in X Out, which kicks off as staticky electronica, finds its crunch and then trawls in everything it can think of. For a while, it's almost a Led Zeppelin song remixed by a club DJ, but it finds the Eurythmics, the Communards and what I'd suggest might be Steve Vai playing for Rainbow. It ends up feeling rather epic and it was endlessly fascinating to me. I never knew where it was going but it feels somehow coherent even after going everywhere.

And, just in case you thought they'd hit their stride at tracks nine and ten, they follow up with the most unexpected song here, Beautiful Girls, which is pulsing reggae, with what I presume is a lead vocal from Carl Restivo, who certainly co-wrote the song. It's a good song, but it's a rock song like Michael Jackson's Beat It was a rock song because Eddie van Halen provided its guitar solo. And I should point out that Bettencourt's solo here feels rather like Eddie, clearly an homage to the late icon.

After that, the grand singalong of Here's to the Losers, with what might be a schoolyard choir, fails to shock. I'm not sure I can visualise a darkened arena full of lighters swaying to the title but, hey, it worked for Queen with We are the Champions. Cherone's delivrey of verses here does remind of Freddie Mercury, but only after evolving out of Bob Dylan. There's a lot here too, but it's easier to grasp and I'm not convinced it works, especially with all the self-congratulatory high fiving during the coda. Yay losers! Woo! Everything about X Out works and I keep finding more things that work on every subsequent listen.

And so, there's Six, which is a serious attempt from Extreme not only to be relevant but to leap on ahead of where the genre has got to while they've been absent. Not all of it works and not all of it works together, but it's a fascinating album that covers a lot of ground and, for the most part, has an absolute blast doing it. Rise and Hurricane don't feel like they belong on the same album, but I like both of them. The same goes for X Out and Beautiful Girls, but all four of these songs count as highlights for me. That's impressive and the fact that three of them are next to each other on the album is even more impressive. Welcome back, folks!

KinkPin - In My Lowest Hour (2023)

Country: Poland
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 29 Apr 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Tiktok | YouTube

Talking of nu metal, as I was yesterday with Arogya, this submission came to me from Poland with a nu metal tag on it and that seems like an odd categorisation to me. It's metal enough to be metal, I guess, but it's also fundamentally rooted in hard rock, so I'd call it commercial rock/metal, albeit in a more modern vein. This doesn't sound like the seventies or even the eighties,like New Wave of Classic Rock bands. It's more nineties and noughties. There are only a few moments on the album that bring to mind what I think of as nu metal, like the wildly jagged section in the second half of Anthem. Ignore the term, I'd say. If it prevented you listening, dive on in.

I can't remember the last time I highlighted an intro, but I will here. Bands love intros and they're rarely worth anything because, after a first time through, we just skip over them on repeat listens because we want to get to the music. This one, called No Escape, works because it actually does the job of an intro. On a first listen, it grabs our attention and says listen to this; it might be special. On repeat listens, it level sets us, brings us back to focus after what we've heard so that we can listen afresh. And, crucially, it's short: only forty-six seconds of ticking, whispers, musical bells and a neat ominous build that climaxes with the whispers degrading us and an alarm waking us up. I'd expect to hear it somewhere like a Pink Floyd or Queensrÿche album rather than a submission.

But to the actual songs. I enjoyed them from the outset but I wasn't sold until a few tracks in with Down the Light, because it's the one that truly lets loose and shows us that KinkPin are willing to truly give it some. Until then, it felt like they were holding back a little. It's not about speed, as a later song called Riders is deliberately slow but has all the oomph it needs as it stalks us, with an excellent tempo change in the second half making it even more effective. Down the Light is where they show us that they can really get their teeth into a song.

The more I re-listen, the more I like the opener, The Night is Coming, and there's a lot of good to be said about Dream too, but KinkPin occupy an odd balance between the hey, look at us mindset of rock music and the don't look at us mindset of grunge, so there are a lot of moments where we're listening to the calm before the storm and waiting for the big push that never truly comes. It's an odd way of approaching songs, because they sound like they want to be anthems, especially when they're actually called Anthem and include a woah woah backing vocal, as if we're supposed to be on our feet and bouncing like it's pop punk, but they work best when we sit back and just listen.

Down the Light is where that stops and the bounce from pop punk breaks through and prompts us to turn up the volume. If there's anything held back here, it's early on to set us up for it escalating as it goes and it does escalate, after a strong bridge and another solid guitar solo into that simple but effective beat and an excellent ending. KinkPin know exactly how to bring this home. That they then choose to immediately slow down the pace for Riders, which launches in with a smoky guitar that hearkens back to the blues, is clearly deliberate and very effective indeed. After this pairing, I was totally on board with KinkPin.

KinkPin are from Poland, where they were formed in Warsaw in 2019. The lead vocals are from the band's bassist, Damian Pyza, who sings in completely understandable English but with an obvious accent that I think actually helps the grungy rasp in his voice. It makes him sound unique and that rarely turns out to a bad thing in rock music. It helps distinguish the band. Everyone else does the business here, but I'd call out Michał Włoczkowski for his guitar solos. They're the oldest aspect to this music in terms of influence and they ring very honest and true.

I believe this is their debut album and it's a solid place to start. I certainly prefer the urgent songs, like Down the Light and Bad Celebration, which channels some punk energy, but there are hidden depths in sleepers like The Night is Coming and clever touches everywhere. There's even a Danzig-esque chorus in Always Remember, which I was utterly not expecting, just to keep me on the hop. I keep going back to Riders too. The slowest song on any album always has to have something special to not get in the way and this one becomes a highlight.

So, thanks folks, for sending this album my way. Powodzenia to you and all the best.

Thursday 20 July 2023

Within Temptation - Wireless (2023)

Country: The Netherlands
Style: Symphonic Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 19 May 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Pinterest | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Talking of mixing pop and goth and metal and a whole bunch of other genres, the most successful example of that that I've reviewed here at Apocalypse Later is probably Within Temptation's 2019 album, Resist. It felt like a gamechanger to me at the time, taking their symphonic metal roots to new frontiers. Now, that was an age ago, pre-COVID, and I haven't heard its tentacles in much that I've reviewed since, but maybe I'm not paying enough attention. It could easily be said that there's some of that album in Arogya's sound and there's certainly plenty of it here too.

I wondered if I should actually review this, for reasons that I'll get to, but decided to because I like the opening title track a lot. It marries the light and heavy incredibly well, with a crunch that's not far off industrial strength bludgeoning the backdrop while Sharon den Adel delivers effortless pop melodies with a rock voice. She's a fascinating singer, because she can shift between tones or even styles just like that and she takes some interesting decisions about how to do that here. I've called out her Celtic lilt before and it's very much in evidence on this EP, but it's also kept in reserve for a moment where it's needed.

It's even more overt on Don't Pray for Me, the other new song here, with all sorts of Celtic lilts and harmonies, den Adel cutting off words for effect just like Dolores O'Riordan. There's also a neatly folky echo effect at points and there's a recurrent sample to keep the song trendy. It does quite a lot and the overall effect is solid. I wouldn't call this one as strong a song as Wireless, which is why this isn't called the Don't Pray for Me EP but it's a decent song nonetheless, with a good emphasis play. Again, den Adel is the best aspect of the song, taking it in all sorts of different directions but always coming back to the point.

So far so good, right? Well, there are downsides. If I'm readingly correctly, there are three guitars in the band nowadays, not just Robert Westerholt, who's a founder member, but also Ruud Jolie, who joined in 2001 and new fish Stefan Helleblad, who arrived in 2011 alongside the new drummer Mike Coolen. However, it's next to impossible to distinguish between them. They each merge into a single guitar sound that seems to be there primarily as texture. There are no solos and what might approach them is the work of keyboardist Martijn Spierenburg and whoever's providing a violin, a sound that may well more keyboards.

And I technically lied when I said that these were new songs. They weren't on Resist and I obviously can't speak to whether they'll be on the next album, whenever it arrives. However, I felt that Shed My Skin was a bit cheap because it combined one new track with two prior singles, bulking up with instrumental versions of all three, and this, while seeming to be more expansive, echoes that and doubles down. Both Wireless and Don't Pray for Me were released as standalone singles and what pads out the EP to five tracks are the three songs from the Shed My Skin EP. Again, all these show up in instrumental versions too.

That means that four of the five songs on offer here were standalone singles, three of them were on the Shed My Skin EP and the same three also showed up on The Aftermath EP in live versions. Nothing's actually new. I have to add that Within Temptation have released two other new songs since Resist, but they are nowhere to be seen here, so this doesn't even do a solid job of collation. I'm starting to get quite a sinking feeling that the next album is going to have nothing new on it, because every track will be previously available in multiple different releases, singles and EPs and whatever.

So I think I'm going to swear off looking at Within Temptation EPs. Let's just say that this one's an improvement on Shed My Skin because the best two tracks here are the ones that weren't on that and the worst, Entertain You, hasn't got any better since then. However, that means that each of the five songs is less than its predecessor and that's quite a downward spiral. It starts excellently with Wireless but ends poorly with Entertain You and that journey down is inexorable. I'm also not sure how to describe this because symphonic metal doesn't apply any more.

Arogya - Supernatural (2023)

Country: India
Style: Pop Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 19 May 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | YouTube

I've listened to this album, which I believe is the fourth from Indian band Arogya, a few times now and I'm still trying to come to terms with it. The title track is a great way to open because it gives a good introduction to what they do and does it as well as anything else here. And what they do is an odd amalgam of genres.

For a start, it's clearly commercial, so immediate that it could be used as entrance music for some wrestler or other, especially if they're called Supernatural because that's the first three words, all of them delivered in crystal clear unaccented English with emphasis and serious sustain. It's got a modern metal crunch under it and it finds a grinding nu metal feel as soon as the title's done with, with a harsh and aggressive growl. But then it gets all bouncy and melodic, with a softer, almost a pop vocal for the majority of the song, ramping up in forcefulness for the choruses.

It's quite a mix, as if Arogya want the perkiness of western pop music but the impact of aggressive metal all at the same time. And, while that arguably places them right into the nu metal genre, it seems a little unfair. They're kind of like Disturbed on this track, but both heavier and softer at the same time. On others, they add further elements: some ethnic touches on Desire, gothic metal on Queen of the Damned and Spell and overt electronica on Fade Away. By this point, it's clear these musicians aren't a rock band pretending to be a metal band or vice versa. They're both at once.

And that's when it starts to truly get interesting, because the biases we've brought with us cease to be applicable and we can just enjoy this on its own merits. I tend to like the songs that delve the deepest into gothic metal, so Queen of the Damned, with its bouncy chorus that wouldn't be out of place on an HIM song, is an easy choice, and Spell too, which does many of the same things but has a heavier aspect to it, without losing any of its drive. Forbidden Memories finds the same mindset but also kicks off with a heavy guitar that feels like it's been borrowed from doom metal and spun up in speed.

A highlight for a different reason is the closer, Armageddon, which is slick and commercial and has some tasty harmonies that grow over the length of the song. It wraps up very nicely indeed. Other than that, I tended to find mseylf drawn to parts of songs rather than the songs themselves. I got a kick out of the almost Celtic melody on Prophet and the guitarwork on Drifting Away, whether it's the work of Pawan and/or Mr. G, who are both credited for guitar. I also liked a lot of the electronic flourishes, because they bring character to different songs in different ways. However, the harsher voice rarely did anything for me and some of the more staccato beats left me dry too.

It's fair to say that that surprised me. Often with bands who mix light and heavy, I tend to gravitate towards one or the other, with a few bands nailing both approaches at once. Here, the lighter side is the melodies and the electronica, which I liked pretty consistently, and the heavier side is in the guitars, which I also liked pretty consistently. Where Arogya lost me was in between, with some of the elements often intruding on songs I was otherwise enjoying, kind of like the guest vocals on Evanescence's Bring Me to Life, which was much better as a demo without them.

And that's probably not a bad song to bring up, because Evanescence also combine crunchy guitars and a gothic influence with poppy melodies and electronica, making them an obvious comparison. The difference, of course, is that those backing vocals weren't meant to be there and were forced upon the band by a studio wanting to play to the trends of the day, firmly against songwriter Amy Lee's wishes. Here, Arogya don't seem to be under any sort of pressure to include these elements, apparently simply choosing to do so as an aesthetic decision. Maybe they like the released version of Bring Me to Life better.

And so, I like this album and I appreciate its diversity, merging pop and metal successfully, but feel that it would be better were it to ditch the few elements that don't work.

Wednesday 19 July 2023

DeVicious - Code Red (2023)

Country: Germany
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 May 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Oh, it's good to hear bass again after the latest Enforcer album—in fact, it begins with a rich bass intro—but the Swedes had me aching for speed and, of course, DeVicious are a melodic hard rock band so that's never going to happen, even if they mysteriously have a Metal Archives page. They continue in the same vein here as on previous albums, which means from a positive side that it's elegant hard rock with a crunch beneath it but hooks on top that get stuck in our brains; and from a negative side that there's yet another new vocalist in place, showing up after five years fronting Ronni Le Tekrø's band TNT in between stints by their most frequent singer, Tony Harnell.

This new name is Baol Bardot Bulsara, that last name auspicious for a singer, and he's the fourth singer across five albums. That's hardly promising, especially given that everyone else has stayed constant, the only other line-up change ever being the departure of Gisbert Royder, their rhythm guitarist on their debut album, in 2018 without a replacement. I don't know what they're looking for in a vocalist, as it's clearly something more than singing ability, which previous singer Antonio Calanna had without a doubt, but I hope they find it soon, whether with Bulsara or whoever ends up singing on their next album.

He shows that he has a fine set of pipes on the opener, Are You Ready for Love, especially with his closing note, but he has a smooth voice so he fades into the music a little, with Radivoj Petrovic's guitar stepping up to challenge for the foreground and Alex Frey's bass not far behind. He sounds not unlike Alex Falk of Fans of the Dark, but he's not as overt, content to stay a little further back in the mix and that makes this a deeper but less immediate album. We have to choose to allow the songs in and explore them. They're not going to kick down the door and impress us like they did on Phase Three a few years ago.

My favourite song is an easy choice and that's House of Cards. I expect catchy hooks from DeVicious and this is the most exquisitely catchy song here. It also wraps up gloriously to cement its position at the top of this particular tree. Next in line is a much harder task, but I might plump for No More Tears. It sets itself up as a ballad from the outset but it kicks into gear nicely and ends up firmly in the vein of Magnum, which is no bad thing for an elegant melodic hard rock band to do. After that I'm stuck, because the album's very consistent.

What remains is the catch to that admirable consistency. I found DeVicions in 2020 with their third album, Phase III, which was an absolute peach and an easy 8/10 from me. I gave it my Album of the Month for June of that year. Black Heart was clearly not up to that standard but it was still a good album, highly enjoyable throughout, and this one follows that closely. I've listened through a few times and never not enjoyed. I don't feel the need to skip any tracks. Nothing drags or lets the side down. There's no filler here. However, there's also nothing that really steps up to challenge those two highlights.

Maybe Madhouse comes close because of its classy opening, yet another rich bass moment. Sorry, Enforcer, I'm going to relish these and there are plenty to choose from. There's another neat one on Raise Your Life, for instance. Walk from the Shadows seemed like a throwaway song to close out the album on my first listen, but it told me off for that assumption unceremoniously on a second. I would put that one up with Madhouse as the best of the rest now, possibly ahead of it. However, if it wasn't for House of Cards, the catchiest song here would be the bonus, Penthouse Floor, which is a re-recording of a track from their debut album. Never Say Never, back in 2018.

And this leaves me in two minds. Are DeVicious trying too hard, given that this is their fifth album in only six years? They've only left 2021 free of a new studio album, probably because of COVID and that's a pace that almost nobody maintains nowadays, even if it was expected back in the eighties. The fact that everything works suggests that they aren't, that they're firmly up to that frequency, but the lack of obvious standouts and the constant turnover of lead vocalist suggest that maybe a slower pace might benefit them. Who knows? I just know that I'm looking forward to number six in hope of another 8/10. This one, like its predecessor, though, is a safe 7/10.

Enforcer - Nostalgia (2023)

Country: Sweden
Style: Heavy/Speed Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 5 May 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Instagram | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Enforcer are Swedish, where they're currentliy based in Stockholm. They've been around most of a couple of decades now, since 2004, but were originally a one man project built around the multi-instrumental talents of Olof Wikstrand, who's still their lead vocalist and one of two guitarists. He gradually gave up his instrumental reponsibilities until Enforcer became an actual band and there are now four members, with Garth Condit the new fish on bass, having joined last year. They seem to be typically regarded as heavy/speed metal, which appeals to me. There are far too few speed metal bands nowadays, in my opinion.

Well, half of their sound is definitely heavy/speed metal. Unshackle Me feels like quintessentially eighties heavy metal, so much so that a few lines could easily have been translated into jingles for the Friday Rock Show. Coming Alive is the same thing but faster, with the guitars outstripping the drums and the energy simply leaping out of the speakers. It's still heavy metal rather than speed metal per se, but it's a notably frenetic song, one that's so highly pitched that it almost feels like it was recorded slower but then sped up digitally. It has an energy right out of early Iron Maiden and Raven, maybe a little Tank too, especially in the riffing on songs like Kiss of Death.

I'd call this eighties British heavy metal mindset their default sound and that higher pitch is what shapes it the most. I mentioned Garth Condit on bass, but I had to fiddle with my graphic equaliser to see if I could actually hear him. I'm sure he's on the album, but the mix seems to be allergic to bass, so this ends up as a very clean sound, as if it's somehow afraid of getting dirty. Maybe it does make it feel more authentically eighties, because recording technology was very different then, but it seems weird in 2023. It makes Enforcer seem like the anti-Venom, a band who want some of their songs to be fast and heavy, but also germophobically clean, every note carefully wiped down before it makes it to our speakers.

There's another aspect to their sound that perhaps naturally emerges from this and that's a hair metal power ballad sound. Some songs go there more than others, but it's there to a degree on all but the fastest songs, like Coming Alive. Heartbeats is where it initially becomes obvious, starting out like a power ballad with what I took to be female vocals—they're not, they're Olf Wikstrand, as on every other song—and evolving into an arena rock song with a metallic edge. Nostalgia is a full on ballad, kicking off wistfully with almost Spanish guitar. I imagined waiters bringing roses to my table in their restaurant for that special moment, but having to turn around and vanish when she says no. It's always a power ballad, but halfway through it evoles into a power metal ballad.

Perhaps understandably, given its title, Keep the Flame Alive is the most obvious power ballad. It begins with pop hooks and oohs from Wikstrand and, after a side trip into eighties metal mode, it goes back to that again. It's a schizophrenic song that epitomises what Enforcer do on this album. Half the time, it and they are reminiscent of the endless stream of bands who grew in the shadow of Iron Maiden's success, bands like Elixir, merely with the bass turned down. The other half, they get poppy and Wikstrand sweetens up into a female sounding voice and they're like Vixen turning into the Bangles.

It's fair to say that I like both modes, whether this Swedish vocalist is singing in English, as on most of the album, or Spanish, as he does fluently on Metal Supremacia, but it's never not offputting. I find myself in the odd position of rather enjoying this band and their songs, but not this album. It's unfair to slate it based entirely on the production but I want to hear this with some dirt in the mix and some rawness to its energy. I can deal with Wikstrom's voice soaring like Klaus Meine's, even if the band could benefit from a backing vocalist in a lower register, but blistering songs like Coming Alive deserve to have some real crunch to them and that means turning up the bass seriously up.

I actually checked out versions of that song on YouTube that were recorded live and, even though YouTube is hardly a place to go for quality sound, every version has better sound than this one. It's a better song at Rockpalast and I'd actually suggest that it's a better song in the small club version where the cameraman is so close to the speaker stack that it seems like the main microphone isn't switched on and all we get is the lower end. This band seriously rocks. Let's actually hear that next time. This ought to be a 7/10 album, with energy going to 8/10 and originality dropping to 6/10. I'm dropping a point for the production though because I can't not.