Friday 20 October 2023

Rolling Stones - Hackney Diamonds (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Oct 2023
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"I'm not angry with you," sings Mick Jagger on the opener, called Angry, but this album feels like the product of frustration, as indeed the title suggests, Hackney diamonds being the remnants of windscreens in the street after someone's broken into cars. The Stones haven't released an album of entirely new material in eighteen years and that's an entire generation. It's good to see them getting round to it at last and especially to see them feel so urgent doing so.

Keith Richards credits the death of drummer Charlie Watts in 2021 as the point that prompted the band to get serious enough to get the job done, though they had come close enough a few times in the years prior that Watts appears on two of these tracks, Mess It Up and Live by the Sword. Steve Jordan, who's worked with Richards on many previous projects and who stepped in on the No Filter Tour in 2021 when Watts was unable to play, takes over his drumkit otherwise, working in the same style.

As with their previous album, A Bigger Bang, this often generally stripped down and raw, as if they created this album live in the studio. There are even studio comments at the end of some of these songs that highlight just how much fun they were having. In the case of Sweet Sounds of Heaven, it feels like the song actually ends but Jagger and guest vocalist Lady Gaga are enjoying themselves so much that they build it back up again. It's an infectious feeling and it helps the album. There are no bad tracks here at all but some are definitely better and more memorable than others.

The truest Stones song is that opener, Angry, which is quintessential stuff from them. It has a good beat to kick off that leads into a good riff and a good vocal line. Of course, as with most of the best Stones songs, it builds considerably and they utterly own the groove they generate. After a couple of listens, good becomes great in each instance and it starts to feel like the sort of track that could end up on yet another greatest hits album. The other track I'd call out as traditional for the Stones is Whole Wide World, which works well if we play it in isolation but is otherwise overshadowed by Bite My Head Off right before it.

And that's the angriest, rawest and most surprising song here, certainly angrier than Angry and so much so that it verges on punk. It benefits more than any other track from a live in the studio feel, right down to Jagger urging on the surprise guest bassist, who's none other than Paul McCartney. The Beatles were never just a pop band and he covered a lot of ground with later bands like Wings, but I don't recall any time in which McCartney played anything this angry and raw. He fits it so well that I want to hear more in this vein from everyone involved.

The other big surprise here is how well Sweet Sounds of Heaven works. It's a spiritual, with Jagger leading the way but Lady Gaga matching him and taking over at points. She's not the only guest on this one, as the joyous keyboards are provided by Stevie Wonder and there are contributions from Ron Blake on trumpet and James King on sax, even if the latter is more prominent much earlier on a song called Get Close. King steals that song, to my mind, because Jagger's vocal lines aren't all free and easy, some of them feeling a little forced.

Given that I've already mentioned a punk song and a spiritual, I should add that other genres are represented here too. Dreamy Skies is a laid back country ballad, Mess It Up has a funkier edge and Rolling Stone Blues, which feels like a bonus track rather than a closer, is the blues cover you might expect, stripped down all the way to Jagger and Richards. They're all decent songs, but I wouldn't call any of them essential, unless you have a particular vested interest.

For instance, if you're an old time Stones fan, you might appreciate Watts being on Mess It Up and Live by the Sword. You might also appreciate that the bassist on the latter is Bill Wyman, who last recorded with the Stones during the previous millennium. They're both decent songs, the former a funky one and the latter more subtle but built well. You might also appreciate that Richards sings lead on Tell Me Straight, but he underwhelms, especially when contrasted with Jagger and Gaga in the following track. If you do, you'll want to go straight to them. Otherwise, you'll find the best of this album elsewhere.

Poludnica - Poludnica (2023)

Country: Slovakia
Style: Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 15 Sep 2023
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There are few things I like more than to discover a new folk metal band and here's one who play in the vein of Bucovina, a favourite of mine, though Poludnica aren't as heavy. They hail from Trenčín, which puts them quite a way from Bucovina because Trenčín is in the far west of Slovakia and Iași the far east of Romania, with a good chunk of Hungary in between. However, both play folk metal in the Balkan style with warm metal under the folk elements. Those are more evident here because they're not only explored in voice and melody but with folk instrumentation, primarily flutes and violins but also a harp.

Those are obvious from the outset, with the flutes of Zuzana Gregušová leading the way, as indeed they do on so many songs. They're a highly prominent instrument here, so much so that there may be as many solo flute sections as on guitars, often with the violins matching the flute melodies. In either case, the backdrop is a little subdued, the riffs certainly there throughout but low enough in the mix that we can almost believe that they're bleeding through from the next studio over, as the soloists and vocalists play in the primary one without walls to suppress them.

That backdrop is utterly reliable, whether it's chugging along at mid-pace, perking up for a song as lively as Medovina to prompt us to dance, even if we're sitting down, or ramping up the tempo for a belter like Slnovrat. However, it's always content to remain in the background, rather like a good friend whose presence elevates the day even if they're not prominent in conversation. The closest the riffing comes to the foreground is Krajiny, or Countries, a plaintive rock ballad, as if the lead is pleading his case, probably to a girl rather than a court, and so the lead elements are toned down. There are also wonderful bass runs on the opener, Za duše padlých, or For the Souls of the Fallen.

The primary lead element is the voice and there are three singers here. The lead for the majority of the album is Anton Chochlik, who sings in a rough but accurate tenor, almost always singing folk melodies rather than rock. The other two are backing singers, though one of them takes more of a prominent role in Medovina, or Mead. That's a lovely and lively song, as the title suggests, and it benefits from more of a female presence at the mike. At various points during other songs, these female voices echo the male, more like co-leads than backing vocalists.

I should mention that all these people work double duty. Chochlik is one of a pair of guitarists with Adrián Perrot, though I don't know how they divvy up lead and rhythm duties. Presumably both do both. The backing vocalists are Gregušová, who also plays the flutes and adds harp, most obviously on the title track, and Martina Oriešková, who also plays violin. It's these three who dominate the album, against that reliable backdrop. The guitarists do get solos, albeit not as many as we expect because they're divvied up with the flutes, and Vladimír Krabáč's bass only claims the spotlight on that opening track.

That leaves the thoroughly reliable Michal Košúth on drums, who perhaps shines brightest on the closer, Slnovrat, or Solstice, which feels celebratory and so gets more ambitious. He starts out fast and then gets interesting, both through fills and odd rhythms. While this is the only track where I found my attention specifically following what he was doing, his work feels effortless, whether he plays fast or slow, steady or intricate.

I'd love to hear more Balkan folk metal, which often feels as authentic as it gets, as their melodies feel old. The Celtic style is appropriately popular but it's also commonplace. More niche folk styles get attention as much for being niche as for being interesting, the Hu being one great example of both. Balkan folk metal sits in between, not as well known or as well heard but still almost seen as a default sound, less worthy of mention by those seeking something new and unusual.

While I may never find a Balkan folk metal album that connects with me as well as Bucovina's first, Ceasul aducerii-aminte, I'm eager to find something that comes close. This doesn't, but it's still an excellent debut and I look forward to the next album from Poludnica, especially now that I see that they've added a bagpipe player to their line-up.

Thursday 19 October 2023

Nervosa - Jailbreak (2023)

Country: Brazil
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 29 Sep 2023
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It's only been two and a half years since I reviewed Nervosa's fourth album, Perpetual Chaos, but a lot has changed with the band since then. Traditionally a trio, they were a four piece at that point, with Prika Amaral the sole remaining founder member. She's the band's guitarist and has been for its entire run but, soon after Perpetual Chaos, Helena Kotina joined as a second guitarist. Amaral was also the lead vocalist for year when the band was formed in 2010 and now she is again, as Diva Satánica left in 2022. The rest of the line-up shifted too, as bassist Mia Wallace has been replaced by Hel Pyre and Michaela Naydenova is the latest in a line seven drummers, Nanu Villalba showing up after Perpetual Chaos and gone already.

Given such continual flux—perpetual chaos, we might say—we might expect this to be transitional material as the new line-up, half of which wasn't even in place at the beginning of the year, figures out what they want to do and how they'll do it. Well, that's emphatically not the case. They kick in hard with Endless Ambition, sounding not unlike Kreator, and they demonstrate just what they can do with two guitarists in a couple of instrumental sections that I only wish were longer. The tempo shifts a lot with some neat escalations and that continues into Suffocare too.

Both these are excellent songs but Ungrateful ups the ante and absolutely blisters. It's fast out of the gate but it gets faster and then it gets playful. There's a lot here to enjoy, with buzzsaw guitar, frantic drumming and some neat tempo changes. It may well be the best track on the album, which is why it isn't too surprising that it slows down afterwards so Seed of Death can have an intro. The best Nervosa songs are the fast ones and Ungrateful has a real competitor in Kill or Die, which is a particularly vicious old school thrash song. And then Gary Holt shows up for When the Truth is a Lie to add extra depth to the guitar sound.

It's definitely the guitars that I followed most here. I love them when they're buzzing riffs through my skill. I love them when they get elegant, as they do on Seed of Death. I love them when they do something more unexpected, the solo on the title track sounding rather like what Brian Robertson was doing for Motörhead on the Another Perfect Day album. However, I also have to call out both Naydenova's drumming, which is appropriately varied but always top notch, whether she's raging on the fast songs or adding layers to slower ones, and the solid production. This album is far more in your face than its predecessor and the drums are perfectly placed in the mix.

Pyre does exactly what she needs to do on bass without ever stealing the spotlight, so that leaves Amaral's vocals, which are also more vicious than her predecessor's. Diva Satánica wasn't without death metal in her voice, but Amaral's is harsher but still enunciated. It never quite reaches death growl territory but it comes close at points, like on Gates to the Fall. Check out her introduction to Behind the Wall to see how vicious she gets, spitting out her lyrics with fury. It all works nicely with the vicious guitars for a real in your face sound. I like this new Nervosa.

Now, I've always liked Nervosa because they tend to play their thrash fast and furious, which is how I like it best. However, they don't stay in full gear throughout, mixing up the tempos to keep these songs interesting, and rarely dropping into chug sections. I'm starting to dread them on albums of late, because so many new thrash bands seem to be happy at a mid-pace, but there's a stellar chug on Sacrifice, aided by Amaral's rough vocals that keep it from feeling too soft. There's always some abrasion in her voice and that maintains an edge on these songs even on those rare occasions that they might lose it otherwise.

Given that there were a couple of guests on the previous album and I've already mentioned one in this review, I should add that there's a second guest on Superstition Failed in Lena Scissorhands, a Moldovan vocalist who sings metalcore/nu metal for Infected Rain and more traditional hard and heavy for American band Death Dealer Union. She brings a new angle to this album, without going too far beyond Nervosa's style. Holt, of course, plays into it perfectly, so Where the Truth is a Lie is just a Nervosa song with three guitars instead of two.

This is their fifth album and I'm already looking forward to their sixth. I just wonder who might be in the line-up at that point, in addition to Prika Amaral. Keeping this line-up would not be a bad thing.

Twin Temple - God is Dead (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Satanic Doo Wop
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 13 Oct 2023
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Here's a genre that I've never encountered before, but I don't see why it shouldn't be in scope for Apocalypse Later. Twin Temple hail from Los Angeles and play what their debut album's title called satanic doo wop. Yes, that's doo wop as in the vocal pop style from the forties and fifties that was inspired by barbershop quartets and made famous by bands like the Ink Spots. But it's Satanic and overtly so. Initially, we can't help but follow the lyrics and see this as a gimmick aiming to provoke a response, which, of course it is. However, this is Twin Temple's third album and they make this an enticing sound entirely apart from the gimmick, even if some moments lean towards the comedic, like the intro to Spellbreaker.

Part of that is because it's well written and well performed, by the duo of Alexandra and Zachary James, the former's delightfully sultry voice leading the way. Part of it, though, is in how the way in which they recorded it. For a start, they record in mono, because all their inspirations did, and it helps to age the sound. There's also a real dirtiness to it too that darkens even the perkiest parts, keeping the feel that this was originally released in 1950 but utterly buried until now. I believe the band records live, taking the best of a handful of takes of each song and that authenticity shines. It's also over quickly, wrapping up in under half an hour in a nod to history.

There are plenty of ties to rock music to call out, each of which helps explain why Twin Temple tour in support of bands like Ghost and Danzig. Opening track Burn Your Bible begins with a bell tolling in a storm, which always makes me expect Tony Iommi's guitar to follow up with an iconic riff, but, of course, it doesn't. Let's Have a Satanic Orgy isn't just doo wop, it's dark exotica, something that could easily have been recorded by Screaming Jay Hawkins, one of the true pioneers of metal. OK, Alexandra James doesn't attempt the hoots and hollers and animal noises that Hawkins peppered throughout his songs, but I heard them anyway. There's an actual guitar solo in Spellbreaker.

If the best aspect to this is how authentic the production sounds, all the way down to the dirty horn section and sleazy sax in Be a Slut, the next is how authentic the music sounds. Even if you dismiss this as nothing but a gimmick, you ought to acknowledge that these musicians aren't trampling on a genre, because they clearly know and appreciate it and have the musical talent to do this justice. "Why can’t you love Roy Orbison and hail Satan at the same time?" they ask and explore that over eight tracks that cover more ground than you might expect.

After that Sabbath style intro, Burn Your Bible sounds like a doo wop song and not a lot more, but it's very different to Let's Have a Satanic Orgy and both are very different to Black Magic, which is almost a Shirley Bassey song as it kicks off. Oddly, while seven of these tracks pop for me, meaning that the melodies and backdrop grab us as quickly as they need to in songs that rarely venture far beyond three minutes and don't always last past two and change, the one that doesn't is the title track that wraps up the album. It's the longest on offer here at four minutes and twenty and, even after a few listens, it always vanishes from my attention, sadly letting the album fade away.

I'm not sure what the audience for 21st century doo wop truly is, though I'd bet it's larger than we might expect, given how big the exotica and tiki scenes are. However, if Twin Temple didn't have a particular gimmick, I doubt they would have crossed my path and that of many other people. That they're damn good at what they do is what kept me and I look forward to seeing how long they can make this ride last before it becomes old and stale. Three albums in, it's still fresh and vibrant. God may or may not be dead but satanic doo wop is very much alive.

Wednesday 18 October 2023

On Thorns I Lay - On Thorns I Lay (2023)

Country: Greece
Style: Atmospheric Doom/Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 13 Oct 2023
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On Thorns I Lay have been around for a long while, even if you haven't heard the name before, but they're not the same band they've been. They were founded in Athens back in 1992, with their first album released three years later, and they've experienced a slew of line-up changes, as tends to be the case. However, until their ninth album, Threnos in 2020, the band remained centered around a pair of founder members, lead vocalist Stefanos Kintzoglou, who also contributed bass until 2017, and guitarist Christos Dragamestianos.

That changed in 2021 when Kintzoglou left to reform the band that became On Thorns I Lay with a few former members. That's Phlebotomy, not to be mistaken with Phlebotomized, the Dutch death metal band. Maybe that's why this album is self-titled. Presumably Dragamestianos sees it as the fresh start the band needs, especially given that the rest of the line-up is very new. Vocalist Peter Miliadis, guitarist Nikolas Paraskevopoulos and bassist Kostas Mexis are each making their studio debuts for On Thorns I Lay here.

If you've followed On Thorns I Lay through those decades, you might be wondering what style they have adopted this week. They started out as brutal death metal, shifted to symphonic doom/death and then gothic metal, before eventually moving back to the doom/death style evident here. The new aspect is folk instrumentation, which I believe shows up here for the first time. There are lots of ethnic instruments on display here and the opener, Fallen from Grace, kicks off with ethnic voice and strings. However, it's still doom/death rather than folk metal, merely with new textures.

I'm a folk metal fan, so I'd be happy with more of the ethnic instrumentation, but it works well as a contrast, replacing the beauty and the beast vocal contrast from some earlier albums. This aspect isn't overused, but it is integral. One of my favourite sections in the album arrives late in Thorns of Fire when the heavy doom/death is accompanied by what I presume is some sort of zither. Many of the songs feature this contrast in some form, especially Crestfallen, both at the beginning and in the midsection, and Among the Wolves, both of which are favourites of mine.

The band's core sound nowadays is an elegant form of atmospheric doom metal, which is slow and crushingly heavy but full of melody, especially through the guitars. It's a rich and immersive sound that, at its best, feels apart from everything as if it's torn a hole in the space/time continuum and dragged us through to somewhere and somewhen entirely new. The death aspect comes mostly in a warm but harsh growled vocal from Miliadis, who I presume is versatile given that he also sings for a crossover thrash band, Double Square, and used to sing for a metalcore band, SlavEATgod.

The instrument that stood out the most for me was the guitar. I don't know how much of that is the work of Dragamestianos and how much his new compatriot, Paraskevopoulos, but the combination worked for me, whether they were soloing, providing melodic lines in a Paradise Lost style or even dropping into an acoustic or ethnic mode, using whatever other stringed instruments were sitting around. I've read that there were many of them, as many as fifteen different instruments, though I have no idea what or where.

The other aspect that deserves mention is that these aren't generally short songs but they're not epics either. Fallen from Grace opens up at just over eight minutes and Crestfallen exceeds it by a single second. The final three songs run seven minutes and varying degrees of change, with only a single track left to serve as the anomaly. That's Newborn Skies, which fails to reach five minutes, a strange and ironic fact given that it's the song with the most symphonic backdrop. We might think that that would be the epic but it isn't here and it's a fair length. The rest of the songs breathe nicely.

I'm new to On Thorns I Lay, as far as I'm aware, and I have to remind myself that this is a new start for them, but I'm interested in what they sounded like previously. The gothic tinges have been far more pivotal to their sound in the past, from what I read, and I've been a particular fan of beauty and the beast vocals since they were invented. Maybe I'll dip into their earlier work once I get back on track with reviews after the events of the past few months. In the meantime, I'm happy with the old school doom/death sound they have here, with heavier death growls and a teasing element of folk added for good measure. I like.

White Canyon & The 5th Dimension - Gardeners of the Earth (2023)

Country: Brazil
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 4 Aug 2023
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I hear a lot of intros on albums nowadays and very few of them have any reason to be there. There are some that serve to grab our attention and some that tease us into what's to come, but it's not particularly often that I hear an intro truly nail both those things but Caminho das Pedras is a fair example of an intro that does both. It sets the mood with a hypnotic swirling sitar that takes us all the way back to the late sixties but adds contemporary touches too, before rolling on into the first track proper, which is the title track. We know what we're getting into, we're placed into the right mood to receive it and we flow on into the rest of the album. It's a great start.

Gardeners of the Earth lives up to the intro too. There's that prominent old school Pink Floyd bass that I remember so well from White Canyon's prior album, Spectral Illusion, and it continues that hypnotic groove. Quite frankly, the more hypnotic this band gets, the better they sound to me. My favourite track here may be Black Holes, which is stripped down to its essence, almost like a garage rock song played at half speed. The guitar is prominent and then the voices, but I end up falling for the drums every time. It's so hypnotic that we could believe the band performed it in a trance. Its closest competitor is Harsh Down, which has been playing in my head when I wake up, and Chapter V - Mental Universe isn't far behind that one.

I mentioned voices plural and should explain that there are two vocalists here, whose names are a mystery to me, but one is male and the other female and both get the opportunity to lead songs. I remember a gothic vibe from the prior album that's here too but to a lesser degree. It's there on the title track for sure, with the male voice taking the lead and the female voice bolstering it like an echo, and it's there in Ancient Secrets of Green Leaf, with the roles reversed. As they move into Howling Pines, though, with the female voice leading the way, and Fireflies Dance, which returns to both singing together, the vibe is firmly folky rather than gothic. Others drift between the two.

Now, whether they're folky or gothic, they're always psychedelic rock with an occasional dip into a more poppy sound. Fireflies Dance maintains the American hippie psychedelia that pervades the album, but it starts out like the Beatles at their most psychedelic and never truly loses that. I love the organ in Howling Pines too, which has that perky sound that tends to belong to the earlier pop songs recorded by bands that evolved into rock music in the seventies. There's more of that within Ancient Secrets of Green Leaf, along with more hypnotic drumming, and this one feels like it could be a fascinating reinterpretation of a Nick Cave song.

In other words, there's a lot here and the songs are neatly immersive. It was clearly going to be an album to recommend from the very beginning but it gets better as it runs on. Those favourites of mine start at the end of side one and roll through side two, all the way to InnerOutside, a fantastic closer that reminds of John Kongos writing and singing for Hawkwind. Then again, I expected a lot from this band because they got a rare 9/10 from me last time out for Spectral Illusion, back in May 2021, even though they lost out for my Album of the Month to a killer Flotsam and Jetsam release.

The challenge for them was always going to be to reach and maybe even exceed the standard that Spectral Illusion set. I wasn't initially sure that it matched it, as the album wasn't as immediate for me, but it was clearly excellent and it grew and continued to grow. It reached the point where it's perhaps only falling behind it because it's not my introduction to the band. Had I heard this first, I might have been blown away just as much as I was when I heard Spectral Illusion. As it is, I'm loving it almost as much. Now I just need to stop listening to it so I can move onto another review. That is not going to be easy.

Tuesday 17 October 2023

Steven Wilson - The Harmony Codex (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 29 Sep 2023
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I enjoyed Steven Wilson's previous album, The Future Bites, a great deal, but I surely like this more because it feels proggier and spends longer instrumental. As with that release, it's built on an odd combination of influences, namely Pink Floyd and Donna Summer, with the former most evident in the instrumental sections and the latter in vocal parts. However, it's not that simple, as there are other voices here too that do very different things. Ninet Tayab sings on Rock Bottom and Wilson's wife Rotem provides spoken word on the title track, each of them giving this album another angle. However, it only takes a couple of listens for everything to coalesce into a single vision.

I wasn't entirely sold early on. Inclination begins with a long instrumental intro that vanishes into the haze, to be followed by a vocal song that doesn't seem to tie to it to all. What Life Brings is also vocal and it's dreamier, as is Economies of Scale, if we isolate the voices and keyboards from a beat that's glitchy and fascinating. They're not bad songs, but Wilson paints in sounds and those sounds build moods that remind of colours and they're three very different pieces.

Where Wilson truly grabbed me here was Impossible Tightrope, which is the first epic of the album and the longest song on offer at almost eleven minutes. For a few minutes it reminds very much of Shine On You Crazy Diamond, but building quicker and into something more frantic. Everything's a highlight here, the overlapping layers of keyboards reminiscent of mountains behind mountains, but I have to call out the saxophone of Theo Travis. These few minutes are easily my favourite part of the album.

The rest of the song's pretty good too but, a dreamy interlude later, it moves into a territory that's part space rock and part jazz fusion. It's vibrant and perky and reminds of something I might hear from King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, not just instrumentally but because there are vocals but no lyrics, just voices as instruments. It's all highly immersive stuff and it doesn't remotely outstay its welcome. I could happily listen to an hour long improvisation on this track.

Much of the reason for that is that, as loose as a piece gets, and Impossible Tightrope feels like it's just a magical nexus of a host of instruments that was spun out of the air, Wilson is a very carefully minded composer. There's a huge amount of energy given to finding precisely the right sounds for every moment on this album. Perhaps the best example of that is Beautiful Scarecrow, which has a glorious and effortless groove to it, but one that grows in complexity the more we examine it, just like a Mandelbrot set.

That rhythm is a highly complex one with a very particular sound; I'm assuming those are electric beats created by Jack Dangers. Behind it, something is soloing, maybe Wilson on guitars or synths or Nick Beggs on Chapman Stick, but I see Theo Travis credited on duduk on this one. Now, is that a Balkan duduk or an Armenian duduk? Reviewing albums does take me down some odd rabbit holes. Whatever it is, it's a delightfully odd sound amidst a whole bunch of other delightfully odd sounds that were clearly placed exactly where they are because of an overarching vision.

This is a highly generous album, running over an hour in its shortest version, with quite the journey for an open-minded listener. It's pop and it's rock and it's electronic. It's catchy and commercial but it's expansive and progressive. It's smooth but it's glitchy. It's crafted but it's improvisational and loose. It's designed for Wilson's voice, both regular and falsetto, but the overall feeling is that his voice and the others he adds are just other instruments. It's a lot of things and the more you let it wash over you, the more you'll catch moments you'll want to explore. Our distance from the music as the title track begins is a clear invitation to come on in and make ourselves at home.

And if you fall into it that deeply, there are other versions available. There's a three album version that includes the regular ten tracks on one disc; a second disc containing remixes of most of them, along with a set of Codex Themes; and a third disc that repeats a couple of those but adds six parts of an audio play. I haven't delved into those other discs yet but it's The Harmony Codex that gets a seventeen minute long take rather than Impossible Tightrope. Whichever version you go for, you'll get plenty of Wilson's solo genius, which I'm appreciating far more than the most recent album by Porcupine Tree.

Kaunis Kuolematon - Mielenvalta (2023)

Country: Finland
Style: Melodic Doom/Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 13 Oct 2023
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Here's another excellent new melodic doom/death metal album, but it's plenty different from the Wizards of Wiznan album that impressed me so much last week. Kaunis Kuolematon are Finns and they've been around for a decade and change, with this their fourth album. They play their doom/death with a heavy side of black metal, as is perhaps most evident as they start out, with Surussa uinuva. It's sweet and melodic, a sort of subdued epic, until a raucous black metal shriek bursts in and we're suddenly in something very different. It's definitely still melodic but it's heavy, fast and blistering too, more so than I'd expect from doom/death.

Now, this does slow down to find a more traditional doom/death speed, just as Elävältä haudattu does that the other way around, but these tracks enjoy shifting their intensity levels substantially, most playing out in what feel like movements, even though none are identified and only the closer unfolds at epic length, lasting almost nine minutes. Everything else ranges from just under five to just over six and a half, which is a consistent window and not a particularly epic one.

Elävältä haudattu is easily my favourite song here and it has a whole swathe of movements. It's a heavy doom song as it begins, with slow and patient drumming, but that grows into a section with a delicate melody unfolding in front of a building black metal wall of sound. The singer here is Olli Suvanto, the band's lead vocalist, who I presume delivers both the harsh vocals, halfway between a rich death growl and the wicked black metal shriek that ramped up Surussa Uinuva. Then it drops away for a long section with Mikko Heikkilä, the band's rhythm guitarist, at the mike, singing clean with a resonant voice. When it ramps up again, it's very heavy, but it finds another clean moment and ends with a cool harmonisation of voices.

It's a peach of a song and it does a lot. Elävältä haudattu translates to Buried Alive, so maybe this frequent change of movements represents actions in a story. I could see a battle as someone tries not to be buried alive, then to escape, only to fail and experience peace for a while in surrender, a feeling that doesn't last, leading to the heavy and frantic sections later in the song. I don't speak Finnish so maybe I'm projecting considerably here but the musical variation does imply a story and that seems to make sense.

Frankly, the contrasts are what make this special, not just in general but in specific moments. That initial black metal shriek in Surussa uinuva felt like a plane crashing into a hitherto flawless lake. There's a shift from melodic piano to harsh vehemence in Peilikuva that's especially delightful too. This band can shift entirely on a dime and they seem to enjoy the experience. However, it wouldn't be as effective if they couldn't sell both their core styles, the black metal infused doom/death and the peaceful slow and melodic diversions with clean vocals. They absolutely sell both and at points, like in Peilikuva, overlap the two with wonderful effect.

That's three songs and there are half a dozen more to come, starting with the title track, which is Mind Power in translation. However, there's not much more to say once we get past these. This one kicks off with what sounds like an ethnic horn but could be a voice, I suppose. It literally commands our attention and suggests a shift into folk metal that never comes, even with an excellent female voice in the midsection that utterly surprised me. The rumbling behind it and effective developing melody are exquisite atmosphere and then we slam back in hard, as we ought to expect by now.

The rest of the album continues in much the same vein, setting up new contrasts and creating new moments, but it doesn't add anything new. It also doesn't disappoint, though it rarely matches the early sparks of brilliance, and it doesn't get old. In other words, I may not like this as much as I did the Wizards of Wiznan album, but I've happily played it on repeat half a dozen times now and I still find new elements to enjoy even this many times through. It's immersive stuff and it's hard to pull myself away from it so I can focus on another album to review.

The best news is that Kaunis Kuolematon means Beautiful Immortal, which bodes well, and I'm not seeing a line-up change. This was created by the same five people as their self-titled debut EP back in 2012. That sort of thing always suggests a solid compatibility behind band members that allows them to grow their sound without growing apart. Now, I have three earlier albums to seek out and I look forward to the next one.

Monday 16 October 2023

Dogstar - Somewhere Between the Power Lines and Palm Trees (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Alternative Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 6 Oct 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Somehow I've never heard Dogstar before. I know the name because I'm a film guy and I'm set for a runthrough of Keanu Reeves's First Thirty films for a forthcoming zine. Of course, I knew that he also moonlights as the bass player in Dogstar. It's merely that I haven't actually heard their music before, even though this is their third album, arriving a heck of a long time after its predecessors, which came out in 1996 and 2000. What I found out immediately in opener Blonde is that they play a very pleasant form of alternative rock, so pleasant that I wondered about where the boundary between rock and alt rock truly is. What side of that arbitrary line are they on?

Now, I don't really care, beyond wanting to slap a vaguely appropriate label into the detail section at the top of my review and to get a grip on where they're coming from. I guess they're alternative enough to count, but only just. Bret Domrose's guitar is just a little bit jangly and his vocal is just a little bit edgy, but only so far as to compare to U2 and Tom Petty and I mean Jeff Lynne produced Tom Petty rather than rockier early stuff. They don't even reach Pearl Jam degrees of alternative early on, let alone the Melvins or the Swans.

The first song that really felt alternative was Overhang, starting with Reeves's bass intro that's an excellent imitation of Peter Hook's. However, while there's definitely plenty of Joy Division in this song, right down to the guitar feedback, it's perkier in the chorus than anything Ian Curtis sang. It still plays unusually dark for this album, though, which is as optimistically cheerful as Reeves tends to be in interviews. The only other edgy moments arrive late in Breach, the closer, which plays with a grungier feel throughout and an unusually harsh backdrop behind certain sections.

Unfortunately, those two songs aswide, the adjectives that come to mind all sound like left handed compliments. This music is nice music, pleasant music, inoffensive music. Yeah, sounds awful, right? Well, the most important thing here is that it isn't. Sure, it's not remotely challenging music but it sounds good and it feels like it has substance and meaning behind it. It's not surface music, even if it's nice, pleasant and inoffensive. It's also well worth repeat listens, which nice music tends not to be because we forget it as soon as it ends. This stays, whether it's due to the melodies, the grooves or the hooks.

And, again unlike most nice music, those do vary across tracks, which find identities of their own to distinguish them. There's a harmonica on Dillon Street that works especially well when Domrose's guitar starts to wail behind it. There's a neat middle eastern flavour to the midsection on Lust, the result I think of a synthesised sitar rather than a real one, but effective nonetheless. Sleep is most overt in its plumbing of early U2 for its vibe. It could be a cover, even though it isn't.

The other song that seems like it ought to be a cover is Lily, because it plays like a pop song in rock clothing. I even found myself thinking about who might have sung the original with its completely different filter and it's broad enough that two of the names I came up with are Leonard Cohen and Cyndi Lauper, maybe the former handling the verses and handing over to the latter for choruses. I can't fail to mention Tom Petty there too, but Domrose channels him on much of the album, which he clearly doesn't Cohen and Lauper. Again, it's an original song.

The result is that I suddenly feel the urge to check out those earlier Dogstar albums, which I never had a yen to do before, even as a fan of Keanu Reeves's films. It wasn't that I don't buy into actors also being musicians, because so many pop musicians whose music I can't stand have become oddly impressive actors. It wasn't that I thought they were some real world attempt to create Bill & Ted's music. I just assumed they played alternative rock in an American style and it wasn't likely to be for me. Now I know that they play alternative rock in an American style but I enjoy it greatly. Even if it counts as nice, pleasant and inoffensive.

Erode of Sadness - Enlivened (2023)

Country: Russia
Style: Symphonic Gothic Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 13 Oct 2023
Sites: Metal Archives | VK

OK, there's a lot here, especially early on, so I had to start afresh to make sure I was working from the right page. Vampire Coven is a forty-nine second intro that obviously plants the album's feet in gothic territory. The first track proper, The Dark Times, backs that up but initially does so using an entirely orchestral approach. The band eventually join in to add metal crunch but the vocals we hear are truly operatic in a way I haven't heard since Nova Malà Strana back in the nineties. They come courtesy of Vladislava Solovyova who doesn't just deliver a clean soprano like so many other female vocalists in symphonic metal bands; she actually sings opera.

This opener is a clear highlight, Solovyova's operatic delivery being wonderfully contrasted by the clean but dark vocals of Sinner Apollo. The worst thing about the song is that it ends and relatively quickly, under three and a half minutes into something I hoped would be an epic. What's important is that Apollo is the actual vocalist in Erode of Sadness and Solovyova is merely a welcome guest, a side opportunity to her own band, a symphonic metal band called Rabies that I'm especially eager to seek out to see how she sounds there. It's an odd choice, to bring in a guest lead vocalist on the first proper track on a debut album, because it gives the wrong impression, but it's a great song.

There's another guest vocalist, also female, but she doesn't show up until Supernova Remnant, so there are three tracks for Apollo to enforce his presence as the actual lead singer.

He sounds excellent and underlines that the core sound of this band is gothic not symphonic, even though orchestration continues to play a major part in the sound, especially the violins which start out Blood and Grace and are pivotal in Lie to Me. The other important note to make is that Apollo shifts to a harsh voice at points, unless there's another member of the band who steps up at those points to add further contrast. Certainly there's a section in Lie to Me where both clean and harsh voices sing together, an easy enough effect to achieve in post-production but not so easily in a live environment.

That other guest is Evgenia Frantseva, the singer for doom/death metal band Odium Throne, who sings clean here with an almost hoarse emphasis, while Apollo varies between clean voice, harsh voice and an electronically manipulated effect. I love these variations from the band's core sound, though, of course, they're most obvious on the two songs with guests, however often the choir has opportunity to vary the tone. There are thirteen tracks on this album, along with a bonus track and two intros, so Apollo gets eleven plus one and guests get two. It may not help that, as excellent as he is, I'm still thinking of this band as best with both male and female vocals.

But I need to review the album I'm listening to not the album that I'm imagining given one track on it. Apollo's voice is deep and rich, very much in the Andrew Eldritch tradition but with melody more like Finnish gothic rock bands like HIM and 69 Eyes. These songs certainly bear that influence but a heavier one too, from bands a little further afield like Lacrimas Profundere. There's an occasional shift into much heavier territory too, like on Blood from the Cross, which increases the tempo and prompts plenty of grit in Apollo's voice even when he's not singing harsh. If Erode of Sadness often drop into gothic rock on some other songs, this is the most gothic metal they get.

Given that this is a debut album, I wonder where they'll move stylistically. It feels like the majority of songs are gothic rock with rich male vocals, orchestration and hints at harshness, so maybe that will be the whole of their next album. Maybe, though, it's where they started and they grew into a more metallic sound that verges on extreme metal in those harsh vocals and the urgency of Blood from the Cross. Maybe The Dark Times has always been an anomaly, with Solovyova invited not for a general expansion of sound but just because she was there and could add something to it.

Who knows? I certainly don't, but I'll be keeping an eye open for that second album to find out.

Friday 13 October 2023

Roger Waters - The Dark Side of the Moon Redux (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 6 Oct 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Fifty years ago, few fans of music would disagree that Pink Floyd released one of the pivotal rock albums ever made in The Dark Side of the Moon. It isn't my favourite by them, but it's a gem and it stands up half a century on. Roger Waters was in Floyd back then. In fact, he wrote the lyrics to all these songs, so it seems a little surprising that he would feel the burning need to remember it on its anniversary by re-recording it. Then again, some of my favourite versions of Floyd classics have come through the reimaginings he's given them live, such as Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.

What all that means is that that I came into this with open ears, even though everything I've read about it from those who heard it before me has been negative. It's more different than I expected, almost shockingly laid back; much darker in its reflections on life; and missing not just guitar solos but all of Alan Parsons's groundbreaking samples. It's not so much a solo reimagining of an album as it is a reimagining of Waters's part in it, as lyricist and vocalist, but with everything else cut out. Much of the negativity may tie to that approach, which does seem fishy to me, but there's plenty to praise too.

I wasn't sold early, wondering just what Waters was trying to do with Speak to Me and feeling that he just knocked out Breathe on a first take and approved it without listening back. It's talky and it doesn't seem to say much, more spoken word poetry with subtle accompaniment than an album of rock music. I gradually found myself tapping into his wavelength, though, and got on board. It was Time that did it, because he nails the intonation on this one and the dreamy feel of this version of the song gets under the skin, with its sparse strings and other instrumentation notably below the beat and voice. It lost me a little towards the end when the strings found more prominence, but it was strong for a while, especially during the theremin solo.

Money has its moments too, with the opening word delivered with absolute relish. Again, Waters's intonation is pristine and the words have more meaning here than in the original. However, this is an approach that drags, so the song feels longer than it ever has in this version. Us and Them does little for me vocally, but the guitarwork in the middle from Jonathan Wilson is delightful, as subtle as it is. It can't really be called a guitar solo, but it evokes atmosphere with precious few notes. All the instrumentation follows suit, but if Dave Gilmour is famous for playing one note where others would play a dozen, this seems to deliberately aim at one for each dozen of Gilmour's.

I rather like Brain Damage, though it's as close to a traditional cover as any of these songs get, as driven as it is by the vocals. The backing is subdued, of course, but that ticking cymbal is the same and the subtle theremin and distant organ work very nicely. I'm not as fond of the strings again, a sole instrumental element to disappoint me. Everything else works, as minimal as it is. Eclipse is stronger again, because there's an echo to his deep vocal that's a higher and far more produced voice, presumably Azniv Korkejian's, and the dual voices are highly effective.

So some of this is definitely strong, but it's far from the norm. I can't say that The Great Gig in the Sky is better here, Claire Torry's iconic vocal workout replaced by a wistful reminiscence of a dead friend told in abstract snippets of memory. It works once, because we surely want to know what he has to say, but it gets old quickly on repeat listens. Speak to Me and Any Colour You Like are there and there's not much more to be said. On the Run is missing all its vibrancy and iconic electronica and it's not remotely better for it.

And that leaves this as a curiosity. It's not a bad album. Some of these songs would be praised if we thought they were new. There's some gorgeous production in place to generate the tones behind a few of these songs, like Time and Money, even if the drums remain too prominent. Waters himself improves on his original delivery on a few of these songs, most obviously Money. However, nobody in a parallel universe where The Dark Side of the Moon didn't exist until this version would call out how revolutionary and iconic it is. It's no replacement. Maybe it's a complement. Maybe partially.

Wizards of Wiznan - No Light Has No Shadow (2023)

Country: Switzerland
Style: Melodic Doom/Death Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 29 Sep 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives

I wanted to review something doomladen this week but the first few albums I tried out belted right out of the gate or lost me with sub-standard vocals. Four or five in, I found this one, the debut of a doom/death band from the small Swiss town of Nendaz, and it firmly hit the sweet spot for me. It's funeral doom as it opens, taking its sweet time to move but doing so steadily and atmospherically, but it spends much of its time a little faster at the pace you might expect for doom/death, ramping at points, especially late in the album, but never really becoming fast.

Frankly, I was firmly on board by the time that the vocals arrive. There are two voices here, both of them harsh but one easily warmer than the other. I'm not sure which of them is which, but it looks like one belongs to guitarist Marc Dalton and the other to bassist Robin Délèze. If I'm not missing the mark, they're there in that long intro to Seeds of Light adding texture as musical instruments rather than vocals. They certainly do that even when they're singing because texture is a huge deal here, and it's why this album often brought an obscure pioneer to mind as an inspiration.

That's Winds of Sirius, who came from Bourg-en-Bresse on just the other side of the French border from Switzerland, so further away in time than distance, their sole release being back in 1999. It's an album I go back to relatively often, because nobody does texture like them, but it's always good to hear that approach in newer bands, most often ones playing melodic doom/death. They aren't a be all and end all influence though, because I hear Celtic Frost here too and My Dying Bride, along with broader dips into funeral doom and stoner rock, maybe even a hint of Cradle of Filth.

Seeds of Light is a strong opener, patient enough to last just shy of nine minutes, which isn't wildly unusual for this band. There's only one "short" song here, La sorcière du Vegenand, which wraps in under five minutes, the other four stretching from almost eight to over nine. This seems natural to them, because all these songs wander and evolve, dropping often into slow and aching melody and eventually bouncing back up to a firm vehemence. There's a wonderful tease at a fast section late in Absolute Void that's all the better for following a long melancholy midsection.

Absolute Void may well be my favourite song here, but Feed the Fire is close and nothing's far from it, because the quality and imagination are consistently high. Absolute Void starts with emphasis, slow but heavy and bludgeoning, enough so that it moves into textured sludge metal, before that drop into a gorgeous midsection. Even as it grows out of that, it maintains a hypnotic rhythm that suddenly clears, as if the fog has moved aside, and we're in that teasing thrash section and then a set of stoner rock riffs, before it wraps up. It has quite the growth and every moment is blissful.

It would have been hard to match that one, but the Wizards give it their best. Feed the Fire trawls in stoner rock from the outset and stays there for a while, but eventually deepens to doom, adding some more sludge later too. La sorcière du Vegenand ups the tempo, starting out faster than any other song here gets, that one brief moment in Absolute Void aside. It's hardly fast though, just a steady step up from everything else here, especially early on. Reign, the longest song on offer, has its energy too to close out, and it doesn't outstay its welcome in the slightest.

While it's not hard for me to pick a favourite track here, it's harder to pick a favourite aspect. None of the four musicians does anything but build a coherent band sound. Nobody's trying to steal the spotlight or show off what they can do. I like the steady but solid drumming of Ludovic Bornet and how the other instruments often join it in providing rhythm, even the guitars. I like Délèze's bass, which gets one solo moment to shine, and I like his and Dalton's vocals, which walk that fine line of being both harsh and melodic. So few harsh vocalists nail intonation. These guys have it down.

At the end of the day, though, which is when doom/death has most power, it's the guitars that I'd call out for highest praise, because they nail every tone they aim for. They work perfectly in heavy riffing, keeping the weight of this music around us like a cave, and they work even better when in a sort of chime emulation mode, echoing through that cave. So kudos to Dalton and Adrien Bornet, but really kudos to everyone involved here for creating such a glorious texture. I don't know where Wiznan is but I can buy into these guys being wizards and I look forward to whatever they'll conjure up next.

Thursday 12 October 2023

Night in Gales - The Black Stream (2023)

Country: Germany
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 29 Sep 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

I'm not going to be flippant and post a skimpy one paragraph review saying that this eighth album from German melodic death metallers Night in Gales is melodic and deathly, but that is kind of what it boils down to. Throw it on and it's unmistakably melodic death metal. After it ends, eleven songs and three quarters of an hour later, there really isn't much more to say. It's kind of a melodic death equivalent to *insert random Cannibal Corpse album here* in the brutal version of the genre. This is textbook stuff, but it's nothing more than textbook stuff.

So, don't expect anything new to be found here at all, the only variance to the band's core sound a surprisingly long intro to The Black Stream, but, boy, is this elegant stuff. It's a pristine example of a sound that's hard hitting and heavy but also quintessentially melodic, down to its very essence. I couldn't escape the melody for a single second, the guitars running up and down melodies, always moving, but it never gets soft except for that peaceful single intro.

The very opening of the album, as Tears of Blood kicks off, is the precise opposite, a harsh, abrasive noise that reminds of a Merzbow album, but it's gone in ten seconds and, once it gets past that, it continues to be elegant melodic metal throughout with the harsh edge of fast drums and growled death metal vocals to perpetuate the contrast. So, from one perspective, this is a genre perfected with every moment doing exactly what it needs to do. If any of these songs popped up on the radio, I'd enjoy and think to myself that it was exactly why I like melodic death metal.

However, from another, it boasts very little imagination. Once through one song and into another, enjoying everything but forgetting it almost immediately, I thought that this would drift into the background. I was surprised to find that it didn't, but it's the same songs that stand out each time through.

Transition to Doom has a little more perkiness to it and the second half finds a neat groove. Much of the joy is in the guitarwork from Frank and Jens Basten and their stellar delivery continues into Final Place and Laughter of Madness, which may be my favourite song here. The best guitarwork is later though, in the solos on Return to Chaos, which absolutely shine. The other reason that I love Laughter of Madness is that it's also elevated by the vocals of Christian Müller, which hits the spot majestically, aided I think by echoing backing vocals. He's solid but relatively generic otherwise.

Then there's everything else.

The problem is that I'm starting to stretch to say anything, whether positive or negative. I brought up Cannibal Corpse as a comparison, because I enjoy them too but find it very difficult to tell each of the songs on their albums apart. They cease to be collections of songs and become long slabs of a particular genre instead. If we enjoy the genre, whether it's the brutal death of Cannibal Corpse or the melodic death of Night in Gales, we're going to enjoy their albums. We'll sit back or dive in and love the immersion. If we want something different, we're never going to find it with either of these bands and we'd probably be better off skipping past them and looking elsewhere.

So, if you love pure melodic death, add a point to the rating. If you want originality, then drop one instead.

Murasaki - Timeless (2023)

Country: Japan
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 16 Aug 2023
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website

Timeless is a highly appropriate name for this album, because it sounds good in 2023 but hearkens very clearly back to the early seventies, the primary inspirations obviously being British hard rock bands with the heavy organ sound, most obviously Deep Purple. In fact, their very name translates as "purple" and it was adopted by the band's founder George Higa to become George Murasaki. It should be mentioned that Purple and Murasaki are contemporaries, because this band was formed in 1970, pioneering rock music in Japan in the process. The reason they're not better known today outside their home nation is that they didn't release an album until 1976 and they only managed two before splitting up in 1978.

Well, four members of the band that released those two albums got back together in 2007, with a pair of new colleagues, JJ on lead vocals and Chris on bass, and this is their third album since then, following 2010's Purplessence and 2016's Quasar. Both have history with the Murasaki family, JJ the lead singer of George Murasaki & Mariner at the tail end of the seventies, and Chris also the bass player in another Japanese rock band, 8-Ball, which is led by two of Murasaki's sons, Leon and Ray, who both played for Murasaki during a brief earlier return in 2000.

I believe they've kept on with their old sound but added a slightly more metallic edge, as we might expect from a band that boasts two guitarists. And yes, I do mean "slightly" there, because there's a massive range from Younger Days to Don't Look Back! and only some of it would feel at home on a metal album. This is primarily hard rock and, wherever it goes musically, it never drifts far from that core Deep Purple inspired sound, which is led by Murasaki himself on keyboards with a swathe of glorious riffs and runs.

Younger Days features a tasty guitar solo, but it's primarily a piano-driven ballad laden down with plenty of orchestration. It's easily my least favourite song here, though I rather like Tears of Joy, a shorter song that does much the same thing but without the orchestration. I prefer the heavy end and that shouldn't surprise anyone, but Don't Look Back! is a strong song for other reasons too. It starts out symphonic, almost like an ELO song, then launches into prog metal with a strong guitar against a wonderfully prowling bass backdrop. It has a real doomy weight to it, sitting somewhere between Black Sabbath and Witchfynde, which isn't what I expected to say a few songs earlier.

I believe the prog aspect is relatively new too, though I've only dipped into their seventies albums. It was always there, I guess, but not as a focus. Now it often is, starting with Free Your Soul and Let It Be, which picks up from a weaker The Fire is Burnin' with a wonderful organ intro and some neat prog exploration. It's also a playful song, following a straight song and a belter, as Raise Your Voice opens up with power, barrelling along in the midsection like Space Truckin'. The Fire is Burnin' does little for me, but the bookends around it are both highlights of the album.

While Deep Purple are very much the obvious comparison, they're not the only one. There's some Uriah Heep dotted throughout but that influence really comes out to play on the second of a pair of bonus tracks. They're Starship Rock 'n' Rollers and Double Dealing Woman, both re-recordings with the current line-up of earlier material. It's Double Dealing Woman that's clearly inspired by Heep as much as Purple, and it features guest appearances by Kyoji Yamamoto of Bow Wow and a Japanese guitar hero who goes by Char.

Perhaps it's the British influences from the seventies that prompt them to sing in English, but that has always been their approach from the very beginning. Then again, their current singer doesn't appear to be Japanese even though he technically is, having been born in Japan. JJ stands for John Joseph and his surname is Patterson, perhaps explaining why there's no accent in his singing, even though his predecessor in the seventies, Masao Shiroma, certainly had one, as fluent as he seems to have been in English.

I liked this album a lot and found it hard to move on to another one. Perhaps most notably, it never feels long, even though the the two bonus tracks bump up the running time almost to an hour. This skips along effortlessly and feels a lot shorter than it is, possibly because it's broken up well with a pair of ballads and a more metallic song. Their regular sound therefore breaks down into a shorter set of chunks and it's all very accessible.

Wednesday 11 October 2023

Prong - State of Emergency (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Groove/Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 6 Oct 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Well, here's an interesting release. I found Prong early, when they played a raw form of crossover, that was often straightforward punk as it was thrash metal, but they had changed considerably by the time I could introduce my son to their music. He's a fan, but not of everything they've done, as there's such a variety there. I don't believe I've heard their previous album, Zero Days, from 2017, but it seems to have trawled in elements from across their career. This does likewise, though it has a real vicious streak as it kicks off that sadly fades away relatively quickly.

The vicious track is The Descent and it initially reminds heavily of Slayer in old school thrash mode, but finds more of a groove metal vibe as it grows. Moving from Slayer into Pantera ought to make a lot of fans happy but they're not done with just those influences. There's some of that old school hardcore here too and the following title track gets bouncy with industrial flavour that only builds with the song. Main man Tommy Victor, who still handles both vocals and guitars, almost becomes an MC on this one.

He does more of that as the album runs on, generally becoming less thrash and more groove with the industrial texture never far away. That holds mostly true, though Back (NYC) ten tracks in is an aggressive hardcore song that goes against the flow in a welcome fashion. Oh, and there's also a song called Disconnected that might just be there to mess with us, given that feels like a post-punk pop song by someone else that's given much heavier treatment here, as if it used to be a Depeche Mode song and Prong wanted to kick it into high gear.

As far as I can tell, Disconnected isn't a cover, but there is one of those here to wrap up the album and it's just as unexpected, because it's Rush's Working Man. It's a really good cover, feeling close to the original but run through a notably heavy filter for a sort of Sabbath does Rush approach. It's especially strong in its instrumental midsection, which, for all the aggression of The Descent and Back (NYC), is the most joyous part of this album for me.

The other element here that I should call out is what feels almost like a party atmosphere, albeit here and there rather than continual. One minute, they're partying on a song like Non-Existence, like Victor wants to jam with Anthrax on a metal take on a pop punk song; the next they're acutely serious, playing up a politically aware angle that's purer hardcore on a song like Who Told Me. The style shifts but crucially so does the attitude. On the livelier songs, they're chill and enjoying life. On the serious ones, they're back to being pissed at whatever the song is about. It can seem a bit odd that they can be so comfortable being both at once.

It feels to me like the more serious songs are going to be more popular with Prong's punk fans and likely their industrial fans too, as they're all about drive and message, though they're still pretty accessible to a thrash audience. However, those thrash fans may well prefer the livelier songs that play more with riffs and melodies. Let's see if those different fanbases receive it differently or if, by this point, Prong fans are just on board with all these musical elements because they've stayed with the band as they've travelled through all of them.

Certainly, as a thrash fan, I'm less impressed with songs like Obeisance, which work as bludgeoning rhythm, and more enthused with the blistering speed shown in the first half of The Descent or the musicality in the middle of Working Man. Then again, sometimes songs do shift focus, Compliant a prime example, and that can affect our reception greatly. Initially, it's very much shouty hardcore, a hard message over jagged punctuating rhythms that I'm not particularly fond of, but it gradually turns into a metal song with real flow that I can't fail to see as an album highlight every time.

And so this is a mixed bag for me. It's all done well, but I wanted more of how it started and how it ended up without as much of what came in between. It doesn't get old though, as fresh on a third time through as a first, so it's definitely strong material. If you can enjoy the shifts in genre, this is going to be a welcome new album from Prong, especially as it's their first in six years. Now, I need to find out how my son will receive it.

Compassionizer - A Tribute to George Harrison (2023)

Country: Russia
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 9 Oct 2023
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I've reviewed a few Compassionizer albums, partly because Ivan Rozmainsky continues to send me copies and partly because I'm thoroughly enjoying their brand of chamber prog, a genre that was completely new to me when I first heard An Ambassador in Bonds. Here's another one, but it's the most unusual of them thus far, because, as the title suggests, it's not of original material, at least not entirely. All five of these songs were written by George Harrison, two of them for the Beatles and three for solo records. They range from 1965 to as late as 1987 and they all featured vocals but Compassionizer reimagine them here instrumentally.

They're an interesting set too, most of which are new to me. The only track I can play in my head is Here Comes the Sun, from the 1969 Beatles album Abbey Road, though of course it's very different here. The opener is an earlier Beatles song, If I Needed Someone, which I'm sure I've heard but I'm unable to recall. That's from their Rubber Soul album and is an important track because it's one of the songs that introduced the sitar to pop/rock music. That's right here in this version too, albeit I presume in synthesised form. The three solo tracks I've probably never heard.

I'm not a particular fan of tribute albums, because most of the tracks on them, indeed most cover versions period, are so close to their originals that there seems to be little point to them. I tend to look for reimagination in cover versions, where songs can be given an entirely new life by bands or artists working in completely different styles, such as the wonderful Rubáiyát double album that was released for Elektra's fortieth anniversary, where many contributors were so successful that I prefer their versions to the originals.

Of course, the versions of these songs are all wildly different from the originals, because as varied as the Beatles got, they aren't known for their chamber prog. Now, had I listened completely blind instead of doing some basic research first, I'd still have recognised Here Comes the Sun, but that's quickly diverted into entirely new musical territory and it's all the better for that.

I did check out the other songs before listening to these versions, but one listen was not enough to connect the original with the reinvention in my mind, so they played as effectively new music, as if I was listening to a new Compassionizer release rather than a tribute. They even flow into each other, so that individual songs play more like movements in a suite. I have a feeling that, for those of you who know these songs backwards, that might still hold true, because, even though this is a tribute album, this material was treated as a starting point rather than a be all end all and so the music starts out as George Harrison songs but gradually becomes Compassionizer tracks.

What surprised me the most from checking out the originals is that, even though George Harrison is known as a guitarist, these songs are often known just as much for their vocals, indeed lyrics, as for their guitarwork. As Compassionizer play them entirely instrumentally, that means that what most people know from these songs simply aren't here, but they're still able to create fascinating music from that bedrock. In particular, The Light That Has Lighted the World, from the 1973 album Living in the Material World, is well loved for its lyrics. Instead, Compassionizer focus more on its use of slide guitar and improvise that into something new.

The track before that is Isn't It a Pity, originally on Harrison's 1970 album, All Things Must Pass. It has a hypnotic drive to it, so that we almost don't pay attention to Harrison singing, and that's the element that Compassionizer run with here, even though the song runs a few minutes shorter. The track after it is Just for Today, from Cloud Nine, and it used to be a quiet and simple song, driven by piano but with some excellent slide guitar. That's the album that gave us Got My Mind Set on You, but this is a better piece to reinvent and Compassionizer build on its piano nicely.

I see that they're calling this a short album, but it's a really short album, even shorter than their previous release, As Smoke is Driven Away, which they labelled an EP. However, before you start to wonder about value for money, I should point out that it's available on Bandcamp for a price that's whatever you want it to be, all the way down to free, so it's excellent value for money, even at only twenty-three minutes. Free means that you have no excuse not to check it out, but I recommend a deeper dive into what Rozmainsky and his colleagues have been doing under the Compassionizer name, because they're probably unlike anything you've ever heard before and that's a good thing. Even if you grew up on George Harrison.

Tuesday 10 October 2023

Trevor Rabin - Rio (2023)

Country: South Africa
Style: Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 6 Oct 2023
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Wikipedia

I don't know where Eigenflame are from, beyond the country of Brazil. Maybe they're from Rio but what's clear is that Trevor Rabin isn't. He's from South Africa, though he moved to London and Los Angeles to further his career, which of course he did because he's the same Trevor Rabin who spent a dozen years in Yes and plenty more as the composer of scores for movies of the calibre of Con Air, Armageddon and National Treasure, to name just three blockbusters. His solo albums mostly sit in the previous millennium, but he released the instrumental Jacaranda in 2012 after a twenty-three year gap and this sixth solo album arrives eleven further years on.

I don't know why it's called Rio, but it's bright and bombastic like a Rio carnival from moment one with Big Mistakes featuring layers of vocals, a surprisingly edgy guitar solo and a la la la section to wrap things up. It's definitely commercial but it also has bite, like a very pretty venomous snake. It works wonderfully as an opener, but Push adds intricate prog chops right off the bat and escalates substantially. It's a gem of a piece, a variety of instruments dancing off in what seem like different directions but still sounding fantastic together. It's a masterpiece of arrangement choreography.

For all its instrumental flamboyance, Push is a song with a voice delivering lyrics and Oklahoma is keen to underline that, the instrumentation still a little intricate but mostly serving to build those vocals until the guitar solo can take flight. It's much more subdued than Push but it's still a big and brash number that screams for volume. We fly along with it until we realise just how much is going on beneath it and start to truly pay attention. I don't know how long Rabin has been chipping away at this album, but it feels like it's been gifted with a serious amount of time and attention.

Most of that work was done by Rabin, not just because he's the songwriter but because he plays an impressive majority of the instruments. All the work on guitar and bass is him, and the keyboards. He sings lead vocals throughout and adds backing vocals on all but one track, many of these songs are collaborations between his voices. He provides drums and percussion for four tracks, with Lou Molino stepping in for four more and Vinnie Colaiuta for one more. He adds mandolin on three of these songs and banjo and dobro on two. That just leaves Charlie Bisharat's violin on Push and the backing vocals of Dante Marchi and Liz Constantine on a couple of tracks.

A lot of these tracks evolve like that, because Rabin is working from a very broad canvas here. The core sound is pop/rock with a heavy side of prog, but he moves in a number of musical directions on this one and often against our expectations. Paradise, for instance, starts out as a country stomp but evolves into a vocal harmony, with both those backing vocalists on board. Goodbye is a good ol' hoedown of a country rock song. Tumbleweed starts out almost like the Beach Boys, entirely vocal (albeit with effects) for well over a minute. These Tears goes for a grand Pink Floyd sweep. There's lots of Paul Simon on Egoli, a song that wouldn't be out of place on his Graceland album. And Toxic wraps things up as a jagged blues number that turns into something else again.

You might expect that all this admirable genre-hopping might make the album a little incoherent, but very little of it jars. Mostly it feels like Rabin's exploring a lot of musical territory but trawling it into a consistent core sound, every departure adding a little something before he brings it back in to the core. Only perhaps Goodbye and Egoli really stay somewhere else and I'd call the latter a highlight, along with Push and Paradise, three very different songs to lump together.

And the overall result is strong. This is perky and persistent and it gets under your skin. Every time we think it might settle into something soft and AOR, it does something unexpected and suddenly we're intricate prog territory again and we wonder why we ever thought it might settle. It has no interest in doing that. This is Rabin having fun on his own terms and turning out something that's surprisingly commercial for an album as versatile as it is. I have clear favourites, if not clear least favourites, but I think this is a safe 8/10. Three listens in, it's just as strong as it started out and as colourful as its cover art.

Eigenflame - Pathway to a New World (2023)

Country: Brazil
Style: Symphonic Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 Sep 2023
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I wasn't sold on this album immediately, though Eigenflame certainly demonstrate serious musical chops on the opener, Created by Chaos (Ad Astra). It sounds good, symphonic power metal firmly in the European style, sung in English with high pitched vocals, choral backing, ambitious guitarwork and fast-paced drums, but it doesn't sound particularly new. My immediate takeaway, beyond clear talent, was to assume that the capital F in their logo is an homage to DragonForce, even if they're not using it otherwise. In fact, maybe the entire name is an homage as it sounds highly similar and they're an obvious influence.

I started to really pay attention with the next track, The Mighty Gaia, partly because it felt a little more inventive from the outset in a Gamma Ray style but mostly because they promptly drop into something wildly different a couple of minutes in. And I do mean drop. It's like they fade the song out to make way for flutes and tribal drums and suddenly we're in the middle of the rainforest. It's a major shift but vocalist Roberto Índio Santos is there too to deliver a folky melody that the choir pick up and suddenly we're back in the song at full tilt. There's another drop at the end, into some sort of organic texture and the second half feels elevated within these bookends.

While they never lose the Gamma Ray meets DragonForce comparison when playing in symphonic metal territory, they find their own identity in these folkier sections. Stardust kicks off with pipes and choirs, literally drumming up our attention. Way Back Home is even more pastoral, with flutes and tramping feet and a delightful acoustic guitar building to a soft folky vocal introduction. That also transitions beautifully into the song proper, showing some real imagination. Early on, it's the choirs that provide the imagination but the folkier side increasingly takes that on.

Frankly, this is at its best when one or both of those angles is being explored. I love the folky intros and midsections and wanted more of them. I love the choral punctuation too, especially as it's not only punctuation but often the means to change a song's direction. I wanted more of that too and I wouldn't mind more of the operatic style vocals that show up in softer sections of Stardust. What's unfortunate is that the album lets those angles drift after four tracks, so my favourite songs are a trio early on: The Mighty Gaia, Stardust and Way Back Home. Eclipse of the Fifth Sun has another folky midsection but without dropping out of the symphonic metal. That becomes the norm.

What saves the rest of the album is the fact that it's such uplifting material. Whatever mood you'd fostered as you pressed play on track one, I can guarantee that you'll be in a brighter one once you had let these songs wash over you. I wasn't in a bad mood but I could have been in a better one and I soon was, songs like Cosmic Symphony absolute delights, for their mood-improving effects, on top of whatever else they happen to do. The more I let the album run on repeat, the happier I felt.

i'd be remiss if I didn't call out the members, because they all shine from a technical standpoint. At the front of the sound is Santos's vocals and he seems effortless at a high pitch and also when he's sustaining notes. There are a few moments, one on Way Back Home, where he holds a belt without seeming to struggle for an impressive length of time. Behind him, I'd call out Jean Gardinalli, as he is fast and intricate behind the drumkit without ever seeming to move beyond slow motion. I swear he could do this at double the speed and that's a scary thought indeed. The other two credits I see are Fernandes Bonifácio on guitar, who is highly versatile, and Fabio Tapani on bass, who gets less opportunity to show off but shines whenever he does.

This is Eigenflame's debut album and it's accomplished stuff. I look forward to them developing an entirely Eigenflame sound though. It's certainly here at the beginning of their recorded output, a teaser of what could come in the future, but it's not fleshed out yet and I hope they feed it. If they do, then the cover ought to seem highly appropriate, with a Brazilian band opening a portal to the established European sound but bringing something new to the mix.

Monday 9 October 2023

Black Stone Cherry - Screamin' at the Sky (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 29 Sep 2023
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This is a frustrating album for a reviewer, because it's hard to say anything substantial about it. It's difficult not to like Black Stone Cherry, especially when they come storming out of the gate with an energetic title track and maintaining that level of intensity for much of the album. Out of Pocket is a tease of a song because it falsely suggests that they'll soften up for a track; it softens just a little for verses and then ramps right back up to that same intensity level again. Everyone in the band is giving it their all, including new bassist Steve Jewell Jr., who became the first line-up change in the band's twenty year history when he replaced Jon Lawhon in 2021. Every song sounds good.

However, that does not necessarily translate into this being a great album or even a good one, just not a bad one. I might have enjoyed every track on this album while it was playing and just as much on a fourth time through as a first, but I also promptly forgot them all after they were over. This is the commercial release equivalent of walking into a club, enjoying the band on stage for however long they're on stage, then walking out and realising, as we sit down for food somewhere else that we never caught their name and we don't really mind because the magic was in the moment and is never going to translate to buying an album.

This will make Black Stone Cherry fans happy, because it's another dozen slabs of intensity to join a string of seven previous albums worth of them. They're not varying their formula or adding newer elements to their sound; they're just adding more songs to their discography. And that's fine. AC/DC and Status Quo have been doing that for years, to name just two bands, and nobody's stopped being an AC/DC or Quo fan because they continue to play to their fanbase. This may not be the best album they've ever released but it delivers the goods.

The catch is that it delivers the goods and wanders off again. Last time out, with 2020's The Human Condition, the first couple of tracks stood out as highlights. I'd be wary of calling out anything here as a highlight, because it's much of a sameness, like the rest of that album. What it comes down to is whether we connect as individuals to a particular riff or a particular hook. Maybe I could suggest that When the Pain Comes stands out a little for me, but it might not for you because it isn't doing anything special. Maybe you'll connect instead to the shouted chorus in Who are You Today? or the groove on Here's to the Hopeless or something in any one of the others on offer here.

And that's about it. This is very much an album for the faithful, I think. Chris Robertson's voice is a special one, as it always has been, adding oodles of soul to an already southern rock drenched hard rock delivery. The guitarwork of Ben Wells and Robertson again is a highlight too, but it's also kept on its toes this time by a very prominent rhythm section. Jewell provides a very audible bass that I think might take over on those extra-deep sound systems that carry through neighbourhoods from pickup trucks and John Fred Young seems to be hitting his drums even harder than usual.

I'm going to go with a 6/10 for this one because it simply refuses to stick for me. It's clearly capable stuff and, oh look, a blue fish. This is energetic background music for me that I can enjoy but easily walk away from to do something else too. If you're a confirmed Black Stone Cherry fan, then add a couple of points to that rating because you'll love it. If you haven't heard them before but any one of these tracks finds its way to your ears on YouTube and sticks in your head, then add one point as they might become your new favourite band. Anyone else, then just move on past. This one won't do anything for you.