Friday 24 November 2023

Heavy Load - Riders of the Ancient Storm (2023)

Country: Sweden
Style: Heavy/Power Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 6 Oct 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Wikipedia | YouTube

Well, here's a real blast from the past. I've seen it written that Heavy Load were the first Swedish heavy metal band, setting the stage for everything that followed within a country that has firmly punched above its weight for the last few decades. However, this is very much a comeback, as their previous album, their third, came out the year before I discovered rock music. I'm a grandfather of ten who's listened to rock and metal for most of my life and yet this is the Heavy Load's first album since I've known what that was. That's how long they've been gone!

To put some actual dates on that, the Wahlquist brothers founded Heavy Load back in 1976, so the same year as U2, Foreigner and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers or, to pick a far more comparable band, Diamond Head. They put out albums in 1978, 1982 and 1983 before splitting up, so this album arrives no fewer than forty years after its predecessor. Given all that, it really ought to be good to be worth such a wait and to highlight that Heavy Load are relevant in a completely different era. I am very happy to state that it is. I like this a lot. Welcome back, folks!

I remember the name of Heavy Load but don't remember what they sounded like back in the day, a combination of heavy/power metal about all I can bring to mind. They're still there today, with this sounding very much like old school heavy metal with progressive and epic layers. Think bands such as Manilla Road or Brocas Helm rather than more modern power metal bands like Dragonforce or Blind Guardian. Then add some early Rush, mostly in the changes, and stir to taste.

Ride the Night opens up in that style and sounds good without really generating much else worthy of comment. We Rock the World continues it, though in a slightly more slimmed down version. The lyrics are precisely as clichéd as you might expect, with whichever Wahlquist brother sings lead on this one telling us that they're going to rock the world, shock the world, shake the world, you name it. However, the music sounds great, this one being a real stalker of a song that follows you down a street with serious intent.

So far so good, but it elevates from there for me. Those two openers are the shortest songs on the album, We Rock the World at four minutes and Ride the Night at five and a half, but they let these songs breathe from then on. Walhalla Warriors doesn't quite reach six but it features a section in which the band step back for Torbjörn Ragnesjö's bass to take the spotlight and, while he doesn't do anything particularly flash, he sounds absolutely wonderful and the band gradually join back in to equally strong effect.

Angel Dark is better still, a heavy song with some of those early Rush changes, harmonies and bass that brings Budgie to mind, maybe even some Demon. Ragnesjö contributes more joyous bass, but a guitar steals the spotlight midway in memorable fashion. The song almost stops dead, so they're able to shift into a completely different gear but the accompanying guitarwork is delightful. I have to assume that this is the work of new fish Nic Savage, cementing his place in the band. He joined in 2018, when they reformed, taking the role previously played most frequently by Eddy Malm. The rest of the musicians all date back to the seventies, even if Ragnesjö wasn't there for the start or the end of the original run of the band.

Slave No More seriously takes its time, mixing some slow old school epic power metal with middle eastern flavours as Rainbow used to do. Then it gets slower still. It's almost doom metal when the verses kick in, but it never loses its epic flavour and it stays heavy throughout. Raven is Calling is a more up tempo track and it's a good one but a less noteworthy one. Sail Away kicks off with a Blue Öyster Cult vibe and finds a magnificent groove. That's four great songs out of seven, with a fifth not far behind them. That's a damn good hit rate for a band who haven't recorded in forty years.

What's left is Butterfly Whispering, which isn't at all what I expected. There's a long intro done on acoustic guitar that's folky but powerful and, well, it isn't an intro. It keeps going in that vein for seven minutes and three seconds. There are no vocals, drums or bass. It's just two guitars weaving back and forth for the entire track, so it's less of a song and more of a piece of music. I liked it a lot but I don't know yet whether it'll stay as strong after many repeat listens. It's doing OK so far.

And, while that's a pretty traditional track by track runthrough, which I generally hate doing, it's how it seems to play to me. It starts decently but improves quickly. The best songs are right there at the heart of the album, from Walhalla Warriors to Raven is Calling, followed by another good one and then that long outro, if that's what we should call it. It's hard to think of it in a different order, but fortunately we don't have to. It's a strong return for a pioneering Swedish band and I'm happy that they're back. Here's to the next one!

TAFKAVince Band - A Problematic Opera (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Garage Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 May 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website

Kudos to the Artist Formally Known as Vince for a name that grabs attention in a crowded market; it certainly elicited a smile from me when this was submitted for review. Now, it's all fine and good to get eyeballs on your product, of course, but the product has to stand for itself once it's been noticed. Fortunately, this is fun enough stuff to work and Vince isn't new at this, with releases going way back to the nineties.

They describe themselves as glam trash rock 'n' roll, which is as fair a description as any, but to me they sound like a garage rock band playing pop songs, though what precise sort of pop songs has a lot to do with whichever one we're listening to. Expiration Date is a quirky pop song in the vein of maybe Missing Persons, sans squeaky voice, but Sugar Pills ups the punk guitar, even finding what sounds very much like Rose Tattoo's Nice Boys at one point, and Conquer the World dips obviously into seventies glam rock. That's a riff we might expect from the Sweet but the vocals don't follow suit.

While Vince himself delivers the most prominent voice on Expiration Date, his is not the only voice here because Lauren Kurtz also sings lead and the pair often sing the same thing together. In some songs, it's hard to tell which is singing lead and which backup, because they're kind of both singing both. That leads me to pull in a B-52s comparison, but this is rock music just as much as it's pop and the B-52s never quite went there. Maybe this is the B-52s with a little Cramps thrown into the mix. However, each song, for all that they play consistently together, generates different comparisons.

There's some straight up rock 'n' roll soloing on Magazine Pages but it approaches rock 'n' roll the way the Beatles did, so it's very much a pop song rocked up. This would be an easy song for a bunch of different bands to cover and put their own very different spins onto it. The title track, even with that nod to opera in its name, is old school British punk in the Buzzcocks style but with those poppy vocals. Of course, it drops into a pop opera midway, complete with guest accordion and euphonium, of all things, and it ends, after the band have downed their instruments, in solo calypso guitar. This is agreeably unusual and highlights how Vince isn't interested in playing every song the same way.

In fact, the only song that feels pretty straightforward is Rabbit Hole, which is the closest to pure garage rock. It kicks off with drums, adds bass and unfolds exactly as we might expect for a bunch of young musicians playing in a garage with simple equipment. Except when it isn't, because they just have to throw something more unusual into the mix and here that comes in Kurtz's vocals, as she adds quirky flourishes here and there to punctuate their typical joint male/female lead.

And that's it, because this is an EP rather than a full album, with the length the most obvious flaw. There are only six tracks on offer and they're generally not particularly long, four of them ending under three minutes and the relatively sprawling Expiration Date only lasting to three and a half. That just leaves Conquer the World to stretch out to a breath over five minutes, making it almost an epic for this band. That means that this EP wraps in under twenty minutes, which isn't long for an established and experienced band. Then again, it's only $7 on Bandcamp, so it's fairly priced.

I liked this, in large part because it feels honest. I've heard a lot of very carefully produced albums in 2023, where engineers, mixers and producers have dedicated energy to making them sound exactly right. This, on the other hand, feels exactly like the five members of the band showed up, plugged in and blistered through twenty minutes of music on the spin, just for the love of performing. The only reason I know this really was produced is because there are moments clearly done in post, like the radio voices within Expiration Date.

The point is that this back to basics approach feels vibrant and refreshing. I bet they have a lot of fun on a live stage and, given that they're based out of Chicago, maybe I'll have chance at seeing them some day. Thanks for sending this over, folks!

Ronnie Atkins - Trinity (2023)

Country: Denmark
Style: Melodic/Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 13 Oct 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Wikipedia

It's become clear over the past couple of years that any new album from Ronnie Atkins is likely to be a real highlight and he's keeping up the consistency. I gave a 9/10 to his solo debut, One Shot, as one of my albums of the year. The follow up, Make It Count, and this third album, fall a little short of that masterpiece but not by much. They're still both highly recommended 8/10s from me.

This one starts out like it wants that 9/10 rating. The title track is a very strong opener indeed and Ode to a Madman isn't far behind it. They may well be a little heavier than the previous albums, so firmly hard rock rather than melodic/hard rock, but not by a lot, even with a teasing hint of a harsh voice behind Atkins at the end of the latter song. It's the drive of these songs that makes them the highlights of the album, because they both find a powerful groove and milk it capably for four and a half minutes each.

Just in case he's heavied up a little too much, Paper Tiger reduces the intensity level and includes woah woah sections, so it doesn't have quite the same impact, but it's a good song nonetheless, a delicious level of grit in Atkins's voice on this one. Soul Divine is a ballad and that's all I need to say about that. If you like Ronnie singing ballads, then you'll like this one. That means that we've had a couple of rockers where the band—whoever's in it nowadays—crank up the energy and a couple more where they bring it back a little. Then it gets interesting.

I found it hard to pick a favourite song because the three obvious candidates are so different. That opening title track is one and If You Can Dream It (You Can Do It) is a second, as the most stripped down, back to basics melodic rocker here. It's so obviously single material that it's familiar on the first listen, so immediate that I was singing along on the first chorus. It's highly effective and also very uplifting, as its title suggests, without ever getting cheesy. The third, however, is a different song again. It's Godless, but there's also a highly evocative ninety second intro before it called Via Dolorosa, which was the route through Jerusalem that Jesus walked to be crucified.

If that suggests weightier material than something as simplistic as If You Can Dream It (You Can Do It), then you'd be right. It starts out with a middle eastern vibe in the way that Rainbow often did, but it has a much more contemporary feel to it, almost a hint at industrial during the verses, albeit with all the rough edges filed carefully off because this is rooted in melodic rock. It prowls and stalks and there's some sort of processing done to Atkins's voice during the verses to make it even more memorable. It's an interesting sound and it's an infectious song.

Everything else sits a level behind these highlights, with Ode to a Madman maybe a nudge above as the closest to them. However, nothing lets the side down and there's something to every song that makes it a worthy inclusion, even Shine, which suffers from following Godless. It was always a good song and it has a particularly well crafted bridge, but it struggles to, well, shine, after a gem like Godless that does things differently. However, listen to it in isolation and it has no problem in telling us how good it is. It was here that I realised just how good this album was.

There's a nice bounce to Sister Sinister. Raining Fire has a real swagger to it. Paper Tiger is slick as it gets. The Unwanted feels like commercial Blue Öyster Cult. What If wraps up the album with an overt touch of musical theatre. None of them stand out for me personally but every one of them has something that could make it your favourite. That's the sign of a damn good album, meaning that it's three absolute gems out of three for Ronnie Atkins, who's always been a fantastic singer and songwriter but who is making it look so easy nowadays. Any singer or band playing melodic or hard rock nowadays ought to go to sleep and dream about being this good.

Thursday 23 November 2023

Odraedir - Vengeance (2023)

Country: Czechia
Style: Pagan/Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 Oct 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Twitter | YouTube

Here's another submission, this time of a pagan metal album from Czechia, Odraedir based in and around the capital of Prague. It's their second album, following 2017's Legends of the Dark Times, and it clearly leans towards symphonic folk metal from its intro. There's a narration to set us up to expect something epic and that grows into fiddles, flutes and bagpipes against a symphonic swell. Oddly, the rest of the album tones down that symphonic folk aspect, settling for heavy metal with a prominent folk flavour. Those flutes rarely go away and that's a good thing.

How heavy that heavy metal is depends on the song. There are points in the opening track proper, The Inception, where they think about melodic death metal. However, even though the vocals have a growling aspect, they remain intelligible and perhaps halfway between clean and harsh. There's also not much bass in the mix to deepen the sound, especially this far into the new millennium, so this is clean, crisp metal that never feels extreme, however fast it's paced, and those flutes aren't ever far from the foreground.

That folk aspect means that this is always lively but they can find grooves that are reminiscent of certain forms of lively. Sections of Back to the Void have a Viking metal feel to them, as if we're on a longship that's speeding through the North Sea. Some of the backing vocals add to that and the guitars later on and early in Driven by Lust have a progression to them that reminds very much of Iron Maiden, though the latter is more vehement before and after it, maybe somewhere between Alestorm and Cradle of Filth, a feel that moves on to Hand of Justice and onward. In between, I'd call out some Helloween touches to Deep Sea Slumber, though it again flirts with Viking metal.

That epic feel that the intro promised starts to creep in towards the very end of the album. Glacial Storm at track ten is the longest song by that point, albeit still under six minutes, and it has plenty of opportunity to breathe. Some of my favourite guitarwork arrives in its second half. And then, it all wraps up with The Last Say, which is a minute and a half longer again, and includes a clean guest vocal from Anna Pavlů of Czech gothic/folk metal band Thanallian. She doesn't take over the song, but she starts it out and she returns midway through and at the end, where the male and female voices sound great together.

All in all, it's very agreeable stuff. The opening narration might be a bit much, because I was never convinced that there was a concept in play, but the instrumental aspect is lovely and the riffing is infectious as soon as we get into the tracks proper. I enjoyed every track while it was playing, even on a third or fourth time through. Dub's vocals are a rather friendly form of harsh, the guitarwork from Křen and Mtyperys is delightful and the folk touches overlaid are always a welcome texture that doesn't just decorate the music but often deepens it too.

The flaw is that, even after a few times through, none of these songs really leap out to be noticed specially. There isn't a standout track here, let alone two or three, even the more epic ones at the end as tends to be the case with Maiden. However, on the flipside, none of the ten full songs feel like they let the side down on a first listen or get old by a third or fourth. It's just highly consistent stuff and that's never a bad thing for an entire fifty minute album to be. I liked it on my first time through and I like it a little more once it became familiar over those repeat listens.

If you twisted my arm and forced me to pick a favourite track, I'd have to plump for the ones in the middle of the album, Driven by Lust and Hand of Justice. They're the most overt Alestorm meets Cradle of Filth tracks and I dig that vibe. There's also more to each of those tracks to elevate them, the Maiden guitarwork in the former and some almost Balkan acoustic guitar in the latter. It's not a zither but it does much the same job and it adds an unusual flavour to an already strong song. It doesn't take the edge by much though and I might have a different answer for you tomorrow.

I'd happily listen to another Odraedir album, though their track record suggests that it might be a while coming. They were formed back in 2009 with a 2011 demo and official releases by 2013, but it took eight years for them to put out an album and six more to follow it up with this one. There was a single and an EP in between, but all three tracks included on them are on this album, so it's not a place to look for bonus material. Here's to hoping we see another full album before 2029. Thanks, folks!

Wednesday 22 November 2023

Pink Fairies - Screwed Up (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 6 Jul 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Wikipedia

This was released back in July but I've only just noticed, so I'm reviewing it now because, hey, I can. If you don't know the name, they're a legendary British rock band whose alumni include musicians as diverse as science fiction author Mick Farren, T Rex percussionist Steve Peregrine Took and the original Motörhead guitarist, Larry Wallis. Current band leader Paul Rudolph played on their first two albums and some Brian Eno solo efforts, then he replaced Lemmy in Hawkwind. Joining him on what I think is his fifth stint with the band are ex-Hawkwind bassist Alan Davey and the only other member of the original Motörhead line-up I haven't mentioned yet, drummer Lucas Fox.

With those connections, it probably shouldn't be surprising that Hawkwind are one of the obvious influences here, and indeed there's a kinda sorta Hawkwind cover here in Hassan I Sahba, with an interesting guest appearance from Hawkwind violinist Simon House. I say kinda sorta because it's a Paul Rudolph song, written with Robert Calvert, so it's not entirely a cover, and it sounds utterly authentic, especially when followed by a dreamy space rock instrumental in Dreamzzz and a piece of space rock ambience with a title as quintessential for the genre as It Came from Zeta-77073. A later piece, Big Pink Chopper, plays in the same ballpark.

However, Hassan I Sahba doesn't show up until track four and the album builds towards it with the title track, Digital Sin and WhatchaGonnaDo all sounding like garage rock songs that merely have an increasing amount of psychedelia infused into them. Sure, Rudolph's guitar is psychedelic over Screwed Up, but the rhythm section is no nonsense solid and the vocals, as they across the album, are basic but effective and appropriate. When they're playing songs with hooks and choruses and riffs and all the other typical components of rock music, it's done without any frills at all, just like they recorded it live in the studio.

Given that, and song titles like Screwed Up, Punky and Big Pink Chopper, it probably shouldn't be a surprise to realise that the overall sound is exactly the sort of thing that might catch your ear as it comes blaring out of a random nothing bar. You follow it in and, a few pints later, realise that it's a highly varied audience, so you're surrounded by rockers, metalheads, punks and bikers, a melting pot who are all totally on board with it, because the Pink Fairies are common ground in exactly the same way that Motörhead always were. This is that sort of old school. "We just play rock 'n' roll."

Talking of Motörhead, We Can't Get Any Closer could have been an early Motörhead song, except, of course, that it isn't. Suddenly Rudolph's vocals seem out of place, on a song he probably wrote, simply because he isn't Lemmy and the song conditions us to expect his memorable voice. Davey's bass is closer to Lemmy's and that just adds to the effect. Fox, of course, drummed for Motörhead, so it can't surprise that he can sound like he's still there. Wayward Son does a similar job but with better success for Rudolph, who stamps his authority over it with both vocals and guitar, even if it could again have been a Motörhead song.

I haven't heard the Pink Fairies in forever, but I'm very happy to hear them again in this latest of a countless number of incarnations. The sense of fun that the glorious cover art suggests is here on most of the vocal songs, but only WhatchaGonnaDo cares to actually dip into comedy in the sort of way that Dumpy's Rusty Nuts might have done. Digital Sin also manages to get some surprisingly deep social commentary into its lyrics without losing its sense of fun. They're strong when rocking out with regular rock instruments; they're strong when experimenting in Hawkwind style without most or any of the above; and, crucially, both those sides work well together.

I liked this on a first listen but it didn't feel like it would necessarily work as well on a second time through. I was happy to find that it did and continued to do so on a third and fourth. In fact, it felt more complete as an album the more times I listened to it. Tracks I initially thought were weaker grew on me and only one faded away, which is the closer, In the Ether. It never bugged me so much that I removed it from the playlist but, as everything else grew, it started to feel a little awkward in their company. It's here as a way for the album to end and that's its only real value.

So, given that the Pink Fairies have never really had a stable line-up since they were founded, way back in 1969, I wonder how long this one will stay in place. Certainly there wasn't a single musician who played on both 2017's Naked Radio and 2018's Resident Reptiles, but the line-up on the latter is the line-up here, meaning two albums from either side of the great gap that was COVID, so I'd hold out a little hope for a third album from this trio in a year or two. How about it, lads?

Nashgul - Oprobrio (2023)

Country: Spain
Style: Death Metal/Grindcore
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 29 Sep 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives

For a band who mix death metal with grindcore—and shift from one to the other and back in most of these songs—I have to say that Nashgul chug gloriously. That's why some of these tracks actually became earworms for me; when was the last time that happened with a grindcore band? There's a repeated slowdown in Protocolo Deus that has stayed with me, the simple but highly effective riff in Sewers Across gets me every time and there's a real bounce to songs like Rexa Vesania that tell me that they're really punk standards that we haven't heard before that have been given energy and pace beyond our expectations.

Initially, this was all about that mix for me. I've heard a lot of bands who claim to mix death metal with grindcore but few actually do. For the most part, they're either death metal bands who speed up enough to be called grindcore or grindcore bands who slow down every once in a while to churn. Nashgul are that rare example of a band who honestly merge the two because precious few of the sixteen tracks here are just one or the other. They listened to both sides of Scum and weren't quite sure which they preferred more.

Most of them feature frantic sections of grindcore, with vocals so distorted that we can't identify what language is being used—Nashgul are Spanish, hailing from A Coruña in the far northwest of Galicia, but most of these song titles are in English, with what looks like a couple in Spanish, a pair in Galician and two more in Latin—but most of them also feature solid death metal riffing with a voice that's closer to a death growl. Crucially, they shift back and forth constantly between these two sides of their sound with the two vocal styles not necessarily divvied up how we might expect. And then there's that edge of much more traditional punk that occasionally takes over.

Opener Quien puede matar a un niño, for instance, is primarily grindcore, with that deep vocal as unintelligible as words as the faster early Napalm Death tracks, sounding more like gargling with bleach than an attempt to deliver lyrics. The Fake, which is almost entirely spent at frantic speed, reminds of The Kill, with the accompanying pitch shift in the vocals. However, there are drops into growly death metal and into a bouncy old school punk with regular shouted vocals, albeit without any associated drop in energy. Even when they play slow, which they do surprisingly often for what many would hear as grindcore, Nashgul are full of energy, always ready to shift up a gear or three.

Flay Off works the other way round, starting out as an overtly death metal song that occasionally speeds up and adopts those grindcore touches. There's also what I presume is a sample to kick off and it gives the song a different flavour, as if this was political punk. Surely the most unusual intro is on Los que deben seguir muertos, which starts out with prowling electronica, hardly something I expect from either death metal or grindcore. It's almost John Carpenter-esque and it doesn't last long, but it flavours that song just as that sample flavours Flay Off.

And, just to continue flouting our expectations, there are songs that rely so much on the chug that they trawl in genres we simply don't expect. Sewers Across may play mostly in death metal but it's almost doom at points. Buried, But Still Alive, plays in doom too, but with punk feedback overlaid for a while and drumming from Iván that's often much faster than any other aspect of the song. It counts as the joint-longest song here at 3:14 and that's because it's all instrumental churn, Alex a notable absence on this one. While Nashgul do ramp up to grindcore speed often across the album, he's always its most extreme aspect; when he isn't there, the result feels far less extreme.

Oprobrio was a submission for review, so thanks to the band for sending this one over. It's been an odd couple of weeks here at Apocalypse Later, mostly because I've been concentrating on getting a bunch of books ready for publication, so I've had this playing on and off for far longer than tends to be the case. What's telling is that it hasn't got old at all and grindcore has a habit of doing that quickly. I adore the infusion of energy that the genre brings, but it's rarely memorable because it tends to rely so much on that effect. This works as an energy shot of grindcore, but it also works as slab of music to sit down and enjoy.

Nashgul are hardly a prolific band. They've been around since 2001 and they've been featured on a lot of split singles over the years, but this is only their third album, after El día después al fin de la humanidad in 2009 and Cárcava in 2016. A seven year album release schedule isn't ambitious but it works when the quality and versatility are this high. I may not want to wait another seven years to hear their next album, but I'll do it. This is good stuff.

Tuesday 21 November 2023

Sadus - The Shadow Inside (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 17 Nov 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Sadus have been around for a very long time, dating back to 1985, and they've never split up, even if their members have often had other priorities, shall we say. Some have left but nobody new has ever joined, meaning that the quartet who formed Sadus are now only a duo. Darren Travis is the most obvious, as vocalist and guitarist—he also contributes the bass here—with Jon Allen behind the drumkit. Second guitarist Rob Moore left back in 1994 and bassist Steve DiGiorgio ceased to be involved in 2015.

That probably explains why they put out new albums so rarely. Their first three came out together, in 1988, 1990 and 1992, but, as every thrasher knows, that reaches a point in time when the musical landscape really wasn't conducive to a fast and technical thrash band. I'm actually impressed that they put out a fourth in 1997, but their fifth didn't come till a decade later in 2006 and this is their sixth, seventeen full years on from that. It's far from awful but it really isn't the sort of album that has been seventeen years in the making.

I remember Sadus being a strong technical thrash band, even if none of their songs have got stuck in my brain since the eighties the way so many of those of their peers have, but this feels more run of the mill. I enjoyed it, don't get me wrong, but thrash is one of my favourite genres, so I'm more forgiving of it than I am other genres. While the best of the best will connect with me like nothing else, I could listen to crappy thrash and still feel energized. This certainly isn't crappy but, even at its best, on tracks that blister like Ride the Knife, it's not what it could be.

It probably doesn't help that First Blood kicks off the album with an intro that's so reminiscent of Crimson Glory's Lost Reflection that I immediately found myself singing along with it. It develops into a decent thrash metal song, clearly American but not screaming of any particular band as an influence, even themselves. Sure, it's Bay Area rather than east coast but Sadus are from Antioch and that's in the San Francisco Bay Area, so that's hardly surprising.

Scorched and Burnt quickly leaps into Megadeth mode, with a pause in the instrumentation for a couple of snarling a capella lines in the Dave Mustaine style. There's clearly Megadeth in the rest of the song too, though the vocals shift away from him into a wide open screech that has to be the most and possibly only distinguishing mark on this album. It's Travis trying to do something more with his vocals whenever he isn't just operating in a routine thrash mode. The problem is that his approach doesn't extend to his instrumentation, which always feels like a backdrop.

The vocals really start to dominate in It's the Sickness. The riffs are reliable, the solos solid and the drumming furious, but they're all backdrops for the vocals to decorate. And, while the instruments play pure thrash, the vocals don't feel that constrained. They move across the genres, always with a thrash filter on them, but moving from traditional rough thrash vocals and Mustaine snarls to a set of hints at black shrieks and death growls, never quite reaching either but enjoying how close they get.

They're sometimes reminiscent of Martin Walkyier of Sabbat and Bobby the Blitz of Overkill, even Dani Filth of Cradle of Filth, but they're not quite so pristinely intonated as any of them. Instead of spitting out lyrics like machine gun bullets, which they do on the fastest material, they more often linger on sounds and then burst over slower songs and sections like fireworks. In verses, they're a lot more traditional, but, in the choruses, they become something more, elongating syllables and stretching sounds until they can't exist any more.

All the songs sound good but few register and which do tend to change on repeat listens. Ride the Knife is an unrelentless thrasher and it's easily my favourite song here. First Blood may follow it, a few blistering sections of Anarchy notwithstanding, but those are the only real commonalities. On one listen through, it might be The Shadow Inside, closing out the album, that reminds me that it has a simple but highly effective riff and some good solos. The next, my brain might skip that but tell me how much Overkill there is in The Devil in Me. None of these songs truly stick and few have much of a chance. It's just good background music for me.

And so this is only a 6/10 from me, as the target audience. If thrash isn't your thing, then you may be able to safely drop a point off that. And that's not good for a first album in seventeen years.

Vladimir Mikhaylov - Amor Caecus (2023)

Country: Russia
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 26 Aug 2023

While many of the musicians involved in this album tend to play in a variety of Russian progressive rock bands, this is more of a prog adjacent album and I'm not sure how to label it. Not that that's a bad thing, of course; I love genre ambiguity. This is prog rock, post-punk, eighties alternative rock, new wave and folk music, which is quite the range, and vocalist Dmitriy Rumyancev has an unusual voice to lead these songs. It took me a while to get used to what he does but I got there and would describe him as a strange cross between Bryan Ferry and Andrew Eldritch. He usually sings for the Latvian prog/new wave group TLM.

The openers are where the most overt pop influences show up. A Twist of Flame is prog rock with a heavy side of post-punk and eighties alternative rock. There's U2 here in the guitars and Marillion in the keyboards. Runaway is even more versatile, as a pop rock song. There's more U2 here, but a heavy touch of AOR too and arena rock in the power chords and lively guitar solo, along with some new wave in the phrasing. It's Toto meeting Duran Duran with involvement from Pat Benatar, not only through the guest female vocalist, Yulia Savelyeva, either because it's in the songwriting.

The title track is an odd one, because it starts out almost like Leonard Cohen, a dark folk song that Rumyancev delivers in Latin so we don't catch the presumably biting lyrics. However, it soon turns into a proggy new wave piece, as the instrumental midsection extends into a lively guitar solo. It's Mikhaylov who provides the guitars here, as well as the bass and many other instruments, not just the drum programming but all the way to a drill and an ebow. There is an actual drummer, Evgeny Trefilov, and a few guests, whose contributions are mostly on keyboards, but much of the music is the work of Mikhailov himself.

After the title track shifts for a while into prog, the album seems more comfortable to do more of that, to varying degrees of success. Interdum is a prog instrumental, with inventive guitar against dreamy keyboards, and it's that interplay that I like the most here. It returns on Fortis Affectus, a piece that's only a minute long, so far less substantial. It's Mikhailov duetting with himself on the latter but our old friend Ivan Rozmainzsky of Roz Vitalis and Compassionizer fame guesting on the former. The two perform as RMP, the Rozmainsky & Mikhaylov Project. What's surprising here is a perky beat laid over Interdum as it's pure electronic pop over an otherwise prog instrumental and it gives a neatly contrasting feel to the piece.

Talking of Fortis Affectus being only a minute long, Megapolis is even shorter, which means that it ends as quickly as it begins. It's more Vangelis than any of the other keyboard work here, which is appreciated, but it's sadly only a glimpse at what this piece could be. It feels like it ought to exist to set a mood but oddly not for the next song, Gemini and Libra, which is quite happy to introduce itself. So maybe it's an interlude, but it doesn't seem to work that way. It works as a brief teaser to persuade us into buying the entire song, which, as far as I'm aware, doesn't exist. I wanted more of these pieces, both in length and in numbers.

While I prefer the proggier instrumentals here, which also include the closer, Exitus, the album is happier to attempt songs in its variety of ways. Gemini and Libra is very much a post-punk/alt rock hybrid in the vein of A Twist of Flame; Shadowplay is a mournful pop song that perks up a little in a folky way; and War with Your Own Shadow is another post-punk song. It's the latter that works the best for me, because it enters very consciously from the wings with ominous intent and feels much more deliberately controlled. Runaway is far more obviously commercial if Mikhaylov was looking for a single, but War with Your Own Shadow is the one with the substance.

All in all, I enjoyed this, but it's a patchwork quilt of an album. It doesn't really want to be only one thing, so it enjoys being multiple. Rumyancev's highly recognisable voice lends it some consistency, but he's not on the various instrumental pieces so he can only do so much. Of course, as the latter ended up being my favourite tracks, I must be firmly on board with the genre-hopping. However, it will fall to any potential listener to ask themselves that question and the more on board they are, the more they're likely to enjoy this. Maybe think of it as a four decade retrospective of a band on their first album.

Monday 20 November 2023

Robin Trower featuring Sari Schorr - Joyful Sky (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Blues Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 Oct 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I've reviewed a Robin Trower album this year already, but No More Worlds to Conquer came out in April 2022 and I trawled it into my traditional January catch-up of what I missed from the previous year. This one's new, from late October, and it's a very different beast to its predecessor. Of course, the focal point of all Trower's solo albums is his guitarwork but that 2022 album felt like an album of guitar with some token vocals; few songs felt like they were written as songs. This one feels like it was written as much for Sari Schorr's voice as for Trower's guitar.

And, in most instances, I think it was. Trower and Schorr share the same manager, Alan Robinson, who suggested that the former write a song for the latter. Liking what he heard, he chose instead to rework I Will Always Be Your Shelter for her voice. That was the closer on No Worlds to Conquer and it's the closer here too, but they're very different songs. There it was a ballad, a smooth one that gave Richard Watts plenty of opportunity to be tender and some to be raw and honest. Here, it's more spiritual in nature and Schorr is far more vehement, showing the hurt inside, to grab an important line from the lyrics.

After that song, this collaboration became a given and there are ten songs here to explore what a pair of musicians can do together. I say a pair, because I can't find any details about who else might be playing on it. Certainly, the usual instruments are here, but I don't know who's responsible. On that prior album, Trower played the bass himself in addition to guitar, but I doubt he also took on organ and drums, especially given that Chris Taggart has played the latter on his last few albums. But hey, I don't know. All I know is that I didn't and that's a good thing.

My favourite song here may be the opener, Burn, which is a real tease of a song. It's about trying to calm down a partner and the two participants we know play those characters. Schorr is infusing it with a smouldering fire and Trower's doing the calming, so much that he's almost minimal as it begins. It has to be said that he's aware that there's something of his classic work from the seventies on this album and this has the achingly slow pace and flow of Bridge of Sighs, even though the guitarwork is very different indeed. It's a peach of a song.

I'll Be Moving On and The Distance are more upbeat blues songs, relatively traditional but with a smoky small club vibe courtesy of Schorr. It's easy to imagine walking down the street in Memphis or any American city known for its live blues and catch snippets of this sort of thing and be enticed into a thousand different small blues clubs. Of course, few of the bands playing that music have as much abiding power as Trower and Schorr but that's just quality, not style.

The next song that stood out for me was Peace of Mind, which has a more distorted guitar. It's slow and heavy, almost an old school heavy metal song that's been stripped down and rearranged for a blues band. I could easily hear a stoner rock band speeding it back up and upping the amplification to bury us in fuzz. Other highlights are Change It, which is a funkier, more R&B song; the title track, if mostly because of its stellar guitar solo; and The Circle is Complete, which builds wonderfully, in part due to some excellent bass work. It feels like a big song from the outset but it has to grow into that over seven minutes, truly starting to do so about halfway.

And then there's I Will Always Be Your Shelter. I'm not the biggest fan of this sort of song, but I did list it as one of my highlights on No More Worlds to Conquer and I really ought to do that here too. It keeps growing on me like a rash. It's also a different enough song to everything else to stand out but not different enough to feel out of place. It's almost like a subtle punctuation mark to end the album and, in doing so, change the meaning of the whole thing. What we might think of the album might come down to what punctuation mark we think this song is. It might be an exclamation mark or even a question mark, but I think I'll take it as an em dash. Trower may be half a century into his solo career at this point but, despite the title of the previous album, he's clearly not done.

Modder - The Great Liberation Through Hearing (2023)

Country: Belgium
Style: Sludge Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 17 Nov 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives

A couple of years ago, almost to the day, I reviewed the debut album from Modder, a sludge metal band from Ghent, which impressed me because it was entirely instrumental, and they kindly sent a copy of their follow-up over for review. It's a better album, I think, even though I'm going with the same rating, because it shifts the most routine song from the end to the beginning, where it works as a mood setter. Belly Ache doesn't do a lot, but what it does is crushingly heavy, an onslaught of sound to get us set. There are things going on under that brutal riffing but they're teasingly kept so deep that we have to pay serious attention to catch the nuances.

That continues into Gazing into Domination, with a little more variety, but it drops away a minute and a half in, just as Spasm did last time out, and suddenly everything's open. It's a rejuvenation, an affirmation of everything good in the world, as if we were confined into a tiny space for so long that we don't remember what we did before it, only to suddenly be surrounded by freedom. There have only ever been clouds and now there's blue sky. It takes a while to adapt, as if we're having to relearn how to see, but we do and, when the walls descend again, we're somehow more alive.

While the whole album is emphatically sludge metal, pairing the doom with a tinge of industrial and upping the distortion even further, there are other things happening here and there to make it rather interesting and, roughly speaking, every successive track does more. Those are beats we might expect from electronica to kick off Feral Summer and again on These Snakes, the latter with a military sort of echo. There are synth lines that feel like alerts or sirens under a few of the songs almost as a substitute for vocals.

Feral Summer also speeds up at one point to hint at thrash, which is impactful with this amount of distortion. The Devil is Digital slows things right down and allows the bass to climb out of the mire to play far more obviously, only to then ramp the tempo back up again with an industrial overlay. I might like Gazing into Domination more than I apparently should as track two, but otherwise, I'm more on board with each track than its predecessor, all the way to These Snakes, the closer, which is the most versatile and ambitious of the lot.

I like this one a lot. The beats are a constant companion for half the song and they provide a real atmosphere to it, reminiscent of djembe, especially during a section that's basically a hand drum solo. There's also something that's almost a vocal and very middle eastern in vibe. It does heavy up and simplify down at points but there are always fascinating things waiting around the corner. What's more, while other songs maintain their generally high level of intensity, this one gradually builds throughout and that works really well.

The band is mostly the same as last time out, only one change evident with Jamal Talibi replacing Maxime Rouquart on the second guitar, but they feel more assured. This is heavy stuff indeed and, if you want to be sonically assaulted, your wish wil be granted here, especially on Belly Ache, but it grows in variety and depth with each of the six tracks on offer until they're somehow playing world music, merely in insanely heavy fashion. I've listened through this album a few times now and each time follows that same arc, where I enjoy the immediate bludgeoning and then let it all grow over me until the end.

I like Modder over most sludge metal bands because they're fully instrumental, a sample here and there notwithstanding, and it's the vocals that tend to be the weakest aspect of sludge for me. At this point, I could actually see Modder adding a vocalist but in a very different style to every other sludge band. I'm thinking more like Jarboe with the Swans, but more ethnic. Get a middle eastern female vocalist on board, maybe add a hurdy gurdy and suddenly Robert Plant will be guesting as a vocalist over epochally heavy riffs. How cool would that be?

Friday 10 November 2023

King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard - The Silver Cord (2023)

Country: Australia
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 Oct 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I blinked again. I believe I've reviewed more albums by King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard than any other artist, this being my fifth, but, every time I find a new one, I realise too that I missed a host more. My previous review was of Omnium Gatherum, which came out last April but they released Made in Timeland earlier in 2022 and Ice, Death, Planets, Lungs, Mushrooms and Lava, Laminated Denim and Changes after it, plus PetroDragonic Apocalypse earlier this year, whose seven tracks apparently serve as the yin to the yang of the seven others here. I can't keep up.

What's more, this album boasts two CDs, each featuring the same songs but with greatly different lengths. The regular album runs a mere twenty-eight minutes, making it rather short for anything by this band, but the other runs close to ninety, every one of these three to four minute songs over ten in their extended versions and the opener, Theia, over twenty. As you might expect, the short versions are snappier and more commercial and the extended mixes are more immersive. Oddly, the tracks on that earlier 2023 album add up to forty-eight minutes so it's an off balance yin/yang whichever way we look at it.

I haven't heard PetroDragonic Apocalypse, but it appears to be another metal album, following in the footsteps of Infest the Rats' Nest in 2019. This absolutely isn't, because it's electronica, though none of the components we think of as being associated with pop music make it so. This is still rock music, even if it's full of pop elements and comparisons will highlight that. For instance, Set is such electronica beats that it feels like house music when it starts out, with a tone right out of the new wave era and a lively attitude that's all seventies funk. Somehow, though, it ends up more like the Prodigy than any of the names you might expect, except perhaps Steven Wilson. He shouldn't be a particular surprise. The Prodigy only become more overt on Gilgamesh.

Notably, there are no actual guitars on this album, if I'm reading the credits right. However, there are plenty of guitar synthesisers. Similarly, I don't believe there are any actual drums, at least in the traditional sense, but there are electronic drums and drum machines. In fact, the core sound for the album stems from drummer Michael Cavanagh's impulse buy of a Simmons electronic drum kit. Fellow band member Joey Walker has said that "as soon as he plugged it in, I thought, 'That's the sound of the album right there."

What all that means is that hard beats are replaced by pulses and riffs are played on synthesisers rather than guitars, five of the six regular band members credited on synths of varied description, only Michael Cavanagh excluded because he's dedicated to electronic drums. Even then, two of his bandmates also have credits for drum machine. However, there are still beats and riffs and this is generally structured like rock music, most obviously a combination of prog and psychedelic, with a lot of Hawkwind in the effects but John Kongos in the drive of Chang'e and Yes in the vocal melody in Extinction.

I've been a fan of electronic rock music for decades, but this doesn't sound like any of the artists I listened to back in the eighties, like Tomita, Vangelis and Tangerine Dream. The latter are likely to be the closest comparison in that world, because they evolved substantially over the decades and became just as important to clubgoers dancing to the beats as those of us who sat in big venues to listen carefully to the depth of the music. However, I'm far less familiar with that era of their sound so I can't offer any comparisons. What I can say is that the Tangerine Dream influence is far more clear on the extended mixes with their long instrumental sections.

This is a fascinating album for me, because it's not remotely like anything I usually listen to, most obviously in the heavily manipulated vocals on the title track, but it is a King Gizzard album, so it's hardly unusual for it to be something completely different. That's kind of what they do. This is just new territory again for them and me. I'm not particularly sold on the short version of the album, not because it's all poppy electronica but because everything about it is so short. Every time they get a groove going, it's over to make way for the next track.

Personally, I'm far more into the longer version with the extended mixes, because the band are able to truly get their teeth into these vibes. I found more influences leaping out on these mixes too. I didn't hear Pink Floyd on the short version of the title track, for instance, but they're there on the twelve minute extended mix. And so, for rock and metal fans, especially those who perhaps found King Gizzard through PetroDragonic Apocalypse, this is definitely one for the open minded, but then that's kind of required for King Gizzard fans.

Thunderstick - Lockdown (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Oct 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Wikipedia

I have to admit that I wasn't expecting an album by Thunderstick to cross my path in late 2023. Its title is ironic, given that this drummer used to wear a mask to perform back in the eighties, when he drummed for Samson; during lockdown, the rest of us merely caught up. I'm not yet working in a cage though. He did that as well. I should add that all that was just before I found rock music in 1984, as he'd left Samson by that point and was realising a solo album that I don't recall. Well, he's worked here and there in the decades since, and he put a new version of his own band together in 2016 with an album, Something Wicked This Way Comes..., following a year later. Six years on and here's a second one.

It's a generous album, running almost eighty minutes but I believe everything is new material but for two late tracks, so I guess it's a double album. It didn't start well for me, with a drag of an intro with dismal voicework that sounds like it should either back a shot on VHS horror feature or serve as the entrance music for a local wrestling heel that we can boo over. However, Torn 'n' Twisted is a decent enough opening track proper and Snakebite grabbed my attention, especially through the lead vocals of Raven Blackwing, about whom I know little, except that she is not the "polygamous ninja" of that name locked up last year in Utah. She's a generation older and hails from Kent.

She's good on Torn 'n' Twisted, delivering a powerful vocal over a relatively straightforward heavy metal song with a good guitar solo. However, she utterly nails Snakebite, which is really a heavied up old school rock 'n' roll song. It highlights how she's really a rocking blues singer reminiscent of someone like Joanna Dean and she provides a serious energy to this band. She doesn't roar all the time but, when she does, as on Those Daze, for example, we pay attention, and, once we're paying attention, we start to realise a lot of what else she's doing when she's not being emphatic.

It doesn't always work. There's a soft intro to Warhead—well a soft song, really, that serves as the intro to the near ten minute epic Warhead and I wasn't sold on any part of it, hers included. When it kicks into higher gear around the four minute mark, she immediately owns it and there's all the nuance and depth that it needs. It isn't just her sounding weaker on that soft intro either, as the backing music echoes her voice so closely that it stops every time she does and that feels all sorts of wrong.

And it isn't that she can't do soft, because she does it to start out the very next song, Snowfall in Space, where it works very well indeed. Later, Dawn of the Crystal Night is a real stalker of a song and, while the guitars rule this one, a good part of its success is Blackwing's soft vocal. She's even more nuanced on I Close My Eyes, the ballad that wraps up the album with yet another excellent guitar solo. So she can absolutely do soft. It's just that that intro song to Warhead feels weak and dare I say out of place.

It's good to hear those strong guitar solos, because this seems to me to be an album of two halves. The first half is mostly hers and the band often seem to be happy with that, dotting a strong guitar solo here and there. I'm a big fan of Snakebite, which delves into slide guitar but it's the standout of the first side. There are other highlights there to be found, but it's fair to say that most of them are her, all the way to her duetting with herself to close out Snowfall in Space. It's when we reach Thunder, Thunder 23, which is nine songs into this behemoth of an album, that it feels like the rest of the band decided to share that spotlight and it's about time.

This one's a blistering old school metal track with a much faster pace than anything earlier on the album. The drums dominate from the outset, Thunderstick making us wonder why he didn't speed up like this a little sooner. Blackwing is good too, but everyone else is finally up there with her. The guitars are joyous, both in the riffing and the solos, courtesy of Pete Pinto and Dave Butters, along with a string of guest guitarists. It's a well crafted song and everyone steps up to the plate, with a strong result.

Valkyrie Warriors follows suit, as does Go Sleep with the Enemy (I Dare Ya), so obviously a worthy single. I'm happy to see that the band thought so too, releasing it that way after Torn 'n' Twisted and before Snakebite. What's frustrating is that, for the most part, the most complete songs are deep into the second half of the album. Snakebite is early, but the album comes alight for me with Thunder, Thunder 23 and continues in that way through most of the rest of the songs, including the softer ones that close it out.

That means that this is a decent album and it's still growing on me, but it's longer than it needs to be. Ditch the intro and Warhead and a couple of the songs that feel like filler and there's a strong and tight three quarters of an hour of new music. Well, mostly new because there is that pair late on that were on Something Wicked This Way Comes... too, Go Sleep with the Enemy (I Dare Ya) and I Close My Eyes, but I hadn't heard them there and they're excellent here. Welcome back, folks!

Thursday 9 November 2023

Lynch Mob - Babylon (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Glam/Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Oct 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Wikipedia | YouTube

I was a little surprised to see a new album from Lynch Mob, given that sole founding member and reason for the band name, George Lynch, said a few years ago that he planned to stop using that name because of its racial connotations. Apparently he changed his mind. Now, I know that Lynch Mob changes its line up more frequently than some people change socks, which has to affect their sound, but I wasn't expecting this particular sound.

Obviously, the primary reason to listen to this is Lynch's guitar solos, which are always fascinating, starting on the opener, Erase. However, when not soloing, this has a strange sound for a band that I remember being rooted in hard rock and glam metal. The tone is very alternative, the guitar low in the mix and the bass high, as if they're trying to emulate Saigon Kick's sound without realising that there really isn't a particular Saigon Kick sound because their sound shifts effortlessly from song to song. There's a lot of sleaze here too, especially in the vocals of Gabriel Colón, who has an Axl Rose thing going on.

What's oddest, though, is that, while the tone sounds alternative, the actual songs feel like more traditional hard rock songs with that sleazy filter overlaid for effect, as if we could fiddle with our graphic equalizers and suddenly they'd sound exactly like other bands, like the Cult on Time After Time or Great White during the intro to Erase. Sometimes they might sound like other songs, like How You Fall, which bothered me for a while until I realised it merged the riff of Rainbow's Gates of Babylon with the phrasing of Iron Maiden's The Sheriff of Huddersfield, of all things.

It all means that there's a constant nostalgic feeling here, just like we've heard a whole bunch of these songs before, but never like this. It sounds decent, even if it takes some getting used to, but I think it's at its best when it's trying to actually be sleazy from the inside, starting with the birth of a song, rather than to just write a hard rock song and apply that sleazy filter after the fact. It's Let It Go that connected for me, because it's so raw it could have been on Too Fast for Love. That's a funky stop/start guitar that's delightfully dirty, as if someone was pouring Jack Daniels on it as Lynch is playing. Is there a bass player on this track? Not all of it, that's for sure.

There's some of that on the title track too, which closes things out, but there's an extra layer that might be keyboards to render it a little more complex. It's another one that mixes genres, with a fresh Rainbow vibe, albeit not Gates of Babylon this time even though the song carries part of its title, but underpinning something far more nineties, maybe Soundgarden at their punkiest but a tinge of Queensrÿche too. So, you know, classic sleazy punk grunge prog. This can be fascinating to dissect and it's why this keeps growing on me.

Initially, I really didn't like this sound. There's a song here called Million Miles Away and I couldn't get past how the sleaze filter didn't remotely push the sound anywhere near Hanoi Rocks. And no, it's not a cover, but the shared song title didn't help the comparison. Neither did how laid back it was. However, I listened to the whole album and kept finding little details that stood out to me, so simple dismissal wasn't an option. After a couple of repeats, I found that I wasn't frustrated by the sound any more. I'd got used to it and actually was rather digging it. It's merely a weird texture to find behind Lynch's guitar. That doesn't mean it's a bad one. It just took me a while to get on board.

In fact, while Let It Go is easily the most immediate song here, Babylon is probably the best track on offer. Not only does it not remotely outstay its welcome at a whisper over eight minutes, I felt that it should have kept going. It had found its groove and was milking it nicely, in a manner that goes all the way back to something like Kashmir. Certainly, that groove kept on in my head after it had faded away on the actual album.

It's been a while since I've heard Lynch Mob, so I have no idea how they got to this sound. George Lynch is the mainstay, of course, because it's his band, and drummer Jimmy D'Anda look like he's on his fifth stint so far this millennium. Other frequent members, who seem to leave the band but return again in the time it takes to walk down to the corner for a lottery ticket, aren't present, so the rest of the band is pretty new. Both Colón, on vocals, and Jaron Gulino on bass, only joined in 2022, which means that this is their first album with the band, as The Brotherhood, their previous effort, is six years old now.

I'm intrigued. I didn't like it for a while. Now I like it a lot. The question is how well this will stay. I guess only time will tell.

Angelus Apatrida - Aftermath (2023)

Country: Spain
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Oct 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Tiktok | Twitter | YouTube

I haven't bumped into Angelus Apatrida's music before, but they arrived with the millennium and put out a steady stream of albums, this being their eighth, two years after their self-titled album in 2021. They hail from Albacete in southern Spain and play thrash metal with quite a variety.

This album starts out relatively traditional, Scavenger playing firmly in speedy Bay Area style, but Cold features a chorus that wouldn't have felt out of place on the Within Temptation album that I reviewed yesterday. That's not unusual for this album, where verses sound like thrash verses but a lot of the choruses are big hookladen efforts that reach far beyond the genre. This one works in a commercial gothic metal style before launching right back into the traditional thrash.

Cold also shifts into crossover during its second half, reminding more of Anthrax than Death Angel, an approach which continues on Snob, the first of four tracks to feature a guest. On this one, that's Jamey Jasta from Hatebreed, who inevitably brings his hardcore background to the song, though the band remain technical behind him. If you're counting, that's three styles so far, each of which is built on technical thrash but doesn't stay there: Bay Area technical thrash, New York crossover and commercial gothic metal. Keep counting.

Those guests are a fascinating mix, so I should highlight them. Three are vocalists, but in different styles indeed. From Jasta's hardcore on Snob, they shift wildly to Spanish rapper Sho-Hai on What Kills Us All and Todd La Torre of prog metal legends Queensrÿche for Vultures and Butterflies. The fourth is a guitarist, Pablo García, best known for a heavy/power metal band called WarCry. That's quite a range and, for those wondering why one of these guys is a rapper, what Sho-Hai does here is fascinating. He almost sounds South American and there's a real Sepultura vibe to that track as it shifts into his territory during the second half. It has no pop element to it and his rapping style is fast, dangerous and a good fit. I don't say that too often.

Fire Eyes is a nice fast thrash song, so I don't know if García just plays along or whether that's him providing an elegant intro. There are more of those on To Whom It May Concern and Gernika, two songs without guests, so maybe not. It's not thrash at all during the midsection, instead a sort of heavy/prog metal song, with a very tasty guitar solo. It often reminds of Iron Maiden, as it did at points during the intro. Again, it has a big hookladen chorus, which only underlines just how much Maiden is on this song. Of course there's a heavy metal bias to Vultures and Butterflies, but it's a slightly more progressive one, as befits the guest.

So, how many genres are we up to now? I'm used to thrash albums lately delineating themselves in pace. There are bands playing old school proto-extreme metal with a thrash base, bands playing a relatively straightforward fast thrash and there are bands who have slowed down a lot and spend much of their time chugging at mid tempo. I have a personal bias towards the faster bands but I'm very nostalgic for that proto-extreme era and find a lot of those bands fascinating. It's chuggers I find less interesting, because the approach gets old for me.

Angelus Apatrida refuse to be thrown into any one of those buckets. They're closer to the middle one than the other two, and I'm happy for that as they blister nicely on songs like Scavenger, Fire Eyes and the instrumental parts of Rats. However, there are plenty of songs here that work at an overtly chuggier pace, Rats moving there during the verses, and others are happy to drop out of thrash entirely to become elegant heavy or prog metal, most obviously To Whom It May Concern, when it's not blistering as it does briefly.

That makes this a highly varied album and the variety really works in its favour. Instead of losing a listener like me by stubbornly sticking at mid tempo, they mix it up from track to track and often in individual songs. I'm good with the chuggy ones because it's not going to be long before there's a speedy part and I love those. I'm happiest there, but a drop into something else for a while keeps everything interesting, especially when they launch into another big hook of a chorus, then blister out of it with heads down and fingers flying.

In short, I like this a lot and, while I appreciate the faster songs the most, it's not as clear cut as I'd usually expect. I like the variety they bring to the table and that ought to translate really well into a live environment. They tour a lot, I believe, though I'm not sure they've made it over to this side of the pond, certainly not while I've been paying attention. I hope they do because I'd love to check them out live. In the meantime, I have seven previous albums to locate to see how they built to this style.

Wednesday 8 November 2023

Within Temptation - Bleed Out (2023)

Country: The Netherlands
Style: Alternative Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 20 Oct 2023
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I've been disappointed with Within Temptation of late, but much of that seems to be because I've been reviewing their EPs. I need to stop doing that and focus on their albums; in the meantime I'd better review in this in two different ways.

From my usual perspective, based on what I've previously heard, this is automatically problematic because I've heard half of it already. Bleed Out contains eleven tracks, seven of which have seen a previous single release, but they've also been included on a progression of EPs. Initially, Entertain You and The Purge were released as stand alone singles, but then they were included on the Shed My Skin EP, along with that song. That trend of including all the new songs up to that point on each new EP, along with one more, continued through the Don't Pray for Me EP, Wireless EP and Bleed Out EP. Thus, Entertain You and The Purge are showing up here for the sixth time. That's nuts. I'm officially done with Within Temptation EPs.

I haven't been as fond of all these new songs on the EPs either but even my least favourite of them sounds a little better here on a full length. Why, I don't know. The main problems I have with them still hold true but they feel somehow better in a relatively consistent full length environment. The vocals work for me throughout, Sharon del Adel getting poppier on most of these songs than even their previous album, Resist. However, there are points where she'll ramp up to something a little closer to the symphonic metal with gothic edges that they're mostly known for. What's important here is that I find that I don't favour one or the other, as they work well as a range.

However, while the light end of the band, epitomised by the vocals, is poppy, veering not only into modern American pop and Celtic lilting, on songs like Don't Pray for Me, but even a sort of floaty tentativeness on Cyanide Love that feels hauntingly Japanese because of its rhythms, the heavy side, that often felt industrial on Resist, continues to morph more into metalcore. I rarely found distinguishing marks between those three guitars, because they exist to combine into a tone, one that's inherently limited, often monotone and rhythmic, so doesn't interest me much. They could have been replaced by a simple keyboard line.

Certainly the keyboards of Martijn Spierenburg become the only instrumental source of melody, very welcome too as the forty-seven minutes run on. My favourite song is easily Worth Dying For, because it feels like an actual song, with dancing keyboards, a strong vocal performance and an honest to goodness guitar solo. There are precious few of the latter anywhere on this album, as it doesn't seem to be important to the band any more. That it also features some effective dynamic play is a bonus. Other potential highlights like Ritual, The Purge and Don't Pray for Me are all let down by the guitars.

Frankly, the only time that guitar tone worked for me is on Cyanide Love, as the contrast between the vocals and instruments reaches its most overt. Del Adel is so light here that she floats in the air in an almost kawaii manner, but the guitars churn in slow and heavy metalcore chords, so deep that they flirt with sludge metal. That one stands out here, because nothing else dares to be that light or that heavy. Putting the two approaches together is fascinating. Is this where the band will end up if they continue travelling down the road they're currently on?

Somehow I don't think so. I think they're more likely moving towards more songs like Shed My Skin and Entertain You, which feature guest vocalists. The former is upbeat and very commercial, with a chorus that reminds of a commercial era Paradise Lost track, but it heavies up during the second half. I kinda like it but I kinda don't at the same time. The latter is a loud pop song, something that I could hear Taylor Swift or Lady Gaga doing, merely with a different filter. While den Adel finds a strong vocal line, it's easily my least favourite song on the album. And that sums things up for me, which makes it hard to rate.

I'm totally on board with den Adel's vocals because she takes quite the journey across these tracks, always remaining interesting, whether she's fluttery or soaring. If I were just rating her, she's 8/10 for sure. The keyboards are massively important, maybe a 7/10, as this would be a wildly different album without them. The guitars are tedious and boring, so much so that I truly wish they weren't there, a 2/10 or maybe a 3/10 if I'm lenient because of that guitar solo. The songwriting is between those extremes and I'm going to go with a 6/10 because of that. That's compared to the 8/10 I gave Resist.

Now, let's see where the next album falls. It could be another 8/10 because they're interesting at this point in their journey, whether I happen to think it works or not. It could be something dismal though. I hope it's the former.

Soulkick - Hide the End (2023)

Country: Argentina
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Oct 2023
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Lead vocalist Pablo Zuccalá kindly sent me a copy of Soulkick's debut album a couple of years ago. I was happy to review it and they were happy enough with what I said about it to send me the follow up. I'm glad that they lived up to the title of that debut, No Turning Back, because this is a slightly more mature version of the same thing and it sounds very good indeed. They hail from Argentina and play a contemporary form of hard rock that's rooted in the classic rock era but with touches of more modern alternative rock, toned down a little here in favour of glimpses at prog metal.

The word of the day is elegance, starting with the mix, which is absolutely pristine. That's elegant riffing to kick off Sign of the Times and a powerful back end to punctuate it. Soulkick remain a four piece band, so the bass of Charlie Giardina is easily identifiable throughout without dropping the sound into bass heavy mode. I liked that about the debut and I like it even more here. Zuccalá is a little reminiscent of Geoff Tate on this song and often throughout the album. He doesn't have the same range, of course, because precious few singers do, but he drops impressively low on Empty Faces given how he's much higher everywhere else, and he never stretches beyond his limits.

If there's a flaw, it's in how he sometimes tries a little too hard to emulate other singers or styles when he could have remained in his own style just as effectively. He doesn't need to, but it's easy to tell when he does. Empty Faces, for instance, may start out almost like an Outlaws song, but it quickly becomes a Metallica ballad with a grungy filter over it, mostly because of the vocals. I preferred The Rope, which starts out with riffage reminiscent of Motörhead but on which Zuccalá doesn't remotely try to sound like Lemmy. The riff remains, however, and it builds and even ends like a Motörhead song.

It's always interesting to try to figure out Soulkick's influences because guitarist Christian Vidal is also Therion's guitarist and has been for well over a decade now, but there isn't anything here of their sound. Instead, they draw from AOR, classic rock, NWOBHM and alt rock, and much of that is in the guitarwork. There's some Scorpions in Sign of the Times, especially during the solo, and Van Halen in Last Goodbye and Reasons. Make Believe ups the heaviness with a neat bass riff to start and there's an even heavier riff halfway through Carved in Stone.

Sometimes, of course, what I hear, isn't necessarily something that I could fairly call an influence. While those nods to Metallica and Motörhead are clearly deliberate, Last Goodbye shifts into high gear with a riff that reminds me of Jan Cyrka's Western Eyes, an instrumental that Tommy Vance used as backing music on the Friday Rock Show. Instead of Tommy's urgent voice running through another rock chart, though, this softens up a little for the sung parts and heavies back up for the instrumental sections, an approach that they employ on many of these songs. I don't expect that Soulkick tuned into the Friday Rock Show or heard Cyrka elsewhere, of course. It'll be coincidence.

Once again, there are no bad songs, merely those which connect better than others on a personal level. I happened to appreciate the attitude of Perfect Day, the sassiness infusing Reasons and the heavy riff in Carved in Stone, but you may focus on other details and be just as right as me. There are no definitive answers, just individual tastes. I might suggest that Voices in the Night and On the Road are the least interesting songs on offer, but I have to add that the former is almost textbook solid. I could see that being someone's favourite song of the eleven on offer. It just doesn't aim to do anything fancy because it doesn't need to.

My favourite song surprised me because it's the most alt rock song here, namely The Lighthouse. I heard that influence a lot on the debut and it's less evident here, but The Lighthouse is an alt rock song, even if it's clean and nuanced, especially in the vocals. Zuccalá betrays a slight accent there, but it just adds a subtle exotic flavour because he chooses to sing in English throughout, similarly to someone like Klaus Meine. Sure, we know English isn't their first language, but they're fluent enough to deliver and intonate effectively. Those accents add rather than subtract.

I have no idea how well Soulkick are doing down there in Buenos Aires or internationally, now that the internet has shrunk the world. Based on their first two albums, they should be doing very well indeed, thank you very much. I hope that's the case. Now, how about album three in 2025?

Tuesday 7 November 2023

Ozric Tentacles - Lotus Unfolding (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Oct 2023
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This is the sixteenth studio album for the Ozrics and surprisingly the first that I've reviewed here, because I missed 2000's Space for the Earth, though I did cover Ed Wynne's solo album, Shimmer into Nature, a year earlier. The core of the band nowadays seems to be Wynne, who's been there since the very beginning in 1983, and his son, Silas Neptune, who wasn't even born then, but who joined the Ozrics in 2009. Also in the current line-up is Vinny Shillito, who has been their bassist a couple of times before going back to 1990 but who rejoined this year.

If you haven't heard the Ozrics before, this is as good a place as any to be introduced to what they do, which is an enticing and unique combination of sounds. They play instrumental rock, but with a keyboard presence as fundamental as the guitar, individual pieces of music often moving from one to the other. Sometimes they seem to play entirely synth-driven landscapes, only for the electronic clouds to part so that an electric guitar can emerge from them and suddenly they're a guitar band again with us focused on the soloing. Needless to say, this is usually seen as psychedelic rock.

The thing is that there's a lot more in this sound than just keyboards and guitars. There are points when the Ozrics play space rock, as on Deep Blue Shade and midway through Crumplepenny, when Hawkwind inevitably spring to mind. However, they're looser and less driven, because they take as much from world music and new age as they do from, say, the Grateful Dead and Tangerine Dream. There is a drummer in the band, who's Pat Garvey, debuting for the Ozrics here, but there's also a lot of drum programming, so Storm in a Teacup opens up the album sounding more like pop music than rock. Of course, it soon develops into something deeper and more complex.

You probably won't be surprised that these pieces of music tend towards length. Storm in a Teacup runs nine and a half minutes and it's not the longest track on offer, Crumplepenny almost reaching ten. The shortest, Deep Blue Shade and Burundi Spaceport, are still over five. However, it covers a lot of ground. From that pop intro, it becomes a lively psychedelic rock track, but there's prog and space rock in the mix and it also moves through jazz and funk before it wraps. Like any good Ozrics track, it's all about immersion. You can lose yourself in these pieces of music like you're in a jungle and you haven't seen the sky in a couple of hours, but you're OK with that.

Each of the six tracks here works that way, but they explore different jungles, if you'll allow me to stretch that simile. It's not a bad word to use for Storm in a Teacup and Deep Blue Shade anyway, because they're both bright and warm and rich. If we could turn them into visuals, jungle wouldn't be inapplicable. However, Lotus Unfolding, befitting its title, is far more open. It's slower and far more interested in wide open space than dense jungle. Saskia Maxwell's flute takes the lead and we feel like we can see forever, even though life is bursting into bloom all around us. It gets richer and denser as it goes but the keyboards never stop emulating flying creatures.

That may suggest that immersion into Ozrics tracks is immersion in nature and that's roughly fair, the greens all over the cover art entirely appropriate, but it's not always the case. Crumplepenny feels far more artificial because it plays with odd sounds and rhythms that feel man made. It's not remotely industrial in tone, but it does the same sort of thing that industrial does, especially early on, in a new age kind of way. Also, when the guitar solo shows up three minutes in, it sounds like a guitar solo rather than a bird or a treetop or a meandering stream. Again, of course, it evolves to something more organic, adding some space rock in the process.

Oddly, while the titles of Green Incantation and Burundi Spaceport might suggest which way they lean, that's not entirely true. The former has artificial aspects in addition to organic ones, while the key word in the latter is Burundi rather than Spaceport, as it dips neatly into African rhythms. It all highlights just how diverse the Ozrics can be within the framework that they defined so long ago. It also highlights how much there is on this album to discover, once you've allowed it to wash over you a couple of times without digging deeper.

As with so much of the Ozrics' output, this is immediately accessible but also neatly immersive. It's not the best album they've ever put out, but it's consistently strong even if there isn't a standout track. Maybe that's why it's consistently strong, because whatever these songs are doing, they end up working well together and we end up happy for three quarters of an hour. Of course, if you're a fan of the Ozrics already, you don't need this review. If you haven't heard them before, dive in and see what you think. If it's up your alley, then there's quite a back catalogue for you to explore.

Diabolic Night - Beneath the Crimson Prophecy (2023)

Country: Germany
Style: Black/Speed Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Oct 2023
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Diabolic Night have been around for a decade now and they released their debut in 2019, but they are new to me. They're Germans, based in North Rhine-Westphalia, and they play a combination of black and speed metal. I'd lean towards the latter as the primary component, because they sound old school when they play up the speed, more like a proto-black metal band. They often sound like early Whiplash with a veneer of black metal laid carefully over the top. However, many songs also feature sections where they tone down the speed and these have a tendency to feel far more like atmospheric black metal. Check out the beginning to Pandemonium for a great example.

Unusually for black/speed metal bands, Diabolic Night write longer tracks, all eight on offer here passing four minutes with a pair of more epic tracks that respectively approach seven and exceed eight. That allows them to set the stage on a track like Pandemonium, before launching into high gear to blister at us. It also allows them to take their time during the midsection for instrumental breaks. It's this structure that sells them to me, because it combines the blitzkrieg of black/speed metal with a more substantial proggy NWOBHM edge that I highly appreciate.

Each highlight for me does all of those three things, Pandemonium perhaps being my favourite of these tracks, with Voyage to Fortune close behind and pretty much everything else not far behind that one. Starlit Skies adds a couple of minutes, which doesn't remotely make the song too long; it simply blisters for longer in its core section and boasts a longer atmospheric outro. However, that song is followed by Vicious Assault, which ditches those extra subtleties and immediately finds top gear, reminding again of early Whiplash but with a Kreator-style chorus. It's the shortest track on offer at 4:12 and that makes a lot of sense.

Interestingly, they're primarily a one man band, that one man being Kevin Heier, owner of Mortal Rite Records, who performs as Heavy Steeler. He sings lead and plays all the guitars and bass, with occasional addition of synths. The only other musician in play is Christhunter, who may or may not be an actual member of the band as against a session hire. The generally reliable Metal Archives lists him as session only, but he served this role on both albums. It's telling that his approach is an old school speed metal one, rarely dipping into the traditional blastbeats of black metal.

I would guess that Heavy Steeler thinks of himself as a guitarist rather than a vocalist, because he shines brightest in that role, never feeling like he's overstretching himself, even at his fastest, but I rather like his vocals. They're raspy and deep but they're also mostly intelligible, so they're closer to thrash vocals than anything from black metal. He never shifts into growls or shrieks, though he does throw in a few death grunts here and there, underlining that there's a Celtic Frost influence here, along with Whiplash and early Bathory.

They collectively place the sound in the mid eighties but the slower sections are a little earlier. In songs like Starlit Skies and Arktares Has Fallen, they often reminded me of Paul Di'Anno-era Iron Maiden, of songs like Remember Tomorrow. That all works for me, because these are some of my favourite eras in metal, after the classic and prog rock of the seventies had been infused by punk energy and then started on the roads to extreme metal. I wasn't immediately sold on it, because Revelation is a long intro and Tales of Past & Mystery is my least favourite track proper, but it grew on me with repeat listens and The Sacred Scriptures and then Pandemonium were able to bring me firmly on board.

I don't believe Heavy Steeler plays with anyone else, but his tastes here make me wonder what he puts out on Mortal Rite. The only release I've reviewed here at Apocalypse Later is Lynx's Watcher of Skies, which I enjoyed, but as a hard and heavy band, they're at the lighter end of Mortal Rite's spectrum, which primarily revolves around speed, thrash and black metal, with those elements in combination more often than not. I should check out more.