Monday 15 January 2024

Scanner - The Cosmic Race (2024)

Country: Germany
Style: Heavy/Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Jan 2024
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Wikipedia | YouTube

I remember Scanner from their excellent debut album, Hypertrace, back in 1988. They're another of many German heavy/power metal bands but they're one of the first, because they started out in 1977 as Reinforce, changing to Lions Breed in 1982—who released one album—and eventually Scanner in 1986. However, this is only their seventh studio album, for reasons I can't fully explain. As far as I can tell, they've never actually split up, though they have completely changed the line-up behind founder guitarist Axel Julius more than once.

They just took long breaks, I think, so this arrives no fewer than nine years after The Judgement, which showed up thirteen years after Scantropolis. I haven't heard those two, but this only seems like a strong release to make up for lost time for a few tracks, perhaps until Warriors of the Light three songs in. After that, it's still decent, but it loses the sort of strength it needed to keep fans happy after so many years.

Initially, it's great. The Earth Song doesn't reach Warp 7 speeds, the track which opened up their debut, but it's an agreeably fast one. I actually remember Scanner being faster than they are, on the basis of tracks like that one. In 1988, thrash metal was my go to genre with speed metal right behind it, so I'd have eaten up songs like Warp 7, even if the rest of the album was a tad slower, in more of a power metal style. I'm all for that pace in 2024 too, but The Earth Song has more going for it than just speed. There's also a tasty guitar opening and a neat chanting section late on.

Just like their debut, things slow down after that but I'm more open to that now than I was then. Face the Fight is a real anthem of a song, high energy power metal with a hook-laden chorus that we're singing along with on our first time through. Warriors of the Light follows suit, maybe a tad less effectively because of a weaker midsection, but still very effective indeed. At this point, I was totally sold on this new Scanner, but they can't quite maintain that sort of stellar opening.

I say this new Scanner, because it's another mostly new line-up. Julius is still there, of course, as he has been throughout. Greek vocalist Efthimios Ionannidis is the only other member who's been in the band long enough to have performed on their prior album, having joined in 2003. Bassist Jörn Bettentrup is six years into his run with the band, but this is his first recording with them. Second guitarist Dominik Rothe and drummer Sascha Kurpanek arrived in 2023, presumably as a package deal, given that they've both played for Marauder and Taskforce Toxicator.

I should add that both those bands play thrash so I'd say that this material must feel slow to Rothe and Kurpanek, even with a few fast sections here and there, like the opener to Scanner's Law. It's fair to say that there are a number of points where the latter is the fastest aspect to the band, on that song particularly. Of course, I wish they'd speed up a bit more in general, but they play power metal well. Nothing quite matches Face the Fight in the anthemic chorus department, but a bunch of other tracks do try, Scanner's Law among them.

Others fall a little short for me. Dance of the Dead has its moments, but it doesn't seem to be too sure about what it wants to be. It starts out with a Dio vibe, before finding another big chorus, but there's some grind in between the verses. Each section works, but they don't all work together. A New Horizon kicks off with some lovely guitar, turning an Outlaws-esque riff into a layered power metal setup, but it falls into routine. It's the song I wanted to speed up the most, even if I liked its slower guitar. I liked the folk vibe midway through closer The Last and First in Line but the rest of the song around it isn't quite as enticing.

The most frustrating song is Space Battalion, again one that moves through a number of sections that all work individually but somehow not together. The reason for the frustration is that it kicks off relying on a rather well known riff that's lifted from Megadeth's Symphony of Destruction. It isn't quite the same, and it's a much busier song around that riff, but it's so recognisable that I'm singing along with Dave Mustaine before I realise that he's not there.

If I'm sounding acutely negative here, I don't mean to. I enjoyed this album and it's great to hear something new from Scanner. I remember Hypertrace and enjoyed its follow-up, Terminal Earth in 1989, but I don't believe I've heard the four albums in between that pair and this one. I should, not least because of the variance in line-ups. It seems that at least one of them had a female vocalist. However, it promises much for three neatly different tracks and the rest of the album simply can't live up to that promise.

Greta van Fleet - Starcatcher (2024)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 21 Jul 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Two thoughts struck me quickly the first time I heard this, the third album from the Frankenmuth, Michigan rockers. One is that it's good and consistently so. The other is that it isn't a patch on its predecessor, The Battle of Garden's Gate. Those two thoughts stayed with me through a second, a third and a fourth listen. Everything sounds good, from the opener, Fate of the Faithful, which is a strong way to start, to Farewell for Now, which is just another song rather than a memorable epic that closes everything out. However, not once did this awe me in the way that the previous album often did.

Fate of the Faithful plays up the Led Zeppelin comparison that has hung over the band's shoulders like an albatross, as if they're leaning into it now instead of trying to fight it. Last time out, I heard a lot of Geddy Lee in the vocals of Josh Kiszka and other influences as unusual as world music from Africa. Here, it's mostly Zep, Kiszka reminding of Robert Plant in more ways than just flow. Sacred the Thread opens up how John Bonham would. Meeting the Master opens up how Page would. It's all there in the details of the songs, not just their sweeps.

On The Battle of Garden's Gate, the most overt influence from Zeppelin was in the maturity of the songwriting, something that still leaps out whenever my local classic rock station plays them and I realise all over again how mature they were, trawling in wildly different sounds to use as they put together a serious body of work in a such a short time. Here, most of this has roots in that body of work, building new songs from its sounds.

What that means is that, while every one of these ten songs does sound like Zep, it doesn't follow that Starcatcher sounds like a Zep album. It doesn't, because it's not remotely as diverse. There's a little folk here in some of Josh or Jake's quiet moments and no discernible world music at all. It seems fair to say that every one of these ten songs works with the same sonic template instead of searching for a new one each time and finding it.

That lack of diversity this time may be why all these songs sound good but none of them stand out in the way that Broken Bells, Tears of Rain or The Weight of Dreams did on the previous album, to name just three. I'd call out Sacred the Thread as my favourite track, as the vocal melodies are so effortless and so effective that the entire band falls into a wonderful groove. Fate of the Faithful is up there too but that's probably my entire favourites list right there in two songs.

That doesn't mean that anything sucks. Drop the needle anywhere on this album, whether at the start of a track or just throw me in halfway and I'm going to be listening through the whole thing again a couple of times, enjoying every single track. In other words, this isn't a bad album; it's just not its predecessor and that's a bigger problem than it perhaps should be. It meant that, while I enjoyed another impressive ten tracks from Greta van Fleet, I couldn't quite lose an abiding sense of disappointment.

Is that fair? I don't have a problem with bands effectively borrowing another band's sound if they create good music out of it. I've reviewed a couple of bands here at Apocalypse Later who started out as tribute bands, but evolved to the point where they released new music that naturally took on the flavour of the covers they'd been playing. Of course, Blind Golem's A Dream of Fantasy has Uriah Heep at its heart. Of course, Fragile sound like Yes. I don't believe that Greta van Fleet were ever a Led Zeppelin tribute band, but it's easy to imagine that they were and they evolved to write their own music in that style. That seems fair to me.

But is it fair to be disappointed by an otherwise excellent album just because it doesn't reach the scarily high bar set by its predecessor? I'm in two minds about that. Had I not heard The Battle of Garden's Gate, I'd surely think more of this one. However, it doesn't do a lot of what made the last album so outstanding and that would hold true even if this was the first thing I'd ever heard from Greta van Fleet. So I'll leave it with that thought. It's good stuff. I enjoyed all ten songs and did so just as much on my fourth time through as my first. I'm giving it a highly recommended 8/10. That said, it's also a step backward for this band, a reminder that not everyone can hit the peaks every time out and that maybe they've lost track of why they're such a great band.

Friday 12 January 2024

Magnum - Here Comes the Rain (2024)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 12 Jan 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

For fans of classic British rock, the second week in January every other year has become when the new Magnum album will drop and they delivered once again this year, following 2018's Lost on the Road to Eternity, 2020's The Serpent Rings and 2022's The Monster Roars. Sadly, this year's album was overshadowed by the death of founder member and perennial songwriter Tony Clarkin a mere five days before its release date. He's been a fixture throughout my musical life, as Magnum were one of the first bands I heard when I stumbled onto rock and metal in 1984 through The Friday Rock Show and, courtesy of their album Chase the Dragon, then a fixture on that show, were also one of my early favourites.

That was their third and this is their twenty-third, if we exclude the two by Hard Rain that Clarkin and Bob Catley released during the brief gap between the two incarnations of Magnum, but it's a strong one, from the very beginning. I gave its two predecessors an 8/10 and this is an even easier 8/10, surely my favourite of the three. It touches on each of the things that Magnum do incredibly well and so it works not just as an album but also as a reminder to anyone who hasn't heard them in far too long that they can still do everything they used to do and just as well.

The first three tracks highlight that wonderfully. Run into the Shadows is a lively rocker with just a hint of edge to Clarkin's guitar and highly recognisable melodies in Catley's vocals. I enjoyed it on a first play but it's grown on me nicely with more listens. The title track grabbed me immediately, though, with that slow but powerful groove that's pure Magnum and the effortless way it prowls forward is quintessentially them too. Some Kind of Treachery slows down further as a ballad, led by Catley's glorious voice. It's not as crystal clean as it used to be way back in the day; the passage of decades has added a little grit but that doesn't hurt his delivery of ballads because it gives him a little more emotional emphasis.

I liked all three of these, the title track the most, and I liked After the Silence too, another rocker, after them, but the album elevated for me with Blue Tango, which is when I knew this was likely to be another 8/10. There are ten tracks here all told and they fall naturally into sections of four, three and three for me. Those first four are a strong way to kick off the album, reminding us of what Magnum do and do better than anyone else. The next three serve as serious emphasis, upping the ante a little with magnificent effect.

Blue Tango is an obvious highlight, a heavy song for Magnum built on a glorious driving riff that's right out of the Deep Purple playbook. It's rooted in good old fifties rock 'n' roll, not just bulked up by guitar but also the keyboards of Rick Benton, who channelled Jon Lord for this one. I love heavy seventies organ and it's great to hear it deepen a song like Blue Tango. The Day He Lied is another emotional song relying on what has always been their strongest aspect, how they set slow grooves effortlessly into motion and build them with characteristic melodies. This riff is exquisitely simple, just a few notes but, when Magnum play it, it's like the hills and valleys of a whole nation distilled down to its purest essence.

And then there's The Seventh Darkness, just about defeating Blue Tango to be my favourite song here. It's certainly the jauntiest on offer, kicking off with a sassy trumpet by Nick Dewhurst which continues to punctuate the song for an elegant sense of emphasis. That's a highlight but so is the saxophone of Chris Aldridge that duets joyously with Tony Clarkin's guitar in the midsection. It's a pristine rocker, this one a little faster than usual, albeit not as driving as Blue Tango.

And then there's the final set of three songs that I believe stand alone, just like every track here, but also fall into what feels like a thematic section. Broken City begins with distant explosions, as if we're in a war zone, and its story is told mostly through voice, the guitar replaced by strings and a tasty harp. There are no clues in the lyrics as to which city Catley is singing about, which is surely deliberate, as it continues that way through the final two songs, I Wanna Live and Borderline. It's all of them, even though the latter opens with a middle eastern flavour.

I Wanna Live is quintessential Magnum pomp with another earworm chorus and a wonderful solo from Benton's keyboards late in the song. Borderline is punchier and oddly seems reminiscent of Oasis in the vocal melodies, but, appropriately enough, it has some excellent and prominent solos from Clarkin on what may well be the final track that we'll ever hear from him. It wasn't planned, of course, especially as I believe his passing was sudden and unexpected, but it's touching anyway.

I have no idea if Magnum will continue without him. Musicians have come and gone over the years and that's par for the course for a band who have been around over half a century, but it's hard to imagine them without either Clarkin or Catley, who have been there throughout. Given that most of their songs were written either entirely or primarily by Clarkin, it's especially tough to imagine what new songs might sound like without him at the helm. However, if this is it for new material, I have to say that they've left a magnificent body of work for any new fan to discover. RIP, sir.

Metal Church - Congregation of Annihilation (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy/Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 May 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

Metal Church's previous studio album proper, Damned If You Do, was the first album I reviewed at Apocalypse Later, on New Year's Day six years ago, and it was a great way to start, as a high point in their already stellar career. Since then, all we've seen from them is a strange compilation, From the Vault, which was decent but, given how it was built, an inevitably patchwork affair. That's not because they've been sitting on their hands, though. There's a very good reason for a long period of inactivity and that's the untimely death of vocalist Mike Howe, in 2021. RIP, sir.

Howe was a powerful singer who fit the Metal Church style perfectly, even though he was always up against it because of whose boots he was filling. Original vocalist David Wayne was one of the most recognisable vocalists in metal at the time and nobody's ever quite managed to match him. Howe was able to sing in the same style without being forced into copying him and he brought an impressive new era to the band. Both of them are seriously missed. And, of course, that just puts any new singer into an even harder situation. Not only does he have to follow Wayne but he also has to follow Howe.

That new singer is Marc Lopes, who's also the current singer for Ross the Boss and Let Us Prey. on top of a four year stint with Meliah Rage. I'd found him a little much on the most recent album for Ross the Boss, Born of Fire, and Let Us Prey is a metalcore band, but he seems to be very much at home in Metal Church. He reminds of Howe a little more than Wayne, but he's obviously paid lots of attention to both while not trying to mimic either. He's clearly confident here, delivering some sustained power screams on the title track and Pick a God and Prey that underline why they hired him to begin with.

Coincidentally, those two are highlights, after a decent opener, Another Judgement Day, that never quite manages to grab me. Congregation of Annihilation has the first earworm chorus and the latter opens just like the band always should, with that patented combination of chug and power that they made their own long ago. It always boggles my mind how effortlessly they deliver power. When thrash bands slow down to do this, they sound like they're wussing out and I can't wait for them to speed back up. On a Metal Church song, it's the most powerful thing ever. The same applies to the mellow section on Children of the Lie. When other bands do this, they lose their power. When this band does it, they remain just as powerful as they always are.

Lopes is in playful mode on Children of the Lie, moving from one speaker to the other and back as he spits out lyrics. Some of my favourite tracks this time feature that playful mindset, especially a bonus track, My Favorite Sin, because the playfulness there isn't just Lopes, in probably his finest performance on this album, but also the guitars of Rick van Zandt and Kurdt Vanderhoof. This one gets seriously jaunty for a power metal song. Why this is a bonus track, I'm not sure, because the album runs just under fifty minutes with this and the excellent Salvation, which close things out a lot more effectively than All That We Destroy, which would technically be the closer otherwise.

I'm wary of calling out any other personal highlights, because this is a grower of an album, so the tracks I'd call out now may end up not being the ones that stay with me most. It's probably safe to place Pick a God and Prey above everything else, but what follows is likely to change, because this wasn't an immediate album for me, growing substantially on repeat listens. Many of the growers come midway and late in the album, as the more immediate material comes quickly, after the odd opener that still hasn't impressed itself on me.

Me the Nothing and Making Monsters at the heart of the album are two strong growers, as is All That We Destroy. They didn't leap out on my first time through, but started to make their case on a second and felt strong by a third. In between is a something rather different, Say a Prayer with 7 Bullets, which is a bouncy creature indeed, sounding rather like Metal Church covering an AC/DC track that we've never heard before. I'm not sure why that works so well, but it does.

And so, after four times through, I think I need to move on to my other review for the day. This is a new Metal Church, with a new lead singer, but it's still fundamentally the old Metal Church with a recognisably old Metal Church sound. Lopes fits in well and I see no reason why the fans shouldn't adopt him immediately. As always, the power this band effortlessly generates is what makes them special and it's here just as much as it always has been. This may not be Damned If You Do, let alone The Dark, but it's not a bad follow-up at all and it's a very good one indeed if we factor in what's happened between them.

Thursday 11 January 2024

Technology of Death - Skutočný nepriateľ (2024)

Country: Slovakia
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 11 Jan 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

From something highly unexpected to something acutely familiar. I've never heard Technology of Death before, because this is their debut album, but I've heard this brand of thrash metal plenty of times. They hail from Slovakia, where they formed in 2019, and they don't do a lot that could be called original, but they do it very well indeed and it's one of the particular brands of metal that I can simply never have enough of: fast thrash with clean but rough vocals.

They start us out by giving us a false sense of security, because the intro, inevitably entitled Intro, is a minute of intricate acoustic guitar duet, and then the first track proper, Nenávisť, begins with the sort of repetitive chug that gives me sinking feelings. Clearly the guitarists here, Šuro and Andy, are highly capable, but I wondered about whether they'd speed up or keep this a chug fest. It's an entire minute before drummer Rasťo ups the pace and fortunately they mostly stay at the faster speed. When they slow down, it's more for reasons of dynamics than to try to make the pit churn.

The vocals come from bassist Tomáš, who probably thinks of himself as a bassist more than a lead vocalist, but he spits out lyrics in Slovak with admirable attitude and urgency. There's not a lot of polish on his voice but his rough rhythmic delivery works perfectly with this style of thrash, a fast but straightforward approach that's guaranteed to clean out your system, leaving you knackered but also rejuvenated. This often felt very German to me, with their ruthless efficiency and rough delivery, Kreator or Sodom generally speaking but with Destruction coming out too in the guitar solos. It doesn't shock to find out that the first track title, Nenávisť, translates to Hate.

I liked the first three tracks—Nenávisť, Koniec (The End) and T.O.D. (presumably just Technology of Death)—but Depresia felt like a step up with a gorgeous riff and a nice drop into a bass solo, with a just as nice shift back up into top gear again, and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath following it very well. That's not the cover that we expect it to be, by the way; it's an original song that merely adopts a thoroughly recognisable title for no apparent reason. These are the sort of blistering songs that make me wish I was three decades younger and more able to dive into the pit and lose myself for three and a half emphatic minutes.

Skutočný nepriateľ is strong too, firmly reminding that this isn't all rooted in Teutonic thrash. The vocals never sound like John Connolly, but the music behind them often reminded me of Nuclear Assault, that punky crossover edge on top of technical thrash. Of course, as I type that, this track shifted firmly into Iron Maiden territory, so it's probably fair to say that there's no obvious single influence here. And that's a good thing. This may sound familiar generally rather than conjuring up some sort of Slovakian spin on thrash metal, but it's still accomplished stuff that feels like it's effortless but still meaningful for the four musicians who founded the band and still comprise its line-up today.

So this sounds great to me. If you're a thrash fan generally, you're going to dig this. I like it here in a studio recording and Technology of Death sound precisely like the sort of band I want to stumble into a club and hear on stage. Trust me, I'm not going to be propping up the bar while they're on. I think the telling questions are going to come down to how much you value originality and how well it's all going to stick in the brain. I'm a big fan of originality and I'm not finding any here, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing because the musicianship is excellent and the effect is pristine. So, it falls to how memorable the songs are and that's not something I can answer yet. Ask me in a few days.

Whether they do or not, it wouldn't shock me to find myself coming back to this. It's fast, powerful and uncompromising. It's also highly consistent without the songs blurring into each other. This is the sort of thing I often throw on to cleanse my palate after an underwhelming release or if I need to reset after an unexpected gem. This is the sort of album that steals my focus away from what's stuck in my brain and also gifts me what energy I need to shift onto something else. I'll also run it by my son too, because this is the sort of thing he loves to listen to while he's walking home from work. I think he's going to dig this one too.

Hexvessel - Polar Veil (2023)

Country: Finland
Style: Psychedelic Folk Rock/Black Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 22 Sep 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Tumblr | Twitter | YouTube

Well, here's something that I totally didn't expect. My last experience with Hexvessel was with an album called Kindred in 2020, which became my Album of the Year, just nudging out Solstice. Both of those albums were folk music, though former took that into psychedelic rock but the latter into progressive rock. It's a haunting album and I've gone back to it often since, as well as checking out a few odd earlier tracks on YouTube. I haven't listened to earlier albums yet, perhaps with a little fear that they might not be up to Kindred's incredibly high standard.

Well, this follow-up, their sixth studio album, is hard to compare because it adopts their style into a completely different genre, namely black metal, and it's a fascinating shift that I'm still coming to terms with. The black metal is in guitars, now exclusively Mathew McNerney's domain because I don't see Jesse Heikkinen in the line-up, which are no longer acoustic psychedelic folk but a full on wall of sound bleakness. The change is from pastoral meadow or maybe sparse desert to nighttime blizzard, literally day to night. However, neither the vocals nor the drums follow suit, except for an anomalous couple of moments.

That means no blastbeats, except for Eternal Meadow and Homeward Polar Spirit, which are both as frantic as we expect from black metal drumming. Otherwise, Jukka Rämänen keeps a slow beat, which fits the bleakness but carries a little more inherent warmth. It fits reasonably well, because it means we pay attention to mood more than we might usually for black metal and there is some variation there. It also forces us to slow down while we listen, which helps us pay closer attention to the voice, which delivers lyrics rather than serving as another musical instrument.

And yes, that means no harsh vocals, except for the very end of Older Than the Gods, where there are hints at something harsh. This is less successful to my thinking, because these approaches are almost mutually exclusive. What made McNerney's vocals special on Kindred was how much sheer nuance he was able to infuse into songs. Even when other instruments did something interesting, I was always listening to the words he was singing and feeling them in the way he felt them. It was a highly immersive storytelling technique and individual words carried powerful meaning. Here, he seems to do the same thing, but I just couldn't hear that nuance. I mostly couldn't hear words. The lyrics may be as meaningful but I couldn't back that up or give examples.

So the overall effect is very different. What preserves from the psychedelic folk sound is a strong sense of ritual. It was easy to fall into rhythms and flows and those remain powerful, if not of the same level of impact. McNerney's voice stands out best on Crepuscular Creatures, where all that nuance is still evident, but A Cabin in Montana is the track that easily carries the most impactful groove because the beat works perfectly with the voice. It's mostly on these two songs that I was able to catch lyrics. "Who speaks to the world?" "Freedom!"

Elsewhere, I like that overall effect as a sound but not how it plays out over the whole album. It's fascinating to hear what I still think of as psychedelic folk music drenched in feedback and with an entirely clean voice almost battling it out for dominance with an abrasive guitar. However, over a full album, this is generally too opaque, too distant and too dense, except in rare moments, like a snatch of something special at the very end of Listen to the River, as the wall of sound fades away and we hear what was behind that curtain.

Of course, I have to wonder if this is a one-off experiment or an indication of where Hexvessel are going. As the former, it's certainly interesting and, on occasion, it works rather well. Some tracks continue to grow on me, even if I have to pay serious attention to figure out why. Ring is one, with some excellent guitarwork underneath the wall of sound. As the latter, though, it seems unlikely to me that this approach will work long term. It's inherently limited and, as such it's missing a lot of what I find special in this band. By a lot, I mean far too much. I guess only time will tell.

Wednesday 10 January 2024

Chimeras - Silent Cries in the Stifling Haze (2024)

Country: Hong Kong
Style: Atmospheric Doom Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 6 Jan 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter | Weibo | YouTube

I've only reviewed one album from Hong Kong thus far at Apocalypse Later, from a one-man post-black metal project called Voyage in Solitude, so it's about time I reviewed another. This is a band, who put out a demo and a single in 2018 but are debuting at the full length here. They play doom metal with an aching atmospheric mood but in a way that isn't always as slow as we might expect. Also, both lead vocalists are female, one lead and one backing, but one sings clean and the other harsh, depending on what a particular song needs in a particular moment.

The lead singer is Fraise Tam and she sings entirely clean on Devoidness. This is elegant doom that builds patiently with quietness and spoken vocals until crunch arrives two minutes in, even then a crunch that's tempered by a soft piano melody over the top. The song is slow and Tam's vocals are haunting without moving far into gothic. There's melancholy in the keyboards and pleading in the guitars. This fits an established doom metal template well enough, but there are points where it's surprising because it speeds up further than we expect.

Hidden Label adds the harsh voice, which I'm guessing belongs to guitarist Winnie Manka but I'm unsure isn't also Tam at points. Even on Mind Deception, where the two voices duet, it could be a couple of tracks from one singer combined. Another element that shows up on Hidden Label is an affinity for symphonic flourishes, presumably courtesy of Andy Shun Hung's keyboards. This never truly becomes symphonic metal, but it starts to hint in that direction here and moves closer still on The Seven Doors - Barbe Bleue -.

This is where the album coalesced for me, the contrasts between clean and harsh vocals and also between slower aching drive and symphonic flourishes, Tam reaching especially high and Manka staying low. There's a real epic feel to this one, even though it's no longer than Devoidness and a minute or two shorter than the next couple of songs, Mind Deception and Order of Chaos. There's a gorgeous clockwork section a minute and a half in and an excellent guitar solo too, proving that Chimeras aren't merely able to generate mood, they can be innovative with it too.

Mind Deception may be their oldest song, given that it was their 2018 single and it also featured as half of their demo, which is interesting to me, because it's easily the slowest song here, kicking off that way right from the outset and not speeding up until after the halfway mark of eight and a half minutes. It drops into a peaceful midsection before that with spoken vocals—well, whispered vocals—and sparing but melodious keyboards, before picking up that emphasis and chugging on for a while. Eventually it slows back down and ends with some elegant keyboard work to take it all home. It's my favourite song here apart from The Seven Doors - Barbe Bleue -.

That leaves two, because it seemed logical for me to run through this one uncharacteristically in order because of how it changes, gradually introducing new elements as it goes. Order of Chaos starts out very much like the last couple of songs, but speeds up considerably a few minutes in to almost blister along for a while. This never becomes thrash metal or anything like that, but it's a speedy pace indeed for doom and it stays there for a surprising upbeat minute, leaping headlong into it from another slow keyboard section. This is the real epic of the album and it's a tasty one, with a fascinating midsection, again much of it courtesy of Andy Shun Hung.

Winged Psyche, however, refuses to do almost anything that's gone before, not even approaching metal at any point. It's hardly an outro as a six minute plus song, but it's sung entirely clean and the guitars are either acoustic or quiet electric. From atmospheric doom metal, this shifts firmly into Wishbone Ash territory. That's not a bad thing, of course, and it's a good song, albeit more of a showcase for Tam than for the guitarists. It's just unexpected and what you feel about it may be in part due to whether you like being unexpected forty minutes into an album.

I liked this. It seems to me that Chimeras are still figuring out precisely what they want the sound of the band to be, possibly because these songs were likely written over quite a period of time. At least Hidden Label and Mind Deception are at least six years old, potentially up to eleven, as the band formed as far back as 2013. I don't know how often they play live, but I hope they write more frequently going forward, so we can hear an entirely new album that represents exactly who they are at that point in time.

Roz Vitalis - Quia Nesciunt Quid Faciunt (2023)

Country: Russia
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 Oct 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Prog Archives | VK

I like the title of this album, which is Latin for Because They Don't Know What They're Doing. Of course, they do, because Roz Vitalis have been around since 2001 and this is their eleventh studio album. I've seen the name often, because they were founded by my favourite Russian harpsichord player, Ivan Rozmainsky, who was a one man band until expanding in 2005 to a group setting. This is much more modern than his chamber prog band Compassionizer, who were named for an album by Roz Vitalis, not least through the use of a lot of electric instrumentation. However, there are a couple of songs here feturing his Compassionizer bandmates.

Like Compassionizer, this is entirely instrumental progressive rock, but it's guitar led just as much as it's keyboard led, courtesy of guitarist Vladimir Semenov. This is highly varied, from the opener, Bait of Success, which is fundamentally riff-based and the guitar is only one of many instruments working that riff, to Premonition, which rocks out with full on guitar solos. One in particular soars in patient fashion, reminding a little of the Alan Parsons Project. Walking starts out in the Mark Knopfler style, another song that often reaches for a heavier guitar. However, the need isn't just heavy here and often calls for a quieter acoustic guitar instead of an electric one.

While Rozmainsky does play harpischord here, his keyboard work is also varied, from a quiet piano interlude called Fountain (and a quiet piano outro called Nocturne) to wilder space rock sections on Premonition and more traditional electronica on Wides. He plays a metallophone on Walking, which is a xylophone with metal bars, just like a glockenspiel, in a section that comes right out of a harpsichord solo and segues straight into rock guitar. He's a sort of glue here: even when he's not performing on a lead instrument, he still controls where the song is going as a composer and links sections with his keyboards.

Where clarinet is also a lead instrument in Compassionizer, Roz Vitalis is happy to stick to guitars and keyboards. However, there are other instruments here, many of which get moments to shine on Bait of Success, which often feels like a round robin giving each of them a chance to play with the core riff. It's played on guitar and it's played on keyboards, of course, in a variety of different ways. However, it's also played by flute and also on trumpet, which adds something new to the sound. Flute and trumpet lead the way on Daybreaking for quite a while and it's delightful.

I've liked each of the Compassionizer releases I've tackled thus far, but it was clear from the very first track of the very first album that they have no interest in being like anyone else. That was an entirely new experience for me, introducing me to chamber prog, and it's fair to say that they're a prog fan's prog band. I don't want to call Roz Vitalis commercial, because they're still doing their own thing, but they are far more accessible. Most of this music flows, sometimes very organically in a Philip Glass-esque way on Bait of Success. Much of it is up tempo and highly engaging. Sure, a part of the musical audience isn't going to go for instrumental music or for prog in particular, but it's easy to imagine a random fan coming into this blind and skeptical and leaving a clear fan, especially with songs like Daybreaking and Wides.

It gets more challenging eight songs in with The Man Whose Wings Were Cut Off, which is many of the things the album was up until that point but also a lot more. It's happier to be jagged at points, playing with less obvious rhythms and flows. It features heavier drums and some heavier guitar, but also drops into very delicate ethnic instrumentation, like rubab and doira with a harpsichord backdrop, because this is one of those songs with the whole of Compassionizer on it, even though most members of Roz Vitalis are still here too, bass player Ruslan Kirillov excepted.

Premonition is the epic of the album at just over nine minutes and it's a good track, but The Man Whose Wings Were Cut Off does more in under eight. It's far less accessible but it's also teasingly complex after listening to so many smoother, less challenging songs, and we almost pay attention all the more because of that. Beautifulness is a midway point, half challenging and half accessible, with obvious moments for Leonid Perevalov's bass clarinet, but it doesn't seem to have as much of a coherent identity. Moments strike me but I keep returning to The Man Whose Wings Were Cut Off instead.

While I've heard a lot of Rozmainsky's work in Compassionizer, this is my first experience of what I guess is his primary band, Roz Vitalis. I like this a lot, but it's easy music to like. It's a different side to Rozmainsky and he's often dominant, but Semenov is just as often dominant on guitar and I'm drawn to that. I believe Alexey Gorshkov is a guest here, but his trumpet stood out for me too, as a wonderful additional voice in this instrumental mix. It's been five years since the previous album from Roz Vitalis, presumably to give Rozmainsky time to build Compassionizer and they've never gone that long between albums before, so I'd guess we'll see another one sooner than 2029.

Tuesday 9 January 2024

Panzerchrist - All Witches Shall Burn (2024)

Country: Denmark
Style: Black/Death Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 5 Jan 2024
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Panzerchrist have been around for a long time, formed in 1993 and with a steady stream of studio albums, seven of them between 1996 and 2013. They play death metal that's blackened massively, so it's fair to expect plenty of both those genres from them. It took them ten years to knock out an eighth album, Last of a Kind, which I completely missed last July when I was swamped with events. That may be because of line-up issues, because there are only two long-standing members in the band nowadays.

That's Michael Enevoldsen, who founded Panzerchrist, but changed roles within it over time. His initial instrument was drums, which he played on their first two albums, and he also contributed keyboards. He isn't even on their third album, Soul Collector, though he wrote half the songs, but he switched to bass at that point, which he still plays to this day, keeping keyboards as a side role. Frederik O'Carroll is on his second stint with the band, but he's put in over a couple of decades in total. Everyone else joined in 2023, so were brand new on Last of a Kind.

That's Danny Bo Pedersen on guitar, Sonja Rosenlund Ahl on vocals and Danni Jelsgaard on drums, though he left the same year and has been replaced going forward by Ove Lungskov. I'm guessing that Pedersen and Ahl came as a double act, after their previous band, Arsenic Addict, split up in 2022. Both are strong here, with Ahl perhaps most obvious, not least because she also happens to be the first female lead singer Panzerchrist have had across a whole series of vocalists.

I haven't heard Last of a Kind, but I'm rather intrigued by it now, because this EP moves through a heck of a lot of territory. Sabbath of the Rat is what I expect from them, furious drumming over a set of chord progressions from the guitars and raw vocals leading the way. It's a good opener and it features an elegent slower section in the second half. This song is on Last of a Kind, though I'm not aware of whether this version is changed in any way, given that it isn't the EP's title track. In fact, there isn't one, so it feels like a deliberately varied presentation without focus being meant to be given to any one of the tracks.

That variety comes in with Stone of the Graveless, which starts out pure industrial then adds slow and heavy riffs over the top. This is doom metal at the front but industrial at the back, with Ahl a breathy death metal voice over the top of it all. It's unusual and, even before the band moved on to two further tracks that do different things, I started to think about Celtic Frost, not because it sounds like them but because, like they famously did, it feels like Panzerchrist are choosing to do exactly what they want to do, whether people expect it or not.

Stone for the Graveless does speed up, with a fascinating mix of fast double bass pedals and slow beats, but it retains a somewhat different feel, especially as the industrial sound never entirely leaves. It takes over again early in the second half and, while it's hard to tell, I think it remains in place even when the furious drumming kicks in over the top. The guitar gets more interesting in the second half too. Eventually, with a minute or so left, it becomes more traditional for a while, but it never stays there. There's always something interesting coming.

And, as if by magic, Satan is Among Us is something else that's interesting. It opens almost like an avant-garde classical piece, dissonant strings and dancing flutes. The drums bring in the band and we're back off and running, with Jelsgaard's frantic feet and Ahl's raucous voice. Again, the tempo is never a set thing and it continues to evolve over its five minutes. Stone for the Graveless passed six and is really starting to grow on me. This one isn't as much, as the changes seem clumsier. I'm pretty sure there's a male voice joining in at points to duet but I'm not seeing a credit for one, so it may all be Ahl. She certainly has the range for it to be her throughout.

She's a Witch wraps up the EP and it's the point at which the keyboards start to show themselves, with an atmospheric horror movie type intro. Ahl actually sings on this one, rather than relying on her death growl, and it starts to feel a little like a theatrical setup that someone like Alice Cooper might use as a live show intro, with a quirky female voice and a church organ. What surprises here is that the intro runs on past a minute, two minutes, three minutes and we suddenly realise that there's not much left, so this is what we're getting. It's the song.

So, there's a serious versatility here, well beyond what we might expect from a blackened death metal band. I'm suddenly intrigued by what might be on Last of a Kind, noting that the one song here that's also on there is the one and only traditional piece on offer. Maybe the other three are what the band created during their sessions for the album and realised weren't ever going to fit. Maybe the album sounds this thoroughly diverse. I may have to go back and find out. I'm going to go with a 6/10 here, but that's because it doesn't feel particularly coherent and because the first two songs seem to be in a different league to the second two.

Spidergawd - Spidergawd VII (2023)

Country: Norway
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 10 Nov 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter

While they may have the least inventive album titles since Chicago, Spidergawd instead choose to pour invention into their music and this is another immense album from them. I gave Spidergawd VI a 9/10, so they were up against it to match that this time out. I've been away from writing music reviews for a couple of weeks as I nailed down a film zine with a particularly urgent deadline but I listened to this a lot over that time and it keeps getting better. It was always going to be at least an 8/10 but I'm enthused by it enough to warrant another 9/10.

I think it was the instrumental section late in the second track, The Tower, that's what started me onto the path to a 9/10. The opener, Sands of Time, is a strong song to kick things off, but it's not a particularly unusual one, with a sort of Magnum-esque effortlessness. It's very commercial with a clear arena rock influence, often with a Sammy Hagar era Van Halen vibe to it as well, but it's very tasty too. It's impeccably written and impeccably performed. It just doesn't carry much in the way of invention.

The invention I expect from Spidergawd arrives with a delightful carnival-style intro to The Tower, almost in a way that Dire Straits might do, though their opportunity for this one would have been Tunnel of Love and they went a different way. A minute in, it finds a proggier vibe but with riffing like Tank. This is an impeccable groove and it only gets better when it shifts into that instrumental section late in the song, which is gorgeous, starting a trend that continues unabated over the next few songs.

Dinosaur is better again and it's a great example of a song that grows on repeat listens. It may be my favourite of the first seven tracks, though Bored to Death comes close. That has another neat galloping groove and another great instrumental section, this one longer too, though there are backing vocals floating over the top at points. These are sublime songs and the saxophone I tend to expect from Spidergawd nowadays shows up early on too. I had missed that, because it's not as prominent on this album until we reach the closer. I kept catching glimpses of it but it vanished in most instances as if it was never there to begin with and I was merely dreaming.

As we shift into the second half, Your Heritage and Afterburner continue in much the same vein, especially the latter. Every one of these is a good song while it's being sung, Per Borten I believe handling that perhaps exclusively here, as I only see Hallvard Gaardløs credited on bass. He does an excellent job and I don't want to cast any shade on his mike work, but every one of these songs also elevates when it evolves into an instrumental section. This band, with Borten again leading the way on lead guitar, find magnificent grooves as easily as falling off a log and grow them well enough that I found myself wondering what an instrumental Spidergawd album might sound like.

I believe Your Heritage is the first single this time out and that may make sense. It's close to being the shortest song here at just over four minutes—only Afterburner is shorter—and it's the one I'd call closest to their Thin Lizzy style, in the riffs and also in the solo. It's another good one, because there are no songs here that aren't good ones, at the very least, but it's a long way from the ones I'd call out as favourites.

Before I get to the closer, because that's absolutely my favourite, above the various gems I called out on the first half, I should mention Anchor Song, because it's the only other song here. There's a real weight to its intro, which is the heaviest moment on the album. The song proper calms and emulates the tone of much of the rest of the album, but there's also a slight alternative vibe to it as well. It also features another fantastic riff. But to that closer.

It's called ...And Nothing But the Truth and it's the epic of the album, even though it's only a little longer than five minutes and not close to the six minutes of The Tower, itself hardly long when we start talking prog. This one ratchets everything up to eleven and unfolds as an absolute peach of a closer. It starts out with the saxophone of Rolf Martin Snustad and builds through acoustic chords reminiscent of Pink Floyd to a more emphatic version of everything we've heard thus far. Borten's more emphatic with his vocals and even more emphatic with his guitar, delivering my favourite of many favourite guitar solos. There are maybe six songs here, out of eight, that absolutely blister through their last minute or two, but this one has to end an album rather than just a song and it's easily up to the task.

So, yeah, this is a second 9/10 in a row from me for a Spidergawd album. They're less proggy than even I'm used to and I only came in with Spidergawd V. However, they're still absolutely on top of their game and this is highly recommended Norwegian hard rock indeed.

Monday 8 January 2024

L'Âme Immortelle - Ungelebte Leben (2024)

Country: Austria
Style: Darkwave/NDH
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 5 Jan 2024
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Here's another band new to me who may not be to you, given that they've been around since 1996 and this is their fifteenth studio album. L'Âme Immortelle, which translates to Immortal Soul, are an electro-rock band from Vienna whose sound has apparently changed over time and back again. Initially, it seems, they played darkwave, but gradually got heavier and moved into NDH, a genre I still know far too little about, even though I do know Rammstein and have now heard Oomph! and an array of others. However, later on in their career, they apparently started moving back again.

All I know is what I hear on this album, which feels less like what I know as darkwave and more like NDH lite. All the elements I expect from NDH are here, except the crunch doesn't have the impact that I'm used to. They have all the setup that Rammstein have, and some of it has edges, but every time Rammstein would kick in hard with a huge back end, L'Âme Immortelle don't. Part of that has to do with them fundamentally being only two people, Thomas Rainer and Sonja Kraushofer, both of them vocalists with the latter the lead singer and the former also playing keyboards, which I'm presuming are the only backdrop to the voices. The beats are presumably programmed on a drum machine.

Its absence of that crunch means that this often reminds me more of eighties new wave, especially as Kraushofer sings with a pop voice. Rainer provides some darkness when he opens his mouth on the opener, Was Wäre, Wenn, because he has a harsh edge to it. However, he shifts to new wave as well on War of Silence, which is lighter again. It might be NDH without the oomph, if you'll excuse that pun, but it's also darkwave without the dark. It wouldn't have surprised me to discover that I heard this track a few decades ago and simply forgot. The heavier songs here are the ones where Rainer sings more, such as the title track, which he kicks off and which plays out as a duet.

The only song where both Kraushofer and Rainer sound dark is Nie genug, even though it picks up quite a jaunty pop beat. He's certainly darker than she is on this one but she plays along more and the result is irresistible. The fact that it also features plenty of dynamic play too is just a bonus. It probably helps as well that it's bookended by two of the poppier songs in Push and Nur für euch. I should add that I like both of them, even though it's mostly the heavier songs that stood out to me on a first listen and even more so on repeats, with one notable exception in the closer that I'll talk about next.

Kraushofer moves into more of a musical theatre style for Regret, initially a ballad but one that's built a lot further than ballads tend to go. There's musical theatre throughout the album, but it's most overt in the final track, Widerhall, which means Echo and is as creepily atmospheric as what we heard from Till Lindemann in the piano version of Mein Herz Brennt and for many of the same reasons. She simply commands our attention, even though the musical backdrop unfolding behind her is notably subdued except for one brief section two thirds of the way in. It's easily my favourite piece here, all the way to its delightfully underplayed finalé.

If that suggests that there's a heck of a range here, then I'm doing my job right. Initially, I wanted to figure out if this was rock or pop, which seemed like it would depend on which mode the band is going here, heavier NDH or lighter darkwave. What I found was that there are songs that have to be called pop, whether War of Silence, which is old school new wave, or Own Ways, which feels like something off a David Lynch album. However, there are songs that are clearly rock and they're not just the heavier ones. And, of course, there's the musical theatre aspect, which isn't usually what I tend to appreciate but which is right up my alley here. This is dark and expressive musical theatre.

That genre-spanning depth kept me listening to this for a few days to try to figure out its secrets. I know I like it but I think I have to be German or Austrian to grok how appropriate this combination of genres feels and I'm not. However, I'm finding it fascinating so I'll continue to dive into NDH and electro-rock when I can.

Girlschool - WTFortyFive? (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Hard and Heavy
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 28 Jul 2023
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I was diving into CoKoCon prep when this album came out late last July and lost the opportunity to listen and review, but I wasn't going to lose out on doing that in my catch-up January. I remember Girlschool well from the eighties, though I wasn't around early enough to see them start. I was on board by Running Wild and had caught up with their earlier records by then too, courtesy of them being played on the Friday Rock Show. They were never the most innovative or virtuosic band out there but they never tried to be. Like their frequent tourmates and collaborators, Motörhead, the point was to just play rock and roll.

They do precisely that here on what appears to be only their thirteenth studio album, seven years after Guilty as Sin in 2015, and some of these songs sound just like classic Girlschool, merely with a 21st century production job that's agreeably heavy and clear without being entirely clean. There's always a level of grit in a Girlschool song, even one with the catchiest hook. There's a lot of grit on this album and there are plenty of great hooks, from the very outset on It Is What It Is, which is a strong opener.

The best aspect is exquisitely simple: Girlschool stick to the tried and true approach and turn out a bunch of songs that rock. That's it! You don't need a critic like me waxing lyrical about this aspect or that when that's all they care about doing. It's enough to point out that they do it very well and that, while this is decent on a first listen, it gets better with each repeat. There's nothing fancy in the songs that gradually leaps out for us to notice. It's just down and dirty rock 'n' roll played with a metal edge and an eye to oomph and melody.

However, the worst aspect is pretty much the same thing, not because taking this straightforward approach is a bad idea—it isn't—but because there is one song that feels a little different and it's so impressive that it ends up reminding us that there could have been more songs like this one but there aren't. That song is Cold Dark Heart, which has a real character to it. That's a wonderful riff to underpin everything, even though it's not particularly complex, but the melody, which is hardly complex either, got totally under my skin. It's easily the highlight of the album, but ironically, the rest wouldn't seem like they were missing something if it hadn't been included.

Cold Dark Heart isn't a particularly deep song lyrically but it also sets a mood with its story, which few of the other songs do. Most of them are lyrically unadventurous, settling for routine concepts, like It Is What It Is, It's a Mess and Up to No Good. They're all about exactly what you think they're about and nothing more. I started to look ahead and think what Into the Night, Are You Ready and Party might be about. And yeah, they were.

The only song that might need a little introduction is a classic call out to their fans, Barmy Army, which was the name of the Girlschool fan club way back in the day and still describes the diehards. The only song that tries to dig a little deeper into a substantial subject is Invisible Killer, but it's a song about COVID that would have been spot on three years ago but now feels a little past its due date. It certainly doesn't add anything to the conversation in 2024 when there are probably plenty of important things still to be said.

And suddenly I'm feeling negative, which wasn't my intent. I seriously doubt that you're reading a review of a Girlschool album for innovative music or incisive lyrics. You want songs with huge riffs, catchy hooks and an overriding sense of fun and that's exactly what this album delivers. This is an impressive album indeed from that standpoint and while I can happily say that Cold Dark Heart is a little more metallic, It's a Mess is poppier and Believing in You goes for more of an AC/DC hard rock vibe, there isn't a duff track anywhere to be found.

It also ends well and in particularly touching fashion. Sure, the final track, a cover of Motörhead's Born to Raise Hell, featuring guest appearances from Biff Byford of Saxon, Duff McKagan of Guns n' Roses and Phil Campbell of, well, Motörhead, does nothing new with the song, but it has no need to. What's important is that the previous Girlschool album came out on 13th November 2015, which was a day after we lost Philthy Animal Taylor, a month before we lost Lemmy and a couple of years before we lost Fast Eddie Clarke. That's the entire classic line-up of Motörhead, who were closely connected to Girlschool for decades. I won't pretend I didn't shed a tear listening to this cover.

It's also a firm reminder that, while we all miss Motörhead, we've also missed Girlschool but they are still with us. That's still Kim McAuliffe on vocals and guitars and Denise Dufort on drums, the roles they've played since moment one in 1978. On bass is Tracey Lamb, on her third stint with the band, her first coming back in my day in 1987. The new fish is guitarist Jackie Chambers, who has almost a quarter of a century with the band under her belt, more if you count the years when she was writing with them. This is the old Girlschool, WTFortyFive years in, and they sound as good as ever. Cheers, you lot!

Friday 5 January 2024

Black Sky Giant - The Red Chariot (2024)

Country: Argentina
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Jan 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram

Black Sky Giant, one of my favourite South American psychedelic rock bands, tend to knock out an album every January, occasionally adding another later in the year, and here's their 2024 release, a year to the day since Primigenian. I say "their" but I still know nothing about the band, which is very possibly one highly talented multi-instrumentalist recording in his basement somewhere in Rosario, Argentina. Whoever's responsible, I'm a confirmed fan of theirs because this is the third emphatically reliable release in a row that I've heard from Black Sky Giant.

As I've mentioned in my previous reviews, they play a form of lively psychedelic rock that's always in motion. I don't think I've heard a single track by them where I feel like I'm sat in one place just looking at some sort of spectacle; I always feel like I'm being transported through that spectacle, usually on the surface of some alien planet. While there's always a space rock tag on the album's page on Bandcamp, the same caveat as ever applies. Sure, I'm out there somewhere when I hear this, but I'm firmly planted. I'm not travelling through the cosmos, I'm travelling through the cool desert geography of a very large rock in space. I have no idea which planet I'm on but it's not this one.

This is more of the same, but with a few more tweaks. One becomes obvious on the title track that opens up the album, because it does so like an eighties goth song perked up in the early industrial era, before it develops into another psychedelic journey. A Timeless Oracle goes back to this sound too, as if it's a Bauhaus song played at double speed. It's an odd feeling, as if we're looking at this landscape through frosted shower glass rather. It's definitely more mechanical than anything I've heard from the band before, but it never trumps the organic feel that's inherent throughout. It's there on Submerged Towers too, so it's definitely a slight direction shift.

I like all three of those tracks but I like Path better. This one begins with a heavy chord and moves on slowly. As I mentioned, Black Sky Giant's music is always about motion for me but it's rarely this slow. It's steady too, as if we're unafraid of anything that shows up in our vision and from any side, given that the guitar darts around like it's playing every inquisitive animal on this planet. Even at the three minute mark when it gets dangerous and we speed up and that fauna gets agitated, we still feel safe because we're armoured. Two and a half minutes later, it all calms down again, as if we've passed the danger area or perhaps simply made friends with whatever was in it.

Danger is a rare creature in Black Sky Giant's music. Illuminated by Reflection is more typical for them, because there's all the exploration without any of the danger, either apparent or ignored. It's a more joyous trip, even when it bulks up late on. And that's how the album works through its second half. If there's danger, it's weird western danger, which is wild and unexpected and harder to plan for, so we just maintain an element of awareness wherever we go but don't overly concern ourselves with what might be out there.

I've praised the bass a lot on previous Black Sky Giant albums and every instrument does its job on this one, but, especially as the album moves towards its end, the guitar comes to the fore in ways that deserve credit. Everything here is instrumental, so it could be said that the guitar is soloing all the time on every track, but it's often playing a part. On Electrical Civilization, it feels open, as if whatever Moebius-esque vehicle we're travelling in has an open top and we're standing up and expressing our pleasure to our surroundings. I almost suggested that a passenger stood up to play guitar but I've never felt like there are passengers in these Black Sky Giant vehicles; I'm always on my own, revelling in the isolation.

Even more than Electrical Civilization, Augury is the first track where the guitar solo feels as much like a guitar solo as it does some sort of living being or emotional outburst. It's very tasty indeed, even though it's overshadowed by the best guitar on the album, which is on the closer, In the Sight of the Mountain God. This is the epic of the album, which isn't unusual for a closer, but it's only six minutes long, which doesn't seem particularly epic. However, it does bring back some of the weird western flavour that is never far from Black Sky Giant's sound.

And so this is a third 7/10 in a row for Black Sky Giant at Apocalypse Later. They certainly work in a very specific niche but they've nailed it and I relish these return trips to wherever it is that they're taking us.

Soen - Memorial (2023)

Country: Sweden
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 1 Sep 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I found Soen on their fourth album, Lotus, and I liked them a lot. They've changed since then, with a steady move away from the Tool influence that was overt on that album to something much less progressive and much more mainstream, but still unmistakably Soen. These ten songs are simpler, especially in the bass and drums, but they're still powerful and the hooks are just as strong as ever, which is what this band does better than so many other bands: to maintain a serious level of power whatever they're doing, even at their most melodic. They don't just write hooks for their choruses, they put them in verses too and the riffs support that wonderfully throughout.

The increasing simplicity of the music, which suggests that progressive metal isn't going to cut it as a label for long, if this far, was one of the first things I noticed with this album. Another was its impressive production, which is crisp and clear and makes it feel like metal even when it's shifted down into mere rock music, which it does often, in the way that Metallica really played rock music for a while but it felt like metal anyway because of the tone and production. On occasion, the tone even seems similar. There's a ballad to wrap things up too, Vitals, and that maintains its power as well, even in its quietest moments.

I liked this immediately but not emphatically. It took a while to grow on me, partly because of the general approach that was obvious from the first track, Sincere, but also partly because the song after it, Unbreakable, was so obviously the standout. Everything else seemed to sit in its shadow for a few listens through. However, I gradually realised that, even if those songs aren't as obvious or as immediate as Unbreakable, they're all still damn good songs. And so, from liking it from the outset, this turned into a grower. I was going with a 7/10 until my fourth or fifth time through but it became clear that it's an 8/10. Maybe I'll keep going up if I listen long enough.

It's also a very accessible album. Soen fans are likely to dig it, even though they're clearly getting more commercial. It's telling that the most progressive sections are probably the guitar solos, as they sometimes remind of Dave Gilmour, especially on Hollowed, Sincere and Icon. However, Pink Floyd did the same thing that Soen are doing, gradually moving away from progressive to mainstream, so "most progressive" here isn't really particularly progressive. However, it's wide open as to the rest of the potential audience. I can see alt rock fans and nu metal fans liking this, for a start. The path to this sound seems obvious from Floyd, Opeth or Metallica, but also from Disturbed or Pearl Jam, perhaps even Creed.

Much of that is because they calm down a lot for verses. Songs will kick in hard with big metal riffs from Cody Lee Ford and often surprisingly slow drumming from Martín López, but whenever Joel Ekelöf is ready to sing, those riffs strip away or calm down so the vocal melodies stay paramount. Violence is a great example but it's far from the only one here. It makes it easy for us to dig light moments as well as heavy ones, especially as the power is always there regardless.

I say Ekelöf because he's the lead vocalist here, as he's been since the band was founded in 2010, and he's becoming the strongest aspect, if mostly because the complicated passages of songs on previous albums that kept us paying attention to bass, drums and even keyboards generally aren't here this time out. That gives Ekelöf even more focus than he already had as a stellar singer, but he shares that spotlight on Hollowed with a female voice, delivered by Elisa Toffoli, who's Italian but carries a subtle Celtic lilt at the end of phrases. It's not really a duet, because they alternate their vocals for the most part, but both shine on this one, surely the most emotional song here.

It's Hollowed that has the most overtly Pink Floyd inspired guitar solo and it's Memorial after it that has the most overtly Metallica inspired riffing, but it's not a heck of a lot of songs that send me leaping at comparisons. Does Incendiary shift into Alan Parsons Project territory? Sure, I could throw that out, but there's not a lot here that sounds like other people.

Put simply, this sounds like Soen to me, even if they're still evolving their sound with each album, and that's an especially refreshing thought because, while I thoroughly enjoyed Lotus, I heard it as a Swedish take on Tool. I heard that obvious early influence much less on 2021's Imperial, as it sounded like Soen but with Tool often coming to mind. Here I had to stretch to find Tool moments. This is the first Soen album I've heard that sounds almost entirely like themselves.

And now I need to stop listening to Memorial, because I must be on my tenth time through now. It keeps getting better and it's only the fact that Unbreakable remains unchallenged in my mind by anything else here that I'm not thinking about a 9/10. All these songs are excellent, so an 8/10 has to be fair. The question is whether that's enough or not. At this rate, the next album, perhaps due in 2025, may well be right from the outset.

Thursday 4 January 2024

Wanted Inc. - Dead for the First Time (2024)

Country: Germany
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 5 Jan 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Tiktok | YouTube

Wanted Inc. aren't new kids. They've been performing under this name since 2010 and five further years before that as The Wanted. This is their fourth album, but it's my first by them, because the previous one, Embarrassment to the Establishment, dates back to 2018.

Frustratingly, it's a mixed bag from the outset. I was impressed from the outset because there's a tasty lead in to the opening track proper, Hostile Reaction, as a growing extended scream after the intro builds into the crunch. The catch is that the crunch feels quiet. Most albums I listen to tend to have a similarly levelled volume but this one needed to be turned up and, when I did that, it still didn't feel like it had the requisite crunch. The worst thing about the album is the production. Gradually I was able to adjust my ears but it's a weird feeling to listen to a new album in 2024 and have to compensate for the 2004 sound.

Often what that boiled down to is that I enjoyed what the band are doing, but wished I could hear them on stage as they're meant to sound. I wonder how many more songs would pop then than do now. The band sound very capable and, on my first time through, they alternated between feeling like a decent, albeit run of the mill, thrash band that were enjoyable enough but I could drift away from easily and a stronger thrash band who didn't want me to wander off so grabbed my attention back and told me in no uncertain fashion to quit getting distracted.

They did that a lot here. For every song that felt acutely routine, like Night Capturer, they followed up with a belter, in this instance Grilling the Globe. That's a fast song and I like Wanted Inc. at their fastest. The guitarwork blisters, courtesy of Hermann Weiß and Daniel Feuerer, even if both suffer from the production, and it remains strong even when they give way to a sample and then shift to chug mode to wrap up the song. Whatever speed they go on this song, they do it very right. Hannes Waschler, who has the longest tenure in the band, keeps a glorious beat too.

Unfortunately, Grilling the Globe remains the fastest track on the album, because I'd have liked to have heard a lot more at that speed, but there are others that blister, even at a slower pace. Mind Cleaner stubbornly stays midpace for far too long but, when it doe speed up, it's excellent. That's a common thread on this album, because I constantly wanted them to speed up and, every time they did and things felt right, they slowed back down again.

I should also mention that I tend to see Wanted Inc. listed as a thrash/death metal band, but I hear the first half of that consistently over the latter. I do see that Flo Schmöller is a new lead vocalist, joining this year along with Heiko F. Böhm on bass, and I wonder if his predecessor had more of an overtly death metal voice. There's maybe a hint of death growl in sustained syllables but that's a bit of a stretch. Mostly he sings in a traditionally rough thrash voice with more of a hint of shouted -core vocals than a death growl. He does the job but I wanted more edge than he had to offer.

This probably sounds like a negative review and I didn't intend it that way. A 6/10 from me is still a recommended rating. I try not to review albums that I don't believe are worthy, but I do wonder if Wanted. Inc's sound has changed over time. I found a lot of problems here but I also want to hear them live to see how they play on stage because I have a feeling I'd rather like them there without being hindered by this rather un-beefy production. I also want to hear how Schmöller sounds in a live environment. Of course, I'm a long way from Bavaria so I'm not likely to hear them live soon. I hope I get the chance at some point. In the meantime, I have three previous albums to check out.

Soft Machine - Other Doors (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 30 Jun 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Prog Archives | Wikipedia

It's been said that Soft Machine were the most important of the various bands who emerged from the Canterbury scene, but I've not heard enough by them to judge. I know that I've struggled with Gong, whose driving force, Daevid Allen, was a founder member of Soft Machine, but nothing I've heard thus far was quite so experimental. However, they've not done a heck of a lot lately, a string of eleven albums between 1968 and 1981 followed by only one until now, 2018's Hidden Details.

Therefore I was keen to take a listen to this, featuring a few long term members, one for the final time. Drummer John Marshall, who had four separate stints with the band, including the majority of the seventies and the entire period since their reformation in 2015, passed away in 2023, so this is his last contribution to their discography. John Etheridge is still with us but, even though he was in the band in the late seventies and in the eighties, his current run is his longest. Roy Babbington retired in 2020 but returns here to play bass on a couple of tracks, including a memorable showing on Penny Hitch.

That's the second track here and it's more substantial than Careless Eyes before it, that being an agreeable interplay of flutes and electric guitars. This one mixes bass, drums and keyboards, then adds a memorable saxophone that makes it feel complete. An electric guitar solo from Etheridge in the second half is too much for a while, noodling over a textured backdrop rather than merging with it, like Theo Travis's sax does. It works better at the end of the track, but it takes time to get there, as indeed it does on the following track, Other Doors.

As a result, this may play a lot better to jazz fans than rock fans, though the album as a whole fits well between the two. I was expecting prog rock but this is closer to jazz fusion. Whichever it may count as, it's also relatively accessible. Careless Eyes starts out highly accessible, as an incredibly easy song to listen to, and then it gets progressively jazzier as if it's moving up a scale. We might not realise we're listening to jazz until we get to Crooked Usage, when the drums ditch a pretense of playing rhythm and start to jam as a lead instrument and the bass goes off on runs everywhere. However, it's still not wildly out there, the album waiting until Fell to Earth to really challenge.

That's ten tracks into thirteen and it's a prowler from the outset, with rumbling guitar and bass, a teasing set of cymbals and a dangerous saxophone. That saxophone has been our friend for many tracks thus far, always courteous and helpful enough to walk old ladies across the road. It shows up late in Crooked Usage and is almost a voice of reason there, bringing the other instruments back into line. Here, it's a different beast entirely, threatening anyone within range. The piece almost ends a minute in, as if the band are ready to wrap things up with a flourish, but it continues on and only gets more frantic as it does so.

I can easily see unwary listeners liking this album immediately because it's just so nice but getting to Crooked Usage and wondering what they signed up for. More experienced prog fans would be a lot more knowledgeable but still run through the same scenario with Fell to Earth being the point at which they question. Either way, they'll probably skip back to track one and listen through again with very different ears. I take that as a good thing because it doesn't throw us in at the deep end and hope we can swim. It gives us lessons for a while and then reveals that we're over the Mariana Trench. Well, maybe not quite that deep but notably deeper than we were.

There are interesting touches outside those two tracks. Joy of a Toy is one for two reasons. One is that it starts out as if it's going to be a jazz improvisation on Heartbreak Hotel. Those are easy to recognise chords! It doesn't go there, but where it goes instead includes what seems to be a weird effect for Etheridge's guitar that sounds rather like it's being used to tune a radio. I'm not sure it works but it's certainly worth the attempt. Maybe Never features plenty of chirpy keyboards, as if this piece was travelling to the same deep space places that the android in Glass Hammer's Arise did last year.

The other note that I'd throw out is that I really enjoyed the bass on this album. Jazz is a genre in which every instrument can play lead and, well, is rather expected to. What's interesting is that I'd call out both bassists: long term member Babbington as a guest on Penny Hitch and especially on Now! is the Time, where the interaction between guitar and bass the entire purpose for this piece, but also Freddy Baker, his replacement, especially on The Stars Apart.

And so this doesn't start out like it's going to be an interesting album, with the easy listening that comprises Careless Eyes, but it does get there and it stays there, all the way to the final track that may well be the best on the album. That's Back in Season and it's also the longest of them at seven minutes, except for Crooked Usage at eight and a half. I think it's because because once we realise that we've moved from chilling to asking questions, we're engaged enough to want to figure out a firm answer or three. Where this fits within Soft Machine's back catalogue, I couldn't tell you, but it's much more accessible and much more interesting to me than Gong.

Wednesday 3 January 2024

Narbeleth - A Pale Crown (2024)

Country: Cuba/Spain
Style: Black Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 5 Jan 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives

From what I can see, Narbeleth were a Cuban band but moved to Spain in 2020 when their founder Dakkar relocated from Havana to Pontevedra in Galicia, home of one of my happiest discoveries at Apocalypse Later, Blue Merrow. Of course, they sound very different, because Narbeleth play fast black metal. Never mind all the versatility the genre has found lately, this doesn't depart far from its traditional sound, with the sole exception of production. Ignoring the purists' penchant for the muddiest production possible, this is clear and rich and sounds all the better for it.

It also sounds very Scandinavian, which shouldn't surprise given that the closing track, The King of the Shadowthrone, is a Satyricon cover. The only touch that feels at all Cuban, or indeed Spanish, is a surprising drop midway through On the Sight of Dusk into an acoustic guitar duet. Given that all instruments here except the drums are played by Dakkar, I assume he's duetting with himself and doing a very good job of it. It's a brief section but a welcome one. However, I have to wonder why it exists, given that there's no attempt anywhere else on the album to vary the band's core sound.

Maybe that's because black metal fans tend to come in three categories nowadays. There are the purists, already mentioned, who don't want anything that doesn't sound like the Bathory debut or has any pretension towards commerciality. Then there are the open minded, who love to mix black metal with every other genre they can find, from ambient to jazz to, well, bluegrass. Some of those experiments have become my favourite albums of recent years, so I guess I'm largely in that camp. This ought to appeal to the third group, who are fine with bands selling many albums and using the money to pay for good production on their next release, as long as they sound damn good. They're not concerned with originality, just capability.

And, while I have no idea how well Narbeleth's previous five albums have sold, this fits perfectly in that third bucket. It's unmistakably and unashamedly black metal, unwilling to depart far from an established formula, but done very well indeed. The guitars are clear but generate that textbook wall of sound. The bass is neatly audible but mostly supports the slabs of sonic texture the guitars lay down. Occasionally there's a run that elevates a song but we have to listen carefully for them. The drums, courtesy of Vindok are frenetic when they need to be and also slow down well. Many of my favourite sections here feature the slower drums.

Put all that together and you have another black metal band in the northern European style, just a very capable one. They don't try to do much that's different but they do what they do very well. I would find it hard to call out a favourite track because they're all relatively similar and what might work best for me, like, say, Witness and Provider, may not for you, for exactly the same reason. It's down to how the riffs generate mood and that's a personal thing. If you like one track, then you'll like all of them. I might like that one most, because of what the guitars do, but I like them all.

And, as I'm finding with black metal, that often has less to do with the guitars or drums and more to do with the vocals. Dakkar delivers those in a relatively deep pitch for black metal, more growl than shriek or perhaps shriek converted into growl. Either way, he's clearly still black rather than death because of how he sustains his syllables. Nobody is going to listen to any element of this and call it anything but black metal, pure and simple. No words are needed in front of that.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, that means that there's not a lot to say about it otherwise. If you're into this sort of thing, then you'll dig this and it stands up well to a repeat listen or three. If you're that third category of black metal fans, then add a point or two to my rating to reflect how you'll receive it. I prefer more originality to my black metal but you'll be fine without. Of course, if you're not into this sort of thing, then nothing here will convert you and nothing here will come close. You already don't like it. You don't need to try it to see.

This is Narbeleth's sixth album but the second since Dakkar moved to Spain. I'm guessing that his shift in continents hasn't affected his style in the slightest but that odd but welcome drop into an acoustic vein in On the Sight of Dusk makes me wonder if he's open to something new. We should be able to find out on the next Narbeleth album.