Monday 3 June 2024

Evildead - Toxic Grace (2024)

Country: USA
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 4/10
Release Date: 24 May 2024
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I liked United States of Anarchy, Evildead's comeback album in 2020, and actively talked up certain aspects that I'll quote right now: "it's full of unashamedly old school fast and heavy thrash" and "a great mix of technical proficiency, angry attitude and raw speed, just how I like it". The reason I'm bringing that up now is because I can't remotely say the same things about this follow-up, a fourth album overall for the Los Angeles thrashers, and that's highly disappointing.

It takes a little while to realise how disappointing but, the longer the album runs on, the more we can't avoid the conclusion that Evildead have seriously lost their way this time out. I hope they can correct course for their next album, because it shouldn't be a particularly difficult task. They were in fine fettle four years ago. What's changed since then?

Initially, it's not too bad. F.A.F.O. kicks off well, with a capable intro suggesting an imminent ramp up to fast thrash speeds but it never quite gets there. It keeps hinting that it will for quite a while, but we gradually realise that it's content to just chug along while Phil Flores tries to sound angry without the same level of effort he put into the previous album. Reverie starts out fast but calms down and Flores shifts into an almost hip hop vocal approach. He's not rapping per se, but he spits bars here, punctuating their last words, as often as he spits out lyrics.

Neither of these are bad tracks, but neither is what it could be, so we're still hopeful at this point and I remained hopeful even after a chugger like Raising Fresh Hell that's nothing but filler three tracks in with a poor chorus. There's some speed in Stupid on Parade, but only very briefly, even if drummer Rob Alaniz doesn't quite get the memo, and its brevity sparks a sinking feeling that only grows with the album, pausing only temporarily in Subjugated Souls during the first of the album's two real examples of excellent fast thrash that hurls out energy. The second arrives at the end of Fear Porn nine tracks in, with only a cover still to come at that point.

I talk a lot about songs on albums that I merely like on a first listen but appreciate more and more each further time through. These growers tend to sound good but carry depth that comes clearer in repeat listens and often those become my favourite songs on those albums. I have to say Stupid on Parade is the antithesis of that. I didn't like it on a first listen, with its chugging tedium and its manipulated vocals, but repeat listens make me realise just how bad it is. That's not a good thing. Neither is not wanting to listen to it again after three times through.

And so it goes. Subjugated Souls may be the best song on the album, musically speaking, but it's a rather awkward song lyrically. Now, Evildead have never been the best lyricists and even the prior album was hardly impressive from that standpoint, its songs hurling vitriol at all the usual thrash suspects like politics and religion. I can get past that for the most part, but this one feels like it's punching down instead of up, a product of old men bitching about a younger generation. That it's got some fair points to make and it's better lyrically crafted than the previous few songs doesn't make it feel any less cringeworthy.

So there's a delicate and tasty intro to Bathe in Fire? We know that Juan Garcia is a killer guitarist even if he doesn't try particularly hard this time out. The guitar solo on this song is easily its best aspect, because it's another mid-tempo chugger with an even more lazy Flores vocal delivery. He speaks some of these lyrics, chants others and adds more post-production manipulation. This was the point where the sinking feeling stuck. World ov Rats hints at energy with its opening riff and bassline. Fear Porn has that second blistering section that feels great until we realise how little the album has left to go. Poetic Omen does nothing. None of them are highlights, though.

In fact, there are no real highlights. I'd plump for Subjugated Souls musically, but the lyrics don't help its case. That probably leaves F.A.F.O. as the best original song, which it really shouldn't be, and the best song the cover that wraps things up. It's The Death & Resurrection Show, taken from Killing Joke's self-titled 2003 album, and I rather dig it, but it doesn't feel like it belongs anywhere on this album. Evildead covered Planet Claire by the B-52s on United States of Anarchy, so maybe they ought to release an unusual covers album. I'd be up for that.

How things change over such a brief period. Four years ago, I was glad to see Evildead back and I praised their vitriol and vitality. They felt rejuvenated and ready to play a part in the burgeoning thrash scene. Today, I'm finding the best of their new material average and the worst thoroughly disappointing, and thinking about them as a covers band. That's not a good career trajectory.

Sykofant - Sykofant (2024)

Country: Norway
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 31 May 2024
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I don't review every album I'm sent as a submission, but I do review most because they tend to be very strong indeed and this prog rock album from Norway is no exception. Now, I was sold on prog rock album from Norway, because, if there's a country outdoing Poland in that genre right now, it has to be Norway. However, this is very different from any of the other bands I'm being shocked by, like Motorpsycho, Wobbler and Shamblemaths, partly because it combines a couple of eras that I don't usually hear merged.

One isn't too surprising, because it's early Pink Floyd, not the famous stuff but the stuff that came right before it. There's a Floydian patience to the first four minutes of Between Air and Water and both the vocal melodies and the first guitar solo flow like Floyd too. When it returns to this sound in the second half, the bass gets ominous in a simple but highly effective manner that reminds of the Floyd's Empty Spaces. This is very tasty indeed, so I was far from unhappy when a very similar bassline shows up at the very end of the album, to wrap up Forgotten Paths.

However, the other is highly surprising because it's far more recent, namely the nineties, but in a couple of different ways. One is a jagged prog metal approach that reminds very much of Voivod, as is obvious in the third section of Between Air and Water. The other, however, is the commercial sort of American alternative rock that I wasn't expecting to hear on a Norwegian prog album. It's all over the melodies on the opener, Pavement of Colors, and, for a prog album that's as sonically complex as we might expect, that and other songs often find a grungy level of lo-fi simplicity that was fascinating to me. Points in Between the Moments reminded me of Clutch.

It's not merely those two eras, because Strangers in particular ventures all over the musical map, but they're the two that kept coming back for me. Pavement of Colors develops from a funky start with a wonderful bassline, through jangly guitars to almost a Tank guitar tone as it wraps up. That would constitute a highly versatile song except Between Air and Water has three times as long to explore three very different approaches, and Strangers, at just over ten minutes, has everything beaten hands down on that front. This is prog rock, after all, and a prog rock album isn't supposed to stay in the same place.

There are other surprising shifts in style that caught my attention. The first half of Monuments of Old finds a Rush vibe for a while, which makes sense, but it evolves into something far more Black Sabbath, which is far more surprising, and that evolves into almost a jazzy take on Megadeth, not a phrase I ever expected to use in a review. Strangers, always the song to outdo everything else, is happy to follow a section full of middle eastern flavour with one out of a spaghetti western. Then, just to put the icing on the cake, it goes almost ambient in its second half.

In short, there's a lot here because Norwegian prog rock bands never rest on their laurels. While this is a debut album, it's a generous one at only a few minutes shy of an hour, and its six tracks do a huge amount. I've listened through half a dozen times now, which is enough to firm up personal favourites. Between Air and Water was an immediate favourite, but Strangers beats it every time through. It's a fascinating song, my favourite sections sounding like Voivod covering Led Zeppelin with a couple of vocalists. The ambient section that kicks off almost eight minutes in really ought to spoil the song but it works as a sort of interlude to calm us before Forgotten Paths takes things home.

Everyone does their job, as tends to be pretty essential for ambitious prog rock albums, but I keep coming back to Sindre Haugen's bass. It's not always there and it's not always doing things of note but it's there often enough and doing things of note often enough to stand out for me. There are two guitarists, Emil Moen and Per Semb, and I don't know how they divvy up lead and rhythm, but the solos are often excellent. I particularly like the one a few minutes into Forgotten Paths, while it's almost a pop song, and the longer one during the second half, when it's become something far more versatile.

They're also as frequently responsible for the jazzier sections as the drums of Melvin Treider, who is notable for just how much he does without ever seeming to steal any sort of spotlight. They also dip into other genres, from the jagged prog metal of Between Air and Water to a blues slide and jaunty near reggae late midway through Forgotten Paths. And that leaves the vocals, which come courtesy of Moen on lead but Semb and Haugen prominently backing him up. There are points on songs like Pavement of Colors that need two voices to unfold properly.

I haven't heard an average Norwegian prog rock album yet, which is telling. This doesn't reach the heights of Shamblemaths or my favourite Motorpsycho album, Kingdom of Oblivion, but it's above the very high bar the country is setting, up there with strong albums from established bands like Leprous and Mythopoeic Mind. Thanks, Sykofant, I hope Norway keeps those wonderful prog rock albums coming!

Wednesday 8 May 2024

Thoraway - Navigating Nightfall (2024)

Country: Australia
Style: Heavy/Viking Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 10 May 2024
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Thoraway hail from Brisbane in Queensland, which seems odd given that they play Viking metal. If you dug a hole through the centre of the world from there and survived a trip through it, you'd be in the Canary Islands and Scandinavia is quite a way north from there. However, given that three of the band members have names that sound like they might be Vikings themselves, it isn't a huge stretch. This album doesn't sound like it was written in Norway, mostly because Joseph Wiley sings entirely in English, but it does feel far more authentic than I expected it to be.

It's big and bombastic, often easily categorised as epic metal, but it's also both angry and melodic with a real sense of motion to it, as if the band are playing on a swaying ship that's sailing right at us at a fair clip. Wiley's vocals, occasionally deepened by backing vocals, hold a promise. Thoraway are, well, on their way. This holds for a couple of songs, Pianara and Greetings, which means thirteen minutes because the album isn't short but it only boasts five tracks. Wiley sings primarily clean but there are echoes of harsh for effect. It's all epic and powerful, as Viking metal ought to be.

And then comes Wild Child of the Night, at the heart of the album, to shake this up. Now, it's still epic and powerful, but it sounds very different to the two openers, mostly because the guitars are completely absent for almost a minute. This one has a strong slow groove built out of bass, drums and a commanding vocal and that groove continues even when the guitars show up in surprisingly dissonant fashion. In a way, the effect is very much the same, just more ominous because this ship is bearing down on us in slow motion. In a way, though, it's very different, because it's a story song and so it never gets closer to us than the page in front of us.

The bottom line is that these songs can't be ignored. Whether we feel threatened by this rushing ship or we feel welcomed in kinship by it, it's big and brash and utterly in our face, even when it's taking time for Jan Gustav Engmark's enjoyable bass solo during the second half of Wild Child of the Night and overtly during that song's woah woah sections and the repeated harsh "We salute you!" at the end. This holds as Bedtime Story takes over, because the theatrics that open it up are rather like a pirate, with all the traditional trappings, stuck his head through our window and stole us away into what we're going to hear. It's blatant stuff, but it works perfectly with the big and bold sound.

With the exception of Bedtime Story, the songs get progressively longer, almost as if the band are teasing us into what they do and getting deeper each time. Pianara kicks off over six minutes and Greetings is a little longer again, Wild Child of the Night is eight and a half and Einherjar (Army of One) is almost eleven. At a breath over six, Bedtime Story breaks that trend, but its intro helps it to feel longer than it actually is. It's long enough to feature a strong guitar solo from either Truls Nilssen or Martin Alexander Einarsen. On most of these songs, the riffs are more important than the solos, because of how they bludgeon, but the latter are still excellent.

Wild Child of the Night has to be my favourite song here, but Einherjar (Army of One) won't leave me alone, perhaps because Thoraway benefit from the added song length. It feels more versatile too, the general approach being the same but the harsh vocals emphasised more and a few more fast and extreme sections that go along with that. As if to counter it, there's a looser exploratory section midway that feels like the ship that is Thoraway isn't barrelling down on us but journeying nonetheless and finding itself in new waters. It's wonderful texture, all the more because of how heavy the sections either side of it happen to be.

I like this album, all the way to the comradely vocals that wrap up Einherjar (Army of One), almost like a drunken choir. Nothing about it is small. Nothing about it is subtle, except maybe that single stretch midway through the closer. It wants our attention and it's happy to grab it. It's also happy to sound very heavy, the bass end pumped up high and the solos always partly buried in the mix. It works because of the sonic assault but it wouldn't for another band, where we want the guitars to be as clear and free as the lead vocals.

I believe this is a debut album, following five singles, only one of which, Greetings, made it to the album, so I presume Thoraway are relatively new. Two members, bassist Jan Gustav Engmark and guitarist Truls Nilssen, were born in Norway, both in Bodø, so I'm guessing that their moving down under prompted this antipodean Viking metal band's formation. The rest of the band are Aussies, it seems, even guitarist Martin Alexander Einarsen, whose name doesn't suggest that, but they're on target with this sound. I look forward to hearing it develop.

Tuesday 7 May 2024

Feuerschwanz - Warriors (2024)

Country: Germany
Style: Folk Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 19 Apr 2024
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I could have sworn blind that I reviewed the previous Feuerschwanz album, but apparently I didn't. Maybe I'm mixing them up with another German comedic mediaeval rock band turned serious folk metal band after signing for Napalm in 2019. This is their fifth album since that point, one arriving each year, even during the pandemic, but it's a little different for a couple of reasons. For one, it's mostly not new, being a sort of greatest hits of their Napalm era, plus a cover and a couple of new tracks, but reworked to serve as their first entirely English language release. Most of these songs are therefore recent but not new and only sung until now in German. Some feature guests.

Given that it's a decent album on a first listen, all delivered in a consistent lively folk metal style, but a real grower on repeats, it suggests that these recent Napalm albums have featured plenty of excellent material. What's more, the best song on offer is arguably one of the new tracks, The Unholy Grail. I say "arguably", because these dozen songs feature such a consistent approach that it's always going to come down to personal choice. Generally speaking, listen to any one track. If it works for you, then all twelve will; if it doesn't, none of the others are going to win you over.

Personally, I think The Unholy Grail flows the best with the most successful melodies. That's a huge chorus for sure. However, The Forgotten Commandment isn't far behind it, as the title track to Das elfte Gebot in 2020. Wardwarf, formerly Kampfzweg on the same album, is right up there too, as is the opener, Highlander, formerly on last year's Fegefeuer. All that said, I'm going off a succession of listens today. I may give you completely different songs toorrow. Right now, Song of Ice and Fire, also from Fegefeuer, is growing on me substantially and who knows what's going to follow it.

All told, I believe there are five tracks from Fegefeuer, a couple from Memento Mori in 2021 and a couple more from Das elfte Gebot. Then there's a cover, Valhalla Calling, formerly by Gavin Dunne, who goes by Miracle of Sound, an Irish singer/songwriter who creates music primarily about video games. That leaves the two new tracks, which I believe are Circlepit of Hell and The Unholy Grail.

The guests appear on the even numbered tracks, for some reason, and they're all vocalists, even if they play instruments in their own bands. The Unholy Grail features Dominum and Orden Ogan, in other words Felix Heldt and Seeb Levermann. Their power metal approach fits well here, because this is primarily clean up tempo folk metal. Chris Harms of Lord of the Lost shows up on Memento Mori, which means that there's a gothic undertone to it in the lively Sisters of Mercy vein. Hardly surprisingly, Francesco Cavalleri from Italian power metallers Wind Rose guests on Wardwarf, an obvious choice that works. That leaves Patty Gurdy on Song of Ice and Fire; she's apparently best known for hurdy gurdy covers on YouTube.

There's not a lot to say about any of these songs that couldn't be said about them all, namely that they get down to business quickly; deliver three minutes of melodic power with violin, hurdy gurdy and bagpipes an integral part of the assault; and get out of the way for the next one right coming behind it. The vast majority of it is sung clean and heroic in surprisingly unaccented English for a band known for singing in German for a couple of decades, but the backing vocals sometimes slip into a slight harsh delivery. Given that Feuerschwanz heavied up when they signed for Napalm, it seems telling that the crunchy metal guitars are fundamental nowadays, because their absence is obvious when they take a backseat for a verse during Memento Mori.

That said, there are some notable intros, most obviously Wardwarf, which launches neatly with a sense of both nuance and power, and Bastard of Asgard, which opens up rather like Iron Maiden taking on folk metal. None of the intros are long, as we might expect for three minute songs, but they set the stage well and continue to shape the songs after they bulk up. It's also worth adding that a number of these songs tie into pop culture, not only the Assassin's Creed influenced cover. Highlander is about that movie; Song of Ice and Fire is about that series, which you may know as Game of Thrones; and there's a memorable Lovecraft stanza in The Forgotten Commandment. It makes me wonder how many other songs tie to pop culture that I simply don't recognise.

And that's about it, I guess. This is strong stuff that sounds entirely like German folk metal even if we don't know that it's German folk metal. It tells me that I really ought to check out the previous four Feuerschwanz albums for Napalm, because I haven't done that even if I thought I had.

Elemento 26 - Labirintos de Zan (2024)

Country: Brazil
Style: Psychedelic Pop/Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 Apr 2024
Sites: Instagram | YouTube

Here's another unusual album from Brazil, which seems to be bursting at the seams with unusual albums lately. Elemento 26 play a brand of psychedelic rock that's rooted in classic pop music. The guitars on the opener, Fotossíntese, are occasionally powerful, in a seventies rock sense, but the overall feel is lighter and the backing vocal is very light indeed, taking us back to the late sixties. It's also patient, reminding of Pink Floyd on the boundary between their psychedelic pop era with Syd Barrett and their seventies prog rock era with deeper and more expansive musical journeys.

Nothing here gets particularly expansive in that sense, only two tracks exceeding four and a half minutes and the longest of them wrapping up well before eight. However, Clorofila, the shorter of those two at under six, firmly moves into jam band territory. That's hardly surprising for psych but it's far more applicable to rock than pop, its gentle verses and folky backing vocals giving way in a loose second half to instrumentation exploration, two guitars and the bass all soloing together.

The other angle that's unmistakable is the ethnic angle, because Elemento 26 are Brazilian and a folky edge means something very different to the folk music that fed psychedelic bands in the UK or US. There's some of this from the very outset here, but it becomes obvious on Paranoia, which has a Latin sway to the verses that could well be samba to my uneducated ears. It starts slow and gradually speeds up, but it's clearly Brazilian. There's also a lot going on in the background, but I can't swear to what. Are those backing vocals, jungle ambience or a distant calliope. It's almost a carnival song. Casulo dips deeply into this ethnic history too, even if a prominent guitar presides over all of it.

Just in case that all solidifies an idea of what Elemento 26 sound like, there's more here that will deepen that considerably. There's a garage band simplicity to Planador. There's rich orchestration in Farol. There's a funky bass to kick off Borboleta and then jangly guitars which are just the start to a highly versatile song that goes all over the musical map. There's space rock to kick off Verde-do-Mar. It's almost like Elemento 26 don't want to be tied down to any particular genre, beyond a general one of psychedelia. It's hard to even situate them on one side of the dividing line between pop and rock, because they happily work on both, even if they stay on the rock side far longer.

I like this but I'm not sure, even after half a dozen listens, that I've truly figured out who Elemento 26 are. This may well be their debut album and it makes sense to be agreeably versatile, but I'd be struggling if I suggested what their follow-up might sound like. There are so many directions that this band could take with equal validity that I'd be very wary about suggesting one. And that does bring me back to Pink Floyd again, because who, after listening to The Piper at the Gates of Dawn could have predicted Ummagumma, let alone The Dark Side of the Moon or The Wall?

If you twisted my arm, I might suggest that they're at their best when evolving from quirky poppy melodies into longer instrumental sections. I don't know who's in the band, so I can't call anyone out for specific praise, but it's the guitars that do the most for me here. They're relatively simple during verses, for the most part, but they're highly varied in instrumental sections. There are an array of guitar solos that stand out to me, enough that it's hard to pick which work the best, but I might have to call out parts of Casulo as the best, starting with its very beginning and continuing in the second half, but also parts of Casulo as the worst, namely the plodding during verses.

And I have a similar problem trying to figure out my favourite tracks. I feel like the highlight ought to be Borboleta, because it certainly does the most in its seven and a half minutes, but I'm unsold on all its changes. It doesn't feel like it's quite figured out what it wants to be yet, rather like the band who recorded it. Every time through, I find that I prefer Verde-do-Mar, wrapping things up in its wake, because it nails its grooves, but it's a far less substantial piece and it has to end in a spot that links right back to Fotossíntese to loop the album.

The problem is, if the highlight isn't Borboleta, what is it? I might have to plump for Clorofila, the other slightly long song, because it's far more coherent, even as a jam song. Certainly it features the most guitarwork and thus plenty of the best guitarwork. However, Paranoia is truly infectious and I keep coming back to Casulo and Farol too, which feature plenty of elegance. It'll all depend on where they go from here, as the next album could make these songs outliers in their catalogue or the beginning of what they do. I for one am eager to find out.

Monday 6 May 2024

My Dying Bride - A Mortal Binding (2024)

Country: UK
Style: Doom/Death Metal
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 6 May 2024
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I liked My Dying Bride's previous album, 2020's The Ghost of Orion, rather a lot, though it's proved a little polarising with fans. Some see it as the best thing they've ever done, while others, well, do not with vehemence. I wonder what the reaction to this one will be, given that it's less a follow up and more a reaffirmation of everything that this band does. Sure, as with that prior album, it's all fundamentally doom metal, but it's done with serious emphasis this time, almost as if they didn't mean it before and they really, really mean it now.

Lead vocalist Aaron Stainthorpe moved a little back into the band's original doom/death territory on The Ghost of Orion, but he doubles down here, practically spitting out his lyrics at the start of opener, Her Dominion. He stays harsh for much of this song and he follows suit on a bunch of other tracks, most obviously The Apocalyptist. Of course, he doesn't stay there throughout, shifting to a clean melancholy voice for Thornwyck Hymn and The 2nd of Three Bells, but returning to harsh when a song needs it. There's a neat alternation between clean and harsh on Crushed Embers as he duets with himself.

Maybe it's just the crisp production by Mark Mynett, but it feels like the two guitarists, Andrew Craighan and Neil Blanchett, both mean it all the more this time too. The riffing here is cavernous from the glorious staccato riff early in Her Dominion onwards. The slower metal gets, the more important the riffs become. The riffs on this album are consistently instant, few of them remotely complex and some slow enough to be sets of power chords, but every one nailing what it needs to do. For something completely different, there's an elegant duet between acoustic and electric guitars to open up A Starving Heart too.

Back to the production again, the bass of Lena Abé is easily distinguishable within the mix and it's far more than just an underpinning for the heaviness of the guitars. Of course, it does that and it does it deliciously, but it also does a lot more, especially in moments where the guitars step back and Abé often carries on, often serving as the change between sections. The drum sound is strong too and returning drummer Dan Mullins, who played with My Dying Bride from 2007-2012, joining at the same time as Abé, who never left, has a varied approach that's sometimes patient but also sometimes prominent, as on Unthroned Creed where he could easily have held back far more but adds a jagged rhythm instead.

That leaves Shaun McGowan, who's responsible for the vast majority of the gothic feel nowadays, not through his keyboards but through his violin. Those keyboards are there right from the start, adding texture behind the opening of Her Dominion, but we have to pay attention to hear it over most of the album. The violin, on the other hand, dominates whenever it shows up, which is often. It's a perfect instrument to echo the melancholy of Stainthorpe's clean vocals, but it works just as well adding that aching feel behind his harsh voice too on The Apocalyptist, and of course serving as a soloing instrument.

Apparently there was tension within the band while they were recording this, which ought to be a shame. We always want people to get along, but maybe that friction helped bring the vibrancy to this album that wasn't there last time out. Is it anger and frustration that fuels the attitude that pervades this album? I have no idea, but whatever it is worked a charm. Everything here is stellar. Of course, it tends to happen this way but my first 9/10 for the year came as recently as 29th April and yet here's another one on 3rd May. I loved it on a first listen but it just gets better on repeats.

Her Dominion kicks it off hard with angry harsh vocals and a vicious punch of a riff. Opening single Thornwyck Hymn and The 2nd of Three Bells shift back to the clean approach they ran with for lots of albums. All three are excellent songs, but Unthroned Creed raises the bar with a solid chugging riff and a catchy vocal line, the combination reminding of Candlemass. On my first time through, The Apocalyptist after it was my favourite of these seven tracks by far, but, on each return visit, Unthroned Creed threatens to match it.

That said, The Apocalyptist is gorgeous. It's the longest track here and it's the standout, its riffs simple but thoroughly effective, it's vocals blistering. Stainthorpe gets serious attitude into his death growls here and no less feeling in the clean ones. There's also a delightful violin during the elegant midsection and the song grows and evolves effortlessly, even though it travels quite a lot of ground over its eleven and a half minutes. A Starving Heart is an achingly slow counter with a vocal that moves from pleading to angry to commanding. Crushed Embers takes the album home with style.

This is a generous album at almost fifty-five minutes, even if it's slightly shorter than The Ghost of Orion, and it's consistently strong throughout. I'm half a dozen listens in now and, every time, I'm just as engrossed by every song as on my first time through. I liked its predecessor enough to give it a highly recommended 8/10 here, but this is easily a step up. I wonder how the folk who see that one as their best album thus far—I don't, by the way—will see this one.

Glass Island - Lost Media (2024)

Country: Poland
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 26 Apr 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Twitter | YouTube

If you asked me which country's prog rock I'm most keen to hear more of, I'd have to toss a coin to decide between Norway and Poland. Both are apparently full of excellent prog rock bands and it's always a joy to discover another one. Glass Island were founded in 2019 by Wojciech Pielużek, who occasionally collaborates with other musicians but wrote and performed everything on this album himself. It's the third Glass Island album, most arriving a year apart, with a prior EP from 2020. It does rather a lot within its fifty minutes, making it an album to enjoy on a first listen but dive into deeper on multiple further times through to appreciate it fully.

The sound is fascinating because it finds an elusive balance between imaginative and commercial. Almost Human opens with chimes and builds through infectious riffs, on both guitar and bass, but also drops into neat textures here and there. It's entirely instrumental and fundamentally driven by riffs for five minutes before Pielużek briefly solos on guitar and finally adds vocals. Suddenly it becomes a song and it's one with a catchy chorus. Just trust in me, I'm almost human. I'm seeing a lot of bands open albums with ten minute plus songs lately and they keep nailing them.

There are definitely different aspects to what Pielużek is doing here. The most commercial aspect is his somoth and friendly voice, which takes the fore on False Memories but gets oddly laid back on A Different Kind of Tomorrow and Credulous, almost like he's singing Britpop and Four-Letter Words is almost perky. It's an easy voice to listen to, whatever he's doing with it, and he's fluent enugh in English that I rarely caught an accent, but I'd still suggest that he thinks of himself as a multi-instrumentalist before a lead singer, not because he's lacking in the latter department but because he particularly excels at the former.

As a guitarist, he has a knack for generating catchy riffs that would often work in a hard rock band, never mind a progressive one. There are a few of those in the first half of Almost Human, a strong one to wrap up A Different Kind of Tomorrow and others dotted around the album. These riffs are bedrock for the more experimental side of what Pielużek does. They make it all accessible, even if we start to wonder about complexity and time signatures and how straightforward this isn't. He's a good soloist too, but he doesn't spend a lot of time with guitar solos, soaring with one on Almost Human, blistering with one on Past the Truth and adding a few very different ones in Stay Under Cover.

Just as we just absorb those riffs and come back later to think about how complex they are, we see the songs in a similar way. As much as I enjoy the catchy melodies and riffs, not to forget the solos, it's the textures that really pull me in. It's those chimes on Almost Human, the weird keyboards in the middle of False Memories that sound like musical steam horns and the glitchy rhythms on Past the Truth that combine with the guitar to remind of Robert Plant's Big Log at points. The song has a completely different direction, ending up almost Pink Floyd, but that texture abides. More than anything, it's especially the entire second half of Stay Under Cover, which is joyous.

This track is a worthy bookend to Almost Human, not only because it's another ten minute gem but because the first five minutes of the album and the last five unfold instrumentally, as if they were always meant to lead us in and take us home. It's the most obviously progressive song here, with a whole slew of different sounds. It opens up slow and langurous, a liquid guitar flowing through the piece, but, after the tasty guitar solo midway, it drops into a texture section with minimal piano in a fascinating battle with the unusual rhythms behind it. Eventually that builds into a fasacinating synth outro and it left me wanting to immediately play that final track again and again.

I liked this album on a first listen, which always helps with prog rock, but liked it all the more on a few repeats, enough to move it up from a 7/10 to an 8/10. And I think that may be the norm for any listeners finding Pielużek and Glass Island through this album. The immediacy of it means that it's highly accessible, while the depth of it means that it's worth exploring too. Keep these Polish prog rock bands coming and do tell me what they're putting in the water over there, because Poland is punching seriously above its weight right now in the genre, as indeed is Norway.

Friday 3 May 2024

Praying Mantis - Defiance (2024)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 19 Apr 2024
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I only review new rock and metal at Apocalypse Later and I've often talked about the main reason why I do that. So many of my fellow fans back in the eighties seem to have fallen prey to the belief that "all new music sucks". They're quite clearly wrong and I'd cite the fifteen hundred albums I've reviewed over the past six years as evidence for that. However, those people are also missing out on the fact that some of the bands who they use as examples of why rock music was so much better back then aren't just still going but are putting out their best material now.

Case in point: Praying Mantis. They formed way back in 1974 when I was toddling around causing a lot of heartache for my parents and they only released a sole album back in the day, Time Tells No Lies in 1981. Sure, it's a good one, but I'd suggest their most recent couple of albums are right up there with it, if not above it. That's Katharsis a couple of years ago and Defiance right now. This is a good one on a first listen, which is always a telling sign, but it grows on a second and cements its stature on a third.

The opening three songs explain why. From the Start is a solid opener, lively if not fast, there to be an attention grabber. Defiance is slower but has a majesty that builds it wonderfully, with an epic feel that makes it surprising to realise that it's over in four minutes and change, making it shorter than the opener. That majesty returns in songs like Forever in My Heart or Never Can Say Goodbye and, after a few listens, seems to pervade pretty much everything. Feelin' Lucky ups the tempo to rock out but with an elegance that reminds of the sort of thing we might expect from Demon.

They make for a strong opening, ably setting the stage for what's to come. Before I tell you that a few later songs are better still, let's dive into the acknowledgement that track four is a cover, the old Joe Lynn Turner-era Rainbow classic, I Surrender. It's an excellent version with another superb vocal performance from John Cuijpers and some sumptuous dual guitar work from Tino Troy and Andy Burgess. However, it initially seems rather redundant because it doesn't add anything to an established classic that we already know.

The point is that there's history here. It was written by Russ Ballard and its first release was on a Head East single in 1980. Praying Mantis recorded a version during the Time Tells No Lies sessions in 1981, but they didn't release it on the grounds that Rainbow had just done that. I presume that led to the selection of a Kinks song instead, All Day and All of the Night, for that album and as the second single from it. And so this is the modern day Praying Mantis re-staking their claim to it as a song that fits their style perfectly, which it does.

What's particularly telling is that other songs here, especially Give It Up, unfold in the same style of emphatic arena rock. This is an original and it's not quite as good as I Surrender, but it deserves to be in the same setlist. Forever in My Heart and One Heart would play wonderfully to arena rock fans too, both starting out like power ballads even if only the former stays there. These just ooze with the majesty I talked about earlier, the second adding an elegant acoustic guitar solo during its second half, power chords maintaining the impact behind it. There's some major sustain on the vocals of John Cuijpers on these, not that he skimps on that elsewhere.

That emphasises how he's a real boon to this band nowadays. He's the most recent arrival, joining in 2013 alongside drummer Hans in't Zandt, their decade plus with Praying Mantis cementing how this is easily the most consistent line-up they've ever had. Both simply fit here, even though both are Dutch and the band is English. The instrumental Nightswim is no less worthy an inclusion here for its lack of vocals, but when Cuijpers rips into the next song, Standing Tall, we see just how much he belongs in this band.

I mentioned that, as strong as the opening three songs are, there are better still to come. While I can't resist Forever in My Heart, even being generally put off by power ballads, but Standing Tall is my easy pick for the best song here and my personal favourite. It starts out like Rush and turns into Demon, with a dash of Survivor in the commerciality of its riffs and, as it builds, one of Golden Earring in its incessant drive. That's a catchy keyboard riff but an excellent guitar solo too and the best thing about it is that it manages to be a faster paced rocker without losing the majesty of the slower songs. But there's also Give It Up and Let's See and Never Can Say Goodbye and... let's just say that this is a damn fine album that ends even better than it begins.

What fascinates me the most is that we appear to be in a heyday of classic bands who predated my discovery of rock and metal in 1984 but who are putting out amazing material right now. It seems bizarre to suggest it, but could I come up with a theoretical tour more enticing to me in 2024 than Praying Mantis, Demon and Diamond Head, this band seeming like the missing link between the two? I don't think so, unless we add Weapon too for good measure. Let's revisit that in a few weeks when I review the new Demon album.

Pigeons Playing Ping Pong - Day in Time (2024)

Country: USA
Style: Funk Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 26 Apr 2024
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

It seems strange, given such a memorable band name, that I haven't heard of Pigeons Playing Ping Pong before, but they've been around since 2009 and this is their seventh album. Clearly I've been missing out. By the way, that name was taken from the description of a scientific experiment in a textbook, but that doesn't mean this is math rock. The Pigeons play funk rock that's almost always driven by the bass of Ben Carrey. The vocals of Greg Ormont are very clean and the sound is often poppy—the earworm chorus in The Town, the obvious single which opens up the album, reminds of Bruno Mars's Uptown Funk—but they also love to jam and I fell into a lot of these guitar solos.

Let's get The Town out of the way quickly, because it's the sort of song that's so infectious that it's easy to just slap that one on repeat and forget that it's actually opening up an album. There are a further ten songs on Day in Time, plus a thirty second outro that sounds like it was ripped from an old and warped cassette. I can't say that any approach The Town on the infectious front, but a few of these songs come close to being as perky, such as the title track and Fall in Place. I had a concert to attend tonight and I had The Town and Day in Time playing in my head all the way there.

Funk rock is usually driven by the bass and Ben Carrey is a thoroughly impressive bedrock for the band to build on. He's there on The Town and Day in Time, of course, but it's impossible to ignore him on Beneath the Surface and Sorcerer, let alone when he's stealing the spotlight with bass solos on tracks like Alright Tonight and Overtime. There are moments dotted here and there on the album, often in the intros to songs, when he doesn't do anything at all and it feels acutely like something's been lost. Fortunately he soon shows up and all is right with the world again.

Once Carrey has set down a bass line, many of these songs are tasked with a pretty basic question as to whether they want to be pop or rock. The more Greg Ormont's vocals nail a melody, the more pop it becomes, whether it's the funk of The Town, the disco of Let the Boogie Out or the reggae of My Own Way. The more Ormont focuses on his guitar and Jeremy Schon joins him—I don't see a credit to divvy up lead and rhythm duties, so I presume they swap them—, the more it turns into a rock album. Just check out Skinner, which doesn't just have the best guitar solo on the album; it's seriously extended because this is a five minute instrumental.

It's how they put those two approaches together to create one sound that makes this band work so well. The clean lines, whether we're talking vocals or guitar, suggest that this is what we might hear if Lenny Kravitz handed his guitar to Eric Clapton and his microphone to Robert Cray. Late in Feelin' Fine, there's a jam that's absolutely glorious but, prior to that, the song is so clean that we'd perhaps be forgiven for assuming that they're aiming for the blandest audience possible—like people who think the sun shines out of Jimmy Buffett's margarita glass—but just can't resist rocking out anyway.

And they rock out a lot here. The Town ought to be too commercial to do that but there's a tasty guitar solo in the second half; Alright Tonight boasts another one; and Day in Time has one more that comes right after a keyboard solo. That's three in three songs and there are a bunch more to enjoy before we get to that instrumental workout on Feelin' Fine eleven tracks in. Add to that an array of extra little touches, like the keyboard flurry late in Day in Time that reminded me of early Marillion; the reggae jangle of the guitars in My Own Way and Fall in Place; or the funky horns in Let the Boogie Out that elevate the whole thing.

It all made me recall a gig review in Kerrang! way back in the late eighties that sent someone to an Allman Brothers gig who clearly had no idea who they were. They fully expected granddad rock and were prepared to sit through it, but they got a blistering jam show instead that utterly blew their mind. That's how I imagine Pigeons Playing Ping Pong gigs to be, with grandmas showing up because they just sound so nice in the background of Murder She Wrote or some such show and hearing tight rocking jams instead that make them question what they've missed over decades.

And I'll shut up now, except to make a note for my future self to figure out what that phrasing is in Overtime that I absolutely recognise but somehow can't place. I listened to a couple of tracks late one evening to see if this was something I'd be up for reviewing. Obviously I was, but what I got on an eleven track album was so much more than I heard in that pair of openers, even though anyone listening to this would have to include The Town as a highlight. I'm one of those, though Skinner is my top pick and Day in Time and Feelin' Fine aren't far behind.

So I may be a little late, but I've caught up with Pigeons Playing Ping Pong and now have six prior albums to seek out. Have you caught up with them yet? You should. Your day will feel better for it.

Thursday 2 May 2024

Leaves' Eyes - Myths of Fate (2024)

Country: Germany
Style: Symphonic Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 22 Mar 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

It's becoming increasingly difficult to list a country for Leaves' Eyes, who return here with a ninth studio album to follow 2020's The Last Viking. They were formed by Norwegian vocalist Liv Kristine and the line-up of Germany's Atrocity, but there are no longer any Norwegians in the band and, of six members, only three hail from Germany. The lead vocals are handled this time, as last, by Elina Siirala, a Finn; Joris Nijenhuis is a Dutch drummer; and the two replacements for Thorsten Bauer are an Italian, Andre Nasso on bass, and a German, Luc Gebhardt on guitars.

Wherever they're from, they sound excellent on this album. The songs feel a little heavier than on its predecessor but that's not because of any change in songwriting, more because the back end is beefed up a little in the production. It all sounds like it has a little more oomph to it, but what we hear on top of that is the same heavy symphonic metal. Well, mostly, because I'm hearing a little change in the approach too, not least all the folky touches on The Last Viking being restricted to a single track, Einherjar.

For one, even though the production makes this feel a little heavier than last time out, there are fewer harsh vocals from Alexander Krull, now the sole remaining founding member, after Bauer's departure in 2021. There are some on the opener, Forged by Fire, but he focuses on keyboards for Realm of Dark Waves and Who Wants to Live Forever, which become the baseline for this album. I was almost shocked when he leads out Hammer of the Gods, on which he has a lot more to do with his vocals. The same happens with Sons of Triglav, easily his most dominant vocal performance on this album. He's still there, of course, decorating other songs like Fear the Serpent, just less often.

For another, there's less of a choral sound in play this time. Again it's there and indeed it's there on the opener, which features some of the most memorable choral vocals here. There's more still to come in Fear the Serpent, Einherjar and especially Sail with the Dead, but the latter two close out the album and so it's missing far more often than I expected. In Eternity, which boasts a highly prominent woah woah chorus isn't bolstered by other voices the way it could easily have been. It was clearly a deliberate decision to relegate choral vocals deep below Siirala's clean but powerful lead, as well as Krull's occasional harsh vocal.

Now, that doesn't mean that Leaves' Eyes are moving away from symphonic metal. This is clearly symphonic metal through and through. Siirala may not soar all the time but she soars plenty and I'm very happy about how she breaks down when she wants to set a mood and when she wants to show off a little. She's a wonderful lead singer for this band and it's hardly surprising that she's even more of a focus than she was last time. Goddess of the Night is a showcase for her, covering both nuance and power, but my favourite moment is the very first word in Fear the Serpent which she delivers with impeccable relish.

It's probably not coincidental that Goddess of the Night is also the most orchestrated track, with delicate violins to match Siirala's delicate sections and more powerful ones to match her powerful ones. While I'd call out Hammer of the Gods and Forged by Fire as my favourite songs, along with the Viking metal infused Sons of Triglav, Goddess of the Night can't be ignored as a real highlight of the album. It's the softest, subtlist and quietest song here, however much it builds, but it's also perhaps the one we can least ignore. We can fall into the grooves of many of these songs and let them carry us along, most obviously Sons of Triglav and In Eternity, but Goddess of the Night has real demands on our attention. We are commanded to listen.

All that said, it shouldn't surprise that I like this album rather a lot. It's more immediate than its predecessor and it's more consistent, in addition to having that extra boost from the production. However, it's also not taking any risks. Decreasing those harsh vocals and choral backdrops feels like a backward step. Symphonic metal is a genre that's particularly easy to identify because the bands who forged it are so similar that they can sound interchangeable. Leaves' Eyes have always been a little different, obviously compatible and similar but never the same, perhaps inevitably given their origins in a gothic singer and a grindcore band. However, these changes feel like they may be moving them closer to the norm and that may be a mistake.

Grains - Grains (2024)

Country: New Zealand
Style: Electronic/Space Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Apr 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

Here's something interesting from down under. Grains, who hail from Wellington, which marks as far south as you can go and remain in a capital city, apparently started out as a duo playing synth ambience but they bulked up 2021 to a five piece band. They're primarily electronic, but they run quite the gamut within that. How? opens up as almost new wave, like Tangerine Dream with some welcome throat singing. I am loving how that's travelling far from Mongolia nowadays. Then Ever adds a beat and starts to explore the potential of what five guys playing these instruments can do.

I like Ever, which is over in fewer than five minutes but still moves from pop music into space rock and on into something more esoteric. Sometimes this feels acutely poppy, especially early in Unco and Flying Saucer, which appears to be an old piece of music condensed a little for this, their debut album. There's disco on Unco and there's new wave on Flying Saucer, but both evolve elsewhere. In the former, electric guitars float around deep underneath the synths and gradually surface as the piece runs on. That's quite a tasty solo building towards the two minute mark and a neatly delicate section just after four.

The latter is one of the two epics the album has to offer, L.O.T.A.F! being the other one. Any track here could easily have been extended far past its actual running time, but Grains only allow some extended exploration on these two. They do think about it on Unco too, which almost reaches the seven minute mark, but they haul it back in well before it can sprawl out of control. Flying Saucer starts out poppier than usual, a very old school lead synth backed by far more modern synths, but it also gets heavier than usual late in its first half and again during its second.

If it wasn't for the overt guitars midway through L.O.T.A.F!, then Flying Saucer would feature the poppiest and heaviest moments of the album, which ought to give a good idea of how far it shifts over its eight and a half minutes. And that's a good thing. Anything that trawls in space rock even as a component really ought to take the listener on a journey and I got that the most here on this one highly versatile track. L.O.T.A.F! took me on a journey too but a much darker one that isn't to out there but to in here, which gets experimental and claustrophobic.

It's the longer pieces that connect with me the most, the two epics but also Unco and, after them, the closer, Succession II, which is pure electronic rock in the seventies tradition but introduced to space rock and with layers of extra electronic chirps. It's like walking into a maximalist spaceship control room with ADHD. This one's only five and a half minutes long, which isn't sprawling for the fourth longest piece on an instrumental electrona album. I say instrumental, by the way, because not one of these pieces involves the delivery of lyrics but there are vocals here, whether they're recorded or sampled, just occasional vocalisations and that throat singing on How?

That's not to say that the shorter pieces don't work, but they're far less ambitious. How? sets the scene and Ever is an introduction to where we might be going. Pans is more than a pleasant interlude, but for half its running time it seems to be exactly that. It does get more interesting in its second half but I don't think it quite figures out what it wants to be. And Succession I is evocative from its very first moments, as if it's dumped us into a rainforest and we have to figure out which one. However, it's easily the shortest piece here and it never answers the questions it asks. Succession II seems a lot more confident about shifting to answers within a couple of seconds.

I like this a lot and it's easy to get completely subsumed by it, but how substantial it really is may depend on many further listens. Grains have been around for a few years now, with their earliest recordings issued in 2019 on a single called ζ, the Greek letter zeta. Back then, they were the duo of Calum Turner and Peregrin Hyde. Nowadays, there are five of them, with additional cello from a couple of guests. However, I'm expecting that Turner and Hyde still provide the bulk of this on a selection of synthesisers and sequencers. The rest flesh out the sound into something more. Lets see where they go from here, because I have a feeling that they're going to keep evolving.

Wednesday 1 May 2024

Týr - Battle Ballads (2024)

Country: Faroe Islands
Style: Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Apr 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

It's been five years since a Týr album and they're touring again. My son got to see them recently in Mesa and he thought they were solid, even though he was personally there to see Trollfest again, who were one of their support bands. Now, five years may not seem like a long time but that's the beforetimes on the other side of COVID, so it's a long time indeed. The only time they've taken as long between albums before was the previous gap, between 2013's Valkyrja and 2019's Hel, which was twice as long as any gap before it, so this may be the new normal.

If so, then material needs to be pretty strong and, while this is certainly a reliable and enjoyable album, it rarely seems to ache to knock my socks off, unlike Hel, which was infused with energy to do precisely that. This feels a little more relaxed to me, but it's slowly building on me. Hammered is a decent opener, but Unwandered Ways is better still, nailing the melody and the bounce, and Dragons Never Die almost matches it. Row has a tasty rhythm, which it really ought to have given that it's a rowing song. Given that, I'm not sure that it should speed up at the end, but maybe this is competitive rowing rather than raiding foreign shores.

And that's the first chunk of the album, because this doesn't break naturally into two sides. These first four songs are all sung in English and they all do much the same thing in different ways with varying degrees of success. Later on, skipping over two tracks for now, the third chunk features a set of three more of these. These seven tracks comprise the core of this album, even if they fall on either side of its heart.

After them is the closer, Causa Latronum Normannorum, which stands pretty much on its own. It's an interesting song, because it's slower than those seven default mode tracks, the fast drumming of Tadeusz Rieckmann aside. It's initially sung in what I presume is Faroese, then shifts to Latin, so it definitely takes a different approach there. And it flaunts itself, building more sedately with an effortless ease, as if it's impressing on us how powerful it is so that we don't try anything. I like it.

However, I like the two tracks in the very middle of the album even more. They're notably different from each other but they sit well together because they're both sung in Faroese (or is it Icelandic, as Google Translate seems to think?) and, maybe in part because of that, they feel more authentic. However, I have a feeling that they'd feel more authentic even if they weren't. The other songs are new, of course, and they feel like they're new songs. I don't know for a fact that these are new too, but I have no reason to believe that they aren't, other than they feel timeless, like they could be a pair of five hundred year old classics given a modern day Týr treatment.

Torkils døtur (Torkil's Daughter) is a ballad, though it does bulk up late on, but there's a real power to it. The guitars are acoustic for the longest time and they're delightfully delicate in comparison to to the rest of the album. However, the vocals quickly take over and everything feels naturally harmonised, like it's not one voice but thirty singing so closely in unison that it becomes a single enhanced one. It's also orchestrated, in ways it certainly wouldn't be in a Faroese inn, but the approach works. I find it an impossible song to resist, even if I have no idea what they're telling me.

Vælkomnir føroyingar isn't a ballad, but it carries the same sort of heritage to it, just translated a lot deeper into modern day folk metal. Maybe Torkils døtur is an actual Faroese folk song whereas Vælkomnir føroyingar is merely the most successful new song here at tapping into that tradition. It's easily my favourite track, that harmonised vocal approach continuing but with a more obvious merger of clean voice over harsh voice, singing the same words. The melodies are more effortless than even Unwandered Ways and the whole thing is always over far too quickly for me. I feel like I could be carried along by this one forever. Given that it translates to Welcome Guests, that seems rather appropriate.

Where this leaves me is that my favourite two songs are the ones not sung in English. Lead singer Heri Joensen is clearly fluent and he delivers very well indeed in English, but there's an element here in the Faroese songs that simply isn't there in the English language ones, one that's typical for folk metal, of course. If there's a subgenre of metal that values native language more, then I don't know what it is. I like everything on this album, but I like some of it a lot more than the rest and the rest means the majority.

Are Týr trying too hard to find a more mainstream sound and losing a little of themselves in the process? Let's see how the next album turns out in what I'm now guessing will be five or six years from now.

About Us - Take a Piece (2024)

Country: India
Style: Melodic/Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Apr 2024
Sites: Facebook | Instagram

I reviewed the self-titled debut album from About Us in 2022 and pretty much everything I said in that review holds true here. Most notably, they have a truly bizarre mix of styles that sometimes works really well and sometimes leaves me wondering why. This sort of mix simply isn't done and for good reasons, because the fanbases for some of the different styles on offer here tend to hate the other styles. However, they've doubled down on this sort of thing since that debut, so it must be working for them.

They start us in relatively easy, with an opener in Come to You that's half heavy/power metal and half melodic rock. Their base style remains melodic rock, which is why they're on Frontiers, but it's fair to say that I doubt anyone else on Frontiers sounds like this. There are plenty of bands on that label who play melodic rock and plenty more who play power metal and perhaps a few that sound like both put together. However, I can't name another one who adds nu and alt metal into the mix, as About Us promptly do on Endure.

Come to You is fundamentally a melodic rock song with the sort of melodies we expect built on the sort of structure we expect, but it's bulked up with beefier guitars and notably fast drumming. I'm pretty sure Yanni Ennie is using a double bass approach here, which I don't believe I've ever heard in a melodic rock band before. Sochan Kikon takes on an escalating metal vocal at the very end of the song too. Endure, though, is melodic rock with a Hot Topic filter laid prominently over it like a blanket. Renlamo Lotha and Pona Kikon shift their guitars to rhythmic monotone riffs and djenty chords and both Sochan Kikon and whoever's adding backing vocals go trendy harsh. However, the solos are back to power metal again.

Legion mixes those approaches, building from an elegant power metal intro to djenty verses and back into power metal choruses, the melodic rock not as clear but still there in the structure, and the majority of these tracks continue to mix these approaches in different amounts. Fire with Fire is more melodic rock but with grungier guitars and Sochan Kikon singing clean but with more grit and, at the very end, another metal scream. EVH is bouncy hard rock with much more prominent keyboards from Renbomo Yanthan, so it's AOR with a little crunch. This one could easily be heavy Journey. Beautiful Misery is melodic rock that ramps up to power metal but with those alt metal touches when that sort of middle finger attitude is warranted.

About Us hail from Wokha, which is so far to the northeast of India that it's far closer to Myanmar than the majority of India, so I wonder what their local music scene sounds like. It's not the usual home for a rock band of any description, so maybe rock fans there are more accepting of this sort of wild mix. If Journey and Blind Guardian and Avenged Sevenfold are all simply rock bands there and a notable change from Bollywood soundtracks and traditional Indian music, then a band like About Us makes total sense. Here in the west, where trad metal and alt metal have two separate fanbases, especially outside the US, About Us make us wonder a lot more.

What I can say is that they're highly capable. Sochan Kikon sounds effective whatever style he's adopting at any particular moment. Check out the guitar solos in Reels for Eternity and Hope to see what a double act like Lotha and Pona Kikon can do. Ennie impresses throughout, even if it sometimes feels as if he'd be more comfortable in an extreme metal band. Yanthan rarely takes the spotlight, which holds true for bassist Soren Kikon, a third Kikon in this band, but they both deliver exactly what they need to do to support these songs.

I'm going with another 7/10 here, as I did with the About Us debut. This feels a little heavier over a forty minute stretch but it hasn't lost its melodic rock roots, especially with a thoroughly melodic song like Fortitude wrapping things up, even if Sochan Kikon gets edgy at points and there's a nice slow and heavy section early in the second half. My least favourite songs are the ones that venture deepest into the nu metal approach, Endure and Legion among them, but they stay varied too, so I'm not desperately upset. Later songs, like Hope and Beautiful Misery, strike a better balance for me, mostly unfolding in traditional melodic fashion but with the occasional edgy texture.

What I don't hear yet is something new coming out of this merger. It still sounds like a merger of two very different sounds coexisting on the same album. Maybe, if About Us keep knocking these albums out, they'll find a way to make the two sounds feel like one, at which point they'll certainly have staked out a very new claim within the genre. Best of luck to them!

Tuesday 30 April 2024

The Obsessed - Gilded Sorrow (2024)

Country: USA
Style: Doom Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 16 Feb 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

This may be an odd confession to make, but I don't believe that I've ever heard the Obsessed. I've heard their lead singer and lead guitarist, Scott 'Wino' Weinrich, because he fronted Saint Vitus in the late eighties and he appeared on Dave Grohl's overlooked Probot album. However, while he formed this band as far back as 1979, it only released some demos and a single before he joined Saint Vitus. After his time in that band, he reformed the Obsessed but their albums showed up in the early nineties when life was taking over from music for me.

If I ever heard them, it would be the track that was on Metal Massacre VI, but I don't recall it, so I get to finally catch up through their fifth album. The first three came out between 1990 and 1994 and four arrived another split and reformation later in 2017, soon before I started up Apocalypse Later Music. Clearly I need to go back to those earlier albums because I like this, not that it shocks me at all. What surprises me is that it took this long for me to catch up.

Well, there's another surprise in store with the opening couple of tracks, Daughter of an Echo and It's Not OK, because they're perky doom, downtuned but up tempo and I'd somehow got it into my brain that the Obsessed played more traditional doom but with punk influences. Maybe they did. I wasn't there. I like these tracks, though, which do have a punk energy to them but are played with metal precision. That punk energy extends to Wino's vocals, because the perkier a song gets, the more conversational he becomes in his delivery. Not everything adopts that approach here but it returns as an approach in Jailine.

That all changes on Realize a Dream, which starts out aiming to set a mood and shifts into more of a hard rock sound. The tone is the same, but the influence is less Black Sabbath and more the Cult, just slower, as if it's a single played at 33rpm instead of 45. Accordingly, Wino sings this song more than converses with us. Jailine is even more obviously Cult-inspired, with some Danzig in there for good measure and even a hint of Sisters of Mercy in the chorus too. It's all downtuned though and back to perky doom. It's a heady mixture and I like it a lot.

The title track is much slower and more overtly doom, with vocals that start out spoken word and endowing it with an epic wasteland feel. Maybe it and the similarly slow but bouncier Stoned Back to the Bomb Age and Wellspring are what I was expecting from the Obsessed. The former is bleak but the latter slow bounces with Wino returning to conversational vocals, loose but always firmly on point, even throwing in dismissive laughter in Stoned Back to the Bomb Age when the lyrics ask for it. It's not a happy song, raging against politicians.

There's more variety late in the album, with Lucky Free Nice Machine closing out like a hard rock guitar solo. It's only a minute long and it's entirely instrumental, Wino's guitar taking a moment in the spotlight but the rhythm section of doom bolstering him wonderfully. None of them are old time members, though drummer Brian Constantino was on that previous album, Sacred, having joined in 2016. Jason Taylor on rhythm guitar and Chris Angleberger on bass both arrived in 2022. Before it, Yen Sleep goes back to traditional doom, plodding along with just enough bounce to be engaging rather than bleak. It features my favourite guitar solo of any of these songs.

Oddly, though, given how much I like traditional doom and dip happily into funeral doom, most of my favourite songs here are the perky ones, most obviously It's Not OK and Jailine. I'm also fond of Realize a Dream and Yen Sleep, two very different tracks indeed. That means that, while I have finally heard an Obsessed album, I'm not entirely sure which of these sounds is their core one and I really ought to go back and dip into the earlier ones to see where this came from.

The Dame - II (2024)

Country: The Netherlands
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Apr 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Prog Archives | Twitter | YouTube

Into the Wastelands starts out with a fuzzy guitar that made me think this might be stoner rock, even if it came labelled as prog. But then the lead vocal of vocalist Marian van Charante kicks in and prog suddenly appears to be a fair description. She's a charismatic vocalist who sings with relish. I now understand why so many other singers seem to missing out on intonation because she has all of it. Her delivery is theatrical and feels like it comes from jazz and musical theatre, but she has power that's straight out of rock and it makes for a heady combination.

I should add that this is the second album from the Dame, but it's their last with van Charante. It's been years in the making so, even though she's left the band and new singer Elianne Ernst has stepped in to replace her, it's still van Charante on this album, as it was on the Dame's debut, Losing Sight of What You Want, six years ago. I don't know what Ernst sounds like, but it feels like van Charante has stamped her personality onto this band, who are a varied bunch, I'm guessing, given where the music behind her goes.

Into the Wastelands is an ambitious opener, nudging past twelve minutes and it travels through a lot of musical territory in that time: playful pop rock, imaginative prog rock, a trippy psychedelic midsection and even a couple of heavier parts at points where the guitars flirt with metal crunch. There's a patient guitar solo seven and a half minutes in and a far more ambitious one either side of nine. This piece does a heck of a lot in those twelve minutes. And then All in Good Reason does something completely different.

In fact, the constant here is change, because, while some of these songs share sonic components and some actively lead into others, none of the six tracks on offer really sound like each other. It's consistent in tone, so nothing ever seems jarring, except the fact that van Charante often sounds as if she wandered into the studio from a smoky jazz club and wants to take a stab at rock music, especially on All in Good Reason and Momentary Inn. However, that's really a one time problem. Either you don't get it, in which case this isn't for you, or you're on board immediately and firmly open to the potential of what it might do. I'm in the latter camp.

Even though All in Good Reason sounds like dark jazz, I kept catching a Black Sabbath influence in the structure. Ozzy could sing this. Sure, it would sound completely different but it would fit what he does too, at least until it gets overtly musical theatre. Momentary Inn wouldn't. Two thirds of the way in, All in Good Reason turns into prog metal and van Charante, who I presume is Dutch, is suddenly very English. Momentary Inn shifts between delicate jazz piano and overt prog song. All that Rumbles opens with similarly delicate piano but there's also a driving electronic beat pulsing at us and that totally changes the feel.

That leaves Overwhelming Silence and Disentangling, which initially seem to be connected but go to very different places. The former is the quietest song on offer in one sense, being entirely voice and piano, but it's also the most vehement, because van Charante seems to be unburdening and there's a lot to dump. It's a subtly powerful piece. The latter initially continues that but it's nine minutes of growth and it builds substantially over that time. My favourite guitar solo comes during the finalé of this one, though I'm also rather fond of the one midway through Momentary Inn. Disentangling is also the epic of the album, even if it's shorter than Into the Wastelands.

And, given that I've only mentioned van Charante thus far, naturally so as the most unusual element but a single piece in a puzzle nonetheless, I should cover who else made this. Those solos are courtesy of Stephen de Ruijter, who handles the lead guitars here, with van Charante handling rhythm, acoustic and electric. The delicate piano (and indeed other forms of piano, given where else it goes late on Momentary Inn) is the work of Thijs de Ruijter, including a late section of All that Rumbles that moves into New Order territory. And that leaves Michel Krempel on bass, who may be most obvious on heavier sections but is also a key part of All That Rumbles, which relies on him even when everyone else steps back.

I like most of my new music to sound original but that's tripled for prog rock. It's supposed to be a progressive genre that explores new sounds and new combinations of existing ones. What I hear from the Dame is something I haven't heard anywhere else, so they're doing this right. I'd love to hear their next album to see where they're going to take this sound with Elianne Ernst.

Monday 29 April 2024

Rage - Afterlifelines (2024)

Country: Germany
Style: Heavy/Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 29 Mar 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Rage are one of the few metal bands from the eighties to survive to the present day without any blips in service, having stayed together as Rage since 1986, plus another three more years before that if we count their time as Avenger. They've always been prolific as well, this counting as their twenty-seventh studio album, but they appear to be bursting at the seams with new material, so much so that I actually missed their 2021 album, Resurrection Day, after enjoying 2020's Wings of Rage enough to give it a highly recommended 8/10. I did cover Spreading the Plague, their 2022 EP, though, and I didn't want to miss this double album, their first such, even if I'm a month late.

After a deceptively soft intro, In the Beginning, they shift instantly to full gear for End of Illusions and Under a Black Crown and we're off and running. I talked about their particular balancing act in my review of Wings of Rage, how they're often "up tempo without being thrash, heavy without being death, powerful without losing melody." That phrase applies to these openers and to many others as the album runs on, such as one of my personal highlights, Dead Man's Eyes, which also adds a little death metal crunch. There are a few hints at extreme metal here that remain hints only, especially through harsh moments in songs like Dead Man's Eyes and Lifelines.

Other songs drop the pace a little, never too much, remaining heavy but maintaining their sense of melody. Afterlife, Mortal and Toxic Waves fit that bill and they're just as tasty as the fast ones. Waterwar shifts between the two modes, mostly staying in the slower mode but punctuating the verses with a neatly fast machine gun riff, almost a call and response with vocalist Peavy Wagner. This is another highlight for me, aided by a strong guitar solo from Jean Bormann. I've liked this new Rage with two guitarists, but Stefan Weber has gone on hiatus for health reasons, so they're temporarily back to being a trio for now, with Bormann handling both lead and rhythm.

The double album is broken up into two albums with different names, Afterlife and Lifelines. The former, from In the Beginning to Life Among the Ruins eleven tracks in, that includes everything I mentioned above except Lifelines, is consistently strong with a few highlights: Dead Man's Eyes, Waterwar and a third called Justice Will Be Mine, which is a clear single with an emphasised melody that's almost Celtic in nature and a neat slow heavy section in the build up to the finalé. Not everything is up to that quality but there are no bad tracks here and I wouldn't call any average either. All are good heavy/power metal songs, with some of them merely a little better than others.

The second album continues in the same vein except that there's an extra element in play that's a tasty addition. That's made obvious in Cold Desire, which kicks it off, beginning with sassy violins and piano that don't disappear when the song launches into the usual mode, those violins happy to hang around in the background to keep playfulness in power. And they continue on throughout the rest of the album, with orchestrations woven into the sound by pianist Marco Grasshoff. That isn't a new approach for Rage, who collaborated with the Prague Symphony Orchestra on Lingua Mortis in 1996 and continued to include orchestration from the Lingua Mortis Orchestra on later albums, like XIII, Ghosts and Speak of the Dead.

I'm all for that approach, for which Rage should be credited as pioneers, and there are a host of neat touches on this second disc that are emphasised or indeed created by the violins and piano. However, I found the songs a little less effective on the whole than on Afterlife. There are obvious exceptions, like Cold Desire and the highly ambitious Lifelines itself which are highlights for me, but there are fewer of them and the lesser material isn't as strong. I should call out Dying to Live too, which is a ballad that turns into a power ballad but, shock horror, sounds good to me.

Much of the reason Dying to Live works is the vocal performance of Peavy Wagner. He's never had the best voice in rock music in the traditional sense and I'm sure a vocal coach could find all sorts of little issues to highlight, but he has a strong balance between power and melody that any band like Rage need to thrive so I've never cared. However, he sells Dying to Live by endowing it with an emotional lead vocal through plenty of nuance. He continues that into The Flood and it's there on the final track, In the End, too, Bormann joining him for good measure.

In the end, I think I have to go with a 7/10 for this and feel a little guilty about it. There's a lot here that's worthy of an 8/10 but I don't think it's quite consistent enough over nearly ninety minutes to warrant that. There's well over an album's worth of really good material here, so I'm tempted but there are enough other songs here to pull it back down. Maybe I'd have gone 8/10 for Afterlife but a 7/10 for Lifelines, the result being the sort of 7.5/10 that I don't give out. Really, though, to keep me debating that after ninety minutes ought to tell you that this is worthy.

Full Earth - Cloud Sculptors (2024)

Country: Norway
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 15 Mar 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram

Here's something special and notably ambitious from Norway. Few bands tend to start out their debut albums with twenty-one minute instrumental jams, even within the psychedelic rock world. Fewer follow it up with a twenty minute title track. That's an album right there, but precious few keep on going, delivering four more tracks, none of them quite as long as those openers but two more making it past ten, with the second part of the opener bookending the album and pushing that track to almost thirty-five minutes alone. There are eighty-five minutes of music here.

Of course, that's exactly what Full Earth do here and they had me completely riveted by the end of that first piece of music, Full Earth Pt I: Emanation. I wasn't immediately sold, as the drums are pretty routine as it kicks off and the guitars are clearly repetitive, but everything builds and I do mean seriously builds. I had to temporarily ignore the rest of the album by starting it over again the moment it ended. The first step up is around the two minute mark, then again at three and a half, once more at four and a half and over and over again until I was totally mesmerised by all its swirling chaos.

There are five musicians in Full Earth and they play the typical rock instruments—Ask Vatn Strøm on guitars, Simen Wie on bass and songwriter Ingvald Vassbø on drums, with both Wie and Eskild Myrvoll adding additional guitars—but two of them are also credited on different keyboards and the fifth member, Øystein Aadland, provides a whole bunch of them. This is like we're watching an entire galaxy form and develop and eventually explode. There's much to take in but it's glorious. I'm not at all surprised to find that Vassbø is playing with Motorpsycho nowadays, as well as being a long-standing member of Kanaan, along with Strøm and Myrvoll.

The section that kicks in at around 13:45 when Wie's bass introduces a heavy riff and Vassbø starts improvising drum fills but the keyboards continue to dance is breathtakingly good and that's not my only favourite section. There's already been a gorgeous step up in pace that shows up around eleven minutes and the finalé is wonderful too. Much of this is built on repetition and slow build, so there are ritual and trancelike elements to it, but there are solos all over the place too, from both guitars and keyboards, and so this never quite falls into drone territory.

However, that influence is definitely there and so are a host of others. Their Bandcamp page has a few names listed on that front, not just stoner rock bands like Sleep, Elder and High on Fire, but a collection of minimalist and avant-garde composers too, both ones I know like Terry Riley and the incomparable Györgi Ligeti and ones I don't like James Ferraro and Onehotrix Point Nevers, who are names I clearly must check out. These are cited as inspirations for the two short organ pieces, Weltgeist and Echo Tears, but there's experimentation in the middle of Cloud Sculptors.

Talking of Cloud Sculptors, the title track feels like whatever deity we're playing here pressed the zoom button and whipped inward to focus on a single planet. It isn't ours, as the fluttering flutes and liquescent guitar paints an alien landscape dominated by frolicking butterflies and keening land whales. The drums vanish entirely at points to reflect a King Crimson influence, but that wild and fascinating midsection is something else again, feeling like the pulsing of a planet that may be bursting at the seams.

I have to admit to feeling that this was my long overdue first 9/10 for the year during the opener, but I started to think during The Collective Unconscious that it's the first contender for my album of the year, because, once this one gets going, it's even better than the opener.

I had wondered a little because Weltgeist is a plodding ambient organ piece, almost a turn based improvisation with notes shifting up and down on a particularly ruthless beat (Echo Tears is more of a Philip Glass rhythmic effort), and The Collective Unconscious starts out in a similar vein, but it grows a few minutes in with some sumptuous seventies organ that brings King Crimson promptly back to mind. That gives way to searing guitar solos and a bludgeoning road home that brings up scale again, one way or another. I can't tell if I'm a galaxy watching a neighbour form or one single cell watching a human body evolve around me, but it seems utterly momentous. There's more of that in the closer, Full Earth Pt II: Disintegration.

And, beyond sounding momentous, this is energy-infusing stuff. I haven't felt particularly down at all this week and I've been getting stuff done, but I feel thoroughly revitalised listening to this. It will be hard to move on from it.