Friday 22 March 2024

Midnight - Hellish Expectations (2024)

Country: USA
Style: Black/Speed Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 Mar 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives

I'm not sure we can truly say that Midnight formed in 2003, given that it's a one man solo project put into motion back when Athenar was merely Jamie Walters, the bassist and vocalist in an Ohio based heavy metal band called Boulder. I guess it's when he came up with the name and recorded an initial demo. A couple of decades on, Boulder are long gone but Midnight are well established, this being his sixth studio album. In fact, he's ramping up output, Rebirth by Blasphemy, Let There Be Witchery and this arriving only two years after each other.

It's a real step up on its predecessor, which was decent but slower and more sedate than a typical Midnight live performance, where they blitz through song after song at so frantic pace that each could be a bullet and they have to empty the bandolier before closing time. This really doesn't do anything that's new to anyone who's heard Midnight before, but it feels far more representative of their stage show and that's a good thing. They blister on stage and it's felt awkward to me that they don't blister on album. Well, they do here.

Sure, Escape Total Hell kicks off the album with what could have been an S.O.D. mosh part, but it's ready to speed up quickly and it doesn't even think about slowing down again, except as one tease midway before launching right back into full gear again. The previous album feels like it was stuck in third gear compared to this, which is pedal to the metal all the way. This is a quintessential song for Midnight too, hearkening right back to the early days of extreme metal. There's Bathory here and Venom and even someone like Bulldozer. The riffs are simple but they're relentless.

The most unusual aspect to Expect Total Hell is that it lasts almost three and a half minutes, which makes it almost an epic for Midnight. There are ten tracks on offer here but this is the only one to reach three minutes. The entire album has stripped off, washed up and gone to bed in not far over twenty-five minutes. When an album is over three minutes shorter than Reign in Blood, even with the same number of tracks, then you know it's inherently stripped down to its vicious essence.

All ten of these tracks get down to business immediately and don't waste time wrapping up when they're done, even something like Slave of the Blade, which is a tad slower than the tracks before it, playing out with even more of a Tank vibe to the guitarwork than others, both the riffs and the solos, and an Exciter transition into the chorus. As you might imagine from the names I've thrown out there as comparisons, everything's old school here. In many ways, Midnight's sound is close to everything I loved about heavy metal in the mid eighties. There's NWOBHM riffing, the tempo of early speed metal and the edge of proto-extreme metal, all at the same time.

In many ways, Athenar has found the balance point between early Saxon and early Bathory, but I can't figure out which way that goes. Maybe it's both in turn. Dungeon Lust isn't light years away from Saxon covering Return of the Darkness and Evil, while Nuclear Savior has moments where it could be Bathory covering Motorcycle Man. There's Motörhead all over Expect Total Hell and in a whole bunch of the other songs too. There's Tank everywhere. Mercyless Slaughtor (sic) goes back to that S.O.D. moshing mindset. F.O.A.L. kicks off like Girlschool but is presumably another Venom homage, a nod to their F.O.A.D.

Of course, extreme metal has moved on a long way in the half a century since all those tracks saw original release, but you wouldn't be able to tell listening to Midnight. The most modern sounds to be found here are the black metal tinges to Athenar's Cronos-inspired vocals and the 21st century production values. Bathory never sounded this clear. He's still back in the early eighties and I have no complaints. I'm just fascinated in how he varies his influences depending on which instrument he's playing. When he's behind the kit, he's Philthy Animal Taylor. On bass, he's Cronos. When he's playing a guitar, he's Mick Tucker and Peter Brabbs of Tank.

And, at the end of the day, he's Athenar, because, as much as we can hear all those influences as if there were closed captions pointing them out to us, the result sounds like Midnight. While I only gave Let There Be Witchery a 6/10, because it sounded like a slower, watered down version of the Midnight I saw on stage, I'm happy to give this one an easy 7/10 because it has all the energy and pace of the Midnight I saw on stage. I'd go higher, because it's so much fun, but the constant lack of originality brings it back down again. So a safe 7/10 it is this time out for a more authentic take on Midnight.

Karkara - All is Dust (2024)

Country: France
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 22 Mar 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | YouTube

This is Karkara's third album but it's my first experience of their work and I'm impressed. They're a psychedelic rock trio from Toulouse who play lively songs with space rock synths. Given where the music goes, I'd be happy for this to be entirely instrumental, but I'm not going to complain about the vocals, courtesy of both guitarist Karim R. and drummer Maxime M., because they're deep in the mix, so they work more like another instrument than as a delivery mechanism for lyrics. They do end up going instrumental much of the time and I never felt like I was missing anything by not truly acknowledging a single word.

They lean towards longer songs, all six on offer running between six and nine and a half minutes. My favourites are a couple of the shorter ones, Anthropia over The Chase, both of them squeaking over the line at a whisper under seven minutes each, but I was just as transported by longer songs, the elements that nudged those two to the top of the heap being specific instruments. Anthropia has an even more gorgeous bass groove from Hugo O. than the other songs, while The Chase gets wild in its second half, courtesy of a slower tempo and a truly wild saxophone from guest musician Jérome Bievelot, moving it from space rock to stalker jazz.

Time was that the saxophone was a soft rock instrument, but, courtesy perhaps of John Zorn, it's become quite the versatile addition to pretty much any genre on the rock and metal spectrum, a sentence that my teenage self back in the eighties wouldn't have believed. From prog rock to dark jazz to black metal, it's showing up everywhere nowadays and it elevates a post-black metal outfit like White Ward just as much as a prog rock project like Shamblemaths or a gothic rock band like The Matter of A, doing something different every single time. Even within psychedelic rock, how Solar Corona or The Fërtility Cült use sax is completely different to how Karkara do.

There are obvious influences here, but this is mostly a relatively unique sound to me. There's lots of King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard on Monoliths and across the album as a whole, but it has to be underlined that it's hard to borrow the sound of a band so versatile that they don't even sound like themselves most of the time. Karkara takes their King Gizzard nod from the Nonagon Infinity album, which is still my favourite by them, and especially in the vocal delivery, but there's more of a middle eastern flavour here and more Hawkwind too. There's lots of Hawkwind on The Chase and elsewhere too, both their patented drive and in the space rock keyboards. There's even some Pink Floyd here, from their Ummagumma era, in the intro to Moonshiner and not just because of those tweeting birds.

Perhaps Karkara took Nonagon Infinity and Ummagumma and Quark, Strangeness and Charm and threw them into a blender, but there's more of that middle eastern sound than could have started out on Hassan i Sabah. Maybe they've been listening to Nepal Death too. Maybe they've just seen a vision of how this connects to that and what should be layered over the top to make Karkara. The intricate cover art with its almost but not quite symmetry certainly suggests that. Maybe I'm just missing a sonic ingredient. I'd love to know what that might be!

This new sound has a lot of consistency, so you can throw any song on at random and still find what Karkara do. I haven't listened through on shuffle yet, but I don't think it would matter too much, a slower vibe that flows from The Chase to On Edge and the glorious transition from Moonshiner to Anthropia notwithstanding. However, even on a first listen, they distinguish themselves and each time through only enhances that. It's not just The Chase going slow and wild with that saxophone, the tweeting birds on Moonshiner and how All is Dust gets seriously angry a couple of minutes in, like a punk band wandered into the studio and joined in for a while, pausing politely so Bievelot's sax can take us somewhere else entirely and in a very different way to The Chase.

The bottom line is that I liked this from the outset but it gets better as it goes and it's all growing on me still after six or seven times through. Psychedelic rock is the gift that keeps on giving right now for me and it's fast becoming my favourite genre to lose myself in. Whatever a particular day brings, it's a welcoming barrier to dive through, let me explore for a while and eventually retreat back to the real world. This may well become another 8/10 that moves up to a 9/10 in time.

Thursday 21 March 2024

Steve Hackett - The Circus and the Nightwhale (2024)

Country: UK
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 16 Feb 2024
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

All aboard! All aboard! Legendary guitarist Steve Hackett, fresh from his live album looking back at Genesis's Foxtrot album half a century on, is back with a new album. It's built around a concept but that doesn't really take hold until the second half when the whale shows up. There's certainly some circus material early on but I got so caught up in the music that I never grasped the reasons why and what they have to do with a whale. Every time the album reached Breakout nine tracks in, I was freshly reminded that there's a concept and every time it ended, I wondered what it was.

It seems like there ought to be a story to People of the Smoke, which opens up the album, but it's never a focus for me. There are all sorts of ambient accoutrements to take my mind away from the story and by the time I'm ready to pay attention to it, it goes entirely instrumental, as if the story is left hanging in the clouds. And talking of them, These Passing Clouds is up next as an interlude, completely instrumental. There are a few of those here and they're often delicious, so why would we focus on a story, especially as even Hackett himself would freely admit that he's far more of a guitarist than a vocalist.

There are songs too. Taking You Down is a more groove oriented vocal song with a prominent sax from Rob Townsend, as straightforward as People of the Smoke was wildly playful. Enter the Ring is quite the delicate prog song. When the flute of Hackett's brother John shows up, you know who is immediately going to spring out as a comparison and it's a fair one, given where the song goes from there, even if Hackett's guitar solo isn't particularly like anything that Martin Barre might play. Get Me Out is a real stalker of a song while Ghost Moon and Living Love is softer, technically counting as a ballad, I suppose, but one with choral voices and orchestration in addition to a more laid back Hackett.

There's a voice in Found and Lost too, even though it initially seems to be another interlude. It's a sub-two minute mood piece, drenched in film noir cigarette smoke, and it features some effective smooth singing from Hackett, even if it's far more honest than it is accomplished. It leads into the rain of Enter the Ring, which marks the first point at which I felt like I was on an old school Genesis album, though it veers over to Jethro Tull territory after the flute shows up and everything drifts into perky folk rock.

There are other instruments worthy of note here, beyond the expected Hackett guitarwork, both electric and acoustic and also on mandolin. Townsend on sax and John Hackett on flute are easily the most obvious across the album, as they both show up multiple times, but the most notable on one appearance is surely Malik Mansurov's tar, which is a lute mostly known from classical music in Azerbaijan. It introduces Circo Inferno, which is as unlike Ghost Moon and Living Love before it as can be comfortably imagined. It's a thoroughly alive song, driving through those ethnic sounds to some cool weird stuff early in the second half and a seriously angry sax emerging from it. This is a wicked song and it's an utter delight.

It's here that the concept leaps out to grab our attention, because, while Circo Inferno clearly has to do with a circus and Breakout is a lively ninety second intermission between that and All at Sea, it then starts to have to do with the whale. The guitar churn from Breakout is there too, but it's a lot less immediate, dwarfed instead by the creature's presence. I still have no idea why this album is all about a circus and a nightwhale, but it's clear when it moves from one to the other because Hackett's guitar sounds like an orca in All at Sea and the percussion starts to sound like waves. We would know that Into the Nightwhale is all about the whale, even if it didn't hawk it in its title.

Most of these later pieces are instrumental, but they're more like soundtrack material than what served so well as interludes earlier in the album. However, Into the Nightwhale is vocal, in an Alan Parsons Project vein, and Wherever You Are stays vocal in a more upbeat dynamic vein, which the guitar of Steve Hackett is more than happy for. He's entirely electric here and he goes for searing rather than introspective. The vibrant drumming at the end of this track backs up just how much life there is in it. And yet, White Dove calms us right back down again to wrap up the album in the most peaceful way possible, a soft acoustic instrumental piece with a Mediterranean vibe. What's a nightwhale doing there?

And so I have no idea what this concept album is doing, at least outside the cinematic section late on, from Circo Inferno to Into the Nightwhale. However, as individual songs and pieces of music, with any idea of concept ruthlessly ignored, there's some tasty stuff here. Found and Lost is a hugely evocative piece, with its delicate harp, keyboard swells and sultry saxophone. Circo Inferno is wild abandon, life as immediate as only a carny can pitch it. All at Sea is immersive, a piece of music as easy for us to see as hear. And Ghost Moon and Living Love, as soft as it is, is exquisite, surely the best song here, even if others are far more eager to have us vote for them.

Now, am I going to wake up three weeks from now with a cartoon light bulb glowing over my head because I've suddenly realised what it's about? I doubt it but I like it anyway.

Persefone - Lingua Ignota Part I (2024)

Country: Andorra
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 2 Feb 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

I've never heard Persefone before, but they've been around long enough to still have a MySpace page, having been formed back in 2001 with seven albums to their credit thus far. They hail from Andorra, a new country to Apocalypse Later Music because it only contains about 80,000 people, few of whom are likely to be in metal bands. In fact, only two of the six musicians here are locals, with three more from neighbouring Spain and one from Portugal, but, just on their own, they're enough to drop the ratio of rock musicians to people to 1:40,000, which is pretty decent. I'm sure I'm also only just scratching the surface of what's going on in Andorra too.

They're a progressive metal band who sound very modern, especially in early tracks, which means that the aspects of modern metal that I like the least are here in djenty rhythms and shouty core vocals, but there's a lot more here than that, especially as the EP grows. There are five tracks on offer, though Sounds and Vessels is clearly an intro to One Word, so it should really count as four. Those two are probably the most modern and also my least favourite, but they display a majestic build in an almost ritual way, the band especially focusing on one line as a mantra and growing it from whispers to screams.

The vocalist, Daniel Rodriguez Flys, is also the new singer in Eternal Storm, a fascinating Spanish melodic death metal band who have a new album out that I'm looking forward to hearing. He was not on their previous one, Come the Tide, which was my album of the month in September 2019, in my book, a level above the latest Tool album that Loudwire is touting the album of the year. He's a bit shouty here for my tastes but there's also a versatility to his voice that takes him into plenty of other styles too.

It's presumably his whispers that kick off Sounds and Vessels, building to shouts and then back, as the music behind him follows suit, initially piano and bouncy electronica until they bouncy turns ominous and the song launches into major crunch. Everything's jagged, as you might expect from a modern prog metal band, but it's also very controlled. That all expands further in One Word, as technical and jagged but with a lot more atmosphere behind it. It's all bigger and more, with fast sections and a deeper choral take on the chorus courtesy of what may be multiple voices and may be post production effects, probably both, emphasising how elegantly it all swells.

Most of what I like about One Word and not so much of what I don't like continues on into the trio of remaining songs. The Equable keeps the jagged rhythms but alternates its vocals between that shouty core style and a bulky clean chorus. There's lovely delicate guitarwork and an atmospheric keyboard to wrap it up. Lingua Ignota opens with that choral approach, a folky tune turning angry, and it works the fundamental contrast that so often drives Persefone between calm and confident and hurt and aggressive better than anything else here. Again, the ending is surely the best part, but here the ending stretches to a few minutes of the seven and a half that it runs.

And that leaves Abyssal Communications, which continues the flow of gradually weeding out the shouty aspects to their natural extreme, which is to cut out the metal almost entirely. This opens mellow, the vocals clean and pleading. It grows too, of course, as everything here does, but in the way we might expect from a new wave song rather than a modern metal song, but a suitably prog new wave song at that. Flys continues his shift from my least favourite aspect of the band's sound to my favourite. He finds some deliciously smooth notes here, all the more so because for them he ditches the hint of grit and edge that he employs on the rest of the song. It's fascinating stuff.

Regular readers know that, while I'm open to every aspect of rock and metal and actively seek out the newer and more unusual places that the genres visit, I'm not generally a fan of that particular modern metal sound that's epitomised in djent and core vocals, when that's all a band does. It's a limitation thing for me. Djent turns riffs into rhythms so removes the other cool things that riffs do and shouty core vocals usually aim for aggression above all but almost always feel artificial. As an entire sound, that's limiting, but as a particular colour paint on an artist's palette, it can be an opportunity for contrast when used appropriately against other colours.

And that's what I hear in Persefone's sound. The sheer movement from Sounds and Vessels, easily the most limited piece here, to Abyssal Communication, easily the smoothest, makes for quite the fascinating journey. Inevitably, my favourite songs are the ones partway, because it's never about the destination. I might go with Lingua Ignota over The Equable today but I might reverse that on another day. Both are diverse and immersive, two things that I ache to find in progressive metal, and Abyssal Communication serves as a comedown from both. I presume Persefone will release a Lingua Ignota Part II sometime soon and I'm looking forward to it.

Wednesday 20 March 2024

Aborted - Vault of Horrors (2024)

Country: Belgium
Style: Technical Death Metal/Grindcore
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 15 Mar 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I guess Aborted should still be listed as a Belgian band, given that sole founder member and lead vocalist Sven de Caluwé is Belgian, but they're a pretty international bunch nowadays. What blew me away from moment one is the drumming of Ken Bedene, one of two Californians in the line-up, his fourteen year stint with the band making him the longest serving member who wasn't there at the beginning. The others hail from Iceland and Italy, but the latter is bassist Stefano Franceschini who left in 2023 after seven years on board. I don't believe he's been replaced yet but he does play on this album for presumably the last time.

Aborted are usually listed as technical death metal, which is entirely appropriate, but Bedene is a grindcore drummer when Dreadbringer kicks off the album. He doesn't stay there, but damn, he's fast. Of course, everyone else has to be totally on top of their game for this to hold together and I would be failing at my job if I didn't point that out, but it took plenty of effort to tear myself away from what he was doing, whatever anyone else was up to at any particular moment. I remember a gig in Bradford way back in 1988, with Carcass headlining during their demo days, at which I found myself hypnotised by the drummer of Intense Degree. He was so fast that I couldn't see his arms when he was in full flow because they were just a blur. That came quickly to mind here, though the majority of the speed seems to be in his feet.

After Bedene, it was de Caluwé who grabbed my attention with his vocals. He mostly delivers in a guttural death growl that's somehow clear enough for me to be able to tell that he sings entirely in English. However, like Bedene, there are points where he shifts up to grindcore speeds, others where he moves his pitch up to provide more of a black metal shriek and still more where there's some sort of post production done on his voice to give it a weirdly echoing effect. It's almost like he's inside such a small box that he'd have to be crushed into a cube to fit but which somehow lets his voice remain as huge and resonant as ever.

At least, I believe most of that is de Caluwé, but it's hard to actually tell, because there's a guest vocalist singing with him on every single track. Most are North American, with four from the USA and four from Canada, including Oliver Rae Aleron from Archspire on The Shape of Hate and Alex Erian from Despised Icon on Death Cult. However, there's also a Brit, Jason Evans from Ingested, on Insect Politics, the most overtly grindcore song here, and an Italian, Francesco Paoli from the mighty Fleshgod Apocalypse on Condemned to Rot. No wonder that one has a particularly dense sound. Generally speaking, the multiple voices helps this album considerably, adding a diversity that might not otherwise have been there.

The guitarists are Ian Jekelis and Daníel Konráðsson and what I found fascinating about what they do here is that they never seem to solo in genre. During the majority of these songs, they play at a quick pace because that's what everyone else is doing, and they add depth to the music. However, there are points where they play a lot slower, or at least whoever's handling lead at any particular moment does, and that adds a fascinating dimension. There are long sustained notes in The Shape of Hate and Hellbound, even though everything else around them is fast, and the solos, in most of these songs, tend to be almost traditional heavy metal solos, hardly extreme at all.

While those solos can be rather engaging, this is the exact opposite of easy listening. It's not just that it's very loud and very fast, it's that we have to pay a lot of attention to what's happening. It can be easy to get lost in some of these songs, like Condemned to Rot and Brotherhood of Sleep. Hellbound may the most immediately accessible. Death Cult has an almost singalong chorus, merely a simple and brutal one. The Golgothan is an attention grabber, because of electronic pulses as part of the beat, and there are deeper keyboards later in the song which add another element to the sound.

My favourites are the ones that are complex but not impenetrable, ones that I can grasp within a few listens but still have hidden depths that I can explore on further runs through. Dreadbringer has to be the most obvious, but The Golgothan is close and Malevolent Haze has an emotional arc to explore. It seems bigger than anything else here, perhaps appropriately as the closer, only the single that hinted at the album, Infinite Terror, after it as a bonus track. That's a good one too.

It's just hard to call out tracks after only five listens, though. This is material so dense that we just can't judge it properly until we've enjoyed its company for a while, bought it dinner and visited its parents. We have to dive in deep and explore it to find what it's truly offering. The whole album is still growing on me and I'm a little wary about only giving it a 7/10. I have a feeling that, in a week or two, I'd give it more, but I have to let it go right now so I can move onto other albums by other bands. C'est la vie.

Lipz - Changing the Melody (2024)

Country: Sweden
Style: Glam Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 15 Mar 2024
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | YouTube

Lipz have been around since 2011 but it took them a while to get an album out, Scaryman not arriving until 2018. I haven't heard that one, but I've heard tracks from this, their follow-up, on Chris Franklin's joyous Raised on Rock radio show. They're on Frontiers now and, for some reason, that label is calling this heavy metal. It isn't close to heavy metal, even if there are hints of Shout at the Devil-era Mötley Crüe on the opener, I'm Going Under, as that buzzsaw riff is straight out of Looks That Kill. This is far closer to the smooth glam rock that Tigertailz played on songs like Livin' without You, shorn of the early punk influence but before they got a little edgier on later albums.

While I'm Going Under is probably my favourite song, it's not a particularly representative one. I would suggest that the title track is far more typical of the rest of the material here, featuring a more subdued guitar and a more obvious melodic rock outlook. Its bombastic chorus seems right out of melodic rock, merely put through a sleaze filter, and that seems to be what Lipz are aiming for with these songs. They want to play melodic rock with strong melodies and huge choruses but to sleaze it up with a glam rock look and feel, so that there's an edge to it all.

There are a few songs that take a slightly different approach. While the focus is always on vocals and huge choruses, for instance, the guitarists do get work to do. There's that underpinning Crüe riff on I'm Going Under and more eighties glam metal guitar throughout I'm Alive, the closest on this album that Lipz get to that heavy metal tag Frontiers is using. Freak could have been a glam metal ballad back in the day, kicking off with a tasty slow blues guitar solo, but it's a heavier song here. The real ballad is I Would Die for You, which dips all the way into tinkling ivories, and it's the song where Alexander Klintberg sounds the most female.

He isn't, because he's one of the twin brothers at the heart of this band, and he sounds like a male glam rock singer across most of the album, but he gets very delicate here. It's worth mentioning to anyone new to the band that, while he was a founding member of Lipz, he never intended to be its lead singer. He's one of those two guitarists, the other being Conny Svärd, and he only took up mike duties when they couldn't find a singer who could do the job they wanted. Fortunately, he did step up and the rest is history, because it's hard to imagine this band with a different singer now.

The rest of the band are capable too, with mention here for Chris Young on bass as the remaining musician I haven't credited yet, but this isn't really about musicianship. Sure, they do the job but the job doesn't call for virtuoso theatrics. It calls for capable, albeit tight playing that underpins the lead vocals and the melodies, and that's what these musicians deliver. And, in turn, what that means is that the best songs here are the ones that stick in our head the most. The good news is that there are earworms all over the album.

The chorus in I'm Going Under is catchy, but the chorus in Changing the Melody is a real earworm and it's far from the last. Bye Bye Beautiful and Monsterz have notable earworm chorus as well, while Stop Talking About Nothing and Secret Lover are earworms right out of the gate. The latter is surely the most Tigertailz influenced song here, enough so that I had to remind myself that the chorus is "(Na Na) Secret Lover" rather than "(Na Na) Nukklear Rokket", with a heck of a lot more than two nas for audiences to get behind. This is a gift for audience participation.

So is this glam rock cleaned up to play in the realm of melodic rock or is it melodic rock with sleazy glam rock elements? Given the look, I'd lean towards the former, but it doesn't really matter. The expected audience might be a little different, but there's a huge overlap and Lipz will meet what fans of either approach would expect in the music, which is where it matters the most, regardless of what melodic rock aficionados are likely to think of their make-up and stage attire. No wonder Chris is playing them.

Tuesday 19 March 2024

Atrophy - Asylum (2024)

Country: USA
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 15 Mar 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Wikipedia

There are two new thrash albums out by American bands releasing their first studio work in what seems like forever. My son was very impressed by the new Morbid Saint and I'll catch up with that soon enough, but I remember Atrophy from back in the day, even though I wasn't living in Arizona then. I was on the other side of the pond in rural Yorkshire while they fired up Tucson in the wake of Phoenix bands like Flotsam and Jetsam, Sacred Reich and Surgical Steel. I'll be seeing Flot live in a couple of weeks time. Maybe I'll get the chance to see Atrophy soon too.

The only constant from the band back then and the band nowadays is Brian Zimmerman, the lead vocalist, because everyone else joined during the latest reformation, which is their second. After a split in 1993, three founder members came back in 2015 but that only lasted until 2020, and no new album emerged during that period to sit alongside the two from their original run. This revamp is only three years old now, but they've already knocked out this album and are apparently writing another one, so Zimmerman has clearly got the bit between his teeth and his new colleagues are happy to work with him and get things done in the studio.

And they are certainly getting things done. This album kicks off well with a string of tracks that do exactly what late eighties thrash did, mostly in the Exodus or Testament vein. They're fast but not obsessed with speed. They're technical without being progressive. They're tight and reliable. They have a carefully defined tone to the guitars that gives it a vicious edge but one that's controlled nonetheless. As all that might suggest, this album is all about balance and the bottom line is that this new Atrophy seem to have nailed that their first time out. All the things any thrash fan could want are here wrapped up in nine decently sized chunks.

There are catches, of course. Most obviously the style is very consistent throughout, so there's not a lot of variety between the nine tracks on offer. The only one that truly tries something different is Distortion, a slower track when it starts but one that drops off hard into much slower material still, initially giving a spotlight to Zimmerman's voice, which ventures more into speak-singing on this one than usual, but then becoming almost doomy in nature.

There's also an unusual intro to The Apostle and both an unusual intro and outro to Close My Eyes, but otherwise both explore the sort of material that we expect. The bottom line is that this isn't a progressive metal album where Atrophy try to forge a new direction for thrash metal; it's about a band who are happy to be back in business doing what they do as well as they can and throwing the results onto an actual studio album, no fewer than thirty-four years since its predecessor, Violent by Nature in 1990.

For the most part they succeed, but the faster songs are better to my way of thinking. Punishment for All is an excellent opener and Seeds of Sorrow matches it. I do like the first half a lot more than the second, but the latter is growing on me. American Dream is a chugger, but it's emerging from its peers after a few listens as a superior example of its type. I tend to drift away from chuggers on thrash albums unless they feature riffs or melodies or other components to elevate them. I didn't drift away much here, because slower songs often speed up and examples like American Dream or Five Minutes 'Til Suicide, a kinda sorta title track, are catchy enough for me.

The end result is that this is a capable return. It may not be the classic Atrophy line-up but it's still Atrophy and I'm happy to hear Zimmerman's voice again. This is a solid album that bodes well for the future but it's neither a glorious resurgence for the band nor a disappointment after so long away. It's a welcome album that does its job and moves on. The more they gig and write, the more likely the next album or the one after—and it seems pretty likely that we'll see more at this point—will be a gem. All the promise is there. Welcome back, folks and I hope to see you on stage soon!

Magma Soul - Sacred Fire (2024)

Country: Mexico
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 19 Mar 2024
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

Here's a fascinating band who don't come from Spain, as they were presented to me, but instead from Mexico City, Mexico. They do start out in Spanish, the first three tracks performed that way, but then they switch to English for the rest of the album, including English language versions of a couple of those opening three, only La Puerta Falsa here only in Spanish. That seems odd, but it's not the oddest thing about the album, because they're all over the musical map, enough so that very few songs can be compared to each other.

That starts out feeling a little offputting but settles quickly, until this starts to seem like a covers album featuring all the songs that the band were influenced the most by, only where none of the songs are actually covers, even those three opening songs in Spanish.

La Puerto Falsa is a solid stomper, a punchy piece set up by Alexis Mendoza's able bass. Paraiso is an alternative rock ballad except for when it isn't. There's Beatles-like poppy punctuation behind the verses but it heavies up so that Alejandro Cuadros can deliver a searing guitar solo while the rest of the band stubbornly refuses to up their energy to match his. Talk about a moment for him in the spotlight! El Poder has a jiggy dance feel, but it's a hard rock song, rather like Jet covering Runrig. Vocalist Rob Rodriguez gets some real attitude into his delivery that's not as effective on the English language version.

So that's three completely different rock songs, at which point they shift into English to continue to shake up any expectations we might have left. The Other Side kicks off with southern rock slide guitar and adds seventies organ, but ends up in modern alt rock territory. You Get What You Give stays southern, even without the slide, to sound more like the Black Crowes. Woman is a funkier take on Bad Company, with yet another blistering guitar solo. There's a third on Beyond the Sun, even though it's otherwise a grungy Scorpions-esque song and, beyond the sheer versatility that pervades the album, it's those solos that work best for me.

Again on My Own and Stardust are both alt rock, but the former sounds like it belongs back in the eighties, a bouncy pop rock song with Blondie verses against Police ska guitar and then Jet in the chorus, while the latter is clearly far more nineties, with a grungier outlook. After that, they shift back to the seventies. In Rock We Trust is underpinned with seventies organ in the Jon Lord style but it unfolds more as a glam rock song, almost like the Sweet covering Y&T covering Deep Purple. The Messenger 2.0 is purer glam rock but with a heavier alt rock backdrop and some urgency right out of early Iron Maiden.

I should add that Higher Power is El Poder sung in English—apparently the higher power is love, in case you were wondering, which I'm not going to argue with—and Paradise is the English language version of Paraiso, of course. But that said, I've run through all these songs and you're imagining that Magma Soul sound just like a dozen completely different bands. Which they do but that isn't at all helpful in the grand scheme of things. I'm imagining a festival in Mexico where Magma Soul serve as the entire line-up, playing a dozen sets in a dozen different ways, so meeting everyone's tastes at some point or other.

Of course, that also means that my favourite song would be similarly meaningless and would likely change with every listen. Right now, I'd throw out In Rock We Trust and Beyond the Sun, but that'll change tomorrow, I'm sure, and I'll be right then too. You—yes, you reading this—could pick a pair of completely different songs that fit your tastes and you'd be right as well. And that means that they're going to be one of the most fun bands to stumble into a club and hear in Mexico City, but I think they'll need to carve out an actual sound of their own to shift much further beyond that, one that can draw from all these influences but in parallel rather than in serial. I'm looking forward to hearing them grow.

Monday 18 March 2024

Myrath - Karma (2024)

Country: Tunisia
Style: Melodic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 Mar 2024
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Back in May 2019, when I reviewed three 9/10 albums in a month, my album of that month was the fifth album by Tunisian progressive folk metal band Myrath, Shehili. It was my first by them but it utterly blew me away, its merger of technical progressive metal with north African folk melodies and rhythms unique and enticing. It wasn't just me who thought so either, because I saw videos of songs on that album shared out on social media more than once by friends who aren't even metal fans. I was naturally keen to hear their next album, which was due last year but delayed for some reason until March of this year.

The good news is that it's a good album. The bad news is that it's nothing like Shehili, and not just in quality but in style. The former is understandable, because few bands can knock out classics of that album's stature every time out, and as long as they're still doing good work, then it's trivial to forgive. The latter is less understandable, because, while bands often indulge in musical shifts, both good and bad, this one seems to be about stripping away the elements that make them who they are and why they're special but keeping the ones that don't.

I'd call that a terrible idea, but it depends on what their goals are. Given that the ones that don't make them special are highly commercial in nature, this is perhaps a financial decision to aid the conquest of the musical map by Myrath, if not as a progressive folk metal band then as a melodic rock band. After all, there are surely more fans of melodic rock across the globe than there are of progressive folk metal. If that's what they want, then they achieved it here, ending up sounding a lot like a Swedish melodic rock band, while retaining some of the crunch that many would see as a hallmark of metal. Of course, this is their band, so they can do what they want.

Unfortately, it isn't what I want from them and it doesn't seem to be what their existing fans want either. Sure, I like their huge hooks, which are almost as good here as on Shehili, the standout on that front being Candles Cry. However, I can get huge hooks from a lot of other bands. I don't need Myrath for that. What I go to Myrath for is all that ethnic north African flavour, something I can't hear anywhere else on account of there not being many Tunisian metal bands out there and only this one that I'm aware has been doing this sort of thing.

And that flavour just isn't here. There's a little bit of ethnic rhythm in the bookends of the opener, To the Stars, but it mostly vanishes in between, with a little more to be found in the keyboard solo in the midsection. There are some cool violins halfway through Into the Light that are more world than the orchestration around them. There's a north African melody on Words are Failing. There are the tasty bookends to Temple Walls. But that's about it. There's literally more ethnic flavour in Asl, the sixty-nine second intro on Shehili, than there is on this entire album.

To me, that's a real disappointment. To those die hard fans who have followed Myrath from their debut album, Hope, back in 2007, it's a bigger disappointment because they apparently began on this journey shortly after and merely took their final leap away from that world flavour here. Now, I'm relatively new to them, but I've read the suggestion that this may be due to the change from Elyes Bouchoucha, their keyboard player until 2022, to their producer Kévin Codfert, the keyboard player in French symphonic power metal band Adagio. I can't say that Bouchoucha was the origin of their unique sound or the loss of it, but it seems to fly.

All of that goes to explain that Karma is not Shehili and never intended to be. That said, what it is isn't bad at all. These are highly capable musicians, whatever instrument they're playing, and that goes for Codfert as much as anyone else. He and vocalist Zaher Zorgati are most prominent here, with tasty guitar parts from Malek Ben Arbia too. Everyone involved adds neat little touches to songs and gets their own moments to shine and that includes bassist Anis Jouini and drummer Morgan Berthet as well as everyone I've already mentioned. However, few of them get much opportunity to show what they can do. This isn't as intricate music as on Shehili and presumably a lot less than earlier albums. That progressive edge may not have vanished but it's vanishing.

In its place, there's a lot of AOR in the melodic sweeps of songs like Let It Go, some funk on Words are Failing and some Iron Maiden-esque woah woah on To the Stars. Even where there are hints, like the very opening of Words are Failing or at various points on Child of Prophecy, they simplify very quickly into something far less complex. I should see what melodic rock guru Chris Franklin of the Raised on Rock radio show thinks about this. As much as he enjoys originality, he may dig this much more than I do, being more into the progressive, folk and metal elements of what this band used to play, which are most evident here on Child of Prophecy and not much else.

Emergency Rule - The King of Ithaca (2024)

Country: Australia
Style: Stoner Rock/Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 9 Feb 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | YouTube

Metal Archives lists Emergency Rule as a southern metal band and I guess we can't go much more southern than Adelaide, South Australia. However I found this, their debut album, listed as stoner rock and that rings truer to me. There's definitely a southern flavour on The Hook, which kicks off the album, and there's as much metal here as rock, the majestic Something to Say as close to the old school Black Sabbath sound instrumentally as I've heard recently. However, I'd see Clutch as a powerful comparison, both in tone and approach, so hard/stoner rock seems to fit best. Of course, the band's own description of "Sabbath with attitude, Skynyrd with power" is pretty accurate too.

The other reason I'd call out stoner rock here is because there's also a powerful psychedelic sound here, starting in Garden and reaching its peak on the intro to Ulysses. The guitars—plural, even if many stoner rock bands are trios—get all mellow during verses on the former, which allows singer Doug Clark to endow his voice with some notable attitude. That only grows further on Bartender, which is a performance for him more than it's merely a song. Everything on this one is nuance for him, which is admirable because he's also the band's bassist, so is always doing far more than sing.

I can see Bartender being a lot of listeners' favourite song, but mine is Something to Say, because it's so impeccably old school that even the opening silence sounds like it was recorded in a studio in 1972. It starts out stoner rock but finds quintessential Sabbath riffs. Clark growls this one, so is nowhere near any of the various vocalists Sabbath had over the years, but I love that guitar tone and there's a glorious instrumental section, as indeed there is on a number of these songs, which benefits from there being two guitarists, Chris G and Callum Wegener. It reminds me that, even if a band has an obvious and strong lead singer, they can still absolutely deliver instrumentally.

It's why I always think of how tight Clutch are instrumentally, even though Ned Fallon often leads songs with his vocal phrasing. The same holds here and Emergency Rule are imaginative on that front. The mellow Sabbath guitars in Garden are part of that and they return on From the Grave, though that song also features perhaps the most overt southern riffs, along with what may be a banjo at points. So is that glorious psychedelic opening to Ulysses. Another is the inclusion of an unlikely instrument for stoner rock on Abuse, namely a string section. That's a cello, I believe, to provide the intro and there's a frequent underpinning of violins throughout the song. The cello especially works with this sort of heavy material.

The album starts strongly with The Hook and continues to be strong through the eight tracks most of which run in the five or six minute range. Something to Say was my favourite from my very first listen and that hasn't changed maybe seven or eight times through. However, which I'd pick as my next choice has changed often, because this benefits from each song being subtly different but of a pretty consistent quality. For a while, I'd have gone with The Hook or Ulysses, but gradually the second track has enforced itself. It's called Garden and it's a real grower, that does all the things I love about The Hook and Something to Say in one four minute song, with a neat psychedelic edge.

Emergency Rule have been around for a while now, having formed way back in 2011 with their line-up still intact from that time, but this is their debut album. It's obviously not their oldest material because their first two singles, Flag and a Medal and The Zealot, aren't included, so I'd dearly like to know why it took them this long to get this far, only to suddenly nail everything right out of the gate. And I'd also dearly like to know that we'll see another album in a couple of years, instead of waiting another decade and change.

Saturday 16 March 2024

The Black Crowes - Happiness Bastards (2024)

Country: USA
Style: Southern Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 15 Mar 2024
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I remember the Black Crowes as quite the tour de force back in the day. Shake Your Money Maker was a peach of a debut album and The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion was a deep and mature follow up. Southern rock was undergoing a revival around that time, with Lynyrd Skynyrd resurgent and the Georgia Satellites setting the stage for the Black Crowes. I heard more of their albums in the nineties, but don't remember much about those, except the famous censorship of the cover art for Amorica.

I guess I thought they'd split up and moved on, which it turns out that they had, in 2002, after half a dozen albums. However, they got back together in 2005 for a decade and knocked out two more albums before giving up the ghost again, rather acrimoniously, it seems. However, now they are back for a third time, with this their first studio effort from their 2019 reformation and their first album of new material since Before the Frost... Until the Freeze no fewer than fifteen years ago.

They kick it off hard too, with Bedside Manners a stomp of a song driven by a thumping beat from someone I can't identify because none of the three credited members play drums. Of course, the core of the band remains brothers Chris and Rich Robinson, delivering lead vocals and lead guitar respectively, among other things. However, the third member is Sven Pipien on bass, so I'm having to guess at the rest of the performers here being the touring line-up. If that's the case, then that drummer would be Cully Symington, with Nico Bereciartua a second guitarist and Erik Deutsch on keyboards. If it isn't, then who knows? I don't.

What I do know is that this is very much the expected sort of sound for the Black Crowes. They had a hybrid style back in the day and it's still the same here, mixing up good old fashioned blues and gospel influenced rock 'n' roll with the country elements of southern rock. Bedside Manners isn't the only stomper, Rats and Clowns right after following suit. Wilted Rose is a country rock ballad with guest singer Lainey Wilson playing a strong female harmony to Chris Robinson's delightfully broken voice. Wanting and Waiting is right out of the Rolling Stones songbook. And so it goes.

The truest Black Crowes songs arrive later. While Dirty Cold Sun and a good chunk of Bleed It Dry have very deliberate vocals that are spat out like Bob Dylan might, they work from quintessential Crowes melodies and the vocal lines in the latter take us right back to the big hits from the debut album, just not as cleanly as some of those stripped down classics because the genre traditionally functions on grit rather than purity. Follow the Moon feels familiar too, not because any of it is at all borrowed but because it's so true to the band's core sound, especially when it hits the chorus.

The point, I guess, is that there's not much that's new here, just a fresh look at an existing sound by a freshly reformed band who have the urge to work together once more to see what comes out of it. Then again, I doubt anyone's picking up a Black Crowes album in 2024 and hoping to hear the band veer off in a new direction. They want to hear new songs but done in the old style and that's exactly what they get, except perhaps Flesh Wound, which ends up in an unlikely place, taking its bouncy pop punk-infused rock 'n' roll into what's almost a field recording of a religious assembly at school. I have no idea what the words are at that point.

And so I think how you enjoy this will depend on what you want to hear. To me, it sounds precisely like the Black Crowes released a new album and, if that's all you need to know, then you won't be disappointed. The most important thing is that it feels like they care about the band again which helps make these songs work. It's not so fresh that we might buy into them bursting into a studio with unbridled enthusiasm, but it's far from a cash grab. These are good songs played by folk who are enjoying playing them. However, if you know their back catalogue and want to see them move forward, whether into some sort of new territory or to evolve a little, you might be disappointed, at least a bit. But hey, probably not much, because you're already a fan and it sounds great.

Vespertine - Desolate Soil (2024)

Country: Israel
Style: Symphonic Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Mar 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Tiktok | Twitter | YouTube

Now that Sonata Arctica have finally returned to playing power metal, there's a lot of symphonic metal in their sound, but here's an actual symphonic metal band. I mention that because I found them listed as pure symphonic metal but it's pretty clear from the outset that we can add folk to that as well. The intro, Genesis, which builds dynamically from piano to flutes to orchestral swell and eventually pipes, grows into that and the instrumental first half of the opening song proper, To All the Wilds, plays likewise. And then it gets really interesting.

There are two people in Vespertine, as far as I can tell, and, while they work together effectively, they appear to bring two completely different approaches to the band. Dawn Kadmiel is all about that symphonic folk. She provides all the orchestration, which shapes how this sounds; she plays a tasty violin; and she delivers her vocals clean with an eye on the folk tradition. Her colleague Ran Hameiri, who plays guitar and bass, is therefore tasked with heavying it up to add the metal side of things. He does that, but he does it through a mostly harsh voice and metal here is dependent on the song. Often it's heavy or power metal. Sometimes it's full on melodic death.

As you might imagine, everything hinges on how well those two approaches play together, with a take on beauty and the beast that goes far beyond the traditional one of contrasting vocalists. It works really well for me, if you want a quick answer. However, there's also a much longer one that depends on how you look at this music. I listen to albums in entirety and more than once, so that I can see how they flow, how they grow on repeat listens and also where to focus in on something if it stands out or warrants special attention. For a while, this works differently for me in that way than if I focus in on individual tracks.

That's because the first two tracks proper play rather oddly and I got it into my head that the way they do that continued on throughout the album. It doesn't, which makes it even odder that they be the first two tracks.

Take To All the Wilds as an example. Within the grand flow of the album, it works very well indeed. I love the instrumental opening that combines the flutes and piano of the intro with metal guitars and a fast metal beat. When it shifts into a song after a couple of minutes, it stays symphonic folk, with Kadmiel the only vocalist, her voice giving way to violin and an elegant guitar solo, but close to four minutes in, Hameiri kind of takes over, his harsh vocal stealing the spotlight and his guitar heavying up, in preparation for the melodic death metal of the second half of Omens (The Trial of Doom).

Every moment in the song works as a transition from Genesis to Omens except the unusual funky section late on. However, if you listen to it in isolation, as you might on a radio broadcast, it feels disconcerting. Without any context from the tracks around it, it sounds like it doesn't know what it wants to be. Is it a instrumental piece or a vocal song? Is it rock or metal? Is it soothing folk or hard death? It's pretty much symphonic all the way through, so that's a fallback, but it can't establish a particular mood or style within its boundaries. I still like it, because all those moments are great, but it doesn't feel at all complete, needing those surrounding songs to give it context.

That lack of self-identity applies to Omens (The Trial of Doom) too, then Rain into the Hollow kicks off with an electronic pulse behind the soft piano that sounds good but fails to indicate where the song is going, so I started to see this as far better as one forty minute slab of music than as seven individual songs plus an intro. I started to think about the album as an exercise in where we could move the breaks between the songs to give them more coherence. Maybe To All the Wilds should be two separate songs or one suite with two or three movements, and Omens likewise. I can't see this sort of feeling as a good thing.

However, the more the album runs on, the more coherent the individual songs become and, as I'd pointed out, all the moments sound wonderful anyway, even early on. It means that this may play better to listeners who devour entire albums—and versatile ones at that—than those who tend to prefer individual songs. The more coherent songs come later, like Twilight State (The Vespertine) and Rain into the Hollow, so stick with it. The album's worth it.

Fortunately I fall into the former camp anyway so I ended up good with most of this. I'm good with the contrasting vocal styles in a late duet against escalating orchestration in Omens (The Trial of Doom) and a weirder balance early in Twilight State (The Vespertine). I'm even good with Hameiri suddenly shifting to clean vocals during Skeleton of a Tree, because it's more rock than it is metal, especially after the far heavier Rain into the Hollow, and into spoken word on Twilight State too. It's a versatile album and it takes some getting used to, but I like how it all ends up.

Thursday 14 March 2024

Sonata Arctica - Clear Cold Beyond (2024)

Country: Finland
Style: Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 Mar 2024
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Tiktok | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I've been waiting for this one, apparently for five years now. I've always enjoyed Sonata Arctica to a degree, but I've never become a dedicated fan. Their brand of European power metal is easy to like but they've never really distinguished themselves to me the way some equivalents have, so a few of their earlier albums blur together in my memory with others by other bands. That thinking led me to their tenth album in 2019, Talviyö, so I wasn't expecting something special but I was still open to something that the younger me might have missed. What I found disappointed me, even as a casual fan. That didn't bode well.

Apparently, a decent amount of their fans had been disappointed with a gradual shift away from their roots to a more pop rock direction and, after listening to Talviyö, I could see why. I rarely give anything here at Apocalypse Later less than a 6/10 because, if it's bad enough to warrant a lower rating, then I'd prefer not to review it. I gave that a 5/10 and wondered if I'd even bother to listen to the next one, wrapping up my review with "Regular readers will know that there's a lot of great music coming out of Finland. I hope that Sonata Arctica find their way back into that category."

Well, fast forward five years and I checked out the next full album, just in case, and I'm very happy that I did so because it was clear very quickly indeed that the band either listened to their fans or found themselves joining them, because this is old school power metal from the very outset. I've read that lead vocalist Tony Kakko stubbornly resists that term, preferring melodic metal, which is fair enough, but it's power metal to most of us until they soften up like on the last album and, I guess, the few before that.

They don't soften up here until A Monster Only You Can't See six tracks in and, even when they do, the result is still worthy material. I liked that song, even before it perks up a little way in to turn back into power metal, albeit with plenty of hints at Abba in the melodies. Teardrops is a heavier song throughout but it has a softer ending and yet a very tasty one indeed. The slowest parts of the title track, which are much slower than most of the album, are also neatly heavy. The closest it gets to a ballad is The Best Things and nothing soft here feels inappropriate.

So, with this back to being roughly what we might expect from the band, the question becomes a matter of quality. How good is this? Are they back to their peak form? Have they rekindled a sense of energy to go with their sense of melody? And have they converted me into a dedicated fan, not just a casual one who likes them when he hears them but doesn't feel the urge to dip further into their back catalogue. The bad news is that I can't answer all those questions with a yes. The good news is that I can, at least, answer most of them in the affirmative.

For a start, this is clearly a much better album than Talviyö, which seemed likely from the opener alone, appropriately titled First in Line. While that remains an up tempo highlight with a bunch of excellent solos, California continued its approach, perhaps even faster again outside of one quirky slower part, and Shah Mat too, which takes a while to speed up but does so. Dark Empath is a little slower but it's a highlight for me, full of mood and emphasis, and, by this point, I started to realise that this was massively different from last time. It's like night and day and that's refreshing, even if I've only been waiting five years for it while the diehards have been waiting twenty.

So yeah, maybe they're back to their peak form. I wouldn't call this their best album, but it's much more likely to be talked about alongside Winterheart's Guild or Reckoning Night than something like Talviyö and that suggests pretty close to peak. I'm going 7/10 rather than a highly recommended 8/10, but I thought about it. Think of this as a 7.5/10. I can't remember the last time I found a Sonata Arctica song as vibrant as Angel Defiled, which kicks off almost like power metal built on harpsichord. The keyboard solo, presumably courtesy of Henrik Klingenberg, is a neo-classical joy, and the recurrent theme leads to a strong guitar vs. keyboard duel at the end too.

And that tells me that the band are enjoying themselves, meaning that I've gone with two yeses and a pretty much to answer my first three questions. So to the fourth. Did this turn me into a big Sonata Arctica fan? Well, not really, but I'm a lot closer than I've been and that surprises me. This is definitely my sort of thing, in much the same way that Talviyö wasn't and I hope that the band is truly on board with this new approach. They sound like they're having fun, even Kakko who sings a song like it would be sung live without post-production to turn it into something else. Maybe they truly are back on the same wavelength as their fanbase. If so, I'm looking forward to their twelfth album in a few years time.

And I'll definitely check that out, if partly to confirm they're not leaping backwards again.

Post Kaskrot - Sidi Sidi (2024)

Country: Morocco
Style: Alternative Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 22 Feb 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

Here's something interesting from Morocco that starts out experimental but quickly becomes a highly accessible hybrid of pop, rock and world music. That experimental opening is the intro, I am Many Things, and Many Things I am Not, which is a strange vocal melody against dissonant organ, ambient sound and what I presume are experimental keyboards. That leads into an alternate pop rock song about a dog called Douglas that's built out of friendly vocals, surf guitar chords and an array of Arabic melodies. It's part Cake, part Walk Like an Egyptian and part Frank Zappa, which is a strange but enticing mix.

What's odd is that neither of these pieces of music is particularly representative of the album. It starts to find its go forward stance with Dragonfly Dragonflew, which is a poppy song with a psych overlay that gradually takes over, reminiscent of sort of seventies singer/songwriters who liked to trawl in folk music and get a little weird with it, like the middle eastern flutes that show up during the midsection. There's theremin on this album too, I think, most obviously on Yelele, unless it's a saw. Unfortunately, I'm not seeing credits.

That psychedelic pop rock edge is never far away as the album progresses, but it's all deepened by the sort of approach that Manu Chao often took to make this not just a mere album containing a set of songs but a kind of experience. That's done through adding ambience, improvisation and a conversational approach to ephemeral material, like radio chatter, often between songs but also within them. That begins at the end of Dragonfly Dragonflew and only gets more frequent as the album runs on. By the time we get to Sun Sun Sun... at the end of the album, someone even asks a simple question: how would you describe this album in two words. The response? "God damn!"

Those were the two approaches I took away from this. It's structured like an Manu Chao album but the songs are subtler, his immediate earworm melodies replaced by more introspective material that veers between friendly pop and more abrasive alternative rock. However, there are points at which Post Kaskrot dip into a similar sort of musical territory as Chao, like the reggae sections of Seapsyche Onion and Grace, or incorporates other songs into the original material in a Chao style, like the refrain from Frère Jacques within Donner Kebab and a glimpse of the Cops theme tune in Sun Sun Sun...

It all makes for a heady mixture, as if we're not sitting at home listening to an album unfold but in the studio in Rabat where Post Kaskrot were putting it together. For a release that has so much in the way of post-production to add all those radio segments and other snippets, it feels very loose, some songs so much so that whoever's in this band may have just been jamming them, with guests occasionally added if they happen to stick their head through the door at the opportune moment. There's Amygdala on Sulfur Surfer, presumably the powerful female voice, and Genue on Grace, a French musician who looks to be just as versatile as Post Kaskrot.

There's so much here that it's hard to pick out favourites. I dig Seapsyche Onion, one of the loose songs that we can just fall into like an ocean and let it just take us away. I like the up beat garage rock meets rockabilly approach to Donner Kebab too, easily the most bouncy song here. Hejazz is an exquisite piece too, finding a wonderful ethnic groove. I can explain why I like all those tracks, but I'm lost as to why Yelele speaks to me. It's a laid back piece but it's seeping into my soul for no reason I can figure. It ought to feel a little lost in between Seapsyche Onion and Grief Tower, but I fall for it every time through. It may well be my favourite song here.

I'm loving everything I'm hearing from North Africa, but I'm not hearing a heck of a lot. I'm sure there are a lot of bands doing interesting things and I need to find a way to plug into how I can not miss them as they put out new material. Case in point: this is Post Kaskrot's debut album but they put out an EP in 2020 called Kastle. Bandcamp credits Benmoussa Amine as the primary musician and songwriter, with Baha Ghassane also contributing. I have no idea if they're still the names here or not, but I like what I hear anyway. If you have open ears to where pop and rock can go in countries outside the norm, Post Kaskrot are well worth checking out.

Wednesday 13 March 2024

Big Big Train - The Likes of Us (2024)

Country: UK
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 1 Mar 2024
Sites: Facebook | Twitter | Vimeo | Wikipedia | YouTube

Here's something new that I feel that I need to listen to a lot more to appropriately review it, but I simply can't put everything else on hold to leave it on repeat for the next week. Part of that is the fact that I don't know this band at all, so this sixteenth album for them is my introduction to them. They were formed in 1990, right before rock music shifted in a completely different direction and I was coincidentally shifting away from it after a decade of deep diving because real life knocked on the door and said hi.

However, part of it is that Big Big Train play deceptively deep British prog rock. It's all pleasant on a first listen, the tone very accessible. Light Left in the Day is a strong opener, the first song to get inside my brain, and there are hints of old school Marillion in some of its guitars and drum fills, an easy way to get close to my heart. However, the band's overall sound is more new school Marillion than old and even then not particularly often. There's plenty of Solstice here too, especially in the songs that have pastoral sections, like the opening of Beneath the Masts, with its dominant fiddle and delicate acoustic guitar. There's some seventies Genesis as well, especially on Bookmarks.

Talking of Beneath the Masts, it's the album's epic at seventeen and a half minutes, outstripping Miramare at a mere ten, and that means that there's plenty of opportunity to get imaginative. I would call its jazzy midsection the closest to traditional complex prog that the album gets, and it's one of the best sections in any of these tracks. Its closest competitor is Miramare's midsection that hints towards choral music and space rock. However, even these proggy sections aren't enough to define the band's sound as they travel so much more musical ground over the hour and change that the album runs.

There's brass on both Light Left in the Day and Love is the Light. There's interesting percussion on Oblivion. There's pop music in Beneath the Masts along with the most overt prog. Skates On has a Beatles-esque vibe to it that also hints at ELO harmonies. And that's just to mention the first four tracks. There are four more to come, beginning with the ten minutes of Miramare, a host of which feature what sounds like a teasing xylophone and some of which bring back that brass. The Likes of Us is a long album, but it's a constantly inventive one, if we dig beyond its accessible surface as we really should.

I can't say where this fits within Big Big Train's broader body of work, as their die hard fans surely can. However, there have been changes within the band to suggest that this might be different in some ways. The two mainstays in the band have been the two founder members, Gregory Spawton and Andy Poole, but the latter left in 2018 after almost three decades. That leaves Nick D'Virgilio with the next longest tenure to Spawton, having joined in 2019 along with another couple of long term members, David Longdon and Dave Gregory. However, Gregory left in 2020 and Longdon died in 2021, prompting a host of relatively new members.

This is the first album for Alberto Bravin, their new lead singer, who does a great job at conning us newbies into thinking he's been with the band forever. It's also the first album for Oskar Holldorff on keyboards. It isn't the first album for Dave Foster and Clare Lindley, but they both joined since 2020, meaning that four of the seven members weren't there before COVID. That has to affect the sound of any band, especially one this versatile. I look forward to dipping into earlier albums as a way of seeing where they came from and how different this truly is.

In the meantime, I'm still digging into this one. That first impression of a pleasant and accessible sound held true on repeat listens, but a second time through deepened every track considerably and a third took me further again. Light Left in the Day was the most immediate track for me, but Miramare matched it on my second listen and Beneath the Masts keeps growing on me, as I start to see its bigger picture. However three listens just isn't enough to do this album justice. It's good stuff, clearly, enough for me to not feel hesitant about awarding it an highly recommended 8/10, but I can't imagine that it's let me in on all its secrets yet. I hope to be able to listen to it more to let it grow as it should.

Meanstreak - Blood Moon (2024)

Country: USA
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 2 Feb 2024
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Here's a name I haven't seen in a long while. Meanstreak may be better known today as the home of three women who happen to all be married to current members of Dream Theater, but, back in the eighties, they were just a thrash metal band and a pretty good one too, part of a a first wave of prominent American women in extreme metal, along with others like Debbie Gunn of Sentinel Beast and Ann Boleyn of Hellion and New Renaissance Records. Their only album came out back in 1988 and they had split up by 1994 but they appear to have reformed a couple of years ago with an initial single and EP to announce their return. It's great to see them back.

I remember them being faster than they are on this album, but I went back to Roadkill, which I've not listened to in years, and rediscovered that they were never the fastest thrash band from that era. However, Rubberneck, easily the fastest song here, is more comparable to their old material than the other three tracks here. The Dark Gift and Oh Father sound like thrash songs but simply have no interest in speeding up to thrash speeds, settling for technical heavy metal. Giant Speaks dips a little more into classic heavy metal, trawling in a little Black Sabbath to their slower paced thrash sound.

Needless to say, Rubberneck is my favourite song here, even if it doesn't approach the pace of the songs we might instinctively think cover the same lyrical content, like Whiplash and Rattlehead. I should add that it isn't about that at all, instead serving as commentary on the objectifying male gaze. However, I liked all four tracks a lot, partly because they manage to maintain an admirable intensity even on slower songs. To my mind, when thrash bands concentrate on the mid-pace, they often lose the intensity that thrash personifies. That doesn't happen here.

For instance, Oh Father stays stubbornly slow but in a claustrophobic way as if it surrounds us. It's never interested in generating many notes but all of them sustain and Lisa Martens Pace's bass is a thing of joy here, easily audible and powerfully relentless. Giant Speaks, which is the single off this EP, is the only chugger in the traditional sense. It's certainly faster than Oh Father but that's not the same thing as being fast.

These songs remain imaginative too. When other thrash bands slow down, they tend to play in the same way, just slower. Here, the slower pace gives the various members opportunity to do things that they either couldn't do or which just wouldn't work at speed. Bettina France, for instance, is able to endow her vocals with a lot of nuance here, playing with intonation to impart emphasis on how she wants to say something, not just on what she wants to say. On Roadkill, she was more like a typical soaring heavy/thrash metal vocalist. Here, she sings without losing any power.

And that's pretty much it, because this is only a four track EP running under twenty minutes. Only Oh Father exceeds five minutes and then only by one more. I hope the band get good feedback for this and a strong welcome back from the community too. They toured a couple of years ago as the support for John Petrucci's solo tour, which made sense if his wife Rena Sands, a founder guitarist of Meanstreak, was there anyway, but they deserve that sort of promotional push entirely on the merits of their music. I never got see them live back in the eighties and quietly assumed that that was never going to happen. Now it seems possible and I look forward to the opportunity.

Tuesday 12 March 2024

Messiah - Christus Hybercubus (2024)

Country: Switzerland
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Mar 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Wikipedia | YouTube

I'm pretty sure I've heard Messiah before, but I couldn't name what or when, so it doesn't matter. They're a Swiss band who started out playing death/thrash metal and have clearly evolved over a forty year period to the point where it's tough to describe what this, their seventh album actually sounds like. There's certainly death metal and thrash metal here, with certain songs leaping out to identify that way, but there's a lot more, enough that I'm going to back out of any one genre to label it simply progressive metal.

The death metal aspect is there from the beginning on the opening couple of songs, Sikhote Alin and Christus Hypercubus, but mostly in the harsh vocals of Marcus Seebach, debuting here as the replacement for long term vocalist Andy Kaina, who died in 2022. The music is mid-pace, so heavy metal more than thrash or death, but with driving elements that often hint that they're only one shift away from those more extreme genres. There are all sorts of odd moments too, like a quirky intro and a midpoint drop into an interesting vocal and drum section, that move it further into a prog metal mindset.

Once Upon a Time - Nothing - changes that, because it plays fast and makes the thrash/death tag suddenly feel entirely appropriate. Centipede Bite is faster still, feeling unashamedly thrash and doing everything that thrash is supposed to do. So yeah, Messiah definitely still play in those old genres even if they don't do it all the time, rather like Voivod, another highly idiosyncratic band who ignore genre boundaries and create precisely what they want to create, however critics end up defining it. The music matters, the definitions not so much.

However, in between Once Upon a Time - Nothing - and Centipede Bite is a song as different from that pair as could be comfortably imagined and yet remain metal. It's Speed Sucker Romance, an ironic name given that it ditches the speed entirely. It's a slow song, the riffs doomy and the lead guitarwork conjured up through feedback squeals. It reminded me a lot of the Lee Dorrian track on Dave Grohl's Probot album, but this clearly benefits from more modern production values. It's not unwilling to throw out an homage too, as I presume the churn sound towards the end is a nod towards Black Sabbath's Iron Man.

Soul Observatory and Acid Fish are fast but not frantically so, somewhere in between the openers and the faster tracks, meaning a fourth recurring tempo on one album. The pair of closing tracks, The Venus Baroness I and II, are obviously prog metal, with theatrical moments that make us feel like there's some sort of concept going on here, if only for a subset of the album that happens to be at the end without really ending the album. There's a quirky interlude after the blitzkrieg of Centipede Bite too that's entirely theatrical, Please Do Not Disturb - (While I'm Dying), with an Operation: Mindcrime sort of feel, but heavier.

And so I wasn't sure what to think of this versatility on a first listen. Of course, I was drawn toward the faster tracks, Centipede Bite especially, but I got a real kick out of Speed Sucker Romance and Acid Fish too, so this isn't a repeat of yesterday's Judas Priest album, where the success of one approach had an effect on my enjoyment of another, done equally well. I just struggled to figure out what Messiah see as their mission statement. Speed Sucker Romance, Centipede Bite and Please Do Not Disturb - (While I'm Dying) are next to each other on the album but sound like three different styles, if not three different bands.

Maybe what puzzles me most is that they tend to shift tempos from one track to another far more than they do during them and that feels surprising. Maybe it shouldn't. Maybe the draw here is in what links all those different tracks rather than what separates them and I suddenly realise that I may be thinking far too much again. There is a consistent tone that rolls across all these tracks, so perhaps I just need to listen to a broader swathe of Messiah to find the defining theme. I have an abiding feeling that, like someone like Voivod, as overlooked as they often seem to be, they may well be a lot of people's favourite band.

Schubmodul - Lost in Kelp Forest (2024)

Country: Germany
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 23 Feb 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram

I've been listening to this album, the second from German psychedelic rock trio Schubmodul, for a few days now and it's still as fresh as ever. They play entirely instrumental music, but there is voice here, just not in the form of a band member singing. There's a female voice on Voyage that seems to be a sample, but it must be a long sample, because she's back on Renegade One, Silent Echoes and Ascension. A male one joins in on Revelations, to provide a radio news broadcast update on a kinda sorta concept that the female voice built.

I have to confess that, after maybe twenty listens thus far, I still haven't paid enough attention to that voice to figure out exactly what's going on and whether this is a true concept album, but the gist is that we're underwater, as the title suggests. There's a vessel called Renegade One which is doing something down there in the depths but the narrator or whatever she is sounds corporate in her demeanour and I imagined her as an inspirational canned voice over the PA on this vessel who anyone who's used to it simply ignores, relegating her to a sort of background instrument within a broader ambience.

I certainly didn't get any particular mood from her, just from the music. Much of the album seems welcoming to me, from Voyage onward, as if we were born under the waves and are very happy to return there on this mysterious mission. Emerald Maze, easily my favourite track, is a much more dynamic piece that suggests exploration. It's a long track, only a whisper off ten minutes in length, but it does a lot in that time. Maybe it's doing all the exploration the album needs, so that we can get back to the mission on Renegade One.

Talking of Renegade One, this is the only track where an obvious influence leapt out. Schubmodul, which means Thrust Module, tend to play instrumental psychedelic rock but without any real focus on a particular style. There are points where this is soft and peaceful music that reminds of post-rock, but more where it's harder, driving music right out of stoner rock. However, the name that I couldn't ignore on Renegade One is Mountain, a hard rock band from the seventies I encountered first on a TV theme, of all things. It's that heavy part from Nantucket Sleighride that Schubmodul echo here, a little slower but with the same tone and heaviness.

Oddly, when we get to Revelations, the final track, that radio newscaster explains that this wasn't particularly welcoming at all. This vessel was off the books, doing dubious science that backfired on its captain and whoever else might have been on board during the mission. I don't believe that spoilers really mean anything on an ostensibly instrumental album, so I'll point out that it was on a mission to create an energy source out of manipulated kelp, only to find that it generated some sort of psychedelic substance that sent the captain insane. Even more oddly, it still feels like it's a welcoming piece of music, so maybe that was a good thing. The environmentalists clearly think so.

Concept aside, because it really doesn't matter, I liked this album a lot. There are only six tracks to comprise almost three quarters of an hour of music, so Schubmodul let their music breathe. There isn't a rushed track here, but nothing overstays its welcome either, even though much of it is built on rhythm, the drums often setting the stage for the riffs to join in. They also like their rhythms to be repetitive, but without reaching the sort of trancelike states that come with drone metal. The variations are constant but relatively straightforward and they feel utterly natural, as befits this setting in the entirely natural world we're exploring.

There's only one previous release that I can see, a 2022 debut album called Modul I that suggests an outer space motif in its cover art and track titles. Maybe that dips into space rock, something that this album doesn't even hint at. I'm intrigued to find out, especially because that particular release schedule suggests that we won't see a third album until 2026.