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.

Friday 12 April 2024

Blue Öyster Cult - Ghost Stories (2024)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 12 Apr 2024
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Nineteen years elapsed between Blue Öyster Cult's thirteenth album, Curse of the Hidden Mirror, and their fourteenth, The Symbol Remains, so we probably shouldn't complain that it took merely four to get to number fifteen. However, this is supposedly their final studio effort, which makes it a little more worrying that it's not made up of new material. Well, it's new to us but it isn't to the band because, with one exception, it's material left off three older albums from the seventies and eighties. That exception is the closer, If I Fell, a Beatles cover, that they recorded in 2016.

The good news is which three albums we're talking about, because they're ones that contain huge songs. The oldest is Spectres from 1977, the home of Godzilla. Then there's 1981's Fire of Unknown Origin, which gave us Burnin' for You. Finally, there's The Revölution by Night, originally released in 1983, which features arguably their most underrated song ever, Shooting Shark. The bad news is that these songs were clearly left off those albums for a reason. They're not bad songs, not really, though some are just there. However, few of them could fairly argue about not being included on those albums, even if BÖC diehards consider them "lost gems", as the press releases suggest.

The best of them to me are almost bookends. Late Night Street Fight is a strong opener that has some real funk to it, not only through the prominent bass of Joe Bouchard, who isn't in the band now but was back then. Don't Come Running to Me almost at the end of the album, with only that Beatles cover still to come. It feels raw but I don't mind that, because there's an edge to it and I'm not certainly averse to BÖC with an edge. It's especially good because the edge isn't just courtesy of the guitars, which deliver some wonderful power chords, but also the drums, presumably from Albert Bouchard. These are the two that live up to the "lost gems" suggestion in my book.

Of course neither Bouchard brother is in the band any more, even if Eric Bloom and Buck Dharma are, and that leads to another odd feeling. We might think that the final album from a legendary band like Blue Öyster Cult ought to showcase their final line-up as a goodbye but this one doesn't, even if Richie Castellano, who's played keyboards and rhythm guitar with them since 2007, stepped in to plug some holes in the partial recordings, just as Joe Bouchard recorded a new lead vocal on So Supernatural, even if he isn't in the band. These weren't all complete songs in the archives. It's likely that most were partial recordings that needed not just remastering but completing.

Three of the songs are covers and they're all decent enough, but none of them does anything new that the originals didn't. Sure, there's a wonderful seventies organ sound on We Gotta Get Out of This Place, the old Animals classic, but Kick Out of the Jams is just there, even if it was a favourite on stage. It's not a patch on the MC5 orignial. The third is that newer take on If I Fell, an odd choice from the Beatles catalogue, from way back in 1964 on their A Hard Day's Night album. It's the shortest song on offer here and it's a studio jam done acoustically that feels a little out of place. It certainly couldn't have been placed anywhere else on the album.

Some of the other songs are worthy of note, even if they don't sit up there with the two highlights. Cherry aches to be commercial from the outset and unfolds in harmonies. It's like the Beach Boys doing old time rock 'n' roll, except there's a jangle to the guitar that they'd never sanction. Shot in the Dark starts out with a minute of intro that's spoken word monologue over piano jazz, as if the band were hanging out in a lounge bar. And talking of lounge, The Only Thing is extra-smooth, like it's a psychedelic disco lounge ballad. I'm not unhappy that I heard these, but I can see why they're not on those old albums.

The rest are just there, not particularly bad but without anything notable to add. They'd all count as filler on a regular album and so didn't make it onto stronger albums. Some of them could have served as B-sides for singles, though Soul Jive seems like an idea that hasn't been developed yet, even with whatever was done in the studio to finish these songs up. The only other song I ought to talk about is So Supernatural, the one with Joe Bouchard's new vocal. It felt weak to me initially, but it builds well and I found myself getting into it more and more as it ran on. Tellingly, listening afresh took me through the same cycle each time. The first minute is just there, but the chorus is decent and it gets better and better until it's almost another highlight.

And so this is Blue Öyster Cult's final studio album. It's not bad. It's interesting. It's no classic. The problem for me comes back to that single word: "final". If the band hadn't mentioned that, then I would bet that fans would welcome this a lot more than they seem to be doing. It's decent and it's a look back at a couple of eras in the band's output that could be seen as heydays. Sure, it's clearly an album for the diehards, but it could have reached further. However, weighing it down with that "final" word means that it's the end of a stellar career that's run over half a century and it's not an emphatic goodbye.

Crossdown - Wind Blows Over the Forsaken Land (2024)

Country: Vietnam
Style: Black Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Apr 2024
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives

I've only reviewed one album from Vietnam at Apocalypse Later and that was back in 2020, so it's about time I covered another one. Oddly, both turn out to be black metal debuts, but otherwise I wouldn't call out a lot of commonality between the two. Elcrost's Benighted & Unrequited covers a lot of musical ground, always playing with contrasts: harsh and clean, intense and ambient, fast and slow. Crossdown don't have any real interest in clean, ambient or slow, though, of course, the songs do vary in tempo, merely from reasonably fast to frantic, with some mosh parts in there for good measure. What they want to do most is blister and they do that for most of nine songs.

According to Metal Archives, there are two musicians in Crossdown, though they also suggest that this album came out on 13th January, 2023. Everything else I'm seeing suggests 12th April, 2024, so I'm reviewing it now, but I guess I need to trust them on who's in the band. Phat Tien Nguyen takes care of the drums and Trung Loki contributes everything else: vocals, guitar and bass. Loki has to be one of the busiest men in Vietnam, partly because he's also in half a dozen other active bands that play various combos of black, death and thrash metal—Brutore, Butchery, Calochivu, Obsess, Rot and Sleeping Hollow—and because he's been half a dozen others in the past, but because he also runs Bloody Chunks Records, who released this album.

He's primarily in black metal mode this time out, as his guitar has a typically vicious black metal edge to it and his vocals form a typical black metal shriek. He barks out these lyrics without a lot of variety, but they do add that higher pitched tone that's needed on this sort of album. His bass rumbles along underneath deepening everything else but without seeking any sort of turn in the spotlight. In fact, there's very little here that wants the spotlight. Every song is more than happy to be there, to blister through its business and then to let the next have its turn.

The overall feel is shifted to the album as a whole, with each song contributing something similar to bolster it. That's why I won't call out any particular tracks for special mention. Go to YouTube or wherever else you look to sample albums. Pick a track. If you like that one, the you're going to like all nine of them. On the other hand, if you don't like it, then this isn't going to be for you and you don't need to listen any further. Maybe I could cite Bizarre Ritual or Immaculate Liar for having a tiny edge over the others, but I'd probably do the same thing with different ones tomorrow.

If there are surprises, they're in Nguyen's drumming and just how many mosh parts add up as the album rolls along. Nguyen's drumming is furious in fast sections and calculated in slower ones. He seems to deliver both styles effortlessly, but he never seems to reach the sort of speeds that the most intense black metal bands thrive on. Maybe it's partly because the mix isn't the cleanest at the lower end, a not uncommon state of affairs for black metal, so the bass drum blurs together with the bass. If there's a double bass pedal here, it's buried deep enough that I had to stretch to imagine it. It may well be just Nguyen having fast feet.

Partly, though it's because Nguyen just doesn't aim for that sort of hyperspeed. And that's where those mosh parts come in. They're right out of thrash when bands slow down and want their pits to churn and, the more I listen to this album, the more I feel like there's a heck of a lot more thrash here than I initially thought. When Crossdown are slow, they fit right in with thrash metal. When they speed up, they feel black but mostly because of the vocals and that guitar tone. They're not a long way from thrash otherwise.

The result is, perhaps inevitably, something that feels black metal from the outset but also highly accessible to thrash fans. Right from the beginning, when Paganist's Revenge blisters out of the gate, it's clearly black metal but there's a short mosh part within its first minute and more on the way later in the song. That repeats across the other eight tracks and I suddenly realised that I was reacting to it in the way I'd react to a thrash album. This is black metal that aims to clean you out rather than paint any sort of picture or push a bleak mood.

That's why I'm going to go with a 7/10 here, even though that matches the Elcrost album and that seems odd. This doesn't sport any of the elegance or subtleties of Elcrost that I was so impressed with back in 2020, but it doesn't try to. It's no nonsense heads down thrash all wrapped up in black metal trimmings and that's all it cares about. It's simply a different thing, even if the genre is the same on the label, and it wants to do something different. I'll happily throw on Elcrost if I want to listen to something impeccably crafted. And I'll happily throw on Crossdown if I just want to shed a lot of latent aggression. Both of those approaches are valid and both bands do the business.

Thursday 11 April 2024

Thor - Ride of the Iron Horse (2024)

Country: Canada
Style: Hard and Heavy
Rating: 5/10
Release Date: 15 Mar 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

Apparently I'm late to the game again. I do know who Jon-Mikl Thor is and what he's done, so I'm not that far behind the curve, but his particular brand of way over the top hard rock/heavy metal antics were so quintessentially eighties in nature that I thought he'd hung up his metal hammer a long time ago. Instead, I keep bumping into his name in periphery. Last time he came up was when I read an excellent interview at the Rialto Report with his ex-wife, who was part of his band under the name of Queen Pantera. Before that, I rewatched Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare, a cheesy '80s movie that starred him and his band. It's pretty awful but not without its merits.

And, realistically, that tends to describe what Thor does. While other bands only lean into clichés while they're in vogue and then shun then afterwards, attempting to distance themselves from a very deliberate set of choices they made at particular times, Thor always leans into them. He does what he does and it's always utterly unashamed. That tends to make his music often cringeworthy but sometimes he hits the motherlode and suddenly there are songs that frickin' rock. You might not feel entirely comfortable saying so, but you'll know it and you'll keep spinning those records.

Why I'm late to the game is that he hasn't remotely hung up his hammer and he's celebrating fifty years in the music business. I'm not sure which band he first recorded with, but he played glam in the early seventies in a number of bands like the Ticks, Centaur and Iron Falcon. His first album as Thor was the Keep the Dogs Away in 1977 and, while he's certainly taken breaks over the decades, he's apparently been going strong in the new millennium, with twenty albums out since 1998, in a few instances two or even three in a single year.

So, how does his fiftieth anniversary album sound? Well, as you might expect from everything I've said thus far, it's a mixed bag. There are fifteen tracks here but they're all done before it reaches the fifty minute mark. While eight seem to be new, the rest are either demos or outtakes, likely a set of songs that either didn't make albums or would have been albums that didn't happen. While some absolutely rock out in the hard and heavy mode we expect, others take a different approach and it's hard to see how Thor expected them all to work together here. Patchwork doesn't cut it.

For a start, there are songs here that take it slow and provide a backdrop for almost spoken word vocal delivery. The opening title track is one and it made me wonder if Thor had lost the ability to sing. Peace by Piece takes this approach too, perhaps more appropriately a story song given that it's all about a book that publishers don't want, only for it to be buried in a time capsule and dug up a thousand years later when it ends war and brings the nations together. It's the destiny of Bill & Ted in literature form explained in a song that's brimming with pride. Never mind the critics, it's saying, do your thing and it might make a difference down the road when the world catches up.

I can't help but like these, but they're cheesy as all get out in a way that the Canadians seem to be so good at, having produced not only Thor but Anvil and Helix. Lightning Rod seems to be a full on embrace of cheese, sounding like a Rocky Horror song with a rap section, set against the backdrop of gothic rock. It's like a Sisters of Mercy cover band tackling Rocky Horror but needing to tap into some sort of trendy mindset to get hip with the cool kids. It works as well or as poorly as you might expect, depending on your point of view.

It's 5-0 Let's Go where Thor finally settles down to the hard rock that we know he can do so well. It isn't Thunder on the Tundra and it isn't Let the Blood Run Red but that's the guitar tone I want to hear on a Thor song and that's the pace too. There's a cheesy chant-along section that's catchy as hell and it all ends up being a hard rock cover of an imaginary Suzi Quatro song that celebrates an incredibly long career with vim and vigour. Thor clearly means this and it's hard not to get behind him. I was celebrating along with him and generating and whatever else the lyrics want me to do.

The biggest problem the album has is that there aren't enough songs like 5-0 Let's Go. Bring It On is an eighties-style stomper with more excellent soloing from Matt McNallie, John Liebel or both, to match what they contributed to 5-0 Let's Go. The best song here is either Flight of the Striker or Thunder on the Mountain, both of which are older songs. The former dates back to 1987 so is likely to have been from a projected fourth album that never happened because the band split up, while the latter is from 1979, so stuck in the eight years between the debut and its follow up. It features an absolutely killer seventies organ solo.

So that's four strong songs and there are other worthies to back them up. However, there are odd decisions here and there that take the album in different directions. Thor channels his inner Elvis on Unlock the Power and shifts alternative on No Time for Games with post production effects to emphasise that. 100% is an acoustic demo that we'd know dates to 1979 even if it wasn't labelled, right down to its handclaps. To the Extreme is a rap metal song from 1999 that's about Thor but I doubt actually includes him performing. I've mentioned Lightning Rod already. These all feel like B-sides for singles rather than coherent album material.

Thus this is a mixed bag. There are multiple songs here that I'd happily return to. However, there are also multiple songs that I don't need to hear again. Some of the cheese works well but some of it really doesn't. Clearly Thor can still sing, in his unmistakably overt fashion, but sometimes he's just not interested in doing that and so tells stories instead. Take from all that what you will. What I think it boils down to is that I'm happy Thor is still with us and making music fifty years on from a debut I can't identify, but he's never made a lot of the right decisions and gets lucky enough with songs here and there to make his mark. Here, he's somewhat lucky but just as often not.

Sweet Ermengarde - Sacrifice (2024)

Country: Germany
Style: Gothic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Apr 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Instagram | Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Any goth worth his or her salt knows that Andrew Eldritch isn't remotely interested in recording a new studio album. That means that, if you want to hear new Sisters of Mercy material, you have to either go see them live—because he's still writing and performing it—or make your own. It's clear that Sweet Ermengarde did the latter and it shouldn't shock you if I point out that they hail from Germany because the Sisters have always been massive there. If you doubt me, check out the best live versions of Ribbons online; most of them were recorded in Germany.

It's impossible not to hear the Sisters as this album begins. Fragments has it and Faith Healer, the standout track for me, screams it from the rafters, even if it may owe almost as much to the Cult. As those influences might suggest, Sweet Ermengarde are at their best when they establish this sort of up tempo groove, which is why my favourite songs here are their up tempo ones like Faith Healer, The 5th Horizon and Viscera. There are points in The 5th Horizon where the guitar takes a break but the groove blissfully carries on regardless, as indeed these grooves do long after these songs are over. Lars Keppeler's bass takes over at one point in Viscera and exactly the same thing happens.

Oddly, given that, Sweet Ermengarde seem to prefer slowing things down a little and taking their songs in a gloomier direction. Most of the thirteen songs here are slower than the three that I've called out as highlights and the album slows down generally until the final two songs follow suit in very different ways indeed. I should emphasise that those grooves don't disappear, instead simply unfolding in slower fashion. The bass's moment in the spotlight in the slower Genesee is not light years away from its moment in the spotlight in the faster Viscera only one song earlier.

Of course, the effect is different. In the faster songs, we plug into the grooves and move along to them, even if we're sitting in an office chair listening at work. Even the most restrained listeners will find themselves tapping their feet to the beat, which, I should add, is delivered by a drummer here, Mischa Kliege, not a drum machine with a fancy name. In the slower ones, we don't do that. Instead we open ourselves up to their moods and let them fall onto us like warm rain, soaking into our essence and shaping our mood. They're slow and gloomy but not depressing, so their effect is affirming and enriching rather than bleak and suicidal.

That holds for everything up to Silent We Mourn eleven tracks in. Every track up to that one fits in one of those two moods and it would end naturally at that point as a decent fifty minute album, a third for Sweet Ermengarde, even if their line-up has changed considerably across each. Only two of five members made it from 2013's Raynham Hall to 2016's Ex Oblivione and only one remains in place for this album eight years on, that being Lars Kappeler on bass. Drew Freeman may be the vocalist now, for instance, but it's his debut with the band, because Kuba Achtelik was the singer in 2013 and Daniel Schweigler in 2016.

However, the album isn't over. There are two tracks left, the longest two on offer, and they skew the impressions of the album that we take away with us, on account of them being last. Embers Fall is slower again than anything else that came before and notably so. It's so slow that it becomes an acutely personal song as if Freeman is singing only to me. And, even though it takes a progression of gradual slowing down and runs with it, it also launches into something very different a couple of minutes in. Until now, the entire album has been gothic rock, but for twenty seconds, it's extreme metal, with frantic drumming from Kliege and harsh backing vocals from guest Nino Sable. Then it launches back into slow gothic rock, returning twice more for twenty second blitzkriegs.

And, if that sounds like a real anomaly, then there's Of Her Heart's Ocean, an eleven minute dirge to wrap things up. This is less a song and more of an ambient installation piece. It's achingly slow, it's full of atmosphere and it's peppered with occasional industrial ambience. It's not without its merits and my avant-garde tastes rather like it, but it's highly anomalous here. It feels like we've just been to a pretty decent goth gig, expended all our energy and now we're walking out of the venue. Except that, even though the door is right there, we never actually reach it because time has stretched and the building is ever so slowly twisting and contorting around us, as if it's ready to collapse and kill us all but, even with the light right there, we're not ready to leave yet.

That's a really weird way to wrap up an album that started out like the Sisters of Mercy, so I'd love to know exactly what the band had in mind. In the meantime, I hope they don't take another eight years to knock out another studio album. If they've found a stable line-up at last, maybe we'll see another one in the next few years. Oh, and kudos for the band name, which is a real H. P. Lovecraft deep cut.

Wednesday 10 April 2024

Korpiklaani - Rankarumpu (2024)

Country: Finland
Style: Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 5 Apr 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Tiktok | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

This is album twelve for Finnish folk metal legends Korpiklaani and it couldn't be mistaken for any other band, even those who play in the same style. They've stuck with their core sound of late and, judging from the ratings I've seen on some of the albums I haven't heard, that's a good call. What you get here is bouncy folk metal with a galloping pace and full integration of metal instruments like guitars, bass and drums with folk instruments like violin and accordion. If you've heard Korpi before, then you know that already, of course, but with every album I hear, I'm surer that taking any one of those instruments away would utterly break this sound and it doesn't matter which.

Rankarumpu kicks off just as effectively as last time out, on 2021's Jylhä, but quicker because the opener gets down to business immediately. That's Kotomaa and it's the first standout track. It's a deceptively light song, given that it does everything a Korpi opener is supposed to do and it does it well. The only reason I say that is that Tapa sen kun kerkeet and Aita after it are darker, deeper and with more of a weight hanging over them. I like both, but the perkiness of Kotomaa is tasty.

At this point in their career, it's perhaps fair to point out that most of these songs sound like you might expect them to sound. None let the side down but a few fail to truly distinguish themselves. They're too good in isolation to call them filler, but they're happy to do only what they need to do without adding anything extra to the mix. It shouldn't shock that my favourite tracks here are the ones that do have something different to bring to the table.

Other than Kotomaa, the first of those is probably Mettään, which starts with an old school intro of power chords, then hands over to accordion and launches into a variety of gears. The chorus is as notable for its pauses as for its words and, right after it, is a thoughtful section that isn't quiet but is slower and more flavourful than what went before. It's a great example of a track that isn't content to do just one thing and it's all the better for it. Kalmisto does that too, because it slows down with strong effect, as does Harhainjen höyhen, which is a strong closer. Rankarumpu is even bouncier than Kotomaa and that may be appropriate for a title track, but Oraakkelit does it too.

Other than that, there's a plaintive violin that opens Viikatelintu and immediately stamps it with elegance, hardly the first word that springs to mind when Korpi come up. That's no insult, I should add. I've been a fan since their first couple of albums but I've always seen them as a sort of force of nature. They took the Finnish folk music that they used to play under the name of Shaman and drench it in vodka, strip it naked and chase it through the woods. They never intended to be subtle or elegant, but both can show up at odd points regardless and that fiddle that opens Viikatelintu is one such.

There's not a lot more to say, but I should add a couple of things. One is that this is less generous than Jylhä, whose thirteen tracks took it past an hour, but it doesn't skimp. It delivers a full dozen songs, even if they're done in just under three quarters of an hour. They're merely back to normal sort of length, I guess. The other is that there's been a line-up change, with Olli Vänskä joining on violin in 2022. He has a history with the band, having stepped in to cover for Tuomas Rounakari on a number of live dates in 2016 when that previous violinist fell ill. He previously played for Turisas.

Oh, and I'm going to miss them live this time around, though they're about to head through town on their latest tour with Visions of Atlantis and Illumishade in support. Check them out at the Nile in Mesa on 29th April. Fingers crossed, I should be in a position to see them next time in a few years after they knock out their lucky thirteenth album. I hope that's a killer. Neither this nor Jylhä are the greatest albums in their discography but they're far from the worst and they're consistently solid. Reliable Korpi is always a treat.

Grinded Grin - Charlatan (2024)

Country: Croatia
Style: Psychedelic Rock/Jazz Fusion
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 14 Mar 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook

Opening up a prog rock album with horsehead fiddle and throat singing is a plus for me, though it does sound rather like an orchestra warming up. Then again, that may be the point because this is just a quick seventy second intro. Masquerade, the first track proper, leaps headling into a wildly different vibe with a psychedelic guitar solo at the top of the mix and right in our face. A minute in, it steps back and we're in strange territory, appropriately so for prog rock. The drums are pure jazz. The guitar morphs into an exploring synthesiser. And then the throat singing returns as an overlay.

It's an interesting approach that reminds a lot of jazz fusion, because it's generally instrumental, that throat singing apart. However, it's clearly ethnic and I don't believe Mongolia is particularly known for its jazz fusion. The guitar is very prominent too, so loud in the mix and so psychedelic I'd almost call this stoner rock, a tag that is indeed listed on the album's Bandcamp page, along with avant-garde and alternative. Jazz and fusion aren't there, though, and there's no mention of this world music flavour either. Tellingly, progressive rock doesn't show up there either, so I'll think of it as psychedelic jazz fusion instead.

That world music changes as the album progresses, the contributions of Javier Morales left in the openers and the didgiridoo of Michele Fortunato only lasting into Deceptive Delirium, where the Mongolian flavour is replaced by the plaintive trumpet of Josué Garcîa. Ascent into Illusion turns to the saxophone of Vedran Momčilović to be its lead instrument and adds some weird percussion that sounds like woodblocks. The result is a sort of acoustic industrial jazz fusion track that I can't leave alone. After all the exploration of the earlier songs, this one feels repetitive and pounding, but it works wonderfully for me. Even at over six minutes, I didn't want it to end.

I should mention that every name I've mentioned thus far appears to be a guest, because they all show up for one or maybe two tracks and leave again. The band is a duo at heart, with Aleksandar Vrhovec playing guitar, bass and those idiosyncratic synths that tend to sound rather like a swarm of musical bees, and Linda-Philomene Tsoungui contributing drum loops. Of course, that's not the typical make-up of a duo, hence quite the list of guests. Looking back through their Bandcamp at earlier albums, it seems like there have been more traditional line-ups. Vrhovec is at the core of whatever they do.

In whatever form they've held, they seem to be prolific, this being their eleventh album since 2018 with six of those arriving between February and July 2021, one a month like a magazine. Those all seem to have a different mindset, most of them longer than this album but often boasting only a single track and never more than three. This batch of seven shorter pieces isn't typical for them, a twelve minute closure called Epiphany's Exposure notwithstanding. That length pales when faced off against the forty-one and a half of Terra, the only track on the album of the same name.

I haven't heard any of those earlier albums, but each piece of music here has its own character, an overall psychedelic jazz fusion feel throughout but explored in different ways each time, not least through a succession of dominant instruments, the Les Claypool-esque funky bass riff in Pinnacle of Illusion following the respective guitar, trumpet and sax of the first three tracks. The other pieces are less memorable for being ensemble works, though Epiphany's Exposure does find some focus during a squealing saxophone dominated second half when Sebastian Lopez finds the spolight. Until then, it was more of a Frank Zappa orchestral piece.

It took me a moment to understand what Grinded Grin were doing here, but I got on board pretty quickly and I find that I like this album a lot. Jazz fusion is a coin flip for me, as I find that I dislike as many albums as I like. It's a genre that can get very indulgent. However, it's also often led by a virtuoso guitarist and, while I cast no aspersions on Vrhovec's talents there, the spotlight shifts a lot here and rarely to the guitar. It becomes far more of a soundscape album, where Grinded Grin conjure up a new sound for a new track and hopefully take us to a new place. Like the Qilin album earlier in the week, this didn't transport me often but I appreciated those soundscapes anyway.

Now, how have I not heard of Grinded Grin before and which album in a bountiful back catalogue should I dive into next? After I dive back into the delightful Deceptive Delirium, of course. And Ascent into Illusion. And...

Tuesday 9 April 2024

DragonForce - Warp Speed Warriors (2024)

Country: UK
Style: Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 15 Mar 2024
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | VK | Wikipedia | YouTube

I reviewed DragonForce's eighth studio album, Extreme Power Metal, with reservations because I'd worried about whether they'd turned into a caricature of themselves, especially with a name like Extreme Power Metal. While that album seemed to start out that way, they did win me over during the opening track and I found myself enjoying most of it, at least up until the Celine Dion cover that seemed entirely unnecessary. So, I don't have quite as many reservations coming into this, their ninth album, though I have to still wonder if they've finally fallen prey to their gimmick. Well, they're still thinking about doing that but they're mostly not quite there yet.

This time, I was on board with the opening track, Astro Warrior Anthem, from the very outset, because it's a strong power metal song played at DragonForce speed with themes and melodies hurtling every which way and tasking us with focusing on them. It's obviously one of the best songs on the album and it makes a lot of sense to kick off with it. After a few listens, I wouldn't hesitate to call it my favourite, though I have a fondness for Space Marine Corp too, which has a subdued pace compared to most of these songs. Somehow the chants, which could easily have gone so far past cheesy to be ridiculous, work for me. Why, I'm not sure, but they do. DragonForce do anthems and this is a real earworm of an anthem. All together now: "No time to rest till we kill all the scum!"

There's another earworm right after it too in Doomsday Party, which is a heavy disco number that reminds a lot of Boney M wrapped up in power metal clothing. Once again, I like this one a lot but I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that it really ought to be notably too cheesy to be taken seriously. Then again, Boney M are an old school guilty pleasure band for me, not only because I grew up on the cassette my parents kept in the car of The Magic of Boney M when I was a kid. And so there's a lot here that I like, even if perhaps I shouldn't.

Where the cheese starts to become a little much is Power of the Triforce, which I presume is about the Legend of Zelda videogame franchise. I'm OK with this one, which is otherwise a strong power metal song, but I did find myself rolling my eyes a little at where the lyrics went and how seriously Marc Hudson delivers them. And what was too much is Kingdom of Steel, which has a name like an AI-created Manowar song but feels like a heavied up Disney movie anthem. It has the slowest pace of anything here and it features a woah woah backing vocal that I could swear has been lifted off the Moana soundtrack. Sure, it's catchy, but its overblown orchestration is emphatically not for me.

The rest of the album inevitably falls in between the best stuff and the worst stuff. Songs like The Killer Queen and Pixel Prison are decent enough, not as memorable as Astro Warrior Anthem but not as cheesy as Space Marine Corp. They wrap up the album in the way we expect from this band and nobody buying it with full knowledge of what DragonForce do are going to be disappointed by them. Where that though comes into play isn't just a lesser song like Kingdom of Steel but a truly definitive one like Burning Heart.

And I have to end my review with that, because it's almost the stereotypical DragonForce song, so much so that it's less an actual piece of music and more of a challenge for the band to outdo what they so famously did on Through the Fire and Flames. The whole point of this song is to do more, a challenge indeed for a band who are a mandatory selection for new YouTube reactors who have no real idea what metal is. The only power metal song that comes up more often in that realm is the live version of The Bard's Song and Valhalla by Blind Guardian, for completely different reasons.

I honestly can't imagine a more DragonForce song than Burning Heart. It isn't merely those rapid fire melodies that were so effective on Astro Warrior Anthem. It isn't just that famous double act of Herman Li and Sam Totman "performing guitar histrionics", a term that has to be included here because "playing guitar" just doesn't cut it. It isn't only the telling fact that Gee Anzalone is able to steal some of their thunder by delivering a truly ambitious drum pace, especially early on. It's that Burning Heart is every note possible shoehorned into a breath under six minutes. It's a world record breaking attempt of a song and, to me at least, it's too much. And I'm a speed metal fan.

Take what you will from that. Some people will lose their minds to Burning Heart. I'll look past it to Astro Warrior Anthem, an insane DragonForce track that's also a damn good song and, even if I'm unable to fully express why, Space Marine Corp, which is a rollicking good time. Which camp are you in?

Reach - Prophecy (2024)

Country: Sweden
Style: Alternative
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 29 Mar 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Tiktok | YouTube

Reach have been around since 2012 but I'm not finding a heck of a lot of information about them. They hail from Stockholm and this is their fourth album, following The Promise of a Life in 2021. It came to me labelled as melodic hard rock and their Bandcamp page tags them alternative rock, but, only four songs in, I realised that labels and tags aren't really going to be particular helpful. They're all over the musical map and they're clearly happy about that.

Let me explain. The title track opens up the album as hard rock with a strong nineties alternative edge. It's entirely understandable why they supported H.E.A.T. on a couple of tours, but it's also a little heavy for that gig. However, as if hearing that note, Little Dreams is softer, more of a heavy pop approach that we could stretch to call melodic rock. It has a real bounce to it and the bass is a thing of joy. A Beautiful Life kicks off like a TV theme tune, only to launch into rock with the guitar pretending to be the drums for a while but then adding a grungy edge when it all bulks up.

But wait, as they say, there's more. In the second half of A Beautiful Life, there's a western vibe I might expect from an outlaw country rockabilly band that doesn't quite overwhelm the pop rock elements that could compare to a Cheap Trick. The end is almost steampunk in its look backwards into what could be taken for a harpsichord sound. Save the World kicks off with a playful guitar as if it's aiming to be a dance number and suddenly I'm thinking Stray Cats as a comparison.

It's a huge shift from those verses to the chorus that leaps right back into heavy arena pop, which isn't the end of it either, because then they go symphonic in the second half in a way that's mostly reminiscent of Queen. What does this band not do? Well, Queen could be seen as a key influence, though more for their musical chameleon act as for any particular moments, like that one, as it's a rarity. Perhaps the better general comparison would be The Darkness, acknowledging their own Queen connection, because Reach are clearly more modern than Queen and whoever handles the lead vocals likes dipping up into a falsetto just like Justin Hawkins.

Eventually I changed my tag to alternative for want of something to call this, but that's notably limited and shouldn't be seen as a be all end all to their sound. When I've reviewed the Darkness, I've gone with hard rock and that's just as fair. I could switch those and not mislead. And that's not to forget the funk in a song as hard rock as Psycho Violence, which is different to the Red Hot Chili Peppers funk that kicks off Who Knows. Just don't expect any song to sound like any other and you may really dig this. It'll certainly keep you on your toes. I haven't even got to Grand Finale yet, not the final song but another sonic leap into symphonic rock/metal. It's also another theatrical level above what's already been highly theatrical.

You'll notice that I haven't mentioned any band members yet and that's because I'm not sure who is actually in the band. Bandcamp states the music is credited to Ludvig Turner, Marcus Johansson and Soufian Anane, while Turner also wrote the lyrics, so I'm guessing he's the singer. Discogs has him as guitarist and vocalist, with Johansson on drums and Soufian Ma'Aoui on bass. I presume he is the same Soufiane as Anane. Others have been involved but I couldn't tell you if they're still in the band or if they ever were, so I'll stick to these three for now. More information would be very welcome.

I like this album because it's hard not to like this album. It's entirely schizophrenic, sure, but I'm a particular fan of albums that venture all over the musical map without ever sounding like a band has betrayed their roots or gone a step too far into something that just doesn't fit. Queen's Sheer Heart Attack and Saigon Kick's Water are firmly in my list of most frequently replayed albums and this feels a little more consistent than either. Just tread carefully if you try to label it.

As to highlights, that's a how long is a piece of string question, because it's what I'm listening to at the time you ask. Mama Mama is a stormer of an opening single, so that's potentially the best of many good places to start. I do like A Beautiful Life, Psycho Violence and Grand Finale too, so they should get a special mention too. But, ask me tomorrow, and I might go with three different ones instead.

Monday 8 April 2024

Whitecross - Fear No Evil (2024)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 22 Mar 2024
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Wikipedia | YouTube

Here's another band who haven't put out an album in forever and I'm not sure why. The heyday of Whitecross was in the late eighties when the crossover success of Stryper proved that it wasn't an impossible contradiction to play Christian metal. They knocked out four albums between 1987 and 1989 and two more in the early nineties, but the only album since, 2005's Nineteen Eighty Seven, being primarily re-recordings of songs on their debut. So this is their first album in nineteen years but the first with only original material in thirty-two, following 1992's High Gear.

It's worth mentioning that the most recent three albums from their original run ended up with a Dove Award, which is the premier awards dished out by the Gospel Music Association. If that name raises an eyebrow, I should highlight that they've apparently redefined what gospel means in this sense. Whitecross don't remotely sound like Mahalia Jackson or Tennessee Ernie Ford. However, they do create music that meets the GMA's requirements for adherence to faith, which seems to be what counts most nowadays.

That's why there are songs here that are overtly Christian in outlook, Lion of Judah and Fear No Evil the most unmistakable among them. However, that's not everything here, because The Way We Rock is as lyrically generic as its title might suggest and others do their preaching in far more subtle fashion, building stories about people who find their lives lacking something or describing outreach to people who are struggling for some reason. They're still Christian songs but they may not immediately seem so unless you're paying attention. And, of course, you might not care.

Songs like The Way We Rock ought to fall flat as openers nowadays, because we've all heard that sort of lyric a thousand times and it had got old before Whitecross formed back in 1985. However, there's an element to elevate it here, which is the guitarwork of Rex Carroll, who co-founded the band and has remained in place throughout their existence, only missing a couple of years in the mid-nineties when vocalist Scott Wenzel took over and returning in 2000 when the band got back together properly.

His guitarwork carries a serious bite, lending this song the drive of something Dio might have put out in his early solo years. After Lion of Judah softens just a little, he steps into the spotlight for a raucous guitar solo appropriately named Jackhammer that's aware enough to avoid oustaying its welcome and so wraps up in a minute and a change. Carroll continues to be the highlight for me in almost every song, adding an edge even when new fish vocalist Dave Roberts, who joined in 2020, doesn't do so. He's a Dave Meniketti sort of vocalist, able to merge power and melody seamlessly but without as much soul to his delivery, with some Kevin Dubrow for good measure.

For the most part, the best songs are the up tempo ones where Roberts gets to soar and Carroll gets to blister. Jackhammer doesn't really set up Man in the Mirror, for instance, but Roberts has a powerful scream to do exactly that. Songs like 29,000 might have roots in the glam metal of the eighties but it's much heavier than that, pulling from regular heavy metal to drive forward with a serious emphasis, and it nods to the guitar shredders that took over a decade later, without ever getting indulgent. Carroll can shred all day long but he knows that these songs wouldn't be better for that, so he keeps that in check, adding edge when it's needed and going wild only when it's truly time for a solo or to bolster the build of a song to its finalé.

There are exceptions though, not to the quality but to the suggestion that it's only there in those up tempo songs. The most obvious is Blind Man, which sounds fantastic, even though it's built on mandolin rather than electric guitar. Roberts adds huge amounts of grit into his voice for this one and it works really well. Saints of Hollywood adds a southern rock flavour and Roberts shifts into Spanish at points, which works far more effectively than I would have expected.

I could even add Wishing Well to that list, because it's the power ballad of the album but doesn't annoy the crap out of me the way that so many power ballads tend to do. I wouldn't remotely call it a highlight but it's a decent song and I don't feel the urge to skip past it on repeat listens. One extra draw for Christian metal aficionados is that it apparently features three members of Petra, but that doesn't elevate it for me. The same goes for Carroll's acoustic two minute closer, Further On, which is just there.

All in all, this is a strong return for a band who have been absent from the studio for far too long. Much of it is the product a band full of energy firing on all cylinders, but they're not afraid to mix it up and, when they do, the results are varied. Of course, the Christian metal fanbase is devoted enough to not particularly care that much. It's a Whitecross album. They're on board already.

Qilin - Parasomnia (2024)

Country: France
Style: Psychedelic Rock/Doom Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Jan 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

This album is a few months old now, so counts as less recent than I tend to prefer to review here at Apocalypse Later, but I enjoyed Qilin's debut album, Petrichor, so much in 2020, that I didn't want to miss out on its follow-up when it crossed my path recently. I also didn't want to wait until next January when I do catch up on what I missed from 2024, because I'd probably forget and then feel bad when I stumble onto it again, having missed my window.

Qilin are French and they play heavy instrumental rock that straddles the border with metal. You could fairly describe what they do as psychedelic rock but it's just as often doom metal and all the best pieces move between the two. That's one way in which this album echoes the debut. Most of the tracks are long and the band, which I believe remains unchanged from last time, allow them to breathe, which leaves room for a couple of modes. There's the heavy mode, with the bass turned up high and the guitars switching between cavernous riffs and wailing solos. And then there's the mellow mode, which is much softer and drenched in atmosphere.

The result is as immersive as last time out but oddly still mostly fails to work as a travel agent for me. What I mean there is that instrumental psychedelic rock often takes me places. Sure, I listen to it as music but it also sends me on a journey too. I have aphantasia so can't frame images in my head, but I still get impressions in the form of feelings. These albums often make me feel like I'm on another planet or drifting between the stars, to cite just two common examples. This doesn't, though it hints at it in those mellow sections.

Instead, it remains stubbornly music, but it's music that I really enjoy. It's heavy but melodic and it's immersive, as if it's so big that it surrounds me. It starts out achingly slow with three minutes of funeral doom called Ouro, that's emphatically an intro to set up the sound palette and lead us into the best track, Lethean Dreams. This isn't three minutes long, needless to say—it runs eight and half—and it builds carefully.

It begins mellow in the closest section anywhere on the album to take me somewhere. It feels like I'm in a huge echoing cavern, perhaps like the cover art, but I'm not the character walking towards it. I'm inside waiting. There's a real sense of patience to it, as if there's no reason to move at all, a feeling of centering where I settle down and wait for everything to come to me. And it does, but I sit, safe and still, in the middle of that cavern while the music changes around me. Even when the song ramps up into heavy mode, playing out like a force of nature, I'm not part of it. I'm calm and unaffected, but not unappreciative, as it rages around me. I listen and enjoy.

And I remain there for forty calm minutes, listening and enjoying, while the remaining four pieces of music play out, along with an interlude in the middle of them. It's odd to see an interlude, as it's not uncommon for the shift between heavy and mellow to effectively incorporate interludes as an inherent songwriting component, but Innervision is very mellow and introduces the heaviest piece on offer, which is the bludgeoning Hundred-Handed Wards.

I like Qilin when they're being mellow, though Innervision may be the weakest such section on the album. However, I like them most when they're raging and the swirl of tasty feedback that wraps up Hundred-Handed Wards is raging indeed. It's probably beaten only by the finale to On Migoi's Trail and the core of Lethean Dreams. I love how they generate maelstroums of energy and whip them around like ancient wizards, destroying everything in their wake yet never losing control of their tools of destruction.

These two aspects constitute the majority of the album, but there's one further touch I should let you know about, because it surprises me every time those waves of feedback in Hundred-Handed Wards feedback subside and Qilin launch into the final track. This is Boros and it opens up entirely like AC/DC. Sure, the bass is drenched in fuzz, but that's an AC/DC build if I've ever heard one. It's happy to not continue down that path as the piece grows and no vocalist shows up, whether Brian Johnson or anyone else, but it does still stay perkier than anything else on the album, even as the longest track here. It doesn't really slow down until about halfway through its nine minutes and it doesn't calm until six and a half minutes in.

And so that's Parasomnia, which refers to sleep disorders that crop in when you're not asleep but not truly awake either. Your brain is still only partially awake and that does seem to be the perfect time to let an album like this wash over you. That would be a way to start the day!

Friday 5 April 2024

Amarok - Hope (2024)

Country: Poland
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 5 Apr 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Prog Archives | Twitter | YouTube

It ought to be easy to say that Amarok are my favourite Polish prog rock band but, like Norway, it's fair to say that Poland are punching seriously above their weight in that genre right now, so I can only say that they're one of my favourites. However, I gave their sixth album, Hero, a rare 9/10 and my Album of the Month in September 2021 and this seventh album is a worthy successor two and a half years on. What's more, it's an album that surprised me, albeit not immediately. For a while, it continues much in the same vein as Hero, which isn't a bad thing at all.

Hope Is kicks off with ominous bass tones and then adds exploring keyboards. There are narrative vocals from Marta Wojtas and sung ones from her husband Michał that work well together, even if it took me a few listens to get fully on board. What didn't take me a few listens is Michał's searing guitar solo that's right out of the Dave Gilmour playbook. It's timeless stuff, the sort of thing that could have been recorded in the sixties and still sounds just as perfect now. I like the countdown at the end too; it doesn't seem like the band can meet the timeframe of Marta's numbers, but they do and it works wonderfully, wrapping up just like that.

If that solo reminds us of Gilmour, and I don't see how it can't, then Stay Human reminds us of Pink Floyd as a whole. You wouldn't mistake it for a Floyd song, but it has exactly the same sort of build that's apparently effortless but still gets under our skin so that we find ourselves grooving along with it even a couple of minutes into our first listen. That's the sort of songwriting magic that most of the musical world wishes they could buy in a bottle and, in the absence of such a quick solution, spends years trying to figure out. Amarok have that down just like Floyd do.

There's more Gilmour-style soloing to kick off Insomnia, with some hints of Mark Knopfler too, and it's so far so expected. However, Trail adds two different directions to the sound. The first is to kick off with a dance beat, upping the electronicics in the way that someone like Steven Wilson might, but never leaving prog. Then it heavies up early in the second half, firmly remaining prog instead of metal but introducing a serious punch that's almost a prog rock take on the rhythmic aspect of djent guitars that sounds much better to my ears. It reminds me that, even with a few songs that sound rather like we expect, Amarok can't be taken for granted. They always bring surprises.

And those escalate with Welcome and Queen, not least because they're not sung by either Marta or Michał Wojtas. Drummer Konrad Zieliński takes over for the former, feeling like he'd find a true calling in one of the huge British alt prog bands like Radiohead or Muse. The song follows suit, the sort of prog song that seems designed to reach out to every corner of a huge stadium without any deliberate pandering to commercialism. He may not be a natural singer but he sounds good. And so does Kornel Popławski, Amarok's bassist who takes them in a completely different direction on the latter.

This is nothing like the songs that went before it on this album, though it flavours what follows it. Part of me thinks it's the least successful track here, because it utterly refuses to play along with the rest of the album, but part of me also thinks it's the most successful for the same reason. It's not one to ignore, that's for sure. It has a dark prog drive underneath it, but it feels more like an eighties post-punk song that finds some unusual grooves and some even more unusual sounds. It has some neat guitar feedback, some glorious percussion and vocals that veer from whispers all the way into punk. In addition to those vocals, Popławski also contributes a tasty violin solo.

And so the album changes, the remaining songs, with Michał Wojtas back at the mike, dipping into the various different textures outlined thus far. Perfect Run seems more subdued but grows more than anything else here on repeat listens. Don't Surrender is more commercial, hearkening back to the arena mindset of Welcome but with cleaner and catchier melodies, even adding a moment or two that reminds of the Beatles.

The last two tracks do much the same but in an even more stripped down form. Simple Pleasures, which is appropriately named, strips that mindset down to its basics, featuring a delightful, very delicate guitar solo during its second half. It's the longest song on the album at seven and a half minutes and it's like a fine wine to savour. Dolina follows suit to wrap up the album, even stripping away the instrumentation to make it a solo Michał Wojtas piece, told entirely with a harmonium and Wojtas's voice, eschewing English for once and delivering its story in plaintive Polish.

Those two are both delicate songs and, while they end Hope appropriately, they also leave us very aware that the album is over. I certainly found myself sitting in silence letting what it did soak in, before starting it over again and running through that emotional cycle. I don't think I like it quite as much as I liked Hero, but it's a close call and, while I've listened to Hero enough for it to not be still in that growing phase, this one's still growing on me. So I'm going with an 8/10 for now, with a strong possibility that I'll up it to a 9/10 soon.

The Dread Crew of Oddwood - Rust & Glory (2024)

Country: USA
Style: Pirate Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 15 Mar 2024
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Wikipedia | YouTube

Wow, it's been nine years since I saw the Dread Crew of Oddwood supporting Alestorm at the late lamented Joe's Grotto. They were great that night, playing their distinctive brand of pirate metal that's entirely acoustic, and it's good to hear them again on their fifth album. The line-up is most of the same people, with only the drummer changing since that time, the current occupant of the stool being named simply Pete, an uncharacteristically banal name for a member of this band. I'm not going to see them on the current tour, supporting Týr, but my son is and I'm eager to hear how they played.

Opener Lawful Evil is exactly the sort of song they ought to play at a folk metal gig. It's up tempo, vibrant, energetic, furious even, that makes it entirely sound like metal even though it's acoustic. There's a hard edge to the instrumental midsection and just enough harsh on the vocals to do the same there without stopping the lyrics being entirely understandable. And, of course, pirates are not remotely lawful evil, unless they're privateers. That's acknowledged at the end, when a Dread Crew member points out that they're clearly chaotic evil. That's the feel this album delivers.

The good news is that most of the rest of it plays into that chaotic evil acoustic metal mindset and the result is a lot of fun. The bad news is that not all songs are created equal and there are some here that simply don't carry the punch of others, so that, while I wouldn't skip any of these on my tenth time through, a few are going to slide into the background by that point while others won't. Leather Ship is one of those. It's not a bad song and it gets a little furious as it goes, but it's not a second Lawful Evil. And it's not remotely Lost Comrades.

The Dread Crew are a fascinating band because they're not out of place rocking out at a metal gig but they also fairly perform at renaissance festivals and Lost Comrades is a shanty that is overtly designed for the latter, not because it has an inherent sing-a-long melody but because it bulks up the backing vocals so much that they're often almost duet partners, even though it's really a call and response number. Let's run through the crew. How did he die? Better him than I! On the other hand, Squall of Death features some lovely frantic drums, that make it galloping stuff perfect to stir up some serious pit action.

Oh, and if its narrative section, introduced with a heartfelt "Holy shit!" isn't enough for you to see the humour inherent in almost everything the Dread Crew do, then next up is a song called Giant Fucking Demon Crab, which is about, well, a giant fucking demon crab. Because, why not? Hey, I'm a Guy N. Smith fan. I'm inherently on board with giant fucking demon crabs, even if Cliff Davenport isn't there in the lyrics to take them down at the end until the inevitable sequel. We could adopt it as a theme tune anyway.

And that's this album in a nutshell, even though I've only talked about the first five tracks. There are a bunch of up tempo rockers. The Glass of Firewine ups the energy again, even though it's an instrumental piece, while Give Me Your Beer doubles that, with delicate picking and an earworm bridge. The chorus isn't elegant but it's as catchy as you might expect given the song's title. There are a lot of fun songs here. Is it pirate party time in Tavern Brawl? That's an overt nod to the band I first saw them supporting. Give Me Your Beer easily counts as fun and the accordion of Wolfbeard O'Brady comes to the fore in Corpse Juice Medley.

The only catch is that there are more of those less obvious numbers, none of them bad but none worthy of being listed among the songs listed within the previous paragraph. Evil Tide is pleasant enough on its own but it's inevitably subdued, even tame, after Squall of Death and Giant Fucking Demon Crab. I can see people leaping into the pit for the former and following whatever madness O'Brady raises in the latter, then heading back to the bar for this one. And there are songs that I'd say are sadly most notable for their titles, like Revenge Prawn, which is a gem of a name for a ship and a song about it, and Locomotive Death for that matter. These songs are merely there. They're not bad, because there are no bad songs here, but they're unable to live up to their titles.

And so that's the fifth album from the Dread Crew of Oddwood, no fewer than eight years after a fourth, Lawful Evil, which, I should add, did not feature a song called Lawful Evil, which opens this one instead. That may seem weird, but if Led Zeppelin and AC/DC can do it, so can the Dread Crew. After all, they're pirates, right?

Thursday 4 April 2024

Necrophobic - In the Twilight Grey (2024)

Country: Sweden
Style: Black/Death Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 15 Mar 2024
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Necrophobic have been around for a long time, having formed as far back as 1989, and this is their tenth album. They're widely regarded as having a discography unusually consistent in quality and this isn't a huge distance in style from their debut, The Nocturnal Silence, that's now thirty years old. They're usually categorised as black/death metal and both those elements remain in obvious quantity from the outset, but I've always heard good old fashioned heavy metal in their sound as well and that may be a little more obvious here than last time I heard them, whenever that was. I don't recall.

Mostly, I see that in how clean everything feels and how that affects slower sections. For instance, the openers, Grace of the Past and Clavis Inferni, are generally fast songs. Anders Strokirk sings in a harsh voice, one that takes from both the black metal shriek and the death metal growl, to end up somewhere in between the two. Joakim Sterner plays the drums at black metal speed and the guitars of Sebastian Ramstedt and Johan Bergebäck mostly match it with the black metal wall of sound approach. However, there are points where both drop into a slower section and suddenly it all feels like heavy metal rather than anything extreme.

As Stars Collide is a great example of a song that never really speeds up, so remains slower than the two openers throughout. There's also a nice churn to it, so there's an obvious opportunity to manifest the death metal aspects of the band, but they don't really seize it. It's there to a point, but Tobias Cristiansson's bass never deepens it far enough for the death to really take hold, slick production keeps it very clean and so it feels like an up tempo Iron Maiden section, merely with a harsh vocal over the top. When Strokirk steps back for an instrumental section, it's easy to forget we're listening to an extreme metal band.

At the other end of the album, Maiden return on the title track, because the melodies as it wraps up feel reminiscent of synth era Maiden, merely with faster drums and that harsh voice. The song after it, the bonus track on some editions, is a cover of W.A.S.P.'s The Torture Never Stops, and it's completely at home with the original material before it. In fact, while it's heavied up through the harsh vocals, it's also deepened but slightly softened by added keyboard textures. It's actually an excellent cover but it helps to underline the roots of the album in eighties heavy metal. Tellingly, Stormcrow isn't much different, even if it's more frenetic. Even the chorus sounds familiar.

Perhaps the most death metal song here is Shadows of the Brightest Night, but it still feels more black than death and adds some progressive metal in there too to make the result rather perky. It's an impressive song and it continues to be for seven and a half minutes, the longest song here outside the eight minute title track. I'd call both of them highlights, suggesting that Necrophobic are at their best when they let their songs breathe. Both of these find wonderful grooves and are able to milk them so that the longer running times don't seem longer at all.

As I wrap up this review, I keep wondering if readers will interpret what I've said as suggesting an overt softening of the Necrophobic sound and I want to underline that that's not what I'm saying. This is heavy, often extreme stuff and the band haven't remotely forgotten their origins. It's just that, if we let it flow over us, we can leave with the impression that it isn't as extreme as it really is. Compare this to Belphegor, Vulcano or Behemoth and it's not going to seem quite as vicious or quite as as raw. It's going to feel slick and even commercial. However, it's just as frenetic and just as powerful. And it's going to feel more accomplished, because the slickness is in the songwriting too. The more I listen to this, the more extreme I really it is and the more I like it.