Monday 3 June 2024

Evildead - Toxic Grace (2024)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sykofant - Sykofant (2024)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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