Thursday, 17 January 2019

Curare - Portales de los Andes (2019)

Country: Ecuador
Style: Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 4 Jan 2019
Sites: Facebook | Reverb Nation

Now this is an interesting sound! Curare tend to be labelled as a folk metal band from Ecuador, and that's kind of true but not how you might expect.

For a start, the band veer from rock to metal and back and there's as much here that stems from Primus or the Red Hot Chili Peppers as the likes of Finntroll or Skyclad. The closest metal band for comparison might be Sepultura because of the rhythms used but I should emphasise that Curare don't sound at all like Sepultura, even in heavier moments like on Guambrita or Kayawé.

For another, folk metal bands tend to be labelled as such because of instrumentation with a lot less variation apparent in the vocals, but Curare's singers don't sound folk metal in the slightest. The band could be called heavy folk funk as easily as folk metal, but there's a hardcore influence too and ethnic sounds that aren't rooted in the Andes, like a section in Machalí reminiscent of a Jacques Tati soundtrack.

By the time this album reached Machalí, a fascinating track halfway that includes the Andean flute as a lead instrument, it became clear that Curare should not be defined by their many varied influences and can only be described by what sort of bill they'd fit best on. Even though there's metal underpinning a lot of their sound, I wouldn't see them as out of place on a bill with gypsy punks Gogol Bordello and the similarly patchwork Spanish musician Manu Chao. I listen to Super Taranta and Próxima Estación: Esperanza often and could easily see adding Portales de los Andes to that habit.

It's an interesting album from the outset and every track delivers, but once you've heard just how interesting it gets, the first four tracks start to feel conventional. Given that Tihuanaco begins with flute and maracas over playful bass and guitar and continues in heavier style with chanting hardcore vocals, it's only by contrast to what's still to come that it's conventional.

Inga o Mandinga starts out funky but turns into prog rock. Caranqui - Conchasquí is the most consistently metal song on the album, at least for four minutes until the flute starts to float over the rhythmic pounding that closes out the track. Les Tambours du Bronx could have guested here without seeming at all out of place. Viaje Astral adds more of that flute/drum combo in the middle of what is much more of a progressive track, but the ethnic feel comes as much from the vocals as the flute; at points it almost enters ritual territory.

It's Machalí that first highlights what this band can really do, though. Kicking off with Jew's harp and a guitar that sounds like a carillon and intricate drum patterns, it adds that reedy flute before venturing into progressive territory that starts out metal but becomes jazz. Then we get accordion in the French style and we suddenly find ourselves listening to this folk prog jazz metal world group in a Parisian café. This is fascinating stuff and it ends with flute, hardcore lead vocal and a sort of choral backing. Wow.

Nothing else touches Machalí for sheer uniqueness, though Guambrita comes close. The rest of the album doesn't fade away though, as there's much more to discover and each track is completely different. If anything, the second half is more imaginative than the first and more rooted in Andean melodies. The third standout track is the final one, Puntiatzil, which is an oddly laid back way to wrap up but a good one.

I'm not finding much about Curare in English, but Google Translate tells me that this is their fifth album since their founding in 2001. I'm highly interested in finding the others.

Phaeton - Phaeton (2018)

Country: Canada
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 21 Dec 2018
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook

I vividly remember Sid at Groové Records in Halifax giving me a promo copy of Dark Tranquillity's Skydancer with the comment that it contained fantastic instrumental work but was spoiled by vocals. Today, that's still one of my favourite albums, so I have to beg to disagree with the venerable Sid, but he comes back to mind every time I hear a new instrumental metal album.

Phaeton are a progressive metal band from Canada and I kind of have the same problem with prog metal that Sid had with early melodic death metal; while prog metal tends towards clean vocals, they often distract from the musicianship for me. However, that won't be a problem with Phaeton because they're entirely instrumental. Sadly, I'm not finding instrumental prog rock albums of the quality I'm finding instrumental stoner rock albums. Such a tangled web.

I initially wondered if Phaeton was going to be another example of that because the first two tracks, Siege Engine and Voyage Eternal, didn't do it for me, being decent but undistinguished efforts on a first listen, but it kicked in nicely with March of the Synthetics.

It's a longer track, never a problem for prog bands—though longer here does mean six minutes rather than sixty—and it mixes things up far more than twice the previous two. It may not entirely find its groove but it comes pretty close, especially late on, and I dug its layers. It was impressive on a first listen and it grew with further plays too.

Phantasm is even better and I wondered how many instruments were actually being played because it flits back and forth between combinations of slow chugging electric guitar, electric soloing and noodling on both an acoustic guitar and a piano. It's interesting interplay and it leads nicely to the rocking second half which definitely succeeds in finding its groove. Its ending was well constructed too.

And, to me, that's what prog is all about: capable but interesting constructions, the merging of different sounds and instruments (and lyrics, if we're going that way) into something new that often layers up. I found those layers more as the album ran on, all the way to Vortex with its almost industrial vibe at points. It's Vortex that finally demonstrates that Phaeton can indeed create a catchy riff that doesn't prevent them from dancing around with the other instruments. This album definitely needed more of that. Crossing the Divide and Labyrinth come close but Vortex got there.

What it benefits most from, though, is a second visit. Every one of these seven tracks sounds better the second time through and familiarity often improves them from average to good or from good to better. It needs you to invest some time into it. If you do that, it'll reward you for the effort.

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Rifftera - Across the Acheron (2019)

Country: Finland
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 18 Jan 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Wikipedia

No, Rifftera are not the Pantera tribute band their name might suggest. They're yet another interesting band from Finland, this particular bunch hailing from Vaasa on the west coast, facing Sweden across the Gulf of Bothnia, and the base of their sound is melodic death metal of the Swedish variety. However, there's a thrash influence here too to add an interesting alternative edge that makes them particularly interesting. It's like they're pulling themselves in two different directions but without that seeming like a problem.

Eye of the Storm and especially Cutthroat Game ably highlight that by being singalong songs with vocal and guitar lines that seep into the soul but that merely happen to have a crunch behind them. This is catchy stuff when the vocals are clean. They're pretty catchy when they're harsh too, growling over the heavier material on offer. I'd sing along with the thrashy Cry Wolf too if it wouldn't kill my throat.

None of these songs are short, only Deep Waters clocking in at under five minutes. The six minutes of Burning Paradise is followed by eight minutes of Two Sides of the Story but neither outstay their welcome, because they're not just doing one thing. There are crunchy fast bits and soulful slower bits with vocals that sometimes sound like Ozzy trying to audition for Depeche Mode (and I don't mean that in a bad way, honest). The two styles interweave surprisingly well and never lose their power.

This sort of thing is so mature that it really doesn't sound like second album stuff. Rifftera have been around since 2010 with a notably consistent lineup. Janne Hietala, Jupe Karhu and Antti Pöntinen have been there from the beginning and they were the entire band when they released their first demo. All three also played together in an earlier melodic death metal band called Chain Reaktion. Second guitarist and clean vocalist Mikko Kuoppamaa joined in 2012, easily in time for their first album, Pitch Black in 2015. Ville Härkönen is the new guy, having only taken the seat behind the drumkit since 2016. They've played together for quite a while and it feels like it.

Warmonger and Deep Waters are good examples of this. They're less catchy than earlier tracks but there's a depth to them, pun not intended for the latter, that makes them just as viable for favourite status. Deep Waters, in particular, does a great job at cramming a lot of different sounds into a brief, for this album, running time.

And, after the shortest song comes the longest. The title track is something of an epic, though, to be fair, over a minute of its eleven is spent fading out and another minute is spent getting ready for power to take over from atmospheric keyboards and subdued guitarwork. When that power hits, the drums go fast but the rest stay slow before the song finds the groove it'll spend time building. It's a patient song but a good one.

The Acheron, in Dante's Inferno, was the border of Hell, over which Charon ferries souls. If Rifftera are going to lead us across the Acheron, at least that'll be some justification for Hell Ain't a Bad Place to Be.

Herteitr - Battleblood (2018)

Country: Colombia
Style: Viking/Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 16 Dec 2018
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

I just couldn't resist taking a look at this EP, not only because it's an indie release from a pagan/folk/Viking metal band and I have a particular fondness for folk metal, but Heiteitr are a Viking metal band from that best known of all Scandinavian countries, Colombia. Yeah, that caught my eye too.

Now, I have no interest in being elitist in the slightest but it's difficult to imagine people close to the equator in South America drinking out the endless winter night with their battle compatriots and the Thor's hammer in the Herteitr logo emphasises that this is Viking metal in the Scandinavian vein, even with the presence of folk elements like a charango, an Andean lute traditionally made from the shell of an armadillo. How frickin' metal is that?

The charanguista is Yilmer León, one of two guitarists in Herteitr; the other is German Gomez who also plays mandolin and handles vocal duties. In addition to bass and drums, there's also Diego Gómez on accordion and Leo Zauriel playing a variety of wind instruments, which float enticingly above this material. They've been around for a decade but this is their first recording.

I liked Battleblood a lot, even if I ache for more overtly Colombian elements in their sound. Even if it's odd to see Viking metal from outside of Scandinavia (though this isn't unprecedented, given Ymyrgar's exploration of the Norse eddas from Tunisia), folk metal escaped the north long ago and we now have enticing material incorporating folk instruments from cultures as far adrift as Mongolia, Israel and Japan. Now I want to hear Colombian folk metal without the Viking influence (I'll be reviewing some Ecuadorian folk metal tomorrow, which fits that bill wonderfully).

Leaving aside my global folk metal wishlist entirely, this is good stuff, even though we only have four tracks to enjoy. The Pride of War starts off on the right foot with a rousing effort that should have our mugs of mead swaying in appreciation. Battle Cry and By Death Comes Glory ably keep that spirit alive because there isn't a poor track on this album, let alone a bad one. Everyone and everything does its job well.

The real highlight, though, is the seven minute closer, Flames of Fury / Steel Burning. It starts slower, giving us the calm before the storm with traditional instruments, then launches into motion with the guitar down low and the wind up high. Gomez adds his growl and the melody weaves around him. Guitars swirl and chug, then bounce halfway through when things quieten down, presumably as one half of this track makes way for the other. There's a lot going on in this song and I dig all of it.

Now, given that it took Herteitr ten years to get round to an EP, can we have a full length album a little sooner than 2028?

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Papa Roach - Who Do You Trust? (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Alternative
Rating: 4/10
Release Date: 18 Jan 2019
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Wikipedia

OK, I have to admit that I was a little intrigued when I heard that Papa Roach had a new album coming out that was going to be the most extreme thing they'd ever done. No, I wasn't expecting them to suddenly sound like Gorgoroth or Cannibal Corpse but I did wonder at what they would sound like nineteen years on from Infest, which clearly was far from their last resort.

Now I'm hardly a nu metal fan. I'm enjoying the way that metal has embraced the globe because, unlike pop music, it isn't the Americans driving change and nu metal mostly stayed in the US, where it's continued on as a sort of heavy pop music, tied more to catchy vocals, bouncy riffs and current trends than to any serious innovation within the wider genres. Globally nowdays, it's the UK driving more traditional rock music and Scandinavia driving the extreme end and the influential bands hailing from all over the place.

Staying true to that heavy pop music idea, this is catchy stuff. Renegade Music is so catchy that even non-fans will be singing along and the bombast behind those melodies is perfect for the WWE entrance theme genre. The whole thing bounces along nicely too. Even if, like me, you're hardly the target audience, it's not going to depress you and you might leave the album just a little happier than you were when you went in.

There is variety here but it starts out mostly from the nu metal playbook. Not the Only One reminds of Static X while Who Do You Trust? sounds more like Rage Against the Machine. Come Around has a punk pop edge to it that wouldn't seem out of place with Green Day. The eighty second punch of I Suffer Well is the fastest thing I've heard Papa Roach do and it's more like something you might expect from System of a Down. The most overt nod to modern pop music is the surprisingly obvious use of autotune, which may well be the single most annoying thing in music to a metalhead, even more than vocalists who rap as much as they sing.

Jacoby Shaddix still mixes up his vocal styles but his rapping isn't overdone for the majority of the album. He's said that he saw that side of his repertoire as influenced by people like Mike Patton rather than Snoop Dogg so songs like The Ending and Not the Only One are bearable to wider metal fans willing to give it a try. Where we're likely to ditch the album is Elevate, which is a modern pop song, pure and simple, a cross between boy bands like New Kids on the Block and contemporary hip hop like the bands my two year old granddaughter dances to on the TV. The autotune is overt and it's hard not to imagine a bunch of over-sexualised dancers gyrating around in unison behind it all. I hated it with a passion.

Fortunately the variety does continue to expand and there isn't another song as awful as Elevate to be found. Problems, for instance, is a pretty decent indie rock track, while Top of the World sounds is an oddly imaginative pop song that mixes Nicki Minaj with Duran Duran, while refusing to quite leave the nu metal punch entirely behind, and then adds in an ethnic Asian flavour to boot. It's the sort of song that I would never look for but find myself engrossed by when it shows up somewhere I just happen to be.

I'm not unhappy that I took the plunge and gave this a listen, but it's not remotely extreme, whatever advance press might suggest. The good side is the variety, because it's a rare track that sounds like another one, and the fact that almost all of it is catchy. The bad side is the autotune, which is unforgivable, and tracks like Elevate and Better Than Life that are as much at home on a rock album as Janet Jackson is in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, which is to say they really shouldn't be there.

Massive Wagons - Full Nelson (2018)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 10 Aug 2018
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website

While metal has been revitalised by bands blurring the subgenres or bringing in other sounds entirely and folk metal wandering around the globe enlisting different cultures to the cause as it goes, rock has been revitalised too, especially in the UK, by what is increasingly becoming known as the New Wave of Classic Rock. I believe the idea is that, rather than looking forward, these bands look backwards to take heavy influence from the old school. Think Greta van Fleet and Led Zeppelin.

Well, one hot name on the NWoCR front in 2018 is Lancaster's Massive Wagons, who have found their moment in the spotlight after eight busy years on the road and a trio of studio albums, this being the newest. It even cracked the UK charts, making its way in at at number 16, hardly an everyday occurrence for a band on the Earache label, which has been spreading its stylistic net wider of late.

They're definitely looking backwards for their inspiration. There's some Thin Lizzy in here, some AC/DC and some Lynyrd Skynyrd. There's quite a lot of Saxon, some overt old school Status Quo on Back to the Stack (which is clearly a tribute to the late Rick Parfitt) and even a nod to the Scorpions in the lyrics of China Plates. However, they sound a lot more nineties to me than seventies or eighties. They'll be supporting Thunder in Germany in the spring and those London boys who were founded in 1989 and first split up in 2000 are clearly a major influence. On occasion, there are newer influences too, most obviously on Robot (Trust in Me), which has vocals that wouldn't be out of place on a Red Hot Chili Peppers album.

What this all ends up sounding like can be summed up by lyrics from Ballad of Verdun Hayes, which betray another rather unlikely further influence in the D-Day veteran of the title who famously went skydiving at the ripe young age of 101: Is there a better description of this band than, "Does what he wants, he listens to no-one. The man's a machine, he's lean and he's mean; a thousand lives won't see what he's seen." For all the sounds they're borrowing, they're doing their own thing and they wouldn't have it any other way.

While influences can be argued about, what's beyond debate is the energy that storms out of every track here because they're clearly giving it their all and loving what their hard work is resulting in. There's not much flash going on, because this is no nonsense stuff, good old fashioned rock and roll with a strong melodic line and a pounding underlying drive. Baz Mills is a born frontman too.

To put that into perspective, the slowest and quietest song is probably Northern Boy, which is also the only track to nudge over five minutes (two thirds of them are under four), and it's hardly a ballad. It will be a rare listener who doesn't tap their feet along to at least half this album and one of the reasons why it's made so many end of year lists for NWoCR fans has to be because there isn't a duff track here and the band just don't let up. It's catchy on the first listen and singalong by the second, if not before.

I got a real kick out of Billy Balloon Head and Back to the Stack, but my favourite here is Ratio, hands down. It builds a wonderful groove and just keeps on going. The thing is that my next favourite might change every time I listen through. Maybe I'll have figured that out by the time the Wagons release album four and, with a closer like Tokyo that talks down radio but shouts out to the fans, you can be sure that it won't be too far down the road.

Massive Wagons walk that fine line between radio friendly commerciality and the kick ass vibe of a band you'd love to see down the local pub. I do hope you managed that over the last eight years, by the way, because they're moving up fast and selling out bigger and bigger venues on each tour. See 'em now while you can afford it!

Monday, 14 January 2019

Uluru - Acrophilia (2019)

Country: Turkey
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 7 Jan 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook

If acrophobia is the fear of high places, then acrophilia must be, well, an addiction to getting high. That's, erm, highly appropriate for this album, which is as strange a trip as Kadir Kayserilioğlu's gorgeous cover art might suggest. Uluru call what they do psychedelic rock and that works as well for a description as anything else, but this is a stoner metal jam that veers more and more into space rock as the album runs on. You could throw a lot of labels at it, but none of them would affect its quality. This is hypnotically immersive stuff.

I've been listening to Acrophilia a heck of a lot lately, whether in the background while I'm working or in the foreground late at night in the dark with headphones on, and it remains as fresh as ever. It's my first 9/10 review and it was hard to write because I kept getting lost in the music without putting virtual pen to virtual paper to talk about it.

It begins as it means to go on, with the bass of Oğulcan Ertürk and the drums of Ümit Büyükyüksel finding a neatly heavy groove and driving it forward, like a brontosaurus army. Then the guitar of Ege Çaldemir starts to swirl and wail and suddenly we're in a giant whirlpool that keeps on sucking us and those dinosaurs ever inwards. It's vivid and vibrant and tactile and all encompassing and I dug it a lot.

While Uluru is the Aboriginal name for the Australian rock formation often known as Ayers Rock, the band hail from the culturally diverse city of İstanbul in Turkey. Şark is where that enters overtly into their music, adding some ethnic flavour to the mix. Çaldemir's guitar plans on taking us to a lot of places, but initially they're all earthbound. I'm not sure where all of them are but I'm happy to visit, camp out and just bury myself in their environments.

Constantine slows things down a little but gets even heavier in the process. It's at this point that I really acknowledged that Çaldemir was adding synths to the mix as well as guitar. It's sometimes hard to distinguish between them, especially early on, but as the album moves off the surface of this planet to who knows where, the synths add another glorious element to this sound.

Acrophilia Jam is such a wild dance that it's difficult to believe that only three musicians are creating it. For a couple of minutes, we wonder if there are two bands duelling in an echo chamber, but repeat listens clear that up without reducing its admirable complexity. It's one band duelling with itself and winning but not wanting to stop.

While these aren't the longest tracks in the world (some folk have compared them to Earthless, who create twenty minute epics, and it could well be that Uluru took their name from Earthless's fourteen minute Uluru Rock), there's a feeling of eternity in each of them. When I mentioned getting lost in the album, I didn't just mean that I enjoyed it too much to want to stop, I also mean that there's no sense of time when listening to it. Insidious Queen might be 3:51 in length but it feels like I spend a happy month inside it every time I listen before it rolls over again to Şark.

The album gradually moves towards space rock and its closer, Aeternum, is the pinnacle of that. Never mind a whirlpool, this feels like a swirling trip through hyperspace. The synths battle the guitar for much of the song, which ends up feeling rather like an extended Hawkwind solo bathed in swirling light. It's a spiritual experience that's worthy of the ancient name of Uluru.

With a special shoutout for the slowdown a minute and a half into Sin 'n' Shamash, which is seven shades of exquisite, I'll just recommend this incredibly highly. It's the best album I've heard since starting this journey at Apocalypse Later and the one I'm returning to the most. It's also the first contender for album of the year and I look forward to finding something else that's worthy of challenging it for that title.

And, while we wait, Uluru also have a couple of other releases out: 2015's Dazed Hill EP and 2016's Imaginary Sun. They'll keep me busy for a while!