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!

Tokyo Blade - Unbroken (2018)

Country: UK
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 20 Jul 2018
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Wikipedia

I've been a Tokyo Blade fan for a very long time now. Night of the Blade, their 1984 album, is never too far from my playlist and their session for the Friday Rock Show is one of my favourites. What I haven't done is kept up with them. Like many NWOBHM era bands, they've broken up and reformed a lot. The era I remember took them through to 1991, but they reformed in 1995, disbanded in 1998 and reformed again in 2007.

Their 2018 album, Unbroken, is the second from this latest incarnation, and it's their ninth studio album overall. Given that I only know three of those albums, I have some catching up to do, starting with this one, and I'm looking forward to it, especially as the current line up includes four of the five Night of the Blade era members. Only vocalist Alan Marsh wasn't on that album, but hey, he was on the one before it, their debut back in 1983, so he could hardly be described as the new guy! That would have to be Andy Wrighton, who didn't join the band until 1984, so a new guy in the sense that Dave Gilmour is the new guy in Pink Floyd.

What hit me right off the bat was the fact that this doesn't just sound like a NWOBHM era band, it sounds like a NWOBHM era album. Every album nowadays has a deep pounding at its bass end, courtesy of modern production, but this one ignores that for the old school sound and, as offputting as that initially was, I kind of appreciated that. It feels like I just discovered an album recorded way back when that nobody knows about.

It was probably the fact that it took me a little while to get used to this that I initially felt that Devil's Gonna Bring You Down was a weak opener (it isn't). I had sinking feelings, but I felt a thrill of nostalgia during Bullet Made of Stone. "Hit me hard, hit me again; it was sweet adrenaline," sings Alan Marsh and that's exactly what my heart was screaming. Burn Down the Night kept that feel growing with cheesy eighties lyrics delivered with melodic power just like I remember, over playful twin guitars and a reliable rhythm section.

If Andy Wrighton's bass is lower in the mix than it would be on any other 2018 album, he is at least given the intro to The Man in Black to make his presence known and it's very welcome. He rumbles along wonderfully underneath the guitarwork throughout this track and on many others too, like Bad Blood and The Last Samurai. It feels odd that the quietest bass of the year is so memorable and I grinned at that realisation.

I found myself grinning a lot during this album, but perhaps never more than during the middle section of Dead Again, with a simple but very effective Thin Lizzy style riff underpinning the delightful soloing of Andy Boulton and John Wiggins, or when they slow the pace towards the end of Bad Blood and become reminiscent of classic era Diamond Head. It's true that I miss some of the speed of Night of the Blade but when slower sounds like this, I'm surely not complaining!

I also grinned at the lack of a glam vibe because Tokyo Blade went there in the late eighties and lost me. They're notorious for being a band who changed their sound as trends changed and, with the exception of the added speed on Night of the Blade, that approach never served them well. This album feels like they're done with trying to anticipate the latest in thing and so settling back to do what they did best at the very beginning, merely with new material. "The winds of change are blowing," sings Marsh on The Last Samurai, and finally they're blowing the right way.

I grinned at the most overt Thin Lizzy influence shown on Stings Like an Open Wound and the most overt Iron Maiden influence on My Kind of Heaven. I grinned at the cheesy Japanese theme on The Last Samurai, which is kind of required for this band. I grinned at the really tasty guitar intro to My Kind of Heaven. I grinned at how radio friendly No Time to Bleed was without losing any of its power. I grinned at how good Alan Marsh still sounds 35 frickin' years after their debut. I grinned just because I'm listening to a damn fine Tokyo Blade album in 2018 and it's new.

I first heard Tokyo Blade in 1984 shortly after finding rock music in general through The Friday Rock Show, so they were there at the beginning for me even though I wasn't quite there at the beginning for them. This sounds like a lost eighties classic to me and, frankly, that's the best Christmas present I could have been given last year.

Friday, 11 January 2019

Oblivions Kiss - The Swallow and the Blue Bird (2019)

Country: Germany
Style: Gothic/Doom Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 6 Jan 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website

"I am Lucifer, Lightbringer," mutters Jule on the opening Chapter I intro piece but the album promptly dives into the darkness. The production here is... well, I'm not convinced that there is any production here. I've heard rehearsal tapes that are far slicker than this. It feels like this German trio set up all their instruments in the basement of an abandoned castle overlooking Hamburg, recorded the whole album live in one take and then dropped it onto Bandcamp for the world to notice.

That said, there's a vitality here that engaged me. I'm actually not complaining with that basement comment or with the one take comment. In many ways, this reminds me of days a couple of decades ago exploring mp3.com (remember that?) and finding all sorts of odd bands who only had a couple of tracks to their name but who had somehow found something original to say.

This certainly has something original to say to me. Most metal bands who add gothic into their musical tags do so because there's a particular style they want as part of their sound. Oblivions Kiss (that missing apostrophe really bugs me) actually feel gothic. There's real despair here in tracks like Divine Descent and a sense of doom that has nothing to do with just playing slowly. There's style here too, but, most importantly, there's mood as well. Some of these songs simply ache at us through the speakers. The statue on the front cover may well shed a tear of exquisite pain.

I think a lot of that springs from the band's overt influences. Initially this felt like a My Dying Bride rehearsal tape, but this isn't remotely death/doom, even with Tom's occasional softened harsh vocals adding texture beneath the clean but tormented voice of Jule. Then old school goth sounds crept in to make themselves very noticed too: there's a lot of downbeat Sisters of Mercy here, some Bauhaus too and even some Joy Division and Dead Can Dance. That's not all of it, but I can't trace everything backwards.

By the end of Grand Theatre of Tragedy, the first of three nine minute epics on the album, I was convinced that its title has meaning. As far as I'm aware, this is just an album of new music, but I couldn't get past the conviction that there's an absent visual element too. Stillborn especially feels like a conversation, perhaps between a demon and a fallen angel, and there just has to be something going on visually while the keyboards and bass noodle softly and the insanely patient guitar waits for its moment to crunch. But is it a ballet or an opera or a ritual? Maybe it's avant garde performance art.

Like all the best art, Oblivions Kiss are emphatically not for everyone. Most people are going to hate this album with a passion, but if you like it even a little, then you're going to absolutely adore it like me.

This is music for people who think that My Dying Bride are ruthlessly commercial. It's outrageously depressing, perhaps because there's a glorious emptiness pervading the album, with many sections featuring Jule's voice overlaid on almost nothing, but it's not depressing in a suicidal way. After almost an hour, I felt spiritually purged and creatively reinvigorated.

This is music to write sonnets to, while wearing velvet smoking jackets. Enjoy with absinthe. Outdoors. At dusk.

AfterBurn - Knocking with Your Elbows (2018)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 28 Dec 2018
Sites: Facebook | Official Website

Every single member of AfterBurn is a firefighter, whether professional or volunteer, so they had my respect before I ever pressed play on their second album. Of course, while that's great for promotion, it really has nothing to do with whether they're a band worth listening to (beyond the appropriate lyrics of All Gave Some), so I'll get it out of the way right now and move on.

I'm happy to say that they don't sound bad at all, though there's nothing new here that you haven't heard before from a whole bunch of other rock bands who turn it up but haven't lost track of the fact that rock came from the blues. After they played support for Faster Pussycat at a New York gig in 2014, they were invited onto their tour card, and it doesn't surprise me for a couple of reasons.

One is that their style fits that sort of bill. Look at the title track, which is an up tempo rocker with a glam edge, or Maybe We Should, which is a slower and clearly suggestive bluesy rock song. They're two very different songs but they fit well next to each other on the album and they'd work well on a stage too as warm up for someone like Faster Pussycat. That goes double for the singalong section at the close of the title track, which sounds like something Flogging Molly might record: 'Who's knocking, knocking at my door? Bring beer, bring beer!'

Another is that there's nothing overly flash here at all. Not one member of the band stands out for special notice, not even the vocalist or guitarist as you might expect from other rock bands, where egos tend to require that someone has to be the star. That's not to say that singer Rich Apps or guitarist Joe Martin, Jr. aren't up to scratch, because they both do their jobs perfectly well, as do Chick Slattery on bass and Mat Sebel on drums, but they're all clearly cogs in a bigger wheel and that wheel surely knows how to move much better than the cogs could on their own.

The same thing goes for the songs, because they're so consistent that it's tough to pick out either a favourite (OK, I'll plump for Climbing the Walls if you insist) or even a least favourite from this agreeable variety of fast rockers and slow ballads. I'm under the impression that these guys can play anything on the fly and make it work. They have influences, of course, but they're not overt and nothing sounds like anyone specific, even though there are hints here and there throughout. AfterBurn is rather like a distillation of the last half century of rock 'n' roll with a special focus on the seventies and eighties.

All in all, it's a solid and reliable album made by folk who clearly know each other very well indeed and work together even better. It gets better as well with a second listen as the songs start to become old friends. I enjoyed it a lot here at home but I'm pretty sure that the best place to experience AfterBurn will be in a Long Island club with a couple of beers inside you.

Thursday, 10 January 2019

Soilwork - Verkligheten (2019)

Country: Sweden
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 11 Jan 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal-Archives | Official Website

Verkligheten is Soilwork's eleventh studio album, their first since 2015's The Ride Majestic and it sets 2019 off for the Swedes, well, rather majestically, I think.

A leisurely pulsing instrumental opener gives way unexpectedly to sheer speed, almost too much because the blastbeats outpace everything else. It seems weird for me, an old school speed metal fan, to wonder why the drums don't slow down at points. They're a delight on tracks like When the Universe Spoke because the guitars run with the drums like wolves chasing the moon, but they're a deliberate aural assault at the beginning of the album, perhaps because the track is called Arrival and it's a statement.

There's a lot more going on in Arrival than just hyperspeed drums, though, and that's what really highlights what this album has in store. The textbook states that Soilwork used to be a melodic death metal band before they shifted into metalcore, but really what they did was to continually diversify their sound and the vocal work of Björn Strid are a prime example of how they did that. They're not really a metalcore band, they just have some metalcore vocals.

Sure, his default mode features the shouts of a hardcore vocalist but he growls and he sings cleanly too, not always with harsh verses and clean choruses, but with interplay between those styles for texture and effect. Soilwork play with layers generally but that's most obvious in the way they layer Strid's vocals, which do vary.

Some tracks, such as Witan, follow the harsh verse, clean chorus approach but there are clean vocals underlaying the harsh ones. Others, like Stålfågel, are mostly clean with the odd shout or growl for effect, but with an additional and enticingly soulful guest vocal from Alissa White-Gluz of Arch Enemy, which often sounds like how Joss Stone added an extra layer of texture behind SuperHeavy tracks that focused on the other singers. It really benefits the song, as White-Gluz's voice often hides behind Strid's, only to soar above it at the end of lines, which is delightful.

In fact, much of this album seems to have been designed to play with styles, almost asking us to set expectations so the band can flout them. The Nurturing Glance, for instance, is emphatically a power metal song, initially sounding like Accept, with a powerful riff and some reliable (and steady) drumming, only to launch into a chorus worthy of any symphonic metal band. When the Universe Spoke is an up tempo blinder except when it isn't, because it slows down to play with harmonies in ways that may remind of someone as unlikely as Radiohead.

There really is a lot going on in this musical stew, which emphatically rewards the repeat listener. There are elements from across the extreme metal spectrum, but also traditional parts, progressive parts and parts that come from outside the realm of heavy metal entirely. Bastian Thusgaard, the band's new drummer, is clearly a bundle of energy but he mixes it up as much as Strid does with his voice. Sven Karlsson is a highlight too on keyboards, whether introducing, layering or dancing with the vocals.

Verkligheten translates from the Swedish as 'reality' or 'truth' and I'll read that as a statement on the direction of metal today, which is that different styles don't have to remain separate. A decade ago, not everyone appreciated the musical changes that Soilwork made to their melodic death metal roots, bringing in comparisons to Linkin Park or even Nickelback. I know they lost fans, but the passage of time has, I think, come out on their side. Metal is all about mixing up styles nowadays and this is an agreeable example of that to kick off 2019 right, if in a lighter vein than the new Phlebotomized album, which drops a week later.