Friday, 22 March 2019

Aephanemer - Prokopton (2019)

Country: France
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 22 Mar 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

OK, here's something I wasn't expecting, perhaps because I haven't heard of Aephanemer until now and haven't been waiting three years for their follow-up to their apparently promising debut, Memento Mori. Others have. I now understand why.

On paper, Aephanemer are a melodic death metal band from Toulouse and that's a fair enough box to lump them into. However, they don't sound remotely like any other melodic death metal band I've heard and much of what makes them a special case is going to come out of trying to explain that.

Let's start with vocalist Marion Bascoul, who has a death growl that's both accessible and vicious. I'm not sure how she manages that apparently tough task, but it may tie to the way her voice is soft but very ready to rumble, literally. It's less aggressive than the other female death metal vocalists I'm aware of but not by much. She just prefers to hold notes than spit them out. It's an excellent performance, even before we factor in that she's also the band's rhythm guitarist and that she goes clean for parts of Snowblind.

Now you have an idea what Aephanemer sound like, let me explain why you're wrong. The most obvious instrument here isn't the guitar or even the bass; it's the keyboards. Prokopton is more layered with synths and orchestration than your average symphonic metal album, courtesy I believe of a gentleman named Martin Hamiche, who used to be the band by playing everything himself on early releases.

Now he has a band, he's restricted to just lead guitars and synths, but the latter are foundational here. Dissonance Within wraps up as orchestration alone, so notably that we start to wonder if we had indeed heard any more traditional instruments earlier in the track or whether we were merely dreaming.

These synths change the tone entirely, from the expected dip into darkness to a bouncy and exuberant reel. There's a three minute instrumental called At Eternity's Gate that wouldn't be entirely out of place on an Alestorm album. And yet, "Alestorm with death growls" doesn't explain Aephanemer any better than "Arch Enemy with synths".

I think this is because they're very much their own band. It's obvious that they didn't just latch onto a genre and change a single element to carve out their own niche. I presume they start with synth melodies and layer upwards until they have complete songs. I doubt they start with riffs or lyrics. It has to be said that they could lose the guitars before ditching the synths.

Frankly, Hamiche could lose the entire rest of the band and he wouldn't be anywhere different than where he was in 2015, but he'd be missing layers. I believe his initial success here was in finding musicians compatible with his style who could build upon it. After that, it's down to old fashioned songwriting, without which even quality musicians will founder.

This isn't the longest album ever, running just shy of three quarters of an hour, but it wraps up with a nine minute track that doesn't feel at all like nine minutes. Its energy is without bounds and the melodies never quit. The moment it ends we realise that the same could be said about the album as a whole and that's astounding.

Obviously there's a lot right with this album. Trying to figure out what's wrong with it highlights that there's precious little to bring up. I could have done with a bit more prominence to the guitars and the bass, the latter of which I'm not sure I caught individually until towards the end of If I Should Die. All that's in the layering though; they play their part.

This is outstanding stuff, so much so that it has to constitute my second 9/10 review in almost three months. Now, what did I miss before Prokopton?

Drowning Ares - Nocturna (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Progressive Metalcore
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 29 Mar 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | YouTube

I like Drowning Ares for reasons far beyond the music. For one, they sent me a copy of this EP, which is released next Friday, for review. I'm never not going to like free music unless Justin Bieber reaches out too. The line-up on their Bandcamp page lists their drummer as Magneto (Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, X-Men, Astonishing Avengers), so someone should keep a close eye on John Davidson. Oh, and the Artists We Also Like section on their Facebook page starts and ends with Wyld Stallyns. This band are clearly going to be fun, whatever their music sounds like.

And it sounds pretty good. They're all experienced musicians in the metal scene in northern Virginia, each with a number of other bands behind them, so it's not surprising that the musicianship is top notch. They've clearly rehearsed a lot too, because they're very comfortable with each other. The tempo changes a lot on this EP and, even with only six songs, it's longer than some full albums (hello, Reign in Blood), so there's a lot of it.

They play progressive metalcore, which means that it's loud and aggressive and the vocals are shouty but it's far more musically complex than hardcore ever gets. Easily my favourite track here is Beyond the Reach of Time and Reason, which beyond having a title we might expect from Dream Theater, is happy to attempt being as complex too, albeit within the bounds of four and a half minutes.

It does a particularly great job at contrasting the two vocalists. I don't know which is which, other than the pair are Navid Rashid and Jae Curtis, but one shouts in the usual harsh voice, though not outrageously so unless there's a good reason, while the other is cleaner with just a slight edge. The introspective mid-section allows them both to explore more than merely one style each too, with a neat escalation to ramp back up. There's a lot going on in this song and it's all interesting.

My other favourite is the closer, the six minute Nocturna (there's an odd ending tacked on to make it look like eight), because this rumbles on into being with suitable menace and gradually builds in aggression through clear sections, one of which features a vocal line that goes far beyond the usual shouting to almost reach black metal shrieks. Again, those different vocal styles weave in and out of each other in duet style, which is always more interesting than either of them alone.

I don't want to go on about the vocals, because the music behind them is a highlight on its own. With Jae Curtis restricted to a microphone, there's a mere trio generating this busy noise: Rashid on guitar, Patrick Larson on bass and John Davidson on drums. That's impressive but it also explains why there aren't more solos going on here. This is no nonsense stuff.

It feels a little more no nonsense too because each song runs into the next so it never seems like the band stop for the entire half an hour. That aids the aggressive feel. The catch to that is that it becomes harder for us to differentiate the individual songs, each of which follows the same sort of tone. If there's a downside here, it's the general inability of the tracks to stand out from each other. They all sound good but they mostly sound similar.

Frankly, the worst thing about this EP is its cover, which is minimalistic and generic, two adjectives that don't accurately describe the music to be found within. But hey, when the worst thing to say about music is what art sits on its cover, the band have to be doing a good job.

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard - Yn Ol i Annwn (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Doom/Sludge Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Mar 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

As band names go, Wrexham's finest, Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard, have few peers in the lack of subtlety department and that's appropriate given what they sound like. They're not particularly subtle either, except perhaps for the dulcet tones of Jessica Ball, which may not be entirely as sweet as we expect from the Welsh but which are the epitome of sweetness when compared to the music unfolding behind her like a slow mammoth stampede.

What's notable here isn't just that this music is slow, because I've heard slower, but that it's patient, stubborn and relentless, perhaps to reflect the album's title, which translates from the Welsh as "I do not know Annwn". I should point out that Annwn is not a person but a mythical otherworld of immortality, which suggests that the band may be pissed off at being merely human and, taking inspiration from the mammoth of the band's name, want to stomp everything in sight.

I should point out that the tone isn't brutal but almost disinterested, as if the guitarists are set running at a particular riff at a particular pace and they simply stick to it relentlessly throughout. The bass and the drums follow suit, with the occasional fill from the latter, while Ball is tasked with providing whatever melody is called for with her voice, which floats over the music like a dove staying in flight over an endless lake of lava. What variety we're given is added in through the use of space rock effects, which take the place of the absent lead guitar. There are no solos here.

The reason I'm reviewing this album is because this approach surprisingly works. There's a trancelike aspect to it as if the music aims to hypnotise us so that Ball can work her ritual magic over us with our defences down. I found that I really dug the thirteen and a half minute instrumental slog of Katyusha, even though, on paper, it should be ten minutes too long. There's little variance in the riffing and those space rock sound effects should go only so far, but it's somehow immersive and magical. It even gets a little lively nine minutes in, though I don't want to hint at some sort of jig. A word like 'lively' when applied to Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard is relative.

As that track might suggest, this is a long album, comprised of long songs (ranging from six and a half to eight and a half minutes) and longer songs (which start at ten and work their way up). The only exceptions are the two minute intro, named for Kurt Vonnegut's go to planet Tralfamadore, and the four and a half minute track oddly named Du bist jetzt nicht in der zukunft but oddly so, because I don't think Ball sings it in German. This feels as if it's only half a song in this company.

The most out of character track is The Majestic Clockwork, for a couple of reasons. For one, it gets downright perky a few minutes in, which I would have sworn wasn't a concept this band understood. And, for two, it ratchets up the pace consistently to an almost up tempo finalé, the first change of pace within a song in fifty minutes.

Then again, Five Days in the Abyss kicks off without riffs but with violin, a particularly melancholic violin trying to convince the sound effects that melancholy is the way to go with only partial success. Of course, when the guitars inevitably show up, they do so in suitably heavy fashion with yet another simple but highly effective riff. The riffage here is epochal but Ball's vocals are a highlight too, even though I'm not convinced that she actually has words to sing on this song.

I should call out guitarists Paul Michael Davies and Wes Leon for credit as they slay on this album with deceptive ease. They're backed by bass player Stuart Sinclair and drummer James Carrington. Each one of these folk is as stubbornly relentless as the rest and that's pretty frickin' relentless. I still have little idea why this works so well but it does.

Let's just say that it's heavy enough to live up to the band's name and no album should be heavy enough to live up to Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard.

Liars & Lions - New Horizons (2019)

Country: Canada
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 Mar 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | YouTube

I've talked a lot here at Apocalypse Later about different patterns that I'm finding in these new albums. One that I'm starting to notice is that there's an increasing amount of individuals who constitute, on their own, entire bands. Circlet, Saor, Ædelric and Moongates Guardian are all comprised of far less people than you might expect and Liars & Lions is no exception.

Now, if I think of "one man band", I picture a busker with a collection of instruments arrayed around his person, many of them played simultaneously. I see the Lone Cat, Jesse Fuller, who wrote San Francisco Bay Blues and even invented new instruments like the fotdella to extend his range as a one man band. Technology has changed that nowadays, of course, and the modern equivalents are based in a studio with separate recordings of instruments layered together later in software. One or two people can do a heck of a lot by themselves, then bring in guests to do anything else needed on top.

I mention all this because Liars & Lions are primarily two Canadians who do pretty much everything themselves. Nick Waterman plays guitars while Imaad Dalal provides everything else: vocals, bass, synths, drum programming and more guitars. They wrote and arranged the whole album together, recorded it, mixed it, produced it, engineered it, you name it. Clearly this wasn't done in one take. It must have involved a lot of work over a lot of time with a lot of patience, but the end result sounds like a full band.

Listening to a song like Icarus, I'm seeing a full stage, with a vocalist concentrating on his delivery, a guitarist exploring his instrument behind him, an attentive bass player underpinning it all and a playful drummer at the back reacting to what the others are doing. Even the keyboard player is busy, especially in the quieter intro and outro sections but elsewhere too. That almost none of those dynamics are really there is amazing to me.

What amazes me most isn't that technology makes this possible but that the versatility of some of these people allows them to shine in different roles on the same album. For instance, Dalal obviously takes great care with his vocals, which are delivered as if they're his one and only job. Songs like New Horizons and End Credits highlight his imaginative bass playing. Quite a few feature imaginative rhythms on the drum machine or capable runs on the keyboards. I could call all of these out as highlights but all that credit goes to the same person.

At the end of the day, even on a progressive rock album, the songs matter too and it doesn't matter how impressive Dalal is if he and Waterman can't write songs. Fortunately they can and that's why this album is memorable, even when those songs are instrumentals like New Horizons or Bubbles. The first full song, Echoes, is a great example, with a soaring chorus that's neatly tied to the guitars and a glorious slowdown a couple of minutes in that allows for a pleasing solo.

Pleasing is a good word to use here. While the riffs do often jog in that djent way, there's a lot of more mellow music here and Dalal's voice has a pleasing alternative tone to it, rather like Steve Hogarth's or even Dave Grohl's. The synths often give an old school new wave feel, especially in the Gary Numan way they kick off the album. Even when the album is loud and driving, it's not as aggressive as it could be because it clearly doesn't feel the need.

And all this makes Liars and Lions hard to categorise. I believe they call themselves prog rock, which is fair but limiting. This is often prog metal but often alternative rock too. Sometimes the songs move from one of those to the other, like the Foo Fighters had heard Meshuggah and wondered if it might be possible to take their sound and apply it to a catchy Yes song.

Here's to the one man or two man bands! I may never see you live but I do appreciate what you do in the studio to create albums like this.

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Borders of Byzantium - Odyssey (2019)

Country: Hungary
Style: Post-Hardcore
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 8 Mar 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

I was in an interesting discussion last weekend. My eldest son, who's a big fan of Alice Cooper, mentioned that his wife listens to screamo. She looked at him like he'd just arrived from a distant planet; she doesn't listen to screamo. she said, utterly puzzled that he'd even suggest such a thing. And, given that the only album of hers I've heard is by the Pretty Reckless, who are variously described as alternative rock, blues and post-grunge, I might be confused too. I'm still unsure as to what she thinks she listens to but the lesson is that genre labels can be problematic.

Case in point: Borders of Byzantium, who hail from Budapest in Hungary and tend to be described as post-hardcore. Now, apparently I've been failing to realise what post-hardcore is. I'd figured that if post-rock was all about creating soundscapes with traditional rock instruments, then post-hardcore must be about creating soundscapes using aggressive music and shouty vocals, which didn't sound appetizing to me at all.

Fortunately, that's not what it is and I'm very happy for this wake up call because I kind of like this. Now I need to ask my daughter-in-law if this is what she really listens to and, if it is, whether I can borrow her collection.

To me, the only evidence of hardcore here is in the shouty vocals of Bence Joó, of which I'm not particularly fond even though he does it well. That's just me; I've never been a fan of that style. The four musicians who play behind him and Marcell Oláh, who handles the clean vocals, don't sound like a hardcore band to me in the slightest. If I'd been asked to describe them blind, I'd have gone with heavy alternative rock or light progressive metal.

Wikipedia tells me that post-hardcore is a punk rock genre that "maintains the aggression and intensity of hardcore" but "emphasizes a greater degree of creative expression". There's certainly creative expression here, with the musical palette explored ranging all the way from Depeche Mode to Dream Theater, with a lot more of the latter than the former.

Initially, they're very progressive, with Alive led by the drums of Kristóf Tóth and the neat interplay between the two vocalists. There's interesting guitarwork in there too, behind them, though using a lot less notes than a prog metal band would use. The Same Old Game moves from soft keyboards to a bouncy riff and bouncier pulsing electronica, complete with hand claps. It's new wave with a crunch. Fortified adds a chanting vocal that hints at rap before launching an catchy chorus.

That's three different approaches in three songs and the rest of the album pretty much combines those in different ways. The only songs to really take a different approach are Like Flies and the album's closer, Drawn Circles, which are softer by a degree and generally driven by textured keyboards but for the moments when they decide to get epic. They're like synth pop songs that dream of power.

Like Flies is surely my least favourite song on the album and it's telling that it's followed by Two Sides, probably the heaviest track on offer, that would be metalcore with a different sound mix and with less Oláh and a lot more Joó. This band does like to keep it fresh. They've said that the band name was inspired by the diversity of the Byzantine Empire, which they like to emulate in what they call a "genre-bending musical style".

I surprised myself by enjoying this rather a lot. Not all these tracks are as catchy as they think they are and some of them sound rather similar to others, even as there's an agreeably diversity within them. They obviously put a lot of effort into creating contrasts too and I liked that. There's a lot of hard vs. soft, metal vs. rock and clean vs. shouty and that elevates the album considerably.

Clearly I need to listen to more post-hardcore to get an idea of what it's all about. Borders of Byzantium are a promising start. Maybe they're the beginning of another odyssey for me.

Nik Turner - The Final Frontier (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Space Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 8 Mar 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website | Wikipedia

For those who don't know the name, Nik Turner was the flautist and saxophonist in the legendary space rock band Hawkwind in its early United Artists years, alongside such luminaries as Lemmy, Robert Calvert and Huw Lloyd-Langton. As such, you might not be particularly surprised if I tell you that this new album, released over forty years after he first left that band and thirty-five since his last departure, sounds very much like early Hawkwind.

Turner has freely admitted in the past that he's more interested in the feel of music than any individual aspects of it and that approach makes The Final Frontier an immersive experience, a cosmic acid trip to sit alongside any of those old Hawkwind albums, if not as dense and all encompassing as something like Space Ritual, still one of the trippiest albums I've ever heard.

The question, as with all such albums, is how well it's going to stand up on further listens. The first time through tends to be an experience, but do we want to go back for a repeat performance?

I would, but mostly for the instrumental sections. Turner was always a more interesting musician than he ever was a singer and most of his vocals here are closer to narration, often spoken word poetry, in which he monologues about interstellar beings or lost civilisations and wonders where the heck his spaceship has got to. I presume there's a vague storyline here but, if there is, it doesn't seem to make a lot of sense. It's not about the words, except when they're poetic like on Back to the Ship.

The music, however, is wild. Out of Control, which opens up the album with guitars at the fore over an evocative background of atmospheric keyboards and exploratory saxophone, is a real highlight, everything I want from Nik Turner. Interstellar Aliens is a weird ride, a psychedelic pop song in which he seems to float in a dreamlike state after being abducted by kindly aliens who return him home afterwards. Drenched in synth effects, this couldn't be more different but both tracks do their jobs really well.

Back to the Ship, on the other hand, apparently forgets what it's trying to do for three and half minutes. Maybe it's appropriate, given that the song is about being lost, but a long intro that sounds like a improvisation at a concert after too much LSD backstage doesn't play well on repeat. I'm not sure the rest of the song makes sense either, but at least Turner seems to be engrossed in his trip when accompanied by lively pulsing instrumentation.

My favourite tracks here are the ones that contain all that lively pulsing instrumentation but without any (or much) of the rambling speech. Strange Loop is entirely instrumental except for what could be described as a sort of choral cosmic backdrop, which is just as cool as that sounds. Thunder Rider, named for Turner's old Hawkwind nickname, does have vocals but not too many of them. Mostly it's more lively and pulsing instrumentation but with a long saxophone solo for extra merit.

It's worth mentioning that, while I prefer those two tracks for their lack of vocals, I also prefer them because they feature Turner's saxophone more than his flute because sax always makes for a trippier ride. PAD4, which wraps up the album, works the other way and, while it's delightful, trippy flute prompts us to leave peacefully, floating in space, rather than caught up in some cosmic maelstrom, as the trippy sax would leave us.

Maybe, given that we wonder where the next song is, Turner is adhering to the old show business maxim about always leaving the audience wanting more. That's where I ended up here. The instrumentation is timeless stuff and I want to return again and again, but the vocals often change my mind for me. What I want now is another dozen Nik Turner solo albums that I can happily experience once.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Tesla - Shock (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 Mar 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I remember Tesla with fondness from their first couple of albums, Mechanical Resonance and The Great Radio Controversy. Those were released back in the very late eighties, before everything changed. It doesn't surprise me that I missed out on the next couple in the post-Nevermind early nineties or that the band split up in 1996. Well, they got back together in 2000, with the same line-up, which is mostly intact today (they swapped Tommy Skeoch for Dave Rude back in 2006) and they've now released just as many albums after reforming as they did before they split up.

Shock sounds relatively consistent with what I remember, being a dozen old school hard rock songs, some rockers and some ballads, performed without a heck of a lot of fuss. There's a swagger that tends to be associated with glam, mostly through Jeff Keith's vocals, but they were never a glam band and they aren't now. California Summer Song shows that he and they are as comfortable with a country vibe as a rock one.

What's new here that I don't remember is a bounce that could well come from the involvement of Phil Collen of Def Leppard, who produced the album. Now, Tesla always had an energy to them (pun not intended) but there's a sort of commercial crispness here that I don't recall and there are more handclaps and radio-friendly melodies and a more subdued, more electronic drum sound. This is slick and it knows it. It wants to be heard and in places outside the ones we might expect from a reformed eighties rock band. There's an ache for commercial success here that I remember from Def Leppard, who tweaked a successful sound in certain directions to get there.

It's certainly well put together, so best of luck to them. Of course, as a single listener, I can only speak critically not commercially. It's a good album and I'm enjoying it, but I wonder if it's too overtly commercial with too many ballads. Forever Loving You, seven tracks in, is the third ballad and the softest of them, though it has an intriguing Saigon Kick edge to it that I rather enjoyed.

The Tesla I think most people want to hear is most apparent on tracks like You Won't Take Me Alive and Tied to the Tracks, which are more up tempo and actually seem to feature a bass and a drumkit that has more than one drum, as well as a flair that comes from slide guitar and sassy vocals. These are kick ass songs, but still controlled ones. The band might sound loose and improvisational but I think it's a very choreographed looseness.

I think the best material here is in between those two extremes. I'm rather fond of The Mission, which starts out more like a ballad but is happy to let its guitar to finally run free. It's the most honest song here, which helps me not only to like it more but to realise just how the band perhaps aren't just being themselves on this album. This track is old school Tesla and it's great stuff.

The Mission plays to me like a "go on, just have fun" track on an album that feels otherwise carefully constructed to be diverse, radio-friendly and very commercial. I can't say that I don't like it, because it's very easy to like and Collen's production may well take them back to a level of success that they enjoyed three decades ago, but it's too clean and calculated for me.

This is music that I'd turn up on the radio while driving past the stadium that Tesla have filled to get to the club where a smaller band are going to just jam all night. It sounds good but it's fourteen dollar Budweiser music, when I just want a seven dollar Guinness. And no, I won't be picking up the Target exclusive edition with three extra tracks.