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.

Mikael Erlandsson & Last Autumn's Dream - Secret Treasures (2018)

Country: Sweden
Style: Melodic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 19 Dec 2018
Sites: MySpace | Wikipedia

Last Autumn's Dream have been knocking albums out almost every year since 2003 and this fifteenth studio release follows a sort of tradition in releasing soon before Christmas in Japan, hence the length of this one with four bonus tracks. The European release won't drop until 2019.

When it does, it's highly recommended. I'm new to the band, but apparently the selection of tracks here are generally old and discarded ones revisited to see how they'd work out in the modern day. It turns out that they work out pretty damn well, especially given that they make for a lively album, rocking out on the front of the virtual stage inside our heads. Reading up on them online tells me that their last album was a much softer affair, almost into Eurovision pop territory according to 0DayRoxx.

Now, Lordi may have shaken up Eurovision and made it a viable target for harder material, but Secret Treasures mostly isn't interested in that sort of thing. I could see a ballad like Have to Let You Go playing there, even if it's crafted beautifully, and even Break Another Heart has an Abba vibe, even if it's rather heavier than their fellow Swedes ever got.

Most of these tracks are up tempo rockers, starting with with the opening double of Eye of the Hurricane and Evil, catchy rockers both that grab our attention from the outset. Why, with a different voice leading it, could have been a Van Halen track from their Sammy Hagar era.

That voice, by the way, is Mikael Erlandsson, the driving force behind Last Autumn's Dream since he co-founded the band with former guitarist Andy Malecek back in 2002. A number of these songs were apparently solo Erlandsson tracks, which is why the cover credits the album to Mikael Erlandsson and Last Autumn's Dream.

I have no idea how the material breaks down but it seems consistent to me, so there was presumably never much of a different sound between Erlandsson solo and Erlandsson in Last Autumn's Dream. Sure, there's a neat guitar groove on the remix of Love is the Answer and another one on When She's Gone, which reminds me of Saigon Kick. So does Alice in the Wonderland, courtesy of their solid Beatles influence.

If anything, the songs seem to be competing with each other to see which will be recognised as the bounciest, the catchiest or the most radio friendly. Only one of those categories has a clear winner, because the catchiest must surely be OK, which burrows into our brains immediately and camps out like it never wants to leave again. When She's Gone deserves to dominate the airwaves so it lands my vote for most radio friendly. The bounciest is really up for grabs, with the album's starter and finisher vying hard for that title in completely different ways and everything in between staking a claim too. That's not a bad situation for a melodic rock band.

The Japanese bonus tracks are all remixes of older tracks originally released on the II album back in 2004. They all sound good to me, perhaps a little heavier and more guitar focused than the rest of the album, but they underline my real takeaway from Secret Treasures, namely to check out what this band have been doing for the last decade and a half. I've clearly been missing out.

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Legion of the Damned - Slaves of the Shadow Realm (2019)

Country: The Netherlands
Style: Thrash/Death Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 3 Jan 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Wikipedia

This is album eight for Legion of the Damned but album thirteen if you count the five they recorded earlier under the name of Occult. Legion of the Damned is a much better name and they've proved that they're not fools when it comes to marketing. After all, who else but a band from Holland could get away with including a branded cheese block with the special edition of their 2008 album, Cult of the Dead? Clearly it worked, as I've never seen one but I'm still talking about it a decade later in this review.

I'm new to this band, but I liked them immediately. They play thrash/death metal, but that just means that they sound more like Kreator than Destruction. Well, except when they don't because there's a lot of Destruction here too! I wonder how their sound has evolved since 1992. On the face of this album only, I'd call them thrash metal with a bit of death here and there, mostly in the vocal style.

There's very little variation here. Shadow Realm of the Demonic Mind kicks off with a soft piano intro and that hammers home that we're on track seven and we haven't really paused for breath until now except for chugging sections in songs like Slaves of the Southern Cross. There's an intro to Priest Hunt too that sounds more like power metal and an outro to Dark Coronation (and the album as a whole) that follows suit. The big question here is whether you see the lack of variation as a good thing or a bad thing and either opinion is valid.

On the positive side, this is good stuff and it'll kick your ass for three quarters of an hour. These guys know how to play and they have a lot of years doing that together. Vocalist Maurice Swinkels and drummer Erik Fleuren have been performing together since the very beginning as Occult in 1992. Harold Gielen joined in 2006 and has only missed one album, making Twan van Geel the new guy, even though he's been with the band since 2011. I'd love to see this band live because they ought to absolutely blister.

On the negative side, the eleven songs sound so similar that they blur together, even after three or four times through the album. Maybe The Widow's Breed is played at a little more of a breakneck speed than the rest and Slaves of the Southern Cross chugs a little more. Maybe Charnel Confession sounds a bit more old school and Black Banners in Flames has a bit more interesting overlays.

It does make it hard to call out favourites though. In many ways, all this would have needed to become a single 45 minute track is the careful editing out of gaps and the ditching of a couple of intros. And, like I said, that may or may not be a bad thing. If you just want this to clean your clock, it'll do that. If you want to explore it, though, you're not going to find much in tracks two to eleven that you didn't find in track one.

Orangotango - Sumatra (2018)

Country: Portugal
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 17 Dec 2018
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website

Ever since I discovered Stoned Meadow of Doom on YouTube, I've been completely hooked on instrumental albums from stoner, doom or psychedelic rock bands. This one is the product of a Portuguese trio from Susão. Oddly, given that Susão is at the very northwest of Portugal overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, they seem to be looking far to the east to the jungles of Indonesia for inspiration.

The half hour slab of riffs that is Sumatra is broken up into only five tracks and they're a heady dose of bass-driven power.

Aura starts things out with sensitivity, the gently noodling guitar of Rui Loureiro floating over the other instruments, its plaintive refrain calling for something somewhere. What responds is sheer power, solid bass driven riffs from Carlos Jorge that could be called plodding if they weren't so up tempo. They're also pretty clean, with only a hint of fuzz; they're heavy enough without help from distortion. This distant conversation between distant guitar and bass gets closer as this nine minute opener progresses, all capably underpinned by the drums of Filipe Ferreira. It's gorgeous stuff.

Bolt, as its title might suggest, speeds things up somewhat but it's still no breakneck affair. Dust hits a gallop at points, sounding almost like early death/doom era Paradise Lost on speed, especially given that guitar tone. The middle of Ride explores the same terrain a little slower and I realise that I'm all for gothic psychedelia with a bass as heavy as this!

The variance between tracks comes mostly from Loureiro's guitar work because he conjures a variety of different sounds out of his instrument depending on the needs of the track at hand. Much of this comes in the bookends, two nine minute epics that sound notably different, Aura being conversational and Outblast more spiritual. The three shorter tracks in between are much more similar in outlook and, if it wasn't for the breaks between them, they'd blur into a twelve minute third track.

I hadn't heard of Orangotango until this release and they seem to have come out of nowhere, but I'm hooked. They're a notably heavy band for having only three members but they mix it up well. I wasn't bored for a moment and Sumatra never wandered off into the background while my concentration moved elsewhere. I was with the band throughout. Who needs vocals anyway?

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Valiant Bastards - Harbingers of Chaos (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy/Thrash Metal
Rating: 5/10
Release Date: 1 Jan 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

I have to applaud Portland's Valiant Bastards for conjuring up such a memorable name. The Heartless Bastards may still have the edge, but I like this too. I also have to applaud them for playing just what the hell they want to without pandering to current fashion. This is old school eighties metal with an eye for power and hints of thrash and that's refreshing to my nostalgic soul. I love how metal is getting more diverse in sound every day but sometimes I just want to headbang to something simple.

Well, this fits that bill very well. It's a 45 minute set of chugging metal that does nothing flash and features clean vocals that have no interest in being an instrument. If that's what you're looking for, it does the job well enough. If it isn't, then it may seem old fashioned and forgettable to the modern generation.

The band have been around since 2013 and this is their debut album, but only three of the ten songs are new. Three were on their Goin' Deep EP back in 2016 and six were on their 2017 live album, Live Dudes. I know three plus six doesn't equal seven, but two of those tracks were on both previous releases, making this their third in a row.

That said, the best songs here are the new ones. The opener, Harbinger, is intriguing from the outset with its oddly pensive intro. It's six and a half minutes long and it remains instrumental for almost three of them. It's good stuff, albeit good stuff I'd expect to find from a Toranaga album with a solid sense of power, a couple of heads down thrash sections and a cool interlude late on.

Toranaga remain a reference point on the other two new tracks, King of the Depths and Warchief, the latter of which also tops six minutes, even though nothing else on the album manages to reach five. King of the Depths runs much shorter but, like Harbinger, Warchief has a careful construction to it and it's happy to run fast or slow to meet the need.

While it's decent enough stuff throughout, it's sadly easier to point out downsides than upsides. Lucas Salazar's vocals aren't bad but they're routine. A singer whose voice stands out from the crowd would have elevated some of this material. Also, he's very high in the mix, enough so that it sometimes overwhelms the musicianship behind him. Like the vocals, the rest of the band are capable enough but rarely warrant any special praise. They just do their job. There are some good riffs here and some good transitions but I was just as likely to wonder if drummer Scott DeRosia was having a little trouble keeping up.

I can't say I didn't enjoy this. It does what it does and I've heard a lot worse in this style over the decades. I'd be happy to see Valiant Bastards live too, to see if they sound bigger and better with volume and a crowd (and a beer). However, the band know that they're not doing anything new and that's kind of the point.

If that's the inherent downside, the upside is that they're clearly getting better. A Harbingers of Chaos album full of new material like Harbinger and Warchief, even King of the Depths, would be much more enticing. Let's see what the next album's going to be like with all new songs and none of the retreads.

Sechem - Disputes with My Ba (2018)

Country: Spain
Style: Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 21 Dec 2018
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

Oh, this looked enticing! Sechem, who hail from Madrid in Spain, play 'Middle Eastern folk metal with an overt Egyptian theme'. That's right up my alley! I imagined a cross between Nile and Orphaned Land and that's hardly a bad place to start this musical journey, because there's some of the crunch of the former and some of the invention of the latter.

However, add to that clean female vocals of the lovely Ikena, who sings in the English language, and the flute of Marta Sacri that dances over everything else much of the time and occasionally leads the way, and you end up with a band who sound refreshingly different, even on this, their debut album. They previously released an EP in 2016, Renaissance of the Ancient Ka, and their line up is almost unchanged, having only swapped out bassist Carlos Sobrino for Santiago Urruela.

I listened through this in entirety a couple of times in the wee hours and then came back it again today to take notes, still no closer to figuring out which of the ten tracks are standouts or favourites. Another few times through and I'm starting to get there. There's a consistency in approach throughout but each song has its own identity and its own little nuances to keep it apart from its peers.

That's most obvious is in the vocal work of Ikena. She's willing to soar high and free like a symphonic metal singer on tracks like Bird in a Cage, then ditch that for more sedate refrains surely intended to sound like ritual chanting on tracks like An Epic Journey to Yam, even laugh heartily and raucously at the end of Mummify Me! I'm coming to the realisation that my least favourite song is probably Horus & Seth, whose relatively straightforward story-based lyric gives her less opportunity than most of the rest of the album, especially coming as it does right after a similar approach in Sanehat.

Just because Ikena is an asset to the band, that doesn't mean that the musicians backing her up don't get their time in the spotlight too. For a start, she's not the only vocalist because one of her colleagues provides some deathly growls or muttered chants at points, albeit not too many of them. I've already mentioned Marta Sacri's flute too, which is the most overt element to set Sechem apart from other bands as well as the most overt folk instrument.

However, the most interesting sound is probably the interplay between guitars, which isn't like what you'd get in a Wishbone Ash or an Iron Maiden at all. If I'm reading this correctly, Pepo Raulli is responsible for all the electric guitar work and, when he's not soloing, he's adding depth to the bass and drums. However, Guille Ramos adds an acoustic guitar to the mix and he refuses to be relegated to just the intros as most bands would require. He's there during the songs too and the excellent production allows for it to be heard. For fascinating interplay between the more traditionally metal electric guitar and the ethnic stylings of its acoustic brother, check out An Epic Journey to Yam or The Shipwrecked Sailor.

There's a fantastic interlude in Waltz of the Three Fates too, which serves as a quiet but evocative intro to the final track, The Doomed Prince. And when that ends, I just want to listen to the album over again. It's not the best album I've heard this month but it may be the most likely to become a personal favourite.

Monday, 7 January 2019

Phlebotomized - Deformation of Humanity (2019)

Country: The Netherlands
Style: Death/Doom Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 7 Jan 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website

The name Phlebotomized may make this Dutch band sound like a gore/grind outfit (and these folk did play grindcore as Bacterial Disease back in the late eighties) but, under this name, they play death/doom. Deformation of Humanity is their third album and it's interesting stuff.

It starts out faster than I tend to expect from death/doom, but it doesn't stay there. There's a second higher and slower guitar in the mix playing melody, there are Rob op 't Veld's keyboards dancing around like a mischievious imp and the tempo is a fluid thing. It's this set of contrasts that makes this album such a delight. Tracks like Chambre Ardente and Descend to Deviance define what they're going to be immediately but then continually change that as they expand to keep us happily on the hop. They play fast, they play slow. Ben de Graaff growls, he goes clean. Spoken word sections show up. That these are the first two full tracks on the album is a statement.

Certainly, it's the less diverse tracks that are less interesting but there aren't too many of those. Eyes on the Prize is the prime example, consistently fast and standing out in a negative way from the rest of the album because of that, even though it isn't a bad track on its own merits. It also hands off to Desideratum, which combines fast death with a unique minute long dramatic intro and a weird electronica phase that adds yet another dimension. Dance club death/doom? Why not.

By the way, Desideratum is a truly glorious title for a death/doom song; it simply means 'something wanted' but it sounds agreeably ancient and depressing while it does so. It tops even Chambre Ardente, which translates to 'burning chamber' and was the name of a court of justice in 15th and 16th France which sent a lot of its prisoners to the stake to burn. I got a kick out of the fact that Until the End has a reprise because Until the End Reprise is a title that carries ironic depth. We're going all the way to the very end of everything. Again. How death/doom is that?

Talking of Until the End, the intricate original and plodding reprise are bookends to the seven minute title track and there's a great deal going on in this setpiece trio. Apparently, the album was written over a four year period after the band reformed in 2013 and they've clearly taken full advantage of the changes in the extreme metal musical landscape since they split up in 1997. Those lost sixteen years were busy ones for the genre ("it's been a while, a lot has happened" they appropriately sing in My Dear...) but the six members have a wild variety of ex-bands to their names to help diversify their sound.

What struck me here most was how prominent the keyboards are. They're not just adding a layer of depth (though they do that too), they're often adding something different to everyone else, playing their part like an actual other lead instrument in the line up, somewhat like we tend to see with folk instruments in folk metal bands. They're also highly varied, appropriately given how the album unfolds, sometimes playing the part of an organ, sometimes a flute and sometimes even what sounds like bells. Rob op 't Veld is far from the only member of the band to get such a wildly diverse run through this album, but he does epitomise that approach.

I haven't heard Phlebotomized's work before but, by the time Ataraxia II wrapped up Deformation of Humanity in enticing instrumental fashion, I was hooked. Their other two albums are much older, Immense Intense Suspense dating back to 1994 and Skycontact to 1997, during the band's first time together, but I'm eager to seek those out now. I grew up in Halifax and saw Paradise Lost live during their demo days, so I was there at the beginning of death/doom even if I'm rather out of date with what's been going on lately, but Phlebotomized bring something new to the table that I haven't encountered before and I find that I like it a lot.

Galaxy Destruction Inc. - Sacrifice for Rebirth (2018)

Country: Taiwan
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 Dec 2018
Sites: Facebook | Instagram

I don't know a lot of bands from Taiwan, Chthonic possibly being both the beginning and end of that list, but I can now add the gloriously named Galaxy Destruction Inc. to it. They're a melodic death metal band with the sort of melodic death metal singer you might expect but there are black metal shrieks here too on the opening track and, while their Facebook page is presumably in Mandarin, it only lists one vocalist so I'm impressed with his range.

It's the guitarwork that caught my attention though. Even though there are only five tracks (plus a symphonic intro) to go on here because this is only an EP rather than a full length album, the two guitarists make their presence known. I can't name them because I can't speak Mandarin but, between them, they keep a lot of melody alive as tracks run on. Not all melodic death metal bands are this melodic. There are points too, like the beginning of Salvation, where this almost sounds like a shredder album with blastbeats.

After that, Salvation blisters on for a while but, unlike Galaxy Destruction, which kicked off the album with emphasis by blistering all the way through, this one mixes up its pace with a slower section in the middle for that sadly unknown guitarist to solo over.

While the core of Galaxy Destruction Inc.'s sound is clearly melodic death metal, it isn't afraid to mix it up. Imprisoned slows things down considerably and its subdued clean vocal sections aren't up to the standard of the growls and shrieks, but it ends with a neat groove, with a growl over clean backing vocals. Insurrection thrashes it up but finds time in the middle for what almost sounds like a Viking metal chorus. A similar thing shows up towards the end of Eden, reinforcing a folk edge to a band that otherwise don't remotely sound like folk metal.

Hey, let's go back and summarise all that! Galaxy Destruction Inc. are a melodic death metal band in the traditional Swedish style. One track adds black metal shrieks while one adds clean vocals. Two add Viking metal chants. At least one, arguably more, are clearly rooted in thrash metal. And a few tracks, especially one, feature shredding guitarwork. That's a lot of diversity for a five track EP!

The best thing about EPs is that they tend to introduce us to new bands at a shorter length (and a correspondingly lower cost). On that front, this one works because I'd never heard of Galaxy Destruction Inc. before and now I'm aware how good they are. Of course, the worst thing is that, when they work, they end far too quickly. This is a band to watch and I'll certainly be looking out for a full length release.

Friday, 4 January 2019

Khaos Labyrinth - The Cold Universe (2019)

Country: Russia
Style: Melodic Black Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Jan 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

Metal had a good year in 2018, with a lot of bands successfully blurring the different styles and creating new and vibrant sounds. Already, it looks like having a good year in 2019 too, with death metal taking the lead through the Phlebotomized and Soilwork albums, which together show how versatile death metal has become. Enter the Russian band Khaos Labyrinth to highlight how black metal doesn't have to make wild leaps to genres like gospel and bluegrass to move its cause forward. They look inward rather than outward but they still innovate.

The opening of The Great Deicide felt like old school thrash but with the traditional black metal bedrock added behind it. As it grew, it added in progressive elements, gorgeous transitions and some soaring solo guitar, with these elements often overlaid. Crucially, it all plays well together. Through the Ruins adds nu metal shouts as a sort of haka before leaping into the black. Cosmic Alchemy blisters until its first interlude, which adds an oriental flavour, then explored some fascinating territory for a while until blistering again to its ending. Depths without Stellar Light has a progressive Voivod feel to it with an absolutely fantastic stop a minute and change in.

What I think I like most about this album is how well this band layer their sounds. That came to mind during the intro, but became extra clear as the ending of Cosmic Alchemy gave way to the beginning of Cold. The guitarwork behind the verses of Cold underlined it in red ink because it's delightful and it's buried just deep enough below the hyperspeed surface to make us dive in to explore.

It sometimes seems really weird to acknowledge that Khaos Labyrinth is a trio, albeit one using an additional session drummer for this album. I'm guessing that much of this is because Skvld, who wrote two thirds of the material, doesn't only handle bass and vocals but also keyboards and samples. That could be translated into him taking some solid black metal, already interesting because of the solo work from Beorn, and then rendering it even more interesting.

Not everything's of the same quality here and the first half is generally superior to the second half, but the album rarely slips into the background. Each time it does, it promptly reenforces itself again with something special before we notice and we find ourselves back on board. Often, but certainly not always, this is due to one of the many quiet interludes within tracks, which are agreeably varied; they're there for us to take a breath but sometimes they take it away instead. Sometimes it's a transition or a temporary change in vocal style. Occasionally, it's something really odd like a scratchy effect towards the end of Rest in Sand, the longest, last and most untypical song on the album.

Short version of this review: there's lots here to catch the attention!

Khaos Labyrinth are certainly finding their style. They used to be Das ist Unrein, then Nebiroth, but they've been Khaos Labyrinth since 2011 and this is their third full length album with hopefully many more to come.

Buso von Kobra - Chinese Tales from Outer Space Vol. 1 (2018)

Country: Hungary
Style: Stoner Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 5 Nov 2018
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Reverb Nation | SoundCloud

This is an interesting, if short, album that this intriguingly named Hungarian stoner band just released on Bandcamp with truly glorious cover art. It's good stuff but I'm trying to figure out what audience they're aiming for.

For instance, the opener, My Dear is a Whore, is heavy but still commercial. It ought to be a gimme for alternative radio play, except that the lyrics wouldn't allow that without heavy use of beeps during the chorus.

Chinese Tales doesn't let up either, even when it slows down a little, and whoever that is on guitar knocks out some tasty riffs on tracks like Backbones, while the various vocalists change up their styles on a regular basis. If I'm counting right, there are three tracks with Attila Voros singing, three with Gergely Kovacs, three with Jozzy and one with Jappan & Barnsz. Given that there are only seven tracks, they have to team up and that adds to their interesting sound.

In fact, in many ways, Backbones is about three different songs in one. It kicks off like an evil Zeppelin, leaps into Rage Against the Machine territory and end in a quietening groove. It's a song that catches you immediately but wants you to come back to dig deeper and I love that sort of thing.

The Wait does something similar. Out of the gate, it's alt country with cheeky cymbals. Then the chunky riffs hit and the vocals intensify, only to relax back down again like Nick Cave at points. Before long, soulful backing vocals join in to make sure we know it's commercially viable. And yet none of this feels out of place.

The psychedelic angle isn't that obvious early on but it kicks in hard towards the end of Ghost Train and especially at the beginning of Ivory Lies.

If this is what Budapest sounds like nowadays, I might have moved out of England in the wrong direction. This sounds great and 2,000 Hungarian forints is not as crazy as it sounds. That's about $7, making this about a buck a track, worth it given that there isn't a bad one on the album.

It aches to be played live though and if Buso von Kobra can recreate this in a club environment, they're going to truly blister. Sadly, I'm about six thousand miles away from being able to check that out. Someone get these guys onto the radio so they can start touring somewhere a little closer to me than Budapest!

Thursday, 3 January 2019

Moongates Guardian - The Last Ship (2019)

Country: Russia
Style: Atmospheric Black Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 1 Jan 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

J. R. R. Tolkien would have been 126 today, so I thought I'd take a look at 'The Last Ship' by Moongates Guardian, the latest album from a Tolkien-obsessed pair of black metal musicians from Kaliningrad, who are nothing if not prolific.

In addition to singles and splits and EPs and what have you, Moongates Guardian have issued eight albums in only six years, if we include their full length tribute to Summoning. Now add in the five albums that this pair released as Holdaar during that same period and another one in 2018 under the banner of Regnat Horrendum and we can't help but wonder about the quality. Who can release that much material in that short a timeframe without some of it being unworthy?

Well, one benefit Moongates Guardian have is that they don't have to write too many lyrics, as their approach is to take poems from the works of Tolkien and set them to original music. I believe everything here was sourced from Tom Bombadil, though titles do change somewhat, occasionally to reflect the first lines of these poems rather than their titles, so The Hoard becomes When the Moon Was New or The Mewlips becomes The Shadows Where the Mewlips Dwell.

For an odd approach like this, it's decent enough stuff, a lot bouncier and far more keyboard driven than I expected. Kaliningrad is a Russian exclave that looks over the Baltic at Sweden and Vällingby, a suburb of Stockholm, is a straight shot across the water. I bring that up because it was the home of Quorthon, of Bathory fame. While this is ostensibly black metal, which Quorthon arguably created, it's done in an epic martial style that's perhaps just as influenced by the Viking metal that Bathory moved into.

What's more, all the instrumentation is the product of one man, Skilar by name, just as later Bathory albums were all Quorthon, whatever the instrument. Skilar's partner in crime here and elsewhere is Alexey, who provides the vocals and I believe that he layers his vocals to meet the need just as Skilar layers his instruments. The black metal vocals, which are relatively subdued, are more effective than the clean parts, as English is clearly not Alexey's first language. Good intonation can be tricky! He does a pretty good job for the most part but shines most in the sections that sound very much like a choir.

Skilar digs a lot deeper than the traditional black metal toolbox. Many instrumental parts dig into folk tunes, orchestrations and even ambient elements such as flowing water. The drums are often the only reason why this doesn't sound more like a movie soundtrack, but they add to the folk phrasing. On the Southern Spurs only features choral vocals, so it's a sort of instrumental and the drumming is more in the style of handheld drums than a kit.

I quite liked this album and, because the lyrics are never particularly clear to the listener, it works even for those who don't care a whit for the Tolkien connection. Of course, given the prevalence of Tolkien character or place names in extreme metal, it may be that there's a built-in Tolkien fanbase aching for albums like this to explore deeper than just names and actually interpret that author's poetic material. Stranger things have happened!

Dewa Budjana - Mahindini (2018)

Country: Indonesia
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 10 Dec 2018
Sites: Facebook | Official Website

I love the fact that the world of rock music has expanded since the eighties (or its globe has shrunk). Back then, everyone was from the UK or the USA, maybe Germany, and it was a rare band from further afield who made us pay attention. Sure, some of them existed and we just didn't know about it, but it's not just the internet shrinking those miles that's making rock and metal such an international force nowadays.

Case in point, here's Dewa Budjana from Waikabubak in Indonesia, who started out as a jazz guitarist but couldn't resist rocking it up. He formed Gigi in 1994, with whom he's recorded at least twenty albums, including 1997's 2x2 (featuring Billy Sheehan), even though he's also been releasing solo albums since the late nineties.

Mahindini is, I believe, his tenth solo album and it's ostensibly progressive rock, even though it frequently diverges from that in multiple directions. The end of Crowded veers into experimental jazz territory and Queen Kanya kicks off like a rock guitar virtuoso instrumental, a road that a Vai or a Satriani might travel down, but, by halfway, we find ourselves in a cocktail lounge wondering how those legends would look in tuxes. Just as we realise how weird that thought is, Budjana starts shredding again before launching into a bizarre attempt to merge staccato Sheila Chandra style vocals to a jazz backing.

Presumably this is an Indonesian equivalent to Chandra's Indian roots and it's what makes this album particularly fascinating. Hyang Giri is more obviously Indonesian as I recognise sounds I know from singers like Detty Kurnia, courtesy of guest vocalist Soimah Pancawati. Hearing those sounds in a prog rock setting is wild and enticing and I'd love to hear a whole album of material like this. Unfortunately that isn't what we get.

For three tracks, this is a wonderful album, full of imagination in ways that we don't tend to hear very often here in the west. Unfortunately, it loses its way somewhat at that point. That's not to say that the rest of the album is bad, as it isn't, but it seems to forget what its strengths are and so quickly descends into relatively routine noodly jazz, exemplified by the 8:17 title track, that forces the album into the background. It does pick up a little at the end with Zone when vocals (courtesy of John Frusciante from the Red Hot Chili Peppers) return but only for a while.

This album will certainly prompt me to seek out more Dewa Budjana and there's a lot of it to find, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed for the Indonesian flavour and the innovation of the first three tracks rather than the more forgettable last four.

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Mathras - Sociedades secretas (2019)

Country: Argentina
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Jan 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website

I hadn't heard of Mathras before now, but they're from Buenos Aires and they're not bad at all. All the musicians have been together since 2008, with Ariel Varas joining them on vocals in 2013, so it's not surprising that they're tight instrumentally. This is their third album, after a self-titled release in 2009 and a 2015 album called Alquimia.

As you might expect for an Argentinean band, they sing in Spanish and I haven't picked up enough of that yet to figure out what they're singing about. I do know enough to see that the album name translates to Secret Societies and the cover art has some medical connotations to it, but the track names are rather general: After March, Walking in the Dark, Sisterhood, Awake, Clarity etc.

What I do know is that they play heavy metal in the traditional style. If it wasn't for the clean 21st century production, the crunchy bass and the unmistakably modern drums, this could be mistaken for an eighties album. They've played on bills with Saxon, Raven and Virgin Steele, none of which are out of place at all. They're faster than Saxon and more melodic than Raven, but the style fits well.

That style is interesting, especially on diverse tracks like Claridad, the first real standout on the album. It begins like a downtuned ballad, then escalates the underlying doom vibe with clean operatic vocals and hanging guitar lines that are really tasty, but ratches it up at points as if it wants to play speed doom. Varas is clearly influenced by some of the bigger names in the genre like Ronnie James Dio, Graham Bonnet and Bruce Dickinson, but there's certainly some Messiah Marcolin in there too. Ritual does some of this too, shifting tempos and styles almost as fast as we can keep up.

Instrumentally, the influences are all over the map. I just referenced Candlemass, so it seems odd to suggest that the most overt one to me is Rainbow, albeit in an intriguing cross between the Dio and Bonnet eras. What's weird is that, on tracks that remind me of Bonnet, they play slower and heavier than Rainbow would, but on tracks that remind me of Dio, they're faster and more biting. Caminando en la oscuridad betrays a strong NWOBHM influence, like Diamond Head with double bass, while Experimento reminds of early Metal Church, down to the overlaid vocal section. Both Despierta and Ritual are faster paced, with the latter adding some rapid harmonic play. Nuestro valor and the album's closer, La maldita máquina de matar, mix slow power chord backing with heartfelt vocals for a real impact.

There are instrumentals too, though Mateo 10:16 and Carta magna really couldn't be more different. The former is a peaceful interlude (featuring a bubbly baby on guest vocals, believe it or not) that's presumably named for the Bible verse which reads "Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves." The latter, though, is a gloriously patient exercise in melodic power. Maybe one is representing sheep and one wolves, with the two wrapping around Ritual. Without knowing the lyrics, I can only guess.

What that leaves is an album that feels old school, rooted in a lot of different sounds from the early eighties, but with good production values of which bands then could only have dreamed and combinations that would never happened back then. It's easy to listen to but it rewards exploration too. I like.

Metal Castle - The Desolation of Marmaduke (2018)

Country: UK
Style: Folk Metal/Comedy
Rating: 5/10
Release Date: 24 Dec 2018
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

I have to admit that Metal Castle got me to raise a few smiles here but I'm surprised that this joke has lasted for five albums. Maybe they felt they'd overdone it a little in 2016 with two albums and an EP, so let it be until 2019 for album five. "Album six, coming soon but not too soon," they sing towards the end of the last track.

For all that this bunch of reprobates from Hastings call themselves a folk metal band, the most obvious comparison I can conjure up is to chap hop characters like Professor Elemental, Poplock Holmes and Mr. B the Gentleman Rhymer. Just like those chaps, Metal Castle sing about such quintessentially English topics as cakes, tea and beans, not to mention murder and nemeses, all in a conversational manner with odd instrumentation. Was that really a kazoo? I think it was.

According to their admittedly skimpy wiki, the band are comprised of Lord Malcolm Swims, Admiral Neville Claxon, Lady Sallyhorse Weatherspoons III and Clive Anderson MP. Their purpose in life, since their founding in 1964, appears to be to oppose the former ally, Marmaduke Lems, leader of the Evil Marmaduke Empire, and his army of gronks. It seems that they haven't quite managed to defeat him yet, title of this album notwithstanding.

Needless to say, this is notably silly stuff. Of the thirteen tracks on offer this time out, four are skits and three constitute a longer epic about a conflict between Metal Castle and a band of dark magic wizards. They describe their sound as a "tea-fuelled heavy metal disco turbo polka experience" even though it's clearly rooted in folk metal. Musically, they are capable, which does help, but the music really isn't the point, as is made obvious by song titles like My Tummy Hurts and A Pocketful of Beans (Made a Man Sad Today) and lyrics that explore the possibilities of last minute cake delivery.

It's impossible to separate the music from the comedy, even if you don't speak the English language, so this is a comedy album not a folk metal album. It's for those metalheads who would be into Alestorm if they weren't so relentlessly serious about everything. Maybe this fifth album was a response to No Grave But the Sea for Dogs, which replaced all vocals with barking, because Metal Castle couldn't let themselves be outdone on the silly stakes.

Just like Mac Sabbath and Okilly Dokilly, Metal Castle do what they do well but it's really not going to be for everyone.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Quercus - Verferum (2019)

Country: Czech Republic
Style: Funeral Doom Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Jan 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

I can't listen to funeral doom every day but there are times when I like nothing more than to throw on some Ahab and chill. Next time I get into that sort of mood, I might well switch over to Quercus instead, because there are some sounds in here that are a sheer delight. I liked the first five relentlessly heavy minutes of Ceremony of the Night, for instance, but then they switched gears on me for the second five and I was grinning like a madman at the audacity of the change. That also set up the last five, making it a real three act play of a track and I loved it.

Quercus hail from Plzeň (or Pilsen) in the Czech Republic and their name translates from the Latin as 'oak'. Maybe they're reliable enough to live up to that moniker and I ought to seek out their last couple of albums, Sfumato and Heart with Bread, to check. These most recent three albums all arrived within a six year period but their debut, Postvorta, lies a further seven years adrift into the past and is apparently a rather avant-garde piece with a variety of guest vocalists including a cat. Yes, you heard right.

As you might expect from funeral doom, this runs long but with a skimpy track listing. Verferum lasts over an hour but it only contains four tracks, the shortest of which is still over ten minutes in length. The longest, which wraps up the album, is well over double that and its title highlights the key influence this time out, which is Johann Sebastian Bach, who composed Passacaglia in C Minor. Quercus lift their composition up to D Minor.

That gear shift in Ceremony of the Night is heralded by a pipe organ like we might expect to hear in an old church and that instrument returns at points throughout, courtesy of keyboardist, Markko Pišl. His contributions to the album, if I'm able to distinguish them correctly, are more varied than those of his compatriots, Ondřej Klášterka on guitars and drums and Lukáš Kudrna on bass amongst other instruments which I'm unable to list. I'm presuming that the keyboards are responsible for the more atmospheric sounds, including the space age ones early in Journey of the Eyes.

It's that church organ sound that's most memorable though and it bookends the album and indeed the final track, Passacaglia D Minor, White and Black Darkness, which is a long, heavy trip that's nothing like I heard in church back in my early years. It's a deep immersive slab of doom that sucks us into its world, leaving us surprised that we were under its spell for over twenty-three minutes. However many times I listen to it, it still feels like a six minute track.

There's nothing here as memorable as the beginning of Ahab's The Call of the Wretched Sea, but the songs are longer and they both invite us in more subtly and reward us in a deeper way. This is an album to explore in a dark room through headphones and that's a pretty good way to start 2019.

Metal Church - Damned If You Do (2018)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 7 Dec 2018
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The title track of the new Metal Church album, which opens the whole affair, is an enticing mixture of chugging guitars, pounding drums, soaring vocals and, well, a sort of droning vocal hum that memorably sets the whole thing off with some imagination. It's glorious stuff.

Those vocals belong to Mike Howe, by the way, for a second album after 2016's XI. He'd previously blessed three earlier releases with his presence, including Blessing in Disguise, during his prior seven year stint with the band as the eighties became the nineties. To suggest that I prefer the late David Wayne's voice is not a criticism of Mike Howe; he's a worthy successor and this album benefits greatly from his presence. His efforts on Guillotine, to cite just a prime example, are powerful and impressively confident.

While the rest of the album doesn't benefit from further little innovations, it rocks the way you'd expect a Metal Church album to. I've adored this band since The Dark came out in 1986 and that's still one of my favourite albums by any band anywhere. I was hooked on the way they could combine power and melody without losing the impact of either and they're still the masters of that in 2018. This is music to mosh to but often to sing along to as well.

The epitome of that may be By the Numbers. It's all built off a simple melody but that means that it's underpinned by a delightfully crunchy riff and you'll be singing along with the chorus even before you've heard the whole song. Mike Howe chants 'never again' but we know that the same will apply to the next track on the album.

And, sure enough, hello Revolution Underway, a tasty little number that's the standout track for me this time around. It has everything mentioned above but adds some intricate drumming from new guy Stet Howland, formerly of W.A.S.P., and both soaring and sensitive lead work from longer standing members Rick Van Zandt, who's been with the band for a decade, and Kurdt Vanderhoof, who founded the band way back in 1980 and who hasn't been far from it even when he left for a while.

What makes this album shine is the fact that there isn't a duff track anywhere to be found. Sure, nothing else quite matches Revolution Underway but the worst track is still worthwhile and I'd have a hard task trying to choose which one that would be. Into the Fold, maybe? I'm less fond of that one after four or five times through but there's not a thing wrong with it and it could easily be your favourite. Maybe it'll be mine when I come back to this album again however many months into the future. That's how consistent Damned If You Do is.

It's easier to suggest tracks that contend with Revolution Underway at the other end of the spectrum. I'd go for By the Numbers and Out of Balance but there are a whole bunch in competition, including the title track and the oddly titled Monkey Finger. If you're a Metal Church fan, this is an essential purchase. If you're not, maybe you should pick this up and get converted. I'm down with being an evangelist for this Church.