Monday, 18 February 2019

Ogmasun - Into the Void (2019)

Country: Switzerland
Style: Post-Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 25 Jan 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Here's an interesting album that doesn't sound remotely like anything I've reviewed thus far at Apocalypse Later, which works well with my primary mission of discovery. Maybe this will open a door for you.

Ogmasun are Swiss and they're a post-rock band, which means that they're interested less in riffs and hooks (and all the other component parts that you might see as crucial to rock music) and more in conjuring interesting soundscapes out of traditional rock instruments like guitars and drums.

I've found this post-rock approach fascinating because I've long enjoyed it from electronica bands, like Tangerine Dream, who started out within the Krautrock scene. The evolving soundscapes here initially reminded me of Tangerine Dream, just with more drums and fewer synths. Like Phaedra and Rubycon and Ricochet, the "songs" on Into the Void run notably long. This album lasts over thirty-six minutes but it only contains two tracks. We can ascertain movements within them, but they're not defined.

Also, neither feature vocals in the traditional sense of a singer, though there is a periodic use of vocals as instrument and the whole thing kicks off with what I presume is a sample of a young lady recounting what might be a dream or a vision or an acid trip, some sort of wild exploration of inner space that doesn't follow regular logic. Then the cymbals layer in and some sort of echoing electronica and we're off and running.

This isn't heavy stuff for a while but it finds a groove and settles down to hypnotise us with the rhythm of it. Gradually it evolves, bringing in other instruments and moods. There's some fantastic bass work a quarter of the way into Space Bears Chilling in a Hot Spring, the opening track. It all cheers up halfway through after the space bears repair the misshapen hands of our tripping heroine or whatever's going in the sample.

At points, though, it gets notably faster than Tangerine Dream and their ilk ever got, maintaining their mindset but bringing it up to date with driving textures like those I've getting used to from the more inventive black metal bands like Wolves in the Throne Room. Frankly, if anyone had given me "Tangerine Dream meets Wolves in the Throne Room" as an elevator pitch for a band, I'd have initially thought them completely nuts then promptly passed over the cash for the album.

It also has moments that are gloriously heavy. A third of the way into a gentle and relaxing Cote 304, the second and final track, there's a heavy use of bass and organ that's absolutely glorious. When it all speeds up halfway through, there's a somthering fuzziness to one guitar that plays wonderfully off the simple chiming of the other. It progresses into some fascinating use of feedback.

Perhaps most notably, there are some slow power chords during its finalé that's a sheer delight, even if the entire end section feels extended. The frantic fuzzy part starts to slow down six minutes before the track ends, it gets doomy and minimalistic with three minutes left on the clock and the last couple are primarily taken up by a single dissipating drone and those periodic echoing power chords.

It's moments like these that highlight just how long Cote 304 is because we're caught up so much by the build that we lose track of just how long that build is, but the slowdown, which actually takes less time, feels a lot longer because so little is actually happening.

I liked this a lot, listening through on repeat in my office, and I look forward to popping it on again through headphones in a dark room. It's a journey and I wonder where it'll take me when I get rid of everything in my surrounding area that's distracting me from the experience.

Pallas Athena - The Awakening (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Symphonic Metal
Rating: 5/10
Release Date: 1 Feb 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook

Oh wow, I almost didn't finish this debut EP from Manchester progressive symphonic metal band Pallas Athena, not to be remotely confused with the Scottish progressive rock band Pallas, because its production is beyond awful. That's a major part of why I only rated this 5/10. The music deserves another point at least and very possibly more.

By awful, I mean truly outrageously awful. I felt like I was listening to it through a tin can full of mud, while the high end of talented vocalist Vickie Harley is sadly lost in a mess of hiss. Sibilance! Sibilance! I honestly bought demos on cassette back in the eighties that were probably recorded in basements but still sound better.

However, I figure that most people who might lean towards reviewing this may discard it for that reason and there's good stuff here that deserves to not be ignored just because of painful production. Like some of those demos, there's promise here that I hope the band follow up on. While I'd usually say that for a young band who have good ideas and just need time to build them towards a full length album, here I just want to hear what the band actually sound like.

Before the Dawn is easily the standout track for me here, but I'd suggest that there's interesting material to be found in all of these songs. This is the longest on the EP, running over seven minutes, and it's a suitably symphonic performance, led by Harley's resonant soprano. The backing is mostly catchy prog rock, which reminded me often of the underrated prog rockers Nova Mala Strana, but it ventures at points into doom, NWOBHM and even occult rock territory too, given that the section she sings in Latin (I think) plays out like a ritual.

Pallas Athena's page on Bandcamp suggests that their goal is to merge the operatic style of symphonic metal with more extreme metal sounds and an "atmospheric stage performance" which is obvious from the photos on their Facebook page. Maybe it's the production, but I didn't hear much extreme material behind Harley's voice at all.

Most of what I did hear was vocals. Gloria opens up the album with a neat choral feel, there are dreamy backing vocals on The Curse of Arachne and an eastern European choral flavour to the vocal interplay that wraps up The Summoning. When I could hear other things behind the static, pops and mud that constantly annoyed me, like the neat bass line that kicks off Lilith and the simple piano that does likewise for The Curse of Arachne, it wasn't extreme. Interesting, sure, but hardly a template for extreme symphonic metal.

The Awakening runs long for an EP—I've reviewed a full album that was two minutes shorter than this—but it features only five tracks. Pallas Athena are clearly happy with longer, more exploratory prog songs and they seem to be very able to mix the songwriting skills of James Horn with the vocal talents of Vickie Harley.

In short, there's a good band in here somewhere. I just wish I could hear what the heck they're doing. If I was still living in Yorkshire, I'd pop over to hear them live because they seem to be a busy stage act. Now I'm five thousand miles away, I'll have to settle for a wish that this gets a prompt remix and re-release or they hire a different producer for a full length album.

Friday, 15 February 2019

Bloodmores - The Seeds of Seasons (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Death/Thrash Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 1 Feb 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | YouTube

So there I was at four o'clock in the morning, in bed with headphones on, sampling a bunch of albums to see if any leapt out as obvious candidates for review and Bloodmores kicked me in the frickin' teeth. The bastards. So much for sleep.

This is a peach of an album, the sort of death-infused progressive thrash that I was digging so much in the UK as the late eighties became the early nineties, a scene which I miss dearly. The Seeds of Seasons may well run a tad too long—and I'm talking about the album here as well as the fourteen minute title track—but there's no doubt that I'll be playing this a heck of a lot.

For some reason, thrash never reached the levels of success in the UK back then that it did in the US and Germany, but the scene was a healthy one with vibrant and talented bands like Slammer, Virus and Onslaught leading the way for a whole slew of lesser known names. I loved Catharsis, Fallacy and Darkened live and on demos just as I loved Metal Messiah, Hydra Vein and Deathwish, who made it to the point of releasing actual albums.

Bloodmores play thrash the way I love it most, like an old school heavy metal band with a taste for melodic power were tight enough musically to be able to ramp all the way up to serious speeds without losing either their tasty riffs or the driving oomph to generate a serious pit. Listen to a song like Save Your Prayers to hear the epitome of this.

It kicks in hard and heavy, with the sheer power of a Toranaga, but faster drums from Chris Mansell make us want to create a pit wherever we happen to be. Then they generate a glorious riff from which they can construct the next five minutes. They know how to slow down and they emphatically know how to speed back up. The vocals of Alex Cunliffe are harsh but not so far down that road that we can't keep up with what he's singing. He also plays guitar, as does Richard Jodrell, and while I don't know which one is soloing while the other is underpinning with that riff, I do know that both of them do glorious work. And the track also knows how to end, leaving us bright eyed and satisfied but still wanting more.

Seriously, this album is worth buying just for Save Your Prayers alone, but that's just one track of nine included here and it's not the fastest, the longest or the most worthy of exploration. It's just a track that a lot of other bands would kill to be able to write, let alone be able to pull off with this apparent ease. Bands with million sellers behind them ought to be drooling at the effortless power and style that Bloodmores demonstrate as they kick off tracks like A Monument to Illusions or Blind to the Fore.

While there's a consistent sound throughout, they do mix it up. There are frantic songs and more patient ones. Many move from one to the other. The title track that closes out the album is a notably progressive piece with sections that gallop and sections that blister but also sections that are calmly introspective. Everyone gets their moment in the spotlight on this track and Bloodmores are so tight musically that I could listen to their instrumental sections all day.

So, what's wrong here? Well, Bloodmores hail from the wrong side of the Pennines but I can't hold that too much against them. The bass of Connor Heelis has little intention of doing anything flash; it does come out for special attention a few times but it's mostly content with playing its part in the ruthless wall of sound that propels the band forward. Alex Cunliffe is also a much more notable guitarist than he is a vocalist; he does nothing wrong on the mike but he hasn't found a unique delivery and may not have looked for one. So yeah, there are flaws but not one of them has any real negative effect.

This is great stuff period but it's especially great stuff for a debut album. Bloodmores combine the power and majesty of Toranaga, the heavy back end of Onslaught and the catchiness of commercial Satyricon, often done at the speed of a Xentrix. Now why am I still on the other side of the pond? I need to see this band live!

Razzmattazz - Hallelujah (2019)

Country: Germany
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 6 Feb 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website

If you haven't figured out Razzmattazz's chief inspiration after about two seconds of opening track A Gun for Hire, then you just haven't been paying attention. If these Stuttgart rockers hadn't released four award-winning albums (the new one was winning more before it even came out), I'd wonder if they were an AC/DC tribute band performing lost Bon Scott songs from an alternate universe. Someone tell me that this and Drive-By Shooter aren't unrecorded songs scavenged from the Powerage sessions!

Razzmattazz claim three influences on their Bandcamp page, AC/DC being an unsurprising first. The second is ZZ Top and that's obvious on Cold Rain, which ditches AC/DC for a moment in favour of the Texan trio. ZZ Top are also overt on Lawbreaker, which also betrays a third unacknowledged source of musical inspiration, namely fellow Germans Accept, and here's where the band get a little more interesting.

Drive-By Shooter isn't just AC/DC influenced, it sounds just like AC/DC. It's the most obvious AC/DC song not recorded by AC/DC since Dirty Looks recorded Oh Ruby. Cold Rain sounds just like ZZ Top with the differences in vocals explained away by modern production. And Going Down sounds just like Balls to the Wall era Accept, right down to its chugging guitar and its audience participation singalong section.

And, frankly, that's pretty much all you need to know. If you're digging on the idea of new music that sounds like Accept, AC/DC and ZZ Top, this will be right up your alley.

By comparison, Lawbreaker doesn't sound like any of them individually and that's an important difference for a band who don't want to become known as a clone. Lawbreaker sounds like Accept were happily recording a ZZ Top song when Bon Scott wandered over from a neighbouring studio to jam with them and they liked it so much that it made it onto the album. It's a wild combination in my book. Wolle Heleck adds some extra rasp to evoke Udo Dirkschneider and Peter Ucik's bass echoes Dusty Hill gloriously. Sure, it's parallel universe weirdness but it's good parallel universe weirdness.

The third influence the band does cite is NWOBHM generally and I can, erm, accept that, but I'm not hearing anyone specific. For instance, there's no Diamond Head, Iron Maiden or Def Leppard to be found on any of these ten tracks. There's no Saxon, no Girlschool and certainly no Venom. Frankly, I caught a lot more glam rock instead, because the title track has a notable Hanoi Rocks vibe to it, as if it's LA-style hair metal recorded by a band who aren't remotely from LA but know the style even better than the bands who were born and bred there.

That Hanoi Rocks sound helps to avoid a crack like Razzmattazz being '80s rock not from A to Z but from A and Z because that's unfair. These are all original songs and they're upbeat and worthy, even if their inspirations are completely transparent. I enjoyed the whole album and I bet they kick serious ass on stage. And hey, could that cover image be more gloriously eighties if it tried? I just wish they could find a way to combine their influences into something new.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Deever - You Need This (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 1 Feb 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

I'm loving the feedback I'm getting from readers and one suggestion that came out of my Inglorious review was to seek out the forthcoming Deever album. That's not a random suggestion, by the way, as Deever was founded and is led by Billy Taylor, who was the rhythm guitarist on the first two Inglorious albums, though he left a couple of years before everyone else.

Beyond Nathan James's ego, it's clear from this album that he had other reasons to leave Inglorious, not least that the sound he was looking for is very different.

Without casting aspersions on the various able musicians who have worked Inglorious, that's very much a band led by its singer, from whose vocals everything else is built. Deezer are a band led by its musicians, with the guitars of Taylor and Stevie Stoker front and center on almost everything and the bass of Phil Appleton occasionally taking over too.

That means that songs are songs rather than showcases and the singer here is Taylor himself, who stepped up to the microphone when forming Deezer. He's a decent singer, albeit one whose voice isn't ever going to lead him onto a TV talent show. I'd suggest that Foo Fighters didn't just influence Deezer's music but their approach too. Nobody listens to the Foo Fighters primarily for Dave Grohl's voice but it does the precise job it needs to do and it helps the songs, just as Taylor's does here.

Oddly, my favourites generally aren't the singles, which began with the opener, Fire at Will, then progressed through All Come Running to Alright and now include Only Enemy too. They're all good songs, but they're not the catchiest here. All Come Running is the pick of those four for me, with its patient melody and a catchy and driving bass riff that leads the track not just the intro, something that we don't hear too often nowadays.

To my thinking, Waves is the standout of the album. It's a punchy track that immediately takes a hold of the inside of your skull and progresses with a punk pop pace that'll have fans bouncing throughout. It's also a great example of the teamwork the band has. The drums and backing vocals are most obvious here but the bass makes itself heard too and the guitars blister through the faster parts like they're salmon whipping down a run. I adore the guitars on this song!

Technically Waves is the shortest track on the album and I am the Cavalry, my other favourite, is the longest, but there's less than half a minute between them. I can't remember the last album I heard where that was the case! This is another bouncy pop punk song with some neat pauses that should be all over the airwaves. None of the songs here run over four minutes and everything is commercially viable and radio friendly without ever losing its punch. Well, OK, Only Enemy isn't radio friendly but there's a radio edit of it here too that is.

The worst thing about the album is easily the cover, which is simple and elegant but really doesn't say anything. I tend to dig minimalist but the band needed something more substantial for their debut.

The best thing is that the songs are so consistent that I have a feeling my favourites may change next week or next month. I've had it on repeat for most of a day and the lesser songs are getting stronger and stronger, while the more immediate ones keep showing me new depths.

I really hope that Deever find substantial radio play because every song on offer is an earworm and every one of them deserves a shot at infecting the collective country's brain. So, do you need this? Yeah, I'd say so and more than the Inglorious album too.

Hecate Enthroned - Embrace of the Godless Aeon (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Melodic Black/Death Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 25 Jan 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

Welsh black metallers Hecate Enthroned have had something of a tumultuous career since they were founded in Wrexham way back in 1995. Band members have come and gone, their musical identity has proved rather fluid and a steady release schedule has evaded them, even though they've never actually split up.

At least this album comes only six years after the last one, compared to the nine between that and its predecessor. With only three albums since 1999's Kings of Chaos, Hecate Enthroned appear to be working to a Guns n' Roses type release schedule and they aren't close to being established enough to get away with that.

The good news is that this is pretty good stuff and if they can knock out another couple of albums of this quality over the next few years, maybe their fandom can coalesce and reviewers can quit treating them like the lesser man's Cradle of Filth. Sure, Sarah Jessica Deva features on a few tracks here, some heavily, but those comparisons were never fair way back and they're less fair now. Cradle of Filth's genre of choice has evolved quite considerably over time and this album sees their old friends and rivals moving notably back towards their old school black metal roots.

The blistering sustained pace of Revelations in Autumn Flame, for instance, is a statement and a half, with symphonic keyboards soaring far above a bleak black metal landscape. Temples That Breathe, the only other track here to clock in at under five minutes, follows suit.

The rest of the album moves into other territory but, especially through the efforts of new vocalist Joe Stamps, who shrieks more than he growls, the band rarely leave the black far behind them. Whispers of the Mountain Ossuary, for instance, is often slower but it's just as shrieky. Deva adds a gothic edge, as her soaring soprano tends to do, but she contributes a layer of texture far more than any change of musical direction. Even her theatrical contribution to Goddess of Dark Misfits with its playful piano never really comes off as gothic, merely gothic flavoured.

There are a few tracks with piano and the band are very fond of wrapping up tracks with it, an approach that may be a little overdone here. None of those tracks work so well as Enthrallment, for instance, where the piano is integral throughout. This is the real highlight for me, a song able to evoke My Dying Bride as much as Emperor and which also knows exactly when to end.

Too many songs here don't, including Erebus and Terror, the nine minute epic that wraps up the album in odd fashion. There's a lot of imaginative stuff going on within it, not least Deva's contribution, but it forgets what it's doing and can't figure out where to go to finish up properly. A black metal album should leave us battered and very aware of the silence that follows it. Embrace of the Godless Aeon, for all the good it does, leaves us wondering what we missed.

Perhaps it's just too long. It marks a welcome return to a sort of form for Hecate Enthroned, but some judicious editing and a little cleanup here and there would have made it a lot more than it ended up being.

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Within Temptation - Resist (2019)

Country: The Netherlands
Style: Symphonic Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 1 Feb 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Pinterest | Wikipedia | YouTube

Within Temptation have never been the most prolific band on the circuit. This is only their seventh album since Enter in 1997 but it's taken five years to get to it, their longest gap between full length releases thus far. Apparently, singer Sharon den Adel suffered from writer's block and what emerged from that was initially very different to Within Temptation and so was released as a solo record.

The influences that she and her bandmates found for this album are an odd mixture and it's one that's both enticing and potentially offputting for some audience members. We'll see how that plays out over time.

There's a lot of darkness here, both lyrically and musically. A majority of the album follows the theme of struggle betrayed by the title, perhaps appropriately given that it was a struggle to get to this point. Many of the tracks feature a pounding style industrial backing that might conjure up visions of the oppressed working class in dystopian movies, marching protestors and even the sort of eastern European vampire clubs that were everywhere for a while.

However, the most overt influence is modern western pop music. I remember when Shania Twain released her Up! album in three different styles (pop, country and world) and wonder how this would sound if the solos were cut out and the heavy pounding was replaced by softer, more dance oriented electronics. I have a feeling that songs like Holy Ground would transform into the sort of thing we might expect from Taylor Swift or Nicky Minaj.

That's a weird feeling to have on an album that I expected to sound like symphonic metal, but it's not an adverse one. Chart material nowadays is very strong on melody but it cares more about synchronised dance routines than substantial musical backing. Taking the good from pop but discarding the bad shouldn't be as outrageous as it sometimes seems. Resist keeps on rocking just like the pop tracks on the new Papa Roach album don't.

Talking of Papa Roach, their vocalist Jacoby Shaddix guests on the opener and it's more extreme than anything on Who Do You Trust? He does a good job here, as do Jasper Steverlinck from Arid and Anders Fridén from Dark Tranquillity and In Flames. Those diverse guests hint at other influences here and they're most obvious in the vocals, even if songs like Firelight as a whole betray particular influences, in this case Pink Floyd.

While Sharon den Adel is taking most of her cues from pop music, there's often an Irish lilt to her voice that I don't remember, as well as middle eastern melodies at points. There are dance style backing vocals here but also heavy shouts, ethnic chants and even some Therion-esque choral work on tracks like Supernova. These inventive songs aren't only borrowing from one source.

All in all, this is initially both enticing and offputting and what you feel about modern pop music may flavour how you respond to this. I think it's a pretty damn good album that's much deeper than easy descriptions might suggest. Taylor Swift singing for Rammstein? I can hear it. Andrea Corr fronting a supergroup featuring Trent Reznor and Dave Gilmour. Sure, why not? But there's much more than cheap elevator pitches here.

This is something new and it's either going to fade quickly into oblivion or it's going to become one of those pivotal albums that will spark a new genre. I have a feeling it'll be the latter and it'll become better with the context of hindsight.

Rosy Vista - Unbelievable (2019)

Country: Germany
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 8 Feb 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives

The title of this album surely references the fact that Rosy Vista have released it in 2019. I remember this German band from the mid eighties when they released an EP and a couple of singles, but they split up with the decade without a full length release to their name. Well, now they do, over three and a half decades after starting out as a band and seventeen years since reforming in 2002. That's dedication and I applaud it!

It's not a bad album either, though it doesn't quite spark the way I was hoping that it would. Crazy provides a catchy and commercial way to kick things off, for instance, but it took a couple of listens for me to truly appreciate it. By the third or fourth, I wondered why I didn't like it to begin with. How could I not have fallen for this immediately?

I think it's probably not Crazy per se, but the track that follows it, in which everyone, especially vocalist Andrea Schwarz, seems to be trying too hard. It's not bad, but it's probably the weakest song on the album with a heavy focus on Schwarz exercising her pipes over notably accented backing vocals, while the guitars remain annoyingly low in the mix. Its placement this early, just as we're reacquainting ourselves with Rosy Vista's sound, hurts the album.

Every complaint I have about Sadistic Lover is inapplicable to Master of Control, which really should have been the second track, emphasising the depth that Rosy Vista have and the variety. While Crazy is deliberately radio friendly, Master of Control is deeper and has a lot more substance. It starts rather like the Scorpions and moves into MSG or UFO territory (no, Barbara Schenker isn't still with the band and, even when she was, she didn't play guitar).

There are other tracks here that feel very comfortable indeed. Until I'm Satisfied is cool and comfortable. It flows effortlessly, as does Sound of Your Love, even if it's not as memorable. Too Much Feeling, perhaps the best track this album has, is the most comfortable of all. Schwarz shines on vocals here, providing some real soul before handing over the reins to Anca Graterol, whose guitar is the real highlight of the album. Her solo on Too Much Feeling is delightfully emotional.

Generally speaking, this is commercial eighties hard rock throughout, as we might expect, with the benefit of some modern production that ups the bass and gives the drums some more crunch. However, while most of it does feel like it could have been written back in the late eighties, there are points that would have been very different had it been recorded back then.

For instance, Hopatina is just as heavy a track as the Dio-esque Tables are Turned, but it plays out like a pop song with a punk edge. Graterol's work is what stands out, once again, but the earworm chorus is something we might expect from Abba. It's very catchy stuff indeed and it's neatly different to everything else here without ever becoming inconsistent with the rest of the album.

The biggest problem Unbelievable has is that it's too relentlessly rooted in the eighties, so much so that it falls into some of the bad habits we had back then and I don't just mean cheesy eighty lyrics. There's also the inevitable radio-friendly single, the required ballad and the obligatory cover version, here a pointless take on Born to Be Wild that's decently done but completely unnecessary. It adds nothing to the album.

The biggest success (please) is that Unbelievable is a just another new album, rather than a new album by a female band. If there wasn't such an overt link to the eighties here, I wouldn't even have thought of that and that underlines just how far we've come. In 1985, the metal mags would be more interested about throwing Rosy Vista's band photo onto a pull-out poster than actually listening to the music they make and realising that they, especially Anca Graterol, kick ass. Never mind Sound of Your Love, listen to Master of Control and Rockin' Through the Night to see what I mean.

Thank you, Rosy Vista, for sticking it out for all this time and bringing us a full length album in 2019. Let's have another one soon!

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Gin Annie - 100% Proof (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Melodic Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 25 Jan 2019
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | YouTube

On their Facebook page, Gin Annie describe what they do "high-octane hard rock" and I'm not going to argue with that because this is bouncy, catchy stuff that often still holds a kick in its guitar sound and punchy drums, but I have to point out that Dave Foster's voice is much softer and more restrained than I would have expected from that description and the band and album become much softer and more restrained because of that.

Check out Chains, for instance, where we can almost see the musicians on stage getting vicious with their instruments but Foster continues to croon over them. He might be singing, "Take these chains off me," but it sounds like he's very happy with those particular chains, thank you very much. A song later, the band rock out with an up tempo solo in the middle of New Bad Habit, but Foster seems far too polite and positive to have any bad habits, let alone a new one.

Now, before I get punched by rabid fans, I don't mean to suggest that he isn't up to par, because he has a good voice, frankly a very good voice, and he uses it well. However it's a honeyed voice and that's odd to hear in a hard rock band that aims for "high-octane" material. It often feels like the band behind him wants to fight that by adding even more edges as compensation.

And that increases as the album runs on because it seems to get heavier with each song. After Next 2 Me, Phill Burrows's bass starts to get more prominent and the twin guitar attack of Byron Garbett and Brian Green finds a lot more power. Damage kicks in hard and stays there. Fallin' is even harder and it got my head moving nicely. If All I Want ever felt like it wanted to speed up and get raucous, it could become an Anthrax song.

I can't help but wonder how much of this is deliberate.

Early on, Foster's voice is the dominant force here and it's a friendly creature that would play well to the ladies I remember back in the '80s who wouldn't have listened to rock music at all, well except for that one singer and that other one and, oh yeah, that one and... Next 2 Me is the pinnacle of that. It's easily the best story track on the album and it's quite obvious single material, even though it's easily the longest song too. It's radio friendly stuff but just a little bit edgy too.

After that, Foster's voice fades into the background a little as the band step up their game and take over with heavier material. I got into these songs a lot more, but maybe the earlier ones are gateway material to get people this far into the album. If so, I'm all for it!

And then we get to Haunt Me, which is the entire album in a microcosm. It starts out soft like a ballad but adds edges until it's a heavier piece. And hey, Foster proves here that he can do more than be polite. He belts out some of this song and it's glorious to hear. He does the same on the singalong song that ends the album, Born to Rock n' Roll.

I liked this on first listen and I like it still after half a dozen times through to try to figure out why Gin Annie took the approach they did. I still find myself a little confused but I'm still entertained.

Ædelric - Liquidmorphium (2019)

Country: Bulgaria
Style: Gothic/Industrial Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 31 Jan 2019
Sites: Facebook

This one leapt out at me for a reasons. For one, the band's name contains a diphthong, which automatically makes them cool. Hey, metal umlauts are so last millennium! For two, they seemed to be a gothic metal band from Bulgaria, but a little research tells me that they're not really a band. So, for three, this is a one man gothic metal band from Bulgaria. That's even better!

That man is named Alex and he had previously co-founded and played guitar in Renomane, about whom I know even less. I believe that he's responsible for everything here, except for the vocals on Deka Si, presumably, because Martin Lutzkanov has a guest credit there.

Oddly, Deka Si is the standout track, because it isn't the lead vocal that makes it special. It just contains far more imagination than anything else here, from its very beginning with a tribal drumming sound that evolves into a handclapping routine reminiscent of Nina Simone's Sinnerman. Then, a solo choral voice echoes the pounding bassline and escalates into full choir (and I have a special fondness for Bulgarian female choirs). If it really is Martin Lutzkanov's lead vocal, he provides a relatively subdued folk song underneath the incandescent choir. There's also a flute section and a spoken word section. There's a lot here and it's good stuff.

And that's not to suggest that it's the only imaginative track. However, the other ten put together might not quite match Deka Si alone on that front. Echoes of the Force has flute too, as well as piano. The title track showcases an odd contrast in vicious guitars and frantic cymbals but an almost ambient keyboard backing. Ædelric fleshes out an organic electronica landscape under a driving industrial guitar. Falling Skies does much the same and Sanity does too. Struggle for Life isn't that far away either, with its synthesised strings and choral soundscape.

That's probably the worst aspect of this album. While Alex does vary up what's in his tracks, he doesn't vary much further from one track to the next and many of these start to blur together when the playlist isn't in front of us keeping us aware of where we are in the album. Perhaps those vicious guitars become a little more black metal wall of sound on Ballad of the Death but that's hardly a debate into which anyone's likely to care to leap.

Like morphium itself, this is easy stuff to like but it's also easy stuff to drift away from our attention until it lurks in the background doing whatever it does away from our focus. It's more interesting and certainly more varied than the similarly instrumental Ancient Hawks album I covered recently, but there's little depth here to explore. It feels less like a coherent album and more like a scrapbook of ideas to aid Alex's future work.

Monday, 11 February 2019

Ed Wynne - Shimmer into Nature (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 25 Jan 2019
Sites: Official Website | Wikipedia

For those who don't recognise the name, Ed Wynne is the main man in legendary British psychedelic rockers Ozric Tentacles. He's the only founding member left nowadays, holding strong on guitar, keyboards and programming after thirty-five years. He also writes most of their material. Given that the band today features his wife and son, plus an unrelated Hungarian drummer, it seems a little odd that he'd release a solo album at this point, but hey. Why not?

As you might expect, there's a lot of the Ozric sound here. All five tracks are instrumentals and they run long, only one track clocking in under eight minutes and one just edging over ten. Each constitutes a fluid guitar workout for Wynne, with layers of synths, programmed drums and other sounds arrayed on top. He was responsible for all of it, plus the composition and the mixing and quite likely everything else except the cover art. At heart, this album really is him jamming with himself.

The two tracks that stand out on first listen are Travel Dust and Wherble, which go for rather different vibes, the former carrying a reggae feel to it and the latter awash with world sounds: flutes and xylophones and whatnot. It seems that Wynne's chief inspiration for these tracks were places that he'd visited over a period of a few years, but the places listed don't include Jamaica or Australia, so who knows what he actually visited in the Colorado mountains or the Firth of Forth.

Frankly, it doesn't matter. Wynne's work is always about taking us to wild and wonderful places, whether they're down the road and round the corner, somewhere on the other side of Pluto or inside a rather deep acid trip, but the places we go while listening don't have to be the places that inspired him to write in the first place. And that's good, because I have little interest in actually climbing a glass staircase for eight minutes. I'd much rather listen to Ed Wynne do that on the opening track called, naturally, Glass Staircase, which fortunately does not induce vertigo in the slightest.

If anything, Travel Dust is more likely to do that, given that it feels like an immersion into jungle, with birds singing and rain falling and the works. Where are we in the jungle? I feel sky, so I'm guessing high up. Don't look down! I'm no synasthete but Wynne's compositions are so lush that I tend to hear colours when I listen to them. This one's primarily green with some clear blue floating around above it. The reggae beat that kicks in midway doesn't hurt that imagery at all.

Shim plays with colours too and textures. At points it feels like Wynne's playing a rainbow or a waterfall rather than a synthesiser and images like that help to underline that this is emphatically happy music. As John Hurford's cover art ably depicts, there's no darkness here at all. Everything depicted is lush and vibrant and wildly illuminated. This is positive mood music and that's no accident. Wynne has explained that the idea of the album is "to transport the listener to a place where the everyday ups and downs of the world dissipate, leaving the mind free to wander... landing eventually, hopefully freshly charged, with a smile and a calmer spirit."

If you like the effect of new age albums that transport nature into your home but hate the soporific music that comes along with them, this might just be for you. It does the same job but through a handful of glorious psychedelic trips into the landscapes of your dreams.

Vapor Hiemis - Чараўнiца cмерцi (2019)

Country: Belarus
Style: Black Industrial Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 17 Jan 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | YouTube

Here's an odd sound that grabbed my ear. Vapor Hiemis play pagan black metal but they're also either industrial or EDM, depending on the source, which translates to the fact that they have a programmed drum machine rather than a live drummer. They also have a band member who plays 'folk instruments', which is why this is often a folk metal album too. How it veers from EDM to folk metal is a wild trip and I'm still not sure how well it works.

It works well on the opener, Ад сонца прэч, with a driving beat, a crunchy bass and a lead bagpipe. The vocals vary from clean to harsh and it's only the slight distortion on the drums that lessens this a little. The title translates to Away from the Sun, which kind of works for an anti-folk song. The death folk approach hits its peak on the final track, Поўнач or North which adds a female folk vocal and I don't know how many folk instruments.

I dig the idea of death folk and Google Translate suggests that Чараўнiца cмерцi means either "death sorceress" or "fairy of the cemetery", depending on how I search. Either way, that's an enticing image to accompany the music and I soon found myself visualising the club scene in Blade with blood pouring from the sprinkler system as everyone feeds on the one unwitting victim.

I think I'd dig death folk more if there was a consistent sound here. The title track ditches the folk sound until late on and frankly ditches the industrial side too. The first half is classic black metal with appropriate shrieks and a sort of happy drinking song in the middle. The drum speed varies but hits some serious bpms at points. Only in the mid section does the wall of sound descend while the pipes of death wail. Then it's back to hyperspeed until a flute joins those pipes for the finalé.

The third track marks the wildest change to the sound, because it's when the EDM is ramped up, with Euro-disco hissing cymbals and a whoop of an electronic motif above and behind the crunch of the band. Maybe if the Prodigy had been born into the Norwegian black metal elite, they'd sound like this. Then again, maybe not. I was mostly intrigued by the idea of who might dance along to this.

Certainly I'm able to see the pit churning happily away but this is a lot more extreme stuff than anything Rammstein came up with. And always those flutes and/or pipes come back to provide the melody, like in the truest dance song, Памірае восень. That translates to Dying Fall so maybe it really is a moshing song.

By five songs in, I started to really wonder about Vapor Hiemis. Are they really a single band or is Vapor Hiemis Russian for "remix album"? While there are some commonalities throughout, these three tracks could easily have been the product of different remix artists messing with the black industrial base of a band who provide everything here but don't actually sound like this.

Maybe they're just that schizophrenic but the end result here feels like a band who play in different styles to different audiences but lumped all of that onto one disc and that decision will affect their potential audience. I dug some of their more folk metal oriented material, especially Поўнач, and didn't dislike their black metal onslaught tracks. I found myself surprisingly intrigued by the EDM stuff too but can't really say that it's my scene.

The point is that I don't know a lot of people who are into folk metal and black metal and EDM all at the same time. But hey, Vapor Hiemis have been releasing material since 2013 and this is their fourth album, so it's clear that there's an audience in Belarus for this. I applaud them for being their own band.

Friday, 8 February 2019

Rival Sons - Feral Roots (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 25 Jan 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I've heard a lot of good things about Rival Sons and I've heard a little of what they've done and appreciated it a great deal. I liked this album too on first listen but it may well be the first I've heard thus far this year that didn't improve on a second.

In fact, I think I actually liked it a little less and I think the reason for that is the little embellishments that are on some of the tracks, like the beginning of Sugar on the Bone, combinations of guitar distortion and keyboards that sound pretty cool on a first time through but start to get annoying on a second. Moments like this keep popping up at odd points, at the beginning or even in the middle of songs like Look Away.

The songs here are all good, often great, and they betray an intriguing set of influences, some of which are not from rock bands. The album's closer, Shooting Stars, is a straight out gospel song, for instance, and it's a real highlight. I wanted it to keep going for ten minutes with an evolution like a Nina Simone song like Sinnerman. It reminded me of the band's stunning version of Amy Winehouse's Back to Black.

Usually I'm hearing bands like Bad Company and Led Zeppelin in New Wave of Classic Rock albums rather than Amy Winehouse and Nina Simone, but hey. I ain't complainin'. There's a soulful edge all the way through, especially in the backing vocals, which start out like Lynyrd Skynyrd harmonies and move even more into Motown territory. I got a Heartless Bastards vibe on Sugar on the Bone too and some Adele on Imperial Joy, so even though it's mostly looking backwards to the seventies, it's still contemporary music.

The influence that stood out most for me is Cold Chisel, not only because lead vocalist Jay Buchanan often sounds uncannily like Jimmy Barnes, but even after Barnestorming verses, the band tend to leap into wildly catchy choruses, often literally hand clapping, foot stomping gospel shouts, like on the album opener, Do Your Worst, or the heavier and grungier Back in the Woods. Only The End of Forever has him sound more like Steve Perry.

Look Away kicks off with an acoustic guitar that sounds rather like Jimmy Page and the title track has a strong Zeppelin vibe that isn't the usual Zeppelin vibe rock bands tend to go for. It's as if they were paying more attention to the folky sounds of Going to California than Good Times Bad Times or Kashmir. It's not remotely Kingdom Come/Greta van Fleet Zeppelin.

All Directions leaps headlong into sixties psych and it's a real tribute to the range of Rival Sons that this feels natural. It ought to feel odd that there's psychedelic folk on an album that features fuzzy guitar that sometimes gets vicious in the way that the Ram Jam Band did. It's fair to suggest that some tracks, especially Back in the Woods, feel urgent as if they were recorded live in the studio. Mike Miley's drum sound especially feels very raw and I loved that.

I'm interested to see how this album will age. It's clearly a great slab of music, much deeper than Inglorious (and that goes for Jay Buchanan's voice too) and much more consistent than the Doomsday Outlaw album, even with such a wild range of influences behind it.

It's the distortion that lessens it a little for me, and not just those interesting little moments but the guitar tone on a few tracks too. While that does become annoying on a second listen, though, I'm finding that it's starting to fade away in my subconscious by the fourth or fifth time through. Yeah, I think Feral Roots is going to age just fine and it'll be talked about for a long time.

A Pale Horse Named Death - When the World Becomes Undone (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Gothic Doom Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 18 Jan 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Sal Abruscato, who leads A Pale Horse Named Death, sees his new band as a gothic doom metal outfit and there's truth there. Just listen to Vultures and you wouldn't slap any other label but doom onto it. The title track begins with what sounds like a harpsichord under chanted poetry, oddly muted as if it's being delivered through a radio, so I'll grant them the gothic too.

However, this isn't remotely what I imagine in my head when I think of gothic doom. It's an interesting mix but it only takes half of the title track to figure it out. Once the initial vocal part is done, it becomes urgent with pounding drums and a driving bass, kicking into the promised heaviness around the three minute mark (five if you count the intro) and it's clearly gothic doom filtered through Nine Inch Nails, an energetic industrial vibe underpinning everything.

In keeping with that nineties influence, there's a Smashing Pumpkins line in catchy emotional lyrics. I could throw out choice selections such as "I've got this funny feeling that God is dead", "Love the ones you love to hate" and "I tried to figure out what's wrong with me" and I've only covered the first three songs that have lyrics. The third is particularly full of them. It kicks off with, "I fell inside my hole again" and progresses to "How do I figure out this mess that's me?", "Emotions crushing everything inside of me" and "I'm never getting out of my black hole."

If we were in any doubt as to Sal's lyrical tone, a few tracks later explains the despair: "It's pretty clear it's the end of days." After all, that fits the names of the band and this, their third album. The apocalypse is coming and that means we ought to be depressed, OK?

The other obvious influence is Type O Negative, the nineties go to goth metal band, and that's no shock given that Abruscato was their original drummer, as he was with Life of Agony. However, this is far from Type O and not only because it has a lot more doom to go with the goth and because it doesn't sound like Danzig in the slightest. Compared to what I remember from Bloody Kisses, this is far more consistent in tone, with fewer pop and punk elements. Personally, I still think of Pete Steele from thrash band Carnivore rather than Type O. I get my goth kicks from other bands.

Frankly, I like this more, but it's still an acquired taste that isn't going to be for everyone. Abruscato knows it's depressing but suggests that the bird that sings in the background of the final track, Closures, "a recording of an actual outdoor funeral with a priest speaking over a casket", is enough of a "sense of enlightenment". I disagree but do hope that anyone looking for music to slit their wrists to listens to him on that. It's "something to look forward to in the end." Hey, We All Break Down felt darkly cheerful to me. Does that work?

From a musical standpoint, there's consistency here but still variety. Love the Ones You Hate is a catchy track that reminds of commercial era Paradise Lost. Vultures is a heck of a lot heavier, with that distorted guitar and vocal sound that pervades much of the album. We All Break Down has something of a grunge feel to it.

And what that all boils down to is that this is primarily an album for alternative children of the nineties. Maybe that explains why they have accounts on more social media platforms than I've ever heard of. Whether it means that they're behind the times or slightly ahead of the eventual nineties nostalgia wave, I'm not sure.

Thursday, 7 February 2019

Focus - Focus 11 (2019)

Country: The Netherlands
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 31 Jan 2019
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Wikipedia

Hey, a new Focus album! I'm a fan from way back but thought they'd gone the way of the dodo. Apparently, their 2002 reunion is still in full effect and they've been recording new music for a while. Focus 9 was released in 2006, Focus X in 2012 and now a very welcome Focus 11 is joining them. It was technically available on UK tour dates last year but it's now being fully released in 2019.

As always, Focus are still led by Thijs van Leer on flute and organ, if even less vocals than I remember. Drummer Pierre van der Linden is the other long term member, also on his fourth stint with the band. Menno Gootjes is the guitarist nowadays and the new bassist is Udo Pannekeet, who joined in 2017.

It kicks off well with a very pleasant instrumental intro track called, Who's Calling? It's the heaviest and most up tempo piece of music on the album, with driving guitars, fascinating drums and plenty of organ from van Leer. As with most of the material here, it's entirely instrumental, but it's at once contemporary and teasingly aware of the band's history.

Things get a little funky on Heaven before that takes a turn into a folk dance piece, complete with trilling flute. Vocals do show up late in the song, almost ten minutes into the album, but only as another instrument, van Leer scatting over the the top of his organ. Yeah, that sounds seven shades of wrong, but it's technically true and I have no idea how I could word it any differently.

Two things become quickly obvious here, beyond the lack of vocals.

One is that this is easy listening Focus, very pleasant stuff but rather less challenging than some of their work in the past. A couple of tracks do go there. Winnie is much more introspective, for example, with notably restrained drums behind a soaring guitar solo from Menno Gootjes. Thijs van Leer's flute tags in later but it soars just as much.

The other is that it's even more of a jazz fusion record than previous albums. Now, Focus are no strangers to jazz, but I've tended to think of them as a prog rock band with jazz influences. Focus 11 is very much the other way around and, just in case we hadn't realised that, the lyrics to How Many Miles make it very clear where the band's priorities lie at this time. "How many miles between my love and I?" van Leer sings. "Forever jazz, my deepest love."

It may be telling that How Many Miles easily feels like the least worthy track on this album and easily the first to get old, even though it's not without its moments. Vocals clearly don't fit well with the modern Focus, except when van Leer is doing interesting things with his voice somewhere in the background of tracks.

Strangely for musicians who quite obviously just enjoy jamming with each other, only the title track edges over six minutes. These are all shorter pieces that find their own groove, explore it briefly and wrap it up so they can go and find another groove on another track.

I'm glad Focus are still together as a band and recording too, though far less frequently than their long-time former guitarist, Jan Akkerman. This is a pleasant album, but behind the easy to listen to pieces that do try to fade into the background and sometimes succeed, there's some notably interesting material.

Winnie was easily the highlight for me but Clair-Obscur is another jazzy introspection worthy of note and Mare Nostrum kicks things back into high gear to play alongside Who's Calling? on the heavier side.

Now, when we can have Focus 12? Focus XII? Focus Dozen? Whatever they'll call it, I'm interested.

Fading Aeon - A Warrior's Tale (2019)

Country: Germany
Style: Epic Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 6 Jan 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | YouTube

Time was that death metal was just death metal. When I was paying most attention, it had splintered into two: the melodic style favoured in Sweden and the brutal style favoured in Florida. Well, that's not enough any more. It seems that the latter has splintered again, because slamming brutal death metal isn't remotely technical brutal death metal, and that's before you add in black influences and whatever else innovative bands are adding nowadays.

And melodic death metal is doing the same thing, because bands nowadays aren't always content with sticking to the established Gothenburg sound. Case in point: Germany's Fading Aeon, who call themselves epic melodic death metal and, frankly, I can't argue with that in the slightest. It's an enticing marriage of styles, a gift for anyone who loves the overt keyboard overlays that we tend to hear more on heavy or power metal albums, but also the growling vocal style of death metal.

I didn't know I counted myself amongst that number until I heard this, the debut release from Fading Aeon, who were formed in Kronach in Bavaria back in 2014. It leans heavily towards long songs, only one of the five on offer lasting less than eight minutes and that one almost seven, but they're all immersive and rewarding, nothing like I've heard before in the death metal vein.

In fact, with the music high in the mix and the vocals low, some of the textures reminded me of Winds of Sirius, a personal favourite of mine, who said that they played gothic metal. That goes double for the last couple of minutes of One Last Farewell, when everything slows down and moves into an echo chamber. Christian Stauch's voice had already gone there earlier in the track.

What surprises me most is that, according to their website, Fading Aeon are a trio, which seems really odd, not least because nobody's listed on keyboards at all. Something's providing that atmospheric overlay and it's definitely not the ambience in my office. Also, David Gareis is listed as the only guitarist and, there are points where it sounds to me like he's duelling with himself. Surely there are other instruments in the mix too, like the piano in One Last Farewell and the variety of horns and pipes halfway through The Journey Ends. Maybe that unknown keyboardist is responsible for all of this.

Like a lot of albums I'm enjoying lately, this one rewards a listener who comes back for a second or third run through because it's a consistent album in style and quality that has no standout tracks. Each needs the opportunity to take root in our skull and state its own case for special notice. The highlights here are not the tracks themselves but parts of them, like the guitar in Beyond the Veil, the slower sections of One Last Farewell or the liveliness of The Journey Ends.

Frankly, the album plays best as a single entity, one forty-five minute slab of epic death presented in five movements, and that's fine. After all, I doubt that anyone's looking for chart hits or radio friendly sounds on a death metal album whose average song length is nearly nine minutes. This is Fading Aeon's Opus No. 1 in E for Epic and I'm already looking forward to Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 5.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Dust Bolt - Trapped in Chaos (2019)

Country: Germany
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 18 Jan 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website

I've mentioned before that I'm an old school thrash fan. To quote Tommy Vance yet again, "there's nothing like a good thrash to clean you out." What I don't think I've mentioned is that I have a particular fondness for German thrash, not just the obvious bands like Destruction, Kreator and Sodom, but more obscure ones too like Angel Dust, Exumer and Sieges Even.

Well, here's a new German thrash band that I haven't heard before but am now digging. They're a Bavarian outfit called Dust Bolt and this is their fourth album in eight years, which is a pretty solid release schedule. It doesn't offer anything new in the slightest but the band are tight, even if they're more influenced by Exodus than Destruction, and it all plays well to me. Frankly, the transition from the intro to the song at large on the opener, The Fourth Strike, sold me all on its own.

When Dust Bolt play fast, which is most of the time given that they're a thrash band, they sound great. The Fourth Strike and Dead Inside are both notable neck workouts with clean vocals (sung in English) and heads down backing that's tight and melodic without being overly intricate. And that just counts the first two tracks; there are another seven to go. Take a breath, folks.

If I'd have stuck with a single listen, I might have said that the lesser tracks are the ones where they slow down, but I'd be doing Another Day in Hell a disservice. This is probably the slowest and least typical song on the album as well as the longest but it may well be the best one on offer. It carries a strong NWOBHM vibe which demonstrates that Dust Bolt can be heavy as well as fast and the guitarwork on offer is delightful. Bloody Rain is slow and heavy too and it's seriously growing on me.

Realising that Dust Bolt are just as good slow as fast, I also realised that, like the similarly titled new Flotsam and Jetsam album, The End of Chaos, it's so consistent in style and quality that it can fade into the background and it doesn't deserve that. Nothing leaps out immediately for being notably better than anything else and nothing leaps out for being worse either, but that can happen with great albums just as it can with crappy ones.

What this needs, again like The End of Chaos, is attention because, if we give it that and listen through a few times, we realise that it's quality stuff and the tracks will assert themselves individually so that we can hear just how much is going on here. Nico R.'s drum fills are delicious and the guitarwork is tasty too.

This may be simpler and less catchy than The End of Chaos and Lenny B.'s vocals are rougher than Eric A.K.'s, but it's worthy of mention in the same breath and that's a recommendation all on its own. Just as I think about upping my rating of that album from 8 to 9, I may well up my rating of this one from 7 to 8. I'll be coming back to both a lot. And hey, Dust Bolt have three earlier albums for me to explore next!

Spidergawd - Spidergawd V (2019)

Country: Norway
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 11 Jan 2019
Sites: Facebook | Official Website

Yes, that's a solo saxophone to kick off this album, the fifth for the Norwegian rockers Spidergawd, to whom I'm now being introduced for the first time. I'd say that I'm ever so thankful to have finally caught up but they seem to be one of those bands who fly a lot further under the radar than they should, so maybe you can catch up too.

Based on this album, they occupy a landscape that overlaps Black Sabbath and Thin Lizzy. Ritual Supernatural is much more Lizzy while Whirlwind Rodeo is much more Sabbath and the rest veer back and forth to mix up the recipe. There's also a psychedelic edge that's especially notable late in Green Eyes that suggests that these guys really know how to jam.

That baritone sax of Rolf Martin Snustad adds texture too, but mostly in rhythm. When it finds its way into the spotlight, like at the end of Green Eyes and in later parts of Avatar, SpiderGawd become entirely their own band and I wonder why he doesn't do that more often.

There are other influences here too, because Spidergawd may have borrowed phrasing from every major rock band of the seventies and mixed them up in a new stew, with vocals that often sound like Rory Gallagher singing for a garage band. Twentyfourseven has Motörhead written all over it. Green Eyes begins like a Dio ballad but shifts into a angry grungy sound worthy of Saigon Kick. Knights of C.G.R. (they're on Crispin Glover Records) has an even more overt punk kick to it, like the Buzzcocks but with a rock solo.

Whatever the influences, the identifying of which could become a pub quiz night all on its own, there's a consistency here to the sound that's very comfortable indeed, even as it's always energetic and upbeat. Spidergawd are very happy with what they sound like and that confidence carries them a long way indeed. They sound like the best covers band ever who gave up on that years ago because they know how to write original material that's good enough to stand with anything else they might have played in the past.

They're also eager to adhere to that old show business adage of leaving them wanting more. Do I Need a Doctor...? is a blisterer of a final track that combines Thin Lizzy, Iron Maiden and maybe even some of Metallica's Creeping Death. When it's suddenly over, there's a silence that we can't bear and we want to fill it with more Spidergawd. When's the next album coming out? They're prolific, right?

Well, if you're like me, there's a back catalogue of four other albums to discover. I would dearly like to see Spidergawd live, and I'm told that they do keep busy on the road, but in the meantime, I'll be taking another dive through these eight stormers of tracks once more.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Jetboy - Born to Fly (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Glam/Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 25 Jan 2019
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Wikipedia

Jetboy were one of those hard rock bands of the eighties who were victims of their time. In Los Angeles in 1986, you had to glam up or lose out and, behind the make up and hairspray, they were only kinda sorta glam; they were always a rock 'n' roll band. Then, just as they were getting up some steam, hello Nevermind and bye bye anyone who even remotely tied to glam. So that was it for Jetboy and so many others.

They reformed in the 2000s though and have gradually built up a name for themselves since. When legendary LA venue, the Whisky a Go-Go, celebrated their first half century, they had Jetboy support Faster Pussycat at the inevitable party and that's a highly appropriate double bill. Born to Fly is a second album for the reformed Jetboy, after 2010's Off Your Rocker, and it's good stuff that deserves some radio time.

I read that they recorded that prior album pretty much live in the studio, to feed off each other's energy, and that would be believable here too, as there's an immediacy to it that highlights how few frills there are here. When they add something extra, like the phone conversation on She or Lemmy reading a poem behind Beating the Odds, it kicks us back a level and reminds us that we're listening to a recording.

What's more surprising is the range that the band exhibit here. The core of the album is stripped down glam rock with simple but effective riffs and characterful vocals. It's appropriate that the epitome of this is the title track. She does that job too. The Way That You Move sounds oddly like Hanoi Rocks covering a modern country song, if you can imagine that. Brokenhearted Daydream keeps the Hanoi Rocks feel but ditches the country and adds Saxon riffs and woah-woah backing vocals instead.

But glam isn't all we get here. Old Dog New Tricks starts out rather like a George Thorogood song with a driving riff, a harmonica for flavour and even a Motörhead escalation before the chorus for emphasis. Inspiration from Desperation could have been an AC/DC song. Wildest of all, Smoky Ebony is a soulful slide guitar-driven bluesy number that wouldn't have felt at all out of place on a Lynyrd Skynyrd album in the early nineties. Least wild is probably All Over Again, which is straight ahead rock with a catchy chorus, but still done well.

What keeps Born to Fly sounding like Jetboy rather than all those other bands are primarily the vocals of Mickey Finn. Yeah, he gets a little close to Mike Monroe on a couple of tracks but he keeps everything here grounded. Nothing runs over five minutes and that's perfectly fine because it's no nonsense stuff. They kick into gear immediately, do what they do best and move on to the next number.

I think that dirty edge is what makes this work so well. Sure, they could play a stadium in support to a Mötley Crüe or a Guns n' Roses, but they would lose a little something in that amount of space. Jetboy should be experienced live in a small club with a lot of people and a lot of beer. Every track here could be in the set because they're all that worthy.

I'll always raise my pint to bands who struggle to find their time but sound damn fine anyway. That's Jetboy in a nutshell. Cheers!

Ancient Hawks - White Wolf (2019)

Country: Japan
Style: Folk/Pirate Metal
Rating: 5/10
Release Date: 4 Jan 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | YouTube

One of the things I do outside of Apocalypse Later is to MC fashion shows for my better half, usually to showcase steampunk characters at conventions, and I select music for each model that fits which persona they're wearing at the time. The music of Ancient Hawks, which appears to be a single gentleman in Tokyo, would be tailor made for that sort of use. I'd suggest film soundtracks too, but this is too up front for the background need of most filmmakers.

What Ancient Hawks does is to create soundscapes, an approach that has apparently led Google to classify this as 'new age', even though it would scare the skin off your average peace loving hippie. Instead of birdsong and babbling brooks, this gentleman envisages drinking bouts and pirate battles, so this is as upbeat and in your face as Yanni isn't. You shouldn't be meditating to this music, you should be raising your drinking horn high and trying not to fall over drunk.

That engagement is the best thing about this album, the second for Ancient Hawks after last year's Leviathan. It's impossible to ignore so, if you make it through a couple of tracks, it's going to have you wide awake and either exploring the structures of the songs with your mind or whistling, swaying or tapping your feet. Maybe dancing is another purpose here, as there are plenty of pirate jigs in the mix. I might enjoy weddings that put material on like this instead of the usual Jackson 5 or Robson and Jerome.

The worst thing is that most of it sounds eerily similar. At one point, halfway in, I actually checked to make sure I didn't have the first song on repeat. Each of the ten compositions is a four minute or so slice of pipes and keyboards floating over driving guitars and rapid drums. Maybe the precise instruments vary and maybe the lead guitar solo finds a slightly different melody but it's hard to distinguish between them and I couldn't pick any one out for particular praise or condemnation. If you like one, you can't not like all the others.

If you twisted my arm and forced me to pick a favourite, I'd plump for The Cave of Wonders, because it has a bell at the beginning of it and what sounds like a smithy working away towards the end and that made it stand out. But hey, outside that, it's right back to the same frenetic folk/pirate metal instrumental that we've just heard and which we're about to hear more of. And why would the blacksmith be highlighted in The Cave of Wonders rather than Blacksmith? Answers on the back of a postcard, please.

This is one of those albums that is simply what it is. It's done well, but as Frank tells Ozzy in my favourite movie of all time, Bad Taste, "that's elevator music for headbangers". Check out any random track on Ancient Hawks's YouTube channel and you will have solid knowledge of the entire album and whether it's something you'll be into or not. Well, unless you're shooting a silent pirate movie, in which case you'll want to dive a little deeper.

Monday, 4 February 2019

Unmasked - Behind the Mask (2019)

Country: Germany
Style: Melodic Doom/Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 6 Jan 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website

Depending where you look, Bonn's Unmasked tend to be described as melodic death metal or melodic doom/death metal. I can see both of those. However, the death is mostly in the vocals, which are harsh but easily understood even with Chris's obviously German accent; and the doom is more melancholy, especially through Aileen's keyboard work, which often has a gothic feel to it. There's also a bounce, even in slower sections, that only picks up with the tempo.

Maybe that's why the band's official website calls them 'modern progressive metal'. I wouldn't have called 'progressive' out as a focal point, but it's definitely there to be explored. The conversational section late in Gaia certainly has a progressive edge to it, before it moves into Arch Enemy territory. The piano intro to No Regrets could have been lifted from a Marillion album.

Unmasked were founded in 2013, with three original members still in the band and Chris and bassist Karsten Fent joining in 2017. This is a confident debut album, with a quartet of eight minute tracks and another that sits just under the six minute mark. Lengthy tracks fit the band's style well and most of those eight minute tracks play more like five to me.

These tracks are similar enough in style for them to blend together in our minds, especially on a first time through, but repeat listens bring the merits of each out for attention. Initially, for instance, I felt Drenched in Blood was the catchiest of the songs by far, with its swelling keyboards and chantalong chorus, making its pick as the single to precede the album a good one. However, after a few times through, it may actually be the least catchy.

Home, the shorter offering, has a neatly effective riff that's enhanced by keyboards and the words are more consistently chantable. I adore the ending, with a guitar solo over staccato drums that refuse to fade away. No Regrets is surprisingly catchy too, even if the middle feels like the band had lots of regrets, as evidenced through an enticing interplay of piano, guitar and drums. The end of Behind the Mask pushes that track into contention for catchiest too.

This isn't generally an album to sing along to though; much of the catchiness comes from the bouncy riffs and enticing keyboards, which is why Gaia, the only track I've not mentioned thus far, plays well in this company, with a driving middle section of almost symphonic stature, and renders this a particularly consistent album.

If it sounds like the consistency here is frustrating, it only is when I'm wearing my critic's hat. I couldn't pick a favourite here, because it's different every time I listen to the album, and I couldn't pick a best song either for the same reason. None of that affects my ability to enjoy the album, though, and I believe it's getting a little better still with each listen.

War Thrashed - Bienvenido a tu ejecución (2019)

Country: Colombia
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 2 Feb 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives

When a thrash metal band claims something like, Welcome to Your Execution, in whatever language they happen to speak, I'm ready to listen. That's a challenge and I'm waiting. Can Colombia's War Thrashed back up that challenge with their second album, following 2013's Into the Nightmare of Violence, which is recorded entirely in Spanish?

Well, not really, but they do churn out a fine racket and I enjoyed this album. Felipe Gonzalez's vocals are agreeably old school, very raw and reminiscent of the early eighties when thrash was as raw and extreme as it got. He's clearly been listening to early Destruction and he has those patented Schmier screams down.

Gonzalez is actually the new guy in the band, having joined as recently as 2013. Everyone else has been working together as War Thrashed since 2007 and a decade of getting used to each other has left them sounding notably tight, as well as able and very willing to throw intricate little breakdowns out there in between the fast-paced material.

They do like to mix up the pace a lot. As you might expect, there are a lot of breakneck sections where they get their heads down and blister onward, but there are also a lot of mid-paced sections where they don't slow down to slow but do notably lessen the pace. I wonder how that dynamic plays out in the pit. I'd be very interested in finding that out in person!

The downside for me isn't in the songs or the quality of the musicians but in the production. I was really digging more consistently fast paced tracks like Muerte inmiente and Invasión thrash, for instance, but, for some bizarre reason, the feet of drummer Stiven Berbeci are far more prominent in the mix than his hands, which meant that the pedals stood out far more than anything else and the songs suffer for that. Give me everything else the man is doing too, please; he plays those other drums and cymbals for a reason!

It's also a short album, just over 26 minutes in length, which makes it shorter even than Reign in Blood, which notoriously appeared in entirety on both sides of its cassette release because of that. I was just getting warmed up with the excellent final three tracks when the album ended, rather abruptly, I might add, when Hipnoreligion just ceases to be.

I'm tempted to seek out Into the Nightmare of Violence, but might not as that features a different vocalist, Bryan Rubiano. I liked Felipe Gonzalez's singing on this one and feel that it fits well with the band. So I'd just like the other half of Bienvenido a tu ejecución instead!

Friday, 1 February 2019

Riverwood - Fairytale (2018)

Country: Egypt
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 31 Dec 2018
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

While my review of Galaxy Destruction Inc.'s Sacrifice for Rebirth has sparked the most hits thus far, I'm pretty sure that it'll be overtaken by the time Ahl Sina's Troops of Pain has been online as long. I really wasn't expecting Taiwan and Egypt to generate the most attention, but I'm happy for that. I'm all about bringing great music to new ears, wherever it comes from.

While Ahl Sina are international in nature, their base is in Cairo. Thanks to Riverwood vocalist Mahmoud Nader, here's a band from three hours to Ahl Sina's northwest, from Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast. A few comparisons are obvious: they're both progressive metal bands from Egypt with debut albums that run over an hour. They both explore a lot of territory in their releases too, meaning that you're going to want to give them your attention.

However, there are obvious differences too. Nader sings in English for a start and there's much less of a folk music influence here but a greater tendency to drop into progressive rock, which is where we start out. The album starts out instrumental, with an atmospheric keyboard-led piece that ends with what may be clashing swords and a pastoral intro to the first full song, Poisoned Love. Is that a clarinet that's echoed by intricate guitar? That sounds like an organ at the point where it shifts from rock to metal.

It's five minutes into the album when vocals show up and they're clean, as they mostly are throughout. However, there's a partially buried harsh growl floating behind the lead during parts of Poisoned Love that's delightful. Kudos to the mixing engineer as well as the band! There's a similarly buried female vocal at points, there for texture. That it gains its moment in the spotlight only at the very end of this eight minute track surely means something. The same happens with Möt Ditt Öde, as if there's a dynamic between characters and the woman gets the last word.

If other tracks walk in Poisoned Love's footprints, it's only in the sense that there's a very general formula. Most of them are long, five of them over seven minutes, partly because they kick off with intriguing instrumental introductions and ramp up as the full band kicks in. They gain focus with clean male vocals, which are textured by others, whether harsh male or clean female. They all grow instrumentally as they run on too, with some elegant soloing and neat touches here and there, like the hint of hurdy gurdy that ends Nightfall Overture and the atmospheric background throughout the longest track, Lost in Nature.

And then there's Marionette. I liked this album quickly though it took me a few listens through to really grasp what it was doing. Riverwood, as perhaps befits their name, are more laid back than Ahl Sina, so their album as a whole tends to be slower and less urgent. Marionette, however, punched me hard and refused to let me up until it was done.

It starts out softly with a delicate vocal melody over a guitar that's somewhat reminiscent of a babbling brook. We can hear the moisture in the air. However, after a minute and change, the world stops so glorious chaos can descend like a curtain of torrential rain, enveloping everything in its path. It's harsh vocal work, of course, but also a wall of sound that echoes and teases. Then it fades and we repeat with layers, eventually shifting into a neat keyboard solo.

The first half of this album is soft, not relaxing but patient and inviting of exploration. There are harder edges but we have to seek them out. Marionette puts the hard side right in our face and it's heartbreaking. The album is life and love and Marionette shows what happens when its stripped away from us, 'when the feeling dies'. It's harder after that, even if the title track is upbeat and affirming.

In between the two halves is the palate cleansing instrumental interlude that is Gates Below, a funky but very Egyptian piece of music, because another full song would have been utterly lost in the echo that Marionette left in its wake. We're still stunned at that point.

Yes, this is another Egyptian progressive metal album and that makes two grand ones out of two for me this year, but Riverwood are very different to Ahl Sina. Both albums are journeys, but they take us to very different places. Once I got what this was doing, I had to remind myself that Riverwood only formed in 2018. If they can turn out an album of this quality right off the bat, what the heck are they going to be doing after a few years? Watch this space.

飯匙槍 - 竄出深土 (2018)

Country: Taiwan
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 7 Apr 2018
Sites: Facebook

OK, so I did say yesterday that I was wrapping up my 2018 reviews with the month of January, but a quirk of the calendar means that there's only one day left in the work week and I have requests from a couple of readers to review their band's releases from last year, so hey, why not? One more day!

Everything about Apocalypse Later is fundamentally about discovery and my reviews have focused on that since I started writing about films back in 2007. What I've found in the decade since is that it's often the unusual material that sparks the most enthusiastic response, as perhaps has been made apparent from my two most read music reviews thus far being of bands from Taiwan and Egypt, also the two countries represented today.

First up is 飯匙槍, who are a death metal band from Taiwan. I know little more about them except what their vocalist Endao told me and the fact that there are five people on the stage in the official videos. The band's name translates to NajaAtra, which is a local snake often known as the Taiwan cobra, and the EP I'm reviewing, 竄出深土, would be called Out of the Soil in English. Between them, these names highlight that they're a new band but one with admirable power.

There are four tracks on Out of the Soil, which can be streamed in all the usual places. I know nothing about the tracks except for the titles which are visible in English on YouTube. 赤目 means Bloody Eyes and the punchy nature of the song fits rather well with the footage of machine guns. How the torture fits in I have no idea, but it doesn't feel out of place. means Anti and there's an official video for that one too.

My favourite track is the last one, 餓鬼降, which Google Translate tells me means Hungry Ghost. It has a number of slower sections that ought to generate a decent pit, especially given that hungry ghosts traditionally emerge from Hell during Seventh Month hungry for revenge and justice. They should get people moving! It plays well when it's slow but it plays well when it's fast too and there's a decent solo in the middle. Most of all, there are little touches that make it stand out: there's a great drum roll into a pause three minutes in and I adore the last little vocal nuance at the end. It's good stuff but then all of this is good stuff.

What the EP isn't is groundbreaking. Out of the Soil comprises a decent set of songs, more melodic than brutal but with the melodies deep enough to make them palatable to brutal fans, even if the bass isn't so low that my speakers vibrate. Each of them runs just shy of four minutes and none of them outstay their welcome, especially given that they vary the tempo nicely with some neatly intricate changes, but they do exactly what they do and they're happy not inventing something new.

If this is indeed NajaAtra's debut, as I believe it is, it ought to serve as a solid slab from which they should be able to build in the future. It seems to me like everyone in the band is capable musically and comfortable with each other and within this framework. Every one of these songs plays consistently in style and quality. Now, let's hear a full album!

And, with Galaxy Destruction Inc. and NajaAtra getting a 7/10 from me and Chthonic already on my radar, I wonder what else is happening over there in Taiwan. The Metal Archives tells me that there are plenty of active bands playing in a variety of styles. Let's see which one comes up next!