Friday, 22 March 2019

Aephanemer - Prokopton (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drowning Ares - Nocturna (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 21 March 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liars & Lions - New Horizons (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Borders of Byzantium - Odyssey (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nik Turner - The Final Frontier (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Tesla - Shock (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mileth - Catro Pregarias no Albor da Lúa Morta (2019)

Country: Spain
Style: Pagan Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 5 Mar 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

Mileth is an deceptively simple name for a band who seem to like complexity. Their album title is much more representative of the complex track names and the complex music that brings them to life. I believe it translates from the Galician as something like Four Prayers at the Dawn of the Dead Moon, which is neatly evocative but also delightfully vague. Who's praying and what for? Why four prayers? And why at the dawn of the dead moon, which I presume is the moment that it begins to wax again after vanishing?

I have no idea because I don't speak Galician and Google Translate isn't as helpful as it could be with the song titles, which continue in the evocative but vague manner of the album title. I have no idea what Of the Dead and Spiral Silence or She, Who Walks on the Roots of the Cold Hell might be about but I'm captivated by the surreal imagery.

As you might expect, with song titles like that, the music is complex too. The band isn't small, with at least seven members and some of them play a variety of instruments. Hey, there are two musicians credited on bouzouki! Sure, one of them also plays bass and the other is one of three guitarists who also handles other instruments like whistles and mouth harps, but still.

The latter is Marcos do Relicario, who writes most of the material, and he also provides one of the two male voices here. I don't know which it is but the more prominent of them sings in a shrieky black metal style while the other has a rumbling growl more like we might expect from death metal. One or both also contribute vocals in a choral style.

Above them, leading the way, is Dana da Carballeira, who sings in a clean and overtly folky style. Whatever the music is doing at any point on this album, she brings a liveliness to proceedings, as if she's inviting us to dance with her or, maybe, given that there's often a command in her tone, she's asking us to dance for her.

Galicia is the autonomous region at the northwest of Spain, above Portugal and with lots of Atlantic coastline. While they're part of Spain today and have been for a long time, it's fair to say that they're their own land in many ways. More people speak Galician there every day than they do Spanish and Mileth are a Galician band performing in Galician.

I'm not enough of an expert on Iberian culture to say for sure but I believe a lot of the folk flavour here is Galician rather than Spanish and I find it enticing. The castanets that fade into the wind at the end of opening track, O Son do Buxo Baixo a Sombra do Xistral, are gloriously atmospheric. There are pipes and flutes and an accordion that's especially interesting midway through Da Mitolóxica Errante: ITH. Even the laughter at the beginning of Esperta, Letárxica e Erma Fraga! feels different somehow.

I like my folk music somewhere on the extremes. Either it should be simple, one voice telling a story with musical accompaniment from one guitar, or it should be complex, layering the textures of a culture into song so that we can transport ourselves, even for fifty minutes or so, to another place and experience something different. This is very much the latter.

As a debut album, it's thoroughly enjoyable, but as a portal into another place, it's even better. The variety of the music on offer is part of that but it's aided by other sounds that are woven into the music: lapping waves to remind that we're by the ocean and flickering fires so we can keep watch. I have little idea what stories are told here but I'd like to know. In the meantime, I'm enjoying conjuring up my own.

Monday, 18 March 2019

Acid Death - Primal Energies (2019)

Country: Greece
Style: Death Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 15 Mar 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

While one of my goals when setting up Apocalypse Later Music Reviews was to explore the international nature of rock and metal nowadays, I have to say that I wasn't expecting Greece to stand out from the crowd as a hotbed of interesting material, but it's starting to do that. This is my fourth album from a Greek band in three months, but the first from a band who have a back catalogue.

This is Acid Death's fifth album, though two of those were released before their split in 2001 and two after they reformed in 2012. I believe that the line-up remains consistent from their last album, Hall of Mirrors, and two of the band members were there at the very beginning back in 1989.

It felt good from the very beginning but it was the saxophone solo that I'd hardly expected in the middle of a death metal song that really sold me. It elevates My Bloody Crown, which was already notable because of the bookends. I like the female voice at the beginning and end and the Tuvan throat drone is well placed too, even if it might seem unlikely.

Acid Death bill themselves as prog/tech death metal nowadays, which is fair because they're very capable musicians who don't seem interested in playing the same ol' same ol'. However, many people call them death/thrash and that rings very true on the second track, Inner Demons. They up the speed quite a lot, without losing any of their technical flair, and the vocals are harsh but no further into growling territory than some thrash bands have done for years.

The most obvious influence I heard was Celtic Frost, which is overt from the opening track even if it didn't slap me in the face until The Rope, another four tracks into the album. Part of it's the vocal style of Savvas Betinis, which occasionally, like on The Rope, sounds reminiscent of Tom G. Warrior, but part of it is the way that the guitar shifts into a bouncy repetitive riff approach. Fire of the Insane follows suit and then I just went back to the beginning, started the album again and heard it everywhere.

I should add that Acid Death are far from a Celtic Frost clone. They play faster for a start and far more into death metal territory. While there are progressive tendencies here, they're far less experimental than Frost tend to be, even with a throat singer and a saxophone on My Bloody Crown and the rave-style electronic siren behind the opening of Fire of the Insane.

Almost everything I want to say here is positive, because Primal Energies runs a fast, engaging and surprisingly short 51 minutes. It's a lush and oddly tactile album, like listening to it feels like a trek through a deep jungle of music. The vocals and guitars dominate, with solid backing from drummer Kostas Alexakis, but there are other sounds hanging from the trees waiting for us to walk past: keyboards here, layered vocals there, , buried piano on H.U.M.A.N., even an intriguing zither-like texture in the middle of Reality and Fear and again at the end that feels like a glimpse of the sun far above us.

I've listened to this album three or four times today, while recuperating from a root canal and it made me forget the pain. I'll be returning to it tomorrow, even with this review done, because I simply don't feel that I've got to know it well enough yet. There's a lot here to discover and I think I've only scratched the surface thus far.

Now, as to emphasise the quality of the scene in Greece, I see that Acid Death will be performing a presentation show at the Crow in Athens on 6th April with Voidnaut in support. One day I'll visit Athens, because I very much want to see my grandfather's grave there, but it won't be that soon. Enjoy that gig for me!

Superlynx - New Moon (2019)

Country: Norway
Style: Psychedelic Doom Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 15 Mar 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

Superlynx grabbed me right away with their second album but I struggled to come to terms with their full approach. Let me explain...

Musically, this is glorious stuff and I knew that from the opening to the first track, Hex. Ole Tiegen's slow beats, Pia Isaksen's fuzzy bass and the exotic guitarwork of Daniel Bakken combine into a heady mixture. Bass and drums clearly say doom metal, but that guitar says hey, I'm not going to be limited by that description; I'm going to pretend to be a sitar for a while and I'm going to introduce a belly dance troupe for a stretch. Put together, this is powerful, psychedelic and playful.

And then there's Isaksen's voice, which isn't. She performs her vocals in a droning monotone and, unless we're immediately and willingly hypnotised, it isn't something easy to get used to. The point, of course, is that this is ritual music and she's very introspective with her voice. This is music as both spellcraft and therapy, I think, and it takes a while to get into her mindset. She's only playful on the last track, The Thickest Night.

I was reminded of Sarah in Black Vulpine, not because the two sound alike but because they don't. Sarah has an ethereal voice that floats over the verses until she takes control with power. It's a logical approach but Isaksen refuses to go to either of these places. The sweetness to her voice is mostly in contrast to what she's doing with her bass because, however melancholic her vocals get and however much the music threatens to take over, we never believe that she's not without the power to deal with whatever she needs to. Perhaps, because she knows that too, she never ramps her voice up to force the point.

I think that how most people respond to her vocals is going to dictate what they think of Superlynx. I honestly wondered what this album would be like without those vocals and, as much as I'm totally sold on the music and would love to hear this as an instrumental album, I think it would be lesser for their omission. I wondered too what this album would be like with more of Ole Teigen's vocals playing the role of counterpoint, as they do at points in The Groove. I decided that, if she adds another element to the music, he adds another element to the vocals. I wonder why they don't do that more.

What fascinates me most is how the music works with these vocals but is so different in approach. It's a lot more varied, for a start, not just because of that wild and playful guitar but because the band clearly likes to travel musically but the vocals don't. Becoming the Sea opens with melancholy solo piano and, in the wildest musical moment on the album, Scarecrow kicks into high gear four minutes in for a fantastic burst of energy that prompted my slightly confused face to break into a huge grin.

After a couple of listens, I'm still not convinced if I like this album or not. Superlynx make a glorious racket for a trio and I love the music that truly fits the description of 'psychedelic doom metal': heady and doomladen but varied. Perhaps the best way to make that point is to say that my favourite tracks are probably the very different pair that kick off the second half.

These Children That Come at Us with Knives is a cautionary tale of folkish doom with stripped down instrumentation, layered vocals and an interesting line in lyrics. Scarecrow is denser and less patient, with a punky edge at the beginning and a looser approach even before the band kick out the jams and race for the finish line in gloriously reckless fashion. The two songs have completely different tones, the former like seventies occult rock and the latter more like a psychedelic Joy Division, but both work very well.

This is Superlynx's second album after 2015's LVX and I'm intrigued as to what that sounds like. I think I like New Moon. I certainly like a lot of what goes on inside it and I'm liking it more with each listen, but I'm fighting with myself as to why. Maybe LVX will help provide answers.

Friday, 15 March 2019

Triste Terre - Grand œuvre (2019)

Country: France
Style: Atmospheric Black Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 15 Mar 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | YouTube

This is the first full album from Triste Terre, a French atmospheric black metal band from Lyon, and I haven't heard any of their previous EPs but, on the basis of this alone, I'm sold on their particular take on the genre.

In fact, Grand œuvre is precisely what I look for in black metal nowadays, a set of immersive songs that run long and complex. There are half a dozen on offer here and they range from nine minutes to well over twelve, so there's plenty of opportunity for two permanent band members and their guest drummer to create walls of engaging sound that are impermeable until we persevere to discover the delights within.

I really don't want to use the word "routine" but, on first listen, this is relatively typical of the genre, just done capably and enjoyably. The beat, courtesy of session drummer Lohengrin, is slow but the blastbeats behind it are often as fast as we'd expect. A gentleman by the name of Naâl provides most of the rest of the instrumentation, including the keyboards that help to create that dense background. He handles the vocals too.

I say "most" as there's another musician here, A. Varenne on contrabass, an interesting choice for a black metal album and that's the beginning of what starts to creep out of that 'routine' sound to highlight just how far from it this album is. Four minutes and change into Nobles luminaires, Varenne's contrabass gets playful. Suddenly we're listening to Satan's lounge band, a delightful bass run underneath the dissonant, clashing guitars and, before too long, the blastbeats.

There are certainly some surprises on offer here and a second run through highlights some of them nicely.

For instance, the opening track, Œuvre au noir, has quite a few of them. An old school church organ shows up here and there and makes itself at home in no time flat. Lohengrin does vary his drumming, with one particular military rhythm standing out for notice. And, if Naâl's vocals begin unremarkably, he does go high at points and that proves to be an elevation in more than just pitch.

In fact, when he does something different, he's a real highlight. On Corps glorieux, his voice gradually becomes more and more tortured until we have to wonder if he's performing from the stake with flames gradually creeping up to take him down. Early in Lueur émérite, he goes for a droning chant like a monk's. A few minutes later, he goes high again, with vibrato, like he's aiming for the nuns next door too. He's his own demonic choir when he wants to be.

As tends to be the case with more interesting black metal albums nowadays, I liked this on first listen but failed to catch much of what it's doing. It's a journey not a destination, so each return visit brings more and more into focus until, eventually, Grand œuvre may well become an old friend.

It's also a large enough friend to provide particular value. It could end after four tracks and still seem substantial at 42 minutes. Every accolade mentioned above would still apply. But wait, as they say, there's more! It isn't done, because there are two more ten minute plus tracks to bounce it over the hour mark.

This is definitely a candidate for three in the morning headphones, because interruptions are anathema to albums like this. Skip your virtual needle in half a song and see if it makes sense. It won't. This deserves for you to set an hour aside to immerse yourself into it like a virgin into a bath of blood. I can't say what my dreams will be like after such an immersion, not least because the final track, Tribut solennel, is as fast as the band get, but I'm willing to find out.

Forged in Black - Descent of the Serpent (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 5 Mar 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

OK, this sounded good from moment one. The musicians are clearly capable. The production is crystal clear. Maybe that's an overly repetitive chorus, but hey. Then they pause halfway for a soft moment of Mediterranean guitar and kick back into gear so frickin' perfectly that I grinned like an idiot. This band are amazingly tight!

Forged in Black are from my neck of the woods, though I grew up a long way away and now live even further away. A lot of major musicians have come out of Essex, but I'm not aware of any of note from Southend-in-Sea. These five clearly wouldn't mind being the first because their energy is palpable and their ambition sounds pretty close behind it.

They're a decent heavy metal outfit, with songs like Shadowcasters being a little cheesy but well constructed and well performed, and songs like One Last Sign finding a fantastic groove. They've found a good balance between technical precision and rawness, the instrumentation falling very much on the former but the vocals, especially the backing vocals, being much more the latter.

The biggest problem I have with this album is I don't really don't see them as a heavy metal band. I think they'd be a frickin' incredible thrash metal band and I found myself aching for them to speed up more often. Every time they do, they're truly glorious and I don't ever want them to even think of slowing down again, but they keep on doing just that. So, given that they don't seem to agree with me about their strongest aspect and are happy to remain at a mid-pace for most of this album, I have to review it from their perspective.

And, frankly, it's still damn good, especially when vocalist Chris 'Stoz' Storozynski lets his bandmates run. In many instrumental sections, like the opening to the title track, I could have sworn I was listening to classic era Metallica songs that I'd somehow never heard before. They're that tight and the production is that good. It has to be said that Stoz's vocals are more reminiscent of Diamond Head than their more famous American disciples and that's no bad thing. At points, he digs deeper for a clean doom sound, echoing Messiah Marcolin, and, at others, he reaches higher for a Rob Halford pitch and that's no bad thing either. He has an impressive range!

The other sound I caught here was folk music, which is odd. But, while the lyrics of When Hell is Done sound like something out of Manowar or a Viking metal band, it starts out like a folk song not a power metal song. There are exotic little touches here and there too. I caught middle Eastern melodies in Seek No Evil and to finish up One in the Chamber, while the end section of One Last Sign is almost Caribbean.

In fact, there are all sorts of little touches here that deepen the album. Some of them come out of moments given to individual musicians, especially the two guitarists, Andy Songhurst and Chris Bone, to shine. I do like the moments where one of them is noodling quietly while the other is crunching hard and Stoz's voice is soaring over them both. Other touches come out of texture, like on Palm of Silver, which starts with neatly creepy laughter and Hallowe'en organ and guitar, before turning into a heady mixture of Toranaga and Candlemass.

This is Forged in Black's second album, coming six years after their self-titled debut. Previously they were Merciless Fail, whose one EP was titled Forged in Black, hence the change. It's a better name, just aesthetically, but it also hints at who they are and what they do. There's heavy metal at the core of this band, but power and thrash elements too, even doom metal too. That name works for all four styles.

And this album works, period. They may not want to be the Forged in Black I'm wanting to hear but they're a damn good Forged in Black anyway.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Children of Bodom - Hexed (2019)

Country: Finland
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 Mar 2019
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This is album ten for Finland's Children of Bodom, four years after 2015's I Love Chaos. That's the longest gap between any two of their albums and they must have been chafing at the bit because they race right out of the gate as it begins with This Road.

I liked this opener, the second single off the album after the next track, Under Grass and Clover. Both have a bouncy feel, courtesy of Janne Wirman's keyboards and Alexi Laiho's lead guitar, and that keeps going for much of the album. This is the most cheerful melodic death metal album that I've heard in quite some time. There are points where it's almost perky but it's never without that underlying crunch.

As the album ran on, I remembered why I've never been a big fan of Children of Bodom and that's the vocals of Alexi Laiho. He has a rather unique voice, which falls partway between the standard death metal growl and the standard black metal shriek. It's apparently an acquired taste, because many do love it, but I've never acquired that taste and this doesn't help. In fact, I'd much prefer it if the voice that sings the chorus on Platitudes and Barren Words took the lead and ran with it throughout. I have no idea who that is, however. It might be Laiho, for all I know, putting on a different voice. If it is, let's stay with it!

While I enjoyed the album from the outset, except for Laiho's grating vocal approach, it didn't wow me until Kick in a Spleen, five tracks in. The first four tracks are very much of the same mindset, with odd little touches that distinguish them, but this one ramps up the speed, led by the furious drums of Jaska Raatikainen.

It has everything I'm looking for from this band: an up tempo chugging riff that bounces neatly back and forth between Laiho's lead and new fish Daniel Freyberg; speedy vocals with catchy backing; and some interesting interplay between instruments, soloing keyboards handing over to soloing guitar, then back again. It's a peach.

After that, I was with the album more. Platitudes and Barren Words has an impressive chorus and an even better riff behind it. The title track, the only one to nudge over the five minute mark, has an agreeable pace and a chanted "Hexed!" in the background that's a very cool callback. There's an abundance of spotlight moments for band members here too: not just pounding drums and chugging guitars, but dancing progressive keyboards, which sound almost like a harpsichord at points, and a playful bass to wrap things up.

Hexed is the third highlight in three tracks, which means that this album starts with a decent four songs, then shines brightly for another three. I have to say that the last four aren't up to the same standard but they are far from bad tracks; they're just not as good as what went before. The best of them is the last one, Knuckleduster, which finds an agreeable groove for Wirman's keyboards to soar over until the album runs out.

Even excepting the vocals, which are a love or hate thing, it's generally agreed that Children of Bodom have had an inconsistent output over what is now more than a couple of decades. This is a good album, which should put them in good stead with old school fans and help them pick up new ones. It isn't, however, a great one, though it does get great for a little while in the middle.

Now, as I seem to be saying a lot lately, let's have another album sooner than another four years time!

Lindbloom - Lady Opium (2019)

Country: Sweden
Style: Jazz Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 Mar 2019
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Apparently I just can't keep away from Swedish bands at the moment! Here's one more that sounds nothing like any of the others. Lindbloom are named for guitar player Magnus Lindbloom who leads this jazz rock outfit and he's an accomplished musician indeed.

Then again, like any viable jazz band, so are the rest of the band, who have played for people as varied as Frank Zappa, Yngwie J. Malmsteen and Joe Lynn Turner. While Lindbloom's guitar is always the centrepiece, the other band members get plenty of opportunities here. The title track kicks off with a twenty second drum solo from Morgan Ågren and Approximation of Bliss starts out like a Jon Lord solo album with some glorious heavy seventies-style organ from Samuel Olsson.

There's a lot going on here, as you might expect for a jazz rock band. The album could be divided up into heavier and softer tracks or into vocal ones and instrumentals, but it's really not that easy. There's a lot going on in each track!

For instance, the title track may kick off with drums but, when the rest of the band join in, we get all funky. The solos remind of Frank Zappa but it all wraps up with a keyboard run that's more reminiscent of Focus. And sure, Approximation of Bliss starts out with keyboards, but a crunchy riff shows up as if this feels like being metal rather than just rock. Instead it goes funky again with wild vocals that could be Zappa-influenced but might be a little more Primus. And it gets heavy towards the end with a neatly liquid pyschedelic guitar spilling all over it. Psychedelic, man!

My True Love is an instrumental that's surely as soft as the earlier tracks weren't but the softness of the overlay, mostly courtesy of the keyboards, contrasts wonderfully with the frantic bass and drums. Lindbloom's guitar is happy to move back and forth from soft to frantic. Is this love or sex? I'm half convinced that it's both.

The other really soft song on offer is My Own Way, which is a velvet covered lounge song, ladies and gentlemen. It's another instrumental but it's much more laid back than My True Love, not least because of its long saxophone solo, and it doesn't seem to have any obvious underlying theme. Perhaps the whole point is contrast, given that these two softer tracks are separated by Junkyard Dogs and bookended by Approximation of Bliss and Snakebite Kiss, which are all playful vocal pieces.

That said, I have no idea what Junkyard Dogs is really about and am pretty convinced that it's not about anything at all. Surely it's all about finding that groove, which it does quickly with a Stevie Ray Vaughan-style opening solo. Like Approximation of Bliss, Snakebite Kiss sounds like it could be a Frank Zappa song if only it wanted to be rude or subversive instead of playful.

It's almost impossible not to like this, because it's generally perky and cheerful and incredibly well played. The question is whether it's going to slip into the background or not. Perhaps that's the reason for Göran Edman's presence. He's a fine and versatile vocalist and he does a capable job here, but I wondered whether the album needs him. As music, I don't think it does because there's so much going on instrumentally. However, it's probably his vocals that keep us paying attention rather than just sinking into grooves.

One of these days I'm going to find a Swedish album that's generic. There's good stuff up there and bad stuff too, but none of it seems to be boring. I guess there's something in the water up there. Given this and some of what I've been reviewing lately, maybe someone dropped some acid in there too.

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Circlet - Circlet (2019)

Country: Indonesia
Style: Instrumental Progressive Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 2 Mar 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

I've talked at points about instrumental metal albums being a particular interest of mine and this one man album from Indonesia is precisely why. It's a wild mixture of sounds which only include vocals midway through Come and See, a short opening track. Even there, they show up in both harsh male and clean female form, entirely for texture. I have no idea what is being sung or even what language it's in.

The average track, if such a term can be used, comprises a standard core of instruments. The rhythm guitar is a vicious creature, while the lead soars and explores. The bass is especially prominent and I don't mean the entire bottom end of the equaliser, like the neighbours' cars at two in the morning, but the actual bass guitar, which is very distinctive in the mix. It gets a delightful showcase in Retrograde. The drums, which I have to believe are programmed rather than played, aren't keeping the beat so much as adding their own lead contribution.

And then there are keyboards, which provide a host of textures. They're particularly versatile here. There's a piano at the end of Come and See and it floats behind The Reminder too. They provide a sort of atmospheric background swell on Alter Ego. And there's an overtly electronic sound at points, starting on the opener, that wouldn't be out of place in chiptune music, though it's mostly enfolded by other instruments here rather than running solo. The violin may well be a violin but other instruments heard here, like the 'bells' on Alter Ego and Retrograde, are presumably the product of keyboard work.

What surprised me most here is that Robert Rayvid, who created everything on this album, except for one explosive sound effect that he borrowed for Vanity of Vanities, is a guitarist first and foremost but, however much he dances his fingers over his fretboard, this never sounds like shred. What it does sound like is open to question. He calls it progressive metal and that's as close as any description I can come up with.

However, it's notably varied progressive metal. There's a point on Alter Ego where it gets so fast that it's almost progressive thrash. Yet, there are all those overt electronic sounds and a drum machine that betrays its programmed nature more on some tracks than others. There's that violin on a number of tracks and a softer piano. It very much explores the map in search of its own sound.

The standout track here has to be Retrograde because it features most of those elements within five and a half minutes and does it with style. I'm stunned at how much Rayvid manages to cram into here without it seeming, well, crammed. Alter Ego is another track that finds its groove and riffs around that really well over six and a half minutes, making it the longest piece of music here; while Rayvid crams a lot into his songs, he doesn't need them to run forever.

This appears to be the first Circlet album, but it's not the first project that Rayvid has put together. I'm seeing three from Dramatic Lunacy over the last two years that are all him too. Why he changed the name, I have no idea, because it looks like similar material though I haven't heard it yet. After this, clearly I should seek it out.

Stripwired - Another Shot (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7
Release Date: 8 Feb 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

I remember, back when tribute bands were a new concept, some people threw a standard negative put down: "Why can't they play their own music?" Beyond failing to acknowledge the point of tribute bands, those people also missed the fact that many musicians they saw in tribute bands did indeed play their own music in the sort of struggling groups that people like them couldn't be bothered to see live because they hadn't heard of them. Hello, you negative feedback loop, you!

I point this out because Stripwired are a band who absolutely play their own music, but they grew out of a successful tribute band who have performed for almost two decades. Their name, Back in Black, gives away that influence in no uncertain terms and you won't be shocked to discover that this Stripwired album sounds very much like AC/DC in every way but, as pastiches go, this is a pretty good one.

Of course, given that naysayers (probably the same ones) would decry AC/DC for making every one of their songs sound the same, the challenge here for Stripwired is to pastiche their style without falling prey to that routine criticism. They do about as well on that front as they could, their target here being Brian Johnson era-AC/DC but with a neat ending in Big Bob Steel, in which Stripwired turn back the clock even further and Caperna aims for Bon Scott instead. It's Big Balls-style double entendre all over again.

There are ten tracks before that, each of which could have made it onto an eighties AC/DC album. They're riff-driven throughout, of course, because an AC/DC pastiche without memorable riffs would be pointless. There are plenty here, at least a couple per track, courtesy of guitarists Michael Mroz and Ramiro Noriega, so that vocalist Darren Caperna has something to sing over. Sheldon Conrad gets a few bass intros with Ken Schiumo accompanying on drums, so everyone gets their moment.

Lyrically, they're as ruthlessly generic as AC/DC always were. Expect songs about drinking, songs about raising hell and songs about cheating. Of course there are songs about sex, couched in the expected double entendres. It's probably fair to say that you can imagine the entire set of lyrics just from the song titles. What do you think Back Door is going to be about? Or Drop the Bomb? Or Raise Your Glass? The only real surprise is that Run gets a little more rude than I expected with its chorus of "She's a crazy bitch, you'd better turn and run." But, given the history of AC/DC lyrics, that's hardly surprising.

The good news is that there aren't any bad songs here, because everything is enjoyable, even on a second or third time through. The bad news, if you can call it that, is that there's only really one standout track. Usually, AC/DC can be relied to knock out two or three classics per album, even on a weaker release.

Here, the one classic is The Underdogs, which has a particularly strong but patient riff to build everything off. It adds a memorable solo, a gorgeous slowdown and a fantastic swell towards the finalé reminiscent of the end of For Those About to Rock (We Salute You), with catchy lead vocals, escalating backing vocals and wailing guitar all combining joyously.

If you're one of those tribute band naysayers I mentioned at the beginning, this ought to be the standard response. If you don't want to pay to see Back in Black, because they don't play their own music, then shell out your money to see Stripwired instead. They do and they do it well.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

The Riven - The Riven (2019)

Country: Sweden
Style: Blues Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 1 Mar 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook

I've been going on and on about how every band I hear from Finland sounds a lot unlike every other band from Finland. Well, the same really goes for Sweden and I've been reviewing a few Swedish bands here lately. Soilwork aren't remotely like Arch Enemy, even though they both play melodic death metal. They're both even more different to Last Autumn's Dream, Candlemass and Soen. What's more, all the above are nothing like The Riven.

The Riven are hard to define because they're really just a rock band with a versatile take on the genre. I could easily see them being called hard rock but that does bring connotations that don't always apply. I'd lean towards blues rock a little more, because the blues is always there right behind whatever sound they're conjuring up on any particular track. They go with heavy blues rock, but they're hardly Cream, even when they really rock out on tracks like The Serpent or Leap of Faith.

So what do they sound like? Well, let's see. Far Beyond starts out in a folksy Led Zeppelin style but soon escalates into a down home Americana crossroads song before adding in a sort of middle eastern edge. Edge of Time is much more lively and has a seventies glam edge to it, sewn over the Thin Lizzy-style backing. Shadow Man kicks off with a ska feel, then launches into straight rock before dropping into a much quieter section. Finnish Woods is initially neatly subdued, but it escalates very well indeed as a soulful atmospheric track that eventually really rocks out.

Does that help? Not really, except to highlight that every one of these sounds feels natural for the band. Remember what Blondie albums sounded like? They had a consistent feel that was quintessentialy them, whether they were playing reggae or rap or punk or pop or whatever came to mind, each track having its own tangent. That's the sort of agreeable diversity I heard here.

Also like Blondie, the Riven are comprised of a very capable collection of musicians who will always be overlooked because there's a beautiful blonde with a powerful voice in front of them. Here, that's Charlotte Ekebergh and she shines very quickly, with some glorious sustain on The Serpent, but she shines brighter as the album runs on and her and its versatility starts to show. Her voice is rooted in the blues rock tradition, with a real power behind it even when it isn't trying. When it does, like on the slower blues song, I Remember, it really soars, highlighting some superb breath control, and, like Joss Stone, most people guessing her race will be wrong.

This is far from a one woman band though and the Riven thankfully don't make the mistake of giving that impression through their name. Everyone has their moments to shine, but surprisingly few because they're too busy working together. Max Ternebring gets the most memorable spotlight with a fantastic bass run on Finnish Woods, which is both the obvious standout here and the track that allows most individual expression.

Arnau Diaz is the only guitarist here and he seems to revel in having a new sound for each track. He doesn't seem to do much that's flash but, if you listen carefully to what he is doing, there's an impressive variance in technique going on. Olof Axegärd is the drummer tasked with keeping up with wherever they're all going next and he does an admirable job, even though that's a pretty tough task.

I like this a lot. I could go on about the positives all day and, given that I've been listening to this album all day, you'd have heard me if I had done a livestream or whatever the trendy kids are doing nowadays.

The negative side is less obvious. Really, the worst aspect here is the fact that everything here is what feels like a strong deep cut. It's a really good album but the best songs, like Finnish Woods, aren't obvious singles and the mainstream public doesn't seem to want that Blondie style of diversity any more. If your current song doesn't sound like the last one, then you must have sold out.

The Riven are absolutely not sellouts. They're a band who sound fabulous on their debut album (they issued an EP a couple of years ago) and ought to sound glorious on the next few. Bring 'em on!

Týr - Hel (2019)

Country: Faroe Islands
Style: Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 Mar 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

We may be taking the high road while Týr take the low road on the opening track, Gates of Hel, but they're no Scottish band. Sadly I missed them in 2018 when they came through Arizona but that also meant that I missed the protestors because Týr are the only other reason, with whale hunting, why anyone here has even heard of the Faroe Islands.

I'm English so I've heard of the Faroe Islands but I haven't heard as much of their premiere musical export as I should. I have enjoyed what I have heard and this feels accomplished from moment one. It's Týr's eighth album and the six years since their prior release is twice as long as they've ever taken before. They must have been bursting with material and it shows because a wild energy is obvious here. They want back into our ears.

It's also a long album, running a full seventy minutes, though everyone in the band starts out frantically, as if they want to reach the end tape as soon as is humanly possible. For a while, this is a album in the form of a sprint, though it does that through sheer power, catchy vocals and moments for all the band members rather than any attempt to leap into thrash. It's as fast as I'm aware the band have gone.

Gates of Hel and All Heroes Fall are both full of busy runs for each band member. Gunnar Thomsen gets some very prominent runs on his bass, but the guitars of Heri Joensen and new guitarist Attila Vörös don't miss out on the fun and neither do the drums of new fish Tadeusz Rieckmann. The band definitely start out as they mean to carry on, with an heavier and much more overtly power metal feel but less folk elements.

Ragnars kvæði shows a different style. This is a slower song, progressive musically and with completely different vocals, not only because the song is sung in what I presume in Faroese (all but two tracks are performed in English) but because it's done more as a chant than a song. The style fits absolutely in the folk metal arsenal but it's the only time it's hauled out here in what is otherwise very much a power metal album.

That goes for Joensen's vocals as much as the admirable instrumentation behind them. This is lively stuff, as both folk and power metal often tend to be. I had to pause this my first time through after a dozen tracks and the silence to which I returned seemed much deeper than what preceded the album starting. It's an album that moves into your house and makes itself very comfortable indeed.

The question, of course, is whether it'll move back out again with just as little invitation. I've heard impressive albums that command our attention and impress on every front but which vanish off into the distance as soon as we turn them off, as if we'd never heard them to begin with. On a first listen, the biggest problem here is that the sound is very consistent from one song to another, with only Ragnars kvæði doing anything particularly different.

With eight tracks over forty minutes, a consistent sound really isn't much of a problem, if that sound is good, which it certainly is. With thirteen tracks over seventy minutes, however, a little variety is needed and I was keen to find out if that variety would show up on a second listen.

Well, some individual tracks do start to stand out a little, but it's not an easy process and many of them still sound very similar. Sunset Shore is a heavy ballad and Against the Gods has some patience to it. Far from the Worries of the World has a more singalong chorus and a folky instrumental chase in the midsection; it also ends well with a quiet little coda that leads into the quiet little intro to King of Time. It may be illusion but there seems to be more soloing later on.

Clearly, though, it'll take more than two listens for these songs to start to really distinguish themselves. If the songs are lessened by sounding so similar, the good news is that they're all good songs. There isn't a duff track here and, heard outside the framework of the album, each and every one of them would impress.

I like this new faster and heavier Týr and the future seems bright for them. Now, let's not wait another six years for the next album!

Monday, 11 March 2019

Black Vulpine - Veil Nebula (2019)

Country: Germany
Style: Stoner Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 1 Mar 2019
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | YouTube

Oh, I like this! It's very heavy stuff, somehow seeming slow even when it isn't, like on the opening track, Limbus, which retains a plodding style even at speed. The music is a wall of sound and it really doesn't want to quieten down so we can hear the vocals, which are clean and impressive but don't always feel the need to fight for dominance. When they do, they win, and it's glorious.

And it's that contrast that works so well. This is heavy stoner metal that isn't really interested in being doom, even when it kinda is. The beginning of Hollow is doomy enough for Candlemass and there are inevitable nods to Black Sabbath all over the place. It's much more interested in simply being heavy, which isn't quite the same thing, and it succeeds on that front with aplomb. It's bludgeoning stuff and I've never wanted to be bludgeoned quite so happily before.

The vocals, however, have a sweetness to them that floats airily around the music. They're the Beauty to the music's Beast, reminding that however dark things get, there's always light up there somewhere. What's so impressive is that while they spend quite a lot of time underneath the music, they find power whenever they want to and, when they do, often during the more overt choruses, they have it to spare. They soar as often as they float, even if its with a similar sense of melancholy underpinning it.

I was only able to find the first names of the band members, so I presume that those delightful vocals belong to Sarah, with Daria backing her up at points. Daria also plays lead guitar, with Sarah backing her up in turn, while that powerful rhythm section is Stefan on bass and a rather patient Rudiger on drums.

I've let this play on repeat for a few days and it's become something of an old friend. Just like I think of any particular friend as a person rather than a combination of different attributes, I think of this as an hour long slab of heaviness called Veil Nebula rather than eleven individual tracks. If I force myself to focus in for the sake of this review, it's still more to elements than songs. I'm not sure I could even pick a favourite. Minotaur maybe.

To be fair, some of them could be seen as positive by some listeners but as negative by others. Most obviously, the Jaws theme shows up at the start of The Panting for no reason I could fathom, played on what sounds like a very resonant cello. It sounds good but its familiarity is offputting. Later in the same song, there's a bizarre backing vocal that sounds like crowd noise. Initially I thought it was a cacophony of cymbals, or maybe a demonic choir, but it's just vocals. It adds a wild texture and it's neatly enigmatic but it's abrasive.

I could call out the enticing woodblock in A Lucid Dream or the calamitous feedback ending to Haunted House or the evocative duet between guitar and voice on Minotaur. I could call out an epochal riff but there are epochal riffs almost everywhere here. There's so much to be found if you're willing to explore. I wonder what you'll find and whether it's what I found.

The only traditional song on offer here is Liar, which is bouncy and catchy and its own master. It's still agreeably heavy but the music holds back for Sarah's voice can stand out above a complementary riff. Then again, there's little in the way of lyrics and Sarah alternates with some sort of whisper, so the catchiness may be partly due to the majority of the singing being a chorus.

If you like your stoner metal so heavy that it's carved in granite and raw enough to be right off the bone, but with vocals that are sweetly powerful, then Vein Nebula ought to be right up your alley. It's certainly right up mine.

Alcotopia - It Hits the Spot (2019)

Country: Lithuania
Style: Heavy/Speed Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 1 Mar 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

In digging deep into the rock/metal world of 2019, I'm already starting to see a number of trends. Genres aren't the be all end all definitions that they used to be, because bands are merging them every which way. Groups who split up in the eighties are coming back and recording new material. And it doesn't seem like anything is unfashionable enough to avoid any more.

I've been digging all these trends and the latter has led me to search for styles that seemed to have died a death as unfashionable long ago. Case in point: speed metal, that faster evolution of NWOBHM led by clean vocals and blistering guitarwork. Thrash adopted it and evolved it further, but I was a fan of early eighties speed metal and I'd love to hear new equivalents to Razor and Exciter and Agent Steel that benefit from modern production.

Alcotopia looked promising, especially given that Armageddon kicks off with suitably tasty vicious guitars, but they're not entirely what I'm looking for. They are up tempo throughout and they leap into high speed at points, such as in Faceless Man and F.Y.E.S., as well as late in Mountain King and early in Alcotopia, but they never stay there. When they do, I felt it like I used to thirty years back, but those moments were far too fleeting for my tastes.

While they're fast at points, the majority of It Hits the Spot is spent at the mid-speed level, so it's more heavy metal with a periodic fondness for speed. Asylum of the Damned is a fantastic example of this; It plays rather like the intro to a speed metal song, after the speed has been promised but hasn't yet arrived, or like the inevitable bridge, when they slow things down temporarily to give us a breather.

All that said, I can only judge this on its own merits, not what I might be looking for in it. It's not a bad album, with the band tight enough to make this work. Laurynas Karka delivers clean vocals with a slight rasp, akin in many ways to Eugene Hütz of Gogol Bordello. The accent's very similar, if a little less overt, and they have similar tastes in lyrics, as the band name and album title suggest. The title track is a spiritual successor to Gogol Bordello's Alcohol.

Yes, it's often as juvenile as it might seem. It's foul mouthed for no good reason other than to be foul mouthed, as if the band think that will render them cool to a particular audience. The final track, More Beer, could have been recorded by Tankard or Wehrmacht back in the eighties. But hey, as they point out in the title track, maybe that hits the spot. It surprises me but shrug.

There's an odd moment of higher culture late in the album, because the song called Mountain King features music from Edvard Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King, a very recognisable classical piece. I'm used to Accept doing that but Alcotopia sound more like Testament on this song with lyrics akin to Manowar and that makes it a little odder.

It's very welcome, of course, but it's out of place with the, shall we say, less intellectual material? Holy crap, that sounded classist, but it does feel a little strange to see a Lithuanian band who have built an image on the concept that 'drunken reprobate' should be a life goal suddenly launch into Norwegian classical music.

This is mostly fun and it's done capably with clear musical flair. My neck got a little bit of a workout and the album never bored me, even when I was rolling my eyes. But it's not the workout I was hoping for.

Friday, 8 March 2019

Iron Savior - Kill or Get Killed (2019)

Country: Germany
Style: Heavy Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 Mar 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Wikipedia

A couple of readers have asked for more power metal here at Apocalypse Later and I hope this, following The Three Tremors and Avantasia, will do the trick for now. When I think power metal, I think Germany and Iron Savior are one of the more prolific bands over there nowadays.

This makes a dozen albums for them (if we include Megatropolis 2.0) and their heritage goes back to that man Kai Hansen, who was everywhere for a while. A number of the songs they wrote under when they were named Second Hell made it into the early Helloween repertoire and saw release on the first EP and Walls of Jericho. They became Iron Savior in 1996 with Hansen on guitar for their first five years and, having lost some of the speed they had at the beginning (but not all of it), they're quintessential power metal.

Piet Sielck, one of the power trio back then, is still working vocal duty and playing guitar. Jan-Sören Eckert joined in 1998 and has contributed to every album except the first. More recent additions are Joachim Küstner on guitar and new fish Patrick Klose on drums. Even though the latter has only been with the band since 2017, they sound like they've been playing together forever.

This is accomplished stuff, but musicianship aside, the question that always comes into play with power metal is whether it's memorable enough to rise and be seen above all the other albums by all the other bands out there, most of which are also populated by very capable musicians.

My answer right now is that I'm not entirely sure. What I'll say is that it's certainly a very good album but I'm enough out of touch with the competition at the moment that I'm not sure how high the bar they need to reach has been raised of late.

There's plenty of good news. The album kicks off in excellent fashion with the title track, which has all the bombast and blister that you might expect from the genre (along with a bit of narration in the middle that's shot with a good deal of humour on the official video). It also finishes just as capably with Legends of Glory, perhaps my favourite song on the album, not only because of that old school chug.

In between are another eight tracks, all but one being of consistent length and style, each of them filling its four to five minutes with driving drums, melodic guitar runs and smooth, emotional vocals with catchy hooks. That one exception is Until We Meet Again, which at almost eight minutes has a couple of minutes on everything else here, but those couple of minutes don't really add much. It starts out softer and there's a progressive section in there but it doesn't work as a longer, epic version of everything else.

If there's a problem with the album, it's that consistency, as these tracks start to blur together somewhat, especially around the middle where the most memorable tracks can be found. To suggest which one of them is the catchiest would warrant some sort of battle royale between From Dust and Rubble, Sinner or Saint and Heroes Ascending. All of them have solid shots at that title!

While they're all highlights, the tracks in and amongst them suffer a little for being similar but lesser versions of the same sort of thing. I've taken a couple of runs through this album and the tracks do distinguish a little on a second listen but, while plenty stand out, a few fade away.

I like Kill or Get Killed and I especially appreciate its quality given that it's the band's fifth album in six years. Kudos to Iron Savior both for doing an impressive job and for doing it so often.