Wednesday, 24 April 2019

The Short Fuses - Dawn of the Deaf (2019)



Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 23 Apr 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website | Twitter

I have to own up to being rather confused here for a while. I'm not familiar with the Short Fuses, who haven't released an album since 2003, but this new one opens with Baby Got Bat Wings, sounding like a garage band with a female singer trying to be Danzig and that's close to the last thing I expected.

To be brutally honest, I don't know quite what I expected from an album with this front cover, but that wasn't it. It's designed to look like a used LP but the font and image layout screams Jefferson Starship's Red Octopus and, while it's been a long while since I've listened to that one (no Jorma and no Jack), I don't recall Grace Slick ever sounding like Glenn Danzig.

The Pink ditches Danzig for AC/DC, appropriately given the energy levels on show here, but it's Motorcycle Pill that really shows us what the band are all about, because it's pure, undistilled kick ass rock 'n' roll. They're a power trio with Miss Georgia Peach doubling up on bass and vocals, so it's hardly surprising to find Motörhead cited as an overt influence. I have no idea how they introduce themselves on stage, but if it isn't with the line, "We are the Short Fuses and we play rock 'n' roll", it should be.

They describe themselves as "Blondie, MC5 and Motörhead in a blender" and I can see that. The Blondie is primarily in the vocals, though there may be a little more in the music too, if we slow it down somewhat. Galloping Ghost could be a Blondie song at half speed. The MC5 is obviously in the attitude and the way that they often verge on falling completely apart but never do, because the band are so tight that they can pretend not to be and totally get away with it.

Rock Yo Self (Until You Wreck Yo Self) and Furiosa are the most obviously Motörhead influenced songs on the album, not only because they sound rather like them, but because they're obviously just as rooted in old school rock 'n' roll. I heard a lot of Fast Eddie Clarke here in Travis Ramin's guitar, but just as much Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry. There's a lot of Johnny B. Goode in You Ain't Shit.

I heard a little seventies flavour in Furiosa too and that's more obvious in You Ain't Shit and No. I don't just mean the Ramones, who are all over the place here too, because they worked from the same influences Motörhead did, merely exploring them in a more punk than metal framework. I'm hearing glam rock here too, artists like Suzi Quatro or Joan Jett, even some Ram Jam Band.

And all this makes for a heady mix. The closest band I can think of is one that comes up in their story quite a lot, namely Nashville Pussy. They used to tour with them back in the late nineties; members later recorded for Ramo Records, run by Georgia Peach and Travis Ramin; and this album was produced by Daniel Rey, who had also produced for Nashville Pussy. However, the Short Fuses seem wilder and heavier to me but with more mainstream vocals. Maybe that's the Blondie influence, though Miss Georgia Peach doesn't aim for the sweetness of Debbie Harry.

I haven't heard the first three Short Fuses albums, released between 1999 and 2003, but this one kicked me in the teeth and I liked it. The only song that didn't do it for me is the closer, an experimental piece called High Score, but the rest are glorious. Now, someone please explain to me what this has to do with Red Octopus!

Badraam - Ancient Temple (2019)



Country: Iran
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 23 Apr 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | YouTube

Ancient Temple stood out to me because I'd read that it was Iranian thrash metal but, well, it isn't. I do see the confusion, because it's a lot more riff-based than most of the instrumental progressive metal out there and some of it definitely plays in the thrash sandbox. The band cite Megadeth as an influence, along with Dream Theater and guitarists like Yngwie Malmsteen and Joe Satriani, and there's definitely some Megadeth here.

I say band, but this may or may not be another one man project, the leader and guitarist being Mohammad Ghasemi, who's based in Tehran. He's the only name listed on their Facebook page, but there are certainly five musicians on stage in the live videos I'm seeing on YouTube, though the keyboards are not credited there either. They play well together, so maybe they're a band rather than just Ghasemi and some session musicians.

I'm hearing three styles here and the primary one is surely the guitar led workout approach, with Ghasemi playing up a storm and the band following in his wake but refusing to let him turn this into a shred album. Even when he remains the highlight throughout the whole song, which is most of the time, he's not just soloing. I believe that he's aiming for his guitar to take on the role of the absent vocalist as well as that of the lead guitarist and I rather like that. There's a lot more Satch here than Yngwie.

The second is that thrash influence, which is most obvious on the bass heavy tracks such as Heavy Assault and the title track but is more overt towards the end of Sand Storm or at the beginning of Chaos in East. However, the band rarely reach that heads down blitzkrieg sort of speed, so this is no thrash album, even if Ghasemi was clearly influenced by thrash guitarists such as Marty Friedman and Alex Skolnick.

In fact, this could conceivably be considered as a collection of extended solo sections taken from thrash songs Badraam may have recorded elsewhere but aren't here for us to listen to in full. That's not strictly accurate, because these songs have beginnings and ends, even if they're brief, but it isn't too far off being believable. There are sections, for example, in The Day of Redemption, that sound rather like a classic Metallica bridge.

Finally, there's plenty of local flavour. I wouldn't say that this ventures into folk metal, especially with no ethnic instruments that I could detect beyond hand drums of some description on Mirage, but most of the songs have an overt Middle Eastern flavour somewhere, while some, such as Mirage, have little except for that Middle Eastern flavour, which is not a bad thing. It really is a positive in my eyes, because it broadens the spectrum of metal.

Combining these three approaches makes for an interesting album. I've heard Middle Eastern influenced songs from guitar virtuosos like Joe Satriani or Tony MacAlpine before, but these feel more authentic, for obvious reasons. Even on something ostensibly western, like Tornado, the closest to a shred song here because of its first half, there's still something else there.

I liked this, not only because of its memorable title track, but because of Ghasemi's versatility. I liked that this wasn't just a shred album, even if he does shred at points. I liked that it really felt like a regular album without vocals than an instrumental album because of the way his guitar was doing double duty. This is surely the primary reason why it doesn't fade at all into the background like many instrumental progressive metal albums.

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Maybe - Maybe (2019)



Country: Argentina
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 18 Mar 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | YouTube

I've been slammed with convention work and Phoenix Film Festival coverage over the past week and the soundtrack to a good part of that has been this album of instrumental prog rock from Brazilian trio Maybe. By this point, it has seeped into my bones and most of it still feels vibrant.

It starts really well, with a few neatly playful tracks that underline how the underlying feel here is seventies prog rock, even if the title of 88mph can't fail to conjure up the eighties instead. It's patient stuff and it's deceptively simple stuff too, given that nobody seems to want to be flash.

I came to realise that 88mph is kind of like someone writing a book in words of only one syllable. That would be easy to read but appear really basic and, in most hands, it would be. However, a clever writer can get across just as much meaning in words of one syllable as words of ten and 88mph demonstrates that Maybe know how to create a heck of a lot with, well, not a heck of a lot (there are only four instruments, played by three people). This feels like a song that should be taught in every music class.

Milazzo is much more complex but it took me a while to realise why it felt a little odd. Generally, it's remiscent of a Focus instrumental with phrasing that reminds of Genesis and King Crimson. It features a heavy organ behind guitarwork that's still patient but much more adventurous than anything on 88mph, while the bass is a very audible companion. And the reason it felt a little odd? The first ten seconds (reprised at the end of the song) sound like they're introducing a Mario Kart level. What felt odd is that I was using a keyboard not a game controller.

Jenga Sobre Gelatina is a good progression (pun not intended) from Milazzo, as it has a similar approach but with new tones, starting out rather funky and then adding Child in Time era Deep Purple. I love this middle section, with a vibrant guitar over achingly patient organ backing.

Compared to these three playful conversations between instruments, Corvette is a little more conventional, especially through the straightforward rock drums and the driving bass. It's like a jazz band decided they wanted to try a rock song for a change, although they couldn't resist mixing things up a little at points because it's who they are.

Maybe III (there's nothing like track names to underline that Focus influence) merges those two approaches into one. It's like that jazz band enjoyed their dalliance with rock conventions on Corvette so much that they decided to play with them some more, but within their usual framework.

So far, so fantastic. I've lost track of how many times I've run through this album but it's in the dozens by now and all five of these tracks are as fresh and as delightful now as they were on the first listen. The three musicians (Matias Villalba on guitar, Osiris Lescano on drums and Juan Alisiardi on bass and keyboards) are very talented individually but they come together joyously as a trio.

Unfortunately, up next is Club Glorias, which is the longest track and easily my least favourite, not because I don't like it but because it doesn't play in the same sandbox as the others and it feels rather notably out of place. It's a solo piano piece for three and a half minutes and it sounds rather like the soundtrack to a silent movie. That doesn't really change, even when the other instruments kick in, unless the experimental nature of the second half means a different silent movie.

I should emphasise that it's good stuff but it marks a pretty severe stylistic shift after a set of five tracks that play far more consistently together. Its second half gets a little closer, but it mostly sets the stage for Bubba Gump, the nine minute final track, which combines that approach with what we heard earlier.

I thoroughly enjoyed this attempt by three young gentlemen from Brazil to play in a musical style that was probably past its heyday by the time each of them was born. Sadly, their Bandcamp page suggests that this is "Maybe's debut and farewell album" because I definitely want more of this.

Fall of Them - Deeds of Dying Faith (2019)



Country: New Zealand
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Apr 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

Ever since the Phoenix Film Festival wrapped and I can get back to everything I do on a daily basis, not least sleep, I've had this melodic death metal EP from New Zealand stuck on repeat and it's burrowed into my brain because it's not what it's supposed to be.

I'm not finding a genre listed in the band's web presence beyond just "metal" and that's probably appropriate. Metal Archives calls them melodic death metal but they're often achingly slow for melodeath. I'd call them doom/death but that's not where their influences come from. Their Facebook lists bands as varied as Amon Amarth, Black Dahlia Murder and Killswitch Engage, but they don't sound like any of them.

Whatever they play, they sound good to me and much of that comes from a tone I find surprisingly warm and comfortable for what is inherently harsh music.

It rumbles out of the gate, literally, as the opening track is called The Gate and we hear what sounds like a regular conversation against a backdrop of an approaching Mongol horde. Eventually, it fades so that we can hear some sort of religious pronouncement and the guitars kick in with a slow riff, to be joined by the thunderous drums of Morgan Olliver, which do up the pace but in a rather odd fashion. They're tribal and raw and they make this instrumental not just really heavy but rather exploratory too, like their drummer isn't Olliver at all but rather some giant insect tap dancer.

When The Gate gives way to three linked tracks with vocals, we find that the band is all about texture because each of the four instruments provides its own and they combine into a fifth. The commonality is a very heavy approach, the bass of Jesse Heney deep in the mix but defining it, that is never quite doom. The vocals of Chris Hunt are harsh but warm and they're enhanced by the periodic backing vocals of other members of the band.

These three songs have similar primary names but their own secondary names. I presume there's some sort of progression from Deeds of Dying Faith through Deeds of Dying Flesh to Deeds of Dead Fortified, but it's the secondary titles that suggest the progression more, from Cast Out the Heretic through Supreme is the Caliphate to Stone Mountains Run Red. This is clearly about religious conflict, presumably with an Islamic focus, but I didn't catch enough of the lyrics to figure out what.

I may be deluding myself but it feels like each of these three tracks grows in length but slows down as it does so. That's an odd direction but it's one that works for me. I won't say that Deeds of Dying Faith: Cast Out the Heretic is a fast song, but it's faster than Deeds of Dead Fortified: Stone Mountains Run Red and it's not much over a third of its length. This also means that the EP ends slow and that shapes our thinking of it.

It's this latter track that resonates with me most, a seven and a half minute piece that has echoing notes float in beauty before it dives into a doom/death crescendo and rumbles along at an achingly slow but heavy pace. Its refrain of "Burn sacred texts" is sinister and evocative, and there are gothic moments in this one too, with the backing vocals moving up to duet status for a while.

I liked this a lot but it's pretty much all we have for Fall of Them, just one single, Ankana, prior in 2018. I'd love to hear what this band will do at full length.

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Eluveitie - Ategnatos (2019)



Country: Switzerland
Style: Folk Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 5 Apr 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube | Wikipedia

The eighth studio album for Eluveitie starts out as it means to go on with an overtly cinematic opening: dark narration, swelling folk melodies and then the crunch as Ategnatos really kicks in. There's violin in there and pipes too, as well as a beautiful Celtic sounding female voice floating around like a ghost. By the time Chrigel Glanzmann adds his lead vocals, the scene is set.

And, frankly, it stays there for the rest of the album which, in keeping with Eluveitie tradition, contains a whole bunch of tracks but isn't crazy long: it only exceeds an hour by twenty seconds and there are sixteen tracks to enjoy on its journey to the finish line.

For those who haven't heard Switzerland's finest before, they've been around since 2002 and they've achived a heck of a lot in that time. I'm a little out of touch nowadays, but they sound as good as they ever have to me here, with a wealth of little folk touches well placed to elevate the melodic death crunch that's their bedrock.

Case in point: Deathwalker, the second song (Ancus is an eleven second prayer or invocation). It kicks off with the hurdy gurdy of Michalina Malisz, adds a cawing raven and escalates to a glorious combo of harsh male and clean female vocals. That hurdy gurdy rarely goes away, except when things pause for more narration, and it's glorious. It often sounds like the band recorded this in a pub outside Dublin with whoever happened to be there at the time chiming in with their own musical contributions.

Black Water Dawn certainly kicks off that way; I could almost hear the pouring of Guinness behind the bar. And we don't even hear the harp until halfway into A Cry in the Wilderness. Frankly, we're so used to hearing metal played with a standard set of instruments that Eluveitie's approach takes some getting used to. There's so much weaving in and out of focus here that the album feels busy on a first listen but grows with each return as we explore its depths.

What we gradually realise is that Eluveitie aren't just having fun weaving the elements together like Celtic knotwork, they're having fun, period.

Ambiramus enjoys stepping aside from the band's melodic death foundation for a more alternative approach with clean female vocals dominant. Worship enjoys an apocalyptic feel, initially with ominous Biblical narration and then with the adversarial tone of the vocals and some crunchy guitar. The Raven Hill enjoys slowing things down, but there's a catch: the vocal melody sounds rather akin to What Will We Do with the Drunken Sailor?, so it takes us a little while to get out of an Alestorm mindset and back into an Eluveitie one. The flutes do help.

I had a blast with this album and it's getting better with each repeat listen. What I haven't quite fathomed yet is the narrative flow, because I get rather distracted by the folk instrumentation and forget to focus on the lyrics. Not all of them are in English, I should add. I don't even recognise the language of Trinoxtion, another spoken interlude.

The album as a whole feels like a concept piece and not just because of these narrative sections or the rain and the birds of good or ill omen. It wraps up with a lament from that beautiful Celtic female voice unaccompanied except for rain, into which it gradually fades. There's definitely darkness here and I do wonder what the story is, especially as it plays out with a cinematic feel (and if most of it could be a film, the beginning of Threefold Death could be the backing for its trailer).

The key is this: I enjoyed it on a first listen, but keep finding new things in it each further time through and I expect to keep doing that for quite a while. If that's your sort of thing, then this is highly recommended.

Pokerface - The Greatest Storm (2019)



Country: Russia
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 7 Apr 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

I'm happy that being so busy this week means that I'm looking at EPs as well as full albums, because that brought Moscow's Pokerface to my attention. They play their thrash (with elements of melodic death), not only with technical aptitude but a palpable sense of energy.

They've been around since 2013 and released two full length albums, Divide and Rule in 2015 and Game On two years later. The latter featured the current line-up for the first time, which includes an exuberant lead vocalist by the name of Alexandra Orlova, who goes by Lady Owl. I have no idea at present what her predecessor, intriguingly named Delirium Tremens, sounded like, but they have a winner in Lady Owl.

It's her voice that makes the first track special. This four track EP kicks in with its title track and it's good stuff even before Lady Owl shows up. It's traditional heavy metal meets melodic death with decent riffs, good solos and an agreeable pace. I'd have liked this even without vocals, but they explode all over the track and turn it from a strong brushed steel instrumental into something bursting with colour and life.

Eternal Reflection starts out in a similar fashion, but moves up a gear to be straight ahead heads down neck breaking thrash metal. I'd have liked it more if it had stayed there, but I'm not going to complain about slower sections or the shift from clean to light death vocals. The contrast is fantastic, kind of like an alternative band got heavy, realised how fun it was and then found a magic button that launched them into hyperspeed. It's easy to imagine Doctor behind the drumkit just aching for that button to be pressed.

That The Song of My Revenge is my least favourite track is just an exercise in ranking. It's a worthy song with perhaps a slightly more commercial feel as melodic death with almost entirely clean vocals. It does speed up nicely, harsh vocals kicking in to back the clean ones.

That Pain Overdose is my favourite track is just another exercise is ranking. There are no bad songs here but this one just seems most resonant to me. It's another heads down thrash track but with a more antagonistic chorus that feels very good, even if Lady Owl's accented English makes it seem like she might be singing something else. As with Eternal Reflection, it refuses to stay thrash throughout but that Kreator-esque chorus is never far away. The slower sections are neat and Xen Ritter's guitar continues to be memorable, whatever speed she's playing at.

I dug this EP a lot. They somehow feel like a thrash band with a fondness for melodic death rather than the other way round, even though the song structures suggest the reverse. I'm still trying to figure that out.

Maybe it's just that they're at their best when they're blistering along at a rate of knots with Lady Owl hurling out her attitude at anyone within earshot, rather than when they slow down a notch or two to get more interesting. I find that I really like the combination of the two, though. I do love thirty minute blitzkriegs of albums that don't care about other textures, but I also love it when bands get interesting. This EP comes as close to doing both as I can remember. No, it's not the greatest storm but it's a pretty damn powerful one and now I need to track down that last album!

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Exumer - Hostile Defiance (2019)



Country: Germany
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 5 Apr 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

See what happens when I don't pay attention! I remember the Teutonic thrash band Exumer well from a couple of albums in the second half of the eighties. Possessed by Fire seemed to be everywhere in the UK in 1986 and 1987, as the British fans took a whole slew of German thrash bands to heart. Tommy Vance played Fallen Saint and Destructive Solution on The Friday Rock Show and the world was a happy place.

Well, Exumer split up in 1991, perhaps because of personnel issues (founder Mem von Stein had already left in 1986) and perhaps because of the fact that music was changing and thrash metal was hardly the force that it had been. I knew that, but what I'd missed is that Exumer got back together in 2009 and there are two studio albums out already before this new one. I have homework to do!

This new material isn't too far removed from the old material I remember. It feels a little more clinical; certainly the drums of Matthias Kassner are in a different league to those of eighties drummer Syke Bornetto and the modern production helps him too. The vocals of von Stein are more controlled, still an amalgam of Tom Araya and old school Mille Petrozza but a little less wild than it used to be.

Even if it's more clinical, that doesn't mean there's no emotion here, as I felt a hunger, as if the band are eager to remind us all what thrash of the late eighties sounded like and to persuade us that it's what we all want to be listening to at the turn of the teens into the twenties. Frankly, I'm on board and, while this is hardly a groundbreaking manifesto, it's certainly a solid album for Exumer and a welcome one for German thrash, which is strong right now, with old bands like Kreator back on form and new ones like Dust Bolt doing good work too.

The good side is obvious. There isn't a bad track here and there are ten of them before we add in a couple of bonus cover versions, of the Scorpions's He's a Woman, She's a Man and Entombed's Supposed to Rot.

The bad side is also obvious, namely that all these songs unfold in similar fashion. On a first listen, you might be forgiven for wondering if they just recorded the same song ten times. They do start to distinguish themselves on a second listen, though, and I have a feeling that I'll be listening to this album quite a lot.

So far, it's hard to pick a favourite (or indeed a least favourite). Descent is standing out for me, not least because of how it uses the twin guitars of founder member Ray Mensh and Marc Bräutigam: one takes on a memorably simple riff and the other solos all over it. It's good stuff. Elsewhere, Vertical Violence and Carnage Rider are excellent, albeit straighforward, neckbreakers and Dust Eater, Raptor and Trapper have strong vocal lines, as does the title track.

What this does best is to take the German thrash style from the mid to late eighties and transport it into the modern age without it feeling wrong. It's pure, unadulterated by the experimentation that the thrash bands who didn't quit had to stumble through until times changed and there was once again an audience for what they did best. It's more old school thrash than, say, Gods of Violence, which is a great album but one that shows how Kreator had quite the musical journey since Exumer were around the first time.

However, this doesn't sound like it was recorded in 1986 and spirited through time to us today. The production is fantastic, far better than that Kreator album from a couple of years ago. It sounds more like it was the band rather than the album that jumped through time and I couldn't be happier.

Krigere Wolf - Eternal Holocaust (2019)



Country: Italy
Style: Black/Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Apr 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives

At a mere nine seconds shorter than Reign in Blood, here's an EP that ought to feel like it could be a short album, but it blisters along so fast and so incessantly that, like Reign in Blood, it's over in the blink of an eye, like a long single.

Krigere Wolf are an Italian band with two studio members: Rick Costantino on drums, bass and vocals; and Salvo Leonardi on guitars and vocals. Salvatore Martino Testa steps behind the drumkit for live gigs. None of these folk have much intention to slow down and, once the two minute intro is over, they're rarely inclined to leave hyperspeed.

The backing is all black metal, with blistering drums setting the pace and a playful guitar painting in the texture by echoing the drums at a slower pace, when not launching into solos. The vocals, however, are generally taken from the death metal playbook, which is why they regard themselves as black/death and not just black. This EP ends with a Dissection cover from Storm of the Light's Bane and it's a little more black than the original.

When Krigere Wolf slow down, it's to highlight their name through ambient sounds. "Krigere" is Danish for "warriors" and the eternal holocaust of the title is presumably talking about war generally rather than concentration camps. The ambient sections, such as that intro, Primordial, and the end of the title track, sound like they're recorded on a fantasy battlefield, with horses whinnying. I didn't hear a wolf, but it would have fit.

The production here is excellent, though I know that's looked down on in the more purist black metal circles, who would probably hate the solos here too as degenerate rock masturbation. I for one am happy for them. The drums are lower in the mix than guitars, so this approach creates an agreeable wall of sound, an enticing pit for the vocals to emerge from and flavour the songs all the more.

It's been a while since I've heard something this relatively straightforward in black metal. So many bands now are experimenting to add new elements into their sound, even if they're not adding the post- prefix to their genre. It's not a concern for Krigere Wolf apparently, as they're content to just blister along with precious little added to their core black/death style. Maybe there was a gong late in Mystic Genocide to prompt the band to pull back their war horses and wander tentatively through another ambient warzone. That's about it.

While it's nothing new, I liked this. It knows precisely what it wants to be and it executes that with technique and style. Each of the four originals at the heart of this EP have their own edges but play together very well. I'd be hard tasked to pick a favourite. Maybe Blasphemous Chaos Magnifience. Maybe Mystic Genocide. Vision of Death feels a little muddier than its peers with the vocals a little more lost but the guitar sound makes up for it. And the title track is no slouch either.

That leaves Night's Blood, the Dissection cover. It's certainly heavier but, to be fair, that's mostly because it benefits from strong production and the sort of modern equipment that the Swedes could have only dreamed about back in 1995. What's telling is that it's not that far away from the original, if we allow for the different vocal approach, but it plays very well alongside the band's originals. Way to wear your influences on your sleeve.

Krigere Wolf have been around since 2009 and they have three studio albums to their credit. On the basis of this EP, I'd be interested in seeking them out.

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Orpheus Omega - Wear Your Sins (2019)



Country: Australia
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 29 Mar 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Back in 1993 when Sid at Groové Records in Halifax gave me a promo CD of the first Dark Tranquillity album, neither of us had a clue that it was, in many ways, the future. I really dug Skydancer at the time and I still do. Sid, on the other hand, loved the music and hated but vocals. Fast forward a quarter of a century (holy crap, has it been that long?) and melodic death metal has taken over from the Iron Maiden-esque twin guitar approach as the de facto standard for all new metal bands to play. We never saw that coming in 1993!

The problem now is that, with half the new albums being melodic death, what must all the up and coming bands do to distinguish themselves from everyone else? That question wasn't far from my mind as I listened to Wear Your Sins, the fourth studio album from Australian band Orpheus Omega, who were founded in Melbourne back in 2007.

After all, it's easy to find a unique sound when you're singing hard rock: Jimmy Barnes is as far from Angry Anderson as he is from Bon Scott. Chris Themelco, however, sounds like most other melodic death metal vocalists, as capable as he is. It's hard to sound different when you're trying to sound the same, however well you do it.

Fortunately, the band don't entirely follow suit. While his vocals are in the traditional harsh style and his guitarwork is just as traditional, the band as a whole do mix it up. There's a second voice that's clean and pleasant, if not particularly versatile, and it gets a lot of time in the spotlight too. I presume that's the voice of his fellow guitarist, João Goncalves. The other key factor is the keyboards of Keswick Gallagher which lighten the sound and do a lot to shift it in different directions.

Put together, Orpheus Omega have a melodic death base but venture often into power metal and even alternative rock. In Time starts with a choral refrain that would be appropriate for a symphonic metal band, before kicking in hard and heavy with a vicious vocal from Themelco and fast drums from his brother Matt. Insinerate, on the other hand, starts out rather like Creed, if only Creed had balls. Wash It All Away adds a hey hey hey chant on what could be groove metal, if anyone could ever properly define what that is.

I presume this very contemporary take on melodic death is why Orpheus Omega have landed a number of prominent support slots on the road, supporting Amon Amarth, Children of Bodom and, most appropriately, Dark Tranquillity, among a host of others. It's odd to hear these primarily American styles on an album that's sourced in the Gothenburg sound, but hey, why not? It worked well for Arka'n yesterday and they're from Togo, so ought to be even further from such radio-friendly American sounds.

What's awkward is that the best songs here, like In Time and Suffer, are the heaviest and most traditional ones, the ones that could have been recorded by a number of other bands. They're not entirely generic, the choral parts of In Time and the keyboards backing Suffer lending them some originality, but they aren't as divergent from the core sound as the lesser songs.

And that puts Orpheus Omega in a Catch-22 situation. The more they find their own sound, the less powerful they become. The better they play, the less they stand out. I wish I knew how they could break out of that, but I don't. I'll just mention that this is a great band but only a decent album. I'll happily check in for the next one to see how they're progressing.

Manowar - The Final Battle I (2019)



Country: USA
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 5/10
Release Date: 29 Mar 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Back in the day, I was a huge Manowar fan. I never quite got to the point of wandering around in a furry leather loincloth, but Hail to England is still one of my favourite albums of all time and their Manchester gig in 1989, with Sabbat and Toranaga in support, was one of the most memorable I've ever had the privilege of attending. I can still remember my stomach almost imploding when Joey de Maio first touched a string on his bass.

The catch is that they defined their schtick so closely that it's been very difficult for them to progress beyond it. I was with them for seven albums, but I don't feel like I missed anything at all by not picking up anything of late. And 'of late' means three studio albums over twenty-three years, so they may have noticed the core problem too, concentrating instead on touring and reimagining old albums with new production values.

And that problem really doesn't take long to manifest here. I can't say that I didn't enjoy this. I did, but mostly from the standpoint of nostalgia. I'm not buying into the traditionally overblown hype that they're hurling in the direction of this skimpy EP, which runs under twenty minutes. Joey de Maio, a fantastic bass player and professional finger in the face of society, claims that, listen carefully, "The sheer power of these four songs is mind-blowing! We simply couldn't release more songs at one time; it’s just too much!"

No. It isn't. According to the band's website, it's "guaranteed to blow your speakers and your heads off with a whirlwind of crushing sonic destruction, orchestral majesty and epic, pulverising insanity." It fails to do that too. Does that mean I get my money back?

It is interesting though, not least because Joey de Maio steps up to sing a lead vocal on the final track, You Shall Die Before I Die. He has a suitable voice for the character he plays in the band. He sounds somewhat like Conan the Barbarian drinking, if not gargling, the blood of his enemies and trying to sing while he does so. Given the lyrics, that's entirely appropriate. I really like his bass on this track as well.

I quite liked the song before it too, which does precisely what you might expect if I tell you that it's called Sword of the Highlands. It's a grandiose epic, albeit a mere six minute one, that builds emphatically into an anthem for Scottish heritage. Regular vocalist Eric Adams does a fine job here, bolstered as he is by what sounds like an artificial choir and some bagpipes for good measure. It's designed to be intensely emotional and it does pretty well but, after it's done, we wonder why we bought into it.

Before that is the real opening track, as March of the Heroes into Valhalla is just a two minute intro. It's called Blood and Steel and it's surely the most Manowar song I've heard. I remember Blood of the Kings, the last track on Kings of Metal, which featured every prior album title and a whole bunch of previous song titles in its lyrics. That worked in 1988 but they've kept on writing songs with a vocabulary of fifty or so nouns, so all of them end up as distillations of the others. This is no exception.

Here's how it starts: "My right hand is thunder. Your blood's upon my sword. My left hand is lightning. The gods of war are stoned. A blood vow was sworn so all shall come to know on Hell's wind I shall appear. Your death will not be slow." Isn't that every single Manowar song? Sure, it rolls along nicely with solid guitars and solid drums. This is a very capable band, even with a new guitarist to replace Karl Logan after he was arrested for possession of kiddie porn. E. V. Martel is the new guitarist and he's easily up to the task.

But, when Eric Adams calls out, "My brothers of metal, will you ride with me today?" I feel sad to shrug and think back to when I'd have screamed back at him with twin devil horns high in the air.

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Arka'n - Zã Keli (2019)



Country: Togo
Style: Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 15 Feb 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website

I've mentioned before how I'm loving the way that folk metal is sweeping the globe. It isn't all northern Europe any more, it's everywhere. Case in point: Arka'n from Togo. That's Togo in frickin' Africa, folks, which means that it combines sounds that I've never heard combined before and that rarely fails to make my day. Zã Keli did exactly that.

Now, I'm a fan of African music generally, from Toumani Diabaté's fantastic kora to the soukous of Staff Benda Bilili, but I know very little about the music of Togo, which seems to have been overshadowed internationally by the Ivory Coast two countries to the left and Nigeria two to the right. Well, it clearly has substance, because Arka'n have been making their presence known in Lomé since 2010 and they're very capable indeed.

Like any folk metal, I couldn't wait to hear the blend of traditional sounds and what, to the bands in question, would be world music. There's plenty of Togolese music here, not only in the intros to songs where it's particularly notable, but also behind the rock instrumentation and in the backing vocals, which tend to contrast rather than accompany. Many songs here feature a rock or metal lead but traditional backing vocals.

Given that Togo was transitioned from a German colony to a French one after World War I and the official language is French, the source influences here seem to be primarily American and most of the lead vocals are in English. It might not be surprising then to find that the styles Arka'n explore are rap and nu metal, with some hardcore elements too. Usually that wouldn't endear them to me but for a singular approach that they take.

Put simply, they don't play metal songs and add traditional instruments, as most folk metal bands seem to do. Instead, they play traditional music that they power up into metal and overlay those American styles. Just check out a song like Awala, one of the obvious highlights here, which almost seems like two very different songs, one layered on top of the other in a way that both works and somehow emphasises both layers.

This isn't an unusual approach for Arka'n and it's probably sourced from the fact that, as the band's website ably highlights, rock music is not promoted at all and many musicians coming into the band weren't particularly aware of what it was. Therefore they play what they know and add in other sounds when it seems to make sense to create something new. Viviti, for instance, is an enticingly bouncy local song that just happens to include a punchy electric guitar.

Another thing Arka'n do a lot is to pause that metal layer, with its crunchy guitars, double bass drums and nu metal or hardcore vocals, so that we get a fresh glimpse of the traditional layer behind it. This is highly engaging and reminds of the stylistic hopskotch of, say, System of a Down or Mr. Bungle, who switch styles out on the turn of a dime.

Of course, those bands, to the best of my knowledge, never incorporated this sort of music. Arka'n will be dancing traditionally one moment, then rapping over heavy guitars the next. This versatility also applies to each instrument in play, not just the vocals. The drums especially shift, maybe because the band include a drummer and a percussionist. The guitar plays quiet African melodies then leaps into crunch mode for a powerful riff. And then back. And forth. The band seem to refuse to stay in one place on the musical map for long and I'm all for that.

A little less often, the changeovers get neatly mixed up, such as on Return of the Ancient Sword. A traditional vocal over metal backing shifts into a hardcore shout over traditional backing, before launching into a rap over a metal riff. It's a weird thing to hear three completely different styles of vocal work on the very same song but it's fascinating to listen to.

If almost all the western flavour here is American, from alternative to rap to nu metal, that only lasts until the final song, Welcome, which has an odd Australian flavour to it. I'd love to know what's in the record collection of Rock Ahavi, the guitarist and lead vocalist for Arka'n. And I wonder how much influence he's having on the musical direction not just of Arka'n but other bands in Lomé and elsewhere in Togo. Dedication in unexpected places often builds scenes.

Roaring Empyrean - Monuments (2019)



Country: Iran
Style: Funeral Doom Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 1 Apr 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Instagram

In keeping with this site's mission of discovery, here's something completely different. There's not a lot about Roaring Empyrean online, but some googling around suggests that it's the project of one man in Tehran, Iran called Amir Asadi.

He released an album called To Earth's Heart under this banner back in 2013 and a pair of EPs last year. What's odd is that Roaring Empyrean appears to be an exploration of contrasts, epitomised by two rather different musical styles: funeral doom metal and new age.

And yeah, that's a really odd combination! Funeral doom tends to be slow and crushing, a contemplation of mortality. New age, on the other hand, tends to be uplifting through nature, a celebration of existence. I was intrigued to find how Asadi merged the two and whether it could remotely work. Sure, Ahab and Enya each have four letter names but what middle ground could they find?

Having listened through Monuments a few times, I think it does work, as odd as it seems. As you can imagine, these are soundscapes so the hour that this album runs is taken up by four long tracks, a six minute intro and a brief interlude.

That intro, Into the Valley, sets the scene pretty well. It opens with what sounds like a cello, a dark and rich sound that's joined by traditional doom soon enough. It builds itself up as it tears itself down, which isn't a bad way to look at this album.

The first track proper is Cathedral of Thousand Hallways and the same thing happens on a much more epic scale. Rarely have I heard a song named so well! Even without the title, this would have transported me into a vast cathedral, so vast that it's easy to get lost, even though there's music all around to guide me back, albeit music echoing in the vastness. Was that a harpsichord? A carillon? Certainly that's a massive church organ. All these sounds collide within what is clearly the first monument.

The only catch to Cathedral of Thousand Hallways is that it fades out, after eleven minutes, rather than finding a better way to end. I certainly preferred it to Mountains of Torment, which got away from me. It's an intriguing piece, though, with plodding bass and crashing guitar. I presume the point here is that the title doesn't necessarily have to refer to manmade monuments but to ones that nature crafted into place too and it would be odd to see mountains of torment that didn't have, well, torment. There's plenty of that here, but an awe too at the sheer majesty of creation.

Dance of the Bleeding Earth is memorable though, very organic and mindful of the patterns of large complex systems in nature, especially during the later parts. It floats a lot in its early stages, as if close to the ground, but swells in the later ones, as if it's found a way to fly. I didn't grasp the bleeding but I presume Asadi had a vision of some sort in mind.

As the title might suggest, The Soaring Essence goes a lot more for swelling than floating. It's certainly the most uplifting piece, even though it never speeds up its drums. It's the strings that do it, even though there's a neat Beethoven-esque piano underneath it all as if to remind us that there's still ground below. What seems odd is that the strings get more and more curious as the track runs on.

I'm happy I found this album, because it does something different. Depending on the perspective you bring with you, it's either the most cheerful funeral doom or the darkest new age music that you've ever heard. Now I know what it sounds like, I can grasp it and The Soaring Essence, all sixteen minutes of it, suddenly feels like a statement. After all, the point where fundamentally different genres meet is the point where new ones are born.

Monday, 1 April 2019

Suzi Quatro - No Control (2019)



Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 29 Mar 2019
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

I had to admit that I was surprised to see a new album from Suzi Quatro. No, it isn't an age thing; there are older and less capable musicians recording. It's just that I haven't seen her name in forever and presumed that she had retired years ago. Well, apparently not. In addition to this album, featuring her son on guitar in place of her ex-husband, she released an album with Andy Scott and Don Powell in 2017 and another in 2011. She's hardly prolific, with only fifteen studio albums since 1973, but many artists have released less.

I wasn't surprised to find that this is a good album, because she's been good since before society was ready for her to be, as a bass player and vocalist clad in leather. I was surprised to find that it's rooted in the blues and is rather varied. Songs like Going Home, Don't Do Me Wrong and Going Down Blues are out and out blues song and there's blues in pretty much everything else on offer here too, to varying degrees.

Don't panic, Quatro fans from the seventies. There's still material here that will remind you of the old days, even if it's not quite as cheesy or as poppy or as clapalong. Suzi's voice is lower too but it's matured nicely over four and a half decades. Holy crap, she was rocking Can the Can when I was two and she still sounds damn fine.

Macho Man, the single, has a real swagger in its rhythm and its vocals. It's longer and with more substance than a seventies single, as is I Can Teach You to Fly, a simple but effective horn-driven piece that could easily have been a hit back in the day, if only it didn't run four and a half minutes. There's a neat Marc Bolan tease throughout and I adore the cheeky outro on the organ.

Everything works on I Can Teach You to Fly and it's surely the catchiest song anywhere on the album, but I have to suggest that Love Isn't Fair challenges it. It's the other song with prominent unaccompanied horn sections but the vocal approach reminds of Boney M. That's hardly a name I expected to cite at Apocalypse Later, even if they are my guiltiest pleasure of all time. It's a unashamed Caribbean song in a similar way to how Blondie's The Tide is High was a Caribbean song. Are those steel drums in the background? I believe so.

I have to admit at this point that I don't believe I've ever heard an album by Suzi Quatro, at least not one that wasn't a compilation. I know a bunch of her singles but not what she did a little further out of the spotlight, so I don't know what musical territory she explored on her studio albums.

One obvious aspect that I hadn't heard before is her work on the bass guitar, the one she wore so prominently on top of her leather jumpsuit in all those old videos. It was never the point of the stamp your feet singles, but she's always been a musician as much as a vocalist and that's most obvious here on the track appropriately named Bass Line. It's a softer song with a slow kick to it and her playful bass underpins the whole thing.

"Walking down that bass line won't lead you astray," she sings. It certainly doesn't lead her astray on this album. It feels like she's having fun, which is fantastic to hear. And hey, maybe some talk show or other will notice this release, be as surprised to see it as I was and give her some much deserved airtime. Maybe then America will notice one of its daughters again, for more than playing the Fonz's girlfriend's sister on Happy Days.

Djiin - The Freak (2019)



Country: France
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 14 Mar 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | YouTube

I've reviewed a few psychedelic rock albums at Apocalypse Later, including an album of the month, but this may be the deepest and trippiest I've found thus far. Djiin are French, from Rennes, and they feature a lead vocalist who also plays the electro harp, in addition to the usual musicians on bass, drums and guitar.

They're the sort of band who have no compunctions about kicking off what I believe is their debut studio album with a nine minute trip. It's the second track that's really going to determine whether people stay or leave, though. It's called Like a Hoot, it's a mere six and a half minutes long and it's a deceptively freeform jam that starts softly and slowly escalates throughout.

That lead vocalist is Chloé Panhaleux and she's a free spirit indeed, a wild flower who climbed out of the frickin' ground and figured out how to walk and talk and sing and roar. I'll never suggest that it's easy to sing a song but Panhaleux doesn't restrict herself to singing. She gives this track more than most vocalists give a career. She moans and hoots and soars and whispers and chirps and floats and creates a whole universe to inhabit.

Like a Hoot is followed by Child, the third of four opening songs that were previously on their live album, Live at Fog, and this plays out in a similar fashion. It adds some echoes to Panhaleux's voice and strips bare enough for the rest of the band to show just how unwilling each of them are to stick to anything. They're all over the map and this should sound truly awful, except it doesn't. Somehow they hold it together and haul us in with them.

It has to be said that when each band member goes off in their own direction, seeking their own spirit quest or whatever they're doing, it does allow us to follow whichever one we want. Early on, we dance along with Johann Godefroy, whose bass is a living creature here. Later, it's the guitar of Tom Penaguin that takes our attention, wailing so much that we wonder if there are two of him. At points, it's Allan Guyomard's drums that don't accompany the others so much as they play lead in their own mind.

Freaks is up next and it's as close to a title track as we get here, I guess. It's also the most familiar and the most traditional, if that's a word that's remotely applicable on something as deceptively freeform as this. There is at least some overt structure for the vocals to dance around. Panhaleux's vocal line sounds familiar, though I can't place from where. I'm thinking a Grace Slick song with her at her most abrasive. There's certainly acid aplenty on this track, which betrays a punk influence as well as a psych one.

Frankly, this could easily be described as punk psych. This may be a studio album but it feels so vibrant that it could believably have been recorded in one take, effectively live in the studio. The band constantly veer towards calamity, as if they're challenging each other, but they never fall apart at all; they just give the impression that they should. That must be such a hard approach to master. That this band have only been around since 2015 is wild.

If much of it can fairly be described as punk psych, it's not fair to limit the band to that description. Just check out Little Boy, the first song here to not be previously released live and easily the shortest, almost half the length of anything else. It's a bluesy improvisation that shifts well into a jazz vibe. Penaguin's solo in Crossing the River is right out of the blues playbook.

So where does that leave us in a vague attempt to describe the indescribable band that are Djiin? Acid punk psych jazz blues? That would miss out all the progressive angles, like on Heart Machine, and the space rock sounds that pop up every now and again and we're really losing focus. How about I just suggest that this is kind of like Janis Joplin getting incredible high and hallucinating that she's Iggy Pop?

Does that truly bizarre elevator pitch sound good? Then this is a very early Christmas present for you. You're welcome!