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Wednesday, 18 May 2022

Reviews: Jeff Scott Soto, Jani Liimatainen, Black Eye, Starchaser (Reviews By Matt Bladen)

Jeff Scott Soto - Complicated (Frontiers Music Srl)

For my money one of the best and most versatile singers on the planet Jeff Scott Soto has been playing in bands since 1982. In that time he’s fronted Journey, Yngwie Malmsteen, Talisman, Axel Rudi Pell, Trans Siberian Orchestra, Sons Of Apollo and W.E.T along with multiple guest appearances. He has also kept himself busy with his solo band S.O.T.O and this his main solo project named after himself, of which Complicated is his ninth full length. So with such a wealth of material behind him it’s pretty much a given that Complicated is going to be a talented display of slick, melodic rock, with Soto’s vocals at the forefront. 

Teaming up again with Alessandro Del Vecchio, who is probably the only man with bigger discography than JSS , they create another album of melodic rock that is based in the style of Soto’s bands Talismen/W.E.T and Del Vecchio’s acts Hardline/Revolution Saints. What this means is that the Journey influence looms large on the title track, the sultry guitar playing of Fabrizio Sgattoni having that Neal Schon smoothness as Del Vecchio gives the pulsing bass and synth walls, the beat provided by Edu Cominato. Don’t Look Back to feels like the San Franciscan AOR legends too, but then I guess you could say that these tracks also feel like JSS too as he has been performing music like this for years. 

His expressive, soulful vocal style is brilliant throughout, he never misses a beat, adapt at many styles, of which there are few on the Complicated, New Horizon and Back To The Beginning the two most obvious changes. With propulsive rockers and the saccharine ballads, Complicated is exactly what fans of JSS will want from this album. Bright melodic rock rhythms played with skill by a talented band, as Soto gives us another vocal masterclass. No new ground is covered here but Jeff Scott Soto again cements his place as one of rocks best singers, while I personally prefer his heavier works, there's plenty to enjoy here. 7/10

Jani Liimatainen – My Father’s Son (Frontiers Music Srl)

I have to say hearing Tony Kakko once again collaborating with Jani Liimatainen on All Dreams Are Born To Die, did bring me a little bit of chill as it’s been a long time since the Sonata Arctica founders have worked together but that magic is most definitely still there. Liimatainen has knack of imbuing even the most frantic guitar riff with an emotional edge, he is also an excellent judge of which vocalists work with the music he writes, on his solo projects The Dark Element and Cain’s Offering he has two of the best around, so with My Father’s Son, he has managed to recruit a who’s who of melodic metal/hard rock voices due to Frontier’s extensive connections. 

Both Timo Kotipelto of Stratovarius/Cain’s Offering and Anette Olzon (The Dark Element/Ex Nightwish) lend their talents to his writing again Kotipelto appearing twice along with, Renan Zonta (Electric Mob). Musically this is very much in Jani’s wheelhouse, epic, melodic compositions with enough prog to add variation. From the anthemic Breathing Divinity which features Björn “Speed” Strid (The Night Flight Orchestra/Soilwork) to the 11 minute title track which has Antti Railio (Celesty, Diecell) delivering the best vocal of the record, My Father’s Son is a testament to the songwriting ability of Liimatainen. His guitar playing as ever is excellent, joined by bassist Jonas Kuhlberg (One Desire), drummer Rolf Pilve (Stratovarius, Smackbound), and pianist Jarkko Lahti, these songs brim with experience as Jens Johansson (Stratovarius, Rainbow) and Janne Huttunen add key and sax solos. 

With a country feel to Renan Zonta’s first track What Do You Want, some dark elements (naturally) to the Anette Olzon sung I Could Stop Now, bouncy AOR with Side By Side, that of course has Pekka Henio of Brother Firetribe behind the mic and a big ballad in the shape of Who Are We, sung by Timo Kotipelto, though Into The Fray is much more Stratovarius/Cain’s Offering. Liimatainen himself also has a vocal turn on Haunted House. My Father’s Son is a solo album that has the entire career of Jani Liimatainen across it, from big ballads to galloping melodic metal it’s a delight for any fans of his playing or the singers involved. 8/10

Black Eye - Black Eye (Frontiers Music Srl)

Anyone who knows their melodic metal/rock will know the name David Readman, the vocalist of both Pink Cream 69, Adagio, Almanac, Voodoo Circle and his own solo band. So it’s only natural that Frontiers would have an idea for him, so pairing him up with producer/guitarist Aldo Lonobile (Secret Sphere, Archon Angel Sweet Oblivion) is a great choice as he is a stunning guitar player, deft handed producer and knows how to get the best out of vocalists such as Zak Stevens and Geoff Tate. Lonobile can write tracks that suit the often wide ranging voice of these singers and once again has done this for the bluesy, powerful throat of Readman on the Black Eye project. 

The band consists of Readman, Lonobile with guitarist Luca Princiotta (DORO), drummer David Folchitto (ex- Fleshgod Apocalypse, Stormlord), and bassist Andrea Arcangeli (DGM) as Antonio Agate and Mattia Gosetti (Agarthic providing the keys and orchestral arrangements. So as with anything Lonobile does, there’s a huge sound on this record, which stays in the melodic metal style of bands such as Edguy, Freedom Call and Masterplan, the touches of hard rock and prog also audible, but mainly Black Eye is about dual guitar flourishes, galloping rhythms and showcasing Redman’s vocal prowess. 

Break The Chains bring a bit of grit as Redman gets to give a growl, Darkest Night is driven by the orchestral flourishes and down tuned riff, Under Enemy’s Fire is a classic metal rager while The Landing is brimming with AOR synths. Black Eye is a record that isn’t quite as impressive as Archon Angel or Sweet Oblivion, but still has some strong performances on it, if you want Redman at his best though I’d check out Voodoo Circle. 7/10

Starchaser - Starchaser (Frontiers Music Srl)

Another collaborative effort from the Frontiers team, this time it's Tad Morose axeman Kenneth Jonsson's latest project. Initially slated as a solo project, there was a few phone calls, maybe some emails, the songs started to be written, with contributions from singer Ulrich Carlsson (Shaggy, ex-M.ILL.ION), bassist Örjan Josefsson (Cibola Junction), drummer Johan Koleberg (Wolf, Therion, Hammerfall, etc.), and keyboardist Kay Backlund (Lions Share, Nils Patrik Johansson, Impera, etc.) As things progressed in the studio, the collaboration became more pronounced so the solo project gave way to a band. Jonsson wanted to make an album that had enough of his signatures that people would know it's him but also expand out of his comfort zone citing numerous polyphonic composers as inspiration for Starchaser, this was mainly because this record was written on a piano so relies as much on the synths, orchestrations and keys as it does riffy guitars. 

From the opening title track, we're brought into what I think is a conceptual record, that features lots of twitching synths, a big ballsy rhythm section on heavy rockers such as Bringer Of Evil, as Dead Man Walking is the most symphonic styled song on the record. The interplay between Jonsson and Backlund is very good across the 13 songs on this record (though that includes and intro and outro) and in Ulrich Carlsson they have a A-Class vocalist who delivers even when the pace drops a bit on I'll Find Away and gives snarling performance on Day Of Judgement. Starchaser is a record that will sufficiently quench your melodic/symphonic thirst, it won't change the world but it shows a more varied side to  Kenneth Jonsson's songwriting. 7/10

Reviews: Thy Kingdom Will Burn, The Dark Alamorté, Imonolith, Casket Feeder (Reviews By Matt Cook)

Thy Kingdom Will Burn – The Void And The Vengeance (Scarlet Records)

Melodic death metal and Finland go hand-in-hand, like peanut butter & jelly, whiskey and coke. The list of illustrious acts to hail from the frozen northern tundra is as exhaustive as it is prolific: Children of Bodom, Kalmah, Insomnium, Omnium Gatherum, Mors Principium Est… do you see my point?
With that in mind, Thy Kingdom Will Burn continue to make a strong case for their acceptance within the ranks of such highly acclaimed bands. 

One of the most exhilarating elements of their new record, The Void And The Vengeance, is the waste-no-time mentality; Between Two Worlds switches from metal to acoustic with piano accompaniment in half a minute. As soon as the Mors Principium Est-inspired harsh lines were bellowed atop slower-tempoed music, I was caught hook, line and sinker. The influences were alive and well on Disbelief. Sami Kujala dances around a gnarly power-metal guitar fill in the vein of Gloryhammer. He then also delves into a nifty Brian Fair impersonation. The adept musicianship thrives on this album. Standout Veil Of Wicked Sky is exemplary in its complementing guitar intro and unwavering cohesion from start to finish. 

It’s followed up by the dark MDM hit Fortress Of Solitude. Thy Kingdom Will Burn opt to turn down the tempo on the last three songs, but metaphorically, the flame still lives on. The band has released two full-lengths in as many years. The Void And The Vengeance nary seems mediocre. Some of it is that rugged Finnish blood. But a lot of it is downright precise performances and a keen sense of how to incorporate a plethora of influences while also carving out a unique sound that both fits well into the genre but also pushes the envelope. 7/10

The Dark Alamorté – Lunacrium Thepsis (Unique Leader)

A 15-track album isn’t as common as it was, say, 20 years ago. Though fret not when consuming The Dark Alamorté’s latest release, Lunacrium Thepsis. It’s an ambitious albeit dreary collection of Atmospheric black metal. Most important, it’s well worth the time it warrants. The deserved praise begins first with the aural, attention-grabbing ambience, most significantly on A Loathing Tomb and equally as adeptly on Vongrimson Burrows, which wields the trifecta of stellar vocals, raucous tempo and a pristine execution. 

Cast Into Froth’ merges domineering vocals and an evocative tonal bed, and the ensuing end result smashes. The setting feels as enjoyable as can be. Within the confines of Lunacrium, the California four piece flirts with deathcore (Gowns Of Undying Light) and doubles down on the intrepid ambience (Antediluvian Revelation). It does take a few plays to resign yourself to the incessant and apparently irresistible double bass pedal that percolates so prominently as to actually justify my calling it out. I mean I enjoy shiny new toys like the rest of them, but in moderation. 

I was enthused by the knowledge that The Dark Alamorté hail from Los Angeles, because these guys have a sound that fits alongside any other melancholic, diabolical black metal that’s come out of Europe over the decades. As a whole, this record is likely stronger than any particular song. But black metal doesn’t exclusively rely on catchy hooks or memorable, arena-rock choruses. What’s here is instead a mystifying melody to be played on a gray-scaled, gloomy night of camping in the woods. 7/10

Imonolith – Progressions (Self Released)

It’s imperative I begin by confessing. When I first saw Jon Howard, with his early-2000s soul patch, meter-long wallet chain and Tapout-inspired attire (not to mention the crazy-scientist hairstyle), I judgmentally thought the worst. The epitome of everything I detested about high school. I hold my hands up in defeat. Howard is a ballerina when it comes to singing, pirouetting from heavy screams to balladeering. I was forced to eat my hat on more than one occasion while listening through Progressions, the newest hard-hitting effort churned out by Imonolith. The riffs are powerful, with each feeling fresh and pure. 

Overall, the record consistently won me over after trying to find reasons to resent the sound and style. The two-headed monster consisting of Kai Huppunen and Oswin Wong reign supreme on Army Of Me, pummeling with their brand of strong and heavy stringsmanship. I don’t love the repetitive refrain and the cadence in the chorus, but as we’ll see, more hat eating on my part. The Lesson is an exhibition of Howard’s exceptional screams, something I absolutely did not expect. 

Also unexpected was the heavy, dive-bombing riff, much to the song’s credit. Incorporating more of an Industrial feel, The Reign assaults you with fierce, brief drumming. And the “Bring down the reign” double-play on words is admirable and appreciated. It can either be interpreted as bringing down the reign of a tyrannical king/queen, emperor/empress, etc., or if heard instead of read, opening the skies to provide sustenance for the barren, arid landscape to allow for crop yields and vegetation. 

We’ve learned two things: Imonolith are a force to be reckoned with, a band which appeals to both metalheads and hard rockers alike (a feat not as easy as it might sound). And I am a close-minded asshole who makes snap judgements based entirely on seeing someone’s picture for three seconds.
Well played, Jon Howard. 7/10

Casket Feeder – Servants Of Violence (Self Released)

It would stand to reason that combining two of my favorite genres of music – death metal and hardcore – would result in a style that appeals to me twofold. Casket Feeder fall under that umbrella, except they can’t seem to commit 100 percent to either genre, instead opting to give a taste of what they can offer, but coming up short on further expanding certain elements. Servants Of Violence doesn’t come off as organic in the sense of blending the two labels together. Competing rather than co-existing, it serves as an awkward backdrop that clouds the overall quality of the release. I do recognize a lot of bands and fans alike reserve a special place in hell for discussing sub-genres and “pigeonholing,” but when I first searched Casket Feeder’s Metal Archives page, it piqued my interest.

The musical and vocal acumen is unquestionably present; Matt Downes harnesses a formidable sound, ebbing and flowing from powerful Death Metal (Vulture Culture) to forceful elongated screaming (Mask Of Sorrow). But the record didn’t get off on the strongest of notes. Opening with To The Hounds Go The Faithful, there is a noticeable prolonging between the music and the singing, which in this case is more distracting than constructive. This type of music should be aggressive, unrelenting, punishing. Allowing for extensive instrumental breaks only takes away from the momentum. Doomsday Prophecy doesn’t do Servants any favors, either. 

The track becomes mired in a weird echo effect that makes the guitar sound like it’s being played underwater. And not in the epic way Iron Maiden executed on Rime Of The Ancient Mariner. Tyranny Begins’ is a clear-cut headbanger colored with Hardcore goodness. But much like this review teeters from positive to negative, so too does the 10-song record. I applaud Casket Feeder’s ambition, and I was biased heading into this. Unfortunately, the album didn’t have the greatest beginning, and the Jekyll and Hyde back-and-forth continued until the last beat. I firmly appreciate the effort, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. 6/10

Tuesday, 17 May 2022

Reviews: Misery Index, Malevolence, Volturian, Deepshade (Reviews By Richard Oliver, Zach Scott, Matt Cook & David Karpel)

Misery Index - Complete Control (Century Media Records) [Richard Oliver]

If you like pummelling brutality and face-ripping aggression then hopefully Misery Index are already a band that you are familiar with. If not then now is the time to remedy this and the release of the bands seventh full length album Complete Control is as good a time as any to get on board with one of the most underrated bands in death metal. Misery Index formed in 2001 in Baltimore and have been an underground force to be reckoned with fusing death metal, hardcore and grindcore together in furious style yet never quite getting the recognition or appreciation as some of their contemporaries in the 21st century U.S. death metal scene. 

I reviewed and thoroughly enjoyed their previous album - 2019’s Rituals Of Power - and new album Complete Control is equally as good albeit bringing in some different elements to their bands death/grind sound.  Album opener Administer The Dagger mixes violence and fury with a more atmospheric approach, the title track brings in more traditional metal elements as well as hefty amounts of groove whilst Infiltrator brings the bands hardcore leanings to the forefront. You do get skull fracturing blasts of death metal aggression that Misery Index are known for such as The Eaters And The Eaten, Rites Of Cruelty and Reciprocal Repulsion laying waste to all that stands in their path. 

Complete Control is another excellent effort from Misery Index in a discography that does not contain a single dud album. Misery Index remain a remarkably consistent and impressive force in death metal.  Rituals Of Power was a tough act to follow but Misery Index have very much managed to pull it off. 8/10

Malevolence – Malicious Intent (Nuclear Blast) [Zach Scott]

Malicious Intent is the sound of a band who are expanding their horizons without abandoning their roots. Hardcore, bluesy, and melodic, this album is another impressive album in the catalogue of a band that is solidly cementing themselves as heavyweights in the UK metal scene. Off the back of a tour with metalcore giants Architects and Sleep Token, Malevolence have delivered yet another crushing album of big riffs, beatdowns, and meaty hooks. If there ever was a song that summed up the adage “start as you mean to go on”, it’s album opener and title track Malicious Intent. Clocking in at just 1:40, this track is just breakdown after breakdown; serving to remind the listener that, even though they may have adopted more catchy metalcore influences, this has by no means replaced their affinity for bonebreaking hardcore. 

Continuing with heavy hardcore tunes like Life Sentence, plus some heavy Pantera influence in lead single On Broken Glass and Still Waters Run Deep, Malicious Intent does have moments where it pauses for reflection. Huge metalcore ballad Higher Place takes a break from the whirlwind of breakdowns to introduce some beautifully-written melodies and huge choruses, a sound that is later expanded on with Salvation, featuring Matt K. Heafy of metalcore juggernauts Trivium. Vocalist Alex Taylor is outspoken on the topic of men’s mental health and subjects such as suicide, gried, and depression, and the more somber and melodic moments capture the poignance of this lyrical content perfectly, while the more brutal aspects of the record capture the helpless rage many are so prone to when dealing with these issues. 

Armageddon closes the album with some homage to the mid-2000s metalcore scene, with soaring melodies and more big choruses alongside some heavy and sludgy riffing. Konan Hall and Josh Baines’ guitar work on this album is stunning, and Hall’s other role as clean vocalist brings out another dimension in the band’s music, and his voice is greatly suited to the style. A tight and heavy rhythm section is provided by Wilkie Robinson on bass and Charlie Thorpe behind the kit – every breakdown is huge thanks to the massive sonic foundation they provide, and the more melodic moments are complimented by their subtle and appropriate playing. As well as this, the clean production, handled by the band themselves and co-producer Carl Brown, captures all dimensions to these tracks brilliantly – as does the striking art by Eliran Kantor. 

It is difficult to find standout tracks in an album so full of brilliant songs, which is an excellent problem to have. It’s also somewhat difficult to find how the band could improve on the sound they’ve curated so well here - it’s such a well-thought-out album that refuses to fall into cliches that it’s difficult to find moments where it feels like it was written on autopilot, which is a very common problem with many records in modern metalcore and hardcore. Overall, an excellent album that is sure to catapult the Sheffield to the top of the UK scene, a position they’ve no doubt earned  through no small amount of hard graft over the last decade or so. 10/10

Volturian – Red Dragon (Scarlet Records) [Matt Cook]

The most thrilling aspect of watching a movie is eagerly anticipating the next development, whether it be science fiction, horror or romantic comedy. What has already been presented is exhilarating, allowing for heightened and engaging expectations for what is left to come. Red Dragon is the musical equivalent. Not to say it’s a cinematic endeavor; rather, the scenes and idiosyncrasies Volturian muster provide for an enduring and enchanting  experience, particularly owing to Federica Lanna’s magnificently versatile singing. 

At times trippy, at other times angelic. The Italian-based foursome compiled a sprawling sophomore record. In true analogous fashion, the full-length opens with Rebirth, a trippy and inquisitive montage-y affair, setting the scene. Though instead of breaking down this record track-by-track, let’s pinpoint a couple of standouts. Firstly, Stay leaves remnants of pop-punk and vibrant electronics in its wake. The vocals tower over the rhythm section before Federico Mondelli lays down a scorching guitar solo. It’s a microcosm of the adaptability of the band.

Secondly, Torn Asunder. This very well could be the strongest song on the album, though that takes nothing away from the others. Trippy, spacey and synthwave-esque, the retro-sounding composition still retains a modern and sleek aura. The omni-present bass pedal beat enhances the overall value. Burn It Up and Empty World act as vocal representations of being serenaded by a close friend as you cry into their shoulder, seeking nothing but simple comfort. Bury Me harkens back to early t.A.t.U. in its keyboard tones and noises, aided by entrancing, hooky vocals. 

Before fading to black, Red Dragon offers one last hurrah. Descent dual wields electronics and piano as a metaphorical yin and yang. Take whatever you might think you already know about symphonic metal. Whatever you end up with, this album is not. It’s infinitely more particular and calculated, which is actually extremely high praise considering the genre tends to call for complex and difficult arrangements as it is. Red Dragon is well worth the price of admission, and then some. 8/10

Deepshape - Gloaming (Self Released) [David Karpel]

Deepshade has dropped a pungent golden dab of a new EP, Gloaming, and it is potent. A power trio from Wigan, UK, David Rybka (voc/guitar), Thomas Doherty (bass), and Adam Owens (drums) conjure for themselves a unique sound with enough reference points to win over fans of Sabbathian riffs wearing the flannel of 90s rock but also cooled by the shadows of post-grunge. All this shaped by progressive curves, including ecstatic bursts of Floyd-like passages. While they–like so many great bands–are certainly the product of these seminal influences, Deepshade owns their own voice. And it’s a catchy one. 

Eat My Dust appropriately kicks off with a simple strumming that hugely expands into a chugging groove of chunky fuzzed guitars and surly horns. The bass runs like a heavy-handed boxer while the drums smash and bash tight and driving. The tune is immediately catchy and melodic, and Rybka’s voice fascinates with a restrained quality that pays off when he starts belting. There’s a jazzy passage two-thirds into the song that crescendos into a cathartic charge to the end. That leads sweetly into the chilled start of Mountain, a nine minute journey. There are peaks and valleys in this song where the guitars rage a swinging groove only to pull back to let the bass, light drums, and horns come in. The bass is slinky on the bottom, and Owens' percussion lights a path to follow. Rybka’s voice, though, mesmerizes and throughout often reminds me of Martin Garner from Vitskӓr Süden. The final jazzy breakdown allows the song to breathe into the psych space we’ve been prepped for from the start.

Life Is Beauty sounds a bit like Rush until some pedals are smashed and the chords rip ahead. That prog sound returns throughout and Rybka does some really interesting vocal things here. Four minutes in, there’s a time change that won’t break your ankles as Rybka conjures Layne Staley from the depths before getting all psychedelic again. The mix of progressive psychedelic stoner rock works so well here as Deepshade are unafraid to pull back and just as willing to shake the foundations. The Wolf has teeth and has some of the heaviest sections on the album. Much of it stands on a Stone Temple Pilots like groove, which they make their own with little effort. The shortest song and the heaviest, The Wolf is another example of Deepshade’s potential range in every song. This quality keeps us on our toes trying to expect the unexpected. 

By the time the title track plays, you might think you’re ready for anything. But Gloaming starts as a slow burner and still keeps you on the edge. Melodic harmonies accompany keys, a rolling bass line, the horns are under there, visiting, retreating, and sound effects float like dustmotes as Rybka sings. By the end of the song, Rybka let’s his voice go and it’s the closest he (and the chord progressions) come to sounding like Chris Cornell (and Soundgarden) on this album. It’s also really soulful and beautiful. The final passages allow the horns to guide us out and it works just so fine. The five songs on Gloaming lean heavier and are more experimental than Deepshade’s previous efforts. They also reveal that this is a band willing to take risks, a band with a bevy of rock styles they’re able to puzzle together into trippy jazz psych jams, emotive song writing, and captivating grooves. Looking forward to whatever they do next. 9/10

Monday, 16 May 2022

Reviews: Crack The Sky Tribute, Battle Symphony, Sands Of Eternity, Echelon (Reviews By Matt Bladen)

A Crack In The Sky – A Tribute to William J Tsamis (Pitch Black Records)

A Crack In The Sky, celebrates the work of one of the most renowned, influential, underground artists in in Greek and American heavy metal. William J Tsamis passed away on May 13th 2021, so this album has been compiled to be released on the one-year anniversary. The co-founder of Warlord with Mark Zonder (Fates Warning) they blazed a trail in the post NWOBHM era with a sound that would go on to be defined as US Heavy Metal.

It's a style that has been an influence on bands such as Iced Earth, Savatage etc along with Manowar, Virgin Steele and Manilla Road. Though never quite as mainstream as these acts Tsamis' influence is audible still today with his classically trained guitar playing and songwriting in Warlord, Lordian Winds and Lordian Guard inspiring countless acts in Greece and the USA. Some of these acts pay tribute to Tsamis on this record, it's a decent mix of bands all of whom set themselves in the traditional/NWOBHM/power metal schools, so each able to interpret the songs in their own way, without changing them too much from the originals. As Tsamis' sound was heavily influenced by the European styles there are bands from all over the world though the lion's share hail from Greece/Cyprus or the USA.

The most known of these being Cypriot act Mirror who open the record with the propulsive Aliens, as 'Greek Maiden' Stray Gods take the excellent War In Heaven which gets proper Maiden vibes and Arrayan Path bring a bit of the epic to The Rainbow, which features former Warlord live guitarist Paolo Viani on guitar. Array Path guitarist Socrates Leptos also provides a poignant finale on the instrumental title track. The recognisable Americans on the record are Sumerlands who add that sense of melancholy Tsamis had in his work to Lost And Lonely Days. Firewölfe give Battle Of The Living Dead some lycanthropic viciousness, while Eternal Champion throw the fists up high for the anthemic Stygian Passage.

Elsewhere though Twisted Tower Dire have touch of Iced Earth/Mercyful Fate/Annihilator on the creepy Mrs. Victoria as Solitary Sabred also stay with the occult on Black Mass. Lucifer's Hammer comes from Maltese doom metal band Forsaken while Serbian heavy doomsters Claymorean are perfectly suited to the Maiden stomp of 70,000 Tears, Wotan give Winds Of Thor the right amount of histrionics. What I like about this record is that not only are these bands paying respect to a musician who is a big influence on all of them but they also give you a brief look at what they do as band, if found myself seeking out the bands I didn't know on this record to listen to more of what they had to offer, of course then kicking myself for not finding out about them earlier.

At 79 minutes and 16 songs there's plenty of music here, making Crack The Sky a weighty tribute to a hero of the heavy metal underground, I'd encourage you to pick this up as an entry point to not just the work of William J Tsamis but of all the bands featured as well. A must have for fans of trad metal. 9/10

Battle Symphony - War On Earth (Soman Records)

War On Earth is a concept record, well actually it's a metal opera, in the vein of Avantasia, though closer thematically to the Ayreon project. Created by journalist, author and keyboardist Nikos Tzouannis it's an album that doesn't have the progressive flourishes of Ayreon, getting more influences from bands such as Manowar, Blind Guardian and even Symphony X. There's a lot of folk flourishes that seep through the classic heavy metal sound as well as cinematic orchestrations that have been scored by Grigoris Giarelis,who also plays the guitar and programmed by George Halliwell, it' producer Ektoras Tsolakis, who provides bass and drums. 

The strings and classical influences make this album more than just traditional heavy metal, it's much fuller, rounded sound that really hits home the 'metal opera' tag. Thematically it deals with a conflict between a human rebellion and the human/alien inhabitants on Planet Earth, so it's science fiction fantasy, that has multiple parts throughout the 11 tracks. There is also a bonus track sung in Spanish, that isn't part of the concept. As with any record of this kind there is a plethora of vocalists playing the different parts, but the lead characters are portrayed by Tasos Lazaris of Fortress Under Siege and Katie Johnson, there are also contributions from Nicholas Leptos (Arrayan Path, ex - Warlord), Roberto Tiranti (Labyrinth), Daniel Heiman (ex - Lost Horizon)  Dee Theodorou (Illusory), Grigoris Giarelis (Badd Kharma), Julian Küster (Black Eden). 

All of the singers to the dense musical tapestry Tzouannis weaves. There's also some guest shredders as Gus Drax (Sunburst, Suicidal Angels and Black Fate), Stathis Pavlantis (Reflection) and Helena Kotina all give solos to the epic final track. It's a hell of record, difficult to digest in one sitting for sure, this needs repeated listens and a booklet to paw over as you listen to tracks such as the the stirring Hail Mankind, Hail!, the electronic pulse of Power And Glory or the emotional thrust of Soul Survivors which has Roberto Tiranti giving his all on track that sounds a lot like Labyrinth. You can hear that Nikos Tzouannis is a real lover of heavy metal as every song on this conceptual debut offering has an influence or acknowledgement to the leaders of the genre. What the story is about? Haven't a clue. The music? Brilliant. 8/10 

Sands Of Eternity – Beyond The Realms Of Time (Symmetric Records)

The latest signing to Bob Katsionis’ Symmetric Records are Athens based traditional/power metal band Sands Of Eternity. Now when I say debut I mean that this is the first album from Sands Of Eternity, though main songwriter/guitarist Ioannis Ioakimides was the creative force between Hourglass Sands of Eternity who released two demos and record in 2002. Upon seeing that the Hourglass SOE were a bit of cult band, in the Greek heavy metal online world, he decided to create new band and trim down the original name, thus Sands Of Eternity were born with an album full of compositions Ioakimides had been working on since Hourglass SOE split. Employing the services of singer Michael ‘Dice’ Papadakis and joining with producer/keyboardist/guitarist Bob Katsionis, who is reviving more cult bands than Andy Sneap. 

Sands Of Eternity started to record this new album. The band is rounded out by Thanassis Skoutelis (bass), Vangelis Kalentzis (keys), Michael Skoutelis (drums) and Kostas Nanos (guitars), though I’m not sure if they are all on the recordings as the keys are done by Katsionis. Still Beyond The Realms Of Time is a classic sounding heavy metal album taking cues from Hammerfall, Helloween and Greek legends Warlord, there’s plenty of dual guitar harmonies on the power metal bounce of Enlightened (Mighty Warrior), which has an anthemic chorus and keyboard solo, there’s the occasional lighters aloft ballad of Desire and the triumphal Red Flag a proper fantasy metal sing along Manowar would be proud of. 

To go with this there’s mid paced, melodic rockers such as The Hitman and the symphonic epics like Faded and So Far Away (A Soldier's Cry) both of which bring in hints of Kamelot. Vocally Papadakis has touch of both Joacim Cans (Hammerfall), Andi Deris (Helloween) and Chris Boltendahl (Grave Digger), a raspy snarl that can hit high notes when needed, such as on Shadows Of Light, as the instrumentation is rich with experience, the solos hitting all the right notes as the riffs add differentiation, the rhythm section just as impressive in full flight or keeping the pace for the slower moments. 

Many in the Greek trad/power metal scene will be pleased to see Sands Of Eternity returning after 20 years, luckily the music on Beyond The Realms Of Time is worthy of a triumphant comeback. 8/10

Echelon - Secret Power (Sleaszy Rider Records)

Secret Power is the debut album from Corfian power/symphonic metal band Echelon, they are band that have dual male/female vocals and cite Helloween and Sonata Arctica as influences. You can hear that throughout this debut, unfortunately they don't do much else other than play straight forward symphonic/power metal like so many. 

Because there are thousands of bands doing this sort of thing  means that the vocals have to be on top form, and on Secret Power they just aren't, the title track being the worst culprit. Now the band split up in 2006 but reformed in 2018 to honour their bold bass player Lefteris Doumpos who passed away in 2015. That's admirable of course but doesn't really lift this record up from being lost in a pretty sizable genre. I'm sure someone will love it but it's not for me due to those vocals. 5/10

Saturday, 14 May 2022

A View From The Back Of The Room: Helloween & Hammerfall (Live Review By Matt Bladen)

Helloween & Hammerfall - O2 Academy Brixton 05.05.22

This had been a long time coming, having never seen either band, the fact they were playing a co-headline tour was enough for the one night (which actually became three) night layover in London. With one of my oldest mates in tow, it was into the Big Smoke, check in to the hotel and down to the lovely area of Brixton for a bit of Bowie spotting before a few (possibly one too many) adult beverages. As we head into the Brixton Academy, one of my favourite venues due to excellent vantage points the sloped floor provides, within 20 minutes of the doors opening it was time for the Swedish kings of heavy metal Hammerfall (8) to open the evening. 

Staged as you'd expect with Norse Hammers, lights and an overall slickness. Hammerfall are somewhat regimented in their delivery however they pump out anthemic power metal for a solid hour. Using three from their most recent effort, Hammer Of Dawn along with classics such as Glory To The Brave, Blood Bound, Let The Hammer Fall and The Metal Age, it was a packed with their best tracks and got the crowd going with every riff from Oscar Dronjak (and his guitar shape like a hammer) and Pontus Norgren inviting as cheer while David Wallin (drums) and Fredrik Larsson (bass) drove a heroic groove. Hammerfall are so polished that if you closed your eyes, it felt like the record Joacim Cans' vocals especially are crystal clear. As Hearts On Fire brought the set to a close, Hammerfall laid down a hefty gauntlet for the German Pumpkins to follow.

Happily for me anyway his was a long time coming, the idea of seeing Helloween (10) has always been a little too far fetched as they rarely tour the UK outside one show, but seeing as this was while they are still in their Pumpkins United format and also touring a new album, attendance was mandatory. So with the unveiling of drummer Daniel Löble's Pumpkin drum riser, it was time for the Pumpkins United to bring the heavy metal party. What a party it was as with limited staging, the drum riser and some screens this now 7 piece line up all seemed to be having an absolute blast, interplay between them was almost as brilliant as hearing newbies Skyfall and Mass Pollution from their self titled record sandwiched I Want Out, like all of these classic songs took on a different sound due to the vocal interplay between Michael Kiske, Kai Hansen and Andi Deris.

If you've heard Helloween the album you'll know that an integral part of why it's so good is that the vocal trio work so well together and that was shown here too. The set comprised mostly of each singers defining moments with Keeper Of The Seven Keys Part II having the lion's share we also got songs from KOTSK Part I from the Kiske years, Hansen took the lead role for tracks from Walls Of Jericho while Andy Deris' long standing reign was celebrated with tracks from Master Of The Rings and The Sign Of The Oath

As Future World shifted into Save Us the Kiske blasts were augmented by Deris' rougher style, he then showed his expertise on Where The Rain Grows, backed by Hansen who then took us through a medley of tracks from the debut album Walls Of Jericho his biting guitar tone evident as watching him once again in unison with co-founding members, guitarist Michael Weikath and bassist Markus Grosskopf was a bit emotional I must say. For me though it's Sascha Gerstner who is the keystone of Helloween live, his weird looking guitar at the heart of nearly every song as he strides the stage, looking serene with the chaos unfolding around him. He even has an animated pumpkin avatar for the video to Best Time

As encores go A Tale That Wasn't Right, Power and Keeper Of The Seven Keys is as about as good as you can get, the latter being breathtaking live, with that vocal interplay at its heart, but with the crowd still singing it again the lights hit for the second and final encore, as I Want Out was met with rapture and the crowd in full voice. An incredible gig and real bucket list stuff, a smile etched on my face and a year in my eye it was back to the hotel ready for the weekend of more music to come. Still even as the dust settled, as I write this Sunday morning, the memories of this show are very much at the forefront of my mind.

Friday, 13 May 2022

Reviews: Upon A Burning Body, Ante Inferno, Ritual, Scitalis (Reviews By Zak Skane, Paul Scoble, David Karpel & Matt Cook)

Upon A Burning Body – Fury (Seek & Strike) [Zak Skane]

Upon A Burning Body have been a well known name in the metal community since the late 2000’s when they first started as a deathcore outfit that wore suits on stage. Throughout the years the band have been sharing stages with modern metal icons like Trivium and As I Lay Dying as well being guests on stages like Download. With five releases under the bands ever sonically evolving belt, Fury shows the band melding all their sounding into one.

As the album opens up with A New Responsibility, traditional deathcore venom oozes with ripping blast beats and groovy chugged verses, combined with Hardcore driven gang vocals. Once the pounding right and left hooks subsides, the sonic assault returns with thrashy vengeance summoning the energy of the big four whilst the pounding rhythms of bands like Hatebreed and Kubala Khan get us bouncing. Shapeshifter takes us back to their classic deathcore sound with a modern twist, with the lead lines soaring and grooving with razor sharp precision. 

The band leads us down the buttrock route with the bluesy guitars and soulful swaggered choruses that the singer Danny is providing on Thunder Heart. The soaring vocals are continued with Kill The Ego with band wearing their Lamb of god patches on their sleeve. Clarity takes us back to the 2010’s…..I can’t believe that’s a thing now…..with the classic chugfest and catchy chorus formula, whilst other highlights on this album such as Who Am I and Code Of Honour provides us with solid beatdowns and sing-along choruses.

I did enjoy listening to this album as it turns to shuffle mode on the modern metal and rock playlist, each sub genre they explored was executed well, but it doesn’t re-define the wheel 7/10.

Ante Inferno - Antediluvian Dreamscapes (Vendetta Records) [Paul Scoble]

Hailing from Scarborough, Ante Inferno have been making nasty music together since 2017. Scarborough may not seem like a very Black Metal place to be based, however anyone who has visited one in the winter knows that there is nowhere more Grim and Frostbitten than a British seaside resort town offseason, and Scarborough is on the North Yorkshire coast, so that Grim and Frostbitten squared.

In the 5 years the band have been together they have made one album before Antediluvian Dreamscapes, in 2020’s Fane, and they released a single called On The Precipice Of Life And Death one year before in 2019. The band is made up of G.S. on Drums, K.B. on Vocals and Guitar, N.L. on Bass and Ben Gladstone on Guitar. Ben joined the band this year, and has clearly not had time to remove the superfluous letters from his name. 

Ante Inferno’s sound is rooted in Tremolo Picked Black Metal, it’s melodic and modern except for when it’s blasting, savage and Second Wave influenced. The album is made up of seven tracks, two of which are short instrumental interludes, and the other five are long songs. The album opens with A Lullaby To A Dying World, which is one of the short tracks that acts as an intro, the track features clean guitar that is nicely brooding, and draws the audience into the album. Next comes the first of the long songs, Transcendence, which drops us strait into fast blasting Black Metal, that has a slight second wave style to it, and also reminds me a little of the band Mare Cognitum. Next comes a mid-paced section that is pleasingly heavy, before the song takes a turn towards very melodic tremolo picked riffs, that are wonderfully tuneful. The track then drops us back into the maelstrom of the fast and savage riffs that opened the song. The track then repeats the slow and heavy, the fast and very tuneful, before bringing the track to an end with very nasty blasting.
 
The next song is Celestial Mirage, which vacillates between savage second wave blast beats, and a very dissonant slow section that is just as nasty as the blast beats, and has a relentless and unstoppable feel to it. Up next is the second of the short instrumentals, Shadowed Waters; a beautifully dissonant guitar, which then has a tremolo picked riff over the top and takes the audience into the most interesting track on the album, Two Score And Ten Souls. Two Score And Ten Souls opens with softly strummed guitar, the guitar has a nice dissonant distortion on it, but the playing style is very soft. The track has harsh vocals on it, but they are low in the mix, and not intrusive, so this track has a very smooth, drifting feel to it. The style of guitar playing reminds me of one specific band; Pink Floyd in the early to mid Seventies, Wish You Were Here era Pink Floyd. 

Imagine Pink Floyd making a Black Metal track, that is what it sounds like to me. The track then builds in intensity, getting more driven and bringing the vocals higher up in the mix. We are then dropped into a maelstrom of blasting Tremolo picked riff, before the track returns to the Pink Floyd feel from the beginning of the song. The track then blasts for a while before a slow and dissonant section bridges the gap to one final blast beat, which takes the song to its end. The parts that I felt were reminiscent of Pink Floyd don’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard in Black Metal before, it’s a lovely piece of very original songwriting that I would love to see the band expand on. Beyond The Immemorial Veil is a mix of simple and direct tremolo picked, blasting Black Metal, and slower melodic and very tuneful Black Metal, which again is a little reminiscent of Mare Cognitum. 

Final track Nightmares Of The Eschaton opens with some very riffy Black Metal that reminds me a little of Immortal, before going into savagely fast tremolo picked Black Metal, until we return to the very riffy feel for the end of the song. Antediluvian Dreamscapes is a fantastic album. Without Two Score And Ten Souls, this would still be a very good, and very enjoyable album, but the inclusion of a song that is beautiful and beautifully original makes this album something very special, its a track that makes Ante Inferno stand a little bit taller than the bands around them. This album deserves to be a massive hit, I have a feeling that in a few months Ante Inferno are going to be a very big deal in British Black Metal. 9/10

Ritual - Enigma (Self Released) [David Karpel]

Ritual’s latest, Enigma, is the eclectic sequel to the narrative saga the band began on their first EP, Cococabana And The Punchdrunk Blues. This time the 5-piece bring with them a deadly coterie of elite guests: Devin Townsend, Anneke Van Giersbergen (The Gathering and Devin Townsend Project), Jørgen Munkeby (Shining), and Dianne van Giersbergen (Ex Libris, formerly of Xandria, and no relation to Anneke). The result is a wild mix of genre-blended songs that grab from funk, opera, groove metal, symphonic metal, power metal, punk, jazz, and straight up rock to execute a really dynamic listening experience. 

In As Above So Below, dark melodic harmonies open up like curtains to reveal a tremendous stage, which the next tune, Seven Gates, will use in its entirety in just over three and a half minutes. Chugging riffs lead to dramatic, operatic vocals that build to a crescendo. Rough vocals ride the grooving riffage, but soon give way to rapped lyrics that also then fall away to open up into a symphonic metal transition. The rapping comes back, as does those incessant crunchy guitars. How many genres of music can you fit in three and a half minutes and still make it sound like an actual song? Apparently a bunch. Murderous Operandi sounds like a straightforward ripper of power metal braggadocio until a mellow, jazzy sax breakdown makes me think otherwise. After the horsepower guitars pick up again, it’s great to hear them dragging the horn kicking and screaming with them, blaring out front again momentarily, and then fading out with the song. 

Rapcore returns in Pandemonium, spiced with chanting and impressive vocals, and Walk Of Shame, where we enter the vestibule of Satan’s palace with guest Devin Townsend, shows us through the last door with a jazzy set that feels absolutely necessary and appropriate. The loop of terrified screaming in the end fades out to let the horn sing its last sad notes, which seems to close the album with utter finality. Dramatic, genre-blending, perhaps even genre-bending, and well-performed, Enigma shows Ritual destroying boundaries and redefining the possibilities of what they can do next. 8/10

Scitalis – Doomed Before Time (Vendetta Records) [Matt Cook]

I’m not entirely sure why, but for me, black metal has always been an archaic genre, not exclusively in terms of its often primitive production value. The idea of “new” black metal bands for whatever reasons feels oxymoronic. This is all to say I am a misguided and/or misinformed fool, and 21st-century black metal is alive (mostly) and well (less often, I suppose). Scitalis have laid down their full-length debut, Doomed Before Time, a dissonant, atmospheric, abrasive cacophony of mayhem (no pun intended).In keeping with the black metal way, Scitalis are comprised of A (vocals, bass), S (guitars) and J (drums). 

Whether to contribute to the mystique or to keep the focus entirely on the music as a whole is up for interpretation. But what can’t be debated is A’s captivating vocal style. Equal parts echoey and faded, it’s delivered in a way that both haunts and grabs, scares and attracts. Serpent pierces with its dissonant shouts and driving guitar work. It impressively incorporates an atmospheric/doomy hook which results in a remarkably imposing vibe. S again displays serviceable guitar work on Seen By Blind Eyes, armed with a robust riff continuously throughout the track. J infuses the titular song with a rock-hard snare drum line and a catchy refrain rears its ugly head on Absent.

Scitalis are measured in their attack and Doomed Before Time isn’t bogged down with any unnecessary fat or fluff. The compositions are tight and crisp, to the point. The production is modern while also accentuating the genre’s roots. The three-person team effectively complements one another without stepping on each other’s toes. It’s Black Metal for the harsher enthusiast just as much as for the immersive, atmospheric-prone. 8/10

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Reviews: Halestorm, Stöner, Famyne, Robin Trower (Reviews By Matt Bladen & David Karpel)

Halestorm - Back From The Dead (Atlantic Records) [Matt Bladen]

One of hard rocks biggest bands Halestorm return with their hardest hitting record yet, picking up where Vicious left off, Back From The Dead is Halestorm coming out of the pandemic with axes sharpened, ready to take on all comers. Fit to bursting with feminist, sex positive anthems, such as the dark Wicked Ways, the swaggering Bombshell and the double entendre strewn I Come First, frontwoman Lzzy Hale delivers some her most anthemic yet personal lyrics yet, grabbing at the chance to perform again with both hands on the big riffing title track, that claims that they (and by the same token the rock community) are now ready to come back swinging. 

My Steeple also is a call for unity and inclusion, welcoming everyone into the church of Halestorm with heavy riff and a nursery rhyme lyric. Finding catharsis from the endless battles with mental health caused by the pandemic, in some arena friendly hard rock. Though like Vicious, the slickness that Halestorm have built up is paired with a more aggressive, cocksure style that sees Lzzy cranking out huge guitar riffs and delivering her strongest, rawest vocal performance yet. You can literally hear the pent up frustration being released in every single word she sings. There are two more tender moments including closing ballad Raise Your Horns, where the piano is employed and the acoustic Terrible Things

Mostly though Back From The Dead relies on tried and tested rocking, Lzzy and Joe Hottinger a guitar duo, that lock in brilliantly together trading off riffs with each other throughout the gothic thrash of Wicked Ways, Hottinger getting to show off his chops on Brightside amongst many others with short blasts of guitar hero soloing. Bassist Josh Smith and drummer Arejay Hale are the masters of groove for track such as the fuzzy Strange Girl or the anthemic My Redemption. The four piece in a musical unison that's almost symbiotic. Crafting an album made to be experienced live Halestorm are well and truly bringing heavy rock Back From The Dead here, it can't be long until they're a festival headliner. 8/10

Stöner- Totally (Heavy Psych Sound) [David Karpel]

Stöner’s third release reminds me of what some teachers and parents will say to the winey kids: you get what you get and you don’t get upset. This being their third album, the two lead guys being desert rock icons, progenitors of the scene that spawned Kyuss and more, we kind of know what we’re getting into on a Stöner album. With a greasy pepperoni pie on the cover that would cause anyone with the munchies to salivate, totally… is a collection of 8 blazed party songs that swing, groove, and crunch, each of them smoked down to sticky roaches.

Brandt Bjork and Nick Oliveri are as natural to the desert groove as fudge is to an indica dosed brownie. Here, for the most part, they strip down the songs to the bone and play like they’re jamming at a skatepark. Youthful, energized, and insistent most of all, this album is a wild time. Escape into it or let it drive you to move, dance, and careen about, however you delve, it’s all for fun. Party March is emblematic of all of this: the punk energy, the humor, the fight-for-your-right-to-party. A Million Beers follows, and well, yeah, that’s the thing we’re doing. Strawberry Creek (Dirty Feet) starts with a slower pace, Bjork starts singing, Oliveri harmonies with him, and suddenly we’ve got some sand-fused bluesy sway that rocks steady and tight.

Space Dude & The Burn, the longest tune here, breaks out with a fun, if urgent, space-rock narrative. Oliveri and Bjork trade vocals here, the blues man and the punk, and none of this is out-of-character, the crunch, the power, the sustained chords, the casual swing of the groove. Turn It Around Now gets meditative amid the fuzz, and Driving Miss Lazy turns up the sarcasm. The album concludes with its best song, Great American Sage, which displays all the prowess the names Bjork and Oliveri also bring with them. In the end, these guys are doing what you want them to do, expertly play the music that combines their favorite influences and their own previously well-worn garb: classic hard rock, heavy blues, desert rock, and psych rock jams. And they do so with tons of earned swagger. 7/10

Famyne – The Ground Below (Svart Records) [Matt Bladen]

The Ground Below is the second collection of introspective, atmospheric tomes from Canterbury doom-mongers Famyne following on from their 2018 self-titled debut. On this sophomore effort everything the band do has been amplified and improved upon, exponentially. It means that The Ground Below is a thrilling, chilling, brooding listen that straddles a wide musical cavern containing doom, psych, stoner and even more extreme metal flourishes of bands such as Opeth. It’s from the Swedes song Famine where they get their name and those Akerfeels are strong on Babylon, a song wrapped in haunting, jazz melodies, that shift into crushing distorted doom and a passionate solo. 

Having had a lot of success early in their career, winning Metal 2 The Masses etc, they have gone from strength to strength but The Ground Below out does anything previously hand picking the best bits of British doom legends such as Sabbath (of course), Cathedral, Warning, My Dying Bride and Paradise Lost with the Scandinavian bleakness of Katatonia, Draconian and Swallow The Sun. This cherry picking of the finest slices of misery, means that Famyne do something innovative with the genre, creating vast, desolate soundscapes that are all their own, paying dividends to the past but not repeating it. It also means that they sound as if they have been doing this for decades rather than 8 years. 

The Ai is a track that is steeped in those classic doom styles the twin guitars of Martin Emmons and Tom Ross, craving up some Iommi-inspired riffs, Defeated does the same transitioning between repeating distorted riffs and a steady throb from Michael Ross and Chris Travers laying down beats that will shake your bones on drums and bass respectively. The solo section of The Ai evolving into a gurning chug that will bring to mind bands such as Orange Goblin too. There are plenty of these moments, where the riff comes back heavier, or evolves There’s so many references here it’s like who’s who of doom but all wrapped up in a shiny new bow to make it feel modern and fresh. 

The delivery of vocalist Tom Vane too is spectacular, I haven’t found a voice this captivating and unique since Hywel of The Dead Shed Jokers, Vane sings almost as if he’s conjuring some kind of primeval force, chanting, beckoning and wailing like a Priest in an Orthodox church. At times the fusion of his distinctive voice with the mountainous riffs is breath-taking, taking you into the astral plane on For My Sins, stirring in some more of the hazy shoegazing on A Submarine as Gone brings a dose of that bitter Nordic sound favoured by Katatonia and Opeth. The Ground Below is probably the best doom album you will hear all year, richly layered with influences from all around the spectrum, carefully woven into a beguiling, thundering record that is as close to a masterpiece as you will get. 9/10

Robin Trower - No More Worlds To Conquer (Provogue Records) [David Karpel]

When Robin Trower’s name showed up in my box I’ll admit that Whiter Shade Of Pale immediately resounded in my head like a pleasant childhood memory. There’s no denying Trower’s an icon, having been the essential sound of Procol Harum’s brief fire and his own Robin Trower Group, whose Bridge Of Sighs in 1974 led to stadium tours. I’m not sure how many of you have been following Trower’s six decade career, but he’s kept busy over the years since the Robin Trower Group as part of supergroups and releasing his own material. In all his time as an active musician, he’s garnered some respectable mentions as an influence on the guitar playing of Steve Lukather of Toto or even Opeth guitarist Mikael Åkerfeldt. Nothing, though, has matched the success of what he did with Procol Harum or Bridge Of Sighs.

No More Worlds To Conquer is quite the sentiment for the title of an album put out by a musician who’s reached 76 and is still making his guitar sing, moan, and cry the blues. It also might sound pretentious, or it might sound defeatist and tired. It could also just be an old rock and roller being clever and, well, truthful about the limits of rock and roll longevity. You’ll hear songs about broken hearted love, struggles with addiction, and social commentary played earnestly, with exactitude, and loads of blue tone. While Richard Watts’ voice can sound like Don Henley on a summer’s night, the band is tight through and through. Wrapped in funky bass lines or played like a slow burn, these songs evoke the sultry or the sardonic or the sadness of a toothless dog who’s found a bone with steady ease. Track to track you’ll find a pleasant consistency of sound despite the varied pace or emphasis–the technique and skill evident, admirable even, but ultimately boring.

In the time between Bridge Of Sighs and No More Worlds To Conquer, the audience for rock and roll and the blues as Trower plays them has maintained certain traditions and tastes, but it has also evolved. Personally, this album sounds great to me if it’s not something I’m trying to listen to. People are over, the coals are getting hot, the meats are marinating, the beer is cold (as a teacher, I’m in that time of the year where imagining the summer is practically mandatory). This album comes out just in time for your gatherings for drinks, light conversation that you want to hear, and good company. Playing unobtrusively in the background, the guitars bend the air with a sound you might recall if it’s what you were trying to do. But you’re not. 6/10

Reviews: Ibaraki, Katharos, Gwendydd, Stinger (Reviews By Matt Bladen, Alyn Hunter, Zach Scott & Simon Black)

Ibaraki - Rashomon (Nuclear Blast) [Matt Bladen]

Drawn from the myths and folklore of his Japanese heritage, Ibaraki is the debut solo album from Trivium frontman Matt Heafy, the band name itself comes from the name for a "Japanese demon of feudal legend". This 10 song exploration into the characters that make up these stories is driven through a more progressive, cinematic style than Trivium fans will be used too. 

That being said there is plenty of meaty, Trivium-like hooks and Heafy shows off his brilliant vocals throughout, but the musical style is more eclectic using traditional instrumentation, classical strings, shifting progressive signatures, plenty of creativity and Heafy's adoration of black metal, the main musical might behind this album. Rashomon is a record that reminds heavily of the solo records from one of Matt's heroes and chief collaborator on this album, Ihshan of Emperor. His Emperorness appears on Susanoo No Mikoto, as well as producing the record that has been built between the two men for a long time. Their creative unison and Heafy's need to challenge himself resulting into a deep dive of Japanese heritage and culture. 

Ihshan is not the only special guest here as Nergal from Behemoth lends his ravaged snarl to Akumu while Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance, who screams better than a lot of death vocalists joins in on the brilliant Rōnin, which is the albums most progressive offering. Both add as much to the record as the guest slots from Matt's Trivium bandmates drummer Alex Bent, bassist Paolo Gregoletto and guitarist Corey Beaulieu, there's also some natural sounds sampled by Ihsahn's wife Heidi, to really make this record feel natural. Heafy has touched on these themes before, most noticeably on the Trivium album Shogun, but never in this much depth and with the deftness of touch. It's not just blistering technical metal all the time, the moments of quiet and melodic phases, mean that these tales can be told with the mysticism and often the introspection they were written with. 

It also delivers a look at the ideological stresses that drive many Japanese people to suicide as well as the bigotry faced by the those from and Asian-background. A track such as Komorebi (the space between the canopy and the branches that lets the sunlight come through) really hits home as a wonderfully evocative track that sees Heafy using his clean vocals and some stripped back dreamy post-metal, showing that this album is more than just black metal aggression, Kaizoku is a jaunty closer with a parp of brass and mandolin, while Susanoo No Mikoto brings riffs of classic metal. Drawn from his history and his influences, while being approached with a no rules, Rashomon is a labour of love worth investing your time in. 9/10

Katharos - Of Lineages Long Forgotten (Willowtip Records) [Alyn Hunter]

Hailing from Stockholm, Sweden - Katharos craft a symphonic brand of black metal that one hopes after you've read this that you'll find time to familiarise yourselves with. Not least of all because they've gotten the closest to taking the best parts of genre masters Emperor and bringing their soundscape to life with modern production techniques, yet still retaining a clear identity of their own. It's not quite worship, but the clear inspirations come thick and fast and it's all the good stuff - the progressive songwriting, the cut-throat brutality, the timely melodies, the unrelenting miasma of breakneck riffing that just feels like you're being dragged by a motorbike doing a tonne. Of Lineages Long Forgotten is Katharos' second record after a digital/vinyl only debut (no CD? Big shame), but for a second album this kicks like a thousand mules, and repeated spinning of this record reaps rewards in thanks in no small part to the mixing being handled by the renowned Necromorbus studios.

From the very first cut Those Hornclad, Katharos set a scene of business only black metal. The sheer riff driven aggression is pummelling and it's a veritable bombardment of blast-beat cacophony for the duration. Feigned Retreat shows additional chops switching up the pacing with some proper neck-snapping riffs, waltz-esque moments, lead solo work and some mesmerising technicality, then it all descends into some truly barbaric dissonance on top of some absolutely ballistic kit-work. The near 9 minute title track that follows continues the theme with an anthemic opening riff and the mid-section following a VERY brief respite is where the synths really shine with soaring horns that push that apocalyptic feel. At this point, I'm already more than bought in - the songwriting appeal bordering on virtuosic.

The World Serpent's Marrow is their single track already released, admittedly the one track I had heard prior to this advance and more than any other this wears the Emperor influences on its sleeve. Whirling maelstrom level drumming, marauding guitar work, sometimes baroque-on-crack level string writing finds its way into the mix. By all accounts an excellent sample into the album in a microcosm. Lay Yersinian Siege that follows is a strongly orchestrated number that both continues with the breakneck pacing albeit with a respite mid-section - the track continually shifts gears in a way akin to how late era Biomechanical (a band I miss dearly) used to, but with three times the gonads. I Waged War and Most Dread Portent see out the record in a largely similar affair to what has preceded, the latter constantly building at pace to an abrupt close. It's categorically seismic stuff, a veritable brick on the accelerator pedal in every imaginable facet.

My biggest critique with the record is just that the vocals are a little buried which is a shame as when they cut through - they're venomous, nailing the right registers to hit scathingly hard, and the pacing again is reminiscent of Ihsahn's type without being too predictable. The symphonics are definitely there adding some oomph but they also do sometimes struggle for a bit of air-time although with the tracks typically being so riff driven they provide more of an ample reinforcement to the chaos. To be fair, mixing something so dense is a serious challenge so some leeway should be afforded, it still comes across sounding particularly monstrous and the good kind of overwhelming. The songwriting throughout is for lack of a better word, apocalyptic. A very progressive approach to a malevolent soundtrack with few repeated elements and constant twists and turns, yet in spite of its speed and sheer weight of sound will still throw a curveball into the mix once in a while. Building an album like that could prove to create a challenging listening experience for some, but this is a record that rewards multiple listens.

Katharos are far from a household name, but credit where it is due Of Lineages Long Forgotten is a record that has every potential of putting them on the map particularly if it generates the hype it merits through some good PR and touring (and hell - I wish I could see this live) – it's got AOTY potential for me already. This does not feel like a sophomore record by any stretch of the imagination - more like a more cinematic spiritual successor to Emperor that we've been waiting for and I cannot get enough of it and as such comes HIGHLY recommended. 10/10

Gwendydd – Censored (Drakkar Entertainment) [Zach Scott]

Hailing from Sofia, Bulgaria, and fuelled by the success of vocalist Victoria Stoichkova’s popular appearance on The Voice, Gwendydd is a band that is making waves in the European metal scene. Their album, Censored, is the culmination of a speedy period of growth for the girls (and guy), which saw them featured in metal magazines after the release of their debut album, Human Nature. Their style is a blend of early metalcore, groove metal, and thrash, harkening back to the early 2000s while remaining relevant in the modern extreme metal scene. 

The album kicks off with an intro track, Awakening, which features a haunting lullaby sung with a music box accompaniment to ease the listener in. The thrash influence is apparent right off the bat, with a fast kicker of a song in the form of Martyrdom. This song also showcases the band’s metalcore influence, with a midsection reminiscent of early bands like Killswitch Engage. There is also a lot of nu-metal influence, from the industrial sounding riffs and vocal style to the use of samples (like those in This Is War). A lot of the guitar work takes influence from New Wave of American Heavy Metal bands like Lamb Of God and Chimaira, with heavy grooves and blues-influenced riffs. The album’s (only) single, the provocatively-named Rape, is a heavy and groove-laden song with some of the record’s best guitar work, handled by Tina Zhelyazova and Reni Angelova, and some prominent bass lines by Sonya Radeva. The single also features some angelic-sounding clean vocals, similar to the style of modern bands like Spiritbox and Jinjer. 

There are some other interesting sections, with clean intros to One Step More and Dreadful, and heavy electronic and Eastern influence in the unique track We Are the New Order. While this record is very well-produced (mixed by drummer Bambi Nikiforov and mastered by Max Morton) and shows a very high level of musicianship, it doesn’t particularly break any new ground in metal. The groove metal/metalcore blend is a tried and true method, and despite the heaviness and aggression Gwendydd exhibit, there is an element of interest that is just absent from these songs. The song structures are relatively simple, rarely deviating from the standard; and where they do go outside the box (such as in We Are The New Order) it doesn’t feel as if it is blended well with the rest of their sound. 

Despite this, it is a solid album, and shows great potential in songwriting and musicianship; but the guitar work can come off as very repetitive and with little interest. Vicky has a very powerful scream, she doesn’t exhibit the range to make the vocals as interesting as they could be – vocalists who occupy that mid-frequency zone (such as Randy Blythe) need those moments of low gutturals or high shrieks to bring the listener out of the lull it can sometimes put them in. None of this is to say Censored is a bad album – it is far from it – but the clear talent shown by the band members suggests that there is a great deal of untapped potential within Gwendydd, which they will undoubtedly develop as the years go on and the band’s career progresses. While this record doesn’t quite live up to this potential, it certainly cements Gwendydd as a band to watch out for. 6/10

Stinger - Expect The Unexpected (ROAR! Rock Of Angels Records) [Simon Black]

Stinger are a hard rock outfit from Germany, now on album number three. They’ve done well in a short space of time it must be said, but then when your formula is straight 70’s hard rock with a vocalist whose influence lineage leads right back to Bon Scott, this probably isn’t surprising – it’s not music that ever goes out of favour entirely, if it’s done right. To be honest, it’s not just the vocals, there’s whole tracks that sound like they may have fallen out of the High Voltage recording sessions (stand up and wave Chasing Utopia, which also features a guest turn from Billy Sheehan). 

Opener Diggin’ Up The Dirt feels more distinctive, it’s a good rocka-roller and a wise choice for a single. There’s also a bit of the sleaze in there in places, with tracks like Glory And Pride sounding more like the sort of arrangement and subject matter that Faster Pussycat and their ilk might have cranked out way back when. The trouble with the album is that there’s a lot of sameness in there and once you’ve nodded along a bit to the ‘DC influences, it rapidly wears thin when it comes to the song-writing. What’s not helping is a slightly flat sounding production, which feels like it’s trying to ape analogue tech whilst losing the rich fatness that period often had. A more full on and modern sound would have helped a lot here, but you can’t complain about the overall feel. 

Play this material live with a wall of Marshall Stack and I think the end result would be much more effective, as the ingredients are all there, just missing a little bit of energy sauce to push it into the top drawer. 6/10

Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Metal To The Masses 2022 Interviews: SOIM (Heat #6 14.05.22)

Interview With SoIM By Matt Bladen

MoM: Introduce yourselves/remind everyone who you guys are. Band name, members, style etc?

SoIM: SoIM (formally Sounds of Insane Music). Progressive extreme metal. Most remember me as the masked guy playing on stage with a very pointy 8 string on his own.

MoM: How have the last year(s) been for the band? What have you been up too?

SoIM: Last few years have been a challenge all honesty with the lack of gigs and such thanks to pandemic. Been using the time to write more (music and lyrics so expect a couple more songs with vocals in May than are normally in a SoIM set, that is a promise not just a threat), and trying to find members for the live band.

MoM: What experience have you had with Bloodstock/M2TM in the past?

SoIM: As Soim I have been entering M2TM since I started gigging, so since 2016. Each time has been a fun as hell show to play. Killer crowds and killer bands to play alongside. And with a few cases been emotional as well seeing mates of mine winning and thus then seeing them play bloodstock. Kind of keeps me in mindset to return each time it comes around no matter my personal outcome the previous years.

MoM; How are you feeling entering the M2TM format back as it should be? Playing in front of a crowd again?

SoIM: I’m looking forward to being part of it again. Since the return of live music, I’ve done a few shows already so the stage nerves have gone back to where they were before, in the trash can in the dark basement. So for this they won’t be an issue for me.

MoM: What would it mean to you to play Bloodstock?

SoIM: Pretty simple, a major personal goal achieved.

MoM: Tell us two truths and one lie about the band?

SoIM: 

1.Started Soim because I was writing stuff on my 8 string that wasn’t usable in band I was in at the time and didn’t want to waste the riffs

2. Original Name for Soim was ‘Evisceration Steel’

3. Started Soim with the intention of it being a solo project.

MoM: Finally give us a four word rundown of what to expect?

SoIM: Crazy Man In Mask

Metal To The Masses 2022 Interviews: State Of Deceit (Heat #6 14.05.22)

Interview With State Of Deceit By Matt Bladen

MoM: Introduce yourselves/remind everyone who you guys are. Band name, members, style etc?

State Of Deceit: We are STATE OF DECEIT! Playing Thrashy Groove laden tunes with big nasty riffs to move your ass to. We are Pete (Get some Nuts) Scammell - Vocals, Gareth (Shredmeister) Jones - Guitar, Jon (Triplet) Russell - Guitar, Davide (The Italian Stallion) Santini - Bass, Matt (I'm not going to be ill this time) Toner- on the Drums

MoM: How have the last year(s) been for the band? What have you been up too?

State Of Deceit: The last few years has been very challenging we've had a line up change and been focusing on recording our first full Album, it’s been incredibly tough but we’re super excited to be bringing you new music in the not to distant Future!

MoM: What experience have you had with Bloodstock/M2TM in the past?

State Of Deceit: We’ve had some great experiences with M2TM over the years! Our last Cardiff show before covid was at M2tM and what a night that was! It’s going to be great to see old and new faces at this years event, looking forward to sharing the stage with some great bands and playing some god damn metal.

MoM: How are you feeling entering the M2TM format back as it should be? Playing in front of a crowd again?

State Of Deceit: M2TM is all about the live performance in front of people, it’s what we love doing and why we write music, to play to people and to tear shit up on stage!

MoM: What would it mean to you to play Bloodstock?

State Of Deceit: Bloodstock is the pinnacle of Metal Festivals in the uk and is renowned around the world, it would be a terrific opportunity to play at such a historic event and it’s one of our goals as a band!

MoM: Tell us two truths and one lie about the band?

State Of Deceit: 

1. One of us drives 200 miles a week to practice

2. One of us has had Covid five times

3. One of us has crashed at Nurburgring

MoM: Finally give us a four word rundown of what to expect?

State Of Deceit: Heavy Riffs and Mosh.