Amon Amarth: Jomsviking (Metal Blade)
Jomsviking is the tenth studio release from the Swedish Vikings following 2013’s Deceiver Of The Gods and it’s a slight change in direction with their attempt at a concept album which follows the story of a jilted love, murder and revenge. Musically this is typical Amon Amarth, with Johan Hegg’s distinctive gruff vocals and flat out anthemic style choruses. Its rousing stuff and the first couple of tracks stick very much in the melodic death metal that the band are known for; First Kill rattles along at pace whilst Wanderer is a more paced stomp. Whilst the release contains all the ingredients that you would want from an Amon Amarth release, Jomsviking definitely contains more melody than some of their previous releases. The guitar work from Olavi Mikkonen and Johan Soderberg favours the duel axe attack harmonies whilst Ted Lundstrom’s bass combines solidly with stand in drummer Tobias Gustafsson.
Mixed by Andy Sneap, the sound is big and bombastic. The subtlety limited. This is Amon Amarth for Odin’s sake. On A Sea Of Blood follows the same blueprint that has rightly earned the band their reputation as a brutally brilliant live band; it bludgeons and batters with no remorse. And I suppose therein lies the only problem for the band. With a sound which is distinctive and almost trademarked, where do they go to progress further? I’m not sure. Thematically, Amon Amarth have established their niche with the world of metal. No-one does Viking metal better. Tracks such as Raise Your Horns and The Way Of The Vikings stand comfortably alongside other anthems from the past and will surely get the blood pumping in the live arena. The latter track in particular contains a killer riff. The inclusion of the fantastic Doro Pesch on A Dream That Cannot Be is a welcome move, and adds some variety; her powerful voice fitting nicely into a more generic heavy metal track. This is not a bad album whatsoever; it just struggles to add anything to the already brutal catalogue of the band. 7/10
Metal Church: XI (Nuclear Blast)
For those who were around in the 1980s, there was much more to the thrash movement than the big 4. Alongside the muscle and sinew of Bay Area behemoths like Exodus and Testament and New Jersey's Overkill, sat San Francisco’s Metal Church whose 1984 eponymous debut and 1986’s follow up The Dark have always been seriously underrated gems. Driven with steely determination by guitarist Kurt Vanderhoof, the band changed vocalists in time for album number 3, Blessing In Disguise, Mike Howe replacing the gravelly voiced David Wayne. When the band disbanded in 1994, I was slightly bereft having never managed to catch them in the live arena. Having reformed several years later, firstly with Wayne returning to the microphone before his tragic death in 2005 and then with Ronnie Munroe, the band released several more albums including the excellent Generation Nothing in 2013.
XI sees the return of Mike Howe to the fold for the first time in over 20 years and it's a stunning return to form for a band that never received the recognition that they deserved. Alongside Vanderhoof and Howe, Metal Church comprises bassist Steve Unger, drummer Jeff Plate and guitarist Rick Van Zandt. XI kicks off with the powerhouse Reset, Vanderhoof and Van Zandt hitting a deliciously hooked riff whilst Plate hammers away on the skins. However, it's Howe’s vocal performance that immediately grabs you by the throat; growling and gnarly and totally suited to the song. Reset contains a massive hook, catchy chorus and grows on you every time it penetrates the cranium. It really blasts along and may well be one of THE opening tracks of the year.
No let up with track two, the blistering Killing Your Time which follows a similar frontal lobe assault, riffs galore and another meaty hook to snare and drag the listener in. No Tomorrow changes the pace slightly, with an acoustic intro before Plate’s military drumming opens the track up, combining with Unger’s thunderous bass lines to propel the band forward. Plate’s drumming is stunning on this track whilst the chorus really highlights what a joy it is to have Howe back behind the Mic. XI is packed full of quality heavy metal and whilst the thrash element remains the underpinning force, tracks such as Signal Path follow a more traditional pathway. Indeed, Signal Path has all the hallmarks of classic Hell, which can only be a damn fine thing. Clear lyrics, chunky riffage and a measured, well paced tempo.
Sky Falls In is a slower paced beast, still packing the punch and grit expected but with almost a nu-metal approach; almost mind, not fully and the harmonies on the chorus give the track a special edge. Things hot back up with the next track, the full out rampage of Needle & Suture which sees Vanderhoof bringing the riff bucket to the table and pouring it all over the place. The rhythm section provides the balast which allows Howe, Vanderhoof and Van Zandt to kick out the jams. Unger’s driving bass comes to the fore again on my personal favourite, the haunting Shadow, full of atmosphere and imagery and allowing Howe to really let loose. It is a mighty animal. With shades of the classic Watch The Children Pray, Blow Your Mind is the album’s epic composition at over six minutes long and building majestically, once again powerfully driven fretwork at the forefront with Howe giving a virtuoso performance.
The final four tracks don't let up in quality; Soul Eating Machine is a balls out rocker, with a stunning melody; It Waits a darker 1986 era Metal Church track, smouldering and intense before penultimate track Suffer Fools, complete with some visceral guitar work and Howe’s vocal work uncannily reminiscent of Dave Bower and Fan The Fire brings this stunning album to a conclusion. A mighty return to to scene for Howe, and a strong candidate for album of the year. I'm going to be fortunate enough to be in London when Metal Church hit the Underworld in May and I will be heading there for evening worship full of anticipation. 9/10
Grave Digger: The Reaper Shall Return (Napalm Records)
Two years ago power metal veterans released their 14th album, Return Of The Reaper. It wasn't overwhelmingly well received here at MoM towers, with the inability of vocalist Chris Boltendhal to sing in tune a contributory factor to the relatively low rating of 6. Album 15 from the relentless Germans, The Reaper Shall Return, continues in much the same vein as the previous 14. Apart from the ridiculous title (surely The Reaper has already returned?) the basic format for this release is simple; anthemic heavy metal with huge riffs, sing-a-long choruses and overblown farcical lyrics; then repeat for the next 15, yes 15 tracks before concluding with an even worse power ballad than Nothing To Believe on the last album. Goodbye is so ghastly I can't find words to describe it properly.
Desperate is about the best I can find. In between opener The Reapers Dance and the horrible Metal Will Never Die, complete with cliches galore “All for one, and one for metal, Metal will never die” are sandwiched a range of tracks which demonstrate decent musicianship of guitarist Axel Ritt, drummer Stefan Arnold, bassist Jens Becker and newish keyboardist Marcus Kniep. However, with Boltendhal’s singing totally lacklustre, see Black Cat for a perfect illustration, the album just becomes laughable and I'm afraid pretty tired and unimaginative fare. I appreciate these guys probably bleed metal in a way I could never understand. I appreciate their efforts. It just sucks. Sorry. 5/10