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Thursday, 29 November 2018

Reviews: Steven Wilson, Muse, Stephen Pearcy, Valafar (Reviews By Paul H & Alex)

Steven Wilson: Home Invasion (Eagle Rock) [Alex]

Paraphrasing Steven Wilson himself, live films are pointless in the sense that they will never truly capture the essence of a concert experience, yet wonderful in that they can help people in the world without the privilege of being able to go to a concert, get as close as possible. To be fair, if you had to select one 2018 tour to be captured in a visual medium, To the Bone would be an excellent choice. The album of the same name was my personal favourite of 2017, and the Cardiff show remains one of the best concerts I have ever been to! The location has particular significance here as well, with the name referring not only to a song in the setlist, but to the venue in which so many of Wilson's influences played, and stands as a sort of Mecca for English based musicians to this day. The so-called ‘king of prog’ has reserved this recording for some of the most successful and ambitious shows of his long and winding career.

Comprising mostly of songs from To The Bone and Hand. Cannot. Erase, as well as later-era work by Porcupine Tree, the set certainly feels like one by an artist suddenly getting used to selling out theatres. There are plenty of choice cuts from the new album, the wonderfully melodic duet of Pariah, the personal political ballad of Refuge and the joyously introspective Nowhere Now proving stand out moments. There are also a few fan favorites, with The Sound Of Muzak, Lazarus and Sleep Together, taking precedence. Not to say there is any integrity compromised. The output of recent years has tended toward being rich and beautiful, rather than weird or genre-defying. The choice of songs here simply stays true to Wilson’s current musical identity. (After all, he already showcased his experimental side in the equally fantastic, Get All You Deserve). Incidentally, while there is surprisingly little material from earlier flirtations with accessibility – That is, with the great exception of Even Less, performed ‘Billy Brag Style’ – the entire discography is so dispersed with great songs, that there can be no bad choices when it comes to choosing a setlist. Performances by every single one of the musicians behind our frontman are packed with energy – they are precise yet also wildly improvisational.

If you bought the video recording of the show, you would have witnessed the enchanting visuals, accompanying the songs. Obviously, you are not going to capture every detail – another reason why you should really go to one of the shows if you can - yet the editors do a brilliant job on integrating the visuals within the context of a film. From the scarily dystopian graphics which accompany People Who Eat Darkness, to the synthetic dancers ominously growing in size on Song Of I, to the incredibly moving short film accompanying The Raven That Refused To Sing, rarely if ever do they feel jarring or reductionist. Even the euphoric Permanating is given an epic display of colour to co suit the vibrant tone, as Bollywood dancers join Steven Wilson and co. in a display which made up part of this show only.

Overall, Home Invasion is a spectacular capturing of an excellent live performance. While the majesty of the being at the show can't possibly be channeled, this is one of the best live recordings I have seen in quite a while 9/10

Valafar: Wolfenkind (Transcending Records) [Paul H]

The opening bars of Ulfeonar, crushingly huge riffs and a majestic entrance offer a clear indication of what is likely to follow in the next 35 minutes. The massive Brotherhood Of The Wolf, dripping with groove and colossal hooks crashes in next, a pulverising beast of a tune, all flailing arms and smashing fists as it smashes around the room. Path Of The Warrior maintains and increases the tempo, more thunderous riffage and colossally heavy passages rain down. This continues until the final drops of Born Of The Nine which leaves you wondering where the last half an hour has gone.

The Bradford quintet are focused, intense and driven with this sophomore release which captures the atmosphere of their heroic appearance at Bloodstock this year. The band channel the very soul of bands like Obituary, Entombed and Amon Amarth and generate a delicious slab of heavy death metal. Never forsaking brutality for speed, this is monstrous in every aspect. The ideal support for the annual Memoriam show at The Asylum next month, Valafar's star is rightly in the ascendency. An essential slab of metal which demands your attention. 9/10

Muse: Simulation Theory (Warner Bros Records)

Once, Muse seemed one of the most multifaceted and intricate acts to breach the mainstream. A combination of space rock, sweeping instrumentals, and glorious choruses, seemingly did the impossible, uniting prog with the mainstream. Origin Of Symmetry and Absolution, as well as Black Holes And Revelations, remain genre-defining albums. Even the 2nd Law and Drones, still show the gleams of extraordinarily innovative musicians. Yet the singles for Simulation Theory left me less and less impressed, and upon release, I was saddened to find a collection of songs constituting a pitiful attempt at an 80’s throwback, while laying to rest the ingenuity and creativity that normally defines Matt Bellamy and co. I have seen extremely polarizing opinions, some praising and others lamenting the new direction - believe me when I say I derive no satisfaction in my ardent distaste.

In all fairness, Algorithm and The Dark Side, do utilize some interesting and involved synth work, which despite not reaching expectations Muse have set for themselves in the past, prove decent openers. All sense of optimism is soon destroyed. Propaganda proves an irritatingly failed idea, a looped distortion of ‘Propa-propa-propa-propaganda’ constituting the hook, and doing nothing to satiate the incredibly fake-nostalgia of the uninspired verses. Break It to my attempts to emulate the oriental, walk-like-an-Egyptian vibes popular during the 80s’, simultaneously refusing to distinguish itself from the countless Trap, R&B, and EDM songs trying exactly the same thing. Meanwhile, Something Human taunts us with an incredibly bland tone, which could have easily been featured on the Imagine Dragons album released that same day. If that comparison feels lazy, overused and forced, you may appreciate how I feel. 

Where the outcomes of the three-year period spent writing and recording this album aren't aurally insulting, they are uninspired or poorly executed. Thought Contagion begins on a spooky bassline, unfortunately becoming the entire basis for a dull and meandering chant, in which Dominic Howard seriously undermines skill behind a drum kit. Dig Down is strictly restricted by an obnoxious and repetitive synth line which hides its self-plagiarism in the main sight, sounding barely distinguishable from the early hit, Madness. Later on, Get Up And Fight proves a slice of typical, generic. radio rock which while nothing to be offended by, continues the trend of risking alienating vast swathes of fans. Perhaps the most irritating moments for me as a writer though is Pressure, another throwback devoid of depth, the subject matter here is apparently Bellamy's annoyance with being critiqued, pushed and influenced by fans and critics alike. For those like me, who respect experimentation and grew to love Muse for their changeability, the sentiment is clear: we will only try and push them, away from bloated and laziness, when we know they are capable of so much better! 3/10

Stephen Pearcy: View To A Thrill (Frontiers Records)

Way back in the 1980s Ratt were a big noise. They had several hits which included the awful Round & Round, which still gets airtime today for some reason. Vocalist Stephen Pearcy’s saccharine-soaked vocals were distinctive and as the decade of decadence exploded, so did his profile. I must be fair, the last time I listened to Ratt was purely by accident; not the ‘go to music’ I favour. Pearcy has by all accounts, established himself as an author, CEO of Top Fuel World Entertainment amongst other accolades. Pearcy has, however, also been dogged with a legacy which probably hasn’t done him any favours and as recently as last month he was seen staggering around the stage with Ratt, stumbling and incoherent which he later blamed on mixing alcohol with painkillers. Hmm? View To A Thrill is his fifth solo album (as far as I can work out) and follows on from 2017’s Smash. Joined by Erik Ferentinos on lead guitar, vocals and keys, Mott Thorn on bass, vocals and keys and drummer Scot Coogan.

View To A Thrill sounds just like Ratt in their heyday. Three-minute songs, lyrically bereft of anything other than the continued lifestyle which appears to form the staple subject matter of such bands, the highlight of a mundanely paced album is Not Killin’ Me, purely for the neat slide guitar by none other than Bobby Krieger (The Doors). Otherwise, this album will only appeal to those who can remember what it felt like in spandex, with backcombed hair and can still swagger in a way that only the US musicians appeared to do. It may be slightly disingenuous for me to have expected anything other than trashy sleaze, the genre I really struggle with and in that respect, I wasn’t disappointed. It’s certainly trashy, throwaway and routine. 5/10

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