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Monday, 18 February 2019

Reviews: Within Temptation, Steve Hackett, De Staat, Aftermath (Alex & Paul S)

Within Temptation: Resist (Spinefarm) [Alex]

Within Temptation are arguably one of symphonic metals most accessible acts. I mean that in a positive way as well. While Epica may be famous for their bombast, and Nightwish for their theatrics, Sharon Den Adel was able to shape her project around rich synth textures and huge chorus melodies. Resist – as their most pop focussed album yet – definitely makes sense as a follow up to The Unforgiving and Hydra. Yet some of the albums component parts feel superior to the experience as a whole. While it bears its great ideas, they are frequently diluted by over-compressed production and an all too often absence of groove or strong instrumental melody. All virulently bombastic for sure, yet lacking depth and character.

Let me first bring to light the moments in which the album displays potential. Raise Your Banner shows some subtlety in the verses and climbs towards an epic middle section, combing euphoric guitar dueling, strings and choir backing vocals. The production is still an annoyance, yet the core idea behind this song is a powerful one. Supernova actually has some incredibly enticing synth touches, honoring the promise to experiment in pop and electronics. On another note, Mad World is decidedly 80’s coloured and becomes one of the best songs on the entire album. Even Mercy Mirror, despite being quite generic is one of the few moments of ambient introspection displayed throughout. These moments redeem Resist from being unlistenable and show that Within Temptation still has an urge to experiment and take risks.

In spite of my praise, I still have huge reservations, relegating my thoughts on this album to ones of sheer disappointment. To illustrate my point about the production, let’s look at the two singles: The Reckoning and Endless War. The former tries to establish a melodic hook in the opening few seconds before hammering it into the ground with unnecessarily blaring synths and pounding drums (Whatsmore, Jacoby Shaddix’s appearance on this song, makes this the second disappointing release of 2019 to be associated with Papa Roach). Meanwhile, the later makes the mistake of becoming convoluted with effects, samples and a series of other distractions from the actually decent melody. This is the problem with Within Temptations so-called ‘comeback album’. Like any symphonic metal album, it is stuffed with bombast and prestige, yet somehow forgets to include the symphonic element. If you are looking for a beautiful guitar melody, a sturdy bass riff or even an intriguing and changeable synth pattern, sorry you’ve come to the wrong place. Grandiosity is one thing, yet you can’t make the mistake of relying on a loud and diluted mix to achieve that for you.

Overall, while I was excited about the prospect of a new Within Temptation album, this constitutes the first real disappointment of 2019. Resist is by no means terrible, and I think its redeeming qualities justify its slightly positive. Yet having listened to all of their albums prior to writing this difficult review, it is clear that they can be much more exquisite, powerful and arresting. 6/10

Steve Hackett: At The Edge Of Light (InsideOut Records) [Alex]

Everything Hackett does, every new experiment he embarks on is achieved with meticulousness thought and precision. He of course performed with Genesis during their best years, chosen on the merit of an advertisement which read ‘imaginative guitarist seeks involvement with musicians determined to strive beyond stagnant music forms’. Yet when that act finally began to show creative limitations, he left for an ambitious solo career. One which, at the time of writing, has encompassed 27 studio albums, and genres ranging from prog rock, to classical, to blues to oriental folk. Even by guesting on friends albums, be that Steven Wilson or Ayreon, he always lends his unique style of musicianship to the project. At The Edge Of Light, explores a multitude of influences, showing no signs of stagnating.

Fallen Walls And Pedestals opens on a spectacularly dramatic mood, a rush of strings and percussion accompanying Hackett’s lead parts which, in keeping with his signature style, feel like they are either crying to you or wailing out in joyful exuberance. Beats In Our Time pays homage to the classical influences combing woodwind flourishes, somber violin melodies, and excellent saxophone embellishments. Of course, when the guitar sings again it is glorious. Onto an even more unique idea, Those Golden Wings is an eleven-minute progressive epic, which changes from moments of orchestral bliss to uplifting harmony to enrapturing emotion. Immediately after, Shadow And Flame play into a love of Asian musical stylings, its capricious sitar stylings, brilliantly paying homage to the music of Thai or Indian cultures. These moments aim to do more than showcase the virtuosity with which our frontman commands a six or 12 string. Instead, they prove his creativity and the ease with which he creates and executes a musical vision, employing the talents of a spectrum of musicians in the process.

Of course, progressive rock constitutes an inseparable part of Steve Hackett’s musical identity. And while his works always show progression, they are often determined to stand outside of the rock genre. When he does venture back into the world of guitar-driven anthems though, they are typically reminiscent of the music which made him famous, while standing on their own as unique works of art. Take Under The Eye Of The Sun – an upbeat classic rock song, it bursts with life and energy, the guitar takes center stage, and a driving rhythm underpins everything. Alternatively, look to Underground Railroad, which explores influences from Gospel to Blues, placing particular emphasis on acoustics and including guest vocals courtesy of Durga McBroom, notable for her providing of female backing vocals to Pink Floyd. These songs, of course, reflect the Genesis legacy, as well as that of all the rock musicians the legendary guitarist has worked with, while still demonstrating the many other influences he has learned from over his long and varied career.

Despite the nit-picks with At The Edge Of Light, that it may not be Hackett's very best, that it is stronger in its first half than its second, this is still an excellent later era release from an artist – and I do mean, artist – who has got many experiments at his back, and surely many more in front of him. 7/10

De Statt: Bubble Gum (Caroline Benelux) [Alex]

Without a doubt the strangest album I have heard so far this year, Bubble Gum can be aptly described as art punk. Specifically, the type of music which experiments sonically while keeping a clear DIY vibe. Weirdly socially conscious, they have earned a reputation in their homeland of the Netherlands, and even performed as the support for Muse on one of their European tours. A typical De Statt song – if such a thing exists - will begin on a unique synth line before establishing an equally strange lyrical motif, and bringing in a series of effects, replicating the sounds one might encounter under the influence of hallucinogens. It's kinda’ irritating, yet also enticing.

Procrastinating aside, opener KITTY KITTY is a sneeringly sarcastic critique of the 2016 American Presidential race, with the refrain ‘fuck up the facts’, strangely hypnotic keyboard touches, and samples of cheering crowds. I'm surprised that this was chosen as the single, considering how it provokes a reaction of ‘what, in the known universe am I listening to? Fake It Till You Make It continues on the elusively political streak, incorporating Middle Eastern stylings into the mix and opening with the line ‘Keep that camera on me, cause the people do love a good story, but the truth is ever so boring’. Phoenix and Level Up are as close as the record gets to utilizing melodramatics and dark ambiance, proving that at the very least that they don’t need to rely solely on absurdism and irony to drive a message. At the same time, you can't help but feel that Torre Florim and his bandmates are advantageously relying on their oddities to sell themselves to those who consider themselves outside of the mainstream. Yet, plenty of acts employ that tactic you can't help but admire them for doing something different. Hey, works in elections right?

Alongside the perplexing moments, we also get gun, catchy anthems! Be warned, however. When I say ‘catchy’, these songs follow the Chumbawumba or even the Right Said Fred playbook of hooks. A style which will either make you want to up and dance, or have the effect of making you seek the nearest bucket of ice to plunge your head into. Mona Lisa bears a lot of charm in the way the distorted and bass guitar strut and our lead singer croons and muses, in decidedly proto-punk esque fashion. I’m Out Of Your Mind is a fast tempo romper with a lot of stamp and freneticism! On a different note, Me Time is obsessively dance focused, almost (and in all probability, intentionally) to the point of sheer parody. Then there's Pikachu, which I'm sure has some deeper message about consumerism behind its repetitive chorus of ‘1-2 Pikachu, what are you gonna do?’, yet just feels like a bizarre attempt at mocking a mainstream sound. Again, there is nothing bad about these experiments, yet it would be a lie to say they don’t provoke a deluge of confusion.

Overall, Bubble Gum might be one of the most difficult albums I've ever commented on, namely because I have not got a clue whether I like it or not! I love the experimentation, quirkiness and social commentary yet I wish there were a little more melody or musical depth to make me truly appreciate the skill of the musicians behind the De Statt. 6/10

Aftermath: There Is Something Wrong (Zoid Music) [Paul S]

Aftermath have been going since the mid eighties, There Is Something Wrong is their second album coming 25 years since their first album Eyes Of Tomorrow. The name Aftermath is used by several bands, this one is from Illinois and are known for a court case in the mid nineties over a dispute with Dr Dre over use of the name Aftermath. The band decided to take Dre’s money and changed their name to Mother God Moviestar, clearly 25 years later Dre isn’t that bothered about their name, so they are back to being Aftermath again. What have Aftermath got for us after 25 years? lots of time to write great riffs you’d think? Unfortunately, the album title is very apt. There is something so wrong with this, I’m not sure where to start. The album starts with an intro that is a lot of samples and vocals, before the first track False Flag Flying kicks thing off. This album has lots of basic things wrong with it. This is meant to be a trash band, every-time the band label themselves they use the term trash, but it doesn’t really sound like thrash. The guitar riffs aren’t very good, a bit too simplistic and lacklustre, but that isn’t really a problem as the mix is so bad on most tracks you can’t hear the guitar, so this is thrash without guitar riffs.

The vocals and drums dominate the mix, with the vocals this is particularly bad as they are awful; affected and over the top, just horrible. Another trait that this song shares with the rest of the album is a love of samples, but not mixed in with the music, the songs all seem to contain sections where it is only samples. Short, badly edited soundscapes that are crowbarred into the song, in fact, there are very few transitions between riffs, each riff ends with these sample heavy soundscapes, and a different riff comes in after the soundscape. After a while I realised this was because the riffs do not fit together, so they have used these soundscapes to link everything up (I realise that calling these sample heavy sections ‘soundscapes’ makes them sound better than they are, I’m using ‘soundscape’ as I’m not sure what else to call them). This ends up making each song feel like a disparate collection of parts that do not fit together; this is simply incompetent songwriting. It also stops the songs from flowing (something that is important in thrash), or having any feeling of inertia. The other problem is the lyrics, which are awful, hackneyed and cliched, at some points the lead singer seems to be shouting random phrases and due to the mix, much, much, much too loud. That is a general overview of this fucking hopeless album, here are a few stand out abominations.

Diethanasia is an attempt at hardcore, but with a much too simplistic riff. The vocals are really bad, lead singer Kyriakos Tsiolis tries to sing fast, but trips over his words constantly. His performance on here reminds me Qualcast Mutilator from Lawnmower Deth taking the piss out of Billy Milano on the song F.A.T. The track Scientists And Priests is irritating, has a terrible guitar solo and an awful chorus. Pseudocide is one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard. There are so many ‘soundscape’ parts it isn’t really a song, something it shares with final track Expulsion. In my notes for this album the phrase “not a proper song” appears many times. This is a terrible album, really, really terrible. Usually if I give an album a bad review, I try to find something that is positive to end the review (…. If the band can build on what they have done with X track they might have something…..), but I can’t here.

There is nothing to build on, it is all crap. The fact that they have screwed about with the structure of just about every track with the god awful ‘soundscapes’ shows that the band probably know this isn’t any good (although actually releasing it and letting other people listen to it shows a shocking lack of self knowledge). Aftermath should quit. Stop it guys, you are deeply substandard, crummy, dire, woeful, lamentable and just plain shit. You are the Chris Grayling of thrash bands. So, don’t buy this album or go to see the band live, it’s not fair to humour this band and make them think they have any form of value, or future. God I hope they just stop. 2/10

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