Monday 11 March 2019

Reviews: Mark Morton, Holding Absence, Storm Haven, Sykelig Englen (Paul H, Polly, Mark & Sean)

Mark Morton: Anaesthetic (Spinefarm Records) [Paul H]

The Lamb Of God guitarist’s debut solo release has taken some time to deliver. Is it worth the wait? Well, it’s hard to really say. Few of the tracks are particularly memorable on first listen but a second blast through suggested that there’s a few nuggets tucked away here. The problem I have with solo albums, especially one like Morton’s which is crammed full of top-level musicians, is deciphering how much of the work is his. With Morton sticking faithfully to his LOG blueprint for most of the songs, there is certainly a familiarity to several the tracks here and the multiple names on the song writing credits suggest that this isn’t all Morton’s own work.

Opener Cross Off features the late Chester Bennington, and it’s a snarly vicious number with Bennington’s familiar vocals securing most of the attention. The soaring vocals of Papa Roach’s Jacoby Shaddix follow on Sworn Apart, another song full of the jagged riffs and groove that LOG deliver with ease, but with more melody and underlying harmony. Alongside Bennington and Shaddix, the opening due also feature Trivium’s Alex Bent on drums and these two tracks, whilst solid metal songs are not particularly memorable. It gets a lot better on Axis, which features the darkness of Screaming Trees Mark Lanegan, Alice In Chains’ Mike Inez on bass, and the Black Crowes duo of Marc Ford and drummer Steve Gorman alongside Morton and combine to deliver one of the best tracks on this album; a smouldering beast which starts with an almost country rock feel before exploding into a guitar meltdown by the end make this something a little different.

Back to the thrash groove on The Never, which includes a typically robust and engaging vocal from Testament’s Chuck Billy and Oni’s Jake Oni, the Canadian band with several links with Morton’s day job. With Stone Sour’s Roy Mayorga delivering a thunderous drumming session and Megadeth’s Dave Ellefson laying down the bass, Morton is letting loose on the guitar work here and you do suddenly get the feeling that things may be ready to explode. However, with Myles Kennedy arriving next on Same Defiance, the tone and flavour alters slightly, mainly because Kennedy’s voice is so distinctive that it’s impossible to hear it and not think Alter Bridge. Chopping riffs, thumping Inez bass and Korn’s Ray Luzier now behind the drum kit make this track stronger than much of the Alter Bridge catalogue and it’s a truly fine performance from Kennedy. Blur is another of the more interesting songs on the album, with Mark Morales of Sons Of Texas now doing the vocal duties and Gorman back for drum slot number 2. A slower but no less heavy number, Morton adds some sweet guitar work. Blur is a little more mainstream hard rock and less Lamb Of God, maybe leaning towards Soundgarden in style and sound on this one.

More frenetic snarling guitar work, with deliberate groove underpins Back From The Dead, which features Buckcherry’s Josh Todd in probably the worst vocal performance on the whole album. I really struggle with his sleazy delivery, but Morton’s guitar work is dangerously good here, Inez once more adding the bass and Mayorga another round of bombastic drumming. The curved ball of Reveal is a welcome addition, with the superb vocals of Neenah Maddox, the Philadelphia born singer/songwriter who joins forces with Lionize’s Chris Brooks (who adds some delightful keyboards) and Clutch’s Jean Paul Gaster on drums to create a soulful, blues style song which is so hot is is still smoking! Morton once more demonstrates that he can deliver the alternative style. Imaginary Days features Morton leading with Morales adding the backing vocals alongside Inez and Luzier and it’s not half bad. Morton’s vocals are clean, strong and impressive. 

Final track The Truth Is Dead rolls in the big guns, with Mayorga and Ellefson joined by one D. Randall Blythe and Arch Enemy’s Alissa White Gluz on a track which is almost completely LOG apart from the acoustic intro and the soaring choruses which host clean harmonies which are unexpected. Of course, White Gluz must add some of her own death metal vocals, which is a shame as I much prefer her clean singing. Blythe roars with his usual ferocious style, whilst repeat riffs maintain the jagged undercurrent. This is stingingly heavy with the usual LOG groove and it’s a reasonable track to end the album. Anaesthetic may well improve on repeated listens. It’s not a bad album by any stretch but it doesn’t grab you by the lapels and pin you against the door; something that LOG always do. 7/10

Holding Absence: Holding Absence (Sharptone Records) [Polly]

I had heard great things about the band and their album was on my ‘to listen’ list as soon as it came out, my expectations were high and they definitely surpassed this. This album has the right amount of clean guitar riffs to compliment Lucas Woodland’s impressive vocals, it is a unique contribution to the post-hardcore genre. It’s somewhat rare that you find an album that has a strong indication that a band has poured their heart and soul into every detail of their creative outlets but this is displayed with casual enthusiasm, from the drums practically smacking you in the face on Your Love (Has Ruined My Life), although a lot of that is probably due to Abraham Fihema's production and the lyrics that are practically poetry not only in this track but throughout.

The change of pace through each track on the album is one of the many reasons that this band are not “just another post-hardcore band” they have their own twist. Marigold could thaw the coldest of hearts with a softer pace to the rest of the album which backs up my point that the enchanting lyrics created are pure poetry. To Fall Asleep is without shadow of a doubt one I can picture crowds chanting the words back to the band. The right pace of drums working with the basslines to galvanise the most apathetic of souls following with a clean steer to Monochrome that has its uplifting vibes fused with heart-wrenching lyrics.

This beauty of an album has gripped me from start to finish and hasn’t once left me wanting to skip a track (which is very impressive, as I have the attention span of a toddler in an astrophysics seminar). It is a paradox in itself of having the most uplifting of instrumental sounds versus the hauntingly beautiful words the band have created. *BRB just stalking the rest of Holding Absence’s discography* 9/10

Stormhaven: Liquid Imagery (IM Stormhaven) [Mark]

Stormhaven, where have I heard that name before? Oh that’s right, Elderscrolls. While I am not against naming a band after something from a video game, or pop culture, it really makes it a lot harder to find information about said band when inputting their name into Google. Concept albums float my boat, they really capture your imagination when masterfully made, a single story interwoven over the length of an LP, it’s a skill, and not one every band can master. Liquid Imagery is a concept album covering the protagonist of the story being lost at sea, his trials and tribulations and ultimately his demise, though it isn’t a great concept, I respect the attempt at pulling this many songs from such a limited backstory, when I think of great concept albums I think Queensryche - Operation Mindcrime, Rush - 2112, Mastodon - Blood Mountain, they cover vast swathes of material around a central topic, unfortunately Liquid Imagery doesn’t grab me in the same way. After a 2 minute build up of ocean noises with some descriptive monologue, we’re finally into some music, track 2 is called The Storm, the intro is a pummelling and grabs the listener’s attention immediately, a very strong opening, it should have opened the album rather than the talking, maybe find somewhere else for that to live? I don’t know, I’m left feeling a little directionless after the long build up. 

This is a good track though, for people who like progressive death metal, this will definitely tick the boxes, Opeth comparisons aside, the guitar work is very well executed and the heavy and clean vocals are a nice contrast in the music. Tides follows, opening with an intro reminiscent of 80’s prog rock, drum pattern with added instrumentation over a couple of minutes of building expectation before the meat of the song kicks in. Again, great guitar licks accompany the groove with a smattering of heavy vocals. The time change is a little challenging, had to scroll back a few times to try to appreciate what it was trying to convey and whether it was necessary. When taken as a whole, this is good track. Starless Night is a complete departure into an almost Amorphis territory, the clean guitars and singing really meld into a very smartly put together piece of music, I could probably listen to an entire album of Stormhaven just playing this type of material. Vesper is a monster, this track really kicks the heavy up a notch, opening with a really nice riff that builds up, then dropping some slick syncopated riffs and kicks. 

Perhaps this should have been earlier on the album? It would definitely have thrown the concept off, that’s for sure, but the track is a belter and one of the most memorable on the album. Other tracks to check out, Contemplation, thrashy intro to a short instrumental piece, well written, a chance for the guitars to show off some nice solos and a decent break in the album. Sirens has some well crafted metal moments. Overall I wasn’t completely enamoured with this effort from Stormhaven, I hear the potential for such a great album from this group of clearly talented musicians, Liquid Imagery is well made and the sound doesn’t offend the ears, but I do feel like the addition of a really top class producer to help craft and whittle the songs might have pushed this album from being a solid 6 to a respectable 8. 6/10

Sykelig Englen: To Walk Among Death And Pestilence (AHPN Records) [Sean]

Depressive Black Metal. For those unaware, the genre tag is pretty self explanatory. An offshoot of the second wave, take everything you know and accentuate it’s already abrasive nature (or render it unlistenable) in the pursuit of all things total fucking necro and, RAW and suicidal. Whilst low-fi may sometimes be the aim here, the true magic lies at the heart of it’s potent atmosphere (or anguish) that this aesthetic can conjure if done with care. After all, high production values aren't an indicator of musical quality, though there's fine balance between "raw" and underproduced. Which brings us to Sykelig Englen, the Norwich based creation of veritable one man riff factory, Nattskog (seriously, the man is in a bajillion projects!). 

With new album, To Walk Among Death And Pestilence, Sykelig Englen venture even deeper into the fetid catacombs once more. Will they/he attain total necromantic disparity? Or will they/he become lost amongst the halls of the dead? Opener Hymns Of The Dead drags us into dusty dank darkness, with it’s dynamic space almost panned dead centre. Vocals just about rasp out from under the onslaught of tremolo chords, with barely a bass frequency in sight. Reminiscent of Nocturnal Depression, but even more sparse. Compared to its expansive (and excellent) predecessor, Hagall, this is a far more stripped down affair. Lurking Skeletal Remains carries on in a similar fashion, though it’s usage of major chords is a welcome variance. Unfortunately a lot of power is robbed by a sterile, flat sound, hampering any existential dread that COULD be evoked. The drums leave much to be desired, seemingly an afterthought as the title track plods along under it’s repetitive beat. 

Decompositional Stench flirts with some off kilter synthesizers, whilst Crypt Of Sarcophogi plays with dissonance against dextrous fretwork. Mother Earth’s Final Violation embraces a much colder atmosphere, akin to a ravaging blizzard consuming all in it’s frostbitten rage. But once again, it’s true majesty is undermined by repetitive rhythms and that SAME FUCKING DRUM PATTERN. Non-existent Christ almighty, it’s enough to make a man religious in the hopes of salvation via a differing tempo, let alone a different time signature. Punish The Desecrator would greatly benefit from a cross-beat, boosting the more than competent guitars. Final track Reaping The Soul Of Humanity is a solid closer, sparse piano notes accompanying Nattskog’s torturous condemnation of homo sapien. *Sigh* “To Walk….” is a frustrating beast. 

Whilst there is an undeniable wellspring of creativity, it’s hamstrung by its overall presentation. This type of music relies on feeling and the dread it induces, which is sadly absent due questionable decisions made in it’s creation. Disappointing, especially given the undeniable talent of its creator, but these are the key factors that make the genre what it is. Coupled with a boneless rhythm section and a bland dynamic, To Walk Among Death and Pestilence is robbed of any real impact or memorability. Closing thoughts? A mild irritant, rather than a downward spiral into infinite misery. 5/10

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