Valis Ablaze: Render (Long Branch Records)
I've made no secret about how much I love UK modern prog metal act Valis Ablaze, I've been following them since their debut EP Singularity and I've seen them evolve into a band on the forefront of the the progressive scene. Since their debut album Boundless they have a new rhythm section welcoming Dayle Williams on drums and Dan Brotherton on bass and they have honed their chops around Europe with bands such as Monuments, The Contortionist, Dead Letter Circus and Vola ready for their second album Render. Starting off an album with 80's sounding synths and a solitary guitar arpeggio brings you in immediately and also displays the technicality of this band then while the fluid playing continues the palm muted riff kicks in and Neon Dreaming a song that blends harmony and chaos equally, starting off this sophomore with some impressive guitar workouts from Tom Moore and Ash Cook.
It's as this album starts that you can hear how Valis Ablaze have once again evolved as a band, there's a maturity here that sees them creating some of the most breathtaking soundscapes you will hear this year. A track such as State Of Decay has as much depth to it as the Marianas Trench, blending the beastly and beautiful seamlessly. They have brought a new level of, I hate to say accessibility, but there is a bigger melodic presence on this album which is notable from Boundless, which by no means was a death metal record but on Render the mood of the record is very upbeat and mellifluous, the tracks sound simplistic but they are actually very complex Infinite World exhibits this the best, while the heaviness is shown on The Convincer which has a tasty breakdown full of fret-slides, it's a track that will go down a storm live due to the thick grooves. It's Saturation for me that shows the most evolution from this band starting off with electronic ambient textures before the riffs kick in for the shortest but for me most affecting songs on the record.
Elsewhere they have added some soaring radio baiting tracks such as Keyframes which despite having the heavy riff powering it, it's dramatic and emotional, leading into the more melodic Ascent, which features guest guitars from Mask Of Judas' Sam Bell. Both of these songs display the brilliant vocals of Phil Owen which have a fragility but also a powerful passion to them that once again rears its head on the muscular Proxy which sees it juxtaposed with atmospheric guitars and thumping low end that breaks into a tapped solo section. Sam Bell is not the only special guest on the record either as the final track Elevation features Danish singer White Dove duetting with Owen. From what I have read an upon repeated listens Render has a conceptual nature but this doesn't overwhelm the album in anyway, anyone can pick out a song as a favourite without knowing the rest of the concept around it. Render is the natural next step for Valis Ablaze, musically interesting, lyrically intelligent and brimming with compositions that will give them a broader appeal without sacrificing their core audience of modern prog lovers. A simply superb album! 9/10
Ulysses: On Safari (Black Glove Recordings)
Bath/Bristol band Ulysses previous album Law & Order was released in 2016 and between then and now Ulysses have yet to leave their time machine, that has kept them stuck between the psychedelic and glam eras. On Safari is chock full of the sounds of Wings, The Beatles, David Bowie (Ziggy-Era), T-Rex et al, it puts them in the same kind of category as Supergrass, Super Furry Animals and even The Darkness. They are very much an analog band with Rickenbackers linked up to valve amps while also taking walls of analog synths for big epics like Situation Man which could be a Jeff Lynne track due to the multiple layers of orchestrations, the drumming to has a lot of shakers and percussion which gets your booty shaking. It's a soundtrack that requires you to pick out your best cheesecloth and stacked heels as you kick out the jams to rockers such as Let's Move, but also the sitar-infused Looking For A Guru which could be from the concert for Bangladesh, the propulsive Married Woman which channels Syd Barrett.
The album is 15 songs long but many of the the songs are 3 minute stompers so you don't really notice the number of songs due to the smorgasboard of sounds this record produces, much like a real Safari, you get glimpses of things that you may have only previously encountered briefly. Some of the sounds on this album may have come through your parents record player but Ulysses are on a mission to bring them to a new generation. They do it brilliantly with tongues planted firmly in cheeks for flirty numbers like Doctors & Nurses they are not a joke though as they treat these styles with reverence. Ulysses are Luke Smyth (vocals/guitars), Denny Peppers (guitars/vox), Jimmy Peppers (bass) and Shane Maxymus (drums/vox), hopefully they will be touring this year so you can join their Magical Mystery Tour, until then though play On Safari as much as you can preferably on vinyl through a retro system to get the full effect. 8/10
Lightning Born: S/T (Ripple Music)
Lightning Born are a collection of vintage riff worshippers from Raleigh, North Carolina. Formed by Mike Dean (Bass - Corrosion Of Conformity), Erik Sugg (Guitar - Demon Eye), Doza Hawes (Drums - Colossus, ex-Bloody Hammers; ex-Hour of 13) and Brenna Leath (Vocals - The Hell No). This self titled record has a big slab of heaving doom and some proto-metal sounds akin to Lucifer, The Blues Pills or Blood Ceremony, blues riffs are ramped up with fuzzy distortion, grumbling bass licks and Brenna's wailing vocals, tracks such as Oblivion are psychedelic head trips ideal for stoners, while Wildfire is a more direct riffer with a punk influence as Shifting Winds brings crushing doom. With the thumping Silence having a chunky bassline and Breanna in full flight as Renegade picks up the pace, it's very much what I thought it would be and to be honest when I saw the membership of this band I wasn't expecting AOR. Lightning Born is a record that has has some thick chops to it so if you're waiting for your next proto-metal fix then put your golf club in the air and await the lightning! 7/10
Love Your Witch: If You Love Your Witch Kill Her (Reality Rehab Records)
This trio from Tel Aviv play what they call 'stoner thrash' which to be honest sounds like two things that really shouldn't work together, but as soon as opening track The Headless Rider starts off you can see why this genre tag works. It's the first of two 13 minute songs on this record that bookend the shorter numbers in the middle and it moves between some classic stoner riffs building and building until suddenly it changes it's mind and a thrash metal assault breaks out, before things start to move between both styles effortlessly, the grooves guiding things on before it's blast beats galore. It may sound a little insane but I promise you it works really well.
Michael Kozlovzky (guitar), Mor Gal (bass/vocals) and Amit Abrahami (drums) have crafted an album that pairs Motorhead-style madness Conspiration Confirmed and the title track with some Down-like stoner grooves on Blind Solution. If You Love Your Witch Kill Her is something of a unique album but one that intrigues me, the only thing I could critique is that the production is a little thin so the songs themselves don't have the level of power they deserve however it's a small quibble on what is otherwise an album that stands out as one that comes from left field. 7/10