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Monday 23 September 2019

Reviews: Opeth, Beth Hart, KXM, Crimson Moon (Paul H & Val)

Opeth: In Cauda Venenum (Moderbolaget and Nuclear Blast)  [Paul Hutchings]

Remember the outrage for some elitists when Stockholm’s progressive metal outfit Opeth changed direction on Heritage? Well, it is fair to say that the fury which the black and death metal diehards vented will remain stoked and burning if they listen to In Cauda Venenum. This is ironic, given that if you follow the route that the band took from the early days of debut Orchid through to Watershed, there were already more twists and turns than a game of Twister. I make no bones about it. Opeth are one of the few bands who genuinely excite me with every release. A defiant determination to follow their own direction, clearly led by Mikael Akerfeldt’s vision, this is a band who have evolved in a manner that few other outfits could.

In Cauda Venenum, their thirteenth observation, will not win back the haters and that is fine with me. Written and delivered in the band’s native Swedish, (With an English version as well), In Cauda Venenum is an intricately crafted and at times beautiful piece of work which requires time. Speaking with Akerfeldt recently (Yes, little me, talking with MA!), we discussed that music is something that requires patience, concentration and focus to really enjoy. You will need to be sitting comfortably to appreciate this album. You will need to listen to it several times. Standing at 67 minutes in length, apart from opening intro Livets Trädgård (Garden Of Earthly Delights), it contains only one track under six minutes. Opeth stretch their organic, progressive style to the max here. Notable influences stretch from Tangerine Dream to Judas Priest, King Crimson to Mercyful Fate (A nod to King Diamond in the Travis Smith designed cover by the way). There is little repetition but much to admire and explore.

Top tip at this point. Listen to the Swedish version first. And then listen to it again. This will afford the opportunity to totally immerse yourself in the musical side of the release. To admire the intricate interplay and creativity. Whilst critics have damned Opeth for moving away from their heavy side, the opening three tracks, Svekets Prins/Dignity, Hjärtat Vet Vad Handen Gör/ Heart In Hand and De Närmast Sörjande/ Next Of Kin offer plenty of heaviness, but in a style that doesn’t require the skull imploding to get there. Akerfeldt said, “For us, at this stage with ​In Cauda Venenum , heaviness isn’t guitars tuned down with screaming vocals over the top”. Unlike some of the earlier records (Think Deliverance, Damnation) Akerfeldt enjoyed writing and making this release and it shows. There is a freedom and opportunity to include some gratuitously grandiose, outrageously overblown and pompous elements. The band liberally use strings, afford greater prominence for Joakim Svalberg’s thick, lavish Hammond and mellotron; all delivered in a style that perhaps only the five component parts that make up Opeth could deliver.

So, what are the highlights? Well, there is an inherent beauty in the fragility of Minnets Yta/Lovelorn Crime, with the simple opening of a duet with piano. Then we have the the sweeping string sections on Ingen Sanning Är Allas/Universal Truth, containing a doff of the hat to 1970s era progressive rock. Banemannen/The Garroter contains a disturbing jazz movement which haunts whilst there is a perfect and sweet melody on Kontinuerlig Drift/Continuum. Then there are deep and punishing bass lines of Charlatan, with its multiple, unpredictable direction shifts and harrowing keyboard passages. This dramatic and enchanting album concludes with a final flourish with Allting Tar Slut/All Things Will Pass and a shake of the head at what you have just heard. Intrigued, you will play it repeatedly before emerging with a smile. Opeth are a band that follows no fashion, channels its own pathway and direction and will continue to do so. This thirteenth record is a majestic piece of work. Respect it by listening to it without distraction. The rewards are worth it. 10/10

Beth Hart: War In My Mind (Provogue Records) [Paul Hutchings]

The latest album from the smoky blues singer follows the same pattern as previous albums. I enjoyed her Fire On The Floor album in 2016 greatly, along with her live at the Royal Albert Hall release from last year. This is album 13, if you include her three releases which included a certain Joe Bonamassa and if you like her strong warble then this will be right up your street. If her voice grates, then this will drive you insane. Like so many releases we listen to, there may not be much that really grabs you hard, but overall songs such as Bad Woman Blues, Let It Grow and Spanish Lullabies are enough to enjoy without trying too hard. I’ve never seen Hart live, and despite my 2016 review suggesting I was intending doing my best to get to a show, I’m not over sold on pursuing a ticket at anytime soon. Confident, polished and professional, Hart packs a punch which does what it says on the tin. She is a brawling, drawling talent which appeals to many. War In My Mind will not change that. It’s solid and enjoyable without being mind-blowing. 7/10

KXM: Circle Of Dolls (Frontiers Records) [Paul Hutchings]

Another supergroup. KXM comprise Korn drummer Ray Luzier, Kings X vocalist and bassist dUg Pinnick and guitarist George Lynch. Formed in 2014, these guys have already released two albums, a self-titled debut on 2014 and Scatterbrain in 2017. Circle Of Dolls is 63 minutes of creativity, pure hard rock with a variety of styles from three master musicians. It isn’t an album that grabbed me on first listen, but there are some excellent segments. Time Flies is a cool, measured track, which contrasts with the fire of opener War Of Words. Lynch is an excellent guitar player and he brings the chops once more. Ironically, although his flash explosive style grabs most attention, it’s his more soulful emotive solos (such as on Time Flies) that are perhaps more enjoyable. The title track is a raging rocker, Vessel Of Destruction plays it safe with a more routine delivery but there are some haunting atmospheric elements which accentuate Pinnick’s deep vocal range on Wide Awake and the haunting Shadow Lover. This was an enjoyable album without getting me particularly excited. It is polished and full of subtle high-class musicianship. Maybe a slightly shorter release would have helped. 6/10

Crimson Moon: Mors Vincit Omnia (Debemur Morti Productions) [Val D'Arcy]

Crimson Moon return with their third full length album Mors Vincit Omnia, or Death Conquers All as the translation goes. Crimson Moon have been around a while, since the mid-nineties in fact, albeit they have stayed relatively close to the underground despite their 2016 album Oneironaut receiving some critical acclaim. Released through Debemur Morti, it carries many of the trademarks of the darker side of black metal which have become synonymous with other names on the label. Think Deathspell crossed with Batushka and you'd be in the right ballpark. The album does indeed use a lot of liturgical chanting throughout (although sounding more of a western Christian rather than Orthodox tradition) to great effect, creating an ominous, ceremonial atmosphere that is both dark and emotive. Please don't fall into the trap of thinking this is some Batushka clone. For starters the heritage of Crimson Moon far outdated the aforementioned, then as already stated the flavour of chanting is not that of the Russian Church and furthermore, Batushka, although can be credited with putting liturgy front and centre to their themes, were by no means the first to use it in their music.

That said, Mors Vincit Omnia is a pretty wild departure from the sound on Crimson Moon's first record in 1996. Back then they were more of a straight up melodic black metal band with some symphonic spatterings and sampling that made it sound more like the soundtrack to a Lucio Fulci movie. Although melody is very much still there, it's taken on a new evolutionary form from the bands earlier outputs. Less overt, more subtle, hidden amidst extended, (almost drone-like at times) repetitive passages which build in intensity over time. Although the sound of this album is fairly consistent throughout its fifty three minutes, there are quite a number of different elements. From the ritualistic avantgarde, the dual lead melodies in the title track and the nod to first wave in Parcae, the organ and doom combo in Funeral Begotten, the list of cameos goes on. However its still overwhelmingly a second wave black metal album, thankfully so. Despite the experimentation this album feels honest and has none of the pretences or clichés of modern day post black metal. At no point do any one of these elements become overwhelming to the point where you think they're making a thing out of it, it's all rather well balanced.

I wouldn't describe this as an accessible record. For starters there's a lot going on, secondly a lot of it is obscured by what is for the most part a fairly flat and repetitive soundscape. It requires a degree of concentration and focus to pick it apart but your increased attention is rewarded further with each subsequent listen. Altogether it works incredibly well, this is an excellent work of modern black metal with all the integrity of a real classic. 

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