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Friday 26 June 2020

Reviews: Mike LePond's Silent Assassins, Varus, 5th Machine, Eleven Strings (Bob, Alex, Simon & Rich)

Mike LePond’s Silent Assassins: Whore Of Babylon (Silver Lining Music) [Bob Shoesmith]

With the constant, week to week launch of new bands (or the recycling of other bands and members), these days you really do need a ‘unique selling point’ to catch the eye of management, record companies or publishers to offer an angle and to give yourself a better shop window. Silent Assassins are a vehicle for Mike LePond, and in case you’ve been living under a Prog rock (see what I did there) is the current bass player for Symphony X, or, if you read their incredibly pretentious and grandiose bio they provide; “…one of the foremost bass virtuosos in heavy metal music and a member of progressive metal band Symphony X”. So, while we get that Mike is this projects USP, when you scroll through all the self-penned hyperbole and bragging about this project and see his name in bold in every sentence and only brief nods to other members, maybe it might have just been easier to call it The Mike LePond Band to be honest and be done with it. Those of you who may have read my reviews to date will note that I don’t deal with self-aggrandizement too well but I shall leave that there for now.

Whore Of Babylon is this project’s third full offering and if you haven’t checked them out before and are a fan of Symphony X expecting more of the same, airbrushed, symphonic, classy Prog metal you’ll be quite surprised (& a little disappointed) by Silent Assassins as in places, Whore Of Babylon is much harder, rougher and well, more metal if a little poorer in places than Mike’s main project. This bands writing has locked into the usual heavy metal clichés of history, myth and legend subject matter and when the opening track Dracul Son and the full on Tell Tale Heart take off like Iron Maiden on speed and they don’t back off, they’re hard, they’re fast and borders on thrash and you think, ‘well now, perhaps we have a whole new project here’ and then there’s the second track, Ides Of March which is a slightly poorer version of a lesser Symphony X song – lots of layered harmonies in the chorus and gallops in the verses. Alan Tecchio’s vocals are very, very Bruce Dickinson in style but don’t bare comparison to the clarity and style of say X’s Russell Allen. He has quite a range sure, but not a lot of control. So, what started out as a ripper of a metal, muscles and horns album gets lost somewhere in the middle; there’s a vaguely ridiculous almost Tenacious D like celtic romp of Night Of The Long Knives with chanted ‘Heys’ and ‘Ho’s’ like a Big Country song, which then goes and throws in a Spanish Flamenco guitar solo right in the middle which not really confuses their idioms, the whole track borders on the silly. Oh, and there are tracks that fade out – fade outs? Jesus, I thought we’d outlawed them?

After the Celtic confusion we move onto a Blackmore’s Knight sort of medieval ballad affair of Champion where despite the best efforts of an uncredited female singer and a bass solo (yes, really) we’ve definitely gone off on a strange tangent as a body of work because we are then straight back to the full on high speed Maiden/Viking metal of Ironborn and then the totally Judas Priest-a-like and more classic heavy metal of Lady Bathory and Power Of Steel which while good tracks on their own and are enjoyable for a metalhead like me seem completely out of place with the rest of the album and like a different band completely. The standout tracks are definitely at the beginning and end of the album, such as the eponymous Whore Of Babylon (the heroine/villainess of the Book of Revelations) a much more subtler and considered affair with a slower-paced Arabian feel and a very listenable, storybook style track and the closing Avalon where we get back to what they do best, a Symphony X/Maiden gallop with bass noodling a hooky chorus and Jon Lord like Hammond solo.

Obviously, due to Mike LePond’s day job, Silent Assassin will garner a lot of interest from the legions of Symphony X fans and the glowing praise and promise they heap on themselves will lure listeners in, but their bravado and lack of humility seems a little underserved to me, Whore of Babylon is not a great album given the pedigree behind it. While it claims to have a theme or concept, it really doesn’t. Its vague collection of eclectic songs and ideas, styles and filler (i.e the Priest like songs) that Mike came up with while watching the History Channel apparently, that thematically fit the bill. In places like Night Of The Long Knives and Champion they get it almost laughably wrong but when they get it right Dracul Son, Whore Of Babylon and Avalon they can deliver half decent metal. 7/10

Varus: A New Dawn (Self Released) [Alex Swift]

Channelling an emotional form of symphonic metal, there’s plenty to be found on A New Dawn that leans firmly into the influences of Nightwish, Epica and Kamelot, except these musicians eloquently intertwine folksy balladry into their songcrafting in a way which sounds and feels inspired. Konstantin Raab – the mastermind behind the project – plays with impassioned melodies with emanating from his keyboards and his vocals in stunning style. Meanwhile, much emotional heft is contributed by guitarist Stefan Schwarz whose compositions are affecting without being overbearing. Furthermore, there’s plenty of experimentation scattered throughout, creating cerebral soundscapes.

There’s a hefty influence from more extreme genres like death Metal throughout – the aggressive moments are always contrasted with spellbinding moments of melodic maturity, and while there’s a tendency for the two styles to clash, and feel disconcerting against one another, you can’t deny the exhilaration on display. The title track shines with a sense of magnificence allowing the visceral nature to swell and guide towards an anthem, sing-along chorus. The mixing really aids in fostering this sense of grandeur as well – I’ve been known to mark down for sloppy production, yet albeit a few moments where the instrumentation seems to awkwardly dip in and out, the sound of the record is crisp, detailed and serene.

Perhaps my favourite moments on this album were the Norse and folklore-inspired ones. When they want to Varus can really tug at your heartstrings with the worlds they create from quite humble instrumentation. Take Minstrels Chant which retains a sense of prowess and size, while featuring a pronounced and impressive flute solo. Ascheregen cleverly brings together the vivacious, stampeding side of Varus’s sound, with the melodic and textured elements. Even the doom-laden stomp of Tränk Dein Herz never fails to make an impression on me.

Overall beyond some small discrepancies I have about the albums overall writing and tone, album no. 2 from the German players seems destined to herald ambitious experiments far into the future. I hope they can continue their perplexing melding of genres, in a way that proves continuously fascinating and engrossing. 7/10

5th Machine: Back In Time (Lion's Pride Music) [Simon Black]

Hailing from São Paulo in Brazil, this is the debut album from Melodic Hard Rock outfit 5th Machine. First point, this doesn’t sound like a fresh-faced bunch of youngsters making their tentative first steps into the studio. This sounds like some experienced musicians who know exactly what they want, care nothing for trends and fashions and are happy to wear their influences on their shoulders. This bunch know how to achieve the sounds they like sound and frankly this is a thoroughly enjoyable album as a consequence.

Title track and opener 5th Machine lays its stall out early with some catchy riff and rhythm work, pulling you into a well-crafted mid-paced rocker, and I particularly enjoyed the old school sound mix. The Wind takes this to the next level, with a real 80’s US Radio rock vibe riff and effect, and effortlessly captures a post Van Halen sound that few managed back in the day. Say No To Time takes the pace up a notch and would give a few Power Metal acts a good run for a money, with its thundering drum work, epic vocals and catchy rhythms this is supremely confident and mature stuff. That maturity carries onto single The Song Of The Beggar and gives the keyboards an opportunity to take the lead with a subtle piano intro to another up-tempo head-tapping rocker, interspersed by some haunting verse melodies.

This one is clearly meant to be played soulfully in your face live and it would be nice one day to get that opportunity. That haunting piano is back for Until The End Of Time, which although formulaic just works purely on the back of the strength of the performances. Say No To Time takes things into funkier territory with its in your face bass intro, before dropping into some good old-fashioned speed and energy, bring the album back up with a bang. The pace slows a bit in the last third of the album, but they do save some of the best for last, as the title track explodes into your face, but then pauses to take a melodic interlude without losing any of its power. Cracking stuff.

I’ve hinted at the old school sound and use of reverb, and it’s worth pausing on that. The vocals are heavily reverbed and create a haunting and emotive hook to pull you in, and take you back to an earlier time where that most basic of sound effects created depth and richness. I blame Metallica. They threw reverb out the window and everyone followed like sheep. Well, you can keep your ‘flat and real’ - it more often than not sounds like it was recorded in a biscuit tin in the middle of a desert, and give me this sort of well-layered and mixed unashamed melodic heaven anytime. If there is a heaven, it has reverb in post-production…

Back In Time is an appropriate title for this album. It’s well-crafted, it’s varied and it feels like the work of seasoned bunch of pro’s, which might well be the case, as there’s very little information out there on them, at least in English (something to fix boys, if you are reading this). In a world hungry for information online to go with the tunes and help get them to a wider audience, this isn’t something bands can neglect anymore, and needs to be done quickly to give this album the exposure it deserves. A damn fine start. 8/10

Eleven Strings: Void (Self Released) [Rich Oliver]

Void is the third album by Brazilian metal band Eleven Strings and has been independently released by the band. Eleven Strings are not a band I am at all knowledgeable about and this release is my first exposure to the band.

They are coined as progressive metal but what I heard on Void is more a groove based contemporary metal sound that veers into progressive territories and has some nods to the djent genre as well. There are a lot of groove laden chuggy guitar riffs as well as some very decent lead playing. There is a heavy use of keyboards producing electronic sounds as well as string arrangements. The vocals are a mix of harsh screams and clean vocals though the clean vocals are one of the weaker aspects of this release at times sounding off key or out of place. There are some interesting ideas and complex song arrangements on Void but there isn’t much that stayed with me come the end of the album though Know Your Sins with its ever shifting style and complex structure and Shogun with its nods to traditional Japanese music were clear highlights on the album.

Eleven Strings are a very talented bunch of musicians and Void is a decent take on a contemporary progressive metal sound but there wasn’t a whole lot here that grabbed me. The djent leanings didn’t sit well with me as I’m generally not a fan of that style and I just wasn’t wholly engaged throughout the album. A decent release and there will be plenty of people who appreciate this but it wasn’t really for me. 6/10

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