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Monday, 24 August 2020

Reviews: Luna's Call & Metallica (Reviews By Alyn & Paul H)

Luna's Call: Void (Self Released) [Alyn Hunter]

I've made it my business for quite some time to be as up to date as possible with as many branches of the UK underground metal scene. Sure, I know where my strengths lie and I'll always have a fondness for those (hello angry corpse-paint clad tremolo fiends), but having gorged myself on a glut of Opeth, Porcupine Tree, Division By Zero, Indukti, Cynic etc in my formative years – I've definitely retained an affinity for the heavier leanings of the prog-scene. I first caught wind of Luna's Call a few years ago having spotted a post on a UK metal facebook thread and although the mix was rough on the first tracks that were to eventually form the bulk of their Divinity debut album, their youtube gave me enough of a glimpse to know that this would be something special if given half the chance it deserved. Fast forward a couple of years to them performing live at Bloodstock on the New Blood stage and I got the chance to witness what I'd confidentiality and emphatically declare on any given occasion one of the UK's most promising acts for the future. 

Luna's Call is predominantly the brain-child of vocalist and guitarist Neil Purdy, a modest & softly spoken classically trained musician from the Lincolnshire area. Accompanying him are the outrageously talented trio of Liam Underdown also on guitar, Brad Laver on bass and Jamie Batt manning the kit. The playing ability of each member is nothing short of virtuosic and with Russ Russell handling the mix and master, every note from every instrument sings clearly across the full 50 minutes. In fact it's nearly entirely unreasonable how good this album sounds across all frequencies. Keeping things in house as much as possible, even the album art-work is handled by a relative of Neil's in Ian Purdy who has crafted something truly special. 

According to the band, Void explores themes of observing the Earth's environmental destruction from the vastness of outer space. Luna's Call have gone to lengths to punctuate their songs with convincing synth layers to help illustrate their vision, but the hard work is largely achieved by the song-writing itself. Compositionally speaking, there's not a second wasted across this record and barely anything is repeated yet you never find yourself lost or without direction. Every moment has striking nuance that builds the bigger picture, and the album itself is meticulously arranged with each track blending thoughtfully into the next - Enceladus being a gorgeous number that sits completely apart stylistically yet fits in perfectly and Silverfish even adding a dreamy respite towards the end. It's an album that demands a full play-through to properly digest, with In Bile They Bathe which they have already been performing live for over 2 years the only track which really feels like you could just pluck it out and scream “single” - but even then it's precursored so well by the end of Locus that I now think I'd be loathe to hear it out of its new context. 

There's a number of truly “all hairs raised” moments such as the solo after a break mid-way through Solar Immolation (a 13 minute opus in it's own right), the “Tull” sixties inspired indulgences at the end of Locus, the enormous brass swell towards closer Fly Further Cosmonaut... but these are the icing on a breathtaking cake. Neil & Brad's combined vocals flit between savage and delicate appropriately – the cleans in particular at points would make Steven Wilson weep although the bulk of the time they will almost certainly draw comparisons to latter era Opeth as Neil shares that sort of range. No elitism here, it's a good thing. 

Riffs? They're everywhere, and it's a smorgasbord of technique that covers everything from full blown technical death metal at its most flamboyant staccato-emblazoned trickery, to bombastic neoclassical and back to post-rock. You could be snapping your neck one minute and whisked to a dream-like haze the next, but they all tell the story. What's especially notable is how Brad's bass is allowed to really have a deserved voice throughout and it really shines, and the absolute masterclass of percussion laid down by Jamie is the glue that holds it together, although that's a simplification that doesn't do his detailed and intelligent performance the justice it deserves. There's clear demonstration of influences peaking throughout (Necrophagist, Cynic, Dream Theatre, Steven Wilson, Opeth of course) but Void as a whole really tells a story that “Luna's Call” have carved out their own niche amongst their contemporaries and there's enough here to not only forge itself a strong unique identity but also to serve as a gateway for others.

Retrospectively, this review is at great risk of saying an awful lot without even getting close to scratching the sides. I've had it on repeat all damned day and I still feel like I'm discovering layers but it's not a “it'll grow on me” record, more it latches onto you from the outset and merges with you symbiotically. When this record is released, just buy it, it's a work of art. This is album of the year material right here and no amount of superlatives put it better than that. Take a bow Luna's Call, I honestly hope this puts you on the radar because it's a crime if this escapes wider consumption. God forbid that Akerfeldt gets wind of this record, he may very well retire. 10/10

Metallica: S&M 2 (Blackened Recordings) [Paul Hutchings]

Do you recall Symphony & Metallica? S&M, released in 1999, was one of the first alliances between metal bands and symphony orchestras. Recorded in April 1999 at the Berkeley Community Theatre in California, S&M saw the world’s biggest metal band Metallica join forces with the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Michael Kamen. Over two hours of Metallica’s music, combined with the classical influences and sounds, I thought it was a massive album. I loved the orchestral score, the arrangements, the huge sweeping sounds and fresh life that it gave to some of those well-loved Metallica tracks. Yes, it divided the fan base with those who had hated on the band since Metallica stormed the gates of commercial success given even more fuel to rage. 

Scroll forward 20 years and Metallica remain the kings of the metal world, especially in terms of pulling power. Three studio albums in 20 years (we’ll quickly step over the car crash of Lulu) isn’t the output one might have expected, and yet despite the rather lacklustre quality of those albums, they have sold out every show they have played (not a fact but a pretty good estimate I reckon). In those 20 years I think I’ve seen them at least ten times, and they’ve never ever let me down in the live arena. Yes, the tickets are expensive, but their shows are unfailingly spectacular and I’ve yet to meet anyone who has seen them and failed to be impressed. The fire of those early years has dimmed, but the passion remained. But Metallica are corporate in a way that few could appreciate. The arguments about their status as the best ‘thrash’ band continue to be fought on the websites and social media platforms across the world. For the army of Fifth Members, the band remain the ultimate draw and much like Iron Maiden, attract a level of fanaticism that most bands can only dream of. 

On September 6th and 7th 2019, San Francisco’s Chase Center saw Metallica reunite with the San Francisco Symphony as the band formally opened the venue. Conductor Edwin Outwater was chosen several months before and the man has the right pedigree, having worked with several other artists before including Cheap Trick. He also took what he described as a ‘deep dive’ into the back catalogue of Metallica and the big four of thrash, as well as exploring Sabbath, Maiden and expressing a keen liking for Power Trip! Apparently over 70 countries were represented amongst the audience, proving the huge pull that the Metallica machine still has. The show was shown a few weeks later in a one night only event in selected cinemas and is now coming out in both audio and video version. The fan packages are extensive and pricey, but let’s concentrate on the audio version which is what I had to play with.

Let’s start by comparing the set list from 1999 with S&M2. If you discount the intro of The Ecstasy Of Gold, then eight of the songs on S&M2 also featured in 1999. Except for No Leaf Clover, these are to be expected. Live staples that would cause outrage if they were omitted but a little predictable all the same. The Call Of Ktulu sits in the same slot as it did in 1999, the obvious and traditional ‘tallica opener, and even with the orchestral arrangements it’s still one of the most powerful and heavy songs the band has ever delivered. For Whom The Bell Tolls remains my favourite Metallica song, and it’s one that works magnificently with the orchestra, whose dramatic playing once again enhances the track superbly. And then there’s the rest of Act one where the band take more of their recent music and give it the orchestral overhaul. If I’m honest, this is a bit hit and miss. Moth Into Flame and Confusion are watered down, whilst the brass section on The Day That Never Comes turns a serious messaged track into a big band number. Add the usual cabaret singalong at the end of The Memory Remains with extended crowd participation and it really isn’t that great.

The Outlaw Torn
from Load gets the full treatment, and after a lumbering build-up it evolves into a bit of a monster. No Leaf Clover gets the reprise from S&M, which is surprising as it’s one of the weaker tracks Metallica have ever written in my opinion. Act one concludes with the third track from Hardwired, Halo Of Fire and again the jury is out on this one. It’s a bland track at best and I’m not convinced the banks of strings and horns do much but mask its deficiencies.

Act two is where things really get a bit shit. It opens with a massive mistake. Yes, Lars is allowed to flap his gums. Cue several minutes of gibberish. A list of thanks, including a cringe worthy shout out to the Metallica Fan Club members which resembles the welcome Easyjet give their club card holders before he spends ages listing the flags he can see in the audience. On audio this is excruciatingly dull. Ulrich introduces the legendary Musical Director Michael Tilson Thomas who in turn does his own list of thanks [seriously, the intro is about five minute long] before an introduction to Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite Op. 20 II The Enemy God And The Dance Of The Dark Spirits. Undoubtedly a magnificent piece of classical music, here it is an exercise in self-indulgence which struggles to fit into the set. It gets worse as we are then subjected to a version of Mosolov’s The Iron Foundry, Op 19 which includes Hetfield and Hammett riffing away. It’s a cacophony which left me scratching my head. What the hell is going on. 

So, it’s 14 minutes into Act two before we get to hear another Metallica track and then it’s the awful Unforgiven III from Death Magnetic, followed by the rather dull All Within My Hands from St Anger. I’m bored by now. Nothing is grabbing the attention. The inclusion of Scott Pingell to play the start of Anaesthesia (Pulling Teeth) may have seemed a good idea as a tribute to Cliff Burton. I’m not sure it worked. The solo that follows with Robert Trujillo joining the track before Ulrich hacks in with some aggressive drumming to conclude the song. Filler, more bloated self-indulgence or inspired? You decide. 

The run in consists of five songs that featured on S&M. They are unsurprising. Four from Metallica; Wherever I May Roam, One, Nothing Else Matters and final song Enter Sandman with the only thrasher Master Of Puppets sandwiched in the middle. Whilst the musical talent is blisteringly good, it’s all just a bit too contrived for me. All a bit too pleased with itself and a little, dare I say, too safe in song selection. I have no doubt that if you were there it would have been bloody amazing but on audio, whilst sonically stunning, S&M2 just leaves me cold. I’m not a thrash elitist. I’ve argued for Metallica in debates about their relevance in today’s metal. S&M2 appears bloated, lazy, and overall, just a bit uninteresting. Metallica may just be ready for a Las Vegas residency; such is their stature. And that makes me sad. 6/10

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