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Wednesday 30 September 2020

Reviews: Morta Skuld, Scordatura, Six Feet Under, Hellion Prime (Rich, Charlie & Dr Claire, Paul H & Simon)

Morta Skuld: Suffer For Nothing (Peaceville Records) [Rich Oliver]

Suffer For Nothing is the sixth album from Milwaukee old school death metallers Morta Skuld and the second post-reunion album for the band. Two new members have joined the band since previous album Wounds Deeper Than Time in 2017. Bassist John Hill and guitarist Tim Beyer join drummer Eric House, guitarist Scott Willecke and the sole surviving original member of the band, vocalist Dave Gregor. This album sees Morta Skuld continue on the road they set upon on their previous album which is crushing old school death metal given a contemporary sheen. The music is prime US death metal which is brutal and crushing with plenty of that sick old school groove with songs such as Divide The Soulless, Facing Mortality and Godlike Shell dialling up the carnage. Flesh shredding riffs, sick solos, pummelling drums and guttural growls are what you can expect and it is delivered in unrelenting style with a great production meaning these songs sound suitably savage. Morta Skuld know their craft and hone it well on Suffer For Nothing. Whilst it is a very solid death metal album there are a few songs that are on the side of forgettable but when this album needs to land those punishing blows it does it in suitably violent style. 7/10

Scordatura: Mass Failure (Self Released) [Charlie Rogers & Dr Claire Hanley]

Fresh from the depths of Glasgow, Scordatura’s third full length release Mass Failure slaps you round the chops from the get go. Catapulted headfirst into the riffs Disease Of Mind is utterly bludgeoning, with frantic guitar work from Owen McKendrick and lightning fast drumming courtesy of Tam Moran, while still leaving room for elements of emerging groove to grow. This is continued in Skin Trophy, where bassist Derek Wright has some great exposed parts. Nothing But Dust showcases vocalist Daryl Boyce’s impressive range, as the higher end features more prominently. Yet, as we reach the end of track 3, we realise that it’s been largely much of the same. Individual elements are notable, but the whole seems lacking. Thankfully, Contorted Existence provides a much needed tempo change, with a distinct plodding melody taking you to pastures new. It gives way to a sprinting middle section, before returning to the trudge, and this change of pace gives it real staying power. World Devoured continues this trend, with bouncier riffs and a more energetic pace. 

It’s less predictable than the preceding material, with more variety in tempo and feel. It’s not usual that the mid point of an album really grabs you, but this track certainly does that. The Flesh That Hates is a sonically dense haze for the most part, and the decay into the mid section is pulled off expertly. Again, more variety gives it that enjoyment factor. There’s little more to be said about the title track, and Immense Atrocity that follows, with the final offering Collapse Of Humanity reinvigorating our attention once more. It’s a pit worthy number, with more than its fair share of meat on the bones. This is a brutal death metal band doing what they do well, but the translation into album format left us wanting more. While the tracks are very well executed, by evidently talented musicians, the absence of memorable songs prevent this from being a stand-out record. 6/10

Six Feet Under: Nightmares Of The Decomposed (Metal Blade Records) [Paul Hutchings] 

As legendary as death metal band Six Feet Under are, I can’t say I’ve ever really warmed to them that much. 16 albums into their career, I’ve never really delved deeply into their catalogue. Would album number 17 make any difference? Well, the real challenge with Nightmares Of The Decomposed is the vocal delivery of Chris Barnes, who despite the huge volume of releases is still referred to as the original vocalist of Cannibal Corpse. Sonically, there’s little to complain about. The riffs are uncompromising, the aural assault savage and the groove, for yes, there is a basic groove that underpins the 12 tracks on offer certainly worms into the mind. But, and it’s a but of gargantuan size, Barnes’ vocals grate from the opening growls on Amputator. Zodiac, The Rotting and Migraine are all marred by a squealing pig that drifts in and out, whilst the actual death growls fail to impact in the way that most death metal outfits do. 

The Noose is possibly the worst of the lot, Barnes coming across as a rambling bloke at the pub who has had too many Carlings. Elsewhere, the brutality of the band is certainly in keeping with their tag. The driving riffage is effortless, and the song titles are as morbid as one would expect. Dead Girls Don’t Scream rumbles along, the pummelling Drink Blood, Get High is okay, if unspectacular, although the arrival of former Cannibal Corpse guitarist Jack Owen has by all accounts given the band a new dynamic in the music department. I’m sure that long-time fans of Sixz Feet Under will want me hanging from the nearest lamppost. Such is the nature of reviewing. In a year where there has been ample explosively stunning death metal, this release simply doesn’t punch through to the top tier. 5/10

Helion Prime: Question Everything (Saibot Reigns) [Simon Black]

In these darker times, this is a highly topical subject for a concept album. Power Metal is full of concepts, but the vast majority take a particular event in history (or rather a particular reference work about them) and weave a musical story, ‘cos let’s face it brutal wars sounds great in Metal. This one is far more subtle, choosing as its theme individual songs highlighting historical figures who stood up to be counted and moved our species forward for the better. So what Sabaton do for warfare, Helion Prime are attempting for Science and Philosophy. This band have had a turbulent time with regard to line up as well, and seem to have settled somewhat with new vocalist Mary Zimmer, although all their previous three vocalists also apparently show up in either a guest spot or songwriting capacity. How philosophical…

Musically this feels very much Euro-style Power Metal fare, and lacks some of the energy their earlier work had. That said it’s a more polished sound, even if along the way they seem to have lost some of the Promethean spark. Don’t get me wrong – I like their overall sound and I like that they choose more challenging subject matter, but I am missing the knock out punch in the songs. I’m just about to write this album off, but then I get to Question Everything itself, which as well as a punchy title is musically head and shoulders above the rest of the record. For a start the energy is there, and the musical interplay and songwriting are much more directive than the majority of the songs on the album and now they have my attention. And to be fair they manage to hold it for the lengthy closer Reawakening, as Zimmer pushes her voice a little harder and looses some of the clean edge, which is surprising for a Power ballad on an album that thus far had been squeaky clean in its production.

When it works, it does so well, and I can’t help feel that if more of the album had the energy and spark that the title track did, then this would be a very different review. Maybe the new line up just needs a bit of time to settle down, but certainly not a bad effort and if they can get the energy and rawness applied consistently then they are off. 6/10

Reviews: Idles, Obsidian Kingdom, NZM, Skeletoon (Alex, Dave, Simon & Liam)

Idles: Ultra Mono (Partisan Records) [Alex Swift]

If you took one look at Idles when they first emerged onto the scene in 2017 with the raging debut Brutalism, you would not have immediately thought ‘yep, there’s a band who will soon win the praise of critics and a dedicated cult following’. Not that they weren’t great then. Hell, with their cutting combination of acerbically optimistic lyricism, enrapturing rhythms, and gargantuan guitars, I’ve been happy to call myself a fan since the beginning. All I mean is that they’ve never given the impression of an act ready to take the world by storm. I figure they can hardly believe the reality themselves, especially judging by their standout Glastonbury performance where the lyrics are powerfully chanted along in unison, moving singer Joe Talbot to tears. 

That’s their core achievement, making loud and angry punk seem sentimental and hopeful. Indeed, their 2018 outing Joy, As An Act Of Resistance, was the right album at the right time. Amid the world collapsing that album sought to show how at a time when people are more at each other’s throats than ever, the act of being joyful and showing love, can be a revolutionary act. With that message of defiant hope in the face of dire circumstances, I can’t think of a better time for a new Idles album. While I have no doubt about the potential of this music to list my spirit and inspire a sense of righteous confidence in me, the question I’ve been anticipating for a while now is ‘does Ultra Mono live up to expectations?’

War starts the album strong with apocalyptic composition, the rapid-fire bass textures splicing like the blades of a helicopter, while the drums fire off erratically, imitating the thunder of machine guns. The guitars climb high before plunging, conveying the desperation and inhumanity of the concepts being described, while the keyboards add an intense, vivid quality. The line ‘We’re all going straight to hell’ might give the impression that this record is taking a more negative outlook. Rather, Talbot and co. have always been great at contrasting the often bleak reality with the hope of what might be - dragging you to hell to show you why you don’t want to end up there. Grounds excellently carries that concept, with the huge hooks of ‘Do you hear that thunder? That’s the sound of strength in numbers’ and their now well-respected cries of ‘UNIFY!’ This song is far from preaching to the choir though. 

Lines like ‘no hallelujahs and no kingdom comes!’ as well as ‘not a single thing has ever been mended, by you standing there and saying your offended’ show that although seeking togetherness, our narrator is not interested in easy answers and useless platitudes. The listener’s expectations are also challenged musically, with the song taking on a new wave or Avant-garde feel while staying incredibly memorable. Mr. Motivator is even more enthusiastic and shows that tongue-in-cheek side of the band that won so many fans over in the first instance. I can just picture how well the line of ‘let’s seize the day, all hold hands, chase the pricks away’ will go down when we finally get to see these songs in concert. My favourite line here though is ‘like Kathleen Hanna with bear claws grabbing Trump by the pussy’ – a virtuous nod to Riot Grrrl and a fitting attack on the fascist in chief.

After Anxiety which condemns the mental strain arising from the world at present, and the sardonic Kill them with kindness mocks the pho-peacemaker attitude that you can always just smile and nod when confronted with oppression, we get to the politically astute anthem Model Village. ‘You gotta laugh as the curtain twitches, and the villagers bury their riches, but the village doesn't know what rich is, just snitches snitchin' on snitches’ proclaims one line, laughing at the absurdity of a model society based on driving out anyone who doesn’t meet the stereotypical definition of ‘Britishness’. The plucky, energetic beat adds to the sinister, smirking quality laced from start to finish. Featuring Jehnny Beth of Savages fame Ne Touche Pas Moi is a commanding ‘pistol’ for the creeps and wolf-whistlers, containing cries of ‘This is your dance space!’ and ‘Consent!’. Carcinogenic might be one of the best anthems these musicians have ever pressed to plastic vinyl or otherwise. 

Strangely dark and weirdly paced, the piece eloquently underpins the dystopian reality of life under capitalism: - ‘Cramming people into high-rises, while selling their welfare for low prices …where were you when the ship sank? Probably not queuing for food banks, probably waving your Union Jack, probably rallying for new tanks, probably to blow up the ice caps’. Reigns feel like a ferocious dance club stomper, but with howling guitars and pulsing drums instead of synths. Starting low and confrontational we burst into a huge chorus. This transitions cleverly into The Lover – a severing anthem in defiance of the band's detractors, and the most sarcastic plea for unity I think I’ve heard since….the rest of this album!

Continuing the idea of hope in a time of crises, We finish on A Hymn and Danke. The former didn’t really appeal to me as a single, yet makes perfect sense in the context of the records themes and darkly optimistic musical motifs. The latter meanwhile is a drawn-out, simmering sonic vortex, proving wonderfully cathartic. Pointedly, its lyrics are centered on a singular concept that defines the albums' message and Idles mission as a band “True love will find you in the end. You’ll find out just who was your friend” 9/10

Obsidian Kingdom: Meat Machine (Season Of Mist) [Dave Marcovecchio] 

The decade of the 1990's seems to have a lot of cultural stock these days. Why, even in September 2020 two of the biggest releases have been a long-awaited sequel to Bill & Ted and a total revamping of Tony Hawks Pro Skater. Truly the sounds and styles of the decade are back in fashion full swing, and Barcelona prog-polymaths Obsidian Kingdom have embraced on their 3rd full-length, Meat Machine with wide open arms.

A slight departure from their previous releases, the album sees Obsidian Kingdom continue their trajectory from full-blown avant-garde into something a bit more accessible, sitting somewhere in between post-metal, noise rock and progressive. In particular the sounds of 90's alt-metal permeate this record. Bass and Drums clunk heavily and satisfyingly, off kilter melodies and dreamy vocal lines soar and even the odd synth and electronic part add a tinge of industrial to the mix. Musically this could easily be the result of 90's era Tool and Deftones, with a small pinch of Nine Inch Nails and Dillinger Escape Plan (in their quiet moments).

While most of this album plays it safe with this throwback sound (less 'Avant Garde' more 'rester en arrière') there are a few moments where the mould is shattered. Opener The Edge switches from a bellowing verse to a quiet piano section with ease, Womb Of Wire features a ferocious black-metal tinged outro and the latter half of Spanker honest-to-god sounds like a Steve Vai reworking of the old Yahoo! Jingle (another top-notch 90's reference there). Thematically and lyrically the album is an exploration of anxiety and existential dread of the modern world, so perhaps this yearning for the simpler times of 20-30 years ago is very much a deliberate and considered choice.

Unfortunately the core statement of “Bruh, what if all we are is machines made of meat” is explored with the subtlety of a brick throwing contest (See: The Pump, Meat Star, Flesh World and of course the title itself),and while lyrics such as 'Your lips are grapes I cannot reach' are rather absurd, it doesn't distract or lessen the quality of the arrangements on show. If you're a fan of any of the bands that have been named in this review you will find something to enjoy. 8/10

NZM: Time’s Running Out (Self Released) [Simon Black]

NZM hail from Florida and with strong connections to Yngwie Malmsteen’s touring band, you know that the Neo-Classical influence on this Power Metal four piece is never going to be too far away. To be honest, I blow hot and cold on this sort of material, as it’s been the best part of forty years since the fusion of Bach and Black Sabbath on speed led to this little niche coming into being, and in that intervening time it’s become harder to stake any real claim to originality. Shit hot playing only takes you so far in a crowded marketplace and what really makes a difference is tight song writing, and a willingness to show a little restraint and save some of the virtuosity for the live shows. NZM appear to have taken this on board, as despite the Speed, Power and Neoclassical tropes this album focuses on delivering tight and punchy songs. No long drawn out manic widdling here folks, as what we get are fourteen fast and furious numbers firmly in the three and a half-minute optimum attention span window and no drawn out epics at all.

Not that the technical virtuosity isn’t there, but it’s subtle in its delivery – opting for restrained solo durations, with flourishes of interplay between guitars and keyboards enough to raise the eyebrows in respect, but not enough to turn off the more casual listener. The title track kicks things off in a lively form, with a punchy delivery that very quickly set my concerns aside and builds out from there. That pace and energy continue for several tracks supported by an exceedingly confident Power growled vocal performance from Nick Z Marino (who is also on keyboard duties). His voice has the kind of range that Power Metal excels at, but enough of a dirty blues undertone to give some good ‘ole fashioned Rock’N’Roll sentiment. He’s a pretty darned fine keyboard player too and in juggling both roles keeps the keyboards in the right place in the mix.

It’s not all speed with the obligatory ballad either – at the mid-point of an album where it’s easy to lose direction NZM opt for two slower paced numbers (Endless Hope and Incredible Woman) which change the pace but avoid the ‘by the numbers’ radio friendly ballad clichés. The latter in particular has some beautifully understated keyboard work which prove that technical proficiency on the ivories isn’t just about how many notes you can cram into a thirty-second window. Under A Spell is pure Speed joy, and the vocals really let rip here and the album keeps alternating the pace to the end. Yes, there are Neoclassical moments, but they don’t dominate the album, leaving you wanting more. No mean feat… Don’t Say It’s Over is a great example of this – the technical introduction is short and to the point, but the focus is on the melody and overall flow, and this is probably the most showy track on the record. That balance of tone and speed combined with solid performances and tight song-writing makes this a memorable addition to the genre. 8/10

Skeletoon: Nemesis (Scarlet Records) [Liam True]

Italy has brought about the finest exports in the world and the main one no one ever really mentions is Power Metal. There are Power Metal bands from all over the globe but none have really hit the nail unlike any from Italy. And Skeletoon are one of the finest. Considering this is their fourth studio album in 4 years you’d think their creative well would have run dry, but it’s far from the truth. There are so many riffs and chorus’ from the Italian five piece.

Starting with the instrumental Prelude: Falling Galaxies it launches straight into Brighter Than 1000 Suns with burns it’s place into your mind with the catchy chorus and the sky high falsettos of vocalist Tomi Fooler mixed with the damaging duel guitars of Andrea Cappellari & Davide Piletto. Bassist Jack Stiaccini doesn’t go unnoticed as his powerful bass thunders around the band while drummer Henry Sidoti manoeuvres around the kit keeping the rhythm of the band up to pace.

From start to finish the album fantastic, full of the usual speed of Power Metal then al a few songs where they bring the mellow side and slow the album down, and even that brilliant. Italian bands have always been better in my opinion, especially in this genre. There’s a reason it’s my go to genre for Metal because it’s so catchy. And Skeletoon are now one of my favourite Power Metal bands. 9/10

Tuesday 29 September 2020

Reviews: Finntroll, The Pilgrim, Mad Sin, Mestis (Reviews By Nicola & Matt)

Finntroll: Vredesvävd (Century Media Records) [Nicola Williams]

Folk metal has managed to grow up, hold up and infuse itself with darker genres, all whilst still retaining the charm that draws so many in. At least this is certainly the case for Vredesvävd; Finntroll's new near-perfect album. A beautiful scene is set by Väktaren, an inviting symphonic ambience that would not go amiss on the title screen of a major adventure-themed film or video game. Then on to business with the first-release of the album in Ormfolk; seeing the classic hammering folk sound becoming collided with a punk-esque tempo. Vid Häxans Härd delivers an acoustic intro that would have any listener believing they were about to embark on a softer journey. 

However, this is masterfully built upon by introduction of thundering drums and blast beats; and a chant by lead singer Vreth that signals significant Tempo change. Ylaren closes the album with a hypnotic groove, and choral vocal offerings, that leave things on a satisfying footing. The album translates to 'Wrath-Woven', and this is certainly lived up to by taking the listener on a varied journey. Each twist and turn is just as exciting as the next. For all the variance; Vreth handles it well. The cohesion of the album does not get lost through the changes and this is what simply adds to its magic. 9/10

The Pilgrim: From The Earth To The Sky And Back (Heavy Psych Sounds) [Matt Bladen]

Created as a folk/rock/Americana project by Black Rainbows frontman and Heavy Psych Sounds founder Gabriele Fiori and Black Rainbows drummer Filippo Ragazzoni, From The Earth To The Sky And Back is their second album of Woodstock-inspired, 60's influenced folk rocking that creates a warming campsite vibe of long travels through the desert but also the free-and-easy vibe of San Francisco in the summer of love. Evoking the mysticism of bands like Spirit, The Allman Brothers and CSN&Y (Sitting Down On The Porch) this album of folksy musical exploration is built on layers of acoustic guitars and banjos along with the locomotive drumming getting the grooves down as it takes the listener through a psychedelic journey. 

The Pilgrim's spirit trip also moves into the realms of Jerry Garcia's seminal trip-rockers The Grateful Dead on Obsessed By The West Parts I, II, III, IV. It's a song title that could sum up this entire record as things move into Morricone-style before you get touches of jazz on Fool Around and we're even taken into the drug-addled realms of The Stone Roses on Riding The Horse while I'm Just Scared gives a touch of The Smashing Pumpkins. From The Earth To The Sky And Back has been written as an accompaniment to hazy summers and it would be a ideal soundtrack to the fading light of summer with a roaring fire and a some good friends, if you can't do that at the moment then listen to this record and look forward to the good times, because really isn't that what music is for? 7/10

Mad Sin: Unbreakable (Century Media Records) [Nicola Williams]

From the energy upheld throughout Unbreakable; it's hard to believe that Mad Sin aren't a new outfit. In fact quite the opposite, the psychobilly rockers have been delivering their twisted blend of punky rock n' roll since 1987, with this latest offering being their first studio album in 10 years. Following a sweetly short intro; the album pace is set by the aptly named Are You Ready?, ploughing straight into rhythmic double bass and punchy lyrical repeats. This is followed by the interestingly-timed Moon Over Berlin; which marries in a more prominent country influence; and is one of the album's only chances for the listener to come up for air. 

Choral additions on Till Death Do Us Part remind the listener that the band are very much rooted in punk. Whilst a cover of Madness' House Of Fun provides a unique offering of the classic, but one that I would argue isn't entirely needed on a 16-track record. Overall, this album is almost certainly going to be distinctly different from most of your current collection. It's theatrics make it much like an audible version of scenes from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Whether your taste or not, Mad Sin have most certainly filled Unbreakable with their stereotypical hooked catchiness; a trait that would likely make them a treat to see live. 6/10

Mestis: En Vivo (Sumerian Records) [Matt Bladen]

Mestis is the newest project of Javier Reyes from the instrumental progressive metal act Animals As Leaders, he has released two solo albums relying more on emotional/personal output rather than the much more technical showy style he plays along with Tosin Abasi in his main band. En Vivo is a live album with each track recorded in a  different US city, but the way the album is mixed makes you think this is one long live release with every song recorded in the same place. This is truly a testament to Reyes' playing style as his fluid technicality lets the songs bleed into one another with a bewitching ambience. 

The songs here come from both of his solo albums and show Reyes' flair for songwriting influenced by both his 'djent' (is that a dirty word?) styled band but also his Latin heritage with fingerstyle flair coming through on songs such as Uno Mas More while more classical guitar style playing come in on Mt. Pleasant. En Vivo is musically dense record featuring extensive use of Reyes' eight string guitar which is used to full effect when full sound bar chords are needed especially on more textured songs like Sedosa which also features drummer Chris Allison (Plini) unleashing a little. Even if the more virtuoso aspects of this album go over your head there's a lot to enjoy if you want expressive instrumental music. 7/10   

Monday 28 September 2020

Reviews: Carnation, Satan, Neal Morse, Black Stone Machine (Charlie, Paul H, Steve & Matt)

Carnation: Where Death Lies (Season Of Mist) [Charlie Rogers] 

Belgian riff pedallers Carnation have conjured forth their second full length release Where Death Lies proving that despite the general awfulness this year has brought about, 2020 is a solid year for death metal. Holding nothing back, the album busts in with opening track Iron Discipline, an upbeat and groovetastic number that engages the listener immediately. Having not listened to the band before, I had to jump onto the net to check out the line-up, as vocalist Simon Duson sounds eerily similar to Mikael Akerfeldt during his Bloodbath stint. In fact, the whole album sounds like it would blend very well in with that era of Bloodbath, with a close guitar tone, drum style, and song layouts from the same school of thought. And yet, there’s enough difference to know this is Carnation. Moving through the album, there’s a good variety of feels and grooves, with an overarching bounciness to the record that will no doubt translate to energetic crowds once gigging returns. Indeed, the pace of the album doesn’t let up for long, and with the average track length clocking in at just over 4 minutes, no song overstays its welcome.

The production is very clean, with a lot of polish applied to ensure the listener doesn’t miss a trick. In particular, the work done to give the vocals space to roar is excellent, and the performances are near perfection. I’m not too sure about the small clean passage towards the end of In Chasms Abysmal, but that’s a matter of taste and I can see why others would enjoy it. My one downside with this album would be that the tracks don’t seem to have much immediate staying power in my memory. It’s a perfectly listenable album, and probably great to have on while concentrating on another task, but once a track moves from Now Playing to Recently Listened To they become difficult to recall in detail. And that’s a real shame, because for the most part they are Recently Enjoyed. The exception to this rule is penultimate track Reincarnation, which is certainly the most distinct, featuring an ambient opening and adds some quite different riffs to the mix. To sum it all up, while not being a game changer or complete break through, it’s a very solid death metal record, and well worth checking out. 7/10

Satan: Early Rituals (Listenable Records) [Paul Hutchings]

It’s a sign of the times that bands are now looking to issue virtually anything that can bring in a few coppers. It’s difficult to raise any kind of disagreement. Such is the struggle in the industry across the world, making ends meet is nigh on impossible. Satan are of course, always mentioned in the same sentence as NWOBHM, for they were indeed one of the bands that gained attention during those early 1980s days as the UK metal scene exploded. The band’s last two releases, Cruel Magic and Atom By Atom were both highly rated by the Ed with the former gaining a 9/10 in 2018. Early Rituals transports you back to those very early days with a collection of their first demos now available together in a handy collectable set. Over an hour’s worth of music, which clearly defines the band’s sound. The First Demo and Into The Fire led to the band’s seminal debut Court In The Act, an album that still maintains a position in the better NWOBHM releases. 

The music is raw, the influences of Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and a bit of Blue Öyster Cult evident in the likes of Kiss Of Death, Heads Will Roll and Blades Of Steel. It’s very listenable and showcases one of the UK metal scenes long standing vocalists Brian Ross who also fronts UK metallers Blitzkrieg. The Dirt Demo released in 1986 was the forerunner of Suspended Sentence which saw Michael Jackson in the vocal booths. Slicker and with a much thicker production, Satan’s style changed on this demo to a more Maiden-style romping bass led charge. With plenty to consider and explore, Early Rituals is a fantastic flash back to those enjoyable days when music was much less challenging, less available and probably more exciting. 8/10

Neal Morse: Sola Gratia (Inside Out Music) [Steve Haines]  

The world has become so woke these days that any work strongly extolling the virtues of a certain mindset or way of life is more divisive than ever before. That is the problem with the musically excellent Sola Gratia. In the same way that if you have Hitler, you cannot ignore the accompanying tendency towards casual genocide, this album comes with heavy dollops of Christianity that are so overt, that it’s difficult to ignore, even during the really excellent instrumental tracks as I can’t help bracing myself for a forced dose of ‘God is great’ that doesn’t always come. Musically, it’s difficult to fault and the production strikes a measured balance between all instruments. It’s just the overt Christian messages that are spoiling it to the point that they can be cringeworthy. One example is the otherwise great Never Change, probably the best song on the album for me until you get the line “God and me got it goin’ on” – I shudder at the thought even now. 

Unashamedly progressive, there are strong influences or elements of other notable bands and that adds to the musical strength of the album. At times, like in Ballyhoo and The Light On The Road To Damascus, it drifts too close to musical theatre. But the songs that are truly progressive rock are great but unfortunately liberally sprinkled with religion. For every comparison I came up with, I was having to, regretfully, add the phrase ‘with added Cliff Richard’. Never Change is quite Pink Floyd-esque (with added Cliff Richard), The Glory Of The Lord is rather Peter Cetera (with added Cliff Richard). I think you get the picture. If the references were toned down or more oblique, then this would be one of my favourite albums this year but when you know something is there, you can’t ignore it and I really, really tried if only as a tribute to the magnificent musicianship on show here. I’m sorry, but it really does spoil a good record. 6/10

Black Stone Machine: Crossroads (Self Released) [Matt Bladen]

The album is titled Crossroads so immediately my musical encyclopedia was brought to that Robert Johnson story of selling his soul for the ability to play guitar. Anything associated with this story will either be country, southern or blues and with Black Stone Machine you get all three and while the similarly named cherry boys hail from Kentucky the slightly heavier machine come from Athens Greece but with them they have brought a tonne of banjo-esque chicken picking, some bluesy noodling and even slide guitar to this debut record that sits alongside bands such as Pantera and Black Label Society due to the grunt on tracks such as Last Day Of Freedom which owes as much to Zakk as it does to Raging Slab. 

Yes Raging Slab looms large on Black Stone Machine though the explosive solos that bolster House Of Lies are pure Wylde. Now things here stay very true to the Southern metal sound but they also have a foot in stoner riffage, the title track even features Argy from Nightstalker on vocals sharing the mic with Alex who brings the six string riffs with George as Nick and Michael are the gutsy rhythm section as songs such as Call Of The Void and No Back Up Plan all have rollicking Americana and country influences with the slide guitar being used to full effect. Crossroads is a nifty Southern styled record from this Greek four-piece which comes from the heavier end of the spectrum. 7/10

Sunday 27 September 2020

Reviews: Fish & Ayreon (Reviews By Matt & Rich)

Fish: Weltschmerz (Fishy Music Ltd) [Matt Bladen]

Weltschmerz - a feeling of world weariness or ennui, once again the Germans have basically spoken for the entire world in this current period. It's also the perfect title for what is touted to be the final album from acclaimed singer/songwriter Fish. It's a double album release that has been influenced by a multiple personal factors such as his father dying, his mother moved into his house for permanent care and he developed sepsis which nearly killed him. He also drew from the current social situation we find ourselves with Trump, refugee crisis, Syria, Brexit and even writers block all putting up barriers to this albums creation. Then when all seemed ready to go Coronavirus meant that the original release date was pushed back to September. 

A lesser man would have given up years ago but Fish has always been a cantankerous git and he has set about not only making this 'final' album but also making it the best of his career. Now with all this in mind you would be for forgiven for thinking that it may have a downbeat tone but no, yes there's a melancholy but it is balanced with a playfulness and also a sense of closure. It's also his most personal record, nearly everything here is autobiographical, though Fish didn't realise until the recording he had subconsciously done this. The record was written by Fish along with collaborators Steve Vantsis (bass/keys/guitars/programming/co-producer) and Robin Boult (guitar) with additional contributions from Foss Paterson and everyone's favourite session six stringer John Mitchell, who co-writes the beautiful Garden Of Remembrance. Mitchell plays guitars too along with Robin Boult while Craig Blundell (Steven Wilson) and Dave Stewart are behind the kit with Liam Holmes on keys. 

Add to this the soaring backing vocals from Doris Brendel, David Jackson of Van Der Graaf Generator on sax, Mikey Owers with brass and The Scottish Chamber Orchestra providing strings it makes for a record with huge sonic scope, the musical backing deft and stirring ably carrying Fish's clever lyricism. Now Man With A Stick has been around since last year getting heavy rotation on Planet Rock, it's the albums funkiest track that takes you through several different scenarios in a life surrounding the titular character who has been numerous iterations of a 'man with a stick' but mostly it focuses on the career as brutal Police officer in the 80's, though this topic is more relevant now than ever, showing Fish still has his finger on the pulse. 

Weltschmerz is a chance for him to get things off his chest and speaking of pulses Grace Of God a song that describes medical procedures/worries and the acceptance of death in unflinching detail it's sets a tone of both acceptance but also attempted resolution. Both of which re-appear again on the Walking On Eggshells a story of domestic violence and This Party's Over which warns of problem drinking (a topic that re-appears in Fish's music a lot), the latter features some keen piping and a dirty sax solo too making it the closest thing to Fish's previous job in Marillion (though this was over 30 years ago now). Elsewhere though we get to heavier subject matter, the albums two longest songs, the cinematic Rose Of Damascus and the dramaric Waverly Steps dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis and male suicide. 

It's Garden Of  Remembrance a song about his father's dementia that hits hardest, especially due to the songs sparseness and emotive weight, there are few times in music where you can be brought to your knees, but on this track I had to switch off the record for a moment to compose myself. Weltschmerz has that effect right the way through, it's the sound of man whose very soul has been battered for a long time, but who has found catharsis in his creative outlet. Much like 30-odd years ago, if this is the end of the line for Fish's solo career then he's drawn the curtain with his best work yet. 10/10    

Ayreon: Transitus (Music Theories Recordings/Mascot Label Group) [Rich Oliver]

The heavy metal hippie Arjen Anthony Lucassen is back with another epic rock opera Transitus which is the tenth album from his Ayreon project. The past few years have been busy ones for Arjen with some huge live shows such as Ayreon Universe and Electric Castle Live And Other Tales (along with the accompanying live releases that followed those shows) but he has still had the time to come up with another captivating rock opera with an extensive cast of singers and musicians.

Transitus is slightly different from other Ayreon releases being more of a stand alone story separate from the extended storyline of previous albums (though with a few subtle nods) and is more of a tragic love story with dashes of the supernatural. It is set in 1884 and centres around forbidden lovers Jonathan and Abby and the prejudice their relationship faces which ends in horrific tragedy. The lead roles are taken by Tommy Karevik (Kamelot) and Cammie Gilbert (Oceans Of Slumber) who absolutely shine as the doomed lovers. Extensive parts also are taken by Paul Manzi (Cats In Space/ex-Arena) and Amanda Somerville (Trillium) who have the parts of the main antagonists whilst there are great appearances from Dee Snider (Twisted Sister) playing the formidable father and Simone Simmons (Epica) as The Angel Of Death. There are countless other guest vocalists who all put their own stamp on the characters they portray. 

It’s a given that an Ayreon album is going to have a stellar vocal cast. One part that got me very excited was the legendary Tom Baker as The Narrator who of course is known as the Fourth Doctor in Doctor Who. Tom’s rich and dramatic voice really adds a gravitas to the narration which is good as there is a lot of it throughout the album. As well as multiple guest singers and a narrator there is also a plethora of guest musicians with regular collaborators such as Joost van den Broek (keyboards), Ben Mathot (violin) and Jeroen Goossens (wind instruments). We also have legendary guitarists Joe Satriani and Marty Friedman laying down some solos throughout the album. One person noted in their absence is regular Ayreon drummer Ed Warby with the drums on Transitus handled by Juan van Emerloot.

The music on Transitus is unmistakably Ayreon with the projects usual mix of progressive and power metal sounds mixed with the pomp of a Broadway musical. There is a nice mix of symphonic sounds, medieval folk, swing as well as some leanings into more heavy metal territory. There aren’t many songs which stand out on their own merit as this is meant to be heard as one vast conceptual piece but the medieval folk of Talk Of The Town is a highlight as is Dumb Piece Of Rock. The metal crunch and prog pomp of Get Out Now! also impressed whilst Tommy and Cammie absolutely shine in the tender duet of Hopelessly Slipping Away. There are also some fun songs centered around the Angel Of Death and The Furies that have a swing and big band sound to them including the effective use of a horn section. The usual musical mixing pot style of an Ayreon album is very much prevalent here and as always used to great effect.

An Ayreon album is always a bit of an acquired taste and Transitus isn’t going to change the mind of anyone who doesn’t get along with this style and sound but fans of Ayreon and other similar prog and rock opera acts will love this. Certain issues of the album also come with a 28 page graphic novel which is beautiful to look at and also helps give a visualisation to the story and helps the listener follow the plot a bit easier. A PDF version of the graphic novel has been made available for those who only have ordered standard issues of the album. Overall this is another great album from Arjen and Ayreon and whilst not really differing musically from previous albums it sees the project going into slightly different territory with the concepts subject matter. Ayreon are one of those few musical projects where the music and the story are as essential as each other and Arjen has come up with another great conceptual piece with Transitus. 8/10

Friday 25 September 2020

Reviews: Deftones, Ward XVI, Nasty, South Of Salem (Alex, Simon, Liam & Matt)

Deftones: Ohms (Reprise Records) [Alex Swift]

We begin on a creeping synth melody, which gives way to a violent, apocalyptic riff. Chino’s signature screams are heard above the chaos, serenading between beautifully melodic and starkly violent, in harmony with the mutable instrumentation. This Is Genesis – the opener of Deftones’ 9th full length, Ohms. Already we are granted that sweet surreal quality which this act perfects, in various shades across their storied career. There is no act truly like them – don’t misunderstand, there are plenty of acts who they have inspired and I’m sure many who inspire them and on this new album, they continue to allude the listener with the cerebral blend of hetty darkness, immersive soundscapes, and overall command of emotion. Firmly in the tradition of creations in the vain of White Pony and Diamond Eyes, there's a combination of atmospheric ambiance and arresting aggression satiating this experience.
Perhaps the strangest quality about Ohms its skill for exploiting strange textures in creating that sense of impending doom. 

The electronics reverberate off the saturation of guitars and the sentimental mystery of our frontman's cathartic croons. Ceremony collapses serene qualities in with a lurking dread. It's insatiably memorable but disquietingly so, the decorative harmonies and swelling character, executed beautifully by the performance of every musician. Urania starkly contrasts a lacerating personality, with the blissfulness of an act collectively having an out of body experience. Emanating a writhing industrial feel, Error feels like an expedition through these musicians' vast creative palate, as we drift from moments of impassioned serenity to sections of erratic anger, the instrumentals coalescing into a maelstrom of sensations, each distinct from the last! The Spell Of Mathematics proves as complex and multifaceted as the title implies, the tension fused composition playing out like a score from a film, as the song moves from scene to scene, each with a different emotional core or message. With this obscure, capricious sense of hypnotizing etching its way throughout, this is firmly a record to be absorbed and comprehended. 

Still, lend your time and patience and you will find different elements to explore with each sitting. Take the enigmatic ballad of Pompeii. On first immersion, this is another striking piece in the pantheon of deeply affecting Deftones tracks. Later, you notice the nuances, the effects, and embellishments which sliver in the background, as well as the lyrical allusions to the decay of ancient civilizations as an analogy to our own. It’s a challenging record for sure and upon writing I’m still not certain I’ve ascertained everything. A cut as enticing as This Link Is Dead may bear all the associated qualities, as far as you can say that for this act, yet carries a cornucopia of darkness and otherworldliness which transcends that of past accomplishments. Radiant City is akin to an experiment in the qualities of time perception, with the ever-changing signatures confounding the listener in a way that is both fascinating and enchanting with the way the tempo changes blend into one another creating a sensation of racing through the different experiences in life at inhuman speed. Headless stands as equally entrancing with the stimulating investigations into divergence, often defying our expectations in unique and illustrative ways. 

Finally, we come to Ohms. I didn’t understand at all why they decided to name this as a single in the admittedly sparse promotional campaign. That said though, I kind of understand why in hindsight. This song synthesizes the dramatic weight of Ohms into one massive juggernaut of a song, which is firmly in the tradition of Deftones while also being strange and a puzzle to decipher. Poignantly, this work acts as a soundtrack to our degrading times. It doesn’t provide much sign of hope yet illuminates the beauty in moroseness, allowing the listener to feel less isolated in their solitude. 8/10

Nasty: Menace (Century Media Records) [Liam True]

As much as I like the Hardcore genre it is a bit repetitive and stale lately overusing the beatdowns and call outs and the horrendous barking from new bands (Thankfully there’s none here). But Nasty have somehow taken the standard Hardcore noise and turned it into something that sounds overused, but fresh. The beatdowns are still there. The call-outs are still there, but somehow it seems new and never done before. The four piece have created something interesting about the album and I can’t put my finger on it.

From opener Ultimate the band kick it into full gear as you hear police sirens and helicopters before vocalist Matthi snarls and the band hit hard and heavy before the breakdown begins igniting the fire that’s soon to inflame the next 30 minutes. With guitarist Paddy creating the sickening guitar tone and bassist Berri to back it up with a foundation shattering tone. Drummer Nash keeps the pace of the band and uses it wisely to conduct the choreograph the heavy as balls breakdowns throughout the album. While not being the most fresh sounding album it’s clear Nasty have got a talent about them, but they just need to find a groove for themselves to not be labelled as another standard Hardcore band. But for now Menace is a brilliant piece to add to the list. 7/10

Ward XVI: Metamorphosis (Metal Rocka Records) [Simon Black]

Three short years ago and this Preston-based Shock Rockers were on the New Blood stage at Bloodstock presenting hungover early birds with disembowelment, murdered bassists and the odd chainsaw massacre whilst people could still taste their morning toothpaste. It’s a shame, but for many bands who get that far that performance can be the last anyone sees of them, so it’s heartening to see a band move beyond that on this the eve of the release of their second album. I’ve not heard their first disk yet, but clearly it’s garnered them a lot of respect. I remember a discussion with an A&R guy at a label in the 90’s commenting that bands have ten years to write their first album and that following that up is a challenge that many fail to meet. Ward XVI however seem to be about to pass that next hurdle with ease, as the quality of this record is absolutely top notch.

As a reviewer it presents me with a challenge, as not being familiar with The Art Of Manipulation I have the double whammy of a concept album that’s actually a prequel to that first album. Both disks revolve around the alter ego character of singer Psychoberrie, with this one exploring her past and childhood (and my what a clever album cover to illustrate the point). It does so to spooky effect with one of the most haunting and effective moods I have heard on an album in a long while. Concepts are ten a penny in the Power and Symphonic genres, so it’s easy for bands to fall into a stereotypical and clichéd trap once the spoken word intros and horror movie tropes start to come into play, but not here. Not this band. Here they really work, creating a world that is both believable and disturbing, making the forty-nine minutes of run time pass in a blur. And the clear winning touch? That I kept on playing it, because this story hooks you in effortlessly like a good Stephen King novel.

I’m going to avoid running through the tracks in detail here, as to get the best from this record you just need to listen to it and let the story unfold around you. I will call out the tracks Broken Toys, Imago, the insanely manic Catch Me If You Can and the cracking finale Shadows, with some subtle and well used guest turns to add to the sense of operatic scale that would be worthy of the mighty Avantasia.
Judging by the footage out there, Ward XVI are clearly an incredibly visual and theatrical experience live, and with no tour to support this crucial album this band like so many have a challenge, as this record deserves to push them up a level. Musically this is a very theatrical piece rather than an out and out Metal album, with the music supporting the story rather than the story being spliced into a particular musical genre. The storytelling is massively helped by a clear and emotional vocal delivery and an absolutely cracking quality of production. This sounds like a band really heading somewhere and I for one want more. 9/10

South Of Salem: The Sinner Takes It All (Self Released) [Matt Bladen]

Apparently South Of Salem have supported acts such as Iced Earth, The Damned, Wednesday 13, and The Birthday Massacre in previous incarnations but all this experience has resulted in South Of Salem's debut album The Sinner Takes It All having the 'modern metal' trappings of bands such as Avenged Sevenfold and Black Veil Brides, so think faux-spooky imagery, anthemic heavy rock with a metal flair and lyrics that deal with greed, manipulation, corruption, abuse drawn from personal experience  "because all the band members have been to hell and back with our lives in recent years" according to frontman Joey Draper. 

The songwriting here is aimed directly at the Download Festival market, with imagery and lyrical angst that will endure them to the hordes of youngsters that hang around outside Blue Banana on a weekend (is that still a thing?) but an ear bothering catchiness that will also appeal to their dads. As it progressed I really struggled with this album especially when they slow things down on the maudlin Demons Are Forever which apparently features The Defiled/Red Method Keyboardist/Samplist The AVD, though he doesn't really add anything that I can hear. There will be a huge market for this album I'm sure and expect to hear more from them in the future but for me the a only thing that would make this album, that is a play on words of the ABBA classic song, a little more enjoyable. Would have been an altered lyrics cover of that song. 5/10 

Reviews: Nick Mason's Saucerful Of Secrets, Kataklysm, Alpha Wolf, Ewigkeit (Reviews By Matt Bladen)

Nick Mason's Saucerful Of Secrets: Live At The Roundhouse (BMG)

Recorded during 3 May and 4 May 2019 at the Roundhouse in London, Live At The Roundhouse is the ‘debut’ album from Nick Mason’s Saucerful Of Secrets. Well I say ‘debut’ album but what this is a retrospective live release of Pink Floyd material from the man who has played on every single Pink Floyd release, drummer Nick Mason. When creating the project Mason wanted to re-discover those club shows that the band played before they went stratospheric with the seminal Dark Side Of The Moon. So as you can probably tell by the name this is a collection of songs from The Floyd’s early and experimental years from Piper At The Gates Of Dawn through to Obscured By Clouds, taking in Meddle and Atom Heart Mother on the way. So it’s not really a covers show (can you cover the music if you were instrumental in performing it in the first place?) but a project to celebrate the part of Floyd’s catalogue that is criminally under looked by the other two members of Floyd as well as the myriad of jukebox bands that sell out arenas playing Pink Floyd music.

Mason formed the band with guitarist Lee Harris, keyboardist Dom Beken, long time Floy bassman Guy Pratt and vocalist/guitarist Gary Kemp (Spandau Ballet). Kemp’s voice is perfect, he’s not trying to sound deliberately like any of the Floyd singers but manages to encapsulate them all with his London twang and edgy delivery. The performances as you’d expect are top notch, and due to the way this record is mixed the crowd noise is muted so it does sound more like a studio recording than anything else. What really makes this record shine though is the eclectic, amazing setlist that has been put together to flow into one long audio journey. Only four of the songs have actually ever appeared on any official love releases by any member of Pink Floyd so there is a lot of virgin ground here. While many will come for One Of These Days, Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun, Interstellar Overdrive and Arnold Layne it’s tracks like the bluesy Let There Be More Light, Green Is The Colour, If/Atom Heart Mother, The Nile Song and the wonderful Fearless that will keep you enthralled. Fearless actually, along with Lucifer Sam, Arnold Layne and Bike that were never performed by Floyd in the early years.

Listening to this at a terribly loud volume much to the disgust of The Look Of The Week’s Robert Robinson, is the only way to really digest this live record and make you feel as if you were there, the skilled band run through a 23(ish) song set list that peaks and dips in tone and pace throughout, from the quirky psych pop of the Syd-era, to the more experimental middle period where you can hear those sounds that eventually would shape their ‘best’ albums later coming to fruition. It leads towards its conclusion of the still terrifying Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun, which starts off the last salvo of the evening with Point Me To The Sky closing things out spectacularly. As a Floyd fan this is a must-buy but even a casual listener should pick it up to indulge in some of lesser known Pink Floyd songs that created the prog rock behemoth we know them as today. Mason has delivered a real treat here and I for one will be front row on the next tour (whenever that is!) 9/10 

Kataklysm: Unconquered (Nuclear Blast) 

Canadian death metal leaders Kataklysm return with their latest opus Unconquered a rip-snorting ride through the extremity Kataklysm have always been associated with. Much of this record was finished just before the world wide lockdown, recorded and engineered by long-time producer and guitarist JF Dagenais at JFD Studio in Dallas, TX. The mix was finished by Colin Richardson who came out of his retirement for this album and was assisted by Chris Clancy (Mutiny Within) meaning that Unconquered has a biting ultra-modern sound that balances Kataklysm's technical ferocity and sheer brutality. The Killshot builds from a slow opening before being unleashed with James Payne's double kick drums leading the way, unrelentingly destroying everything in its path. Although it's practically a ballad compared to the rampaging tornado of riffs that is Defiant.

Maurizio Iacono's iconic bark leads from the front, like a Centurion (though maybe more so in 3/4 of the line ups other band) his ferocious roar has been at the helm of Kataklysm since 1998 and is still delivering as good as ever. With what I think is probably the best production job the band have had, Unconquered is as sharp as a tack, huge grooves come through on Cut Me Down, Focused To Destroy You has a very modern, palm muted assault Jean-Francois Dagenais (guitar) and Stephane Barbe's (bass) in total unison with a riff that cracks at the ear drums like a jackhammer. It's pretty relentless, I wouldn't recommend it while doing your knitting, however the extremity never takes precedence over a great hook and while tracks such as Icarus Falling bring a massive hook in the chorus, The Way Back Home could be used to demolish your house but it's also got breakdown ideal for a does of head banging. Unconquered is Kataklysm's statement of defiance, that they are still the leaders of the Canadian death metal sound and they aren't going anywhere. 8/10

Alpha Wolf: A Quiet Place To Die (Sharptone Records)

I'm not sure what Alpha Wolf's idea of quiet is but from the sound of this record it differs a little from the sandy beaches and whale song that many will be accustomed to when trying to find their quiet place. All I'm saying is that it isn't the best record to play at a spa retreat. However if you want some mosh worthy, extremely modern metalcore then this second album from Aussie heavists Alpha Wolf, who took their name from the film The Grey, is certainly the place to find it. Clocking in at just over 35 minutes in length this record is a non stop ride through aggressive metalcore grooves fused with bristling modern soundscapes that add twitching electronic elements, and some djenty palm muted riffs. 

With one full length and two EP's to their name, A Quiet Place To Die is their first full length since some allegations arose against their previous singer but they have moved away from that re-establishing their brand of crushing metalcore with some touches of nu-metal bands such as Korn on Creep and Golden Fate; Isolate while there is some industrial ambience on Bleed 4 You which is bang on trend in terms of what metalcore bands are doing at the morning and features Lizi Blanco of The Beautiful Monument adding some haunting additional backing vocals. For metalcore with it's finger on the pulse and a thumping heaviness then come to Alpha Wolf's quiet place. 7/10

Ewigkeit: XXIII (D.T.M Productions)

Ewigkeit is the experimental solo project from James Fogarty of In The Woods/Old Forest and his previous releases have been featured numerous times in these pages. XXIII is his latest EP and is made up of 5 new songs clocking in at 23 minutes in total. It's a conceptual piece that is a homage to the psyche-conspiracy adventure novel series the Illuminatus! Trilogy. A mad book about the Illuminati killing hippies by resurrecting a zombie army at a rock concert with only a travelling group of heroes who traverse the world in giant submarine trading cannabis for funds to fight the good fight. 

So a suitable mad concept for this 23 minute shot of trippy psychedelic weirdness that would be at home with bands such as Church Of The Cosmic Skull as James' crunchy guitars and drawled vocals on Bring The Eschaton also bringing an element of Corrosion Of Conformity and Monster Magnet. This influence continues on the hard riffing God's Lightning while the title track 23 takes a choppy riff that would be at home on a Disturbed record (at least it's not a cover ballad). Now the gumf that came with this album says it's 70's Trip-Rock in style but I'd actually say there is a 90's stoner groove cutting right the way through this EP. Fogarty shows he's a Space Lord Mutha on XXIII. 7/10 

Thursday 24 September 2020

Reviews: Slade, Raven, Fit For A King, Memories Of Old (Paul H, Rich, Liam & Simon)

 Slade: Cum On Feel The Hitz (BMG Records) [Paul Hutchings]

“I love Slade ... they wrote the catchiest songs around” - Alice Cooper
“Noddy Holder’s got one of the greatest voices in rock ever” - Ozzy Osbourne 

High praise from two of rock’s elder statesmen. There’s a story that I always tell about Slade. It was November 30th, 1983, and I was a 13-year-old shivering in the cold outside the Top Rank Club on Cardiff’s Queen Street. Slade had burst back into the public eye with some of their heaviest music in their history. The albums Til Deaf Us Do Part and the blistering Slade On Stage Live are lightweight by today’s standards but back then they were quite feisty. They promised a rip snorting evening. And then the world fell in as we got to the doors to find a sign saying that the gig had been cancelled as the band were performing My Oh My on Top Of The Pops. Fucking bastards. I’ve hated them ever since. Noddy Holder’s booming Black Country voice which could peel paint, their horrible glam image in the 1970s and Dave Hill’s haircuts that always made him look a bit ropey. To show what a professional I am, when this double disc greatest hits came around for review, I agreed to provide a balanced and measured review, without too many references to that hideous night. But to hell with it, I’m adept at carrying grudges for 37 years with ease so let’s take the plunge and pick apart 43 songs over 2.6 hours from those inconsiderate twats who let me and 2000 others down that winter’s evening.

Formed in Wolverhampton in 1966, Slade's were regulars in the chart over three decades. One of the biggest bands in the 1970s, they released six albums with three number one singles. Alongside Holder, bassist Jim Lea formed a song writing partnership which spawned a soundtrack to the glam generation. The figures speak for themselves. 17 consecutive Top 20 singles between 1971 and 1976. No other act of the period experienced such success. Or maybe it merely demonstrates that in the seventies people had no taste. The first salvo on this selection covers many of those top 20 hits. C’mon Feel The Noise, Take Me Back ‘Ome and Goodbye T’Jane proved that Slade could not only write rock pop hits, but were also rather fond of dropping a letter for no reason! When you listen to the raucous bubblegum style now, it’s hard to believe that Slade were ever cutting edge. And yet, some of these tracks retain their brilliance over 45 years later. C’Mon Feel The Noise for example, is an anthem that everyone can and does sing a long to and not just because of the Quiet Riot cover. You can’t help but sing along, even if it is through gritted teeth.

There are other moments of genius tucked away here. Lock Up Your Daughters got the metal fans a bit hot under the denim in 1981, yet it’s light as a feather in comparison to most hard rock. We took what we could back then, and despite the harmonies and rich melody, there was a stomp to this track that simply pulled you in. In a similar vein, the anthemic We’ll Bring The House Down always got the blood pumping with its terrace chanting appeal whilst their surging run in the charts with Ruby Red was also a favourite back then. Knuckle Sandwich Nancy retains its original charm, and the 1980s feel of Run Runaway with its Celtic jig conjures horrific yet fond memories of school discos where this was as good as it got, along with a bit of Quo. Remember kids, Slade had saved the day at Reading in 1980, stepping in to replace Blizzard of Ozz at the last minute and they also appeared midway through the 1981 Monsters Of Rock festival, sandwiched between Blackfoot and Blue Öyster Cult. Slade as a band finished in 1992 when the line-up of Holder, Lea, Hill, and drummer Don Powell split. There are several tracks on this album that show that this was a good idea as they were also responsible for some shockingly bad music. 7 Year Bitch, Do You Believe In Miracles, All Join Hands, Oh La La In LA (holy shit, this is awful) and the hideous My Oh My. Despite Hill and Powell continuing under the moniker of Slade II, no new music surfaced.

Trading on past glories ever since, Slade have long been a mere memory, irrelevant to several generations of rock fans. Until that it, you get to the beginning of November and that fucking song emerges. Originally written in 1973, Merry Xmas Everybody is the lowest of the low. A Christmas song that even now makes me want to vomit. Well, if that song floats your boat and gets you in “the mood”, whatever the hell that is these days, then you’ll find it here. Track 43, the finale to a compilation which provides a reasonably complete record of some of their best and worst compositions. Disappointingly, it misses out Rock ‘N’ Roll Preacher, perhaps their most fiery song and certainly one worth checking out on Slade On Stage. In fact, you would be much better off checking out that riotous album. It skips all the shite and captures the band in their pomp. But, if you are curious as to why a band could be so big in the 1970s, this is the album to check out. 6/10

Raven: Metal City (Steamhammer) [Rich Oliver]

Raven the self styled champions of ‘athletic rock’ are back with their 14th studio album the aptly titled Metal City. Formed in Newcastle in 1974, Raven have a long association with the NWOBHM movement with their debut album Rock Until You Drop at the movement's height in 1981 and are probably best known for their 1983 album All For One which is an out and out metal classic. Like any band that has been going for as long as Raven have they have a few clunkers in their back catalogue with attempts to break the mainstream US market in the mid 80’s and directionless meanderings in the mid to late 90’s but with classic metal now very much back and kicking arse Raven have seen a bit of a resurgence with 2010’s Walk Through Fire being a very enjoyable listen and their last album 2015’s ExtermiNation saw the band on absolute fire. So that brings us up to date and thankfully Raven are still riding this resurgence with Metal City seeing the band on blistering form.

The core of Raven and the two remaining original members are the Gallagher brothers (no not them) Mark on guitars and John on vocals and bass. Previous drummer Joe Hasselvander who had been playing with the band since the late 80’s had to retire due to ill health and so joining the band is drummer Mike Heller who certainly makes his mark with an absolutely furious performance. The band are firing on all cylinders from the word go with the blistering The Power kicking things off in an all out speed metal attack. This energy rarely lets up throughout the whole album with the band sounding like they are playing for their lives with high energy songs such as Top Of The Mountain, Battlescarred and Motorheadin’ lunging out of the speakers. Closing song When Worlds Collide is a bit of a slower and meatier number but still has that high energy feel to it. The performances are all killer with furious guitarwork, explosive drumming with the inclusion of some blastbeats at times and John’s vocals still sound as deranged as ever and certainly don’t sound like they come from a man in his 60’s. 

Metal City is another raging album from Raven and sees the band continue their purple patch. Whilst this is very meat and potatoes heavy/speed metal the energy levels on this album can’t fail to impress and very much had me grinning throughout. 8/10

Fit For A King: The Path (Solid State records) [Liam True]

On their sixth studio album Fit For A King have reignited the fire and drive that the Metalcore scene has been looking for for the past few years. That might be a bold claim but trust me, it’s a claim I'm standing by. With a revolving door of line up changes over the years it’s been hit and miss through the back catalogue of FFAK, but in 2020 they’ve hit the nail on the head. The Path is a journey through the Texan four piece have taken the recipe for a decent Metalcore record and made it a great record. The Path may be well-worn but it's worth taking all the same. FFAK don't do originality, but they write great songs and some of these cuts will be stuck in your head for days and it'll only take a couple of spins before the hooks are dug in deep. 

This is the refined sound we’ve been waiting for. The Face Of Hate & Breaking The Mirror are catchy and heavy in one and need no introduction as you have the riffs of guitarist Daniel Gailey, mashed together with the twin vocal tornado of Ryan Kirby & Ryan O’Leary, that echo throughout the record and make the catchiest songs stick in your mind for days on end. Annihilation & The Path blend together to create a glorious sound that would make an even better song with both tracks together. Prophet starts slow but works it’s way in to blow your mind as drummer (And only original member of the band) Jared Easterling uses his machine gum like abilities to set your mind on fire. 

God Of Fire with it’s unusual sounding techno beat at the beginning drops you into a sea of explosive Metal with Crystal Lake singer Ryo Kinoshita making an appearance to add more intensity to the fire. Stockholm & Vendetta are arguably the two best songs on the album as you can feel in rage bursting from the band as they end the album guns blazing. The Path is a beautifully crafted album produced amazingly by Drew Fulk, who has wrote and produced some talented bands previously, but none hit as hard as this. And aptly named, The Path will take FFAK on a new path to bigger stardom. 8/10

Memories Of Old: The Zeramin Game (Limb Music) [Simon Black]

When this one landed on my in-tray I was a little cautious. In a week that’s been chock full of parody music, the risk of having to listen to a conceptual bit of Symphonic/Power Metal that inadvertently achieved more in the parody stakes than those who were actually trying was nagging at me like a 70’s sitcom mother-in-law. I needn’t have worried, as this debut album from this British Symphonic /Power metal outfit (yes, you did read that correctly) has really made my Friday. OK, so they aren’t completely British – the vocals are supplied by Majestica Vocalist/Sabaton guitarist Tommy Johannson, so having an existing fan base to leverage is going to be a massive help.

This could be challenging uphill ground even with Johannson’s leg up, as it’s not as if this is the first album to take this stylistic and content approach (and the operatically inclined Italians definitely dominate), but these guys have managed it. Opting for both clichés of the Cheesy Scene Setting Spoken Word Introduction, and the instrumental Overture, the record avoids derision the moment the musicians open up. Stylistically this is definitely from the Rhapsody and Twilight Force school of delivery, but with Johannson on board any existing fans of Majestica are also not going to be disappointed. Technically these guys know their stuff. The interplay between instruments is tight, crisp and seamless with enough technical interplay and time adjustments to demonstrate skill, without showing off or detracting from the performance. Johannon’s voice takes a track or two to warm up, but his delivery is focussed and effortless, with an excellent range.

You certainly get your money’s worth with this release – the run time of an hour and nine minutes gives plenty of scope to play with and they use it well, with a lavishly produced sound – epic where it needs to be, focussed and punchy where not. There’s enough musical interplay to keep you interested when the vocals aren’t around and that remarkably doesn’t drag even though many of the tracks clock in well over the seven minute mark. Long songs can frequently kill bands dead than Deady McDeadface, especially live, but these guys manage what the likes of Dream Theater and latter day Iron Maiden also achieve – a lot of variety embedded in the length that doesn’t either drag, distract or deter – going in different directions without sounding like they’ve just bolted songs together to show off. Fowlen’s Revenge and the title track (all fourteen minutes of it) get this absolutely right and bring this album to an epic and well-structured close. Extra marks as well for avoiding neo-classical tropes in favour of more Progressive interaction between instruments as well.

The challenge I always have with complex and well-crafted piece is being able to do them justice on paper with the limited time I have to review. I just know listening to this, that this album is a grower, that I’m going to take time to unpick further with repeated listens and a growing appreciation of what they’ve blended into the mix, and on the grounds that doesn’t happen every month I feel confident in giving this a well-deserved 9/10

Wednesday 23 September 2020

Reviews: Lik, Neuronspoiler, Marche Funebre, Athon (Paul H, Lucas, Dave & Matt)

LIK: Misanthropic Breed (Metal Blade Records) [Paul Hutchings]

Blasting back with their third slab of punishing death metal, Stockholm’s LIK have continued in the same vein that they finished on with 2018’s Carnage. Describing the state of the world today has become a theme amongst metal bands this year and in Misanthropic Breed, LIK add their own take. “The title of the record is Misanthropic Breed, because it describes the world today and the generations that are emerging,” states vocalist/guitarist Tomas Åkvik. “In a way it's more applicable than ever with the quote ‘It's every man for himself’ being so suitable, and it’s also a ‘hidden’ homage to both Dismember and Entombed." 

Åkvik is joined by guitarist Niklas “Nille” Sandin, drummer Chris Barkensjö and bassist Joakim “Myre” Antman. Carnage was a ferocious album and following that was no easy feat. What is evident from the opening riffs that permeate from The Weird which kicks off this release, is that LIK are in no mood to do anything other than improve on Carnage. The intent, the power and the passion all curled up in a metaphorical pounding fist. And better Carnage they have. The HM-2 riffing hailing back to those early days of the Stockholm death metal legends Entombed and Dismember are still present but so is a melodic side to the band that provides, as Åkvik notes, “the ‘Iron Maiden’ feeling”. 

Tracks such as Corrosive Survival, inspired by the Chernobyl disaster, the bludgeoning Flesh Frenzy and penultimate piledriver Faces Of Death all rage with an intensity that demands the neck muscles twitch, sinews straining. Created despite the Covid-19 lockdown, the band’s anxiety at whether the album is good enough can be dispelled. Producer Lawrence Mackrory’s finish is clean but retaining all the grit of the previous releases. At times darker than previous recordings but always brutal with a clear nod to the old school, this is another blistering death metal release that doesn’t as much knock the door but kick it right in. 8/10

Neuronspoiler: Spoiled For Choice (Self Released) [Lucas Tuckwood]

It seems that as time goes on, traditional heavy metal is pushed further and further into the side-lines, ever replaced by more and more extreme subgenres. Yet every now and then, you get a band that’s got that special sauce that elevates them far above the rest, and this time, it’s Neuronspoiler, back with a fresh new album. Since their debut in 2010 they’ve never once failed to disappoint, and Spoiled For Choice rather appropriately spoils the listener with veritable buffet of excellent tracks. Starting with a thrasher by the name of An Eye For An Eye, this album explodes out of the gate before returning back to more traditional metal tempos, but losing no heaviness in the process. 

The album’s ballad, Wake Up From You perfectly balances the slow refined opening with the soaring heavy climax, before diving straight back into the heavy for the second half of the album, ending with the anthemic Catch 22. On the engineering front, legendary Metallica producer Flemming Rasmussen, as well as ex-Saxon sound engineer Charlie Bauerfeind were recruited, and the fruits of this collaboration are nothing short of mixing perfection. The bass booms through the bottom end, perfectly filling out the already fearsome sound of the guitars amidst a storm of thunderous drums. Soaring above are JR Vox’s weapons-grade vocals, and he belts out some truly magnificent screams here. 

The standout track for me is Angel Of Britannia, an utterly spectacular song that feels like the kind of stuff Iron Maiden should be making these days. While this is an excellent heavy metal album in its own right, I feel that the opening track shows immense potential for a branch out into more thrashy territory, and as a result I felt that the album could have done with a few more faster tracks. Besides this small gripe, this is an excellent album. Absolutely recommended. 8/10

Marche Funebre: Einderlicht (Hypnotic Dirge Records) [Dave Marcovecchio]

Things must be pretty grim in Belgium. The small nation known primarily for it's chocolate and a certain mustachioed detective has spent the last few years pumping out quality Doom Metal (Amenra, Thurisaz as well as newcomers Voidian) as if it's very waffles depended on it. So it'll be interesting to see how Einderlicht the 4th album from Marche Funebre stacks up against the crowd. Straight off the bat the band are following the template that made their previous album (2017's Into The Arms Of Darkness) such a success, taking the same blend of blackened-death metal, mixed with some catchier, chuggier doom riffs, while the vocals switch between tortured growls and Candlemass-esque theatrical crooning. 

The similarities don't stop at a surface level either, Markus Stock is once again at the helm of production, even the cover art is from the same photographer (a haunting shot by Brooke Shaden). The band have certainly stuck with the old axiom “If it ain't broke....” Unfortunately, the tracks on display this time around don't quite match up to the bar set by their last releases. With an average running length of 7-10 minutes, the 6 tracks on offer here have an unfortunate habit of outstaying their welcome slightly. Tracks such as the opener, The Eye Of The End, aren't quite ferocious enough to press a listeners extreme metal buttons, but are also too midtempo and frenetic to settle into a hypnotic doomy haze. 

Ultimately this leaves portions of record at times sounding a bit uninspired and “metal-by-numbers” (The Maelstrom Mute featuring a natural harmonic riff that sounds like a latter-day Machine Head offcut). It's not all gloom and doom though as the closing portion of the album, particularly the title track, offer up something a lot more dynamic and interesting. This latter half of the album shows the band defining their death/doom metal formula much more successfully, living up to the albums translated title of “a light at the end”. 6/10

Athon: S/T (Argonauta Records) [Matt Bladen]

The self titled debut album is one that is very much anticipated by fans of the Italian metal band. The band apparently started as a cover's act who played songs by Mastodon, Black Tusk and Red Fang and this sludgy, fuzzy, rawness has imbued their debut record with the sound of their influences mixing stoner grooves, sludge nastiness and some crushing doom metal that has been honed at numerous shows (pre-Covid). Unfortunately their time as a cover band has made much of this album sound too much like their influences, Reverse Satyr especially has nicked a few too many Mastodon riffs. Good enough if the bands mentioned earlier do it for you then you'll enjoy Athon. 5/10 

Reviews: Four Stroke Baron, Dwarrowdelf, Crystal Spiders, Under The Oak (Matt & Paul H)

Four Stroke Baron: Monoqueen (Prosthetic Records) [Matt Bladen]

There are very few instances where a 'stop-gap' release perfectly encapsulate the style of a band but Monoqueen the third album from 'heavy pop' band Four Stroke Baron shows why the band are a band a nightmare for critics such as myself. They do what they do very damn well, but what they actually play is something harder to explain than the British Governments Covid policy. I guess 'heavy pop' is the best way to describe it as they certainly have poppy, sing along hooks, numerous uses of electronic music, some hip hop beats and a myriad of other influences into a type of rock/metal I guess more closely associated with bands like Baroness/Mastodon. There are some echoed shouted vocals, thick muscular riffs but much of what is intriguing here are the other sounds that lend themselves to Four Stroke Baron's unique sound. 

So then Monoqueen, it's a record that is a mix of covers and originals that are re-recordings of songs from their debut album King Radio. Now if you've heard their debut album (and to be honest I hadn't) the originals are pretty similar just better recorded but it's the covers where this album will be bought and sold as they have gone for left field choices (for metal bands anyway) but they are bands that have influenced Four Stroke Baron's eclectic sound and ones who they share an affinity with. On this list you have Lungs by Chvrches, Why A Bitch Gotta Lie by Death Grips and Broken Whiskey Glass by Post Malone, so left of mainstream artists with even their Beatles cover being Mean Mr Mustard from the Fab Four's 'greatest' album Abbey Road. But elsewhere they have interpreted tracks by AOR rockers Red Rider and Post punk band Tones On Trail in their hazy, swirling, riff-fuelled musical smorgasboard. As I've said Four Stroke Baron are a little bit of an enigma and this EP will be many people's entry point to the band and it certainly gets you excited for what realms the new material may take us into. 7/10 

Dwarrowdelf: Evenstar (Northern Silence Records) [Paul Hutchings]

This is the third full-length release from Dwarrowdelf, the work of Southampton’s Tom O’Dell. We reviewed the previous release Of Dying Lights last year and noted what a talent O’Dell is. Evenstar sees Dwarrowdelf continue with their Tolkien themed narrative as the album follows the journey of Aragon and his quest to earn Arwen’s hand in marriage. Alongside O’Dell is drummer Joe Bollettiero who adds a solid engine to the whole project. Whilst still very much rooted in the black metal sphere, Evenstar sees melodeath and folk incorporated into the sound, enhancing the atmospheric styles that are the trademark of the first two records. The mix of growls and harmonious cleans works well the tremolo riffing, intricate guitar work, rolling drums and thick synths once more blending neatly.

The album features the guest guitar work of Jeremy Reinhold on For The Kingdom I Shall Claim, one of three seven minute plus songs and Kristoffer Graemesen provides some folk infused tin whistle on In Pursuit Of Ghosts. Whether there has been much development in the song writing since Of Dying Light is debatable, and there remains a slight disconnect at times – for example, I’m not a big fan of the rather tinny synth sounds which feature on Undómiel. Evenstar is pleasing to listen to, the harmonies and melodies blending neatly with the more raucous black metal elements. There is ample to sit back and enjoy once more. 7/10

Crystal Spiders: Molt (Ripple Music) [Matt Bladen]

Crystal Spiders are a noise-making duo from North Carolina, their psych-tinged doom rock first came to a wider audience on their 2019 demo, so then it wouldn't be long until they were snapped up by a label for their debut record. Molt is that debut release, coming on one of the go-to homes of riffy, psychy heavy records, Ripple Music. The band consists of bassist/vocalist Brenna Leath (The Hell No/Lightning Born) and drummer/vocalist Tradd Yancey (Doomsday Profit), so with no guitarist to speak of those doom riffs are very low and thick like a good Carolina BBQ Sauce Leath attacking the four strings with the tenacity of a lead guitarist while also have penchant for throbbing gloom that works in conjunction with her ghostly soulful vocals. 

Which I personally enjoyed massively on that Lightning Born record, who's Mike Dean (Corrosion Of Conformity) helps with the production. All the while Yancey's deliberate, cymbal filled, expressive drumming leads the doom tracks such as Trapped and Gutter while the pacier title track and Cunhell gives you that other side to things with almost a punky feel. They draw from right across the doom/stoner/psych spectrum here and you don't notice that there are no guitars when the fuzzy solos and riffs that are so synonymous fill your ears as things spiral in to desert rocking for Chronic SickThe Call and the tribal Headhunters. Crystal Spiders have successfully followed up their demo with a record that takes these initial forays into the world and have brought a more rounded muscular sound on their debut release. Recommended if low slung riffs are your bag. 7/10

Under The Oak: Ripped Up By The Roots (Wormholedeath Records) [Paul Hutchings]

How do you be critical of a band who state that “Make no mistake, we are still a tribute band and will continue paying homage to the eighties, but we will do so both through our own material and through cover songs. A regular Under The Oak show will be a mixture of this, but still weighing heavily on the cover material”. A group of friends who joined forces to honour their speed and thrash heroes of the 1980s, Under The Oak clearly have no pretensions about getting to the big time. These are four guys who just want to play some meaty thrash metal. And overall, that’s exactly what they do. The ten original tracks on this debut album are routine thrash metal, tipping the nod to bands like Exodus, Flotsam And Jetsam and Testament with nothing special or indeed, awful to report. 

The band, Jostein – vocals; Marius – drums; Hillbilly Bill – Bass and Bolverk - Guitar can thrash it up with a riff heavy delivery and whilst Jostein isn’t going to win any prizes for the best vocalist of the year award, he can hold a note and does a decent job. Under The Oak focus mainly on the American thrash outfits but there is more than a nod to the German beasts, in particular, Kreator and Destruction within this album. The two covers are both classics but in completely different styles. Candlemass’ Solitude is a hugely brave track to record, being one of the most immense doom songs of all time. 
Under The Oak obviously take their name from that debut release Epicus Doomicus Metallicus and they do an okay version, albeit with Jostein unable to get near the pipes of Johan Längqvist. They finish with a ragged version of Exciter’s Pounding Metal and again, the energy and enthusiasm is probably the highlight. I admire their passion and effort. 5/10

Tuesday 22 September 2020

Reviews: Svalbard, The Ocean, Brother Firetribe, Typhus (Matt, Paul S, Rich & Paul H)

Svalbard: When I Die Will I Get Better? (Church Road Records) [Matt Bladen]

Svalbard come to kick down yet more doors and smash through more glass ceilings with their third album, When I Die Will I Get Better? based upon a phrase with multiple meanings, this third album is the latest part of their evolution into one of the most vital bands around. The four piece made up of the aggressive, uncompromising rhythm section of Mark Lilley (drums), Alex Heffernan (bass) and Liam Phenlan (guitar & Rhodes) deliver brash, pulverising hardcore driven metal that allows Serena Cherry's lead guitar to bring expressive leads and post-metal, navel gazing ambience. This album packs a massive emotional kick to the knackers as it deals with society and personal issues as the lyrics rage about with sexism, misogyny, abuse and mental health, subjects that have made Svalbard one of the most crusading bands around, Cherry and Phenlan's shared vocals telling these interwoven tales of the previously mentioned themes. 

Now this is where I'll have to address the elephant in the room as this record was supposed to be released on Holy Roar Records one of the most promising underground labels that signed some of the most right-on, heavy and innovative bands in the scene, however recently it came to light that the owner of the label has been accused of rape and sexual misconduct, obviously Svalbard have severed all ties with the label, as have most of the bands and the rest of the people who worked their. (We also stand with the victims). But when there was literally a fortnight until the release Svalbard lost their label (albeit with good cause). 

Now there is a light at the end of this tunnel as Church Road Records are releasing When I Die Will I Get Better?, this new label is formed by ex-Holy Roar label manager Justine Jones along with her husband Sammy Urwin and ex-Holy Roar staffers Wil and Sam with a renewed focus of bringing the best of the UK's heavy scene. Due to this new signing and Svalbard's social consciousness £1 from every CD or LP sale of When I Die, Will I Get Better? via Church Road will be donated to Rape Crisis. This new label means that hopefully many of the Holy Roar bands now will move over to Church Road Records in the future.

So back to When I Die Will I Get Better? and it starts as it means to go on with the anthemic Open Wound that features Svalbard's melodious melancholic use of clean shimmering guitars to counterpoint the heavier passages with a much widescreen, post-metal sound, before the crushing savagery cuts in. These powerful melodies permeate throughout the rest of the album, creating stunning numbers such as Click Bait where the haunting opening once again into unfailingly modern, rampaging metal, the often raw lyrical content delivered with venom, but then the record will switch into dreamy segments, much like you get on the excellent Listen To Someone, all the way through the impassioned What Was She Wearing and the affecting finale Pearlescent. It never feels forced or there for the sake of it, it's all part of Svalbard's organic growth into a more mature musical unit. They are creating a wider musical spectrum here than on their previous records, reflecting their live power. 

That full sonic assault is realised on Silent Restraint but it's omnipresent. When I Die Will I Get Better? is Svalbard claiming their throne as one of the most vital bands in the UK today. The answer to the albums title maybe still rhetorical but there is solid fact that heavy music doesn't get much better than this. 10/10  

The Ocean: Phanerozoic II - Mesozoic I Cenozoic (Metal Blade Records) [Paul Scoble]

The Ocean have been making deeply progressive noises for over 20 years now. The band formed in the year 2000, and have released 7 albums, the last being Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic in 2018. That album was the first half of a palaeontology themed double album; with Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic I Cenozoic being the completing second half. This half was meant to be released in 2019, but was delayed to this year; both halves of this double album were recorded at the same time in 2018. So, how have this German 6 piece chosen to conclude what is a very ambitious project. The 51 minute album features 8 tracks, the tracks are a mix of Progressive Metal, Post Metal, Post Rock and a little bit of Doom riffing that comes in somewhere between Yob and Pallbearer. The album opens with Triassic, which is a mix of clean Post Rock riffs, and huge and powerful doomy parts. The clean riffs are brooding and controlled, and feature very attractive layered vocals. The doomy parts have massive, heavy riffs and feature harsh vocals. 

The song goes between those two main feelings, before combining the huge and heavy Doom riffs with the layered vocals from the Post Metal sections, in a way that feels very satisfying. Next comes the albums centrepiece (ok it’s the second song, so it’s not really in the centre, but this is the centrepiece nonetheless). Jurassic | Cretaceous is a huge, sprawling thirteen and a half minute monster of a track. It is mainly powerful Progressive Metal mixed in with tauter and more controlled sections, that then go back to the more expansive Progressive sections. In the middle of the song there is a protracted Post Rock section with lots of clean guitars, that then slowly builds back to the huge Progressive Metal style from the beginning of the track. Next we get the track Palaeocene, which is mainly Progressive Metal that is mid-paced and driving, there is a soft Post Rock section before heading back into aggressive doom territory. Eocene is Post Rock all the way through. The guitars are mainly clean (there is a distorted guitar in the second half, but it’s fairly low in the mix, so the feel is clean electric guitar), and it reminds me a little The Police. 

Oligocene is a soft, brooding Post Rock instrumental. Miocene | Pliocene begins with Post Rock clean guitars, coupled with harsh vocals, this then morphs into Progressive Metal with clean vocals. These two feelings are juxtaposed for about 4 minutes. Pleistocene opens with a minimal driving Prog Rock that sounds a little bit like Muse, before the track gets bigger, with strings being added to the heavy riffing, giving the song a huge amount of depth. The song ends with some properly extreme Progressive Metal which is full of Blast-beats. The album ends with Holocene, which is atmospheric Post Rock with an eastern feeling that again has strings on it, and feels lush and beautiful, and is a very satisfying way to end the album. Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic I Cenozoic is a fantastic piece of Progressive Metal. The album feels expansive and huge, whilst at the same time having some beautifully soft and minimal moments. The band are clearly masters of balance and equipoise. Nothing feels out of place, or jarring; the heavy moments are balanced by soft and beautiful, expansive with introverted, extreme with mild. It all fits together perfectly. This is an album that has been made by people who really know what they are doing, they are masters of their craft, and that comes over in every second of this album. 9/10

Brother Firetribe: Feel The Burn (Odyssey Music) [Rich Oliver] 

Finnish melodic rockers Brother Firetribe are back with album number five Feel The Burn which sees the band at their consistent high level with another great album chock full of AOR anthems. Since previous album Sunbound in 2017, guitarist Emppu Vuorinen has departed the band with his duties with Nightwish meaning he sadly no longer has the time to dedicate to Brother Firetribe so joining the band for Feel The Burn is guitarist Roope Riihijärvi who certainly proves himself with a fantastic performance and some beautifully slick guitar solos. Brother Firetribe have always excelled in writing catchy and feel good anthems and they have definitely not lost their touch. 

Feel The Burn is chock full of them from punchy opener I Salute You, the dramatic and synth heavy Bring On The Rain, the appallingly catchy Chariots Of Fire (it will get stuck in your head for days) and the hugely anthemic Rock In The City. The band put in fantastic performances with the keyboard work from Tomppa Nikulainen being exceptional and shifting from retro 80’s style synths to a more contemporary trancy style whilst the vocals from Pekka Heino are as good as ever being dramatic yet restrained and never overblown. Feel The Burn is another fine album in the Brother Firetribe discography. 

It isn’t as immediately catchy as previous album Sunbound but this album will definitely worm its way into your subconscious after multiple listens. Brother Firetribe are yet to have a misstep and Feel The Burn is a great AOR album full of slick and melodic anthems which the band are known for. 8/10

Typhus: Mass Produced Perfection (Punishment 18 Records) [Paul Hutchings]

In a year of wave after wave of quality thrash metal it’s tough to even get noticed. When it’s your debut release this becomes a massive challenge so it’s pleasing to listen to Mass Produced Perfection, the first long player by Athenian thrashers Typhus and give it a massive thumbs up. Typhus formed out of their former band Nuclear Terror who were operational from 2009 – 2019. Three of the four members of Nuclear Terror are now part of Typhus, namely singer and bassist Kostas Korg, guitarist Kostas Foukarakis and drummer Dimitris Ginis. New boy Socrates Alexiou adds additional guitars on an album that makes no secret of its influences. 

From the opening bars of first single Serpents Of An Aberrant Reality to the closing thrasher Faith Machinery, Typhus have crafted an extremely solid debut. Sure, they are not reinventing the wheel but there is plenty here to excite your average thrash metal fan. Duelling guitars, massive racing riffing, pulsating drums and frenetic vocals, Typhus soak up all of the Bay Area sounds, merge in a bit of the Germanic behemoths, especially Kreator and then include hints of some of the UK and scene as well. Mass Produced Perfection is well produced, well composed, and solidly performed. In fact, there is little I didn’t like on this release. Keeping things tight but still retaining the ferocity of their peers and influences, Typhus can be summed up in that final song Faith Machinery which is a stunning closing track. The market is most definitely saturated, but Typhus have given themselves opportunity to climb above the cesspool of also rans. 8/10