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Wednesday 30 September 2020

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

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