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Friday 12 February 2021

Reviews: God Is An Astronaut, Sirenia, Simulacrum, Joel Hoekstra's 13 (Reviews By Matt Bladen)

God Is An Astronaut - Ghost Tapes #10 (Napalm Records)

Having had their previous efforts reviewed by sometime collaborator Mr Rhod Davies, I have to apologise now that my review of instrumental band God Is An Astronaut is not going to be anywhere near as eloquent as his efforts, I just don’t have his poetic mind I’m afraid. A shame really as there is something quite poetic and poignant about this Irish quartet’s music, on this 10th album there is also a feeling of completeness as Jamie Dean returns on guitar and piano, rekindling the bands ‘classic’ line up. With him on board the band didn’t want to just coast from where they were in 2018, the release of their previous album. They made conscious effort to make Ghost Tapes #10 a much more intense listening experience keeping the ambient and ethereal qualities that has always been part of their post-rock toolkit but adding some cascading heavy turbulence to balance out the moments of quiet clarity. 

A song like In Flux really makes this point with a driving insistence that shifts between quiet and loud dynamics that’s broken by the ‘poppier’ tones of Spectres, which evolves into some very modern prog riffing . As with so many instrumental acts, this has to be digested as one piece each song almost set to follow the previous creating a mood as they go, all the instrumentation at the highest of level, keeping you hooked to their post-metal mastery. After 20 years and 10 albums God Is An Astronaut mange to keep things fresh and interesting, in what can be quite a limiting genre. A word of warning though this record is quite cyclical, the last song easily seguing into the first so you may lose yourself in it. 8/10

Sirenia – Riddles, Ruins & Revelations (Napalm Records)

10 studio albums in and Symphonic metal stalwarts Sirenia seem to have jumped on the Amaranthe bandwagon, infusing their Gothy, symphonic sound with massive 80’s synths. The Norwegian band have shifted their sound closer to the Swedes on this album above any of their others. Yes they still have the bombast of riffs, backing choirs and the operatic vocals on Towards An Early Grave (which also has death vocals) but even here the pulsating electronics are present, along with male clean vocal added on Downward’s Spiral. Its here I need to get something off my chest. Back in the early 2000's there were literally thousands of bands in the 'female fronted' (sorry I hate that term too) symphonic metal style. So much so that rather rapidly it became a pastiche of itself, some of the most well-known acts adapted into more hard rock or traditional metal sounds, adding extensive use of electronics, however the arrival of Amaranthe made this style explode so much so that many of the symphonic bands have adopted it to ‘change’ their sound. 

However this has now become so over-used that it too is a pastiche meaning that when a band does turn up sounding like early-Nightwish, early Within Temptation or even early Sirenia, they actually sound fresh and exciting. I know you can say this about numerous bands jumping on a bandwagon, but in the symphonic metal realms it’s almost like it was wholesale move to 80’s synths and EDM beats leaving behind only little resemblance to their early styles. This isn’t necessarily Sirenia’s fault they are going with what is currently poplar (which Amarnathe are), it’s just frustrating that so many of these bands have decided to move to this sound that they sound like copycats rather than originators. That being said (and it is a rant) if you love this new EDM influenced style of symphonic metal then Riddles, Ruins & Revelations will be an album you’ll be playing continuously, for me though it’s got the feeling of déjà vu. 6/10

Simulacrum – Genesis (Frontiers Music)

Simulacrum is the creation of keyboardist Christian “Chrism” Pulkkinen who has been a part of the band since its inception in 1999, however their first album wasn’t released until 2012 with a second coming in 2015. More than 5 years later the third record from this Finnish prog metal act comes through Frontiers Music and like its predecessor it has a conceptual nature to it but unlike Sky Divided there have been a few changes to the band that have influenced how this record differs. Firstly they a new drummer who joined after the last album and they have also expanded the band to include a second singer. Erik Kraemer has be brought into to fuse his voice with original singer Niklas Broman, expanding on their creative step up for the second album with a more experimental sound here that has archetypal prog metal sounds along with some more orchestral leanings. 

Much of the really experimentation comes on the 4 part Genesis Suite that makes up the second half of the album with Chapman Stick, Bowed Harp etc used in addition to the standard metal instrumentation. Now there is an issue to my ear with this record, despite the virtuoso playing, neither really vocalist really appeals to the ear, which does defeat the object of having two as they both have quite a nasal quality to their voices, when they move into the higher reaches, even becoming a little strained. It’s a bit of let-down really as the first two tracks are affected by it, even Arrhythmic Distortions which starts out well with a chunky modern prog sound is spoilt when the higher vocals come in on the chorus. I wanted to like this record but for me the vocals are just too much of a hurdle to get over. 5/10

Joel Hoekstra’s 13 - Running Games (Frontiers Music)

We’ve noted before about Frontiers love of a collaborative effort well Joel Hoekstra’s 13 has one of the most star studded I’ve seen for a while. The current Whitesnake/Trans Siberian Orchestra/ex-Night Ranger guitarist’s second solo record features vocals from Russell Allen (Symphony X), Vinny Appice (Sabbath/Dio) behind the drums, Tony Franklin (Blue Murder) on bass, Derek Sherinian (Sons Of Apollo/Black Country Communion) adding keys and also features Jeff Scott Soto just on backing vocals and Lenny Castro of Toto on percussion! 

It’s a mad line up playing classy hard rock tunes composed by Hoekstra to reflect a lot of the issues in the world in a number of ways, but mainly it’s about escapism into a world of big, sing along rock tunes, led by the incredible guitar playing of Hoekstra who always has neat head nodding riff or explosive solo ready to go giving tracks like Hard To Say Goodbye an edge over most ballads though Lonely Days is a proper AOR ballad. Mostly though Running Games is built on modern tinged classic rock, Reach The Sky has as chug to it, I’m Gonna Lose It is a bouncy soulful rocker.

Heart Attack is as bluesy as this record gets while Take What’s Mine is a proper workout between Hoekstra and Sherinian. Running Games is bolstered by its all-star membership and great performances. Musically this is 80’s American hard rock but it makes for an enjoyable record that you’d assume will be played ad-nauseum on rock radio stations. 7/10

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