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Tuesday 23 November 2021

Reviews: Exodus, Rhapsody Of Fire, Dream Unending, Carl Sentance (Reviews By Simon Black & Matt Bladen)

Exodus - Persona Non Grata (Nuclear Blast) [Simon Black]

There’s a campaign circulating on social media right now to get Exodus incorporated into the ‘Big Four’ of Thrash metal. This is an interesting idea to say the least, although about thirty years too late if we are going to be brutally honest. It’s not been easy for them, with a revolving door of members, but perhaps the fact that that’s mainly been from a relatively small pool of musicians returning to the band after a break or two, which has really helped them keep close to a core and distinctive sound.

Given that this is where Metallica’s Kirk Hammett cut his chops, they certainly have a significant place in the history of Bay Area Thrash, but given that only drummer Tom Hunting remains from the original line up (and even he had a few breaks) it’s a hard call to determine if this even qualifies as the same band. It’s also significant that many younger metal fans are somewhat bemused by the attempts by these older acts who never quite made it to the top tier who are still banging their drum and trying to keep going in an increasingly cluttered musical landscape. But recently their revival in popularity has moved from being in the noteworthy and influential category to absolutely front and centre focus. From where I am sitting though, this band have been criminally under-noticed, and that finally (at least here in Europe) seems to be starting to change…

To be fair, this has been building for a while – ask anyone in the UK who was lucky enough to catch the Testament tour in early 2019 before the world went to shit, with Death Angel (another vastly underrated act) and Exodus in the opening slot. Whereas the two acts at the top end of the bill have form in Europe and a solid fan base, Exodus have not put quite as much touring ground work over here and consequently found themselves stealing many of the shows on that tour despite starting from a challenging slot on the bill. No mean feat to be sure…

Then this album happens.

So I need to be honest, I’ve not kept up to date with much of what the band have produced since the seminal Fabulous Disaster, but this record absolutely and totally feels like very little has changed in the intervening years in terms of sheer energy and quality of material. If anything it evokes their debut Bonded By Blood more than anything for sheer frenetic energy and power. At an hour’s run time, value for money is definitely in play here, especially as I cannot really fault any single song on the album.

The album explosively grabs you by the throat from the get go and does not let up throughout, with a blisteringly tight delivery that keeps the energy, rawness and rough edges of the early days of Thrash but wrapped up in a polished and modern production sound. That’s actually not as easy to achieve as it sounds. Many acts back in the day had tiny recording opportunity windows in studios squeezed in between slots for much bigger acts, with plenty of graveyard shifts and err, ‘stimulating substances’ to get them through the mad rush to get the material down in time. That was great from the point of view of the energy factor, but often left a lot to be desired on the production quality side. As bands got more established and had longer in the studio, the production improved exponentially, but in many cases at the expense of the magic energy juice that made them so relevant in the first place. This album brilliantly and spectacularly manages both….

To be honest, the two weakest tracks here have already been released as singles (Clickbait and The Beatings Will Continue) both of which stand up perfectly well when listened to in isolation, but seem like fairly ‘by the numbers’ Thrash in the context of the album as a whole. That’s really important here. The two singles that sound great on their own, but actually step into the background on the album as a whole, because Exodus have pulled off the rare trick of an album that works best when listened to end to end… and loud! Five plays in and I’m loving it more with every spin. Welcome to Europe, boys… 10/10

Rhapsody Of Fire - Glory For Salvation (AFM Records) [Simon Black]

I don’t think there is a more tightly knit band family tree out there than what I often refer to as the Rhapsody Family. Italian Symphonic Power Metal is its own distinctive entity, with many of the bands in that scene at some point being as a result of its crossing paths with its pioneers Luca Turilli and Alex Staropoli. It might have made things easier if they had kept their original name of Thundercross, but Rhapsody it was – at least until a bust up with another label and band of the same name forced them to become Rhapsody Of Fire. With Turilli’s departure things got more complex, as it birthed Luca Turilli's Rhapsody which has ploughed a parallel furrow ever since. 

More confusing still is that many of the other musicians who have passed through these projects have also gone onto spawn new projects, which means the whole scene tends to have a very distinctive and similar sound that is also deeply imbued with the Italian Classical operatic tradition in balance to the Metal. It’s not for everybody, but generally when any of these acts hit the studio, you know that you are going to get a highly polished and richly layered offering.

That’s the positive. The negative is that after a while, the seemingly never-ending flow of high-conceptual story arcs gets a little wearing and leaves you hoping for a slight change of approach (stand up Frozen Crown). But then, these boys remain the pinnacle of the sub-genre for a reason, that being no-one does it better and this album is no exception. I have to say the story arc does nothing for me (The Nephilim's Empire Saga if you are interested), of which this is the second installment as what I’m first and foremost focused on is the quality of the musical experience.

The good news is that this is a Metal album first and foremost and although teeming with Neoclassical tropes and flourishes, it seems that the orchestrations are being added afterwards, which means energy drive and power sit front and foremost in the writing and arrangements. I was none too positive about the single I’ll Be Your Hero earlier this year and I stick by that as it’s by far the weakest track on the record, although I can see why they chose it. The full record is a way more deeply well-structured beast and bizarrely some of the longer pieces hold the attention better than the ones with brevity (Abyss Of Pain II stands out very well given it’s twelve minutes of run time). 

I also find myself wishing that some of the additional instruments that crop up first with the woodwind introduction track Eternal Snow leading into the thoroughly folky but fun Terial The Hawk would happen more often, as they are what stops the album from becoming just another outing in very familiar pathways. Vocalist Giacomo Voli seems well and truly embedded in the band now, with both installments in the saga being very firmly rooted in his contributions. I wasn’t expecting to like this, but like it I did. 8/10

Dream Unending - Tide Turns Eternal (20 Buck Spin) [Matt Bladen]

Formed because of Tomb Mold’s Derrick Vela and Justin DeTore (Innumerable Forms, Sumerlands, Magic Circle, Mind Eraser) love of bands like My Dying Bride, Anathema, Paradise Lost (The Peaceville Three) and Gary Moore (?) Dream Unending is a spectral, atmospheric, crushing doom metal that paces itself, with long drawn out instrumentals punctuated by gruff growling vocals (and haunting female vocals on the title track finale). If you listen to Entrance and the first half of Adorned In Lies then you may thing that it's just a lushly orchestrated, maudlin, instrumental beauty, that is until a crushing riff and growled voices come from out of the deepest depths. 

Vella provides us with the Gilmour-esque guitar, lilting 12 String Guitar and the bass both fretted and fretless, behind his musical dexterity is the broad strokes of DeTore's expressive percussion and growled roar. Broad strokes are used here to live up to the lofty expectations of the Peaceville Three with early Anathema ringing out through the Floydian guitars and the dark brooding atmosphere. It's not what you'd expect from either man involved, evocative death/doom but with lots of musical flourishes and beautiful melodic elements like on Dream Unending or Forgotten FarewellTide Turns Eternal is an album that takes you to another world where ringing atmospherics can sit hand in hand with heaviness, harking back to those early Peaceville releases. 8/10  

Carl Sentance - Electric Eye (Drakkar Entertainment) [Matt Bladen]

If every there was a rock n roll journeyman it would be Carl Sentance. The vocalist is not only the long time frontman of NWOBHM act Persian Risk (the band that gave Motorhead Phil Campbell) along with many Welsh bands from that same wave. He has also tread the boards in various musicals, including the Whole Lotta Metal tour along with Tony Martin (a show I saw in Cardiff's St David's Hall as a child!) has recorded with Krokus, lends his pipes to Deep Purple keyboardist Don Airy's solo albums and was hand picked as Dan Cafferty's replacement in Nazareth. He has also reformed Persian Risk and has released a solo album previously.

So a long career but one that has given him a cult status as a go to vocalist due to his versatility. It's this versatility that's on display here on his second solo album Electric Eye. These no cover of the Judas Priest classic before you ask, but what is here is a collection of heavy rock songs from across the styles spectrum. The key feature to all of them though is Sentance's great voice that sounds a lot like Paul Stanley meets Biff Byford but has many different inflections to adapt to any style be it the psych feel of California Queen or a driving rocker like Judas (a hint to his role in Jesus Christ Superstar?)

The album features Carl on vocals and guitar along with Don Airey on keyboards, Bob Richards on drums and longtime sideman Wayne Banks (whom he reformed Persian Risk with) on bass. Electric Eye is an upbeat heavy rock record, there are a fair few songs here that will grab a hold of your attention such as Overload but others feel like filler making for a bit of an uneven listen. You can't fault the talent and Electric Eye feels like the album Carl wanted to make based around his influences, experience and fan base. It's decent but I'm unsure how often I'll be returning to it. 6/10

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