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Friday 12 November 2021

Reviews: Northtale, Kanaan, Memoria Avenue, Lavender Sweep Records (Reviews By Simon Black & Matt Bladen)

Northtale - Eternal Flame (Nuclear Blast) [Simon Black]

Does the world really need another Power Metal Super Group project? That’s a difficult question to answer when you are based in the UK, as it’s a relatively niche interest and market over here, dominated by the European’s despite having a very two very different familial branches in the Americas. So when a group comes along that professes to straddle that continental divide in one package my interest is definitely piqued. With key members based in Sweden, the USA and Brazil, you effectively bring all three of the variants of Metal that get grouped under the sub-genre of ‘Power’ in one go and for those that know the differences, I was really hoping that we might get something new and different sounding here.

Sadly this was not quite to be (at least at first), as the band’s stated intention is firmly to deliver a nod to the glory days of the European side of things, with the influence of bands like Helloween or Statrovarius riding very high in the songwriting mix. I have to say initially this somewhat disappointed me, perhaps because in my head I was hoping for something slightly newer, but fortunately for NorthTale the delivery of this has been so consummately done that despite being clearly in the Northern European pan, it flashes loudly and brightly. And just when you think you know where it’s coming from, the band through in a few experimental curve balls that make you sit up and think.

Musically this is incredibly technically proficient stuff, with some complex Symphonic structures and arrangements, oodles of Neo-Classical flourish which somehow manage not to sound pretentious or intrusive, whilst overall retaining the catchy melodic structures that you got when Stratovarius were firing on all cylinders in the 90’s. Guitarist Billy Hudson and Keyboardist Jimmy Pitts definitely and very powerfully evoke that Tolkki/Johannson fluid interplay, but with less of a competitive and a more of a collaborative edge (although the dual harmonised playing on the title track clearly states the influence right down to the choice of harpsichord keyboard voice). The rhythm section is a pile-driving powerhouse of force and energy thanks to bassist Michael Planefeldt and drummer Patrick Johansson which does not relent and knits the sound together. Vocalist Guilherme Hirose is the new boy in proceedings though, being the only member of the band that did not play on their 2019 debut Welcome To Paradise, but he fits in effortlessly and is blessed with an excellent set of pipes with a high, clean register and the advantage of youth.

I’m impressed with the song-writing overall, as despite there being a lot of standardised Power Metal tropes in there, they are unafraid to mess around with the format if it sounds interesting without breaking the distinctive sound and feel. Tracks like the centrepiece North Tale - Eternal Flame - The Land Of Mystic Rites is a fantastic example of this willingness to experiment, with its African beats and tribal vocal interludes. It’s not the sort of things you expect to find on a power metal album – a genre which let’s face it, suffered very badly from stereotype and repetition. This sort of thing is what makes it stand out, as despite coming from that Northern Euro tradition, when it does venture into different territory, it’s not from the obvious country variants that the nationalities of its constituent members would lead you to expect. Interesting and entertaining. 9/10

Kanaan - Earthbound (Jansen Records) [Matt Bladen]

On this new album from Norwegian band Kanaan, their fourth in four years! They are certainly more Earthbound than on previous records, you may even say Earthless, as from a style that was very similar to jazz fusion and Krautrock on Earthbound Kanaan have taken a turn through Sky Valley and brought in some desert rock low down fuzz riffs. Still only a few years into their career, the prolific trio play a very virtuosic style of instrumental music that evokes links to bands such as Acid Mother's Temple, Kyuss and the masters of Space Rock Hawkwind. The final comparison along with Tangerine Dream are two bands who Kanaan owe much of their sound too tracks such as Mirage having that feel of space rock meets Krautrock as they take you on a psychedelic journey through this albums 8 tracks. 

The trio play everything you hear bringing in oscillations, Farfisa and layers of synths/Hammonds to boost this records galactic presence. Totally instrumental they let the instrumentation and compositions tell the stories and you can't help but get caught up in this psychedelic saga. Plunging to the depths of fuzz-laden doom of Return To The Tundrasphere which reminds me of The Sword before soaring into stratospheric atmospheres on No Star Unturned. Crash moves at glacial pace, driven by a overly fuzzy guitar/bass and some dropstep drumming, Mudbound meanwhile is awash with percussive feedback. Moving away from the jazz/psych has brought them to the dance could be considered to be a risky move but on Earthbound the addition of heaviness has added more engines to this spaceship. 8/10

Memoria Avenue - Memoria Avenue (Frontiers Music Srl) [Simon Black] 

Frontiers Music really are the potpourri of Metal record labels. Best known for their knack of either creating soundalike reboot projects from artists no longer associated with a particular act, or plucking obscure but rapidly viral YouTubers and giving them a deal before anyone else does, they also do a fine job of assembling new acts using established musicians to fit a particular time or tone. All this with an on demand studio, producer and in-house session musicians who between them crank the handle of production with remarkable rapidity and mostly a strong level of quality (although sometimes it can get a bit repetitious, particularly if like me, you find yourself reviewing twenty plus of their products a year). 

This one sees the fusion of the Northern Light Project’s guitarist Tor Talle with relatively unknown vocalist Jan Le Brandt in an 80’s infused package of Melodic Rock / AOR. That said, this does not feel stuck in the past and feels modern, energetic and relevant – as much as AOR can that is. What that means is this is not trying to capture a sound of a bygone age by aping historic production techniques – far from it, as the sound is crisp, rich and not dated at all. What it does is take a mood from that time and keep going with a more modern take. 

The focus is very strongly on Le Brandt’s vocals as well – he’s front and centre in the mix and very much the focus of attention, which is just as well, because anything else would have been a waste of a cracking set of vocal pipes. The tone is clean, but with subtlety and warmth infusing his delivery and hints that actually there may be a little bit more to his range than the style of material easily allows. The negative aspects lie in the song-writing though, which doesn’t push any new boundaries or throw many obvious crowd-pleasers. We’re three songs in with Can’t Blame It On The Rain before things start to get catchy and hook-laden, but after that slow start things do improve and Waiting Forever is Power ballad that works well enough given the restrictions of the format. 

When the pace slows down it does so in a more thoughtful manner, and when that thoughtfulness combines with the catchy (Run With Me being a great example) then things are heading in the right direction. Unfortunately those moments of the song-writing hitting the mark don’t quite often come along often enough, which is a shame because all other aspects of this do hit palpably. Nevertheless, with a bit more focus and oomph, this could go places. 6/10

Lavender Sweep Records - From The Mountains To The Sea (Lavender Sweep Records) [Matt Bladen]

Lavender Sweep Records is a record label based in Swansea. Over the years they have been committed to releasing underground bands on obscure formats. What they have also done is been fierce supporters of the stoner/doom/sludge scene of the Swansea/South Wales area. Now having been involved with the Cardiff side of this, I must admit that a few of the bands here I knew, a few I recognised and some were a complete mystery, but that's half the fun of a record like this for every Sigiriya, Suns Of Thunder, Prosperina, Taint and Heavy On The Ride. 

There are bands that are no longer with us after burning out years ago such as Acrimony as well as newer heavy delivers such as Mines and HWDU. What this is then is a guide to some of the heaviest, grooviest music to come out of Swansea and the surrounding areas. Spanning the area from the Mountains to the Sea (see what they did there) it's a showcase of 18 bands that all bring the riffs, some such as Circle Of Stones ramp up the aggression and distortion, others like Sootbelly feel a punkier vibe is needed, as Marshland Massacre relies on grunge rock weirdness. There's probably something for everyone here, be it those that want to dive back into the heavy groove jams of Acrimony or Sigiriya, the Monster Magnet vibes of Taint or Buffalo Kings, and even if you want brutal sludge from Dead Wolves or garage rock from Screaming Eagle then you'll so often find a band here that will scratch that itch. 

There's a consistency to the quality of every band featured here, many compilations suffer from there being a dip, this one doesn't, you can listen to the whole thing without skipping a single number. Making not only a historical document but also an immensely pleasurable audio experience. Only available on CD from Lavender Sweep Records, From The Mountains To The Sea, reminds everyone how strong the stoner/doom/sludge scene has always been in Swansea and South Wales in general. 8/10

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