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Thursday 17 February 2022

Reviews: Zeal & Ardor, Fostermother, Slash, Holy Witch (Reviews By Matt Cook, Rich P, Simon Black & David Karpel)

Zeal & Ardor – Zeal & Ardor (MKVA) [Matt Cook]

Avant-garde by its very nature encourages experimentation and embraces the odd, the unique and the untapped. Essentially, it’s a label for artists who wince at the very idea of a label. So when I was bombarded with tantalizing black metal, swept off my feet by hints of gospel and inundated with a healthy dose of metalcore riffs, the very idea of avant-garde was instantly understood, loud and clear. Zeal & Ardor encapsulates all the above (and much more) in the Swiss-based group’s third release, Zeal & Ardor, which contains 14 tracks of calculated chaos and structured simplicity. 

Erase, I Caught You and Emersion feature wailing howls (courtesy of mastermind Manuel Gagneux) and crushing instrumentals straight from the forests of Norway circa 1992. His vocal range and opposing deliveries truly shine, most clearly on Erase thanks to inhumane shrieking: “We’re the only ones left alive!” Bow is a straight shooter surrounded by an omnipresent stomp-clap beat, heartfelt singing and toe-tapping greatness. Further pushing the envelope, Church Burns sounds like it has a place on Hell On Wheels while the episode fades to black. The sheer juxtaposition created from the contrasting clean and punishing singing is simply marvelous. 

Need more proof? Death To The Holy kicks off with a Hip-Hop feel and call-and-response, but then a pummeling breakdown beats Gagneux senseless until his harsh vocals are once again forced out. The interplay flows as naturally as a stream. For those who might need a break from the pit, Golden Liar acts as a (brief) intermission. Slow and steady, the drums still boom, and the guitars remain intricate and well-placed. The attractiveness of avant-garde is the innate “expect the unexpected” mentality. It’s something that could easily sound jumbled and thrown together. Three albums in, though, and Zeal & Ardor clearly have their sound, and the water-meets-oil mechanics makes for a remarkable piece of work. 8/10     

Fostermother - The Ocean (Ripple Music) [Rich P]

In 2020 the then duo Fostermother unleashed their self-titled debut and it hit me hard. The Texas boys
fresh take on psych doom was heavy and fuzzy in all the right places, never sounding derivative and
always leaving you wanting more. I came to the album late, which led me to a vinyl search that came up empty for me, except for some inflated Discogs listings, which prompted me to start to Twitter stalk the band to re-release their debut, maybe even on my favorite label for all things stoner/doom, Ripple Music. 

The two just seemed like a perfect match, plus I really wanted the debut on some of the sweet splatter vinyl that Ripple produces. I assumed my Twitter ranting to the band about my love for the debut and me seemingly trying to guide their career would get me nothing but blocked, but lo and behold the announcement came that the now trio had signed to Ripple and would be releasing their new album, The Ocean. Pre Order button smashed and my inflated sense of self worth at an all-time high (obviously I had nothing to do with this…), I waited with much anticipation for the release date. Wel it is upon us, and Fostermother have released a masterpiece. 

The Ocean is nine tracks of doom perfection. This album slowly rumbles through your living room, taking out everything in its wake, leaving a fuzzy glow on the remnants of what is left behind, and imprinting a lasting impression of what just punched you in the gut. You can feel the fuzz coming through the speakers, with tuned way down guitars that are both harsh and beautiful at the same time. The songs are dark, but not in a funeral dirge way, more of a lingering sense of urgent despair lurking. Like when you know that black cloud is heading your way and can strike at any time. The Ocean makes me feel, a lot. 

The Ocean’s opener, Sunday, starts with a quiet crawl, before jumping from behind the corner to try to crush you under its weight. Slow, fuzzy, psych doom is what you get throughout the nine tracks, and Sunday sets the stage. The second track, Seasons, then lumbers in to shake the ground you stand on and is a standout on an album filled with standouts. The bass laid out by Stephen Griffin shakes you to the core on Seasons and all over the entirety of The Ocean. Hedonist, maybe my favorite track, slows it way down to start, but then crunches you while singer/guitarist Travis Weatherred informs you that there is “No Forgiveness left for anyone…”, and you know he is telling the truth. Dark Desires brings some psych elements to the doom fuzziness, with killer riffs brought to you by Mr. Weatherred. Unholiest Of Days sounds like it could have been on Sabotage, bringing the Sabbath worship without ever sounding like they are kneeling at the altar or Iommi a little too much. 

The title track lumbers in the best way. This is not “a fun day at the beach” song for sure. It is heavy, heavy, making you feel that you are a drift on the sea with no land in site and the sharks circling and the boat (or your speakers) literally shaking, until the weather clears a bit in the middle and some sun starts peaking though, only to have that hope crushed by the killer heavy riff. Redeemer is the most up-tempo track on The Ocean, showing that Fostermother is not a one-trick doom pony, again leading the way with the killer riff but also some harmonies on the vocals that adds just a little something else to an already killer track. 

Solitude brings this epic home and sums up The Ocean perfectly, with its crushing pace, killer riffs, thundering bass, but a quiet middle that makes the final crunch of destruction even more impactful. Fostermother have created an absolute classic with The Ocean. It has everything you want in a doom record and so much more. There is no way to listen to the album without literally feeling it for the entirety of the nine tracks. The riffs, the pace, the thundering heaviness, and the “it” factor that Fostermother has is next level stuff. 

Last year, almost to the day, I found my album of the year with the Jakethehawk release. This year, I may have found 2022’s number one with The Ocean. Amazing stuff, a must listen for anyone who loves heavy music, a pretty much perfect release. Now about that rerelease of the debut… 10/10

Slash – 4 (Gibson Records) [Simon Black]

When I first came across this incarnation of Slash’s solo project (and let’s face it, there have been a few over the years since Guns ’N’ Roses first started to falter in the early 90’s) it was with the top notch 2010 release simply called Slash. There were a number of hard hitting points with this record. First off, although Myles Kennedy was a key vocal contributor, the axe-man had also assembled an impressive array of additional guest vocalists to take a turn on individual tracks. What was more important for me though was the overall consistently high quality of the song writing displayed there. It was a fat, loud and buoyant record that revitalised Slash’s career. 

The fact that he crystallised the live and future recording version around Kennedy was not an issue for me either, given that when I saw them live at the short lived High Voltage a year later he proved to be more than capable of turning in a creditable performance on the old G’N’R material as well as the new stuff. They followed that up with Apocalyptic Love in 2012 and it seemed like a match made in rock’n’roll heaven, which happily cranked its way through the decade. But then the impossible happened. Guns ‘N’ Roses reformed and having toured the world as their own tribute act for a few years, the news surfaced that there was a new studio album to come. So the fact that this record is here for me to review in the first place is something of a surprise, I have to say I was quite looking forward to reviewing this one. 

Which is why I am left feeling slightly frustrated… OK, so the positives first. There’s a loose, rough and ready feel to this disk that evokes the feeling of a live recording – almost as if we were actually listening to the demos recorded as live in the bands’ rehearsal space. That adds a huge amount of authenticity to the sound, as this feels (more so than some of the recordings in the back catalogue) like a real living breathing and interacting rock’n’roll band. Added to which I cannot fault the performances of any of the musicians here. Vocally Kennedy is on top of his game and Slash absolutely delivers his trademark sound with a mix that absolutely keeps things feeling ‘back to basics’ throughout. What it’s lacking is the strength of songwriting that made this series of albums so damned refreshing in the first place. 

Previous albums have had a lot of wallop with their individual tracks and yes, although there are the inevitable fillers mixed in there, there were always enough well-crafted hard hitters to carry the pace overall. This time round the fillers not only predominate, but they’re also front loaded and it’s not until I am almost at the point of giving up that some more catchy and hook-laden material kicks in. When you are at song eight of ten (April Fool) before you get something interesting, then that tells me that something odd is going on here. To be fair, the last two tracks keep this late building momentum, but it all feels like a case of too little, too late. This album has so much going right that this is down-right infuriating. It sounds so rough and genuine, but it just hasn’t got the song chops to make this memorable. 

Given Slash’s ability to hang a song on a damn fine riff and let the rest of the band build out from there, and when you know that the contributors absolutely know their shit, I have to question whether this is actually material built on the best riffs to start with. Have these been siphoned off for the new G’N’R project? Time alone will tell, but this album sounds like a contractual obligation rather than a project based on the hunger and need to deliver the goods. 5/10

Holy Witch - Valley Of The Vapours (Self Released) [David Karpel]

Valley Of The Vapors opens Holy Witch’s album Levitating with retro organs, loads of psychedelic fuzz, and lumbering creepy vibes. As a fan of Uncle Acid And The Deadbeats, I’m immediately interested in seeing if they’ll go somewhere different with this particular black light and spider web energy. When the vocals kick in, clean, high pitched, melodic, I’m suspicious that Holy Witch isn’t staking a claim on any new territory, which isn’t really a bad thing. Mid-song the pace picks up a bit, the guitars crunch, and I find my head nodding along. But not for long, as the tune returns to a slow crawl and the organ underneath punctuates the slithery progression, atmospheric, wavy, and so very psychedelic. 

Ripper starts at a quicker mid-tempo pace and feels more like the second movement to Valley of Vapors rather than its own song, especially when that tempo slows. That consistency is representative of all the tracks here. After the spooky instrumental Levitating (and an instrumental is an interesting choice for a title song), Nightcrawler blasts out of the speakers and again forces the Uncle Acid comparisons. It’s a rocker that’ll blow out the flambeaus mounted on the walls, but we know these tunnels well. We’re not afraid. And maybe that’s the issue here. By the time the organ kicks in and dispels any hope of a Sabbathian riff rescue, Evil Woman proceeds to tread the familiar ground. And then Death Machines drops like a purple square of Floyd on the tip of the tongue. 

The longest song on the album at five and a half minutes, it’s the standout performance here. The fuzz is shaved down a bit and some of the fog clears, but the psychedelia stretches out to span great dreamy breaths of clean space. The final two songs, Widow and Mystic Shjip, are representative of the sameness mentioned, though there are some wicked bee swarm guitar noises shaped into a strangely energized melody in Mystic Shjip. The 60s garage rock nostalgia is complete throughout with what sounds like a Farfisa organ, perhaps some older, dusty amps, and the Norman Greenbaum Spirit In The Sky rhythm guitar work. 

Add to that the spooky lyrics, and you’ve got the whole garage psych witch music package renamed and rewrapped with a pentagram stamp. Or something. Uncle Acid And The Deadbeats songs bang because of extremes. Tremendous volume, seemingly impenetrable scuzzy fuzz that works like a green mist and blankets everything with mystery and suspense, and lyrics that go far into the dark side and explore all the possibilities. Holy Witch dig that debauched genre, and do a decent job in Levitating of making a space for themselves to grow there. 5/10

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