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Thursday 12 May 2022

Reviews: Ibaraki, Katharos, Gwendydd, Stinger (Reviews By Matt Bladen, Alyn Hunter, Zach Scott & Simon Black)

Ibaraki - Rashomon (Nuclear Blast) [Matt Bladen]

Drawn from the myths and folklore of his Japanese heritage, Ibaraki is the debut solo album from Trivium frontman Matt Heafy, the band name itself comes from the name for a "Japanese demon of feudal legend". This 10 song exploration into the characters that make up these stories is driven through a more progressive, cinematic style than Trivium fans will be used too. 

That being said there is plenty of meaty, Trivium-like hooks and Heafy shows off his brilliant vocals throughout, but the musical style is more eclectic using traditional instrumentation, classical strings, shifting progressive signatures, plenty of creativity and Heafy's adoration of black metal, the main musical might behind this album. Rashomon is a record that reminds heavily of the solo records from one of Matt's heroes and chief collaborator on this album, Ihshan of Emperor. His Emperorness appears on Susanoo No Mikoto, as well as producing the record that has been built between the two men for a long time. Their creative unison and Heafy's need to challenge himself resulting into a deep dive of Japanese heritage and culture. 

Ihshan is not the only special guest here as Nergal from Behemoth lends his ravaged snarl to Akumu while Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance, who screams better than a lot of death vocalists joins in on the brilliant Rōnin, which is the albums most progressive offering. Both add as much to the record as the guest slots from Matt's Trivium bandmates drummer Alex Bent, bassist Paolo Gregoletto and guitarist Corey Beaulieu, there's also some natural sounds sampled by Ihsahn's wife Heidi, to really make this record feel natural. Heafy has touched on these themes before, most noticeably on the Trivium album Shogun, but never in this much depth and with the deftness of touch. It's not just blistering technical metal all the time, the moments of quiet and melodic phases, mean that these tales can be told with the mysticism and often the introspection they were written with. 

It also delivers a look at the ideological stresses that drive many Japanese people to suicide as well as the bigotry faced by the those from and Asian-background. A track such as Komorebi (the space between the canopy and the branches that lets the sunlight come through) really hits home as a wonderfully evocative track that sees Heafy using his clean vocals and some stripped back dreamy post-metal, showing that this album is more than just black metal aggression, Kaizoku is a jaunty closer with a parp of brass and mandolin, while Susanoo No Mikoto brings riffs of classic metal. Drawn from his history and his influences, while being approached with a no rules, Rashomon is a labour of love worth investing your time in. 9/10

Katharos - Of Lineages Long Forgotten (Willowtip Records) [Alyn Hunter]

Hailing from Stockholm, Sweden - Katharos craft a symphonic brand of black metal that one hopes after you've read this that you'll find time to familiarise yourselves with. Not least of all because they've gotten the closest to taking the best parts of genre masters Emperor and bringing their soundscape to life with modern production techniques, yet still retaining a clear identity of their own. It's not quite worship, but the clear inspirations come thick and fast and it's all the good stuff - the progressive songwriting, the cut-throat brutality, the timely melodies, the unrelenting miasma of breakneck riffing that just feels like you're being dragged by a motorbike doing a tonne. Of Lineages Long Forgotten is Katharos' second record after a digital/vinyl only debut (no CD? Big shame), but for a second album this kicks like a thousand mules, and repeated spinning of this record reaps rewards in thanks in no small part to the mixing being handled by the renowned Necromorbus studios.

From the very first cut Those Hornclad, Katharos set a scene of business only black metal. The sheer riff driven aggression is pummelling and it's a veritable bombardment of blast-beat cacophony for the duration. Feigned Retreat shows additional chops switching up the pacing with some proper neck-snapping riffs, waltz-esque moments, lead solo work and some mesmerising technicality, then it all descends into some truly barbaric dissonance on top of some absolutely ballistic kit-work. The near 9 minute title track that follows continues the theme with an anthemic opening riff and the mid-section following a VERY brief respite is where the synths really shine with soaring horns that push that apocalyptic feel. At this point, I'm already more than bought in - the songwriting appeal bordering on virtuosic.

The World Serpent's Marrow is their single track already released, admittedly the one track I had heard prior to this advance and more than any other this wears the Emperor influences on its sleeve. Whirling maelstrom level drumming, marauding guitar work, sometimes baroque-on-crack level string writing finds its way into the mix. By all accounts an excellent sample into the album in a microcosm. Lay Yersinian Siege that follows is a strongly orchestrated number that both continues with the breakneck pacing albeit with a respite mid-section - the track continually shifts gears in a way akin to how late era Biomechanical (a band I miss dearly) used to, but with three times the gonads. I Waged War and Most Dread Portent see out the record in a largely similar affair to what has preceded, the latter constantly building at pace to an abrupt close. It's categorically seismic stuff, a veritable brick on the accelerator pedal in every imaginable facet.

My biggest critique with the record is just that the vocals are a little buried which is a shame as when they cut through - they're venomous, nailing the right registers to hit scathingly hard, and the pacing again is reminiscent of Ihsahn's type without being too predictable. The symphonics are definitely there adding some oomph but they also do sometimes struggle for a bit of air-time although with the tracks typically being so riff driven they provide more of an ample reinforcement to the chaos. To be fair, mixing something so dense is a serious challenge so some leeway should be afforded, it still comes across sounding particularly monstrous and the good kind of overwhelming. The songwriting throughout is for lack of a better word, apocalyptic. A very progressive approach to a malevolent soundtrack with few repeated elements and constant twists and turns, yet in spite of its speed and sheer weight of sound will still throw a curveball into the mix once in a while. Building an album like that could prove to create a challenging listening experience for some, but this is a record that rewards multiple listens.

Katharos are far from a household name, but credit where it is due Of Lineages Long Forgotten is a record that has every potential of putting them on the map particularly if it generates the hype it merits through some good PR and touring (and hell - I wish I could see this live) – it's got AOTY potential for me already. This does not feel like a sophomore record by any stretch of the imagination - more like a more cinematic spiritual successor to Emperor that we've been waiting for and I cannot get enough of it and as such comes HIGHLY recommended. 10/10

Gwendydd – Censored (Drakkar Entertainment) [Zach Scott]

Hailing from Sofia, Bulgaria, and fuelled by the success of vocalist Victoria Stoichkova’s popular appearance on The Voice, Gwendydd is a band that is making waves in the European metal scene. Their album, Censored, is the culmination of a speedy period of growth for the girls (and guy), which saw them featured in metal magazines after the release of their debut album, Human Nature. Their style is a blend of early metalcore, groove metal, and thrash, harkening back to the early 2000s while remaining relevant in the modern extreme metal scene. 

The album kicks off with an intro track, Awakening, which features a haunting lullaby sung with a music box accompaniment to ease the listener in. The thrash influence is apparent right off the bat, with a fast kicker of a song in the form of Martyrdom. This song also showcases the band’s metalcore influence, with a midsection reminiscent of early bands like Killswitch Engage. There is also a lot of nu-metal influence, from the industrial sounding riffs and vocal style to the use of samples (like those in This Is War). A lot of the guitar work takes influence from New Wave of American Heavy Metal bands like Lamb Of God and Chimaira, with heavy grooves and blues-influenced riffs. The album’s (only) single, the provocatively-named Rape, is a heavy and groove-laden song with some of the record’s best guitar work, handled by Tina Zhelyazova and Reni Angelova, and some prominent bass lines by Sonya Radeva. The single also features some angelic-sounding clean vocals, similar to the style of modern bands like Spiritbox and Jinjer. 

There are some other interesting sections, with clean intros to One Step More and Dreadful, and heavy electronic and Eastern influence in the unique track We Are the New Order. While this record is very well-produced (mixed by drummer Bambi Nikiforov and mastered by Max Morton) and shows a very high level of musicianship, it doesn’t particularly break any new ground in metal. The groove metal/metalcore blend is a tried and true method, and despite the heaviness and aggression Gwendydd exhibit, there is an element of interest that is just absent from these songs. The song structures are relatively simple, rarely deviating from the standard; and where they do go outside the box (such as in We Are The New Order) it doesn’t feel as if it is blended well with the rest of their sound. 

Despite this, it is a solid album, and shows great potential in songwriting and musicianship; but the guitar work can come off as very repetitive and with little interest. Vicky has a very powerful scream, she doesn’t exhibit the range to make the vocals as interesting as they could be – vocalists who occupy that mid-frequency zone (such as Randy Blythe) need those moments of low gutturals or high shrieks to bring the listener out of the lull it can sometimes put them in. None of this is to say Censored is a bad album – it is far from it – but the clear talent shown by the band members suggests that there is a great deal of untapped potential within Gwendydd, which they will undoubtedly develop as the years go on and the band’s career progresses. While this record doesn’t quite live up to this potential, it certainly cements Gwendydd as a band to watch out for. 6/10

Stinger - Expect The Unexpected (ROAR! Rock Of Angels Records) [Simon Black]

Stinger are a hard rock outfit from Germany, now on album number three. They’ve done well in a short space of time it must be said, but then when your formula is straight 70’s hard rock with a vocalist whose influence lineage leads right back to Bon Scott, this probably isn’t surprising – it’s not music that ever goes out of favour entirely, if it’s done right. To be honest, it’s not just the vocals, there’s whole tracks that sound like they may have fallen out of the High Voltage recording sessions (stand up and wave Chasing Utopia, which also features a guest turn from Billy Sheehan). 

Opener Diggin’ Up The Dirt feels more distinctive, it’s a good rocka-roller and a wise choice for a single. There’s also a bit of the sleaze in there in places, with tracks like Glory And Pride sounding more like the sort of arrangement and subject matter that Faster Pussycat and their ilk might have cranked out way back when. The trouble with the album is that there’s a lot of sameness in there and once you’ve nodded along a bit to the ‘DC influences, it rapidly wears thin when it comes to the song-writing. What’s not helping is a slightly flat sounding production, which feels like it’s trying to ape analogue tech whilst losing the rich fatness that period often had. A more full on and modern sound would have helped a lot here, but you can’t complain about the overall feel. 

Play this material live with a wall of Marshall Stack and I think the end result would be much more effective, as the ingredients are all there, just missing a little bit of energy sauce to push it into the top drawer. 6/10

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