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Wednesday 31 August 2022

Reviews: And Now The Owls Are Smiling, D-Drive, Xenobiotic, Skypilot (Reviews By Paul Scoble, Matt Bladen, Matt Cook & David Karpel)

And Now The Owls Are Smiling - Epitaph (Clobber Records) [Paul Scoble]

One member bands have been a part of black metal since its inception. Some of the most groundbreaking acts in the genre are the product of a single mind. Since 2016, And Now The Owls Are Smiling single band member NRE has been making deeply depressive black metal, from his base in Norfolk. In the six years since the bands inception NRE has made 3 albums before Epitaph; Desolation in 2018, The Comforting Grip Of Misery in 2019 and Dirges in 2021, with each full length having an EP between it and the next album. 

This album is very fittingly titled as this is the final album that NRE will be releasing from the And Now The Owls Are Smiling project. I’m not totally sure why NRE has felt that this is an appropriate time to bring this project to a close, I’m hoping it’s because he has dealt with the depression that inspired it, and can now lay And Now The Owls Are Smiling to rest. The style of black metal on offer on Epitaph is depressive black metal, so there aren’t many blast beats or savage and bestial riffs. 

This is all mid paced or slow, the tremolo picked riffs feel less angry and aggressive and are more hypnotic and delicate. It’s a little rough around the edges in how it sounds, but this is clearly by design, perfectly produced and sounding depressive black metal would be weird. The vocals are mainly screams or wails of anguish and pain, all violence is internalised, self loathing. 

The album also features quieter parts that are much more introverted, and meditative. On the opening track Every Day Another Piece Of Me Is Removed has a quieter section near the end of the track where everything drops down to minimal keyboards and spoken word, before the song builds itself back up for an emotional ending. There are also some parts that have a definite post black metal feel to them; still made of the elements that you would associate with black metal but handled in a slightly more contemplative way. Monochrome Visions Of What Life Used To Be has this feeling too it, there is a feel to the tremolo picked riffs that remind me of Sadness, and maybe a little of Deafheaven. 

The song feels just a little bit more infused with sunlight than the other material on Epitaph, however the vocals are still very anguished so the overall feel for this song is cathartic, and in a strange way, restful. There are also some very pleasing folk influences on this album. Winter's Elegy Part II is simple acoustic guitar and very beautiful clean vocals, the song builds a little bit in the second half of the track with added drums, bells and backing vocals, and forms a very beguiling and elegant interlude. 

One of the things that makes this album work is the quality of the deeply melancholic melodies that run through this album. Depressive black metal tends to have a strong melodic core due to those sad melodies driving the album along and giving it the cathartic, emotional depth. Without great, sad tunes this album wouldn’t work, and luckily Epitaph has them in spades, probably the strongest melodies that stay with you the longest are on the track The Is No Laughter Here, clearly no laughter, but lots of brokenhearted melodies. 

The album ends with a cover of Street Spirit by Radiohead, which might sound like a strange cover, but this is depressive black metal so it actually fits very well. The first half is simple plucked guitar and vocals, and sounds like a pretty straight cover, however the second half is done in a depressive black metal style and it fits perfectly with the melodies and tone of the original, so works very well Epitaph is a great depressive black metal album, its full of memorable tunes and beautifully melancholy melodies. 

The album is harsh, cathartic, anguished and in a strange way has some positivity to it, the positivity that comes with dealing with your demons. I’m a little sad this is the last And Now The Owls Are Smiling album as I have enjoyed it, but I’m sure NRE will find other musical outlets, and I look forward to hearing them when they do. 8/10

D_Drive - Dynamotive (Marshall Records) [Matt Bladen]

The Japanese have a real love of instrumental 'shred' artists people such as Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Paul Gilbert, John Pertucci and Marty Friedman are revered as Gods in the Land Of The Rising Sun so it's only right that many of their own bands utilise the eclectic musical soundscapes these artists have with virtuosity that only comes with years of practice. 

One such band are D_Drive, signed to Marshall Records, Dynamotive (their second on the label) has been hailed as their 'very own G3 show' (a rolling tour featuring a trio of incredible guitarists playing to packed houses of shred nerds). It's got a lot of inspiration from these guitar god's Vai and Satch in particular as the tracks shift between hard rock, jazz, funk, pop, prog and metal, with influences as broad as Squid Game, 9/11, the pandemic, plum tree and Marshall Records founder Jon Ellery. Comprised of the guitar duo Yuki and Seiji who weave a rich tapestry of guitar impressiveness as the rhythm section of Toshi on bass and Chiiko on drums bring the pace and power. Do they need a singer? No not really the guitar here is the lead instrument, the melodic part of the record in what would usually be verses and choruses, the bass and drums bringing the riffs. 

From the speeding Red Light, Green Light, to the shimmering Begin Again, the bouncy Get Away and the doomy Be Yourself and Breakout all give you an idea of the different sides of D_Drive, personally I'd say that that the majority of the songs here owe more to artists such as Paul Gilbert who blends many different genres in his music a poppy track such as Thumbs Up or the ballad U_Me which also has a romantic prog edge the prog returning on Breakout before the shred comes back. Dynamotive is a great shred album from some seriously talented musicians, if you're a fan of guitar instrumental music then you should definitely get it into D_Drive. 7/10

Xenobiotic – Hate Monolith (Unique Leader) [Matt Cook]

Avid fans of technical death metal, if you haven’t already, familiarise yourself with Unique Leader Records, because they have been churning out crushingly complex releases as of late: Exocrine, Carrion Vael and Soreption are but a taste of the successful albums to have seen the light of day since the beginning of summer. Xenobiotic needed only five songs on their EP Hate Monolith to solidify their acceptance into that discussion. 

The Aussie foursome hit the ground moshing and never look back. TJ Sinclair has a command of the microphone that is cataclysmic, bristled and reptilian in nature (not the conspiracy theory kind). His output on Autophagia is life-or-death harsh and is quickly followed by The Wretched Strive, where Sinclair’s growls conjure images of those industrial crushers that make mincemeat out of propane tanks and the like. It could stand as the soundtrack for my next (read: first) Crossfit session. The blasty uppercuts and proficient soloing found on Pathos has the potential to alter Magnetic North. And fittingly, EP closer Sever The Ties declares “I’m your fucking worst nightmare!” 

Contained in a short 22 minutes, Hate Monolith loudly inserts itself into the already overcrowded top of the Unique Leader catalogue, as well as the enticing tech-death scene. Xenobiotic – which loosely translates to strange lifeform – harnesses the power of an Unidentified Fucking Onslaught to rain death and destruction onto unsuspecting victims. 8/10

Skypilot - Simple Beasts (The Distortion project and Code 7 Distribution) [David Karpel]

If it’s going to be deemed worthy, a band’s groove has to grab you, it’s got to take you by your nape with an impatience demanding the catharsis of stomping and potentially concussive headbanging. The bottom has to be hella-solid and well-attended to in the mix as well. On Simple Beasts, UK’s Skypilot achieves this, steadily cranking out eight well-crafted, big shouldered, groove-heavy rock songs that deserve your attention. These songs are built to be addictive and they’ll get you moving. I mean, you’re dead if they don’t. Seriously, this is solid stuff coming from a band that’s released four EP’s and one full length in the last 20 years together, and has a road resume of a hard-working band.

Simple Beasts sees Skypilot at their most developed so far. While the sound of the songs on this album is rooted in the swirling crunch of COC and Clutch,, other influences–like Tool and the Deftones–find their way in when they stretch their wings. This blend gives Skypilot an interesting palette from which to choose colours and paint. Despite this, there often a feeling that there’s a particular formula they follow: tunes build on, yes, a solid groove, the vocals are clean and high pitched, emotional, just angsty enough to make you curious, and melodic enough to be catchy. The mix rightly gives the bass its deserved space, and the driving percussion punches the sway right into your gut. 

Solid, though similar. Still, while the variety is slight, the songs are persuasive enough for it not to matter too much. Also, in addition to throwing down solid hooks, the band often breathes huge jammy breaths that lend a touch of progressive psych to the otherwise mostly grungy stoner swing of these songs. Simple Beasts should be Skypilot’s breakout album. Give this one a go. 7/10

Reviews: Miss May I, Pineid, Phantom Spell, Mad Max (Reviews By Matt Cook, Rich Piva, Matt Bladen & Simon Black)

Miss May I – Curse Of Existence (Sharptone Records) [Matt Cook]

If you haven’t been privy to the bustling “posi-core” scene, allow me to quickly introduce you to this marvellously rugged subgenre. The likes of The Ghost Inside and Beartooth especially have made a name for themselves by combining hardcore/metalcore elements with inspiring, uplifting and motivational songwriting. 

Think Dark Horse and In Between, to name a few (also of note is the horrifying accident The Ghost Inside were involved in that almost spelled the end for the band but also gave us the monumental album, The Aftermath). Miss May I have also started to carve their legacy into the above mentioned subgenre, albeit after having already carved a legacy of catchy, hard-hitting metalcore in the process. They’re anything but new to the scene, and their latest foray, Curse Of Existence, further solidifies their standing which really didn’t require any further evidence to begin with. With song titles such as Bleed Together, Hollow Vessel and A Smile That Does Not Exist, this is undoubtedly an album with a bend-but-don’t-break message to convey. 

The refrain for A Smile That Does Not Exist eloquently suggests ‘It’s always in your head / but it’s only in your head.’ Which is to say, while you may feel like you can never escape the demons only you can feel or hear, if you’re able to escape the dark recesses of your brain, there is a light to be enjoyed. Unconquered is an anthem for the people who feel like their backs are firmly pressed against the wall thanks to life’s stresses, but who aren’t quite yet ready to call it quits. ‘Maybe I’m the only one who can save me.” It’s saddening but true: the only person who can fully take control of the chaos is you, but there is an opportunity for you to take that control and regain homeostasis. It’s true that not everything is sunshine and rainbows.

Hollowed Vessel declares “This is not a life / it’s a fight to survive.” Quite relatable, no? Yes, Curse Of Existence does feature clean choruses, strong breakdowns and Levi Benton’s trademark rasp. But the real catch for this record is the affirmations found buried within the melancholic morass. It’s something everyone needs to be reminded of in everyday life, but especially in the shithole climate that is 2022. 8/10

Pineid - Blue Doom (Sympatry Records) [Rich Piva]

Pineid is a new musical effort out of Los Angeles from some veteran players who have come together to create some psych/prog/post rock goodness that goes in all sorts of directions throughout the nine tracks on their debut album, Blue Doom. A couple of these guys have Zappa related experience, and you can hear where that comes through for sure, but you also get a lot of prog bits, with “King Crimson” getting thrown around in their press bio. I get it, but I also hear elements of the more proggy/spacey Voidvoid stuff, and even some 90s noise/post rock influence from a band like The Jesus Lizard. 

Sounds like a lot, and it is, in a very good way. Oh, and also it’s a concept album. Don’t let any of this chase you away because it is too much, there is a ton of great stuff going on here. The first thing I noticed is how well this record is produced. It sounds amazing. The second thing I noticed is that these guys can all really play, all next level musicians. Some standout tracks include The Tick, which sounds like some later career Melvins had a baby that came out of the womb with Brain Salad Surgery in their little hands and wearing a Tool shirt. 

Let that sink in for a bit. Everything To Now is Pineid putting their foot down on the prog petal to the floor, channelling elements of several the leaders of that genre, new and old. The bass work shines here, as it does throughout all Blue Doom. The Gift is like if The Jesus Lizard was a Yes cover band. Good, weird, and excellently executed stuff. Blue Doom is a grower, so have patience with this first effort from Pineid. Let all nine tracks marinate a bit. Let them take you on the 60-minute trip with no inhibitions. Don’t let works like “Prog”, “Zappa”, or “Concept album” freak you out. Yes, there is a lot going on here, but never is this un-listenable or so proggy pretentious that you want to escape to something way simpler. It’s a challenge in the best sort of way an album can be.  Check it out. 8/10

Phantom Spell - Immortal's Requiem (Wizard Tower Records) [Matt Bladen]

The creation of Kyle McNeill from London trad metal and Seven Sisters. Phantom Spell is Kyle indulging in his first love of prog rock. As a tribute to the "dorkiness and grandeur" Immortal's Requiem is influenced by bands such as Kansas and Yes when Double Gatefold LP's were a thing, often decked in fantastical Roger Dean artwork. McNeill wanted to capture the imagination and cinematic feel of those records and after the first listen I agreed that he most certainly does. 

The Kansas influences are writ large as are some nod to Styx as well, Dawn Of Mind starts things off in a grandiose way, Gothic choirs, galloping twin axe harmonies (from his day job), twisting basslines and more Mellotron than is legally allowed. The thrusting riff shifts into a more spacial wonderment as McNeill displays his guitar prowess in the final solo section as the main part reappears. On the instrumental Black Spire Curse he really doubles down on his musical dexterity and guitar playing. Dawn Of Mind alone gets you in the right mindset for what's to come. Heavy influence but made with originality. 

Seven Sided Mirror for example brings some jaunty Yes pace switching with some fantastical Rushims in the lyrics. Nevermind Metallica this is what Eddie Munson's Hellfire Club would be listening to. The NWOBHM gallops are strewn throughout the prog exploration but not detrimental as you'd assume if Maiden had their time again, they'd pretty want to sound like this, a dual axe attack with plenty of keys. What's very impressive as the entire album was played and recorded by Kyle in isolation during the pandemic, so much of the album has a deeper meaning than just the fantasy lyrics as Kyle himself puts it: "At the core of these songs are insecurities and emotions we'll all encounter in our time. 

Even if you're an immortal wizard". With time to spend languishing over this record this Immortal Wizard has opened up the gates to a new sonic landscape one I hope will be in unison with his current band for more music. 8/10

Mad Max - Wings Of Time (ROAR Rock Of Angels Records) [Simon Black] 

There’s an ongoing trend of 80’s Retro which is now starting to wear more than a bit thin. The output of this tends to fall into the category of either bands who didn’t quite get out there back in the day finally getting the chance before it’s too late, too much younger acts trying to ape the style or sound. And it really annoys me when they try and fake old analogue equipment and techniques, because there’s a reason that the bands who were there originally have long since remastered and remixed their 80’s back catalogue. The bands who were there and successful back then not only want to distance themselves from the crap recordings of yesteryear, but also have stylistically long since evolved and moved on to save the intervening decades. This makes Mad Max a bit of an oddity, because after forty years and fifteen albums of continuous work and they still seem to sound exactly the same…

The sound is fat 80’s USA Radio Rock/AOR, and very lavishly and richly produced it is too, and I was quite surprised to discover that the band actually hail from Germany not the States. Now the positive aspect of this is that it rather kicks the arse out of the two categories of retro wannabees I mentioned earlier, because they have at least had the honesty to stick to their guns despite the change in fashions. There’s no attempt to ape analogue, and wisely the band opt for a top notch and polished production feel, keeping the 80’s vibe for the overall style and the, err, lyrics…

The downside is that although the relative merits of either 80’s style or studio techniques can fuel many a light night conversation with a few ales, the reality is that the cringeworthy cheesy lyrics that were the norm back then really should stay in the past. This hits you like a large and slightly wet live salmon on track one, with Too Hot To Handle, which quite frankly is more than a little embarrassing and A Woman Like That is no better, despite the rich sound and strong vocal performance of Julian Rolinger. Fortunately these lyrical faux pas are not dominant, but just a little glaring when they splatter the first three tracks so emphatically.

However, when the dreaded power ballad presents, it’s actually Rolinger’s voice, for once showing a rawer and rougher edge on Heroes Never Die - the slowest song on here, that saves this track from what is usually an inevitable low on any AOR record. Actually it’s head and shoulders the strongest track on this release by a country mile. To be fair most of the music works fine for the genre, and even ventures into a little power metal territory with Stormchild Rising, which would not have sounded out of place on a Helloween B-Side back in the day. But there lies the challenge. Although competent and well-produced, this isn’t exciting, interesting or strong enough to rise above the melee, which is probably why I’ve never come across them before.

Polished, but a little dull nonetheless. 5/10

Tuesday 30 August 2022

Reviews: CB3, Trial, Heads For The Dead, SOiL (Reviews By Rich Piva, Richard Oliver, Matt Cook & Matt Bladen)

CB3 - Exploration (Majestic Mountain Records) [Rich Piva]

I have a complex relationship with instrumental bands. I tend to lean more towards music with vocals, even though the vocals are what ruin a lot of good music that has tons of great performances. Like I said, complex. CB3 has really been off my radar because of the whole instrumental thing. Turns out I have been depriving myself of awesomeness. 

The trio from Sweden are back, partnering with the excellent Majestic Mountain Records and have delivered a masterpiece with Exploration. Charlotta Andersson is an absolute wizard on guitar, and now that combined with her much more prevalent dreamy/spacey vocals, and Hawkwind meets My Bloody Valentine meets Spotlights with a dash of early Pumpkins and just enough stoner influence makes this an absolute, next level killer release.

Kicking off with Daydreams, you get a riff right off Siamese Dream and a fuzzy space trip led by those dreamy vocals from Charlotta that transitions into the perfect example of why she is a modern-day guitar goddess. This song is ten minutes of perfection. The MBV vibes are very present on To Space And Away which may be the most perfect title for a song I have heard in a long time. Catchy and dreamy, mid-way through the band goes full on Hawkwind on us, which of course, rules. 

Going To The Horizon keeps up the awesome, with more of those dreamy vocals and a not so subtle Floyd vibe, and a continuation of that killer guitar work. I actually hear a bit of early Storm In Heaven era Verve in this track as well. You lose none of the trip to space with the next track, In A Rainbow With Friends, which is again a perfect song title where you can feel yourself being embraced by the colours that come off of the sounds CB3 are creating. 

Even with my instrumental track issues, you do not need words for this one to know where it is taking you. So beautifully trippy and perfect musically imagery. The closer, Through Space And Time, channels more early Pumpkins with that riff and vocals. I hear a ton of early 90s influence on this track, and Mr. Corgan should be envious of what Charlotta and crew have created here. I am just in awe of her guitar performance throughout with the perfect example at about three minutes in. Look, I like a ton of stuff. 

I tend to say things like “this will be in my top ten of the year” for like 50 albums. I also do not like to throw 10s around. But CB3 have left me no choice. This album is perfect. When I look at the numbers, it is the album I have listened to the most this entire year, even though I have only had in my possession for about a month. There is something otherworldly that CB3 have created here. With Exploration, CB3 have brought to us a beautiful and dynamic soundscape that must be experienced by all. 10/10

Trial (Swe) - Feed The Fire (Metal Blade Records) [Richard Oliver]

Feed The Fire is the fourth album from Swedish traditional heavy metallers Trial. It is the first album to feature new singer Arthur W. Andersson and his joining of the band and the sound of his voice very much shaped the album with lead guitarist Alexander Ellström finding himself inspired to write up tempo songs for the album with Feed The Fire being the end result.

Trial very much fall into the NWOTHM (New Wave Of Traditional Heavy Metal) movement with their sound harking back to the heavy metal of yesteryear, especially the heavy metal of the 1980’s. There is plenty of twin guitar, galloping rhythms and the powerful vocals of Arthur W. Andersson all encapsulated in songs such as Thrice Great Path, Snare Of The Fowler (which features some guest vocals from Tomas Lindberg of At The Gates) and the hook filled title track which are all fast and frantic yet very melodic songs. The pace is slowed down for The Faustus Hood and The Crystal Sea which have a more epic feel and are less hook driven.

Feed The Fire is a solid album of throwback heavy metal. It reaches its peak during the middle with a run of brilliant songs but tapers off towards the end of the album with some slower and less engaging songs. The album is brilliantly performed and new frontman Arthur W. Andersson certainly impresses with his vocals. This is not a wholly essential listen but it is a damn solid album and if you like old school heavy metal then a listen to Feed The Fire is certainly recommended. 7/10

Heads For The Dead – The Great Conjuration (Transcending Obscurity Records) [Matt Cook]

Death metal and horror. Not exactly two completely unrelated genres, it should go without saying. Thus, there have been a litany of musical acts that have tried (and in some cases failed) bringing the two ideas together. However, more often than not, at least in my opinion, it misses more than it hits. Overly-thematic songs that are basically ripped straight from movie scripts. Albums that feel like half of the playtime is occupied by sound clips from said movies. 

Lo and behold, Heads For The Dead get all their death metal ducks in a row before plunging into themes of terror and gore, and because of that, The Great Conjuration plays like a punishingly brutal record that just so happens to also have a penchant for the macabre. Far from tacky, the artwork is a retro movie poster, and the distress comes not from external sources, but from vocalist Ralf Hauber (Revel in Flesh, ex-Immortal Rites). Shrieks of terror is the name of the game. Hauber fully embraces the demonic front man persona and convinces everyone he’s living in a real-life re-enactment of the Saw franchise. 

Rotten Bastard and The Bloodline chills and unsettles. Except it’s not overdone or diluted – the technique is used sparingly and with purpose. In fact, The Beast aptly concludes with what sounds like a lycanthropic transformation. The Covenant houses hellacious, death-defying drums (courtesy of Jon Rudin) and descends into the very last sounds you hear as you walk to the gallows. The Great Conjuration, if you can believe it, additionally offers a positive, dare I say inspiring, mantra to live by: “You can rip my torso/you can tear my skin/but my spirit lives forever.” 

That spirit being Heads For The Dead’s, of course. As for us, we’ve all been earmarked for what most assuredly will be gruesome and tenuous. At least there’s a killer soundtrack to accompany us. 8/10

SOiL - Play It Forward (Cleopatra Records) [Matt Bladen]

Covers records. They are usually bunk, a band playing other artists songs in their own style. That is the concept behind Play It Forward and it's about as good as a covers album gets. Where as they do tracks such as White Zombie's Thunder Kiss '65, Prongs' Snap Your Fingers Snap Your Neck and even Everlast's What It's Life with the right amount of heaviness, and aggression. SOiL always having that grooving style, but much of the rest of the record is admirable but not particularly entertaining. Songs such as I Wanna Be SedatedRockin' In The Free World and Runnin' Down A Dream don't need to be given the heavy treatment and are actually worse off because of it. This is an album by SOiL for SOiL and not much more I'm afraid. If you're a fan you'll pick it up but anyone else will probably just let it be. 4/10

Reviews: Machine Head, Glassing, Altars, Eaten By Sharks (Reviews By Simon Black, Matt Cook, Elliott Spencer & GC)

Machine Head - Of Kingdom And Crown (Nuclear Blast) [Simon Black]

Machine Head. OK then, it’s been a while…

This is a band I have fallen in and out of love with over the years. Having been initially blown away by their Burn My Eyes debut back in the day, I found their 1997 follow up The More Things Change slightly less impressive (despite the presence of Andy Sneap on the mixing desk) and the Nu-Metal trend-chasing The Burning Red saw me off for a good few years I’m afraid to say.  I didn’t really re-engage until 2014’s Bloodstone And Diamonds, which seemed like a welcome return to form, although the (for me) new propensity for much longer and moodier songs took a bit of getting used to. (Someone who hasn't listened to The Blackening - Shock Horror Ed!!!). I missed out on Catharsis completely but given that it nearly wiped them out as a band, that’s probably just as well, and I had resigned myself to accepting that this is an act that, despite their huge success globally, probably might be a spent force.

Jump ahead then to this year’s Bloodstock if you will, where I find myself standing in an overcrowded and somewhat warm Sophie Tent waiting to find out who the mid-afternoon Saturday mystery band was. Now my old mucker Rod (bassist of the fabulous Bull Riff Stampede and Raven’s Creed) is standing with me and is still holding out for a surprise showing from Amon Amarth, but a pile of T-Shirts ready to pin on the merchandise boards has been spotted shortly before and word has spread like wildfire. Plus, everyone’s remembered that the Sophie is a tent and therefore offers at least something in the way of shade from the ridiculous 37° C heat outside. Add the “Machine Fucking Head” banner dropped on stage a good 40 minutes before the start of the set and suddenly we found ourselves unable to move and the temperature in the tent rises from high 30’s to that of a rather large pizza oven that has now moved from plain ”overcrowded” to “packed in like battery hens”.
When the band finally hit the stage, Rod and I (both a good 6’ tall) find our feet gradually leaving the floor and shoved to the side totally unable to see the stage, so rammed to the rafters is the Sophie Tent now. The last time I saw this was Suicidal Tendencies a few years previously, and that was a polite tea party in comparison. Three songs was sadly more than enough of this insane crush and we fought our way to the side, to fresh air and to a sea of people as far as the eye can see still trying to catch a glimpse of the band. There is literally no-one left in the rest of the festival site and it’s a miracle no-one was hurt.
This is a shame, because what I heard sounded way better than I expected them to…

Now Rob Flynn has a revamped line up to bed in, so the festival show made sense (despite the fact he’s on record saying he would do them again) and fans were treated to two songs from this new opus in the set with. It’s a big old record, with the version I’ve got including the taster from the Arrows In Words From The Sky EP last year (and even an acoustic version of which is included) and a run time of an hour and ten minutes. I’ve got used to the longer tracks of recent years, but actually they mix this up with shorter and punchier ones that could have come from their early 1990’s heyday.
Opening with the protracted Slaughter The Martyr, I find myself surprised at the usage of clean vocals harmonies on this well-layered introduction – a far more technical and melodic piece than one would expect to find on a Machine Head album. Once I get past the initial “What the actual fuck” moment and I get the sense that I’m going to have to go all 80’s Kerrang! Mode on this. So much so that this track gets a second spin before I engage with the rest of the record, but then I find myself appreciating it’s subtlety. There’s a few surprising and moody, almost Emo moments like this on the record, but then this is counterpointed by some rollocking belters that would have fitted well on their debut.
When it kicks in, it kicks in hard… It has power, intensity and genuine anger for the first time in a long time, rather than feeling “Metal by the numbers” as has too often been the case in recent years. These Post Thrash numbers are the highpoints for me, with the retro classic in waiting Choke On The Ashes Of Your Hate, the snarling fury of Rotten and the manic slammer Bloodshot standing head and shoulders over anything Flynn has released in recent years. And it’s a concept album to boot, which again is a twist I didn’t see coming and one which forces the listener to take their time and repeat, which this well-crafted piece of music allows you to do.

However, there is something really annoying me about the track listing… All of them are published in CAPS LOCK and utilising the Norwegian Ø instead of the conventional English vowel, so much so that I find myself pronouncing them with that mid-fronted Nordic vowel sound out loud. Even Spotify has been infected with this…. Now I know cheesy German umlauts were pretty de-rigeur in the 80’s, but this is ridiculous. I know it’s being done with all serious and an attempt to look ‘Metal’, but the net effect is not dissimilar to the møøse gag in the credits of Mønty Pythøn And The Høly Grail. It’s silly, it’s pretentiøus, it’s nøt adding anything tø prøceedings and as yøu can see sømewhat detracting frøm the what has unexpectedly turned øut tø be a bløødy gøød recørd.

Nøw excuse me whilst I gø and fix my keybøard settings…

A fiery halfway house between the punchy Post-Thrash of Burn My Eyes and the maudlin melancholic epic of Bloodstone & Diamonds, this new incarnation of Machine Head is rather growing on me. It’s an absolute return to form, for sure. 9/10

Glassing – Dire And Sulk (Medication Time & Brutal Panda Records) [Matt Cook]

In a mere nine minutes, Glassing pummel the foundations of post-metal by dabbling in noise rock, shoegaze and relentless, blackened sludgey mire. The Austin-based outfit – Cory Brim (guitar), Dustin Coffman (vocals, bass) and Scott Osment (drums) – don’t need longer than that to prove their propensity for terrifying, distressful compositions on their EP Dire And Sulk. Dire’ is biting, sharp and repugnant. 

Coffman must have recorded the track while simultaneously jamming a crowbar down his gullet because some of the noises he lands are completely outrageous. Not to mention Brim’s instruments of distress that aid in the antsy feeling that hovers over the EP. The riffs are dense, concentrated, sturdy. Following the same tried-and-true method Sulk features new-to-the-band Osment’s stampeding, bursting drums, aided by sandblasting screams in the beginning that eventually turn to lower, domineering growls. The trio achieves quite a bit in the brief tastes the release has to offer: seismic instrumentations; horrifying notes achieved via strings instead of artificial sounds; and a vocal range that balances chaotically terse and broodingly doomed elements.
To write Dire And Sulk off as a lazy endeavour is entirely rubbish. Nowadays, what is achieved in a full-length can equally be attained in a concise manner. And though there are only a pair of songs, Glassing hit a bevy of notable marks. 7/10

Altars – Ascetic Reflection (Everlasting Spew Records) [Elliott Spencer]

Somehow it’s no surprise that Altars hail from Australia. Not only does Ascetic Reflection’s album cover depict a pastoral landscape swathed in light but the music here plays like the death metal equivalent of heatstroke. The high-frequency dissonance displayed is skin-shedding; the guttural vocals and blastbeats are situated like a deep and burrowing pain. It’s not so much oppressive in the vain of a band like Portal though, it’s something more malignant and anxiety-ridden like the warped melodies of Gorguts. 

Luminous Jar is menacing, its twisting passages sound like the song itself is on the run from a pack of savage animals before finally succumbing to the elements. It’s a fairly effective yet straightforward sonic landscape that Altars are able to conjure but it’s on the longer Black Light Upon Us and Inauspicious Prayer where Altars truly shine. Layers of dissonant noise, ritualistic percussion, and doomy repetition ring the tension to the point where these songs could fall apart at any moment but never do. 

Altars forego the swampy trappings of this sort of death metal and the often unnecessary technical indulgence that comes with it by cutting straight to the core and allowing a few carefully chosen elements to the do the work of too many. Ascetic Reflection is something of a comeback album for Altars since their 2013 debut and it’s one that hopefully suggests the band will be lurking around for more time to come. 8/10}

Eaten By Sharks - Eradication (Self Released) [GC]

I need to be honest here and say, I’m not sure if Eaten By Sharks are meant to be taken seriously or not? And after having a quick search up on them I see they are classing themselves a ‘aquatic brutality’ this does not get off to the best start? But never judge a book by its cover or a band by their description, I guess? It doesn’t bode well when album opener Shallow Water starts off with a death metal cry of ‘Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water’ which is of course the tag line from Jaws 2, I just begin to think, oh here we go? LOL lads etc etc but, to be 100% fair to Eaten By Sharks what comes next is pure class!

It’s just a gleeful big thick chunky death metal riff fest, with some tech death sections and Messhugah style riff patterns all thrown together by the impressive duo of Chris Chaperon & Dan Okowinsky and its all held together by an outstanding rhythm section of Tyler Abrams on bass and the impressive Justin Whitehead pounding the drums and they are all lead by the dexterous vocals of Matt Sherriff. Moving on next track Dead Weight is an absolute killer, in places the switch between styles is fantastic and keeps you pinned down until the next wave of viciousness smacks you about, and the end of the song just makes you make THAT face when you hear something filthy, you know what face I mean! 

The pace is upped on Kill And Consume and is full on heads down brutal death metal assault that at one point throws in some atmospheric mids before resuming the brutality, Same Face, Different Mask opens on an almost Fear Factory style tempo before resuming with some glorious the tech-death guitar work and then proceeds to thrown in beatdowns and mix it all together and at one point it veers dangerously close to Ten Ton Hammer by Machine Head but stays true to the formula and becomes the best song on the album so far and an absolute glorious song! 

Next up is Depth Charge and it feels exactly like a bomb has gone off and has you running for cover from some of the utterly ridiculously heavy guitar work and another brilliant vocal delivery, we are then greeted by the sinister intent of Apex Predator which lurches into view with its sights set on kill this is and it does exactly what it aims to do with more technical excellence and yet another outstanding vocal showing. It is then down to Megalodon to bring this unexpected beauty of an album to a close and as before it doesn’t stray too far from the brutal tech-death mould and there is no reason for it to as it has worked for the previous 6 tracks perfectly well!!

Hands up, I was completely wrong about Eaten By Sharks, this is a quality release, and I will definitely keep an eye out for them in the future and can’t wait to hear more form them and as this is only their first full album release there is room for them to get even better and expand on the promise shown here, this comes recommended highly!! 8/10

Saturday 27 August 2022

A View From The Back Of The Field: ArcTanGent Festival (Live Review By Matt Bladen)

ArcTanGent Festival, Fernhill Farm, Saturday 20.08.22 

My first jaunt to Fernhill Farm was a spectacular day of music. Yes I say a day as even though the fest itself runs from Wednesday until Saturday I was only able to make it for the Saturday, due to work, a heavy metal wedding and on the Friday especially all of the traffic in the South West heading in the same direction due to a train strike.

This unfortunately meant I missed both Zeal & Ardour and Tesseract who I was looking forward too as well as Møl, but cest la vie it was into the hotel and over early doors Saturday. Picking up all my writbands etc (ArcTanGent is completely cashless topping up of the wristband beforehand a necessity) it was on to the festival site which was struck by a Wi-Fi disaster but managed to get some good weather for a change, so swings and roundabouts.

The site itself is quite compact the five stages all in tents with the food etc around the perimeter of the main arena. There was not much of walk between any of the stages so it was very easy to shift between stages, especially for those of us trying to review as much as possible solo. So into the arena to get my bearings it was time for the first band of the day, Midlands based melodic doom band Garganjua (6) who kicked off the noise well with some slow, heavy riffs and shouting, unfortunately it was quite a lot of that so managed to head over to catch some garage/grungy space riffs from Thumpermonkey (6) who do what they do well. Next it was yet another wonderful 30 minutes with heavy metals favourite cellist Jo Quail (8) who took some risks in her set admitting to fucking up the first piece and having only practised the last in her hotel room the night before. Still none of the metal heads were any the wiser as her compositional excellence and power as captivating as ever.

From power to force as next was the savage sounds of Ithaca (8) who were having as good a time as the revellers in the audience receiving a riotus reception as they kept an intense pace with tracks mainly plucked from their new album. Excellent vocals and heavy riffs can also be attributed to Heriot (7) who add a more groove-laden modern style. With so much heavy going on it was back over for some groove with local(ish) lads Sergeant Thunderhoof (8) who made sure the crowd was clapping along and nodding their heads in unison, stomping stoner riffs are what they do well, drawing from their latest album and finally giving me a chance to see them live as their support slot to Nightstalker was cancelled.

Then it was over to the main stage for the intense, assault on the senses that is Conjurer (9) as vicious and volatile as they were at Radar Festival, every time you watch them they get more heavy, more ferocious and more laser focused on bringing the crowd to their knees, little between song banter meant that the songs were jammed with crushing riffs and various styles fusing into one big maelstrom of heaviness. Following that was going to be difficult and while Famyne's (7) doom styling was welcome, the vocals being quite low in the mix and the ears still ringing from Conjurer perhaps didn't give a fair showing.

What was needed was catharsis, a chance to be quiet, introspective, lost in world of performance artistry delivered through emotive songwriting and musical dexterity. What was needed was Emma Ruth Rundle (10) the American chanteuse, or as she calls herself "a clown", entertaining a packed tent with plaintive, stripped back musical explorations, designed to make you think and feel. Using just a piano, a guitar (which she couldn't actually hear!) And her soft ethereal vocals Emma played Engine Of Hell in it's entirety and with every note there was an eerie hush that descended over the assembled crowd. Yes you could hear the voices from outside but inside the tent any talking was quickly shushed as each person drifted away into their own head space. 

Between the songs Rundle was charming and self deprecating in addressing the audience, as if welcoming us into her front room, for the last few songs she welcomed tour mate Jo Quail onto the stage and left each set of ears in the crowd twitching with excitement. I'm a little gutted I'm not seeing her perform in a small, intimate venue near me as I can imagine it being spine tingling if she can cast this magic at a heavy music festival.

It was back to the riffs after this though as prog doomsters Pallbearer (8) woke me up after my aural flight of fancy, their crashing percussion and low heavy riffage, pleasingly not accompanied by a fire alarm like it is at Damnation any time they play. Then there was a long wait, while we were in the tent for Wheel (8), they had arrived but their back line and drum kit hadn't so they were making the most of what they had. Still being absolute professionals, they cranked out a set of groove-heavy prog metal that got everyone going, the stage lighting doing a great job of covering for their lack of cloaks which are so often part of their aesthetic, even as the masses made their way to get a good spot for the next band there were plenty commenting on how good James Lascelles' voice was.

Speaking of voices one of the best in the business is Einar Solberg, and again he captivated a packed tent with both his soaring cleans and his aloof stage presence, Leprous (9) stuck pretty much to the set they played at Radar festival, even much of the banter was the same but who cares when you pack so much goodness into a set, the crowd singing back on the euphoric choruses then causing pits when the heavy kicked in. Very rarely do you see a bad Leprous show and the experience of the band was paramount to how they were received. Perhaps a perfect fit for this festival it would be hard for any band to follow. Thankfully Godflesh (6) were on at the same time but their industrial extreme metal didn't do much for me.

The final band of the evening, and really the reason why many were here with Day/Evening passes (yes they sell evening tickets) was to see Swedish prog veterans Opeth (9) having not done a UK show since December 2019, oddly their last being the O2 Academy in Bristol, it was a triumphant return for them, changing the set list from that tour to the one they have been slinging around festivals this year, in preparation for their Royal Albert Hall shows later this year. As the intro tape of Livets Trädgård segued into Hjärtat Vet Vad Handen Gör the show really got started with the modern heavy rock sound of Opeth finally being received as well as tracks from their 'death metal' period. 

Again Mikeal Åkerfeldt is part front man, part stand up, his dry whit as much of a trademark as the prog metal explorations. Any doubters in the audience were silenced with Ghost Of Perdition, the growls in full effect and also the oddest call and response I've witnessed. Back to the newer material with Cusp Of Eternity and The Devil's Orchard before really throwing back with Demon Of The Fall from My Arms, Your Hearse which was followed but The Drapery Falls from their masterpiece Blackwater Park. With such long songs their set clocked in at 9 performances but when you can end with a song such as Sorceress sandwiched between songs from both Damnation and Deliverance. It's no wonder why Opeth are held in such high acclaim.

A perfect way to end a brilliant day, and for many almost a week of music. A sublime festival that can keep up admirably with the big boys and may change a few minds too hopefully. ArcTanGent I will most certainly be back! (Though hopefully the train strikes won't be!)

Friday 26 August 2022

Reviews: Lonely Robot, Hierophant, Lacrimas Profundere, Roots Of The Old Oak (Reviews By Matt Bladen)

Lonely Robot - The Model Life (Inside Out Music)

A member of such seminal prog bands as It Bites, Arena and Frost*, while also having his own projects, Lonely Robot was supposed to be just that, a way for him to play pop positive prog rock that would stretch his creativity beyond the other bands he's involved in. After the initial trio of releases this de-facto solo project was supposed to end but due to record label intervention all subsequent solo albums are being brought under the Lonely Robot mantle. 2020 saw Feelings Are Good released to the world at the perfect time, the mix of English melancholy and stargazing optimism telling us it was OK to feel, to be human. The latter being the entire lyrical inspiration of Lonely Robot, Mitchell mulling on what it is to be human. 

The Model Life offers a bit more observational and anxious, recorded during the pandemic, the lyrics are a bit less hopeful and a bit more pessimistic, Mitchell's relationship breakdown, numerous deaths due to Covid and the lies we're fed by social media are all put in the cross hairs and taken down in Mitchell's signature sound. Take Starlit Stardust which is a soaring ballad wringing every ounce of emotion out of songwriting, the title track which hints at those personal issues and how a happily ever after is so often out of reach. Recalibrating too deals with the aftermath of a long running relationship gone wrong. But there's the pulsing Digital God Machine which takes aim at keyboard warriors and the twitching Island Of Misfit Toys which to me is part Peter Gabriel part Duran Duran and gives that arty pop ethos with a distinct loneliness. 

Mitchell says that all the songs here are about being pissed off with someone or something, making a new dawn for this solo project, very much a down to earth and honest record, feet planted firmly on the ground and no head in the starts like the previous four albums. The synths are dialled down for more guitars and drums, along with Mitchell's studio mastery to make for broad sound range. Yet again his vocals are sublime, cynical but hopeful in the same breath and carrying emotional depth. He also plays more solos than ever before re-establishing his place as one of prog premier axemen, but there's virtuosity throughout from this prog polymath, on his most personal album to date, Mitchell shows that music can be an escape from what the world throws at you. 9/10 

Hierophant - Death Siege (Season Of Mist Underground Artists)

Ravena based extreme metal band Hierophant put the extreme in metal with this their fifth album and sees them shifting away from their beginnings as a blackened death sludge band. Death Siege is raw and relentless death metal infused with plenty of riffs, a point that the band themselves wanted to drive home. The grind of their earlier releases give way to groove and savage riffs moving towards the Death N Roll of bands such as Entombed while also having that fuzzy, production style favoured by grindcore, hardcore and D-beat who h is where they come from. It was Mass Grave their first album for Season Of Most that highlighted this change towards more evil sounding music, the speed and violence, now underlined by structures and musicality. 

Death Siege is where they have been aiming to be since Mass Grave, Death Siege again full of songs about war and the apocalypse, apt when you consider it was recorded between March 2020 and May 2021, the point at which we've seemed closest to an extinction level event but as tracks such as Devil Incarnate, In Chaos, In Death and Nemesis Of Thy Mortals all rage past with an impressive veracity, you do get a little bogged down in how similar they are. Sometimes there's a bit of progression or a change in the pace but mostly this is extreme metal riffage from the rhythm guitars of Lorenzo Gulminelli as Fabio Carretti peels off leads, the bottom end of Gianmaria Mustillo link in with session drummer Alessandro Vagnoni for speed and power. Hierophant have arrived but for me this is beginning rather than a destination. 6/10 

Lacrimas Profundere - How To Shroud Yourself With Night (Steamhammer/SPV)

I'm not sure really what to make of this record as when Lacrimas Profundere play the dark Gothic metal that reminds me of Type O Negative they are good, however on this record they do move in to angsty post-hardcore sounds they lose me. Their last album was critically acclaimed and the pressure to follow up was so great that the band felt that they perhaps needed to take a few risks here so as to relieve some of that expectation. Oliver Nikolas Schmid explains that he collaborated with brother Christopher to defy expectations and write the album they wanted to. The album though is a little disjointed soundwise.

You can't fault the passion but this record does seem to be aimed more towards singer Justin's voice than anything else, he seems much more comfortable in the post-hardcore screamy sound than with the gloomy lows. The Curtain Of White Silence is a a great bit of hardcore, the title track meanwhile is evil brooding doom and An Invisible Beginning a traditional goth rocker. That's basically the three styles here that they revolve throughout. I wanted to like this album but after a couple of listens only the Gothic rock stuff clicked I'm afraid but there will be certain fanbase that will love it. 5/10

Roots Of The Old Oak - Blot (Hammerheart Records)

In December 2021 UK extreme metal scene veterans Pete Rowland and Stuart R Brogan (vocals/guitar & drums for Slaughter Of Souls) got back together to create music inspired by their Pagan beliefs and the 'Peacville Three'. Blot (ritual) is the outcome and it's a noisy way of saying goodbye to the anxiety of the last few years, through some kind of loud catharsis. Spending three days crafting their demo with Chris Fielding at Foel Studios, making 4 songs that have all the musical traits of Paradise Lost, My Dying Bride and early-Anathema. 

Picked up by Hammerheart Records, Blot is the initial release from Roots Of The Old Oak and with an album now on the way, Blot can be seen as a heavy and atmospheric offering that nails that 90's death/doom sound, slow lumbering riffs and growled vocals are part of the bands DNA with a track such as Monolith which closes out the demo but Light In The Pyre brings a more atmospheric feel. Four tracks that cement Roots Of The Old Oak as a name to watch in the death/doom scene, I await their full length with anticipation. 7/10

Thursday 25 August 2022

Reviews: Grave Digger, Dynazty, To Obey A Tyrant, Santa Cruz (Reviews By Richard Oliver, David G, Matt Cook & Simon Black)

Grave Digger - Symbol Of Eternity (ROAR/Soulfood) [Richard Oliver]

For anyone who listens to traditional heavy metal or power metal then Grave Digger should be a familiar name. These German veterans have been delivering heavy metal goodness since their formation in 1980 and with new release Symbol Of Eternity they now have a staggering total of 20 full length original albums to their name. Symbol Of Eternity lyrically harks back to the Knights Of The Cross album from 1998 with its theme of the story of the Crusaders. Musically it is the same reliable Grave Digger sound that we have had for decades and with this being the 20th album from the band it is very much a case of ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’. 

 The trademark Grave Digger sound which mixes traditional heavy metal and European power metal can be heard on songs such as Hell Is My Purgatory, Nights Of Jerusalem and Heart Of A Warrior with driving riffs, powerhouse rhythm and bombastic choruses whilst a more mid paced and epic sound can be heard on the title track and The Last Crusade. The album closes in different style with a cover of the Greek singer Vasilis Papakonstantinou and his song Hellas Hellas which sees singer Chris Boltendahl sing in Greek for the first time ever and it even has some guest vocals from Vasilis Papakonstantinou himself. Although this album is still very much standard Grave Digger the band do sound more energised and enthusiastic compared to some of their other recent albums with the band dishing out killer riffs, thunderous bass and pounding drums. 

The vocals of Chris Boltendahl, whilst not the strongest, do suit this style of music and apart from a few wobbles throughout the album are on the whole solid. If you have heard any other Grave Digger albums and enjoyed them then it is safe to say that you will enjoy Symbol Of Eternity. It doesn’t reach the heights of their 90’s albums but this is another solid and enjoyable album from the German metal veterans. 7/10

Dynazty – Final Advent (AFM Records) [David G]

Sweden’s Dynazty seemingly started life as a hard rock band, on listening to their debut Bring the Thunder it comes across as a passable approximation of the L.A. hard rock style. Fast forward to their eighth album Final Advent and it is striking just how much the band has changed over time, becoming a very modern power metal band, and doing so whilst undergoing very few personnel changes. I emphasise the very modern part of the description because Final Advent sounds (and looks, thanks to its striking cover art), very much of the now. The production is sparkling clean, layers of vocal melodies and keyboards fill out the picture sketched from crunchy guitars, the only real quibble being the slightly muddy sounding drums. 

It’s hard to fault the performance of those involved; Nils Molin’s vocals are deservedly pushed to the fore, displaying considerable range and power he deservedly fills a role as focal point for the band’s music. So far I’ve avoided talking about the actual songs because I’m stuck in ambivalence. At times there is a sense that I’m listening to… Europop? Natural Born Killer, for instance, has this vocal melody leading into its chorus that sounds like it could be lifted from ABBA. The verses are driven along by a thudding bass drum and tsk-ing hi-hat beat, and even when the guitars come in they sound curiously muted. 

That’s not to say this makes it bad, in fact there are moments that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Eurovision song, like the intense wall of sound that constitutes the chorus to Instinct, which is kind of thrilling. The keyboard and vocal driven power ballad Yours is probably the highlight of the album, the crashing guitars introduced at the chorus providing a platform from which Nils belts out sentimental mush in an admirable style. If anything, the real downside to the album is when the band tries to do something heavier or more adventurous. 

The stultifying Achilles Heel perhaps being the best example, grasping at some exotic and epic sound but instead lurching along without any purpose. The intended stomp of Advent doesn’t really feel all that powerful, though it has a fun winding solo. Power Of Will is probably the most successful at “doing a metal” here, less restrained it thunders along with the typical self-affirming lyrics telling us the world is his to take, gloriously unpretentious it doesn’t apologise and nor should it. In moments this album can be quite charming, energising, even inspiring. 

Sadly, reaching those moments involves something of a trawl through the parts (sometimes entire songs) that come across as contrived and cumbersome. I do have to commend the band for doing things that other power metal bands will coyly smile at from a safe distance, I just don’t think they’ve done enough to bring it together for a really satisfying experience. 5/10

To Obey A Tyrant – Omnimalevolent (Realityfade Records)  [Matt Cook]

Symphonic deathcore might sound like it’s created by a bunch of musicians cracking skulls and taking names while an eloquent, picturesque soundscape is generated via a calming piano. Well, that’s only half true. To Obey A Tyrant forcefully embrace the former while instead opting to implement symphonics in a way that doesn’t welcome you in, but in fact terrifies you into utter and complete submission. The instrumentals aren’t used as a serene backdrop, but rather a reminder that evil lurks everywhere. Much like a tyrant’s rule over an under-developed, unhinged, war-torn nation, Omnimalevolent sees the UK five-piece pulverise and decimate. 

Brandon Singleton knows no bounds when it comes to manipulating his voice into a goblin-like, bloodthirsty beast. He’s grotesque, fearful and raspy while also leading an auditory ambush of violence. To call Singleton’s output “vocals” doesn’t quite encapsulate what comes out of his mouth. The intense gargling found on Death Incantation is sinister enough to spring the song into a full-on slugfest. Singleton then decides to play the part of a victim on the Titanic, bellowing words of turmoil and inevitable demise (Ov Fire And Sulphur). Even so, the macabre usage of keyboards aids in the conjuring of fatalistic happenings. 

This isn’t Nightwish, after all. Bruno Clay produces avalanching drumlines on the title track and Sanctus Infernum is chock full of bunker-busting breakdown blasts working in tandem with symphonic elements which endanger rather than comfort. Just the way it was meant to be. Seven years after their formation, To Obey A Tyrant’s debut full-length leaves no questions unanswered when it comes to their style of music: fucking ruthless. The usage of symphonic elements for malicious means feels like being bludgeoned to death by a life-sized stuffed teddy bear. 8/10

Santa Cruz - The Return Of The Kings (M-Theory Audio) [Simon Black]

Between 2007 and 2018, Finland’s Santa Cruz were an established cohesive unit with five studio albums and an EP under their belt before almost collapsing, leaving only one founder member, and indeed musician in the form of Archie Cruz, who despite trying to pull a new line-up ended up having to release 2019’s Katharsis on his own with and producer Kane Churko on all instruments.Then the world went to hell in a hand cart…However, at the start of the year Cruz announced that a new line up and album were here, and despite a challenging launch show at L’A’’s legendary Whisky-A-Go-Go, the new band have knuckled down to produce Return Of The Kings

Not having come across them before in any of their previous incarnations, I can’t really compare the old with the new, but what I am hearing now is an intermittently robust and reasonably strong Hard Rock album, heavily influenced by the 80’s Sunset Strip scene stylistically, but wisely keeping the sound as reasonable up to date and modern. The it tends to flip and ape the weaker elements of the decade a little too directly, and frustration sets in. 

Opening with the beefy and in your face Here Comes The Revolution, things get off to a really good start. This one is something of a belter – lively, modern, fast and with a strong but powerful vocal style from Cruz that’s going to get the more Metal end of the market nodding along appreciatively. Take Me To America is a slab of pure sleaze, with a dollop of Stoner groove and again that down and dirty vocal delivery that is making me a happy chap. Under The Gun starts heading things in a more traditionally 80’s Strip commercial sound, with a bit of anthemic chorusing and the kind of arrangements and solos that the period was so well known for. Really for me this is the point where things slip somewhat, as the first two tracks had the 80’s as an influence in the mix whilst still sounding new and modern, but from hereon in that becomes a case of straight lifting and shifting. 

Cheesy power ballad Disarm hammers that point home. We get a little of the energy back with Standing My Ground, but also seemed to have picked up some Synthwave along the way, followed by the more bouncy and punky shots and once again I get the feeling that this is an album trying to touch a lot of ground from a decade long gone. I’m sure that after all the challenges and delays the band would have been under pressure to deliver something, but this record feels half cooked. Where the 80’s are an influential element in a modern hard rock sound, this band are on fire with wonderfully powerful down and dirty songs, but when the influence becomes a case of straight stylistic copying the softer end of that decade then they fall flat. 

There are about 6 tracks on here that take that more gutsy feel, and would have made an absolute top notch EP, but diluted as they are with all the naffer more over-polished elements of the historical period the net effect is somewhat disappointing. When blend the old influences subtly into the more dominant new then they’re fantastic, but when they don’t…  6/10

Reviews: Conan, Red Rot, Stiu Nu Stiu, Endonomos (Reviews By Matt Bladen, James Monteith, Steve Walsh & Elliott Spencer)

Conan - Evidence Of Immortality (Napalm Records) [Matt Bladen]

When he's not making other bands sound like Godzilla in steel shoes, Chris Fielding drives those mountain levelling grooves in British doom legends Conan. Along with the fuzzing downtuned guitar and raw roar of Jon Davis and the wall shaking battery of Johnny King they have been trying to make ear drums bleed for years now, Evidence Of Immortality is the follow up to their 2018 album Existential Void Guardian and continues to cement Conan as one of the most important UK doom bands of the new Millennium. 

The 2018 record saw them reach new heights (and lows) in their songwriting and their fifth album is again a raging torrent of crushing riffage, vicious vocal lines and songs about "victory, defeat, loss, hope, pain, determination, feat and hatred" Jon Davis explains, the album was recorded between 2019 and 2021 a time of massive turmoil that Conan want to both reflect but also detract from as the album again takes inspiration from classic fantasy movies. They are taking themselves forward, while retaining all of the trademark Conan influences of syncopated, steamrolling power chords and also opening up to history with former bass player Dave Perry appearing on Grief Sequence with some eerie Stranger Things like synths. 

It's a creeping end to what is a heavy as hell album which gets going with the 10 minutes of doomy, dirge evoking everything Conan are about. From A Cleaved Head No Longer PlotsLevitation Hoax is more brutalist with lots of hardcore aggression before the grooves swing back for the propulsive Ritual Of Anonymity which gets very blackned at times. Evidence Of Immortality is Conan continuing to release the best and most varied material of their career. It's heavy yes but dynamic too, the main reason why Conan are held in such high acclaim, Caveman Doom still rules! 9/10

Red Rot - Mal De Vivre (Svart Records) [James Monteith]

The debut album from the continent-spanning, borderline supergroup Red Rot, was a very interesting listen indeed. Half-Italian, half-Californian, Red Rot draws influence from myriad sources while still managing to create a sound that is very much their own. Unfortunately, this sound is not, - in my humble opinion - a particularly compelling one. Built on a foundation of atmospheric, progressive, extreme metal (there are elements of black and death metal in equal measure here), Red Rot put their own unique spin on things more often than not, creating an odd mixture of jagged semi-grooves and meandering, darkly psychedelic guitar passages which, sadly, never seem to go anywhere interesting - with a few notable exceptions.

The musicianship on display here is unquestionably impressive, with plenty of virtuosic displays of odd-time mastery and familiarity with theory. Prolific percussionist Ron Bertrand, (Botanist, Dawn of Ouroboros, Sentient Ignition) puts on a particularly proficient performance, with some very cool fills thrown into the otherwise choppy mixture of lurching double bass, trve-kvlt traditional blast beats, and open, half-time grooves. Bassist (and fellow DoO member) Ian Baker also does a solid job on this record, helping Ron hold down the low end and occasionally rising out of the mix for a badass little lick or two before descending back into the fuzz. Guitarist Davide Tiso (Howling Sycamore, Karyn Crisis' Gospel of the Witches, Manuscripts Don't Burn) is, again, an evidently talented musician, but his particular brand of aetherial arpeggios and stop-start patterns just don'‌t do it for me, although I did appreciate his use of interesting and uncommon notes and chords.

The production here is pretty low-fi, but it generally suits the music well enough. It's nice to hear such natural drum sounds in a metal album in particular, although the cymbals can be a bit harsh in the mix and the snare tuning is not quite to my taste. Luciano George Lorusso's (Kestmorg) vocals are a mixed bag. I see what he was going for, but a lot of the time his monotone chants just come off as kind of cheesy, and his delivery coupled with questionable lyrics such as “something in the house, I can feel it!” on the second track, Undeceased, leaves much to be desired.

The biggest issue, for me, is that this album is filled with wankery: not the widdly-widdly technical wankery that you hear people complain about all the time, but the frustrating, aimless, “find-the-one” rhythmic wankery that plagues many prog or prog-adjacent bands. A lot of the time it comes off as undeservedly self-indulgent, and occasionally gets so bad that one might begin to wonder whether these songs were written with express contempt for the audience in mind. The material is very samey throughout, with little to distinguish individual tracks from one another, and countless passages that feel altogether underwhelming and aimless. The presence of several, one-minute-and-change songs with no discernible hook or defining melody is an odd choice, and coupled with an anticlimactic, instrumental ambient outro track that comes out of nowhere, leaves the whole album feeling decidedly unfinished.

In fairness to Red Rot, I feel like the - presumably - remote nature of the conception and recording of this album may have contributed to the scattershot songwriting on display, and that if all the members were able to get together and jam in person once or twice a week, they would come up with some solid, sonically engaging, proggy-deathy-blacky-metal. As it stands though, Mal De Vivre is a frustrating collection of good ideas and wasted potential, one which I do not imagine I will revisit any time soon. 4/10

Stiu Nu Stiu – New Sun (Heavy Psych Sounds) [Steve Walsh]

On this, their third album, Swedish quintet Stiu Nu Stiu have put together their best collection yet of a kind of spacious, open hearted metal that for the most part eschews distorted guitars and guttural, indecipherable vocals. As such the band could lazily be accused of trying to ape old school styles, but in truth they have a sound that’s wholly modern, the meshed riffs and organic arrangements easily forming the base for something that would be more obviously black metal.

Opener Styx has a great choppy, scything riff that drives the whole song but the arrangement constantly shifts emphasis to make the song a breathless gallop across its never boring 6 minute length. Singer Jessica Mengarelli recalls Amalie Bruun (Myrkur) at times but can turn on a harder edge that adds a nice contrast with her more ethereal tones. Founder member Kalle Mattsson’s bass provides the only consistent thread of low end distortion throughout and anchors the bands sound. In truth the album doesn’t really sustain its momentum throughout though, the slow songs, in particular Visa, can be lumbering and dull. 

Closer Dragon’s Lair provides a suitably epic conclusion and comes nearest to dissolving into a Black Metal swirl of distortion. By the way fact fans, Stiu Nu Stiu means ‘I know I don’t know’, which is pretty neat but it's Romanian, not Swedish, so go figure. 7/10

Endonomos – Endonomos  (Argonauta Records) [Elliot Spencer]

Bands in the tradition of death/doom and funeral doom are often plagued by two major issues: Muddy production that sacrifices otherwise great songwriting for atmosphere and overly long songs that don’t present enough ideas or dynamics to justify their run time. Fortunately, Austrian newcomers Endonomos largely avoid such pitfalls on their debut album. The production work displayed is refreshingly crystal clear and the songs clock in at an average of 6 and a half minutes, which seems to be the sweet-spot for Endonomos. The aptly titled opener Wither And Thrive rides - more so than it does coast - on discordant and melancholic riffs which recall Elder or Pallbearer more than they do My Dying Bride or early period Katatonia. 

The standout Barrier offers a menacing stomp and while the vocal trade-off between brooding singing and guttural growls is nothing game-changing, they collide to great effect here and feel more tangible by virtue of not being buried in the mix. Then there’s the album’s centrepiece, Atropos. This near-10 minute epic is surprisingly engaging throughout it’s run time, however, it does highlight issues that are more prominent deeper into the tracklist. Weary and Rejoice are by no means bad songs but they do provide a momentary lull on proceedings due to occasionally jarring transitions between their quiet/loud dynamics and a lack of memorable vocal hooks. 

But a few uncohesive elements are to be expected from a band that only formed a year ago. Ultimately, this debut benefits from finding grandness in brevity and the clarity of its often beautiful production. Endonomos have done nothing if not make a solid album, and it’s one which displays serious potential for the band going forward.7/10

Wednesday 24 August 2022

Reviews: Whiskey Myers, Dreadnought, Manifest, Atramentum (Reviews By Matt Bladen, David Karpel, Elliott Spencer & GC)

Whiskey Myers - Tornillo (Wiggy Thump Records) [Matt Bladen]

Recorded in just 21 day while isolating at Sonic Ranch Studios in their native Texas, Whiskey Myers bring a decade plus of experience and hard work to make this sixth studio album. With their first four albums there was a shift from their soul/R&B/Country roots to a more rock style which worked but where Whiskey Myers' magic is when they take from Waylon Jennings' outlaw attitude, Muscle Shoals' rhythms and Motown's grooves. They returned to the country sound of there first records on 2019's self titled album which was something of a rebirth (as so many mid career self titled albums are). 

Tornillo, named for the town where the recording studio is, keeps those influences of Americana and country, on the atmospheric Heavy On Me, but also brings in more Southern swagger of the swamplands, the Detroit shuffle and plenty of parping brass, like those Stax recording artists of old or the gnarled old bluesmen and gospel singers. In fact frontman Cody Cannon has recruited the McCrary Sisters for those luscious gospel melodies on the Other Side. Cannon is still the lead songwriter on this record, his vocals at the forefront of what Whiskey Myers do, his drawl perfect on the choppy John Wayne, where he also blasts on the harmonica, but bandmates John Jeffers (lead guitar), Jamey Gleaves (bass) and Tony Kent (keys/percussion) all have songwriting credits as does songwriter Aaron Raitiere. Even with the collaborative nature of this album and the varied musical styles, Tornillo is an authentic mix of all American music styles. 

From the Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jeffer's slide driven rock n rolling of Feet's where he and Cody Tate trade off as they do on Whole Word Gone Crazy. Bad Medicine is hip shaking R&B, the moody The Wolf borrows from Shooter Jennings' modern outlaw country and more Skynyrd/Hatchet outro soloing. The searing leads and brass unify on ballad For The Kids, as the train shuffle of Jeff Hogg's drumming leads Mission To Mars. Tornillo is Whiskey Myers adopting a wider range of influences to make blue collar working man anthems that are bound to impress. 9/10

Dreadnought - The Endless (Profound Lore Records) [David Karpel]

With the release of their fifth and most realised album, The Endless, Denver’s Dreadnought should by all rights have your attention by now. Unfortunately, I just recently missed their live performance in Brooklyn when I arrived too late to catch them open for Ruby The Hatchet and Elder. It’s something I'll regret until they swing by again because I would have loved to have seen them perform these songs that night, to hear these incredibly gorgeous and dynamic vocal exchanges, these atmospheric keys, this precise, driving percussion. Like some of my favorite progressive metal bands–DVNE, Vokonis, The Huntsmen–Dreadnought takes these elements and creates worlds. The Endless isn’t something to put on in passing. The album demands your attention wholly and completely. It’d be good to prepare the scene: candles, incense, something warm and smokey to imbibe. 

While their previous albums have also been multi-layered, richly painted collections of progressive musical explorations through black metal, classical, jazz, folk, and post rock, the mix on The Endless is cleaner, clearer, and rightly focused on the vocals and percussion. This better quality of production serves their songs well. The four musicians–guitarist/vocalist Kelly Schilling, drummer Jordan Clancy, bassist Kevin Handlon, and keyboardist/vocalist Lauren Vieira–are each given the right space in performances that capture their absolute precision. Every song illuminates their various parts and highlights their songwriting craft, but Midnight Moon and The Paradigm Mirror, both including more Tricky-like tribal and electronic percussion, show the band’s willingness to continue to experiment and push their own envelope. 

Schilling and Vieira exchange soaring, beautiful vocals, trade in harmonies, explore melodies, and can scrape the inside of your skull when their more harsh singing breaks in. While the whispery Portishead-like sections, tribal movements, and the prominence of percussion in general allow the songs both the lightness and power to carry their lyrical metaphysics, the groove laden riffs pave the space for the theatrical, the dramatic, the inevitable crescendos. At forty-one minutes, the six songs on The Endless build a captivating world of wonder with powerful songs laden with amazing vocal performances, driving percussion, and crisp production. 8/10

Manifest – The Sinking (Vicisolum Records) [Elliot Spencer]

Despite the death/thrash label attributed to them, there’s a gnawing feeling when listening to The Sinking that Manifest draw from more influences than they let on. The death n’ roll riffs that guide the opening track The Origins are typical but in stark contrast to atmospheric passages and an almost grindcore freakout in the song’s final minute. These different elements don’t quite coalesce here but do play out more successfully on deeper cuts throughout the tracklisting. Final Curtain Call provides the best example of this while adopting some riffs that wouldn’t sound out of place on Mastodon’s Blood Mountain and the accompaniment of a Barney Greenway-esque snarl.

It’s no surprise then that Manifest is yet another addition to the rogue’s gallery of Norwegian metal bands. They’re not so much a band that worships unashamedly at the altar of Sepultura’s Chaos A.D as they are the brethren of fellow riff-cocktail mixologists like Bokassa and God Mother. Unfortunately, the range of different elements doesn’t always make for consistent momentum on The Sinking. The sludgier Upriver feels out of place as the second track and the length of the southern-inflected blues of Mistakes rests awkwardly between death n’ roll bangers like Jobkill and Infant Rage.

Nonetheless, the disparate elements that Manifest revels in throughout the album do come together more successfully (spoken word passage aside) on the album’s two-part title track. The near 13 minutes of The Sinking’s two parts are nothing if not a sign of the band’s potential going forward and should provide a solid foundation for further refinement. Fans of the Norwegian school of bands like Kvelertak and Spidergawd will no doubt find familiar ideas on The Sinking, but they’ll also find a band edging closer to securing their own identity. 6/10

Atramentum - Through Fire, Everything Is Renewed (Invictus Productions & 11th Temple Productions) [GC]

I don’t know too much bout Atramentum and after a quick search I find out that its usually a one man project from multi-instrumentalist Frater XI but, this time he has joined forces with a new co-conspirator in the shape of Jehannum to create a second release in the shape of Through Fire, Everything Is Renewed which over its 9 tracks clocks around 52 minutes of music, so I had better get going. 

Starting things of with the mysterious and brooding I (all songs are Roman Numerals) it slowly falls into a big sludgy death metal riff mixed with some off kilter drum grooves and off time rhythms that confuse and twist your mind and lead you into II which is a frenzied blackened death metal bombardment filled with some impressive drumming and a good variation on the guitars which veer between the buzzsaw black metal riffs and some nice atmospherics to mix with the vocal variations which mix the highs of black metal and guttural roar of death metal, III begins with an almost tribal beat that gives way to some almost inhuman double bass and mixes a slower tempo in places which highlights the guitar work beautifully in places and has a great break in the middle which gives you a chance to prepare for what is next. 

IV introduces us to an almost doom like element with some slow, claustrophobic riffs and adds a particularly hypnotic feel to the grim blackened death metal before we are back into the usual barrage of riffs and drums that we are used too, V is more of the same brutality but is ramped up somewhat to keep you going for its 7+ minutes running time and this is where I get to thinking that some of the songs here are just that little bit too long and could do with trimming down! VI is a prime culprit for this as it is really a bit of a of mess structure wise and towards the end the vocalist sounds like he’s lost interest as well! 

VII offers more of the same and is probably the most straight forward black metal track on offer and mixes in the atmospherics to good effect and it just about keeps your interest until after 7 tracks and 45+ minutes of music we are onto the last track VIII which at just under 10 minutes is the longest track and seems like an interesting option for an album closer, it builds from another moody and dark opening section with its slow build it is almost Gothic in feel until halfway through the barrage of drums and riffs drops back into to pound you into submission which doesn’t let up until 9:46 seconds later it has faded out and the album is done! 

To say this was a challenge is an understatement, because as I mentioned I thought it was just that little bit too long. Fore me this is one for the black metal purists as its not really death metal enough and the varying of style does always end up giving way to an ultimately black metal vibe which wouldn’t draw in a casual listener and keep them paying attention throughout. It was good in places but also not so good in some places and I’m not sure I have another listen in me! 6/10

Tuesday 23 August 2022

Reviews: The Hirsch Effekt, Russian Circles, Landlords, Vendetta Love (Reviews By David G & Matt Cook)

The Hirsch Effekt – Solitaer (Long Branch Records) [David G]

An interesting premise from this German three-piece, inspired by COVID-19 social distancing each band member individually writes a song for the band to record (and there’s a version of a pre-existing song). Having never heard this band before this may not be the best introduction, but regardless, I’m hooked. Opener Palingenesis certainly struck a chord. I hesitate to say this because I’m aware how kooky it sounds, but it’s almost like a disjointed interpretation of Soilwork. Imagine the first four albums by the Swedish band, thrown into a blender, so Steelbath Suicide drumclatter rubs up against thick groovy riffing from A Predator’s Portrait, filtered through Natural Born Chaos’ colossal sound. 

It goes from frantic to melodic in short breaths and sounds as vital as anything I’ve heard from the melodeath scene in quite a while. Nares takes a darker turn, blooding a fabulous grind riff in the middle of patchwork mathcore. Eventually this all gives way to what I can only describe as an innocent Björk-like vocal over a gradually layered backing that feels somewhat reminiscent of Maudlin Of The Well. Amorphius goes the whole Dillinger facsimile mile. Off-kilter and breathless until it gently slows into the kind of crooned backing vocals and peeling “melody” you’d expect; it spans noise rock until the ambush of dense triplets and pounded snare brings back the anger, then recedes with a catchy, jagged little riff. Gregær (Solitaer Version) closes out the EP proper with a lively riff, pulsing bass and just sounds cool. 

The CD version of the EP comes with the Gregær EP as extra tracks, offering more of the dreamy quality that Nares displays, in amongst math-freneticism. The most unnerving thing about listening to this release is how well The Hirsch Effekt throw their efforts into styles that are well worn and make them so fun. To show such confidence, adaptability and remarkable musicianship is truly creditable. A fascinating snapshot of a group inspired by separation at an unusual moment in time. 9/10

Russian Circles – Gnosis (Sargent House) [Matt Cook]

For nearly two decades, Russian Circles have largely kept their lineup intact while releasing seven studio albums of instrumental post-rock and -metal. The eighth – Gnosis – is as airtight, clearly structured and expertly produced as any other offering (thanks, Kurt Ballou). To be clear from the start, the Chicago-based trio explicitly note in their Twitter bio that they stand with Ukraine during that country’s continued struggle since Russia’s invasion back in February. The band’s name also derives from a hockey drill; Mike Sullivan (ironically also the name of the Pittsburgh Penguins Stanley Cup-winning coach) and Dave Turncrantz played the sport growing up. 

Okay, let’s get to the good stuff, because there is a lot of it to go around. Over the course of 40 minutes, Russian Circles teeters on the edge of rock and metal. The title track incorporates softer melodies that flows into a satisfying number, but ends with a rummaging riff. Vlastimil (roughly translated to “favored homeland”) is more frantic with its drum line before the guitar riff gains steam and traction. Ballou’s keen ears left their mark on Gnosis (Greek for “knowledge”), as the drums are consistently thick and metallic while also popping. The guitars harbour a girth and abrasion that maintains its tight, authoritative production. These aren’t random compositions hastily strewn together in hopes of forming coherent songs. 

The tracks are rigidly planned and arranged; vocals could effortlessly fit into place. And the listenability of the seven songs is retained from start to finish. The album bores no distractions or fluff. It’s that get-in-and-get-out mentality which fortifies the record. Gnosis is without a doubt tremendously approachable for fans of a wide array of genres and types of music. The album was written remotely, but since the trio recorded the songs together in a live setting, the synthesis is palpable and a testament to Russian Circles’ longevity of success. 8/10

Landlords – Codeine [Church Road Records) [Matt Cook]

It should go without saying, but when like-minded, talented and ambitious musicians come together to create music not only for fans but as fans, wonderful things are bound to come out the other end. Landlords is a four-piece conflagration nestled into what is self-described as alternative/slow rock but more closely comes off as ethereal post-rock. It’s no surprise since the band members have been a part of the local hardcore, metal and punk scene in their native New Zealand. And their affinity for shoegaze is unquestionably sprinkled all over their EP, Codeine

The too-long, didn’t-read summation of these five songs is: they sound like Nirvana, except good. For 21 minutes, the music ebbs and flows, teasing heaviness while impressively balancing fuzzy production with porcelain precision. I’d hazard to bet this mini-release could be performed live in a day care during nap time without disrupting anyone, and that’s no knock on the quality or intrigue. The collection of Andy Blackford (guitars, vocals), Patrick Rowe (guitar), Simon Rutz (bass) and Dylan Morgan (drums) do their own things on their respective instruments yet still complement one another, a near must when it comes to this style of music. 

Perfect Life stirs and slowly starts to wrestle with the blankets after a long, restful, sought-after night of sleep. The guitar grows in the outro, but not before utilising a phaser in the intro, while a not-too-overbearing or too-sharp snare drum effectively binds the strains together. Ironically, Violence is gentle-sounding at first, and Haunt is sung with such care and gentleness that it’s impossible not to think everything will be okay in the end, whatever may come. 

The lulling outro certainly adds to that comfort. Normally there would be a desire for that teasing of heaviness to eventually overflow, like that arcade game that pushes a pile of tokens ever closer to the edge while you spend your own money trying to nudge more over the side and into your greedy pockets. Yet Landlords have a way with emitting rugged vibes without primitively bashing their drums or assaulting the senses with fatalistic guitar blasts. 7/10

Vendetta Love – I Am EP (Self Released) [David G] 

With their angular, staccato name, referring to the EP as a “sloppy gang-bang” in their press release and a song title like Hush Hush this Irish four piece certainly gave off an early impression of falling in the more glam end of the hard rock spectrum. Imagine my surprise when the distorted notes of the aforementioned opener started, then this scratchy drawl crawled into my ears… It turned out that Chains N’ All was actually the clue here as I furrowed my brow and thought “Hang on, is this Alice In Chains?” Yes, veering towards the heavier edged grunge of Seattle’s finest, this is a rather well constructed five track effort. 

Ode, the most energetic of the tracks with its thrusting, high tempo guitar and driven along by a punchy beat is a cracking number and sees vocalist Shawn Mullen cut loose into (slightly) higher registers quite impressively. Chain’s N All starts in slothful, chugging fashion, which juxtaposes nicely with the spacious and melodic chorus. In contrast Walk Alone has soulfully delivered, jangling verses leading into this jagged punchline that menaces effectively. 

By the time the stalking I Am with its stop-start riff drew to a close I was quite taken. Perhaps aided by its brevity as an EP the quality and flow here is impressive. Yes, it wears its prime influence on its sleeve, but with repeated listens I Am has grown in my estimation and made me glad that someone out there is doing this style, doing it convincingly and doing it so damn well. 8/10

Monday 22 August 2022

Reviews Heilung, Consumption, Wizard Tattoo, Kalah (Erick Willand, GC, Rich Piva & Richard Oliver)

Heilung - Drif (Season Of Mist) [Erick Willand]

The experimental folk collective known as Heilung formed in 2014 and includes members from Germany, Denmark and Norway and performs a mythical mix of music, history and ritual. Combining elaborate costumes and hand made instruments they create captivating live performances that bring ancient tales to vibrant musical life. The group themselves call this “Amplified History” and that is a very fitting term for this fourth album as they explore other ancient cultures outside of their usual northern European ground. So grab your cloak and spear traveller and let's journey back in time for some musical adventure.

Drif opens with Asja, a powerful vocal piece meant to invoke love and recovery and to help the listener through troubled times. Having listened to this song several times now myself I can say it absolutely accomplishes this feeling and then some. The deep vocal chants and drum beats resonate and vibrate your rib cage even without sufficient volume. The song warms you from within, even though you may not understand the lyrics. Which I certainly don’t. This carries over smoothly into the second piece Anoana, a piece described as a spell from the beginning of the Dark Ages including lyrics taken from bracteates, coins made of Roman gold and inscribed with runes. 

The piece is rolling, like a ship on the waves it carries the listener steadily forward humming along. Leading us to Tenet, the inspired thirteen minute and five second third piece that is absolutely hypnotic. Based on the “Sator Square” (Google it, very interesting), the earliest example of a palindrome and Tenet deals with the mystical aspects of the square as it’s travelled through time and cultures. It’s deep, layered and should be heard with headphones if possible.

Both Urbani and Keltentrauer are slightly different grounds for Heilung both musically and thematically. Urbani is the sound of a Roman Legion on the march, chanting and banging spears against their shields in a forced march speed. It’s thunderous and epic. Keltentrauer is a fairly recently written poem about Iron Age culture clashes between the Celts and the Romans. The poem is spoken in New High German over the sounds of chants and shouts of the Celts in Gaelic followed by the sounds of battle. It does not go well for the Celts.

Nesso returns us to vocal chants and natural sounds and instruments, and a powerful vocal performance apparently caught in one take. The meaning explained is that this is a healing spell specifically for pulling sickness from the leg of a horse. With it’s ghostly dreamy quality it’s pacing is slower yet there is an urgency in the vocals that is clear and insistent, augmented by the string instrument used. Buslas Bann is the following piece, going back north for a curse that becomes a blessing. Deeper vocal group chants and steady drums greet us quickly and don’t let up. #

Inspired by the “Bosa saga” from 13th century Iceland, a rune spell called Busla’s curse begins with a harsh vibe that slowly over the song becomes less guttural, less mean. The piece ends on a quieter, more peaceful tone. And then we are gifted with Nikkal, a fascinating piece of music, discovered carved into clay tablets some 3400 years ago in what is now Syria. The tablets include lyrics, notes and instrument tuning instructions. This is a song that has travelled through time. Ancient time actually, is where we end this journey with the final piece Marduk, from the ancient lands now called Iraq. Composed using singing bowls and hard whispered lyrics, the 50 names and royal titles of Marduk. It’s unexpected, sinister yet calm. And utterly fascinating.

Heilung albums are an experience, almost like a specific historical event caught in audio form, trapped time given life every time you and I listen. Like a sonic photograph from the distant past. The level of work and care that went into this project is impressive to say the least. I really hope that both physical copies and the official website included the explanations. So much information, I had to basically cut this review in half (not kidding). Also, I can not stress the use of headphones enough, however keep your finger on that volume button, some pieces have sharp peaks and valleys. 9/10

Consumption - Necrotic Lust (Hammerheart Records) [GC]

Following on from their Recursive Definitions of Suppuration debut album, Sweden’s Consumption are here to remind us that grinding 90’s-tinged death metal is not dead and want to claim the throne as their own once and for all! Straight into it here as there is no messing about on Necrotic Lust, right out of the gates we get introduced to Suffering Devine with its chainsaw sharp riffs and unrelenting drums that drop us directly into a glorious mid-section and has a beautiful solo added in before fading out with the mid-sections return and we are now straight into The Last Supper which is full of riffs so filthy I feel like I need a shower after hearing them and if that isn’t enough to peak your interest (not me showering obviously) you are then thrown directly into a frantic aural assault that is pure 90’s era death metal but, this isn’t some tribute act and Håkan Stuvema and  Jon Skär really add another highlight to an already fertile scene!

One thing that to note and something that I really find that adds a sense of fun and enjoyment to the proceedings here is the samples that are used to open most of the tracks, I always find that some cheesy horror clip before a death metal song really adds another layer of enjoyment for me. Carrying on and title track Necrotic Lust is another pure slice of 90’s death metal goodness and is as close to Carcass as you can get without listening to the real thing, A Secret Coliseum starts out with an eerie and almost melodic beauty which builds towards a crushing groove so heavy that it could smash a hole in your head and showcases more outstanding solo’s and bleeds into a cacophony of blasting drums and deranged riffs which then leads us into Ground Into Ashes which features none other than Mr Jeff Walker himself!!! 

And yes, this track could be lifted directly from a Carcass album, it leads with some impressive drum work and is built around the sort of riff that will stick you like barbed wire a great song for a great man, following that is going to be a tall order and at first choosing 7 minute long Offspring Inhuman Conceived seems to be an odd choice but it is full of the trademark brooding grooves and mixes all the styles on offer so far to great effect to construct a glorious monstrosity of a song so you are sure to not lose interest after this Twisted Shaped Reality & Circle Of Pain both pick up the pace again and re-introduce us to the furious tempo and bruising rhythms we have heard throughout Necrotic Lust and after that its on to Devices For The Sentenced to close the album with a slab of glorious and satisfying brutal death metal! 

Consumption have created an absolute barnstormer of an album here that is one for the death metal purists but would also be a great introduction album for people to explore the genre, it is grimy and dirty, but the production is top notch and makes sure that noting is lost in the mix, the varying of styles and techniques is also top quality and always means there is something on offer for all tastes on this top quality release!! 8/10

Wizard Tattoo - Wizard Tattoo (Self Released) [Rich Piva]

Well, this is fun! Wizard Tattoo is one man band lead by a gentleman named Bram the Bard who tells the story of a man who gets a wizard tattoo and is then pretty much turned into a wizard, or who is not turning into a wizard but is instead losing his shit. One or the other. Either way this is a ton of fun and in some parts, it absolutely rips with its doomy and prog DIY vibes that Bram is putting out. Please tell me what is not to like in that description.  Much of the ripping is done on the title track, which brings some groovy doom and some unique synths that makes it quite the memorable track.

Our protagonist has his tattoo, but now must figure out if he is going insane or becoming magical.  This happens during the second track, A Wizard’s Lie, which is a trippy little ditty to start with some nice acoustic guitar that leads to what sounds like a battle between good and evil, alternating between the clean acoustic and a guttural growl from the bowels of hell. Fun! Track three, Wizard Knife Fight is pretty much what the name says lyrically. It tells the (very funny) tale of our hero and said fight in a spoken word type delivery until that growl from hell explains clearly that that we are talking about a wizard knife fight. Fun! It has a killer riff and rips musically as well. The last track is a chill instrumental where I picture our wizard wandering in the forest on a journey of self-awareness. 

I feel like this story is not done; I am hoping for a part two to the saga. This is fun. Sometimes we need stories of wizards finding their way. Mr. Bard can certainly play his guitar. Occasionally you can hear a kind of built in a lab programming feel on the drums and the EP will sometimes feel a bit too DIY, but that is also some of the charm of Tattoo Wizard. This is a worthy listen, and I would be down to check out what comes next. 7/10

Kalah - Descent Into Human Weakness (Pure Steel Records) [Richard Oliver]

Descent Into Human Weakness is the debut full length album from Italian electronic metal band Kalah.  It follows two E.P.’s that were released in rapid succession in 2021 and it seems the band have wasted no time in getting their debut album out in 2022.  With such a rapid release of music the big question looming is that is this is quantity over quality? Kalah perform a mix of styles such as power metal, melodic death metal and metalcore with a heavy electronic presence with trace sounding keys and pop leaning choruses. 

It’s a combo that has been done before by other bands and to be honest done a lot better. The keyboards take prevalence and drive the songs with the melodies with the guitars really working as a background instrument chugging along with the rhythm of the drums meaning there is very little in the way of memorable riffs. There are some great solos dotted throughout such as in Pit Of Violence (P.O.V.) but the guitars seem woefully underused. The songs themselves are rather formulaic and sound very alike with many falling into many of the trappings of modern metal. Whilst there are some catchy choruses throughout the album such as on Sand on the whole this album is rather forgettable. There were also some moments which I straight up despised such as the use of autotune vocals on Red which had me grimacing. 

Descent Into Human Weakness is an album that did not do much for me at all. Many of the songs sounded too similar to each other and there are very few standout moments on the album.  Some of the guitar playing is great but there wasn’t a single memorable riff throughout the duration of the album.  Had the band played more towards their power metal and melodic death metal influences then this would be a far better album but Descent Into Human Weakness is not an album that I wish to revisit. 4/10