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Friday, 27 January 2023

Reviews: The Enigma Division, Love Gang, Serotonin Syndrome, Ashen Horde (Reviews By Simon Black, Rich Piva, David G & Erick Willand)

The Enigma Division - The Enigma Division (Self Released) [Simon Black]

Being a music writer can sometime be quite an undignified process, particularly when our esteemed leader Matt lets us know that some new material is available for review. Imagine a particularly violent, bloodily gory and brutally primitive fight scene from say, The Walking Dead, as groups of ragged hairy survivors fight it out to the death over a previously undiscovered four pack of beer in a burnt-out convenience store and you’re not far from what happens, particularly on Nuclear Blast drop days… 

OK, the battleground is our Dropbox folder, and its bitchy comments on Facebook Messenger rather than bullets, knives or teeth, but you get the drift. But then whilst everyone is fighting it out over the latest big-name release, debut stuff like this can sit there un-noticed ready for the taking. Saying that, since the only other Prog obsessive on here is our beloved leader, he knows he’s going to win in the event of a tussle, so I have bagged this one with his blessing…

And I am glad I did, because this is debut is quite frankly stunning piece of progressive modern metal from a band that up to that point I had not heard of before. It’s a new act, but the names on here are experienced hands and they’ve been building a huge amount of anticipation for quite some time, despite their debut only hitting the shelves now. I’m normally a fairly fast reviewer and writer, but this has left me without words, and took me at least four full listens before I could even begin to put my thoughts into words.

The three-piece core of this Irish band are Xerath’s guitarist Conor McGouran and drummer Ben Wanders, along with Ronan Burns, about who I can find very little information in the metal scene, but he covers the bass and keys work here, and formed the band alongside McGouran. The Enigma Division have been teasing their arrival for some time, with Covid shafting things for a while, but the fact that they’ve been booked for this year’s Bloodstock before the debut album is released tells you everything that you need to know. 

Wanders handles most of the vocal work, and to be fair I would love to see how that works live, given the brutal blast beat driven nature of his drum work alongside McGouran’s crisply effective shredding. Prog fans won’t be upset either by guest contributions from William Alex Young, Derek Sherinian and Sam Bell, plus a whole bunch of solo spots from a plethora of other players.

Musically this is top notch prog metal, with a deep vein of brutally crisp modern shred, bits of synthwave and the kind of epic feel you normally get with movie soundtracks in an IMAX. With the kind of low-end bass rumble that gets my teenage children asking me to turn the music down, the production on this record is crisp, precise and absolutely fabulous – and again the multi-talented Wanders takes the credit here. 

The songs mix it up somewhat, as you can expect from the shopping list above, but retain an energy, focus and listenability that works even for the casual listener, no matter how long and self-indulgent the run time might be. The twenty-minute album close 1977 – Ad Infinitum illustrates this clearer than anything, given that it’s completely instrumental apart from some spoken word samples from astronomer Carl Sagan. It’s ridiculously complicated, and absolutely beautiful and the best thing on here by a country mile. But then since pretty much every song knocks it out of the park, that’s a fairly meaningless comparison.

New band; old hands. Great - nay awesome result and my first perfect score of 2023. 10/10

Love Gang - Meanstreak (Heavy Psych Sounds) [Rich Piva]

In a conversation I was having with my music loving Twitter group the Groove Council, I made the comment that if all bands dialed back their production a couple of notches the world would be a better place. I am not sure everyone agreed, but I stand by that remark. I submit exhibit A in my defense, the second album from Denver, Colorado’s Love Gang, who recorded Meanstreak in full analog to tape to capture the band in its purest form, harking back to the heyday of Blue Cheer and the MC5 and before all the big studio engineering came in to ruin some perfectly excellent rock.

This record rocks so hard, kicking you right in your analog loving teeth with the opener, Deathride and the absolute killer title track. This whole album sounds exactly how I want a record to sound. It is the most honest and pure recording I have heard in a long time. So fuzzy, amazing drum sound, and just pure energy. Bad News almost reminds me of Motorhead lyrically and musically; you can picture Lemmy singing this song and I love the guitar work and the addition of the organ at the back end of the track. It’s not quite Motorhead, but like if Motorhead started in 1969. Blinded By Fear is more heavy fuzzy goodness and could be my favorite track. Love the guitar work on this one partnered with the organ.

You know that the drummer broke a bunch of sticks and drumheads while recording Meanstreak, and it is glorious. Love the Blue Cheer worship on Shake This Feelin’ and the straight-ahead fuzzy garage rock feel of Headed Down To Mexico that has a ZZ Top riff that gallops into a late 60s inspired, organ driven ripper. What a song. Same Ol’ Blues is aptly titled, an acoustic driven blues tune with harmonica that fits perfectly on this record that leads to the amazing closer, Fly Away, which is a perfect blend of what Love Gang does best.

This one is going to be in heavy rotation for a long time. If I need to ratchet up the pure energy, it’s going to be with Meanstreak. I need to figure out how to see Love Gang live because if what I am hearing recorded directly to analog is any indication they will blow me away. Excellent album with staying power and one I would not be surprised is on the top end of my list by the time 2023 wraps up. 9/10

Serotonin Syndrome – Seed Of Mankind (Self Released) [David G]

Finnish five-piece Serotonin Syndrome release this, their third album. Over the five tracks it shows the derivation of a style from the post-metal/hardcore scene in conjunction with segments that hark to later black metal in the moments of their uglier, depressive aesthetic. Seemingly motivated by frustration and anger at human behaviour it is in itself a frustrating listen.

Among Others opens the album, and standing at over eight minutes long it is not easily digestible. The opening drawl has a thick, sludgy feel but plays with a spectral motif that could be slightly influenced by the melancholic dark metal of the likes of Katatonia. As this section dies away the ugly aggression rears its head, thumping away with that nihilistic pulse that feels all too familiar. The track plays with these kinds of approaches before entering a lengthy lead section that slowly strips away excess unless the bass guitar and drums gently patter along under a warm guitar noodle. It’s a moody track that doesn’t quite hit the mark, and at times the throaty rasping yelps feel a bit detrimental.

The Pitiful One, just a shade over five minutes feels perhaps more to the point, with none of the meandering clean sections. Driven by an interesting guitar part that ascends and descends like a craggy rock line, it reminds me that this music always becomes so much more powerful when it taps into that elemental feel; Serotonin Syndrome seem more at home in the earthy aspect. Later in the track when they really embrace the black metal hysteria it feels like a bit of a shock, moving into this tenebrous approach from something so grounded. I’m not sure it necessarily works in the context, even if it is pulled off with authenticity.

The title track, again over eight minutes, feels like more of your classic post metal, with first half kicked along by a clockwork riff that ticks along in a way reminiscent of Isis. It’s at this point, when most of the distortion is pulled back, that you hear how shallow the drum sound is, and it’s here that this most affects the approach the band is going for where the added flavour could be enriching. The second half of the track winds along through another clean section before building to powerful conclusion accentuated by the howling vocals that this time sway along in unison to the music (though the cymbal splashing sound becomes a mere hiss).

Dot Marks The Spot opens in now familiar style but after a couple of minutes breaks down into an ominous muted riff, the atmosphere of which is undone by the vocals croaking pathetically (check out the hilarious ghostly wail later in the track), this approach is repeated and is certainly no better the second time around. What’s frustrating is what awaits on the far side of these sections, a swirling well of guitar that creates a tempestuous storm at sea. From here the track just kind of continues on but I keep thinking about what just happened and how something so visceral, so evocative, just appeared out of nowhere, then disappeared almost as quickly.

Final track The End, again over eight minutes, builds from a melancholy piano part, layering on drums, bass and eventually guitar until distortion thrusts its head out. Perhaps the most Pelican of approaches, though with a more downbeat mood. That is until the final thrust of the track when for the first time all album there’s a rocking drive to the tempo that seems incongruous given the 34 minutes that preceded it. The whole song feels like a shift, more overtly constructed and controlled than the other four tracks, it works in a way even if it is a bit of an outlier.

There are moments where Serotonin Syndrome strike upon something elemental that fundamentally works and there are weird little side steps along the way that are likely to pull the listener out of those moments. Then there are some minor quibbles with the sound of the album that don’t quite put the music in the best light, and I find myself with a meh-to-urgh response to the vocals. It’s interesting what the band are trying to do, it just doesn’t always work. 6/10

Ashen Horde - Antimony (Transcending Obscurity) [Erick Willand]

Ashen Horde spawned into existence in 2013 and have been steadily spreading dreadful clouds of progressive black/death metal since with a string of singles including 2015’s vicious Feral, a ripping little beast befitting its title, and three previous full-lengths, the last one being 2019 Fallen Cathedrals, a stand out in the growing progressive black/death sub-genre boasting a memorable vocal assault and wonderfully bleak shadowy cover art.
Now in 2023 Ashen Horde return with a follow-up interestingly titled Antimony. As one would expect the opening track here, called Summoning is a classic solo guitar intro track that fills out about halfway and then leads right into the first proper track, The Throes Of Agony. This song wastes all of 3 seconds with a bit of guitar fiddling before kicking you down some stone cellar stairs in a vicious vocal punch and swirling guitar darkness. The opening lyrics inter-spaced with sinister whispered passages is a nice atmospheric touch. A solid track that suffers only from its ponderous 6 minute and 55 second length…5 seconds shy of a full 7 minutes and this is not a doom band.

The Consort is track 3 and starts with some weird guitar plucking that should have been left on the cutting floor, to be fair this song redeems itself quickly with a driving riff and clear vocal delivery with a stand out chorus section that I do find satisfying. The Barrister starts off much better and continues the group vocal attack to good if somewhat grandiose effect. The Physician is clearly a more urgent track with a catchy riff and plenty of blasting but very little to hang on to. The Courtesan follows in the path and is saved by some interesting time changes and insistent guitar peels I actually dig, despite a small nu-metal flavoured interlude that just feels out of place. I'm getting tired though...
The DiscipleThe Neophyte, and Animus Nocendi all fall into the same fate to be honest, just too long. Through this entire album there are some very good elements, fantastic vocals, solid drumming and top tier guitar work. However if I’ve ever heard an album that suffered from chronic song bloat this is it. Each one of these songs ruins itself on the insistence of dragging itself past the 4 minute mark, with most tracks crashing over the 5 minute mark. Some bands can pull this off and I’m afraid that Ashen Horde just isn’t one of them, each one of these songs would have been made better by trimming minutes off. 

It’s just too much and in the end it cost this clearly talented band a more solid and, more importantly, more memorable album. So, coupled with cover art which is either AI generated art or just lazy painting and I can’t honestly tell, I’m giving Antimony from Ashen Horde a 5/10

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