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Friday 20 January 2023

Reviews: Riverside, Black Star Riders, Hollow Hour, The Lightbringer Of Sweden (Reviews By Matt Bladen)

Riverside - ID.Entity (InsideOut Records)

Who are we? Why are we here? What's the purpose of it all? These questions and more are what Polish prog mavens Riverside are trying to answer on their eighth studio album ID.Entity (ID/ Entity/Identity get it?). A 53 minute exploration of life, the universe and everything, these questions broached not with the humour of Arthur C Clarke but instead it's wrapped in a melancholy that I last experienced on Porcupine Tree's most recent outing.

Perhaps due to their 20th Anniversary compilation, Riverside seem to have regressed back to their earlier sound with this new album, the heaviness of more recent output having been stripped back to the basics of just Mariusz Duda's emotive vocals and rhythmic bass/electric and acoustic guitar, Piotr Kozieradzki's excellent drumwork, the wide ranging keys/synths/Rhodes/Hammond of Michał Łapaj, used to brilliant effect on Big Tech Brother, and the debut of Maciej Meller on electric guitar, taking the position of Piotr Grudziński, for the first time on an album.

I say that these are the 'basics' as they have always been the key sounds of Riverside, but throughout their career, they undulated and evolved in a multitude of different way, but as I've said it seems as if Riverside have looked back to their initial style that was closer to bands such as Porcupine Tree or Pineapple Thief, but also looking forward with the 'next' chapter of the band. It's the Warsaw band re-establishing their identity, thus the title of the record. With lyrical inspiration drawn from the divisions, the reliance on technology, propaganda and various other depressing aspects of today.

Duda especially interested in conspiracy theory's on tracks such as the grooving, brooding but melodic Post-Truth, the sometimes upbeat attitude of the Riverside of the past now wallowing in the claustrophobic sneer of Steven Wilson or even Mikael Akerfeldt, the mellotron-meets-acoustic driven The Place Where I Belong sees Riverside, truly shift into the darkness with a song that could come from Fear Of Blank Planet or even Pink Floyd's Animals, the paranoia upped to another level as Michał Łapaj and Maciej Meller dual with their respective instruments as Duda gets as nasty and poetic as Roger Waters in both the lyrics and delivery. 

The only part of the album that really could be considered as being 'happy' is the final song Self-Aware where there is more of Peter Gabriel/Rush sound due to the quirkiness of the music behind the consolidating lyrics that close this conceptual release. Fully established in their current guise and finally recording as such, ID.Entity is a new dawn for Riverside, one that is more thoughtful, more accomplished and more aware than before. 9/10

Black Star Riders - Wrong Side Of Paradise (Earache Records)

Despite only being around for a decade the Black Star Riders have plenty of experience as a group. Initially starting as the reactivated Thin Lizzy guitarists Scott Gorham and drummer Brian Downey recruited The Almighty frontman Ricky Warwick to weave his Northern Irish charm all over Phil Lynott's impeccable songwriting. As the band toured and gelled they wanted to write and record their own music so in 2013 changed their name to Black Star Riders in order to leave the Lizzy legacy in place. 10 years and four albums later BSR are still pumping out British rock to packed houses around the globe.

As they gear up for the release of their fifth studio album and their 10th anniversary tour, the band now only features Warwick (vocals/guitar), but it's his guiding hand that leads BSR into their second decade along with guitarist Sam Wood, bassist Robert Crane and drummer Zak St. John. Warwick is a rock n roll lifer and his blue collar, sometimes observational, slightly whimsical, often nostalgic style of songwriting are key to his love of the genre. Across the previous four albums this style has pervaded, with the blues based hard rock drive is the cornerstone, the slithering Hustle full of street smarts, harmonica and percussion. While the lilting Celtic acoustics are often the heart of songs such as Green And Troubled Land

Both sides of their style along with a wide range of others colliding together from some anthemic rocking. BSR create music to be played live in front of a crowd, sung back by a chorus of voices all welcomed as friends, wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Track such as Riding Out The Storm exemplify this, a poppy number laced with Americana ala Tom Petty, the dirty rock n roll of Catch Yourself On but even with the title track there are big soulful backing vocals set against the twin leads and fuzzy rhythm riffs. There's also a cover of The Osmonds Crazy Horses which lends itself to the muscular rock of Black Star Riders and Warwick's rough vocals.

Of course the Lizzy hangover still there on Better Than Saturday Night and Don't Let The World (Get In The Way), both featuring more twin axes and Zak St. John's pumping drums. Wrong Side Of Paradise continues a purple streak that Black Star Riders have been riding since their 2013 debut, almost perfect radio friendly rock n roll with more grit than a local council. Watch out for them on their UK tour where former members Scott Gorham (guitar) and Jimmy DeGrasso (drums) will join the band in celebration of their milestone. Always teetering on the Wrong Side Of Paradise, there's a lot that's right with this fifth record. 8/10

Hollow Hour - Till The Grey Skies Are Gone (Self-Released)

Danish prog carves something of a niche for itself with bands such as Beyond Twilight, Pyramaze and of course VOLA all bands of note but very different to each other. Hollow Hour is the latest Danish prog metal act and they dispel any notions of the more power metal side with a rhythmic, heavy, modern style of prog metal that has more in common with VOLA along with Tesseract, Leprous and Rendezvous Point. Down tuned guitars and a keening, emotive vocal performance, are set to chunky djent basslines and poly-rhythmic drums. 

It's hard to believe that Till Grey Skies Are Gone is the debut from Hollow Hour as it's extremely mature, the band clearly very disciplined and experienced players of their instruments, captured brilliantly by Claudio Andersen and Nicklas Sonne (Defecto, Between Oceans), behind the producers chair while the album was mix and mastered by Chris Kreutzfeldt (CABAL, Møl, Ghost Iris), the result sounding powerful and dense on tracks such as Deafening but beautiful when they take the melodic route on The Canyon. Formed in 2015, it was only during the multiple lockdowns that this album finally came to life and was ready to impress a wider audience. It flows well which for me is a sign of a band who know they are doing musically, each track lends itself to previous one but stands on its own merit. 

The tapping that leads you in on I Am No God, then gives way to electronic pulse of I Got The Knife and punchy Cipher, Ember being a muscular slow burner that works its way into the jangly The Canyon, while a song such as the Gemini brings back the palm muted riffing (and a refrain that very Einar Solberg). With bands such as the aforementioned VOLA and Leprous getting a lot of attention from the music press, it’s only a matter of time before Hollow Hour get similar treatment, especially on how good this debut is. 8/10

The Lightbringer Of Sweden - The New World Order (Self Released)

Drawing from his love of Tobias Sammet, Kai Hansen and others, Swedish songwriter/guitarist/creator Lars Eng started to put down ideas for The Lightbringer Of Sweden back in 2017. From here the ideas based heavily around power/classic heavy metal shifted into a wider concept that dealt with The Devil (the Lightbringer) and his soul collecting right hand man called Skeletor (wonder if Mattel will be in touch?) in their battle with The Silver City. Originally wanting Niklas Stålvind of Wolf for the vocalist by the time work had been done for their 2019 album Rise Of The Beast, it was current Firewind singer Herbie Langhans who was behind the mic. 

Because of this obviously you can draw a lot of comparisons to Firewind, Avantasia and any other band he has sung with. He is once again on the mic for this follow up album The New World Order which is a continuation of the storyline and thankfully has nothing to do with the WCW Faction that rapidly went out of control. Both Lucifer and Skeletor return and so does the classic metal sound of the debut, Eng's songwriting taking from is influences as I said but they feel more coherent on this album. 

Eng's rhythm section with bassist Johan Bergqvist and drummer Tobbe Jonsson thrashing out the riffs on tracks such as Free The Angels, or the more melodic Heroes Of The Past where Langhans' vocals are used well, as they are to on ballad Where The Eagles Fly. Carsten Stepanowicz's lead guitars finally add the final layer with some widdly solo playing on the stomping Lucifer. The New World Order is one of those concept albums you can cherry pick songs as there's very little of spoken word stuff that often makes them feel bloated. Taking from the Avantasia's blueprint, The Lightbringer Of Sweden have arrived with this second album. 8/10 

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