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Tuesday 5 September 2023

Reviews: Empire State B*stard, Silent Skies, Polaris, ALT BLK ERA (Reviews By Matt Bladen)

Empire State Bastard – Rivers Of Heresy (Roadrunner Records)

Having wowed at Download, Glastonbury and ArcTanGent, we now get to hear Empire State Bastard’s debut album in all its glory. What is essentially a supergroup, ESB answer the question: “What if Biff Clyro played extreme metal?” fronted by Biffy’s Simon Neil, who is at his most rabid, vicious and unhinged, Neil even saying; “Lyrically, it’s as misanthropic and nihilistic as I’ve ever written.”, the other half of ESB is Biffy live guitarist Mike Vennart who many may know as one of the founders of post-rockers Oceansize. Mike is a solo artist too as well as playing with Biffy but it’s on these tours that this agonising album was conceived, abrasive riffs, raging screams, creating “the most fucking poisonous vile music I possibly could” according to Vennart.

I’d consider that job done with just Harvest, the punishing drumming of Dave Lombardo (Slayer/Testament/Mr Bungle), gaining it metal kudos. Conceived as grindcore, I’d say the songs are a little too long mostly for that but they very much have the incendiary attitude of grindcore nailed, if you want anthems and musicality look elsewhere as Rivers Of Heresy is about impact. On Blusher Vennart has angular guitar stabs closing out the song, before Moi? builds from a stripped back opening where you can hear that distinctive Simon Neil croon before the aggression comes in with distorted sludge. Although not on the album Naomi Macleod of Bitch Falcon plays bass for them live and will be tuning down as low as possible here on Moi? the sludge/doom influence taken away by the rawness of Tired Aye? The primal percussion rumbles on Sons And Daughters, Dusty is just over two minutes of rage, unleashed intermittently these short blasts leading to the near 7 minute finale of The Looming which is like post-metal meets doom. 

If you had just heard Harvest or Stutter you may think that this is all ESB have to offer but with Sons And Daughters and The Looming, Neil, Vennart and Lombardo display a real understanding of various styles of extreme metal, not limiting themselves to just being one thing or another. Rivers Of Heresy proves that super groups don’t have to be watered down mish-mash of the members other bands, they can be something fresh and exciting. 8/10

Silent Skies - Dormant (Napalm Records)

The third collaboration between Evergrey singer Tom S. Englund and Vikram Shankar, well their third as Silent Skies but they have played together in both Evergrey and Redemption. Dormant continues to enchant and beguile like the two previous Silent Skies records as Shankar's electronic compositions augment the soulful vocals of Englund, these 10 new tracks (3 covers) are lush cinematic pop rock songs that usually take the form of ballads, but Englund has one of the most emotionally resonant vocals around so you feel the hairs stand up on Churches, a song that brings to mind Phil Collins and Mike & The Mechanics, that fusion of pop, gospel, strings and electronica crating a special atmosphere. 

Dormant like the two records before it; Nectar (2022) and Satellites (2020), is betrayingly simple. The dense orchestration met with introspective vocals for a relaxing atmosphere which also brings Peter Gabriel comparisons (Reset) as well as the New Age sounds of the 90's, there's of course a vein of prog as Above The Clouds features Leprous/Musk Ox cellist Raphael Weinroth-Browne for added genius. This is music to touch you, help you make sense of the world, when the heaviness desists and the distortion fades, Dormant swells in a selection of musical moments, featuring two gifted performers in perfect union.

If their own tracks aren't enough to make you love this record, there are three bonus covers where famous tracks are interpreted into the Silent Skies sound. Iron Maiden's The Trooper, is piano heavy, with same intensity of Damian Wilson's Evil That Men Do Cover, Bruce Springsteen's radio friendly Dancing In The Dark is made to be a slow burning song of lost love and rebellion (which of course it always was) while the version of Linkin Park's Numb is devestating. Silent Skies maintain their position as the heaviest band not to use a single riff. If you're not a mess after listening to it, you have no soul. 9/10

Polaris - Fatalism (Sharptone Records)

Sydney melodic metalcore band Polaris' new album has taken on a meaning the band probably didn't expect it too. Since completing recording tragically guitarist Ryan Siew passed away so this album serves as his epitaph, Polaris' songs have always been immensely personal dealing with anxiety, depression and loss, so when these are played live they will have a new resonance. 

On Fatalism, the track Nightmare pays tribute to Ben Wrigley of Third Eye Visuals, the dystopian and anxious atmosphere, suiting his incredible visuals which accompany this single and three more on the record. Having released albums in 2017 and 2020, Polaris are on a creative drive, with a tonne of festival/tour experiences. It means that Fatalism has been honed as their progressive metalcore style explodes. 

Fat riffs and breakdowns that are, sliced through with melodies and brim with electronics. Rick Schneider and Ryan Siew doubling down on the groove with Jake Steinhauser's bass, Jake's clean vocals soar on the choruses as Jamie Hails' harsh shouts snarl over Parasite, the melodics coming through on With Regards, Daniel Furnari a monster behind the drums. Polaris make bigger and brighter pulses with Fatalism, a tribute to both a collaborator and now a band member Fatalism is their best work to date. 8/10

ALT BLK ERA - Freak Show (Self Released)

What’s very impressive about the heavy music scene at the moment is that many bands, have a social conscience, they write music about real life, about how they want to make things better, how they fight against injustice and the numerous ‘isms’ (race, sex, fasc etc etc) we find ourselves up against. What is also very heartening is how young many of these bands are, to have that much of a social conscience at that age is something has to be celebrated. One such band is ALT BLK ERA, a sister duo formed by Nyrobi (19yrs) and Chaya (16yrs), who not only advocate for safe spaces, making their gigs welcome to everyone free from prejudice but they also create music that breaks the boundaries that are so rigid in what defines ‘heavy’ music. 

Their debut EP Freak Show is an invitation to the outcasts of society to join them, their twin voices in devilsh synchronicity as the musical layers below them incorporate grinding metal, EDM, hip hop, synthwave and opera. Using a glitchy, pumping sound on I’m Normally Like This, Freak Show opens with a song that has the rebellious streak of Nova Twins, mixed with the beats of Pendulum. Sort of like Enter Shikari fronted by Skunk Anasie’s Skin, I’m Normally Like This, is them opening the door to their K-OS Family Community, it’s here, it’s now and it’s loud. The duality between Misfits: SOLAR and Misfits: LUNAR is marked, the former a bouncing defiant rocker, while the latter is a creepy gothic, operatic track. 

Freak Show is 15 minutes in the world of ALT BLK ERA, a constantly changing, musically dexterous, experimental, achingly modern 5 tracker, that will bring them new fans, or satiate those that have seen them storming UK festival stages this year. Tickets to this Freak Show will be a rarity very soon. 8/10

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