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Friday 1 September 2023

Reviews: Primal Fear, Soen, Stitched Up Heart, Blessed Black (Reviews By Simon Black, Matt Bladen, James Jackson & Rich Piva)

Primal Fear - Code Red (Atomic Fire Records) [Simon Black]

One thing about Primal Fear, is they are pretty darned consistent in their delivery. Since their formation in 1997 (after vocalist Ralf Scheepers didn’t join Judas Priest), they’ve consistently cranked it up in the studio and Code Red is the result of the fourteenth turn of that handle. To be fair this is the longest fans have had to wait between album cycles, but hey Covid, and bassist/producer Matt Sinner being seriously ill over the last few years which is a pretty legitimate reason for the break. This is why Scheepers has been keeping himself busy as lungs for hire on numerous other projects, cropping up all over the place in the interlude (ironically with the same kind of frequency as the man who did fill the Priest boots, Ripper Owens). 

2020’s Metal Commando was a masterpiece of brutality, which saw the band briefly returning to Nuclear Blast, but this release sees them with new label Atomic Fire (started by a bunch of Nuclear Blast guys, so more of a side - step than one into the dark) and so I had a certain amount of expectation here. This piece is a little different...

OK, it’s still blisteringly tight power metal done well, with a vocalist whose talent just does not diminish, but it’s a little more introspective and less immediate than most of their releases. To be fair Scheepers has been a lot more brutal sounding on some of his side projects, and this is a much cleaner sounding performance. That said, he’s lost none of the power and range one expects, but the emphasis is less about scaling the heights and shredding the wallpaper as it is about conveying the messages in the songs. That message reflects the experiences that Sinner, and indeed the world have experiences, with more introspective, reflective and moody material than the usual power metal cheesy lyrical fare. hardcore fans might be taken aback by this, but there’s plenty of brutality in the back catalogue, and this reflects a much more mature approach to song writing, touching political subjects. 

Musically this greater emphasis on the words sees Scheepers a bit further forward in the mix than usual, and once you adapt to the change in tone and start listening, you are unlikely to be disappointed. That said, it’s not going to be as immediately catchy as Primal Fans will expect. It wasn’t until my second full spin that I really started to appreciate it, but it turns out that repeated play increases the appreciation. If you want surface depth banging, then go back to Metal Commando; if you want a well crafted and richly layered piece of music that’s going to give you your money’s worth then Code Red is bang on the money. 9/10

Soen – Memorial (Silver Lining Music) [Matt Bladen]

Has an album ever broken your heart? Yeah? Good you’re clearly doing this “listening to music” thing properly, absorbing it, letting it consume you, not a tertiary, passing interest, but indulging in the emotion of it. Memorial, the new album from Swedish band Soen, broke my heart. The final song Vitals especially, made me weep like a small child denied an ice cream. It’s a sweeping arrangement with some beautiful piano from Joakim Simonsson, a smouldering longing that comes through Joel Ekelöf’s spine tingling vocal performance, it builds into an incredible crescendo, before fading off into the piano again. Closing out Soen’s sixth album with a magisterial ballad, that yes feels like Pink Floyd at their most tender and introspective. 

As if in total opposition Memorial opens with the riffy Sincere which is the atypical Tool-meets-Opeth groove, Oleksii ‘Zlatoyar’ Kobel’s choppy, palm muted bass riffs in sync with the guitars of Lars Enok Åhlund, his keys swelling the atmospheres that so much modern prog is built on. Hooking everything is the powerhouse percussion of Martin Lopez, dictating the pace, through Soen’s heaviest album for a while, this first song reminding too of Distrubed in their early days. Unbreakable too comes from that same vein, the riffs grooving brilliantly as Cody Ford’s lead guitar weaves a spell of virtuosity on top of the mechanical heaviness, Unbreakable’s marching rhythm and huge chorus is a bonafide future live favourite for sure, a touchpoint for an album that stands as the most aggressive and defiant so far. 

The brooding Violence and the propulsive Fortress marking this with one track that is dark and ominous (Violence) and the other that is anthemic and exciting (Fortress), the latter making me think of Alter Bridge, as Soen show that this is the record they have been building too, stepping out of that prog metal style they are so often categorised with (although Icon doubles down), into a style that is broader in its appeal but retains the technically impressive musicianship. With a wonderful ballad such as Hollowed, the duetting vocals of Joel and Italian singer Elisa along with that clipped but affecting guitar solo, elevating the song into the realms of Steven Wilson creativity, Tragedian continues with these comparisons. 

The blend of metallic heaviness and softness is inspired, the orchestrations too expanding the sonic impression on the title track, though they can still strip it back just to a riff and vocal hook on Incendiary. Memorial captures Soen at the height of their powers, many years in the making, this album is their defining statement. 10/10

Stitched Up Heart - To The Wolves (Century Media Records) [James Jackson]

I’ve listened to the likes of Within Temptation, Nightwish and Lacuna Coil for many years now, but it’s the latter’s step toward a more Metal sound whilst still maintaining their grasp upon the Goth aesthetic that appealed to me in the first place; that drove me to search for more bands like this; I had already come across In This Moment and following from that I discovered Stitched Up Heart, whose goth/industrial/nu - metal mash up ticked enough boxes to get me hooked. 

Their latest album To The Wolves follows hot in the footsteps of their previous albums 2016’s Never Alone and Darkness released in 2020. To The Wolves features Escape The Fate and it’s a familiar mix of metalcore riffs and vocals with a stripped down verse that builds to an angst ridden chorus. The tracks available here are huge slabs of metalcore each track shows off vocalist Mixxi’s abilities, providing clean and guttural vocals to great effect. Instrumentally it’s all geared towards offering highs and lows, stripped down verses are followed by a harsh verse, full of head nodding moments and particularly on Possess Me an epic breakdown. 

After only a few listens it’s certainly too soon to list any favourite tracks though the aforementioned Possess Me and Conquer And Divide do stand out, the latter for its use of synths through the verse. As with most albums after awhile it does start to become a bit too familiar, though that doesn’t detract from the music or the talents of the band, it’s all very polished and composed. 8/10 

Blessed Black - Seasons Vol. 1 (Self Reelased) [Rich Piva]

Let’s go for some Cincinnati doom! Blessed Black play your more traditional doom metal and incorporate organ into their compositions to create some pretty great stuff. You want riffs, these guys have riffs and even more riffs to give us, even over just the three tracks that make up their new EP, Seasons Vol. 1.

This may have three songs only, but they are three killer tracks. Hellbender starts us off, and that organ along with the riffs sure sounds like everyone’s favorite band Green Lung. Vocally not so much, where here the voice is more of a big, traditional metal type style and I am here for it. I love the little organ solo after the first verse, because if you read any of my reviews you know I am a sucker for organ. I’m also digging the lyrics as well as the great solo at the back end of the track. More Green Lung vibes with Obsidian, which is a title for songs and bands that for some reason usually says this is going to be great, and this is no exception. 

This track is more of a rocker, with riffs and is actually pretty catchy, which is another Green Lung trait. I love the breakdown at the end (holy fire!!!) and the solo, which seems to be a trend to leave it towards the end of the track. The last track (unfortunately, this is a tease at only three songs), Unable, has a nice stoner/doom galop and has some serious Uncle Acid vibes, which of course is wonderful. The vocals on this track are a true highlight, rounding out the EP at three out of three great stoner/doom tunes.

Could Blessed Black be the US’s answer to Uncle Acid and Green Lung? If these three songs are any indication, I would say a resounding yes. However, I need more, and I need more sooner than later. Let’s hope that Seasons Vol. 1 means Vol. 2 will follow very quickly, because I see big things for these Ohio boys. 8/10

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