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ARMORED ASSAULT Blood Queen

Album · 2021 · Thrash Metal
Cover art 3.00 | 1 rating
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UMUR
"Blood Queen" is the debut full-length studio album by US, Illinois based thrash metal act Armored Assault. The album was independently released in March 2021. Armored Assault formed in 2004 and released a couple of demos and EP before releasing "Blood Queen". They were formerly known under The RazorBlade Smile monicker.

Listening to "Blood Queen" it´s obvious that these guys have been around since 2004, because Armored Assault are a very well playing band. The musicianship is on a high level on all posts. Sharp precision riffing, convincing raw vocals, and a poowerful playing rhythm section. Drummer Mark Suttner is one of those great drummers who is technically skilled and deliver precision playing but at the same time possesses an organic driving groove, and his playing is extremely important for the overall quality of the music on "Blood Queen".

Stylistically the material on the 7 track, 33:03 minutes long album is aggressive thrash metal with metalcore leanings. Especially the vocals often belong in the raw screaming hardcore influenced metalcore camp, but the vocals are actually relatively diverse and the album also feautures semi-growling vocals, raw thrash metal style vocals, and a couple of clean vocal parts. The tracks are predominantly fast-paced and energetic with fast syncopated thrashy riffs and beats and a high aggression level. "Blood Queen" is an interesting release because of the combination of elements from thrash metal, melodic death metal, and metalcore, and sometimes it´s a strength but other times it doesn´t work as well as intended. I could for example have done without the clean vocals, which I don´t find that convincing.

"Blood Queen" is well produced, featuring a powerful, raw, and detailed sound production, which suits the material well. So upon conclusion "Blood Queen" is a decent quality debut album by Armored Assault. It´s an album for those who enjoy an eclectic and energetic type of thrash metal with metalcore elements, and there is enough promise here for me to give a recommendation to fans of that style. A 3 - 3.5 star (65%) rating is warranted.

EASTERN HIGH Halo

Album · 2021 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.00 | 1 rating
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lukretion
Swedish quintet Eastern High were formed in 2016 from the ashes of a melodic death/thrash metal band Wasted Shells, when brothers Ola and Johan Svensson (vocals and guitars, respectively) decided to commence a new musical adventure, incorporating more progressive elements into their sound. The pair self-released their debut album Garden of Heathens in 2017 and spent the following years scaling up the project to a full-blown band, adding bassist Fredrik Rosdahl, guitarist Niklas Cvetkovski and drummer Christian Lindström to the line-up. Their sophomore album Halo was finally released at the end of July this year.

Shrouded in quintessential Nordic melancholy, Halo is an exciting collection of emotional yet extremely powerful tunes that flirt with a multitude of styles and influences without settling into any specific pigeon hole. There’s a touch of prog metal, but also healthy doses of gothic, folk and melodic death metal, and even a couple of excursions into metalcore (“Notorious Enemy”). All these influences are masterfully amalgamated into the 8 songs of the album, giving the music an organic and distinct sound that brings to mind several illustrious bands, without really sounding like any of them. There are echoes of Amorphis in the most folk-inspired episodes of the record (“Journey”, “Halo”), but the powerful yet incredibly melodic guitar riffs and leads also immediately bring to mind the Gothenburg melodeath scene (Dark Tranquillity, In Flames). Meanwhile, Ola Svensson’s crooning vocals steer the music in the direction of Tiamat and the rest of the gothic metal scene. Come to think about it, Halo might just sound like the album that Dark Tranquillity could have made if they had continued the gothic experiments of Projector (1999), bringing in Johan Edlund on vocals. The prog metal influences (Psychotic Waltz, Dead Soul Tribe) further enrichen the record’s sound, adding a strong sense of dynamics and a fearless taste for the eclectic that gives them the balls to pair up, among other things, huge chunks of really heavy rifforama with samples of Greta Thunberg's “how dare you” UN climate speech (“Erosion of Hearts”).

Although in the previous paragraph I mentioned many bands from the late 90s / early 00s, Halo sports an incredibly modern production sound: heavy on bass, packed with beefy rhythm guitars and thundering drums, and with precise guitar leads that cut perfectly through the mix to deliver their melodic lines. This is the sound that many modern progressive metal bands strive to achieve these days: powerful yet multi-layered, detailed and nuanced. The band did a great job in recording the album and sound engineer Erik Wiss in producing and mixing it.

The first half of the record is absolutely splendid. Songs like “Erosion of Hearts”, “Emperor”, “Notorious Enemy”, and “Journey” have it all: monolithic riffs, super catchy melodies and vocal hooks, good dynamics, and a couple of unexpected turns per song that keep things fresh and interesting (the use of vocal samples on “Erosion of Hearts”, the metalcore breakdown on “Notorious Enemy”, the powerful folksy crescendo on “Journey”). Things take a slightly more sedated turn in the second half, where songs like “Morning Star”, “Dystopia” or the title-track feel a tad too repetitive and are somewhat less inspired, especially in the vocal melodies. The gothic piano ballad “Ashes to Ashes” that closes the album is also a bit hit and miss: it’s slightly too bland and corny, but it finds some redemption in the beautiful guitar solo in the coda.

Despite a somewhat weaker second half, Halo remains a thoroughly enjoyable record, packed with moments of melodic brilliance without sacrificing even an ounce of power for it. The combination of powerful metallic riffs and melodic hooks is undoubtedly one of the major strengths of this album. Another strength lies in the mastery with which the band managed to combine an eclectic set of influences into a sound that feels personal and distinctive. If Eastern High will manage to improve the consistency of their songwriting, it is hard to imagine what could stop their ascent to the very upper echelons of the progressive extreme metal scene.

[Originally written for The Metal Observer]

THE NEAL MORSE BAND Innocence & Danger

Album · 2021 · Metal Related
Cover art 3.58 | 2 ratings
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Back in February, Neal Morse (ex-Spock’s Beard) and Mike Portnoy (ex-Dream Theater) brought you the new Transatlantic record, 150 minutes of prog extravaganza divided across two, differently arranged versions of the same album. Since then, the prog wonder pair did not waste any time, and on August 27th they hit the shelves again with a new The Neal Morse Band’s album, Innocence & Danger, a double-disc release that clocks in at nearly 100 minutes of music. This is supposed to be a “simpler”, more spontaneous release compared to the band’s previous three records, which is probably the case considering how their two prior LPs where a pair of interconnected, double-disc concept albums sprawling across 200 minutes of music in total. Instead, Innocence & Danger is a self-contained, song-based affair, written without a specific overarching theme in mind and with a more relaxed, “let’s have fun in the studio” attitude that certainly transpires through the fresh and diverse material of the album.

This is not to say that the 10 songs of Innocence & Danger fall very far from the tree of metallic prog rock that has characterized a great deal of Neal Morse’s discography, especially since he joined forces with Portnoy back in the early 2000s. On the contrary, the new songs are still very much anchored in Morse-Portnoy’s trademark sound: a blend of prog rock intricacies, robust rhythmical acrobatics, grandiose melodies, and madly skilful playing. Yet, some of the material opens up to new and unexpected influences, like the 80s pop vibes of “Another Story to Tell” and the otherwise Beatles-esque “Your Place in the Sun”. Meanwhile, “The Way It Had to Be” is a great bluesy ballad that brings to mind Pink Floyd as well as some of the singer-songwriter material one can find on Neal Morse’s solo albums. And then there is “Bridge over Troubled Water”, an incredible prog adaptation of Simon & Garfunkel’s classic piece. This is actually one of the highlights of the album. The complex instrumental histrionics added to the song structure are absolutely spot on and the vocal arrangements are superb too.

These injections of new and diverse influences give the album a freshness and levity that a lot of contemporary prog rock/metal records lack. However, this does not come at all at the expense of depth and substance: Innocence & Danger contains some extremely rich prog material, that is structurally complex and thoughtfully arranged. Miraculously, however, the music does not feel complex or studied, even when one faces multi-part mammoth pieces like the 31-minute long “Beyond the Years” or the nearly 20 minutes of “Not Afraid Pt 2” (both contained on the second CD). These compositions are so well-thought out and so tastefully arranged that time literally flies by while one listens to these songs. The flow of these tracks is nearly perfect and the songs contain so many moments of melodic brilliance that verses and choruses stick with you only after a couple of listens.

Still, 100 minutes of music ask a considerable time investment to the listener, so the inevitable question is: is all the material consistently high-quality, or could have they slimmed down the album by leaving out some of the weaker songs? To these ears, the opening four tracks of the first CD (“Do It All Again”, “Bird on a Wire”, “Your Place in the Sun” and “Another Story to Tell”) do not quite match the level of quality of the rest of the material, especially of the two long pieces of the second CD. Although these four songs have all some interesting moments, the melodies are somewhat weaker and, despite listening to each piece multiple times, I still cannot remember any specific vocal line or instrumental passage from any of these tracks. The rest of the songs on the first CD are more memorable, but overall I cannot help but feel that there is a slight imbalance between the two discs: the stronger material, the “meat” of the album so to speak, is clearly on disc 2, while disc 1 feels almost like a looser collection of “bonus” tracks, and I notice that I inevitably tend to gravitate towards the second disc in my repeated listens, often skipping altogether the first disc. It’s a pity because some songs from disc 1 are truly excellent, like the aforementioned cover of “Bridge over Troubled Water” and the ballad “The Way It Had to Be”. I feel that a little more quality control could have make this excellent album, a real masterpiece.

One aspect of the album that initially took me by surprise is the alternation between three vocalists: Morse, guitarist Eric Gilette and keyboard player Bill Hubauer. In nearly all tracks, the three singers swap vocal lines continuously throughout a song, which at first I found slightly unsettling, also in part because they each have slightly peculiar, “acquired taste” voices that takes some time getting used to. But I quickly got into the groove and after a few listens it is actually fun to have three vocalists instead of one in each song. Speaking about things that require getting used to, since the early 2000s a lot of Morse’s lyrics revolve around strongly Christian religious themes, and this album is no exception. It’s nothing overly preachy and I personally do not care too much about lyrics, but it is something that some people may not find to their liking, so be warned.

Overall, Innocence & Danger may not be perfect, but it is still a great album that will no doubt satisfy progressive rock fans. The main strength of the album are its freshness and diversity. There is something for every taste, from the whimsical corners of prog-pop, to bluesy Floydian ballads, to harder-edged rockers, to full-blown, multipart prog epics. The metallic undertones of much of the material contained on this LP will also appeal prog metal lovers, especially fans of bands like Dream Theater, Fates Warning, Pain of Salvation or Threshold. If you are prog-inclined, give this one a try, you won’t be disappointed.

[Originally written for The Metal Observer]

CARNIFEX Graveside Confessions

Album · 2021 · Deathcore
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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Necrotica
Back in a 2010 interview with Noisecreep, when asked about being part of the deathcore scene, Carnifex vocalist Scott Lewis stated: "We're not one of those bands trying to escape the banner of deathcore. I know a lot of bands try and act like they have a big problem with that, but if you listen to their music, they are very 'deathcore.'” And that mentality has been incredibly important to the Carnifex sound over the years. Many bands have tried to escape deathcore’s large, infamous shadow to seek what a large constituent of the metal scene would consider more “respectable” genres of extreme music. Just think back to Job for a Cowboy’s eventual transformation into a progressive death metal act with Sun Eater, or Whitechapel’s excursion into more experimental territory with 2019’s The Valley. But Carnifex are a bit different. While they’ve added a nice helping of black metal influence and a menacing atmosphere to their music over the years, there’s something to be said for a group that stays in the same genre and tries to perfect it as much as they can.

With Graveside Confessions, this trend most certainly continues. While the lack of Jordan Lockrey’s solos continues to be felt, Cory Arford’s relatively diverse guitar leads fill in the cracks nicely. Something that immediately stands out about this record compared to past Carnifex albums is that the transitions are starting to become much smoother, whether it be the seamless fusion of melodic and groovy segments that make up “Carry Us Away” or the way the beautifully melancholic instrumental “January Nights” is followed up perfectly by the furious aggression of “Cemetery Wander”. The black metal elements are also on full display on Graveside Confessions, and they remain a welcome presence. “Countess of Perpetual Torment” (which already sounds like a Cradle of Filth song title as it is) is probably the biggest example of such, even combining its tremolo guitar riffs with a nice backdrop of symphonic keyboards to increase the spookiness factor.

But again, the band still haven’t strayed away from the beaten deathcore path they’ve trodden since their inception; instead, it’s all about the little tweaks they’ve made to their sound over time. Even the breakdowns themselves have become much more creative; while the end of “Cursed” sports a pretty simple chug, the strange out-of-tune guitar lead in the background immediately provides a more intriguing and haunted feel to the outro as a whole. Then you have “Talk to the Dead”, which has a recurring melodic riff that’s presented in different ways throughout the tune. It starts out in a black metal-influenced tremolo-picked manner, only for Arford to eventually fashion a harmonized guitar outro with the same melody. Little bits of diversity like this are what often separate Carnifex from the deathcore pack, and perhaps the best song to represent this would be the instrumental track “January Nights”. It’s worth noting that the band have already done a song like this before, with “Dead in My Eyes” and “Life Fades to a Funeral” immediately coming to mind. However, “January Nights” is like the culmination of their efforts with those tracks; this is the first time they’ve attempted a full-length non-interlude piece in this style, and it’s a fantastic way to break up the aggression the rest of the album exhibits.

Still, not all is perfect. I’m a bit baffled as to why the re-recorded songs weren’t just released as bonus tracks. Sure, it’s cool to hear these old Carnifex songs in a new light - and with better production, of course - just to see how far they’ve come. However, if you’re trying to listen to Graveside Confessions from front to back, just be aware that this one’s much more of a time sink than the band’s previous records because of these re-recorded cuts. Also, as is the case with just about every Carnifex album, the lyrics are still pretty damn shaky. Random f-bombs are still scattered about to remove the listener from a given song’s atmosphere, and stuff like “One of these souls has a shelf life/that fucker wanted me dead by 25/and every day since I’ve been restless/I know it’s just a matter of time” (from “Seven Souls”) is just as cringy as it’s ever been. Unfortunately, given the lack of progression found in the quality of Carnifex’s lyrics, I somehow doubt they’ll get much better in the future.

Regardless, Graveside Confessions stands as one of the band’s best works to date alongside Slow Death and Until I Feel Nothing. I feel as though they’ve finally settled into a pattern now, in the sense that you usually know what you’re going to get with a Carnifex record but it’s guaranteed to be a cut above your average deathcore act. They know what they’re about, and they’ll continue to strive for the best version of themselves with each passing release. Much like Cannibal Corpse before them, there’s a consistency in Carnifex’s output that’s admirable whether you enjoy their work or not; their brand is a reliable seal of quality, and Graveside Confessions is yet another feather in their cap.

BETWEEN THE BURIED AND ME Colors II

Album · 2021 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.95 | 6 ratings
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Colors II is a loaded album title if I’ve ever seen one. 14 years down the line, it seems our friendly neighborhood prog-tech-core-death-etc. band has seen fit to draw from the well of their breakthrough masterwork; and really, why shouldn’t they? Colors remains one of the most acclaimed metal albums of the 2000s, practically redefining what it meant to be a progressive metal band going forward. Between the Buried and Me’s penchant for creative musical set pieces and genre-bending craziness really hit a stride on the landmark record; however, as with any album that garners that much adoration, there will always be that lingering pressure to top it. But let’s be real here: 2021 Between the Buried and Me is quite different from 2007 Between the Buried and Me. So much has changed, whether that be the inclusion of even more off-the-wall avant-garde elements or the growing prominence of vocalist Tommy Giles as a keyboardist. But I think the reason for Colors II being a loaded title is fairly obvious; it’s a title intended to cause excitement for fans - especially longtime ones - but that could quickly turn into crushing disappointment if Colors’ level of quality isn’t at least somewhat met.

On a surface level, Colors II does seem to provide exactly what it should: a highly enjoyable followup to Colors that mirrors it stylistically. The same techy riffs, blazing solos, crazy genre experiments, atmospheric synth excursions, and juxtaposition of clean and growled vocals… they’re all still here. And if stuff like that is your criteria for loving the record, I can’t blame you. “Monochrome” is a pretty dead giveaway that there will be references to the original album, the song taking on a similar “piano intro to extreme metal” crescendo to “Foam Born A: The Backtrack” which opens Colors. On the other hand, there are a few experiments that really surprised me, as they likely wouldn’t have found a place on the original record at all; the hardcore punk elements of “Fix the Error” and random fife-driven folk breaks in “Never Seen/Future Shock” immediately come to mind. Meanwhile, you’ll find more familiar territory with songs such as the chugging extreme-yet-melodic approach of “The Double Helix of Extinction” or the “White Walls”-esque rolling drums and complex web of riffs that comprise closer “Human is Hell (Another One With Love)”.

The performances, as you’d expect at this point, are fantastic. The members really haven’t lost a beat since the original Colors in regards to playing such complex and technical material with grace and confidence. Paul Waggoner and Dustie Waring remain a formidable guitar duo, whether it be navigating the crazy rhythm parts of the Dream Theater-esque intro to “Prehistory” or the beautiful - and vaguely jazzy - chords found on “Stare Into the Abyss”. Waggoner is particularly noteworthy for some of the striking leads he pulls off on this record, especially in the fantastic… uh, Latin circus section(?) (that’s probably the best way I can describe it) at the end of “Revolution in Limbo”. And obviously Dan Briggs and Blake Richardson still bring the thunder on the low end of things. However, the member who deserves the most recognition for Colors II is definitely Tommy Giles. He’s often the member who garners the most criticism from both fans and detractors, but he sounds so much better here than he did on the original Colors. His growls have stayed largely the same, but you can tell his cleans have come a long way - both in technique and confidence behind the mic. Plus, on songs like “Prehistory” and “Never Seen/Future Shock” his way of hamming up the more theatrical bits is just so fun.

Unfortunately, there’s one thing holding Colors II back from the heights of its predecessor, and I think it’s a pretty big one. That being: the glue that holds everything together. The original Colors was unapologetic about having wild flights of fancy and not giving a fuck what direction the music was going, but there was always some centralized location the music could come back to. And that was usually in the form of a cathartic release, whether it be the beautiful “feed me fear” section of “Informal Gluttony” or the soaring Pachelbel-esque melody that rears its head twice on “Ants of the Sky”. Not only were these moments anthemic and memorable, but they were also a great way of ensuring the more technical and crushing sections didn’t kill the record’s focus. More importantly, the music would have simply become riff salad without these moments of restraint, and that’s where Colors II all too often hits a wall. 79 minutes is already a beefy album length to begin with, and there simply isn’t enough focus to maintain that runtime. This is particularly felt in “Human is Hell (Another One With Love)”, which just meanders on without much of a reason for being 15 damn minutes long. Even the pleasant soft section that builds up the song’s conclusion is just kinda… there. Sure, there are a few potentially anthemic moments on the record, such as the “monotonous drought” section from “Revolution in Limbo”, but the album really could have benefitted from more of these segments.

With all of that said, I think Colors II can be enjoyed more for its craftsmanship than as an emotional journey. The compositions and diverse arrangements are still a lot of fun and the performances are incredibly solid, but the album often comes off as a jumbled mess when compared to its predecessor; it doesn’t help that so many parts mirror that record as well, thus constantly inviting further comparison. But then again, that’s what happens when you brand it as a sequel, right? The callbacks were inevitable. However, given a lot of the amazing material that’s here, it’s just a shame that I don’t feel much of anything when listening to it like I did with the original Colors. Still, it’s worth a listen for its abundance of great riffs and impressive technical acumen, so don’t miss out on it if you’ve enjoyed Between the Buried and Me’s more recent work.

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ULCERATE Shrines of Paralysis

Album · 2016 · Technical Death Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 5 ratings
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"Shrines of Paralysis" is the 5th full-length studio album by New Zealand death metal act Ulcerate. The album was released through Relapse Records in October 2016. It´s the successor to "Vermis" from 2013 and features the same three-piece lineup who recorded the predecessor.

"Shrines of Paralysis" is relatively similar in style to the dissonant and technical death metal featured on "Vermis (2013)". It´s a style of music the band introduced on their second album "Everything Is Fire (2009)" and have developed and refined since then. Ulcerate are strongly influenced by mid- to late 90s Gorguts and that act´s creative use of dissonance and desire to push the boundaries of death metal. It´s dark and ultra heavy oppressive music, and even when the band play faster, the overall sound is still gloomy and heavy.

It´s pretty surely an aquired taste if the listener is able to appreciate the band´s vision as the heavy use of dissonance is probably an obstacle for some. Viewed more objectively Ulcerate arguably succeed well with their ideas though, and "Shrines of Paralysis" is generally an adventurous, massive, and gritty journey into darkness. The band are technically very well playing, and although the growling vocals are one-dimensional and a bit emotionless in nature, they do get the job done and apply another layer of bleakness to the listening experience...

...and this is bleak, bleak, bleak. Not even a small ray of light will ever be able to penetrate the thick dissonant darkness of the material on the 8 track, 57:44 minutes long album. "Shrines of Paralysis" features a heavy, detailed, and raw sounding production, which suits the material perfectly, so upon conclusion "Shrines of Paralysis" is another high quality release by Ulcerate. A 4 star (80%) rating is deserved.

TIME MACHINE Evil (Liber Primus)

Album · 2001 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.08 | 2 ratings
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After two LPs and a string of shorter EPs, in October 2001Italian prog metallers Time Machine released their third full-length album, “Evil”, a concept album based on the novel “Cherudek” by Italian writer Valerio Evangelisti. The record marks yet another revolution in the band’s line-up, with three new members appearing on “Evil” relative to the previous release: guitarist Gianluca Ferro, drummer Claudio Riotti, and singer Pino Tozzi (all coming from Italian prog metal band Arkhè). The new members join long-time members Lorenzo Dehó (bass) and Joe Taccone (guitars), as well as a small number of guest musicians, including long-term band collaborator Roberto Gramegna on keyboards and Eddy Antonini (Skylark) on piano in “Eyes of Fire”.

“Evil” is a rather accomplished release, especially when compared to those early, roughly produced Time Machine albums. The album contains ten tracks of melodic progressive / symphonic power metal, pretty much in the vein of bands like Royal Hunt, Savatage and Threshold. There are also hints of more traditional prog metal (Dream Theater) as well as neoclassical metal (Rainbow). The tracks revolve around excellent vocal melodies and big, singalong choruses that are masterfully crafted to immediately prick up the ears. The song structures are fairly simple and never stray too far from the verse/chorus repetition, plus the occasional guitar solo. The arrangements, though, are rich and multi-layered, with a good contrast between a modern, edgy guitar sound and lush symphonic keyboard arrangements. The spotlight is often on the vocal lines, which in many tracks are really excellent. Pino Tozzi has a warm, moody voice, and he cleverly stays in a comfortable mid-range that allows for maximum expressivity.

The album contains some great songs, but also a couple of duller moments that detract a bit from the overall listening experience. The powerful, uptempo “Where’s My Heaven?” is a great way to open the album, energizing and melancholic at the same time. “Eyes of Fire” is one of the album’s highlights: propelled forward by a gritty guitar riff, this song sports a very catchy chorus and a great solo spot by Eddy Antonini on piano. “Evil Lies” is the other highlight of the album. It is a rich song, containing another excellent chorus, a nice alternation between male and female vocals (provided by guest singer Melody Castellari), a Latin choir, and an awesome dissonant guitar solo by guest musician Max Lotti. The instrumental piece “Ecclesia Spiritualis” is also interesting, with its spooky ambient sections and cool atmosphere. I also like the album closer, “Hailing Souls”, which recreates the combination of power and moodiness of the opening track. “Army of the Dead” (with its strong Royal Hunt vibes) and especially “Angel of Death” are instead somewhat less interesting and are bogged down by weaker vocal melodies and excessive repetition.

Overall, “Evil” is a thoroughly enjoyable album of modern melodic progressive metal. Blessed by a very warm and organic production and some great melodic ideas, the album flows away pleasantly and with more than a few moments of brilliance. If I were to nit-pick, perhaps the biggest downside here is that on this record Time Machine have somewhat lost those peculiar sound characteristics that had made their early records stand out from the rest of the prog metal scene (complex, multi-part songwriting driven by bass riffs and arpeggios; a distinctive “Italian” melodic flair). “Evil” sounds instead much closer to the international prog metal standard of those years, which is both a good and bad thing. It is a good thing because it shows that the band has made enormous progress compared to the uncertain, slightly amateurish early recordings. But, at the same time, this also means that Time Machine have lost along the way those characteristics that had made their initial sound unique and original. Nevertheless, “Evil” is a strong album, and if melodic prog / power metal is your poison of choice, you won’t regret giving it a try.

TIME MACHINE Act II: Galileo

Album · 1996 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 2.50 | 2 ratings
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Released in 1995, “Act II: Galileo” is the debut full-length release of Italian prog metallers Time Machine. Hailing from Milan, the band had actually released already an EP (“Project: Time Scanning”) with a similar line-up, hence why they titled the album “Act II”. The band’s driving force is bass player Lorenzo Dehó, who is the main songwriter and lyricist. Joe Taccone and Ivan Oggioni play guitars and new band member Antonio Rotta sits behind the drum kit. Another new member, Folco Orlandini (who will later appear on a couple of Skylark’s records), takes charge of the vocal department.

“Act II: Galileo” is a concept album about Galileo Galilei, the so-called “father of modern science” who lived in the 17th century. The album narrates his trial for heresy by the Inquisition which ended with his condemnation to house arrests, where Galileo spent the rest of his life. It is an interesting theme, especially for those who, like me, are suckers for history-tinged conceptual albums.

Musically, the album is divided into nine tracks, which are further divided across nineteen interconnected sub-tracks, some of which are short instrumental and others longer pieces with vocals. Many sub-tracks are interconnected and flow seamlessly into one another, which fits well with the conceptual nature of the record. The music can be described as melodic progressive metal, built around complex song structures and virtuoso playing in the vein of Queensryche and, less obviously, Dream Theater. One unusual aspect of the album is that many of the songs revolve around bass riffs, reflecting the role of Lorenzo Dehó as main composer of the material. Guitars arpeggios, riffs and leads and lush keyboard arrangements also play a very prominent role, giving the album a rich and multi-layered sound which fits well with its progressive ambitions. Folco Orlandini’s vocals are quite good, too. He has a standard, high-pitched prog metal voice, halfway between LaBrie, Matos and Tate. He uses his voice very well, alternating between balls-to-the-wall singing and more atmospheric, mid-range passages, offering an overall nuanced and sophisticated performance.

“Act II: Galileo” is a huge improvement over the debut EP, with some excellent compositions such as the sinister, partly ambient instrumental “Dungeons of the Vatican”, and “Cold Flames of Faith”, an inventive tour-de-force that develops between mellow ballad and full-blown Queensryche-like prog monster. “White Collars” sports an interesting finale with a cool guitar and moog solos. “Prisoner of Dreams” is another good track that harks back to the classic Queensryche balladry. Other songs contain also interesting moments, but one defect of the LP - which was also present in the debut EP - is that often these ideas are not fully developed, as the band is (too) quick to move on to the next idea. There are so many moments on this album where I just wish the band could stay just a bit longer on each musical idea to develop it in full. Instead, Dehó’s tendency to cram each song with a myriad of different parts (some good, some less good) makes the album feel too fragmented and rushed. It is a pity, because the talent is obviously there and, with some guidance from an expert producer, this album could have been a much more assured release.

The production is the other downside of this record. The sound has hugely improved relative to the debut EP, but the production is still too rough, especially when it comes to the guitar and drum sound, which are barely above the level one would expect from a demo. The mix is also somewhat awkward, with the keyboards sitting way too high in the overall mix of many songs.

It is a pity, because “Act II: Galileo” contains some very good material which shows that Time Machine are a band full of ideas and talent. However, the subpar sound production and a not yet fully mature songwriting bog down this release considerably. With a bit more quality control, some careful pruning of the less valid material, and a better sound production and mix, this album could have been a much more impressive release than what it actually is.

TIME MACHINE Project: Time Scanning

EP · 1993 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 2.00 | 1 rating
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Time Machine are a prog metal band from Italy that were active throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, and “Project: Time Scanning” is their debut EP, later re-released as full-length album with the addition of a couple of bonus tracks. The band is the brainchild of bass player Lorenzo Dehó, who, together with guitar player Ivan Oggioni, in the late 1992 decided to put together a one-off “project” album to mark an end to their musical collaboration. The duo enlisted a couple of additional musicians (Ivan Taccone on guitars, Roberto Besana on drums) and singers (Fabio Pagani and Andrea Ruggeri from Moon of Steel, another Italian prog metal band), and in 1993 released the outcome under the title “Project: Time Scanning”.

The EP contains seven tracks (the 1997 re-release adds two further songs, taken by their sophomore EP “Dungeons of the Vatican”). The music can be described as 1980-influenced melodic heavy metal (Queensryche above all), with distinctive progressive leanings. These are mostly apparent in the non-standard structure of the songs, which are quite elaborated and complex, and in the virtuoso playing. There are some neoclassical themes too, hinting at Rainbow being another influence. The music is pretty much guitar and bass-driven, but keyboards and piano are also used abundantly (played by producer and long-time collaborator of the band Roberto Gramegna).

Speaking of production, it is probably the worst aspect of the EP. The sound is incredibly muddy and rough, and the mix is very unbalanced (it is sometimes a struggle to hear some of the instruments, like the keyboards). The guitar sound is also pretty terrible, thin and noisy, and so is the drum sound. The vocals, too, would have needed a bit more polish, especially in the songs where Andrea Ruggeri sings. Overall, the low-budget production definitely ruins the listening experience. The other major drawback of the album - which will plague the next couple of releases of the band - is Dehó’s tendency to cram his compositions with an insanely large amount of different sections, with different tempos, moods and instrumentation. Some sections last literally just a handful of seconds. While no doubt this adds depth to the compositions, it also makes them excessively fragmented and ultimately hard to enjoy, really.

It is a pity, because some songs are pretty decent, such as “Holy Man”, a track that combines heavy metal and a certain Italian prog-pop flair, resulting in an interesting and fairly original sound. “Past and Future” is another good track, with strong vocals and a cool, dark symphonic atmosphere. The other tracks are less impressive, although most of them do contain some interesting ideas and passages, albeit not fully developed.

Overall, “Project: Time Scanning” is an interesting EP, which clearly shows the band’s potential. Being a debut album, it also shows that Time Machine are still on a learning curve, especially when it comes to composing and arranging songs that are complex but at the same time enjoyable and fun to listen to. The EP nevertheless shows that Time Machine are a band to watch for and indeed in the space of a few years they will become one of the most respected acts in the Italian prog metal scene.

MY DYING BRIDE The Dreadful Hours

Album · 2001 · Death-Doom Metal
Cover art 4.42 | 29 ratings
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"The Dreadful Hours" is the 7th full-length studio album by UK doom/death metal act My Dying Bride. The album was released through Peaceville Records in November 2001. It´s the successor to "The Light at the End of the World" from 1999 and features one lineup change since the predecessor as My Dying Bride is again a quintet with the addition of second guitarist Hamish Hamilton Glencross (formerly of Seer's Tear and Solstice).

Stylistically the material on "The Dreadful Hours" is heavy and melancholic doom/death metal. Lead vocalist Aaron Stainthorpe´s vocal style varies between clean and often subdued melancholic vocals and death metal growling. There´s good variation between slow heavy melodic riffing and mid-paced more energetic riffs. The music is generally dynamic in nature featuring both quiet parts and more loud aggressive parts. The melancholic gloomy atmosphere is always the focal point of the compositions though. The violin which was such a big part of the band´s early releases, hasn´t been part of the band´s sound for a couple of albums now and "The Dreadful Hours" continues the more synth/keyboard laden sound of those albums. The band use string synth sounds to compensate for the lack of violin, and it actually works really well.

The songs are structurally intriguing and generally very well written. But that probably doesn´t come as a surprise if you are familiar with the earlier material by the band. My Dying Bride have always composed unconventionally structured track. The 70 minutes long album features 8 tracks. The first 7 tracks are new compositions while the 8th track on the album is a re-recording of "The Return of the Beautiful", which was originally featured on the 1992 "As the Flower Withers" debut album by My Dying Bride. The band change the song towards the end but otherwise the version on this album pretty much sticks to the original. The dynamic and beautiful album opening title track is definitely one of the highlights of the album, but "The Dreadful Hours" is a consistently high quality release, and there´s not a single sub par moment on the album.

"The Dreadful Hours" features a defined, powerful, and detailed sound production, which suits the material perfectly. It´s a less dark and heavy sound production compared to the sound production on the direct predecessor, but it suits the dynamic nature of the music well. Upon conclusion "The Dreadful Hours" is one of the strongest releases in the band´s discography. It may not be as groundbreaking as some of their early releases, but the songwriting is top notch, the performances are tight and adventurous, and the sound production professional and well sounding. Simply put, this is through and through a high quality release and a 4.5 star (90%) rating is deserved.

MANTICORA Roots of Eternity

Album · 1999 · Power Metal
Cover art 3.50 | 2 ratings
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"Roots of Eternity" is the debut full-length studio album by Danish power metal act Manticora. The album was released through Black Lotus Records in August 1999. It follows up the release of the "Dead End Solution" EP from 1997, which was originally released under the Manticore monicker, but is still considered Manticora´s first release. Forming in 1996 under the Manticore monicker the band changed their name to the current one in 1997.

Stylistically the material on "Roots of Eternity" continue the dark and heavy take on Euro power metal that Manticora initiated on "Dead End Solution (1997)". The songwriting and the performances are a notch up in quality from the EP, which is also what I expected and the same can be said about the sound production, which is more professional and powerful than the sound production on the EP. When that is said Manticora haven´t taken a quantum leap on "Roots of Eternity". The addition of keyboard player Jeppe Eg Jensen brings more focus on that instrument, but the music is still predominantly centered around the heavy guiar riffs and melodic themes of guitarists Kristian Larsen and Flemming Shultz (also new in the lineup since the EP).

Lead vocalist Lars Larsen predominantly sings in mid-range, and that´s a good choice because he still sounds a little strained when he hits the high notes, and although he is a skilled enough singer, his voice and vocal style don´t bring that icing on the cake element that the best singers bring to music. The instrumental performances are strong, but there´s little here anyone would think of as unique or original. This is just good solid quality Euro power metal in the heavy end of the scale, with the occasional progressive element thrown in for variation. A 3 - 3.5 star (65%) rating is warranted.

FLESHCRAWL Soulskinner

Album · 2002 · Death Metal
Cover art 3.00 | 1 rating
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"Soulskinner" is the 6th full-length studio album by German death metal act Fleshcrawl. The album was released through Metal Blade Records in January 2002. It´s the successor to "As Blood Rains From the Sky... We Walk the Path of Endless Fire" from 2000. There´s been one lineup change since the predecessor as bassist Tobias Schick has been added to the ranks (guitarist Mike Hanus played the bass parts on "As Blood Rains From the Sky... We Walk the Path of Endless Fire (2000)"). Since their inception Fleshcrawl have been exponents for old school death metal in it´s purest form and rest assure that nothing has changed on "Soulskinner".

...we´re still treated to straight forward old school death metal with brutal growling vocals (only few words stand out. The vocals are mostly unintelligible), crunchy downtuned riffing (the riffing often reminds me of Dismember both in sound and in style) and drumming that spans from blast beating, D-beat drumming, slower doomy rythms and mid-paced groovier beats. The band are very well playing and "Soulskinner" also features a really brutal and powerful sound production that suits the music well.

As such all of the above features should have ensured a really good ride if you are a fan of old school death metal, but unfortunately "Soulskinner" proves to be a somewhat one-dimensional affair. By the time I reach track 4 or 5 on the album I´m wondering when track number 2 ends and that´s a sign that the tracks lack memorable moments/hooks. I´m entertained while the album plays, but only remember very few moments from the album when it´s over. Now I expect old school death metal albums to be somewhat one-dimensional, because that´s sort of the premise of the genre and usually also a demand from the fans of that particular genre, but there still needs to be hooks to hold on too, for an album to stick and they are basically not present here. A 3 star (60%) rating is warranted.

EXODUS Bonded by Blood

Album · 1985 · Thrash Metal
Cover art 4.03 | 52 ratings
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"Bonded by Blood" is the debut full-length studio album by US, California based thrash metal act Exodus. The album was released through Torrid Records in April 1985. "Bonded by Blood" was already recorded and ready for release in the summer of 1984, but because of issues between Exodus and the record label, the release of the album was pushed. In retrospect that was probably one of the main reasons why Exodus didn´t make it as big as contemporaries like Metallica and Slayer. They simply missed their window of opportunity. Formed in 1979 by drummer Tom Hunting and guitarist Kirk Hammett, Exodus were otherwise one of the seminal thrash metal acts on the San Francisco, Bay Area scene and released two well received demos in 1982 and 1983. Kirk Hammett departed in 1983 to become a member of Metallica, but the band soldiered on without him. The lineup who recorded "Bonded by Blood" are: Paul Baloff (vocals), Gary Holt (guitars), Rick Hunolt (guitars), Rob McKillop (bass), an Tom Hunting (drums).

Stylistically the material on the 9 track, 49:18 minutes long album is powerful thrash metal, featuring pounding drums, sharp riffs, screaming solos, and a raw sounding vocalist in Paul Baloff. He is not a particularly skilled singer, but his unpolished singing style suits the material well (complimented by shouting riot gang backing vocals). Like most early thrash metal releases, "Bonded by Blood" also features its share of speed/traditional heavy metal elements (a track like "Metal Command" could be mentioned as a reference here), but it´s generally a pretty hard edged thrashy release. There aren´t much variation between tracks, but all tracks are catchy with hook laden shout-along choruses, which means they are still easy to tell apart although the main ingredients (riff style, vocal style, song structure...etc.) are almost the same on every track. Highlights include the title track, "A Lesson in Violence", and "Piranha", but all 9 tracks on the 40:31 minutes long album are consistent in quality and style.

"Bonded by Blood" also features a powerful and detailed sound production, which suits the material perfectly, so upon conclusion it´s a high quality debut release. I always measure early- to mid 80s thrash metal debut albums up against "Kill 'Em All (1983)" by Metallica, because that to me is THE thrash metal debut album from that time, and none of the other contemporary thrash metal artists (Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax, Testament, Overkill...), were able to reach the heights of that album, with their debut albums. "Bonded by Blood" on the other hand came close. To my ears this is one of the greatest thrash metal debut albums from that time as the songwriting is strong, the musicianship is on a high level, and the sound production is of a high quality too. A 4 star (80%) rating is deserved.

CATTLE DECAPITATION Humanure

Album · 2004 · Death Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 7 ratings
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"Humanure" is the 3rd full-length studio album by US, California based grindcore/death metal act Cattle Decapitation. The album was released through Metal Blade Records in June 2004. It´s the successor to "To Serve Man" from 2002, and it features one lineup change since the predecessor as drummer Dave Astor has been replaced by Michael Laughlin.

Stylistically the material on "Humanure" is a combination of goregrind and death metal. Early Carcass is an obvious influence (especially as a result of the deep growl/higher pitched snarling vocal combination), but Cattle Decapitation put their own mark on the genre. If the cover artwork didn´t give it away, Cattle Decapitation write politically charged lyrics. A lot of them dealing with how humans treat animals as a food ressource.

"Humanure" is a well written album featuring loads of powerful riffs, intricate drumming with tempo changes, and the above mentioned brutal vocals. There could have been a little more variation between tracks, because it´s not always clear when one track ends and another begins. The individual tracks are all of a high quality though, so the one-dimensional nature of the material is not a major issue.

The sound production is professional, detailed, and overall suits the material well. So upon conclusion "Humanure" is a another step up in quality compared to the preceding releases by Cattle Decapitation, and while there are still features which could be improved upon (more songwriting hooks and less one-dimensional songwriting), "Humanure" is overall a quality grindcore/death metal release, and a 3.5 star (70%) rating is deserved.

MEGADETH Endgame

Album · 2009 · Thrash Metal
Cover art 3.78 | 79 ratings
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"Endgame" is the 12th full-length studio album by US thrash/heavy metal act Megadeth. The album was released through Roadrunner Records in September 2009. It´s the successor to "United Abominations" from 2007 and features one lineup change since the predecessor as guitarist Glen Drover has left and has been replaced by Chris Broderick, who was fresh out of a 1997-2008 period stint with Jag Panzer. The rhythm section of drummer Shawn Drover and bassist James Lomenzo are still onboard with lead vocalist/guitarist Dave Mustaine completing the quartet lineup.

"Endgame" is usually considered one of the more thrash metal oriented releases in the band´s discography, and tracks like "This Day We Fight!" and "Head Crusher" are definitely in the fast-paced and thrashy end of the scale for Megadeth, but there is a little more to "Endgame" than what those tracks might suggest. But when you think of it most of the band´s releases are quite varied in style, so it´s no surprise that "Endgame" also features heavier thrash/heavy metal tracks, more melodic oriented songs, and even a half power ballad in "The Hardest Part of Letting Go... Sealed With a Kiss".

Megadeth are as well playing as ever, and Broderick brings a lot of shredding to the plate. "Endgame" is absolutely loaded with blistering guitar solos and lead guitar themes in top of the sharp thrash/heavy metal riffs and the powerful playing rhythm section. Mustaine sounds great on the album, although his voice and vocal style will always be an aquired taste. The sound production is courtesy of Mustaine and Andy Sneap, and although I could have wished for a slightly more organic production on the drums, the production is a high quality job. Powerful, sharp, and detailed, perfectly suiting the material. Upon conclusion "Endgame" is a strong release by Megadeth and a 4 - 4.5 star (85%) rating is fully deserved.

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