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OCEANS OF SLUMBER Starlight and Ash

Album · 2022 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 5.00 | 1 rating
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lukretion
I’ll start this review with a confession: this is the album that I always hoped Oceans of Slumber would make. Don’t get me wrong: I did enjoy the Texan band’s take on the progressive death/doom genre that they have been perfecting over their previous albums. But especially after their 2020’s self-titled LP, I had the strong feeling that the band had reached the limits of what they could do with that sound. It had started to grow stale and did not seem to do full justice to the band’s immense talent, especially to that of their lead singer Cammie Gilbert. Unexpressed potential is probably a way to put it – there was tons of that on their last album. A change was inevitable if Oceans of Slumber wanted to move to the next level. And what a change they delivered with Starlight and Ash!

The new album wipes away most of the tenets that had guided the band’s sound up to this point. Gone are the cavernous death growls. Gone the blistering double-bass runs and most of the other extreme metal aesthetics. Comparing the new LP’s tracklist with that of previous records, you’ll also realize that even the band’s idea of what a song is has radically changed– gone are the long-winding, multi-part 7-minute epics, leaving room for more concise, 4-minute tunes centered around Cammie Gilbert’s extraordinary vocal talent. You get the gist: Oceans of Slumber have taken the road that several other metal bands took before them, moving away from the heavy shores of extreme metal towards softer, more melodic expanses.

To be frank, this much I had expected after listening to Oceans of Slumber’s last LP. That record already contained a handful of more melodic, gothic ballads that were catered to Gilbert’s clean voice. My bet at the time was that the band would continue to dig deeper into this balladry sound, perhaps landing somewhere not far from modern-day Anathema. And here is where I was spectacularly wrong. Because, you see, Starlight and Ash does much more than simply mellowing down the band’s original sound. That’s only part of it. Oceans of Slumber take this softer songwriting approach and let it grow into a whole new aesthetic, which they dubbed “Southern Gothic”.

If you are like me, the term Southern Gothic will tell you little about the actual sonic identity of the album, but it may give you a good idea of the type of vibes it emanates: dark, gloomy, dramatic, but also charged with a deeper spiritual intensity that speaks of trauma and catharsis. Then there is of course the adjective “Southern”, which is testament to the band’s geographical roots and evokes rhythm and blues, gospel, and country music. And here is probably where the biggest surprise of the album lies: those Southern musical traditions are subtly weaved into the songs to form a new, hybrid sound where twangy blues guitars and gospel choirs are juxtaposed to art rock sensibilities, dashes of electronica and, of course, a lingering sense of sluggish heaviness that is inherited straight from the band’s death/doom origins.

This genre bending is done masterfully and ever-so-subtly. The blues and gospel influences are not as in-your-face as, say, in a Zeal & Ardor album, but surface gently from the groovy rhythms and soulful melodies of “The Lighthouse” and “Salvation”, probably the two songs with the strongest Southern accents on the album. These tracks also illustrate another characteristic of the album’s sound that emerges consistently through its 11 songs: drum grooves and vocal melodies take absolutely center stage in Starlight and Ash, to the point that at times they constitute a song’s whole texture. Guitars and keyboards are instead used with restraint, to inject bursts of color into the sound and to shift the songs’ dynamics to dramatic effects (“The Waters Rising”; “Hearts of Stone”; “Red Forest Roads”). Elsewhere, Oceans of Slumber flirt with dreamy art pop (“The Hanging Tree”), while “Star Altar” is the song that most reminds me of the band’s metal heritage – a gorgeous, doomy affair that twists and turns across its different parts before exploding into a spellbinding, down-tuned finale that is bound to trigger some serious headbanging.

These first seven songs are absolutely stunning and showcase the tremendous potential of the band’s newfound style. The flow from song to song is also exceptional: each new track builds on the previous one, but introduces new nuances to the sound, subtly pushing it into a slightly distinct direction to explore a different sonic niche. The magic breaks down somewhat as the album moves to the next set of songs (“The Spring of ‘21”, “Just a Day” and “House of the Rising Sun” - the latter a cover of a 1960s song by UK rhythm-and-blues act The Animals). I cannot quite put my finger on what it is, but these three tracks do not chime in with the rest of the record. Taken separately, there is nothing particularly wrong with each of them. Granted, “The Spring of ‘21” could do with some trimming in its second half, and the mood shifts in “Just a Day” are just a tad too jarring, but this is nothing that one does not get used to after a few listens. My reservation mostly comes from the way these three songs diverge – quite abruptly – from the rest of the album, both sonically and in terms of atmosphere. While the sound progression up to here had been gentle and subtle, suddenly we are confronted with a stark narrative jump, as we plunge into moody piano music (“The Spring of ‘21”, the first part of “Just a Day”) that suddenly turns into the heaviest wall-of-sound bit you will find in the whole album (the second part and the finale of “Just a Day”). Meanwhile, “House of the Rising Sun” veers into chamber rock, with its lush string arrangements and violin solo, marking yet another sudden change of direction in terms of sound. Starlight and Ash eventually returns to the sonic identity of its initial songs with “The Shipbuilder's Son” – a very good song in itself, although it’s somehow too late to restore the continuity and the magic that the first seven tracks were able to create.

Despite my misgivings about the album’s second-half, Starlight and Ash remains a mighty strong record. I have no doubt this is Oceans of Slumber’s best album to date and I am quite sure it will top my album of the year list too. But I am also prepared to go out on a limb and say this record will end up among my favourite 10/15 albums of all times, simply because it excels in absolutely everything that I love in music. It has a sound that innovates without losing sight of the band’s own heritage (both musical and cultural), and, as a consequence, it feels fresh and interesting but at the same familiar. It is exquisitely produced, feeling organic and nuanced, but retaining bite and power when needed. It contains fantastic melodies and arrangements, and superb performances from all musicians involved, especially from Cammie Gilbert – probably the best female singer in metal right now. Most importantly, Starlight and Ash delivers music with soul, capable of connecting with the listener at a profound emotional level, thanks to its themes of trauma and redemption and to its deep musicality and transporting impetus. As I said at the beginning of this review, I have been waiting for Oceans of Slumber to write this album since I first heard their music back in 2016, as I felt the band had the potential to express themselves at a whole new level. Even so, Starlight and Ash vastly surpasses my expectations. If there is only one album you can listen to this year, make sure it is this one.

[Originally written for The Metal Observer]

DECAPITATED Cancer Culture

Album · 2022 · Technical Death Metal
Cover art 3.79 | 3 ratings
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Kev Rowland
Back with their eighth full-length album, Decapitated show no sign whatsoever of slowing down. Guitarist Vogg has of course been there since the very beginning back in 1996, while singer Rasta has also been there for more than ten years, but since their last album they have brought in a new drummer in James Stewart. They don’t have a full-time bassist at present, but previous member Paweł Pasek stepped in as a guest for this release, while they also have two guests who each contribute vocals to one track, namely Tatiana Shmayluk from Jinjer and none other than Robb Flynn from Machine Head!

What sets this album apart from much of their output is the sheer diversity contained within. They keep switching tempos so one is never sure what is going to come next, the result being an album that sits strongly within the traditional death metal genre yet keeps moving and changing. The brutal “Hello Death” suddenly loses its bass, we get a lot of finger-tapping and suddenly Tatiana is in there providing clear vocals and then we move into a style which has much more in common with djent. If that were not enough, “Iconoclast” is an absolute stand out with Robb Flynn providing some wonderful clear vocals in the middle which transforms what has been until then a death metal belter. Vogg has been in this band most of his life, and his guitar sound is rich and deep as he continues to drive the band forward, taking them in new directions. The title cut is the first proper song, and it is ear-strippingly fast, yet there is polish within, while “Just a Cigarette” allows Stewart to show he would be just at happy in a grindcore band, yet still provides finesse with some nice nuances around the kit.

They have celebrated their first quarter of century in style, here’s to the next.

MASSACRE Mythos

EP · 2022 · Death Metal
Cover art 4.42 | 2 ratings
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Kev Rowland
Massacre have been through multiple line-up changes over the last nearly 40 years since their inception, but they are widely regarded as one of the most important bands on the death metal scene, creating a style which has impacted and influenced many others. Indeed, original singer Kam Lee is widely viewed as the person who invented the growl now used by many. He first came to prominence in the very early days of Death, performing on their early demo tapes before joining Massacre, where alongside bassist Mike Borders, drummer Bill Andrews and guitarist Allen West he recorded the ‘Aggressive Tyrant’ demo in 1986. The band split-up and reformed multiple times over the years, with Kam last being with the band in 2007, but having won a court case to gain rights to the name, he created a new version of Massacre which saw them release their fourth album, ‘Resurgence’ in 2021. Apart from Kam, none of the band had previously been on a Massacre album, although bassist Mike Borders did appear on the 1986 demos.

With some semblance of stability, all those who appeared on that album are also on this new 4-track EP with Kam and Mike joined by Brynjar Helgetun (drums), Jonny Pettersson (guitars), Rogga Johansson (guitars) and Scott Fairfax (lead guitar) and a jolly romp it is too. As one might expect from someone who was involved with death metal from the very earliest days of the scene, Kam knows exactly what he is doing and has pulled together a band who are polished, full of finesse, and packed full of chops. It is hard to pick fault with this, as the vocals are on point, the drums provide the backdrop, the bass rumbles in the background to provide the foundation while the three guitarists are incredibly tight. Helgetun played with Kam in his solo days, while all the musicians (apart from Borders) have been in multiple bands, so it is no surprise they know what they are doing. In fact, the only real issue I have with this release is that it is just an EP, as it is crying out for more material. However, none of these songs appeared on last year’s album, and there has been another single since this came out at the beginning of July, so it really does look these guys are putting their heads down and working hard.

This is death metal which demonstrates how it is possible to bring together commerciality and brutality in the same genre, and the result is something which crosses genres yet appeals to both. Massacre are well and truly back.

INTERCEPTOR Thrashing Violence

Demo · 2022 · Thrash Metal
Cover art 3.91 | 2 ratings
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Vim Fuego
Landmarks in your life can bring on bouts of nostalgia (I’m writing this the day before my 50th birthday), and can get you reminiscing about things you enjoyed from the past missing from the current day. If you can be bothered doing the maths you’ll see I was 17 when the 80s ticked over to 1990. The small thrills from those days are often the hardest to rediscover - the wicked thrill associated with underage drinking (started age 14 when the legal drinking age was 20), the buzz of a first cigarette (age 15, and can genuinely say I enjoyed it), the forbidden treasure of naked women in slightly sticky girlie magazines (with pubic hair!), and the visceral delight of discovering a new band.

These days a quiet beer with dinner is still nice but is no longer illicit, I feel sick for a couple of days after if I smoke so that’s out, all forms of human nakedity and perversion are only a few mouse clicks away (and I’ve been living with a genuine, real-life beautiful woman for more than a quarter of a century anyway), and most new thrash metal bands sound like variations on a Municipal Waste-based template.

And then I discovered Interceptor’s “Thrashing Violence” demo, and I felt the thrill of 17 again.

“Thrashing Violence” is genuine, grass roots thrash metal, done for the fun of it by a young trio from a dead-end town. (That’s another thing about being 17 – whatever town you’re from seems like a dead-end town). The first thing that hits you with this demo is that it’s rough and raw, and gloriously under-produced. This isn’t the forced rough/raw pose of black metal deliberately trying to sound tr00 kvlt and grymdark. This is the genuine rough/raw of “OK, we don’t really know what we’re doing, we don’t have a lot of money, let’s just plug shit in and record what comes out”.

The guitar sound doesn’t have a lot of bottom end, but here’s the thing – this allows the riffs to shine through, nimble and sharp. Go back and listen to those old early albums from thrash metal’s big names and they sounded the same. “Kill ‘em All” sounds sharp. Exodus’ “Bonded By Blood” is their least heavy album, but has their speediest riffs. “Thrashing Violence” sounds closest in character to Megadeth’s “Killing is My Business…and Business Is Good” – the riffs are choppy rather than chunky, which helped define thrash metal’s early sound.

The title track’s opening riff is reasonably memorable, but doesn’t seem like much to write home about, but then the band put their heads down and absolutely thrash! Stereo separated guitar lines, a throbbing bass line underpinning the guitar, and then a throaty melodic shouted vocal. It’s all you could hope for in a thrash song. And it isn’t limited to that. There’s some almost Death Angel-esque screams, a barked refrain of the song’s title, and a tasty but unindulgent solo. The lyrics aren’t particularly deep and meaningful, being about a love of metal and moshing, but remember that just about every band wrote songs like these back in the day – Rattlehead, Hit The Lights, Bonded By Blood, Metal Command, Hammerhead…

“Hatred” seems a bit darker and a little slower, adding a touch of Possessed or perhaps Celtic Frost to the mix. “Into The Hellmouth” has a military radio intro and outro, and is an outright martial headbanger. When the guitars back off preparing for a solo, the bass and drums really shine through Sodom-style.

And that’s it. Three tracks in just under 12 minutes. There’s nothing here that hasn’t been done before or been done better, but you know what? That doesn’t matter. This is simply the music these guys want to play, and it’s done will skill and conviction. And it’s exactly what an ageing headbanger going through a mini mid-life crisis wanted to hear.

SEVENTH WONDER The Testament

Album · 2022 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.25 | 2 ratings
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lukretion
After Tommy Karevik joined Kamelot in 2012, many feared that Seventh Wonder’s days would be numbered. However, the Swedes showed remarkable resilience and, following a long eight-year gap, came back in 2018 with their fifth full-length, the acclaimed Tiara, with Karevik still behind the mic. This time it took Seventh Wonder only four years to record their new album The Testament, which once again finds the melodic prog metal band with an unchanged line-up and in fine form.

Delving into an intriguing concept about human emotions, the new record takes inspiration from the complex technical musicianship of band like Dream Theater, the instant catchiness of melodic hard rock and AOR, as well as the rhythmic immediacy of modern metal, weaving together this wide range of influences into a distinctive and personal sound that has characterized Seventh Wonder’s discography since the very beginning. Compared to previous albums, the new record packs perhaps more immediate and uplifting tunes, although there is always a dark vein of melancholy running through the music, making this LP a must-listen for fans of brooding modern progressive metal such as Evergrey, Kamelot, and Darkwater.

The album’s main strength lies in the ability to combine contagious melodies with cleverly articulated arrangements, striking a great balance between immediacy and depth. The songs have instant impact on the listener thanks to their formidable hooks, but at the same time it takes several listens to fully unpack their complexity. Take, for instance, the songs’ form. Despite structures that rarely depart from the regular repetition of verse, pre-chorus and chorus, the ever-changing arrangements ensure there is a constant sense of moving forward in the compositions, thus avoiding the chief pitfall of many chorus-centred tunes that often come across as over-simplistic and repetitive. Johan Liefvendahl’s guitar plays a remarkable role in keeping the arrangements fresh and varied, constantly shifting between simple rhythmical accompaniment and more intricate countermelodies. His guitarwork is often doubled up by Andreas Blomqvist’s extraordinary bass lines, which have always been a distinctive aspect of Seventh Wonder’s sound. The songs’ texture is further enhanced by Andreas Söderin’s tasteful keyboard interjections, well-balanced between futuristic and retro sounds, while drummer Stefan Norgren provides a solid backbone to the music, with good grooves that never grow too busy or overbearing. With a singer of the calibre of Tommy Karevik, it’s inevitable that the spotlight is constantly shown on the vocal melodies. And Karevik of course never fails to deliver. Songs like “Warriors”, “I Carry the Blame” and “The Red River” contain great vocal hooks that are guaranteed to remain seared into your mind after the first time you hear them.

These songs, together with the instrumental, vaguely neoclassical metal-sounding “Reflections”, are hands down the record’s best tunes. The album’s second half is instead more subdued and unyielding. “Invincible”, “Mindkiller” and “Under a Clear Blue Sky” thread similar paths as the tracks from the album’s first half, but are dogged by less inspired melodies and, in the case of “Under a Clear Blue Sky”, an overstretched structure that does little beyond adding to the record’s minutage. Even the pleasant ballad “Elegy” that closes the album does not manage to make a very strong last impression, despite the Karevik’s passionate performance.

Alas, the unbalanced tracklist is not the only problem of The Testament. I was also taken aback by the overall lack of variation across its nine songs, which seem to have all been cut from a similar cloth. This is particularly unsettling given that, conceptually, the album set out to explore a diverse range of human emotions, from joy to anger to despair. This diversity does not really come across in the music which instead seems to explore the same mood – halfway between upbeat hopefulness and plaintive yearning – throughout the album’s 53 minutes. The fairly limited dynamic range of many tracks and the strongly chorus-driven song structures add to the feeling of sameness, to the point that one may compare The Testament to one of those mono-ingredient foods that are only digestible if taken in small doses and at the right intervals.

Overall, The Testament leaves me with mixed feelings. It is undoubtedly a high-quality release by one of the best bands in the melodic prog metal genre. It is full of hooks and subtle, technical passages that will appeal to both casual and in-depth listening. It is slickly produced and contains a handful of great tunes that I have been humming to myself countless times in the past week. At the same time, the album does not quite match up with Seventh Wonder’s best output (Mercy Falls, The Great Escape) as it lacks the breadth, vision and variation of those records. It is also heavily front-loaded, with a second half that drags and veers dangerously close to the filler zone. On balance, despite its positive qualities, I doubt that The Testament will stand the test of time as one of Seventh Wonder’s landmark releases, but will instead go down in the history books as a pleasant, but average production by the Swedish combo.

[Originally written for The Metal Observer]

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MY DYING BRIDE The Manuscript

EP · 2013 · Doom Metal
Cover art 4.17 | 9 ratings
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Warthur
Later paired with The Barghest o' Whitby on the compilation The Vaulted Shadows, whereas the Barghest EP consisted of only one long track, this consists of a clutch of (comparatively) shorter songs which didn't quite make the cut for A Map of All Our Favours. With Shaun Macgowan's violin cutting a particularly haunting and beautiful air on the title track, this is an EP which finds the band deep in the gothic death-doom realm they defined with their early work and have further refined ever since, and refine further here. The quiet section at the end of the title track, in particular, feels like it's influenced somewhat by early Opeth, which feels new in My Dying Bride's sound.

I can only assume there was some thematic reason why they weren't included on Map of All Our Failures, because goodness knows the quality here is very solid - if not even stronger than that album.

DREAM THEATER Dream Theater

Album · 2013 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.54 | 71 ratings
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Warthur
Dream Theater's second album with Mike Mangini on drums takes the ballsy step of being a self-titled album. There's basically two reasons to do a self-titled album: one is that it's your debut album, and the other is that you think it's a release which really encapsulates your sound. Doing this some 12 albums into your career feels like a big step in particular - it's not that doing this necessarily disparages the preceding albums, but it does imply a crystallisation of the thread that ran through all of them.

As it turns out, though, the choice of title is apt not for this reason, but simply this: "Dream Theater" is about a generic a Dream Theater album as Dream Theater have ever made.

It's not that it's clumsy or bad - it's just that nothing in particular stands out, the band largely continuing to plough the same furrow they'd been working on A Dramatic Turn of Events. That album, in itself, was very much a "business as usual" affair; producing such a thing after one of your co-founders have left and you need to establish you can still go like you used to is fair enough, but doing two in a row suggests the creative well is drying up.

The major exception here is False Awakening Suite, a brief under-3-minutes introductory track which sees the band dabbling in symphonic power metal territory; it's incongruous and could have probably happily been trimmed, but at least it manages to stand out. Here, Dream Theater sound like, well Dream Theater - or any other reasonably competent imitator. And we've got plenty of that already.

I wouldn't say this album is outright bad - but I'd be lying if I said it was great. It's fine to listen to in the background if you are fond of the group, but I'd never make it the first album you listen to. For better or worse, if any album in their discography can be said to sum up what makes Dream Theater, well, Dream Theater, it's Images & Words, their first true classic which set the stage for everything to follow. As for Dream Theater, by Dream Theater... well, it's Dream Theater, alright. But it's just Dream Theater, nothing more than that. And Dream Theater are able to be a better Dream Theater when they reach beyond the unambitious boundaries they set for themselves on "Dream Theater".

METAL CHURCH Hanging in the Balance

Album · 1993 · Heavy Metal
Cover art 3.88 | 26 ratings
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UMUR
"Hanging in the Balance" is the 5th full-length studio album by US power/heavy metal act Metal Church. The album was released through Rising Sun Records in October 1993. It´s the successor to "The Human Factor" from 1991 and marks a change for the band after two major label releases, going back to releasing albums on smaller labels again.

Featuring the same five-piece lineup as the predecessor, very little has changed on "Hanging in the Balance" though, and Metal Church are still a guarantee for high quality US power/heavy metal. "Hanging in the Balance" features a raw, organic, and very well sounding production, which suits the material perfectly, and although the album was released in 1993 this sounds in every possible way like a 1980s release. Metal Church did not bow to the alternative heavy rock/metal sound which swept the world in those years, but held the US power/heavy metal flag high. It was probably a commercially unwise move, but the choice kept their integrity and authenticity intact.

12 tracks and a full playing time of 61:12 minutes is maybe a bit too long and the album could have been a little sharper and consistent if Metal Church had cut a few tracks. Some of the songwriting experiments that the band venture into, aren´t always successful either, and they are best when they just rock hard and deliver effectful US power/heavy metal tunes...which fortunately they do most of the time.

The musicianship is one of the features of the album which deserves a mention, because Metal Church are an incredibly well playing band. The rhythm section is hard pounding and organic, the guitar riffs are sharp and hard rocking, the solos are delivered with great passion and attention to detail, and Mike Howe is a skilled vocalist with a strong voice, who is perfect for the role as frontman for Metal Church. He has the right amount of roughness to his voice, but at the same time he is always conscious about the importance of melody. Upon conclusion "Hanging in the Balance" is another high quality US power/heavy metal release by Metal Church and a 3.5 - 4 star (75%) rating is deserved.

GHOUL Maniaxe

Album · 2003 · Death Metal
Cover art 3.50 | 1 rating
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UMUR
"Maniaxe" is the 2nd full-length studio album by US, California based death/thrash/grindcore act Ghoul. The album was released through Razorback Recordings in June 2003. It´s the successor to "We Came for the Dead!!!" from 2002.

Stylistically "Maniaxe" is a continuation of the death/thrash/grindcore style of "We Came for the Dead!!! (2002)", but "Maniaxe" features a better quality sound production and more memorable songwriting. The music and especially the vocal style are strongly influenced by early Carcass, although Ghoul generally focus more on heavy death/thrash oriented riffs and less on blasting grindcore parts compared to the early output by the Liverpool legends. So while there are strong smiliarities there are enough differences too for Ghoul not to come off as a complete clone band...they are huge Carcass worshippers though and not ashamed of it either.

"Maniaxe" opens with "Pleasant Screams / Forbidden Crypts", and it doesn´t take long to know what kind of an album this is. It´s well played, well produced, but also slightly one-dimensional in style. The cover of Louie Armstrong´s "What a Wonderful World", which closes the album, is the track which stands out the most, and other than being a bold choice for a cover, it´s quite entertaining listening to a punked death metal version of the famous song. Despite being a bit one-dimensional in style, the original material are well written too, and individually the tracks are all powerful, raw, and relatively varied with both tempo changes and even the occasional melodic moment.

So upon conclusion "Maniaxe" is a quality sophomore album release by Ghoul. It´s not the most original sound that the band produce but the delivery is both passionate and convincing, and as written above the material are well written too. A 3.5 star (70%) rating is deserved.

M.O.D. Gross Misconduct

Album · 1989 · Crossover Thrash
Cover art 3.31 | 4 ratings
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UMUR
"Gross Misconduct" is the 2nd full-length studio album by US crossover thrash metal act M.O.D.. The album was released through Megaforce Records in February 1989. It´s the successor to "U.S.A. for M.O.D." from 1987, although the two studio albums were bridged by the 1988 "Surfin' M.O.D." EP. Except for frontman/band leader Billy Milano the entire lineup has been changed since the predecessor as guitarist Tim McMurtrie has been replaced by Louie Svitek, bassist Ken Ballone has been replaced by John Monte, and drummer Keith Davis has been replaced by Tim Mallare.

Lineup changes or not M.O.D. was always Milano´s baby and therefore "Gross Misconduct" sounds like a natural successor to "U.S.A. for M.O.D. (1987)". It´s slightly more mature in the writing style and the production values have also increased a bit, but it´s overall more of the same. Crossover thrash metal which is typically energetic and fast-paced, but also features heavier groove laden sections, and Milano´s aggressive shouting vocals on top. Some lyrics are serious enough social/political criticism, while others are a bit more silly and obviously written for fun. It´s Milano´s vocals and voice which define the band´s music, because the instrumental part of the music could have been written and delivered by many other contemporary US crossover thrash metal acts and you wouldn´t have noticed. In other words it´s fairly generic and not instantly recognisable as M.O.D..

"Gross Misconduct" is a decent quality crossover thrash metal release, but it´s not exactly an album which makes my blood boil. On this release M.O.D. come off just the way many of their critics describe them. A pale version of Milano´s former act S.O.D. A 3 star (60%) rating is warranted.

LOUDBLAST Sublime Dementia

Album · 1993 · Thrash Metal
Cover art 3.50 | 1 rating
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UMUR
"Sublime Dementia" is the 3rd full-length studio album by French death metal act Loudblast. The album was released through Semetery Records in October 1993. It´s the successor to "Disincarnate" from 1991 and there´s been one lineup change since the predecessor as drummer Thierry Pinck has been replaced by Hervé Coquerel (a change that has had great impact on the music, but more on that later). It´s the third drummer in the band on as many albums. "Sublime Dementia" was recorded and mixed at Morrisound Studios in Florida with producer Scott Burns.

Stylistically the material on "Sublime Dementia" continue the US influenced death metal style of "Disincarnate (1991)", but it´s generally a much more sophisticated and varied release than its direct predecessor. The sound production is also of a better quality than the relatively powerless sound on "Disincarnate (1991)", although the production on "Sublime Dementia" isn´t one of the best coming out of Morrisound Studios. It´s decent though and doesn´t distract from the music.

Listening to "Sublime Dementia" it´s audible that Loudblast have had a long look in the mirror after releasing two pretty mediocre albums because the quality of the riffs, the guitar solos, and the growling vocals are all pretty high. Add to that new drummer Hervé Coquerel, who has a varied, powerful, and technical drumming style, which provides the band´s music with a much needed injection of energy and power, and I´m at least half impressed by Loudblast, which isn´t something I thought would be possible after listening to the first two albums.

Not everything is great here, and I could for example have lived without listening to the (fortunately) short atmospheric interlude track "About Solitude" (featuring high pitched female vocals), where I think Loudblast opted for including too much variation and experimentation. The type of death metal which is heard on most tracks on the album is predominantly heavy and mid-paced, but as mentioned above nicely energetic because of the drumming style. Upon conclusion "Sublime Dementia" is a positive surprise and a step up for Loudblast and a 3.5 - 4 star (75%) rating is deserved.

HADES $avior$elf

Album · 1998 · Thrash Metal
Cover art 3.00 | 1 rating
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UMUR
"$avior$elf" is the 4th full-length studio album by US power/thrash metal act Hades. The album was released through Metal Blade Records in January 1999. It´s the successor to "Exist to Resist" from 1995 and features two lineup changes since the predecessor as drummer Tom Coombs has been replaced by Dave Lescinsky and bassist Jimmy Schulmann has been replaced by Scott LePage.

Lineup changes or not the material on "$avior$elf" sound like a natural progression of the US power/groove metal style of "Exist to Resist (1995)"...or maybe progression is the wrong word to use here, as there actucally hasn´t been that much progression, and continuation is probably a more correct word to use. It´s still fairly standard quality (for the genre) material with lead vocalist Alan Tecchio being the one thing standing out in the soundscape. The instrumental performances are relatively strong, but although there are some nice heavy grooves in the music, and the occasional moment with a catchy riff or vocal phrase, the material is generally not that memorable. So it´s the songwriting which is lacking in hooks and memorability. Tecchio is a world class singer, and it´s really too bad that his considerable vocal skills aren´t put to use on better quality material.

It´s not really a surprise as that´s been the case on all preceding releases too, and unfortunately the trend of sub par production jobs also continue here. The bass drum sound on "$avior$elf" is simply an abomination. Thin, triggered, clicky, and adding absolutely no heaviness to music which otherwise screams for exactly that. A 3 star (60%) rating is warranted.

FUDGE TUNNEL Creep Diets

Album · 1993 · Sludge Metal
Cover art 3.50 | 2 ratings
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UMUR
"Creep Diets" is the 2nd full-length studio album by UK, Nottingham based metal act Fudge Tunnel. The album was released through Earache Records in April 1993. Fudge Tunnel was formed in 1988 and released the "Sex Mammoth" EP in 1989 and "The Sweet Sound of Excess" EP in 1990. The band´s debut full-length studio album "Hate Songs in E Minor" followed in 1991. The trio lineup who recorded the debut album is intact on "Creep Diets".

Stylistically the material on "Creep Diets" also reek consistency as the the tracks more or less are a natural continuation of the material on "Hate Songs in E Minor (1991)". Sludgy riffs, hypnotic heavy grooves, industrial influences, and touches of alternative/noise rock. The vocals are raw and shouted (often effect laden and relatively low in the mix), but oddly sedated/monotone for that vocal style. It´s the heavy grooves and riffs which are in focus at all times though and Fudge Tunnel shine in that department. The tracks are often a bit simple and repetitive in nature, and there isn´t that much variation between them (although a few tracks stand out as a bit different), but if you manage to lock on to the irresistable almost hypnotic heavy grooves, variation matters less.

"Creep Diets" features a raw organic sound production, which brings out the best of the trio format. Personally I would have prefered the vocals a bit more up front in the mix, but that´s just a personal preference, and it´s definitely a conscious production choice to place them relatively low in the mix. Upon conclusion "Creep Diets" is a quality sophomore album by Fudge Tunnel. It´s not quite as surprising or fresh sounding as "Hate Songs in E Minor (1991)" was when that album was released, and it´s overall a slightly less interesting album than its direct predecessor, but a 3.5 star (70%) rating is still deserved.

CLUTCH The Elephant Riders

Album · 1998 · Stoner Rock
Cover art 4.15 | 12 ratings
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UMUR
"The Elephant Riders" is the 3rd full-length studio album by US hard/stoner rock act Clutch. The album was released through Columbia Records in April 1998. It´s the successor to the eponymously titled album from 1995. While Clutch started out as a hardcore band, and their debut album "Transnational Speedway League: Anthems, Anecdotes, and Undeniable Truths (1993)" still featured quite a few hardcore traits, by the time of the eponymously titled 1995 album, Clutch had changed their style towards a hard rock/stoner rock sound.

That style is more or less continued on "The Elephant Riders". Hard rocking riffs and organic rhythms, and Neil Fallon´s commanding powerful voice on top. The band experiment a little with the use of trombone on "Muchas Veces" and "Crackerjack" (...and to great effect on especially the latter), but most of the tracks are relatively simple vers/chorus structured blues based hard rockers. Some more memorable than others, but all tracks are well written and entertaining while they play.

"The Elephant Riders" features a warm, organic, and well sounding production job, which suits the material well. Upon conclusion it´s a quality release in most departments, but the songwriting could have been more memorable, as I don´t remember that many tracks when the album has finished playing. Of course it helps the more spins it gets, but to truly shine all tracks on an album in this style should in my book be more or less instantly memorable, and about half of the 10 tracks on the 51:05 minutes long album aren´t. Still a 3.5 star (70%) rating is deserved.

SPOCK'S BEARD Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep

Album · 2013 · Non-Metal
Cover art 4.46 | 11 ratings
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Warthur
This is the album which inaugurated a new era for Spock's Beard, with the departure of Nick D'Virgilio leaving both the frontman's microphone and the drummer's stool vacant. With Jimmy Keegan having served as a touring drummer, that post at least was fairly easy to fill; the new lead singer would be Ted Leonard, vocalist of Enchant, who had taken on the role at some festival appearances that Nick hadn't been able to make.

But wait, who's that in the corner, offering some songwriting notes and a guest appearance here and there? Why, it's Neal Morse! Don't get too excited: Neal didn't come back to the band full-time for this one, content to swing by in a guest role to do a little songwriting on Afterthoughts and Waiting For Me, on the latter of which he provides a little guitar.

Neal had, in fact, performed with this exact line-up of Spock's Beard at the High Voltage festival in London - this being one of those times when Ted filled in - when the band brought him onstage to play The Light and June. Nonetheless, his presence is not overbearing here - he doesn't even sing, perhaps not wanting to overshadow Ted on his debut studio album as lead singer.

As it stands, the selection of Ted seems to be an inspired choice - he may be my favourite Spock's Beard vocalist to date - and the band seem to be in fine songwriting form, mingling their customary prog influences with touches of funk and soul - the sort of thing that they've always dabbled in a bit but which they'd never managed to make work to this extent before. Just listen to Submerged and tell me you can't hear just a pinch of Prince in it, particularly in how Ted Leonard handles the lyric. (I'm reminded, in particular, of the psychedelic-tinged approach Prince would take on albums like Around the World In a Day.) It's not that their past is gone - a Gentle Giant-esque bit of interwoven vocal play, a trademark of their early years, shows up on Afterthoughts, for instance - but it's now set in a new framework.

It all adds up to a fresh new sound for Spock's Beard, rather than a rehash of the Neal-era approach, which means that Neal's guest appearance is able to enhance the album without dominating it; it's an album which respects the band's past (and, via Neal's involvement, receives a certain approval from perhaps the biggest figure from their early years not still with the band) whilst at the same time pushing forward into a new future. Confidently presenting a new sound, it might well be the best put-together album the band have produced since V, even as it's sonic worlds away from that territory.

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