Metal Music Reviews (new releases)

CRYPTOSIS Transmissions of Chaos

Split · 2021 · Technical Thrash Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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UMUR
"Transmissions of Chaos" is a split release by US technical thrash metal act Vektor and Dutch technical thrash metal act Cryptosis. The split was released through District 19 in February 2021. It features 4 tracks and a total playing time of 20:03 minutes. Vektor are well known as one of the more prolific contemporary technical thrash metal acts and the two new Vektor tracks on "Transmissions of Chaos" actually mark a return to the scene after a longer recording hiatus following the release of "Terminal Redux (2016)" (the band´s third full-length studio album). Cryptosis on the other hand are a less known acquaintance having only released a couple of singles by February 2021. Two of the single tracks make up their contributions to "Transmissions of Chaos". They would release their debut full-length studio album "Bionic Swarm" in March 2021. They did however work under the Distillator monicker in the years 2013-2020 playing a more regular type of thrash metal and releasing a couple of studio albums under that monicker, so these guys are also pretty seasoned musicians/composers.

Vektor open the split with their two tracks "Activate" and "Dead by Dawn", and it´s immediately audible that Vektor have changed and developed their style and sound a lot in the years since "Terminal Redux (2016)". They still play their own brand of technical thrash metal (sci-fi themed and Voivod influenced), but lead vocalist/guitarist David DiSanto has opted for a different singing style to his usual high pitched screaming, and now performs more regular snarling thrash metal vocals. But as a new thing in the world of Vektor he now also performs melodic clean vocals (on "Dead by Dawn"), and the new vocal approach provides Vektor with a few more weapons for their arsenal and dare I say a more accessible sound.

The two Cryptosis tracks "Decypher" and "Prospect of Immortality" aren´t far from the Vektor tracks in terms of sound and style. Cryptosis also play a sci-fi themed technical thrash metal style with progressive elements and it was definitely a smart move by the Austrian District 19 label/management company to promote newcomers Cryptosis on this split with the more well known Vektor. Upon conclusion "Transmissions of Chaos" is a high quality split release featuring strong compositions and stellar performances from both acts, and fans of technical/progressive thrash metal should take note here. A 4 star (80%) rating is deserved.

VARATHRON Glorification Under The Latin Moon

Live album · 2020 · Melodic Black Metal
Cover art 3.50 | 1 rating
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Kev Rowland
Co-founded in 1988 by Stefan Necroabyssious, the band's vocalist and sole original member, Greek black metal band Varathron has been on a steady release schedule since 2004's ‘Crowsreign’, but for some reason have never put out a live album until now. Recorded on August 4th , 2019 in São Paulo during the final show of their "30 Years Of Darkness Tour", the setlist includes songs from throughout their career, including the entirety of the 1993 album ‘His Majesty At The Swamp’, to more recent songs, taken from 2018’s ‘Patriarchs Of Evil’. Alongside Rotting Christ and Necromantia, Varathron are seen as one of the founding fathers of the Hellenic Black Metal scene, and with 30 years already behind them there is no sign whatsoever of them mellowing out just yet.

This is classic black metal, and they utilise backing tracks with vocals and the odd keyboards to provide additional emotion and atmosphere, and if one were to remove that and the vocal style, one would possibly describe the music as being quite different as it is highly complex, technical and (dare I say it) melodic. This shows just how easy it is for genres to become confused as there are plenty of people who will say they do not like black metal who could very easily get into this album which crosses over many different styles from tech into power. They know how to use dynamics, and switch styles throughout so there is a great deal of contrast, which means that all aspects of their music come across with real power. Black metal live albums can somewhat suffer through lack of depth, as it loses some of that intensity, and while that is also the case here that can be somewhat mitigated by just turning it up. Yet another really solid release from the Greeks.

RAVEN Metal City

Album · 2020 · Heavy Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 2 ratings
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Kev Rowland
Back in 1980 I was just 17 years old, and deeply into the NWOBHM. There was no doubt in my mind that one of the best bands around were Raven, and I loved their single “Don’t Need Your Money”. When they released their album, I was unable to get it anywhere locally and in frustration actually found the number for Neat Records and rang them to complain! I was appeased when they told me I could order it directly from them as there was no HMV’s local to me, so I sent off my cheque and when ‘Rock Until You Drop’ arrived it came with badges and stickers, which promptly went on my singles boxes. I loved everything about the band, from the over-the-top bass and high-pitched vocals of John Gallagher, the attack of his brother guitarist Mark, and the pace of the songs, all driven along by Rob “Wacko” Hunter. These days many metalheads are not even aware of the importance of this band and their “athletic rock” which was the direct precursor of thrash, and not only do many bands cite them as a major influence but they were the first band to take Metallica on tour.

It is safe to say they have never achieved the success they so richly deserved, but even though they have been through a few drummers over the years, the Gallagher brothers are still fighting strong, and as they work towards their 50th Anniversary (formed in 1974) they are not slowing down or changing their approach any time soon. In 2017 drummer Joe Hasselvander, who had been in the band for 20 years, suffered a heart attack just before a series of US/European dates. The band completed the dates with a series of drummers, and when it was obvious Joe would be unable to return any time soon, they brought in one of these, Mike Heller (Fear Factory, Malignancy) as his permanent replacement. This 2020 album is their first for 5 years, and while many of their disciples have changed beyond recognition from their early days, this is still Raven doing what Raven do best, rocking hard and fast. True, there are times when there is more polish than there used to be, but Mark’s vocals are still passionate as ever, his basslines are still often insane while Mark is still hitting the riffs like he always has, daring the band to slow down, and Mike has happily settled into his new role.

This is classic Raven for the 21st century, and I for one cannot stop smiling and turning it up that little bit more. 40 years on from their classic debut , and the boys are still determined to "Rock Until You Drop" – “Don't think you can make it, Don't think you want to try, Sit back in your easy chair, And the world will pass you by, Life is what you make it, That's what people say, You've got to get it together, Make it your own way.” They are still staying true to their own words.

GOJIRA Fortitude

Album · 2021 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.66 | 8 ratings
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siLLy puPPy
Rising again like its namesake icon, the French extreme metal band GOJIRA is back with its seventh studio album FORTITUDE which finds the band further exploring hitherto unpursued sonic palettes like few others in the world of metal who more often than not become fairly cozy in a comfort zone. This head banging quartet of Joe Duplantier (vocals, guitar), Mario Duplantier (drums), Christian Andreu (guitar) and Jean-Michel Labadie (bass) has never been one to rest on its laurels and although GORJIRA has taken a somewhat more accessible, dare i say even more commercial route on its previous album “Magma,” somehow this quartet successfully maintains its core integrity of infusing the disparate metal subgenera of death metal, groove metal and alternative metal into one cauldron of hot steaming sonic sensationalism.

It’s been a five year break since “Magma” and the metal world has changed a lot getting even weirder and more diverse but somehow GORJIRA continues the path of exploring new sonic textures while maintaining the energetic chugging drive, extraordinary musical dexterity and metal hybridism. What’s new on FORTITUDE is that the band takes the previous alternative metal approach that debuted on “Magma” and branches out into myriad directions thus creating a delightful mix of moods, dynamics and rhythmic bombast unlike any other album in its canon. While the progressive excesses of the first two albums have long been tamped down as well as the epic progressive feel of the following pair of albums that followed, FORTITUDE still stays connected to all those previous eras while exploring a more varied range of timbres, tones, echo effects and production values.

While many have long written off this band as some sort of sellout, i personally find these later albums to be quite dynamic as they provide instantly catchy metal hooks in the classic sense while exploring various detours into moments of clean vocal progressive rock, Pantera-esque groove metal as well as the intense urgency of a Rage Against The Machine album most likely courtesy of engineer Andy Wallace who worked with that band as well as Nirvana thus giving that angry 90s grunge feel at times. And of course it wouldn’t be a GOJIRA album without a plethora of polyrhythms where barrages of guitar riffs, pummeling percussion and bantering bass grooves provide crushing metal monstrosities while Joe Duplantier brazenly belts out his soul crushing screams.

Perhaps the most noticeable difference for FORTITUDE is the production and the heavy uses of atmospheres which provides the perfect counterpoint to the galloping grooving guitar riffs and the incessant guitar sailing that accompanies. As far as tempo changes go, FORTITUDE may not embrace the chaotic free-for-all proggy complexities as “Terra Incognita” and “The Link” but still manages to squeeze in a few oddball time signatures between the steady rhythmic drive as well as delivering extreme curve balls as heard on the tribal percussion dominated title track accompanied by unorthodox wordless vocal harmonizing which actually serves as an intro to the following track “The Chant.”

When all is said and done i can totally understand why many may not be too thrilled with these easier listening experiences of GOJIRA when compared to the epic and experimental sounds of yore but as far as an accessible melodic metal album is concerned, GOJIRA does an excellent job keeping FORTITUDE engaging from beginning to end in my book. These songs are not only catchy but crafty and creative with subtleties that may require a few spins before really sinking in. I think i actually prefer this one to “Magma” as that previous album didn’t quite have the repeat visit enjoyability but this one has just enough ear wormy hooks to signify a respite into its majesty! While i wouldn’t call FORTITUDE my all time GOJIRA album by any means, i’m actually quite surprise how much i love this one. What will this monstrous band come up with next? Will we have to wait another five years? Chances are a new phase of the band will begin.

IMPERA Spirit of Alchemy

Album · 2021 · Hard Rock
Cover art 3.00 | 1 rating
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lukretion
This one caught my attention for the incredible line-up of musicians involved. Johan Kihlberg, the mastermind behind the project, has worked in the music business for over thirty years and collaborated with members of Kiss, Thin Lizzy, Europe, Rainbow and Mötley Crüe. The other musicians have equally illustrious careers. The rhythm section is comprised of bassist John Levén (Europe) and drummer Snowy Shaw (King Diamond, Mercyful Fate, Therion and countless others). Lars Chriss from Lion’s Share is the man behind the guitar fireworks, while Jonny Lindkvist (Nocturnal Rites) takes care of the vocals.

Given the band’s pedigree it will not be a total surprise to hear that Spirit of Alchemy, Impera’s sixth album, inhabits a musical territory somewhere between the proto-power metal of Rainbow and Dio, and the hard rock of bands like Whitesnake. Muscles and melodies go hand in hand from start to finish on this album. And while it’s nothing really ground-breaking, it’s a trick that never fails to amuse.

The other undeniable strength of the album are the outstanding performances of all musicians involved. Jonny Lindkvist’s voice is still in great shape. His delivery is gritty but soaring and full of melody. The best tracks of the album are driven by his excellent vocal lines, like “Nothing Will Last” and “All About You”. Lars Chriss’s solos are sharp as a knife and fast like a thunderbolt, and complement well Kihlberg's solid riffing. What’s more, Chriss always tries to give the solos a modern twist, instead of relying on more traditional classicisms. This makes his playing sound fresh and original, definitely one of the highlights of the record. The tight rhythm section also deserves praise, especially Snowy Shaw’s fast and explosive drumming. And check out that groovy bass lick on “In Heaven”!

On the less positive side, the album falls a bit flat in the songwriting department. Don’t get me wrong, there are some excellent tracks that are both catchy and headbangable (“Nothing Will Last”, “All About You”, “No”). But there are also a lot of moments where the album feels a bit humdrum (the tracks in the middle of the record, between “When Souls Collide” and “Lost You Life to Rock ’n’ Roll”). The lack of variation in the songs’ tempo and structure does not help either. There are a couple of instances where Kihlberg brings to life his love for bombastic soundtrack music (“Nothing Will Last”, “Battle”), which injects a much needed dose of originality into the music. However, these episodes are few and far in between. My ears crave for more moments like these, where Kihlberg plays it a little bit less safe and tries to bring something new to the table.

Spirit of Alchemy is nevertheless a solid album that is fuelled by excellent performances by musicians from the elite of the international hard rock / AOR / melodic metal scenes. Its nine songs are pleasant rockers that may not break any new ground, but are rich in hooks and momentum and should definitely appeal to those readers who are on the more melodic side of metal.

[Originally written for The Metal Observer]

FATES WARNING Long Day Good Night

Album · 2020 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.33 | 4 ratings
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UMUR
"Long Day Good Night" is the 13th full-length studio album by US progressive metal act Fates Warning. The album was released through Metal Blade Records in November 2020. It´s the successor to "Theories Of Flight" from 2016 and features the same four-piece core lineup as the predecessor. Guitarist Frank Aresti is not involved in session work this time around, but Michael Abdow returns to play a couple of guitar solos.

Stylistically the material on "Long Day Good Night" continues the relatively riff heavy but at the same time melodic progressive metal of "Theories Of Flight (2016)". Fates Warning haven´t had a history of releasing the same album twice, but this time it´s close. Maybe they´ve finally locked into a groove because "Theories Of Flight (2016)" also felt very much like the sibling album to "Darkness In A Different Light (2013)". Personally that´s fine by me, because both of the two direct predecessors were high quality progressive metal releases as only Fates Warning make them. To my ears "Long Day Good Night" is like listening to the early 90s mainstream heavy rock/metal oriented Fates Warning releases, but with an added metallic heaviness, providing the music with a more contempoary edge (the same can be said about the more heavy and meaty sound production). The soaring melancholic choruses of the early 90s are in place, but the riffs and the heavy busy drumming still make "Long Day Good Night" quite a different sounding release to the mentioned albums from the 90s.

Although "Long Day Good Night" features both heavy riffs and rhythms it´s overall a very dynamic release, with loads of mellow and more subdued moments too. Again this is nothing unusual for Fates Warning and upon conclusion "Long Day Good Night" is in many ways Fates Warning by numbers. I know that has a very negative ring to it, and that´s partially intentional, because while "Long Day Good Night" is another high quality Fates Warning album and tracks like "The Destination Onward" and the 11:29 minutes long "The Longest Shadow Of The Day" (which opens with a 6 minutes long instrumental section) are strong compositions, there are tracks featured on the album which fall under the filler catagory (the mainstream oriented "Under The Sun" is even a little weak) and at 72:35 minutes of playing time it can be argued that the album is too long for its own good. I would have prefered a 40-50 minutes long playing time with only the sharpest and the most memorable material featured. A 3.5 star (70%) rating is still deserved though.

GOJIRA Fortitude

Album · 2021 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.66 | 8 ratings
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Necrotica
The most immediate problem with Fortitude is that it really lacks a unique identifying “feature” compared to previous Gojira records. Terra Incognita had the raw death metal aggression, The Link had an experimental tribal feel, From Mars to Sirius had an ambitious conceptual feel, and so on. Somehow, Fortitude manages to sound like a synthesis of all of the band’s previous albums while lacking the sense of both wonder and impact they all had. Sure, the chugs and technical drumming still come out from time to time, but they’re buried beneath Gojira’s insistence on playing dull one-note riffs that linger for a little too long. It’s not like I’m resistant to the prospect of the band experimenting - again, The Link is a nice example of that - but it’s gotta be over a more interesting foundation than this.

For instance, the main riff of “Another World” is pretty cool; Christian Andreu’s lead guitar and Jean-Michel Labadie’s bass coil around each other to give off a strangely futuristic atmosphere. But then it all falls apart in the verses, which just consist of a boring chugging riff that doesn’t go anywhere interesting. It’s nice to hear Joe Duplantier still bringing the energy with his screams and growls, but they don’t matter much when the material itself is so lacking in heft and intensity. Meanwhile, some songs don’t even sound like they came from Gojira at all. When the a cappella harmonies of “Hold On” started, I had to look at my phone to make sure I was still listening to the same band. Indeed, Joe does perform a lot more clean vocals on Fortitude - these are most prominently heard on “Hold On”, “The Chant”, and “The Trails”. And, truth be told, Duplantier has really proven himself to be a capable clean vocalist over the last five years or so. The harmonies in “Hold On” are actually quite beautiful, despite the fact that the song eventually switches to a more typical groovy Gojira track halfway through.

What really drags this album down more than everything else, however, is the production. It’s quite strange that Duplantier is the same person who produced Way of All Flesh, as Fortitude has none of the same weight, atmosphere, or clarity in its mix. The guitars sound both muddy and unappealing in the chugging bits (the verses of “Amazonia” for instance), and really flavorless during the melodic sections (“The Trails” in particular). It also does no favors for Mario Duplantier, especially during the more technical tracks like “Grind” and “Into the Storm”. He performs some pretty amazing parts during these songs, but all I can think of is how much better they’d sound with a From Mars to Sirius-esque production job. Speaking of “Into the Storm”, that very song represents what kind of record Fortitude could have been; the track is a perfect mix of the band’s more heavy/technical traits and their melodic tendencies. Sure, the main drum part was lifted from “The Cell” off of Magma to an extent, but the riff played over it is one of the most beautifully melancholic parts I’ve ever heard from this group.

Fortitude is a strange affair, as its oddities tend to come from Gojira’s push toward a more simplistic and mainstream sound. On one hand, I suppose that makes it a logical step after the stripped-down music of Magma; on the other hand, it just doesn’t feel natural for some reason. The band’s willingness to step outside of their comfort zone is commendable, but if they’re keen on committing to this new sound of theirs, they need to give it a little more polish and focus. As it stands, Fortitude is a decent metal record. However, it doesn’t really offer anything that Gojira’s prior albums haven’t done better.

STONEWALL NOISE ORCHESTRA Deathtripper

Album · 2020 · Doom Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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Kev Rowland
One day I got a friend request on Facebook from Mattias Adolphson, and as always, I checked to see why I was hearing from him and whether it was a robot (I get that a lot). I noticed he is drummer in Stonewall Noise Orchestra and the music computer that is my brain started whirring (I often think the reason I forget everything that is not connected with music is due to there not being enough room for everything), and I recalled reviewing their 2013 album ‘Salvation’ and enjoying immensely. Of course, I accepted the friendship and now I am listening to the latest release, ‘Deathtripper’. There was an album in between this and the last one I had heard, plus they have been through a few line-up changes, so what was this going to be like?

I am always rather concerned when I am the one who has mentioned undertaking a review, as I feel bad if I give it a poor review, but given I am always honest in my opinion I have to say what I think, so I am very pleased to say this is a goodie. Doom is still the order of the day, but while there are times when they do head back to the early Seventies, there are plenty of others where they are way more commercial. At times they drift into QOTSA territory, at others more like Black Widow, but there is an element which reminds me a great deal of The Night Flight Orchestra, and not just because they have the same name. There are loads of melodies here, and the band is incredibly tight while singer Tony is in full control. They mix it up throughout, taking so many different elements of hard rock and metal, and while staying true to their doom roots they are having a blast and certainly bring the listeners along for the ride. They have had to deal with some hard personal struggles in recent years, yet they are back with an album which is passionate, powerful, and truly worthy of investigation by those who want melody front and centre with plenty of bite to back it up.

KATATONIA Dead Air

Live album · 2020 · Alternative Metal
Cover art 3.50 | 1 rating
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UMUR
"Dead Air" is a live album/DVD release by Swedish metal act Katatonia. The album was released through Peaceville Records in November 2020. It´s a double live album release featuring a third DVD disc with a visual presentation of the performance. The album is a "live in the studio recording", recorded on May 9th, 2020 at Studio Gröndahl in Stockholm, Sweden. "Dead Air" contains 20 tracks and a total playing time of 87:45 minutes.

The tracklist, which was voted for by the band´s worldwide fanbase, predominantly features tracks from the most recent (five) album releases, although a few tracks from "Last Fair Deal Gone Down (2001)" and "Viva Emptiness (2003)" have also made their way to the setlist. There´s however nothing on "Dead Air" from the first four albums by the band.

What you notice right away when listening to "Dead Air", is how well produced the album is. This is an incredibly well sounding live recording, and it´s obvious the band have spend time and put a lot of consideration into how they wanted to present their music. In that department "Dead Air" is a top notch release. The performances from all involved are also professional. Jonas Renkse´s vocals and melancholic vocal lines are performed with conviction and he makes enough small changes to his phrasing and notes to make these recordings stand out from the studio versions. Guitarist Anders Nyström performs some very well executed backing/harmony vocals, which provide some extra depth to the vocal part of the performance.

The visual (DVD) part of the release is of a good quality too. Katatonia are not the most exciting nor the most passionate performers on stage though and "Dead Air" is not a release which changes my opinion on that. The quiet/loud dynamics of the band´s music doesn´t always help push their music over the edge of the stage (despite the brillance of the studio versions of the material). Katatonia´s music is generally better suited for headphone listening in a dark room, rather than being experienced at a damp sweaty venue (or in this case live in a studio). A 3.5 star (70%) rating is deserved.

CHEVELLE Niratias

Album · 2021 · Alternative Metal
Cover art 3.75 | 2 ratings
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ssmarcus
Alt-metal veterans Chevelle are back with their fifth studio album... to debut in the top 10? Huh? When did they drop all these mega successful albums? Where the hell have I been? Surely most of those must have been released in the early to mid 'oughts - right? Well... no. Apparently this is already the third top 10 since 2014!

While I fondly remember growing up listening to Chevelle's 2002 debut Wonder What's Next, much of its charm faded fast as I grew to appreciate more technically sophisticated metal and progressive music. Too heavy to be remain commercially relevant but too simplistic for proper metal fans, I hardly would have expected Chevelle to survive rock's fall from commercial dominance in the almost two decades since their debut. And yet here they are, nine albums in and more successful than just about any of their alt-metal and post-grunge peers could ever have hoped to be. How did Chevelle do it?!

I am not familiar enough with band's back catalogue or business history to fully answer this question. But Chevelle's latest release, NIRATIAS, which demonstrates the band's commitment to growth as musicians and songwriters, firmly solidifies, in my book, Chevelle's place amongst modern hard rock's elite "survivors," approaching the inner circle of artists like The Foo Fighters, Deftones, and Tool.

As the album's cover art and psyched-out title suggest, NIRATIAS, an acronym for Nothing Is Real And This Is A Simulation, is an album with near progressive ambition. On tracks like "Mars Simula" and "Self Destructor," big and melodic riffs are accompanied by playfully soaring vocals. The riffing and bass on "Peach" and "Ghost and Razor" are unmistakably but tastefully Tool inspired. So epic and triumphant was the track "Remember When," I was praying the band would, by the end, segue into a reprisal of the "Send the Pain Below" chorus.

The record's weakness lies with the various pyschedelic interludes and piano-based spoken word closing track. While the verdict is still out on the artistic merit of these passages, they do not substantially detracts from the overall experience of listening to this record.

EVERGREY Escape of the Phoenix

Album · 2021 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.88 | 4 ratings
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ssmarcus
In all honesty, it would be difficult to attempt and try to add anything to the analysis of this record that has not already been expertly argued by Angry Metal Guy's Steel Druhm in his recent review (can't seem to leave a URL in the text here, so just google it). Starting with his concerns regarding the expected post-lockdown explosion of new music and Evergrey continuing to push their unique but repetitive brand of "mope-core," the writer ultimately comes to the conclusion that, on Escape of the Phoenix, Evergrey actually manages to tighten their song writing and put together an improvement on their formula.

With all that mind, I simply wish to add that if there is any artist I genuinely want to hear in our still healing almost post-lockdown world, Evergrey is certainly one of them. Of the legacy prog metal giants, Everygrey really was the only one that could consistently tap into the melancholy and angst many of us felt as a teenagers growing up in the early 'oughts. As COVID catapults us as adults back into the same sea of emotions, I am grateful to have a strong Evergrey record to help us steer through it.

It is worth mentioning that I strongly disagree with Steel Druhm's take on James Labrie's duet with Tom Enguld on ""The Beholder."" The harmonies the duo generate in the bridge are absolutely gut wrenching. While it is short lived, it constitutes one of the emotional climaxes of the record.

Escape is a record that has fewer moments of prog-greatness when compared to 2019's The Atlantic. But overall, its hard not see this as a stronger and tighter record than its predecessor. When Fans eventually evaluate the band's legacy, I believe it will be Escape that stands up as the strongest record from this phase in the band's discography. "

SOEN Imperial

Album · 2021 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.04 | 4 ratings
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ssmarcus
Imperial is Soen's second release in just under two years. While it is tempting to explain this seemingly short album churn time as the result of the band spending more time in lockdown than on the road in 2020, Soen is actually one of the few bands in metal today that has consistently released new albums almost every two years. Indeed drummer, founder, and principal songwriter Martin Lopez has confirmed that most of the music on Imperial was written shortly after the release of Lotus and before the China virus lockdowns.

Given the condensed time frame of song composition, I am not surprised by the music on Imperial sounding very much like another reiteration of the same Soen formula originally conceived of on 2017's Lykaia and perfected on 2019's Lotus. In fact, its easy to view this release as a B-Sides project from the previous two records. Of course the Soen formula, with its emphasis on punchy groovy riffs, moody vibes, and big melodic choruses, is an effective one. And Imperial certainly lives up to the potential inherit within the formula.

Soen is usually regarded as a progressive metal act not a standard heavy metal one. While I don't care much for gatekeeping, I genuinely feel Soen's music is best characterized as solid and well-grounded heavy metal proper. In all likelihood, the progressive moniker took hold owing to Martin Lopez having been an ex-Opeth member as well as the group's propensity for sounding like Tool on their earliest releases.

Ultimately, whether or not a fan will consider this a great record or "merely" a good record will depend on what extent they're expecting a band to evolve its sound. You can certainly count me a someone who very much sets that standard for the bands I like. And as much as I believe the chorus on "Monarch" to be the best the band has ever put to tape - a truly impressive feat when you consider just how many great choruses this band written and performed - I still would have liked Soen to explore some new territory in their post-Lotus output.

BUCKETHEAD Pike 291 - Fogray

Album · 2021 · Heavy Alternative Rock
Cover art 2.50 | 1 rating
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siLLy puPPy
And although almost a week after Easter 2021, a new egg has hatch in the coop of the eccentric BUCKETHEAD who has taken on another weird trait of releasing his PIKE series out of numerical order with PIKE 291 - FOGRAY coming out before any sign of #s 290 and 291 not to mention that #s 285 and 286 are still missing from the cue. As with other album titles i have no idea what FOGRAY refers to as it’s probably some weird puzzle reference. This is the 3rd PIKE of 2021.

This standard 30-minute PIKE only features 2 tracks, the short less than 6-minute alternative rocker “Piston” which takes on that by now all too familiar style that BH has released on numerous PIKEs but doesn’t really add anything new to the mix. In other words it’s a throwaway track designed as a musical fluffer i guess.

The album is basically nothing more than the 24-minute title track that pretty much follows the opening tracks slightly faster than mid-tempo grooviness with rockin’ bass and drums and a few breakdowns for some guitar antics. There is a noticeable dark ambient atmosphere that sort of swirls around in the background while the chugga chug guitar parts create some nasty grungy sounds. The tones and timbres are quite well polished even if the music itself is fairly by the books. It’s yet another one of those familiar tracks that pretty much engages in a monotonous cyclical loop of grooves that adds a few guitar tricks here and there but doesn’t justify the playing time.

I’ve grown quite bored with most of BUCKETHEAD’s recent editions to the PIKE universe because as someone who has taken the time to listen to every single one of the near 300 installments, i have to say that dude has simply been recycling the same old tired ideas now for quite some time and clearly more interested in quantity over quality. Despite it though i still continue to check out every new PIKE because every once in a while the chicken lover pulls a diamond out of a hen’s arse and actually rocks my friggin world.

As for PIKE 291 - FOGRAY, this one is just one more instrumental reworking of countless tracks on numerous PIKEs from the past and although performed well and engineered perfectly i’ve long grown weary of this incessant cookie cutter approach. What happened to all that energetic passion from the early days? Dude doesn’t even crank out metal much any longer as this is nothing more than heavy alternative rock. Oh well. OK but certainly not a PIKE i will ever be revisiting for sure.

ARCHITECTS For Those That Wish To Exist

Album · 2021 · Alternative Metal
Cover art 2.57 | 3 ratings
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ssmarcus
I think we can all agree that what the world really needed right now was yet another rock band yelling at us about what's wrong with us and the world. While all of us struggle, both individually and collectively through our overwhelmed political institutions, to withstand nature's latest device for knocking off humans, I am grateful to have Architects reminding us to pay attention to the world's real problems. For decades now, successful musical artists have an established tradition of warning their listeners of the imminent environmental collapse to befall us. As we the sheeple are just too caught up in the undertow of our own selfishness and quest for survival, its up to the artist, detached as he or she might be from frivolous shortsightedness, to educate and inspire us to action. For Those that Wish to Exist, with its totally savage takedown of apathy, will undoubtedly be regarded by history as the turning point.

As important and relevant as the messaging might be, it is further enhanced by the musical breakthroughs explored by the band on this release. By repeating the same formula in nearly every song, the message of imminent doom and the complete moral failure of the human race is drilled into the deepest recesses of the listener's brain. And, in 2021, who would expect a modern metal act to incorporate more and more industrial and electronic accompaniments to an otherwise standard metalcore foundation? Musically speaking, I really don't think it would be hyperbole to crown Architects as the Coldplay of metal. This is music for the masses of consumers looking for an experience of emotion without having to put in any of the work.

I thought about scheduling this review to post on April 1st but realized readers may think I was being sarcastic in my assessment of this record. So here it is a week late for your reading and listening pleasure...

GAMA BOMB Sea Savage

Album · 2020 · Thrash Metal
Cover art 4.92 | 2 ratings
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Kingcrimsonprog
Since being a teenager, my favourite subgenre of Metal has always been Thrash Metal. However, for some bizarre reason, when the New Wave Of Thrash Metal started, and lots of younger bands started making top quality Thrash, I utterly slept on it, not exploring it at all, or sometimes I even outright dismissed it.

This year I’ve been rectifying that, giving bands like Hazzerd, Harlott, Hyades, Havok, Power Trip, Lich King, Mosh-Pit Justice and Municipal Waste their fair shot and being won over time and time again.

The one exception to my New Thrash blind spot has always been Gama Bomb, maybe its because they’re my fellow countrymen, maybe its because they strike the right balance of humour and fun without descending into parody, maybe its just because they write the most memorable songs, but even when I had a “1980s or GTFO” attitude towards Thrash, I’d still find time to listen to Gama Bomb, recommend them to people, and I was even lucky enough to see them live (remember concerts guys?) when a guitarist I knew gave me a free ticket and transport (good guy!) back before I went to concerts regularly or was able to drive.

Many years since I first went in on the band with their Tales From The Grave In Space record, Gama Bomb have now released what I believe to be not only their best album to date, not only one of the best NWOTM albums I’ve heard, not only an album as good as what the ‘80s bands can put out nowadays, but one of the straight-up best Thrash albums I’ve heard to date from any era.

You heard that right. This album is their best one yet. This album can stand proudly up to the best things Slayer or Anthrax have been putting out since the ‘00s, and this album can stand up happily to some things Death Angel or Heathen were putting out in the late ‘80s. Never mind simply holding its own; this album is actively better than most of the output Thrash bands put out in the ‘90s and arguably better than some (if not a lot) classic Thrash and Proto-Thrash albums of 1983-1985 too!

I was a week one buyer (December 2020) after getting mega hyped by the pre-release singles, but it has taken me this long to write a review simply because I wanted to make sure how hard I like it wasn’t just hype or a sort of bubble-gum scenario where the flavour will go away really soon kind of thing. However, a few months later and I still think this record is a damn masterpiece of Thrash.

Songs like “Miami Super-Cops,” “Sea Savage,” “Ready, Steady…Goat!” and “Sheer Khan” just get stuck in my head for days. I have so often been on a walk these days and been unable not to sing aloud “Down, down, town!” during “Miami Super-Cops” when I had otherwise been walking in silence, sometimes leading passers-by to look at me like I am a lunatic. I don’t care, its so catchy it is irresistable!

Alongside top notch, catchy as hell tunes, everything else works perfectly. The production is tight, the playing is brilliant, the vocals just get better every time you hear them (some of those crazy Agent Steel-style screeches are so catchy) and the mixture between serious traditional Thrash music but goofy lyrics just works so well (but importantly, without being comedy music, which is always a turn-off for me). For example, when they go into “What shall we do with a drunken sailor” in the middle of the title track, it comes across as really clever even though it probably shouldn’t.

In summary, if you like Thrash Metal and can get over the fact that the band are not from the 1980s, you absolutely need this album in your collection, no questions asked.

THE CROWN Royal Destroyer

Album · 2021 · Death Metal
Cover art 3.50 | 1 rating
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Nightfly
The Crown, a death metal band (sometimes melodic death metal) from Sweden were active from 1998 until 2004, though prior to that they were known as Crown Of Thorns. They then reformed in 2009. It’s only since this reformation I’ve really took much notice of them though what I’ve heard of the earlier albums seems solid enough without being spectacular but perhaps I need to give them a thorough checking out as I know some people rate some of their early work very highly . Since 2009 though I’m well aware of the quality death metal the band have been releasing, the highpoint being 2018’s Cobra Speed Venom. Catchy crushing riffs aplenty really brought to life by a powerful and clear production. I was therefore looking forward to their latest album Royal Destroyer to see if they could keep the momentum going.

Initial impressions were good, another powerful production though not quite as bright as Cobra Speed Venom which is not a criticism. First track proper, after a short intro, Let The Hammering Begin! gets things off to a great start – fast, incredibly heavy and insistent brutal riffing that doesn’t take long to get under the skin. Things continue in a similar vein with no shortage of equally pummelling riffs, sometimes injecting a thrash element. Whilst speed and ferocity are largely the order of the day they do slow things down now and again, the first time apart from a few short bursts being on Glorious Hades. It’s not bad but I did find my attention wandering so it was good to hear that follower Full Metal Justice catches them on full throttle again where they are at their best. Later in the album a few tracks like We Drift On sees the band running out of steam but they find their form again for closer (unless you have the bonus track version) Beyond The Frail which is one of the best songs here.

Another overall strong album from The Crown then. Cobra Speed Venom remains my favourite which this doesn’t quite match down to a few tracks robbing it of great status but at its best equals past glories. Well worth checking out though and I’m sure most fans of the band will be pretty happy with this one.

MARE COGNITUM Solar Paroxysm

Album · 2021 · Atmospheric Black Metal
Cover art 4.66 | 6 ratings
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adg211288
It has been almost ten years since US atmospheric black metal solo project Mare Cognitum, the brainchild of Jacob Buczarski, released its debut album The Sea Which Has Become Known in 2011. In a decade there are many things that have not changed, such as Buczarski's continuance as the project's sole member and his apparently eternal dedication to the spacey atmospheric black metal music that has been Mare Cognitum's shtick since day one. What has changed though, is how much increasingly stronger a musician he has become in a decade, which has seen Mare Cognitum release four studio albums and three major split/collaboration releases, two of them being with Greek I, Voidhanger Records labelmate Spectral Lore. The most recent of these was 2020's Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine with Spectral Lore, a mammoth double album that held many claims to being the best work from both artists involved.

Still, nothing could really have prepared anyone for the release of Mare Cognitum's fifth main studio album Solar Paroxysm, released in 2021. In short, this is an album that even on the first spin managed to floor me with its sound and level of creativity in such a way that it was like listening to Mare Cognitum for the first time again, which for me was with third album Phobos Monolith from 2014. Although objectively Mare Cognitum has shown improvement with every release up to Wanderers, Phobos Monolith, as with many of the albums we discover artists with, had a bonus nostalgia factor for me that has always made it my personal favourite. However having given Solar Paroxysm a few spins now, I believe we may well be dealing with a release that defeats nostalgia. We are certainly dealing with a record that shows off its album of the year potential from the get-go.

Mare Cognitum has always favoured long tracks and there isn't an album out there that has more than half a dozen on it. On Solar Paroxysm Buczarski has delivered five, each of them passing ten minutes. The total running time of the record is a little shy of one hour. And that's an hour that just seems to fly by so fast that you'd be forgiven if you're left wondering if you accidentally leant on the skip button of your player. There is no song here that feels like it's anywhere near as long as it actually is. At no point does it feel like the writing has been purposely elongated or that the album has become pretentious. The balanced sound between spacey atmospheric melodies and more aggressive tendencies in the riffs is about as divine as this genre can probably ever be, while Jacob's growls adds a primordial edge on top that invokes the extremity of space and the formation of strange alien worlds. This will be a familiar vibe to existing fans, but the immediacy of the record is unprecedented.

Anyone who has been listening to Mare Cognitum this last few years knows already that Jacob Buczarski is a man who knows his craft. But he is also a man who shows that no matter how good his last work was, there's always room to keep honing that craft and against all expectations of reviewers like yours truly, who have already graded his work in the top tier, that improvement can be achieved. And yet Solar Paroxysm is not just good or even simply better than Mare Cognitum's previous releases. It is next level good: an album that's very easy to listen to multiple times back to back and certainly one that will keep being come back to again and again. It is true that only time, much of which is still needed to truly judge such a record, can tell whether something will remain as good once the honeymoon period is over, but I for one, have really good feelings about Solar Paroxysm.

NAPALM DEATH Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism

Album · 2020 · Grindcore
Cover art 4.57 | 9 ratings
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UMUR
"Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism" is the 17th full-length studio album by UK grindcore/death metal act Napalm Death. The album was released through Century Media Records in September 2020. It´s the successor to "Apex Predator - Easy Meat" from 2015 and although the album doesn´t feature any lineup changes guitarist Mitch Harris member status is a bit uncertain at this point. Harris has not played live with Napalm Death for some years, and he and his family moved back to his hometown Las Vegas from the UK, where they had lived for almost two decades. So although he plays on "Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism", nothing is certain at this point regarding his future in Napalm Death.

Stylistically "Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism" is one of the more varied Napalm Death releases, featuring both blasting grindcore/hardcore tracks, industrial tinged deathgrind/death metal tracks, and even a few experimental tracks, which honestly took me a little off-guard. A reaction I´m sure Napalm Death would find delightful, as they have always set out to challenge their audience and themselves. "Joie de ne pas vivre" is for example Napalm Death as I have never heard them before. It´s a strongly Swans influenced track featuring a bleak industrial atmosphere. Other standout tracks are "Amoral" and "A Bellyful of Salt and Spleen", which sound like they are influenced by artists like Head of David/Godflesh and Killing Joke. So while Napalm Death still blast away when that is called for, "Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism" is one of the most diverse albums in their discography. They even touch semi-melodic territory on the choruses of "Fuck the Factoid" and "Contagion". The lyrical content is as always politically charged and lashing out at the social and political issues and injustices of the world.

The album features a heavy, dark, and detailed sounding prodction, which suits the material well. So upon conclusion "Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism" is another high quality release in a long line of high quality releases by Napalm Death. It even stands out a bit more than many of their preceding post-2000 releases and there is a good chance it´s one of the band´s releases which will be mentioned among their standout albums in the future. Not necessarily because it´s a greater album than the direct predecessors, but because the diversity of the album makes it a little more memorable than some of the more relentlessly aggressive and energetic releases of the past. A 4 star (80%) rating is deserved.

MARE COGNITUM Solar Paroxysm

Album · 2021 · Atmospheric Black Metal
Cover art 4.66 | 6 ratings
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Necrotica
I’ve long been fascinated with records that explore the sounds of space from an extreme metal point of view. There’s an inherent excitement to basking in an expansive atmosphere while being bombarded by aggressive guitar work and pummeling blastbeats, as bands like Blood Incantation and Mithras have definitely proven. No matter how intense the music gets, there’s something strangely soothing and dreamlike about it; it’s almost as if the music could threaten to become background noise if you’re not paying enough attention. But much like the aforementioned bands, Mare Cognitum - consisting only of California native Jacob Buczarski - brings just the right amount of musical variety and neat embellishments to (mostly) avoid the pitfall of overt repetition. The fact that Solar Paroxysm has no song under 10 minutes might seem like a doozy, but believe me: this album flies by very quickly.

Every song here is a mini-epic rife with the tropes you’d typically hear from a progressive/atmospheric black metal project: long tremolo-picked passages, layered wall-of-sound instrumentation for that “vast” soundscape, and of course the harsh shrieks to top it all off. There’s a remarkable sense of progression in these tracks despite the album’s often long-winded nature, largely due to the fact that most of them come from a similar beginning. The majority of the tracks kick off with a familiar tremolo/blastbeat-driven base, and while that does make the intros a tad predictable, it allows Buczarski to use them as a launching pad to fly off in whatever direction he sees fit. Opener “Antaresian” opts to settle into what I could consider a “funeral waltz” using increasingly progressive 3/4 and 6/8 chugs before climaxing with a beautifully melancholic solo; meanwhile, “Frozen Star Divinization” is a long showcase of mesmerizing tremolo guitar harmonies, almost as if they’re locked in a never-ending duel in the middle of a wintry tundra. “Luminous Accretion” is probably the most technical song on offer, constantly shifting tempos and riff patterns while giving the drums a serious workout; finally, “Ataraxia Tunnels” is probably the most traditionally black metal-oriented track here while maintaining the sense of atmosphere that defines the rest of the album.

“Terra Requiem”, however, doesn’t fit quite as nicely on a stylistic level… and that’s because it’s the best song on the record. Most of it is played at a snail’s pace and really gets at the heart of this record’s dark take on a cosmic sound. The tremolo harmonies and double bass drumming are still prevalent here, just used to color a more funereal and despair-filled picture. Everything comes together beautifully in the middle of the song, as the keyboards soar above the melodic guitar solo; it strikes a brilliant balance between awe and hopelessness that I haven’t heard in quite some time. Speaking of the “picture”, the lyrics of Solar Paroxysm are very appropriate to the music as well. It’s your typical vaguely space-y imagery, but there are some pretty cool stanzas I’ll single out. Check out these ones from “Luminous Accretion”:

“Corporeal fractures Essence separates Violent transposition Self-observed from above, lingering

Communicants, wretched spires Materialize, surround, engulf Great tongues through which Creations are spoken (and thus conceived)”

Or these ones from “Terra Requiem”:

“The last leaves have fallen The last vine has withered The ocean has boiled for so long Choking our breath with fetid steam

We claw for shelter from the heartless sun Which cracks our skin and dries our wells So great is the debt we have incurred So too will we wilt and fade into dust”

Again, pretty vague and hard to decipher, but the imagery itself really fits the sound of the album so I don’t mind in the slightest.

Whether or not you will enjoy Solar Paroxysm will probably depend on your tolerance for the familiar tropes Mare Cognitum often employs to flesh out his sound. It’s true that nothing on this album breaks much new ground for atmospheric black metal, but the quality lies in how it’s executed here. The songs, while often starting the same, eventually lead us to incredibly neat locales by the time they’re done because of Buczarski’s adventurousness with this well-worn genre. Solar Paroxysm is my first experience with Mare Cognitum, and it looks like I have one hell of a back catalogue ahead of me if this album’s any indication.

MACABRE (IL) Carnival Of Killers

Album · 2020 · Death Metal
Cover art 4.07 | 3 ratings
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UMUR
"Carnival of Killers" is the 6th full-length studio album by US extreme metal act Macabre. The album was released through Nuclear Blast in November 2020. It´s the successor to "Grim Scary Tales" from 2011 and as always features the trio lineup of Corporate Death (guitars, lead vocals), Nefarious (bass, vocals), and Denis The Menace (drums). It´s not often you come across an act formed in the mid-1980s, who have never experienced a lineup change. So it´s not the number of lineup changes which have caused the many years between album releases. 8 Years between the release of "Murder Metal (2003)" and "Grim Scary Tales (2011)" and now a 9 year wait between "Grim Scary Tales (2011)" and "Carnival of Killers". That´s only 3 albums in 20 years...

...oh well I prefer quality over quantity any day, and in that department Macabre have always delivered. Stylistically "Carnival of Killers" continues the eclectic combination of musical styles that Macabre have been exponents for since day one. Death metal, grindcore, thrash metal, punk, blues, country music/bluegrass, folk/traditionals, children´s songs/lullabies, and all sorts of other bits and pieces from various musical styles are put into the melting pot, and out comes the sound of Macabre. The lyrics are as always about real-life serial killers/mass murderes like Ted Bundy, Richard Ramirez, John Wayne Gacy, and Richard Speck. Some have been the lyrical subject of tracks featured on preceding releases by Macabre, but they´ve also found new unpleasant and vile stories to tell. One of them ("Tea Cakes") about female Italian serial killer Leonarda Cianciulli, who murdered three women and then turned their bodies into soap and tea cakes, which she distributed to friends and neighbours.

Some of the real-life stories told on "Carnival of Killers" are so nauseating and vile, that they are hard to believe, and they are much, much worse than anything your typical goregrind/gore themed death metal act can cook up (because they are actually real). Macabre handle the source material in a bizarre humorous fashion, which makes listening to the album a sort of forbidden guilty pleasure. For example take a listen to how Ted Bundy´s story is told on "The Wheels On The Bug", using the traditional children´s song "The Wheels on The Bus", Macabre handling another track about German serial killer Fritz Harmann singing in German on "Warte Warte", or "Richard Speck Grew Big Breasts" about mass murderer Richard Speck eating hormones and growing breast in prison, to be better able to sexually satisfy his fellow inmates. It´s as morbid and bizarre as it gets.

The stories are told in the usual manic and diverse vocals style of Macabre. Clean vocals, high pitched screaming vocals, deep death metal growling, and aggressive raw snarling vocals. Sometimes layered, sometimes not. The musicianship is on a high level. The vocals are well performed and creative, the guitar riffs are sharp and the solos well played, the bass audible and active, and as the icing on the cake the incredibly skilled drumming by Denis The Menace. The latter is an unique extreme metal drummer, who is able to blast away, and play fiercely fast double pedal, but also add more original touches to the rhythm part of the music. His greatest asset though is how he is always able to drive the music forward in the most powerful way possible. The tracks are often pretty simple in both idea and structure, but he is able to get much out of little.

Macabre know they have something special in Denis The Menace and his drums are placed very high in the mix. "Carnival of Killers" is overall a well produced album, and although the drums are high in the mix, the guitars, bass, and vocals are also clearly audible. Upon conclusion the 9 year wait was worth it as Macabre have again produced a high quality release loaded with material in their unique style. A 4 star (80%) rating is deserved.

ROB ZOMBIE The Lunar Injection Kool Aid Eclipse Conspiracy

Album · 2021 · Industrial Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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Kingcrimsonprog
2021 sees the release of the seventh full-length studio album from the horror and sci-fi obsessed industrial tinged larger than life rock icon Rob Zombie. Cumbersomely named; “The Lunar Injection Kool Aid Eclipse Conspiracy” sees Rob Zombie continued his tradition of excessively titled albums, but perhaps not topping his most OTT choice from a decade ago with his fourth record “Hellbilly Deluxe II: Noble Jackals, Penny Dreadfuls And The Systematic Dehumanization Of Cool.”

It was released on Nuclear Blast and follows up the very well received “The Electric Warlock Acid Witch Satanic Orgy Celebration Dispenser” album from 2016, which the general consensus around reckoned was one of Zombie’s best albums to date, but for me it was actually a bit of a let-down after my favourite album to date, Venomous Rat Regeneration Vendor from 2013. Warlock had its highlights for sure, and I appreciated the attempt to be lean, succinct and have a big personality, but fell a bit flat a times in the song writing department of the deeper tracks.

As such, I approached this new album with a bit of trepidation, but luckily ‘Kool Aid really knocked it out of the park in my opinion, as it seems to fuse the best elements from ‘Venomous (Catchiness, hooks, better song-writing) and ‘Warlock (immediacy, character, eccentricity).

This is the second album to be produced by Christopher “Zeuss” Harris. It doesn’t have as clean nor big a sound as the old Scott Humphrey produced albums of yore, but it does has a lot of energy and seems to be going for a bit of a slightly punkier vibe than a typically industrial or even stadium sound.

The band line-up is also the same as last time around. Former Marilyn Manson member turned solo virtuoso John 5 has been in the band for years and years now, but his influence is particularly notable on this record, with all the little funk asides and effects laden guitar parts. I feel like he has been allowed to shine much more than say Educated Horses for example. I would argue that in terms of sheer guitar playing fun, this is definitely one of the most colourful Rob Zombie records to date. Its also the third studio with former Marilyn Manson drummer Ginger Fish on board. Now that Manson’s career is looking to be fast going downhill, its great to see some of the members from the iconic Holywood line-up are still out there making an impact.

There are a lot of damn fine songs to be found here. From the single “The Triumph Of King Freak” and “The Eternal Struggles Of The Howling Man” to the much talked about country tinged “18th Century Cannibals, Excitable Morlocks and a One-Way Ticket on the Ghost Train.” The real highlights for me personally are the stompy “The Satanic Rites of Blacula” and the groovy “Shadow of the Cemetery Man” as well as “The Ballad of Sleazy Rider.” I’d already rank it higher in the discography than Hellbilly Deluxe 2 or Educated Horses and in fact there is certainly a much higher hit to miss ratio than ‘Warlock on the deeper cuts. It hasn’t been out that long so its probably too early to tell, but already I’d estimate that this is in at least the top half of his discography.

Its not all glory though. There are 17 tracks here, totalling 42 mins, but there is a bit of fat that could be trimmed. Six of the Seventeen tracks here are effectively intros or interludes and this cumulatively makes up a full five minutes of the record. Zombie has never been a stranger to intros and interludes, the classic debut Hellbilly Deluxe certainly has its fair share, and the platinum selling follow up The Sinister Urge had a couple, and while I appreciate that one or two can add flavour and break things up, I think this record has perhaps the most extracurricular activity outside the main songs, which may affect the flow a little bit (its not a deal breaker or anything, but I’ll probably find myself skipping them a lot in the future).

To summarise; it has a silly name and a lot of interludes, it doesn’t sound as huge as the early records sonically, but it is consistently chocked full of strong and memorable songs, has some variety and in terms of quality it is even better than its much hyped predecessor. Well worth checking out.

CADAVER Edder & Bile

Album · 2020 · Death Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 4 ratings
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UMUR
"Edder & Bile" is the 4th full-length studio album by Norwegian death metal act Cadaver (the 5th if you count the 2001 Cadaver Inc album album as part of the band´s discography). The album was released through Nuclear Blast in November 2020. It´s the successor to "Necrosis" from 2004, so it´s been a 16 years long wait for the fans of the band. Only guitarist Neddo (real name: Anders Odden) remains from the lineup who recorded the predecessor. He also handles lead vocals and bass on "Edder & Bile". Neddo has enlisted prolific drummer Dirk Verbeuren (Megadeth, Aborted, Scarve, Soilwork...etc.) to complete the duo recording lineup for the album. Massacre vocalist Kam Lee and Possessed vocalist Jeff Becerra make guest vocal appearances respectively on "Feed the Pigs" and "Circle of Morbidity".

Cadaver have never released the same album twice and in that respect "Edder & Bile" isn´t any different from its predecessors. The 2001 Cadaver Inc album featured a blackened edge to the old school death metal sound, and while "Necrosis (2004)" in some ways continued the blackened element, it was more of a relentlessly aggressive and frenetic in nature old school death metal release. A really raw album that one. "Edder & Bile" may also be a highly energetic, brutal, and aggressive old school death metal release, but it´s overall slightly more sophisticated and varied than the last two albums by the band. Not as avant garde and progressive as the material on "...In Pains (1991)" (the band´s second full-length studio album), but still obviously written and performed by composers/musicians who know what is effectful and what works when writing a death metal tune.

Featuring 10 tracks and a total playing time of 31:25, "Edder & Bile" is short and sweet. Not a second is wasted or redundant and every riff, every snarling vocal part, and every rhythm part serve a purpose. Highlights include the opening "Morgue Ritual", the Kam Lee-led "Feed the Pigs", and the heavy mid-paced album closer "Let Me Burn". "The Pestilence" also deserves a mention for being an ode to Dutch death metal legends Pestilence and for using and twisting the main riff from their classic track "Out of the Body" from "Consuming Impulse (1989)" (Pestilence second full-length studio album). Any track from "Edder & Bile" could have been mentioned though, as this is through and through a catchy and memorable death metal release, featuring an almost perfect balance between old school death metal brutality/authenticity and technical finesse.

The musicianship are on a high level. Neddo is a skilled guitarist and his snarling blackened death metal vocals are well performed and features a caustic aggressive edge. Verbeuren takes the prize here though. His performance is on an incredibly high techncial level, but still very tasteful in execution. It´s no wonder so many people mention him among the greatest contemporary extreme metal drummers. If you were ever in doubt if all the praise holds true, just take a listen to this album...

...his playing is further put in focus by the rather distinct sounding production and drum sound choice. The drums feature a powerful yet rather odd sound, but it´s a sound which suits the material perfectly and every drum hit is clearly heard in the mix. The guitar tone is perfect too. Raw, menacing, and sharp, as are the vocals. It´s one of the more original/unusual death metal productions I´ve heard in a while, but it should only be understood as a praise coming from me. Upon conclusion "Edder & Bile" is a more than welcome comeback for Cadaver. Hopefully it won´t take 16 years before we hear from them again and hopefully Neddo will be able to convince Verbeuren to contribute next time too. A 4 - 4.5 star (85%) rating is fully deserved.

INSIDIOUS DISEASE After Death

Album · 2020 · Death Metal
Cover art 3.56 | 4 ratings
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UMUR
"After Death" is the 2nd full-length studio album by multinational death metal act Insidious Disease. The album was released through Nuclear Blast in October 2020. Although it´s been 10 years since the release of "Shadowcast (2010)" the quintet lineup who recorded the debut album is almost intact on "After Death". And it´s quite the extreme metal "supergroup" lineup featuring Shane Embury (Napalm Death, Lock Up, Brujeria...etc.) on bass, Tony Laureano (Nile, Malevolent Creation, Aurora Borealis...etc.) on drums, Marc Grewe (Morgoth, Power of Expression) on vocals, Silenoz (Dimmu Borgir) on guitars, and Cyrus (Susperia) on guitars. The latter is the only lineup change since the predecessor replacing Jardar (Old Man's Child).

Insidious Disease was formed with the sole purpose of producing authentic sounding old school death metal. "Shadowcast (2010)" fully met that promise, and "After Death" is more or less a continuation of fulfilling that same promise. This is music for those who appreciate "classic" old school death metal albums like "Leprosy (1988)" by Death, "Cursed (1991)" by Morgoth, and "From Beyond (1991)" by Massacre. Grewe has a strong voice and a commanding growling delivery. He sounds somewhere between (early) Chuck Schuldiner (Death) and John Tardy (Obituary). Intelligible growling vocals delivered with great brutal passion and caustic aggression. I can highly recommend listening to and enjoying his vocal performance on a track like "Divine Fire", to get an idea of how great a growling vocalist he actually is.

The instrumental part of "After Death" is well performed too, which is no surprise considering the musicians involved, and everything is delivered with respect for the traditions of the genre and as a result the album features a high level of authenticity. You won´t find much here you haven´t heard before on many late 80s/early 90s death metal releases, but these guys know how to write an effectful and catchy death metal tune, and therefore a unique sound isn´t as important. Downtuned heavy riffs and occasionally faster paced tremolo picking riffs, good rhythmic variation (Laureano is an incredibly well playing drummer), and some great lead guitar work providing the material with the right sombre and melancholic atmosphere.

"After Death" feautures a raw, powerful, and detailed sounding production, which suits the material perfectly, and upon conclusion it´s a quality sophomore album release by Insidious Disease. If I have to make one criticism it would be that I think the album is frontloaded with the best and most memorable tracks. It´s not that the tracks closing the album aren´t great death metal tracks, but they just don´t stand out as much as tracks like "Betrayer" and "Divine Fire". A 3.5 star (70%) rating is deserved.

IOTUNN Access All Worlds

Album · 2021 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 4 ratings
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lukretion
My 2021 in prog metal has been quite satisfactory for now, with plenty of strong albums already (Soen, Transatlantic, Therion) and only very few disappointments (Steven Wilson). What the year has been lacking so far, though, is the surprise factor – a new band that comes out of nowhere and manages to blow me away. Enter Iotunn, a Danish quintet hailing from Copenhagen who have just released their debut album, Access All Worlds, via Metal Blade Records. It is a striking debut, with plenty of highlights, that just keeps drawing the listener back for more and that, come December, I am sure will pop up in many metalfans’ end-of-year lists.

Iotunn play a special brand of melodic death metal, very epic in an unmistakably Nordic way, and with distinctive progressive undercurrents. The guitar work of brothers Jens and Jesper Gräs is impeccable and give us a massive dose of highly headbangable riffs, epic classic heavy metal leads, and shimmering solos, in the best tradition of the Scandinavian melodic death scene. The furious but extremely varied and dynamic drumming of Bjørn Wind Andersen and the subtle melodic interjections of bassist Eskil Rask add to the mix to create a mighty texture of sound that envelopes the listener from the very first notes of the album and transports her to a different world. This impressive musical background is topped off by the vocal histrionics of singer Jón Aldará. I am not hugely familiar with Aldará’s performance in his other bands (Barren Earth, Hamferð), but his vocal work on Access All Worlds simply floored me. He is an incredible talent. His growls are fierce, dark and deep but without sacrificing clarity of enunciation, which is a quality that reminds me of the great Mikael Stanne (Dark Tranquillity). Aldará’s cleans are equally amazing. So full of epicness and pathos, they inject a marked Nordic vibe into the music, bringing to mind even bands like Borknagar and Enslaved. Aldará also uses a third vocal style, a sort of shouted clean singing that falls halfway between his growling and his cleans. His all-encompassing and passionate performance elevates the albums to a whole new level and is certainly one of the main highlights of the record.

The eclectic influences that the five musicians bring to the table (from melodic death, to black metal, to standard heavy metal, to space metal) are expertly mixed to ensure that Access All Worlds stays fresh and retains the listener’s attention throughout its nearly 62 minutes of duration. It is a remarkable feat because Access All Worlds is not a lightweight album and requires a fair amount of time investment on the part of the listener, as one can infer from the fact six of its seven tracks clock above 6 minutes. The band’s progressive streak means that a lot of things happen in those 6+ minutes. These are songs that do not like to rest for too long on the same theme or melody, but keep evolving into new parts, with several tempo changes and a good dose of instrumental passages. The song fluidity and complexity is never overburdening, although there are a few times where I did wish that the band indulged in slightly more streamlined structures, allowing the melodies to sink in more easily.

Another aspect of the album that I also regret somewhat is its slightly unbalanced tracklist: although the quality of the music is high throughout the record, there is a sensible step-up in the second half of the album. From “Waves Below” onwards, the record keeps getting better and better, reaching an intense climax on album closer “Safe Across the Endless Night”. This track is incredible: it twists and turns across nearly 14 minutes and keeps surprising the listener with new ideas that one did not necessarily see coming. This unpredictability is something that makes this song stand out (together with “Waves Below” and the more compact “The Weaver System”) relative to other tracks, which are sometimes a tad too formulaic.

Ultimately, though, these are only minor quibbles. Access All Worlds is a truly impressive debut album that should appeal to anyone with a liking for extreme progressive metal. Although the roots of the album lie in the Scandinavian melodic death tradition, by mixing in a lot of different influences Iotunn manage to forge a distinct individual sound, which is rather impressive for a debut album. If the band will dare to push the boundaries of their music just a little bit further, giving the listener fewer reference points and throwing more curveballs at them, I cannot imagine how Iotunn will fail to become a leading force in the extreme prog metal universe. Highly recommended!

[Originally written for The Metal Observer]

TRANSATLANTIC The Absolute Universe - Forevermore

Album · 2021 · Metal Related
Cover art 3.94 | 4 ratings
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lukretion
[Review of both extended version (Forevermore) and abridged version (The Breath of Life)]

It is well known that the world of prog rock is quite bizarre. Just take a look at the dozens of memes on the internet about 60-minute long prog songs, three-hour concerts and endless drum solos, and you’ll see what I mean. But with their new album, The Absolute Universe, multinational progressive rock supergroup Transatlantic have just reached a new high. Because, you see, The Absolute Universe is actually two records, of which one is a double-album. Confused? Let me explain.

The initial version of The Absolute Universe was a 90-minute musical suite divided across eighteen songs and two CDs. However, upon re-listening to the album, vocalist/keyboardist Neal Morse (ex-Spock’s Beard) started to believe that a shorter, more compact version of the record could actually work better. When he presented the idea of a shorter album version to his bandmates, bassist Pete Trewavas (Marillion) approved, while drummer Mike Portnoy (ex-Dream Theater) and guitarist Roine Stolt (The Flower Kings) were not convinced. Ultimately, the band could not agree which version to put out. The stalemate was eventually solved by Portnoy’s suggestion to release both versions of the album, which now have reached our earbuds under the names of Forevermore (extended 90-minute version) and The Breath of Life (more compact 60-minute version). Now, you may be excused to think that The Breath of Life is simply a cut-down version of Forevermore. But this is prog, and that would have been far too simple! Instead, the two albums actually contain different music, either different versions of the same songs (different arrangements, different singers, different vocal lines and lyrics, etc.) or altogether different songs. They are effectively two different pieces of music, built around common musical themes. Isn’t this prog heaven?

Now, grandiose release projects aren’t much to write home about if the music isn’t any good. Fortunately, this is not the case for Transatlantic’s new album. Readers who are familiar with names such as The Flower Kings and Spock’s Beard should know exactly what to expect. This is modern progressive rock that pays tribute to the giants of the 1970s (Yes, Gentle Giant, Genesis) but that at the same time tries to push things into the new millennium by exploring heavier and more metallic territories. The ambition to write long-form compositions means that, although the records come divided in separate and fairly short songs (from 2 to 9 minutes), there are recurring themes that surface over and again throughout the album, convincingly tying together the various pieces into a proper suite. A lots of these recurring themes are introduced in the (largely instrumental) opening track “Overture”, and they are then developed to full effect across the rest of the album, before album closer “Love Made a Way” wraps everything up with a sweet medley of the key passages. It is a very satisfying listening experience, true to the spirit of the progressive rock standard, but with enough vigour and inventiveness to sound fresh still today, more than 50 years apart from the golden era of prog.

Given the quality of the four musicians involved, the playing is of course sublime. Both album versions are a lot of fun to listen to as they brim with superb instrumental passages. From Portnoy’s manic drumming to Stolt’s blues- and jazz-infused guitar solos, from Trewavas’s rumbling bass grooves to Morse’s synth extravaganza, every single musician manages to contribute some of the absolutely best heavy rock playing that you’ll hear this year. Things are no less impressive when it comes to the vocals department. The four musicians share duties behind the mic, which makes for an interesting and varied approach. Morse and Stolt are experienced singers, having held the lead singer role with their respective bands for decades now. Unsurprisingly, the tracks where they sing on are the most convincing from the point of view of the vocal melodies. Trewavas is slightly weaker, although his heart-on-the-sleeves performance on “Solitude” is moving. Portnoy is the true surprise, though. His gravelly rock voice is really good and fits perfectly a darker piece like “Looking for the Light”, one of the highlights of The Absolute Universe.

Although I enjoyed very much listening to The Absolute Universe, one thing that is undoubtedly lacking on this album is innovation. This is not music that covers new ground and expands horizons, it is firmly rooted in the classic prog rock tradition and does not move very far from that territory. If you are looking for new sounds and boundary-pushing music, then you’ll have to look elsewhere. However, when the quality of the music is as high as on this release, this does not detract too much from the pure enjoyment of listening to the album.

Now that I hopefully convinced you that this album is worth listening to, the real question is: which of the two versions should you get? Well, it depends. If you – like me – are a full-blown prog aficionados you’ll probably want to get both. Call me a nerd, but I had a lot of fun comparing the various versions of the songs that appear on Forevermore and The Breath of Life. One difference that is quite noticeable between the two versions is that Stolt’s musical influence is much more marked on Forevermore than The Breath of Life. Three songs that only appear on Forevermore ("Rainbow Sky", "The World We Used to Know" and "The Sun Comes Up Today") could have easily been released on a The Flower King’s album. More generally, there are many more mellow instrumental guitar passages on Forevermore, showcasing Stolt’s signature guitar playing , that have been instead cut out of The Breath of Life. No wonder Stolt did not like Morse’s idea of a more compact album! In contrast, on The Breath of Life, one can perceive more distinctly Morse’s hand. So if you are more a fan of Spock’s Beard's / Morse's music, I would recommend to get the shorter and punchier The Breath of Life. If you instead prefer the brand of modern prog heralded by The Flower Kings, you should go for Forevermore. Ultimately, it does not matter which version you get: if you are a progressive rock or metal fan, you simply have to give this album a listen!

[Originally written for The Metal Observer]

TRANSATLANTIC The Absolute Universe - The Breath of Life

Album · 2021 · Metal Related
Cover art 4.19 | 4 ratings
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lukretion
[Review of both extended version (Forevermore) and abridged version (The Breath of Life)]

It is well known that the world of prog rock is quite bizarre. Just take a look at the dozens of memes on the internet about 60-minute long prog songs, three-hour concerts and endless drum solos, and you’ll see what I mean. But with their new album, The Absolute Universe, multinational progressive rock supergroup Transatlantic have just reached a new high. Because, you see, The Absolute Universe is actually two records, of which one is a double-album. Confused? Let me explain.

The initial version of The Absolute Universe was a 90-minute musical suite divided across eighteen songs and two CDs. However, upon re-listening to the album, vocalist/keyboardist Neal Morse (ex-Spock’s Beard) started to believe that a shorter, more compact version of the record could actually work better. When he presented the idea of a shorter album version to his bandmates, bassist Pete Trewavas (Marillion) approved, while drummer Mike Portnoy (ex-Dream Theater) and guitarist Roine Stolt (The Flower Kings) were not convinced. Ultimately, the band could not agree which version to put out. The stalemate was eventually solved by Portnoy’s suggestion to release both versions of the album, which now have reached our earbuds under the names of Forevermore (extended 90-minute version) and The Breath of Life (more compact 60-minute version). Now, you may be excused to think that The Breath of Life is simply a cut-down version of Forevermore. But this is prog, and that would have been far too simple! Instead, the two albums actually contain different music, either different versions of the same songs (different arrangements, different singers, different vocal lines and lyrics, etc.) or altogether different songs. They are effectively two different pieces of music, built around common musical themes. Isn’t this prog heaven?

Now, grandiose release projects aren’t much to write home about if the music isn’t any good. Fortunately, this is not the case for Transatlantic’s new album. Readers who are familiar with names such as The Flower Kings and Spock’s Beard should know exactly what to expect. This is modern progressive rock that pays tribute to the giants of the 1970s (Yes, Gentle Giant, Genesis) but that at the same time tries to push things into the new millennium by exploring heavier and more metallic territories. The ambition to write long-form compositions means that, although the records come divided in separate and fairly short songs (from 2 to 9 minutes), there are recurring themes that surface over and again throughout the album, convincingly tying together the various pieces into a proper suite. A lots of these recurring themes are introduced in the (largely instrumental) opening track “Overture”, and they are then developed to full effect across the rest of the album, before album closer “Love Made a Way” wraps everything up with a sweet medley of the key passages. It is a very satisfying listening experience, true to the spirit of the progressive rock standard, but with enough vigour and inventiveness to sound fresh still today, more than 50 years apart from the golden era of prog.

Given the quality of the four musicians involved, the playing is of course sublime. Both album versions are a lot of fun to listen to as they brim with superb instrumental passages. From Portnoy’s manic drumming to Stolt’s blues- and jazz-infused guitar solos, from Trewavas’s rumbling bass grooves to Morse’s synth extravaganza, every single musician manages to contribute some of the absolutely best heavy rock playing that you’ll hear this year. Things are no less impressive when it comes to the vocals department. The four musicians share duties behind the mic, which makes for an interesting and varied approach. Morse and Stolt are experienced singers, having held the lead singer role with their respective bands for decades now. Unsurprisingly, the tracks where they sing on are the most convincing from the point of view of the vocal melodies. Trewavas is slightly weaker, although his heart-on-the-sleeves performance on “Solitude” is moving. Portnoy is the true surprise, though. His gravelly rock voice is really good and fits perfectly a darker piece like “Looking for the Light”, one of the highlights of The Absolute Universe.

Although I enjoyed very much listening to The Absolute Universe, one thing that is undoubtedly lacking on this album is innovation. This is not music that covers new ground and expands horizons, it is firmly rooted in the classic prog rock tradition and does not move very far from that territory. If you are looking for new sounds and boundary-pushing music, then you’ll have to look elsewhere. However, when the quality of the music is as high as on this release, this does not detract too much from the pure enjoyment of listening to the album.

Now that I hopefully convinced you that this album is worth listening to, the real question is: which of the two versions should you get? Well, it depends. If you – like me – are a full-blown prog aficionados you’ll probably want to get both. Call me a nerd, but I had a lot of fun comparing the various versions of the songs that appear on Forevermore and The Breath of Life. One difference that is quite noticeable between the two versions is that Stolt’s musical influence is much more marked on Forevermore than The Breath of Life. Three songs that only appear on Forevermore ("Rainbow Sky", "The World We Used to Know" and "The Sun Comes Up Today") could have easily been released on a The Flower King’s album. More generally, there are many more mellow instrumental guitar passages on Forevermore, showcasing Stolt’s signature guitar playing , that have been instead cut out of The Breath of Life. No wonder Stolt did not like Morse’s idea of a more compact album! In contrast, on The Breath of Life, one can perceive more distinctly Morse’s hand. So if you are more a fan of Spock’s Beard's / Morse's music, I would recommend to get the shorter and punchier The Breath of Life. If you instead prefer the brand of modern prog heralded by The Flower Kings, you should go for Forevermore. Ultimately, it does not matter which version you get: if you are a progressive rock or metal fan, you simply have to give this album a listen!

[Originally written for The Metal Observer]

BUCKETHEAD Pike 288 - Liminal Monorail

Album · 2021 · Heavy Alternative Rock
Cover art 3.00 | 1 rating
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siLLy puPPy
For his first act of 2021, the prolific artist known as BUCKETHEAD released not only one but TWO editions of the PIKE series on the 27th of February in the calendar year of 2021. First came “Electrum” and then came PIKE 288 - LIMINAL MONORAIL which seems to suggest that a phase change is taking place in BUCKETHEADLAND, a most welcome changing up of things and mercy me we all love change in these tumultuous times! HA!

PIKE 288 - LIMINAL MONORAIL is one of the shorter PIKEs as of late with a playing time of only 27 minutes and 31 seconds but still within the near 30 minute parameter of all but the earliest known hatchlings in this series. Unlike the previous edition which consisted of a sole track that swallowed up almost the whole album with a couple squeakers at the end, this PIKE features two tracks roughly of the same length.

The opening title track is the lengthiest of the two with a playing time of 16 1/2 minutes and features the already established BH playbook style of alternative heavy rock synthesis of grungy distorted guitar riffs accompanied by bass and drums and an atmospheric backdrop of synth rich mood enhancers. BH seems to have gotten a hold on making these sprawling behemoth tracks a tad more interesting with more dynamic guitar variations, drumming expansionism and nicer production tones which expand into infinity. Chord progression-wise, LIMINAL MONORAIL does evoke a sense of been there done that as there is nothing substantially different from a gazillion other PIKEs of this style. I’m not sure why BH is intent on replicating the same compositional formula ad nauseam but for whatever reason he does just that.

“Hawksglide” provides the perfect soundtrack for a, well you guessed it, gliding through the air as it is totally airy with echoey guitars at a slow tempo and atmospheric embellishments. This one is very much like a gazillion other BH releases of the past and nothing special really. In fact the echoey ambient nature of the track is actually not very pleasing to my ears for whatever reason. It’s OK and nothing overtly horrible but geez, where did the creativity go from this once prolific artist that could totally create a shock and awe at a moment’s notice? Not here in this one. Overall a decent PIKE but not as pleasant as the preceding PIKE.

BUCKETHEAD Pike 287 - Electrum

Album · 2021 · Heavy Alternative Rock
Cover art 3.50 | 1 rating
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siLLy puPPy
After a long absence, the seemingly indefatigable BUCKETHEAD returns in 2021 with another edition of his PIKE series. Far from the hundreds of albums released in 2014-15, in 2020 BH only unleashed nine hatchlings onto the world.

PIKE 287 - ELECTRUM is the first baby chick to emerge from the coop in 2021 and BUCKETHEAD is continuing to release the numbered PIKEs out of order since the previous edition was “Pike 284” therefore 285 and 286 are still in the hatchery. My guess is that he has been incubating many of these for a while and simply releases them once they are done at varying rates.

PIKE 287 - ELECTRUM is yet another near 30 minute experience which features only three tracks however this one is unique in that the opening title track runs just over 24 minutes and the other two tracks are both under 3. Of course BUCKETHEAD plays all instruments and this was released digitally only but unfortunately unlike the misleading price of 13 cents on the PIKE covers, this PIKE goes for 8.99$.

The title track is pretty much the entire PIKE and features the by-now typical arrangement of guitars, bass, drums and a bit of keyboard ambience. This is basically alternative rock with crunchy guitar riffs nurtured into a melodic construct with slower parts and more upbeat cadences of heavier rock. While implementing the tried and true formula of a post-rock styled cyclical loop that incorporates a single melody that alternates with a few others, “Electrum” crafts a tapestry of varying dynamics and subtle guitar differences that sprawl out to a whopping 24 plus minutes. Decent but nothing out of the ordinary either however diverse enough to be entertaining. 
“Astro Backyard” starts of with clean arpeggiated guitar but then adds some of those clucking heavier alt rock guitar riffs. This one is pretty cool as it has interesting rhythmic chops and dynamic shifts from heavy to softer. Short and sweet but satisfying.

“Archway” is the heaviest track on board with an instant heavy guitar riff and a choppy time signature. Alternates with what almost sounds like black metal guitar tones. Another nice short but sweet mix of heavy and less heavy.

Not a bad PIKE, in fact one of the better ones of recent memory however still not in the league of when the series began. I much prefer the last two short tracks over the sprawling title track opener and wish that there would’ve been a reallocation of time with the last two at least being doubled in length however as these alternative rock PIKEs go, this one is worthy of hearing again as it employs new ideas and there is an effort to keep things from sounding too repetitive.

DEATHORCHESTRA Symphony of Death

Live album · 2020 · Symphonic Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 2 ratings
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UMUR
"Symphony of Death" is a collaboration album project by Russian technical death metal act Buicide and the Olympic Symphony Orchestra. The album was independently released in December 2020. "Symphony of Death" is a live album recorded May the 4th, 2019 at the Opera Concert Club in Saint Petersburg. All material on the 7 track, 36:14 minutes long album are cover tracks of influential Florida death metal act Death. The album´s release date was deliberately chosen to coincide with the 19th anniversary of Death founder Chuck Schuldiner's death. "Symphony of Death" is available in both audio format and a DVD video format.

This is obviously a tribute album enterpreting Death´s music with the addition of a symphony orchestra. Honestly when I first heard about the project, I didn´t expect much, but I´ve been pleasantly surprised, and the combination of the technical death metal and the symphony orchestra works really well. It should be mentioned right away, that "Symphony of Death" is fully intrumental, and that the vocal melodies/lines are handled by the orchestra. Again it works like a charm. I like the fact that it´s audible that this is a live recording with audience noise, yet the sound production is still clear, detailed, and powerful. Buicide are well playing and do the songs great justice, and Olympic Symphony Orchestra manage to add some intriguing symphonic arrangements to the tracks.

There is a wealth of great material to chose from in the Death catalogue, and 7 tracks aren´t much, but I think they´ve picked some great tracks for the album in "Voice of the Soul", "Crystal Mountain", "Zero Tolerance", "Scavenger Of Human Sorrow", "Spirit Crusher", "Destiny", and "Pull the Plug".

"Symphony of Death" is the kind of project which could easily have failed badly, but DeathOrchestra manage to present intricate versions of the original material and "Symphony of Death" is ultimately a great tribute to Schuldiner and I´m sure he would be proud of- and grateful for the gesture, had he still been alive. A 4 star (80%) rating is deserved.

BLUE ÖYSTER CULT The Symbol Remains

Album · 2020 · Hard Rock
Cover art 4.06 | 5 ratings
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voila_la_scorie
So here we have a classic band of the seventies whose fortunes declined in the eighties, who were in disarray throughout most of the nineties, tried to get back in gear in at the turn of the century and who then carried on mostly as a classic rock band playing their classic tunes. Then after 19 years of silence from the recording studio, Blue Oyster Cult drop a new release. The title, "The Symbol Remains" seems less like a victory shout and more like confident statement made through weathered and grim lips with a knife edge of a smile. "It's 2020. BOC is still here."

I was curious. I had never been a huge fan, but my musical travels brought me to BOC Base on a few occasions, allowing one or two more albums to nestle into my collection. My recent reacquaintance with the much-derided "Club Ninja" exposed me to the new album's cover. Somehow, I felt it had to be good.

Of the original line-up, only the two guitarists and principal singers, Buck Dharma and Eric Bloom remain. That's something important though as what defines a band's sound is mostly in the vocals and lead instruments, as well as the songwriting. And to my delight, I feel that this is very much a Blue Oyster Cult album!

The band's familiar heavy side opens the album with "That Was Me", a song that I thought was a reflection back on a "career of evil". At this age, I think this song is very suitable and it is executed in the familiar style of Blue Oyster Cult.

The next two, "Box In My Head" (about his brain), and "Tainted Blood" (a vampire song) continue that familiar sound and style. Obviously, the two legendary members are that much older and the sounds of the instruments and recording is very modern, but they deliver songs worthy of the legendary band name.

I'll confess, though, that partway through the album, it begins to sound more like a generic old dudes' rock album. While at the start I felt it was without a doubt a BOC album, by the middle I thought had I heard this without knowing who it was, I don't think I would have even suspected that I knew what band it was.

Fortunately, once we reach "Stand and Fight" we know who put out this platter. It is actually a heavy tune, perhaps in the sense of classic heavy metal of the seventies but again with a modern sound. "Florida Man" is pretty good, but "The Alchemist" is totally a Blue Oyster Cult track with the heavy guitars, some piano, and an epic tale of fantasy and a quest. Had the album ended here (and I expected that it would as I was listening while walking and not looking at the track list), I would have applauded the band.

However, there is yet another track, and another, and another. It became a game to guess if I had heard the final track yet. I would think, "Now there's a great conclusion to a song and a great way to finish up the album." But then another track would begin. Not that the last five tracks were bad or dull. There are still some very good ones there and some even better than those in the middle of the album where I was wondering if I would recognize the band. I suppose after 19 years, the band had enough material for a 60-minute album. But I personally feel the album could have been more cohesive and more like a BOC album if some of the songs - three or four - had been relegated to CD/download bonus tracks that were separate from the rest of the songs.

My impression is that Blue Oyster Cult have released a surprisingly good album for a mature band. They keep the BOC flame burning for us with songs that both musically and lyrically are congruent with the classic sound of the band.

Any disappointments would be in two or three tracks that could have been either left off or come after the main album track list. I think the album would have had more of a wow impact at somewhere around 10 or 11 tracks.

Overall though, it's a solid release!

AVATAR Hunter Gatherer

Album · 2020 · Alternative Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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Kev Rowland
One never knows what one is going to get with Avatar, as while they may have started life as yet another Swedish death metal act, they have broadened their horizons greatly since then. Their last album, 2018’s ‘Avatar Country’ was the second-largest independent album in North America upon its debut, reaching #4 (Hard Music Albums), # 8 (Rock Albums), and #25 (Billboard 200 Current Albums) with one major rock outlet even declaring it a heavy metal ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’. While I can never see myself going that far, there is no doubt there is something both strange and compelling about their music.

In 2020 they released their eighth studio album, ‘Hunter Gatherer’, which saw them record with all of them playing in the studio together as if they were onstage, and then putting it down on two-inch tape. When they go for it they really hit hard, but in “A Secret Door” we get groove/death metal along with Roger Whittaker-style whistling, guitars being played like mandolins, huge riffs and hooks which sees them move into the likes of Linkin Park. It is commercial but given what they are doing it really shouldn’t, as there is no way this mess should work, yet it does. Some bands have tried to move out of the Swedish death scene and failed miserably, yet these guys really have managed to bring something together which is mixing loads of many styles and somehow having it all make total sense while also never really settling. One never knows what is going to happen next as they can be in full flight and then drop into some keyboards or just blast along and never change, coming across more as power metal than anything else, but always with a heavy bottom end. Fans of the band have become used to never knowing what each album is going to sound like, and while I cannot speak for the whole of the back catalogue I can see that this one is worth checking out as it brings together nu metal, groove metal, melodic death, industrial, and the kitchen sink.

HEATHEN Empire Of The Blind

Album · 2020 · Thrash Metal
Cover art 3.83 | 4 ratings
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UMUR
"Empire Of The Blind" is the 4th full-length studio album by US, California based thrash metal act Heathen. The album was released through Nuclear Blast in September 2020. It´s the successor to "The Evolution of Chaos" from 2010 and while it hasn´t been 19 years like it had been between "Victims of Deception (1991)" and "The Evolution of Chaos (2010)", 10 years between album releases are still a lot of years and a long waiting time for the faithful and dedicated fans. Not surprisingly there have been a couple of lineup changes since the predecessor as bassist Jon Torres has been replaced by Jason Mirza and drummer Darren Minter has been replaced by Jim DeMaria. Guitarists Lee Altus and Kragen Lum, and lead vocalist David White, remain from the lineup who recorded "The Evolution of Chaos (2010)".

Apparently 10 years between album releases and changing the rhythm section haven´t changed much, because "Empire Of The Blind" more or less sounds like it could have been released a year after "The Evolution of Chaos (2010)" and it could easily have been released by the exact same lineup, although Heathen seem to have gone for a slightly more concise songwriting approach on this one, as the tracks are generally shorter than on the predecessor.

Stylistically Heathen play a melodic yet still powerful style of thrash metal. White can both sing raw and more melodic, sometimes even touching US power metal styled vocals. He definitely wouldn´t be out of place on an Iced Earth album or anything in that vein. The instrumental part of the music is technically well played, varied, and very interesting in terms of the powerful playing rhythm section, the razor sharp thrashy riffs, but also the many melodic leads, harmonies, and guitar solos. The guitar work on the album is nothing short of amazing.

The material is well written, varied, and effective, and "Empire Of The Blind" also features a powerful, clear, and detailed sound production (courtesy of Zeuss), which suits the material perfectly. In other words a consistently strong and high quality thrash metal release. A 4 star (80%) rating is deserved.

THE DEAD DAISIES Holy Ground

Album · 2021 · Hard Rock
Cover art 5.00 | 1 rating
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Nightfly
The Dead Daisies have had a revolving door of members since their eponymous debut in 2013, the only ever present member being Australian guitarist David Lowy. Practically a who’s who of hard rock, members who’ve come and mostly gone include bassist Marco Mendoza, vocalist john Corabi, keyboardist Dizzy Reed, guitarist Doug Aldrich, drummer Brian Tichy and drummer Deen Castronovo as well as some high profile guests like Slash and Jimmy Barnes. The band have so far released four never less than solid studio albums, the pick of the bunch for me being 2016’s Make Some Noise. After 2018’s Burn It Down vocalist John Corabi and bassist Marco Mendoza jumped ship. A great loss to any band but the perfect time to bring in Glenn Hughes, replacing both of them in one go. Hughes and Aldrich already have history, the guitarist having played on one of his solo tours back in 2015 I believe it was, one of the dates in Newcastle I was lucky enough to have seen.

It’s clear from the off that bringing in Hughes was the smartest move the band could have made. As soon as the title track Holy Ground kicks in its apparent that he’s had a big influence on the band’s sound. Of course there’s his vocal. I’ve long held the belief that his powerful and soulful delivery is the finest in rock but on a musical level a lot of the songs could have sat comfortably on many of his solo albums. Holy Ground is undoubtedly the bands finest album to date but all the credit can’t be given to Hughes who with one or two exceptions has made his strongest albums in band settings – Trapeze, Deep Purple, Hughes/Thrall and most recently Black Country Communion. The Dead Daisies are on fire here with eleven songs of hard hitting rock bursting with big riffs and powerful hooks backed by top notch musicianship. Every song here is a killer, even the seemingly obligatory ballad Far Away that closes the album which Hughes’s soulful vocals fit perfectly and Aldrich reels off perhaps his best guitar solo on the album. There’s also a cover of Humble Pie’s 30 Days In The Hole. The Daisies seem to have at least one cover on every album but here they make the song their own adding power to the original and also featuring Castronovo sharing vocals, a fine singer in his own right.

It’s perhaps on the other nine tracks where the real gems lie though where the band really kick ass, heavier than they’ve ever been. The songs, mostly mid-pace, have plenty of groove and are driven along by the powerful Hughes/Castronovo rhythm section overlaid by Aldrich and Lowy’s crushing and infectious riffs. Favourites include Like No Other (Bassline) for strongest hook and a pummelling dirty bassline and perhaps Hughes’s finest vocal performance on the album. Then there’s Unspoken, the first song unveiled by this line-up and a grand statement of intent that really made me very impatient to hear the rest. Righteous Days is another highlight for the same reasons that I’ve already mentioned above but as I already said, every song here is a killer.

In view of the many line-up changes this band has had and Hughes seems to get itchy feet fairly often, I really hope this incarnation can hold it together for a few more albums as they work so well together and it’s hard to see how they could improve on this formula they’ve developed. An early contender for album of the year for sure.

THERION Leviathan

Album · 2021 · Symphonic Metal
Cover art 3.58 | 5 ratings
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It’s hard to believe that THERION began as a somewhat generic sounding old school death metal band when it was founded by Christofer Johnsson all the way back in 1987 but after a sluggish beginning which step by step morphed into full-blown symphonic metal by the time the 1996 album “Theli” wooed the critics and hi brow metalheads into the cult, THERION had done the unthinkable and crafted a brilliant new metal sound that took metal music further into the world of Western classical and opera than ever attempted. The results were riveting and brilliant and catapulted the band to international fame.

THERION kept this momentum going all throughout the 2000s with one excellent album after another that slightly reinvented the overall recipe laid down on “Theli” however beginning with “Sitra Ahra,” Johnsson was obviously getting bored with the band’s signature sound and started experimenting and while the albums thought the 2010’s were interesting, they lacked the focus and enthralling hybridization effect that album’s like “Secret Of The Runes” and “Gothic Kabbalah” had so perfectly captured. This all led up to the band’s most ambitious effort yet, 2018’s triple album “Beloved Antichrist” which tamped down the symphonic metal a few notches and instead delivered a whopping 3-hour rock opera.

While the project sounded like a good idea in writing, the results were very lackluster as the album lacked any sort of cohesive gratification despite exhibiting brilliant performances in bits and pieces. The album was a huge flop and fans were wondering if perhaps THERION should call it a day and go start a philharmonic orchestra somewhere in an undisclosed location in the Swedish countryside. The fiasco that was “Beloved Antichrist” pretty much kept fans wondering what THERION’s next move was going to be and finally in 2021 we have a new album that makes it all so clear just what that next move is. In short THERION has proposed another ambitious project only this time it will disperse its grandiose visions in a three album set that will be released by the following LEVIATHAN sequels in 2022 and 2023.

This is basically what we call damage control as Johnsson is obviously not going to disband the profitable cash cow called THERION which has an international following and dedicated fanbase. LEVIATHAN (bad album title considering the mega-popular Mastodon album) pretty much backpedals to the band’s style around the turn of the millennium and could easily fit anywhere in between “Vovin” and “Sirus B.” What is presented here is a tried and true and very well performed collection of eleven tracks with an impressive lineup of various vocalists, both male and female sopranos delivering divine operatic performances accompanied by sizzling metal guitar, bass and drum backing. As always at this point in THERION’s career, this is a big budget production with a great number of guest musicians and extra instrumentation that includes hammond organ, violin and lots of drumming diversity.

As far as a THERION album goes, LEVIATHAN is indeed a return to form and pretends that the whole “Beloved Antichrist” backlash was just a bad dream however at the same time these grounds have already been covered and no matter how well these tracks are performed (and they are perfectly executed), it just feels like THERION has gotten stuck in a certain moment in its career that it will never escape from due to the fact that the band is popular and therefore obligated to kowtow to the fanbase. Despite these apprehensions to continue down a more experimental path, as a true THERION fan myself, i’d prefer to have the band release experimental flops like “Beloved Antichrist” than to retread that which has already been accomplished two decades ago. THERION will always be a band i have a soft spot for so i can never rate an album this beautifully performed very low but it certainly doesn’t get any extra love for creative growth. This is about as THERION by the books as it gets still though LEVIATHAN is quite an enjoyable album.

VOIVOD The End of Dormancy

EP · 2020 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.50 | 1 rating
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"The End of Dormancy" is an EP release by Canadian progressive/thrash metal act Voivod. The EP was released through Century Media Records in July 2020. It´s a 3 track, 22:31 minutes long release, featuring a version of "The End of Dormancy" from "The Wake (2018)" (the band´s preceding album release) with added trumpets, saxophone and trombones titled "The End of Dormancy (Metal Section)", a live version of the same track and a live version of "The Unknown Knows" (the studio version of that track is featured on "Nothingface (1989)"), recorded at Montreal Jazz Fest 2019. A video was also released for the new brass version of "The End of Dormancy".

The inclusion of the brass arrangement to "The End of Dormancy" works really well and gives the song a bombastic quality. Voivod experimentet with string arrangements on "The Wake (2018)" (on "Iconspiracy" and on "Sonic Mycelium") and now with a brass arrangement on "The End of Dormancy", see them come out as victors. I´d not give that trend up just yet as those experiments definitely provide some spice to Voivod´s already adventurous songwriting approach. The live version of "The End of Dormancy", which also features the brass arrangement, and the live version of "The Unknown Knows" are both well performed and both also feature a good quality live sound.

Listening to the same track twice on a release (although in two different versions), is seldom something which pleases my ears and I can´t say this EP changes that. So while the quality of the performances, the material, and the sound quality of both the studio track and the two live tracks are of a high quality, the EP as a full listening experience does suffer slightly from the live version of "The End of Dormancy" directly succeeding the studio version on the tracklist. I think it would have worked better if "The Unknown Knows" had been placed between the two versions of the title track. So there´s nothing wrong with the content of the release, but a good tracklist flow is important too, and that´s where this EP score low. A 3.5 star (70%) rating is still fully deserved.

TODD LA TORRE Rejoice In The Suffering

Album · 2021 · Heavy Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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[Warning: My most listened-to artist of the past 12 years by a large margin according to statistics from Last FM is Queensryche, so if you expect a review without mentioning Seattle’s finest, you may have to look elsewhere].

Rejoice In The Suffering is the debut full-length studio album by Todd La Torre, the man most famous for being the singer on the past three Queensryche albums (and drummer on the latest one too!) and who was in Crimson Glory before that.

It was released on Ratpack records and self-produced, but with help from bassist/guitarist/keyboardist Craig Blackwell, with mixing and mastering duties capably handled by Chris “Zeuss” Harris (Chimaira, Hatebreed, Shadows Fall, Overkill, Heathen, and the past two Queensryche records).

Now obviously, the first question you may be wondering is, “does it sound like Queensryche?” And the answer is a non-committal “sort of, a bit, in places, but also no.” Having the man who has been the revitalising force in the band and voice of their records for the past decade will obviously draw some comparison, as will tapping Zeuss who worked on their albums. That being said, the album feels like Todd wanting to use all the ideas he has that don’t quite fit in the Queensryche formula, or that might be too much of a departure if he did. This is not a Hard Rock record, this is not a Prog Metal album. This is a Metal album with a capital M.

The album is heavier, harder, faster and less progressive than 90% of the Ryche’s output, and because Todd doesn’t have to fit in with an established sound, his voice is much less like Geoff Tate’s than it is on Ryche records. While still sounding like himself, he really shows off all different sorts of voices here, from Rob Halford Screeches to that Bruce Dickinson/Ian Gillian talk-sing, to Chuck Billy melodic bark, to a few death growls and at one point an almost Dani Filth style creepy storytelling voice blended with a Johan Hegg roar, on one of the bonus tracks (“One By One”). Don’t let me dropping all those names capsize the boat or deflate your enthusiasm though, this is not to say the album is Todd-does-karaoke, Todd himself would probably be shaking his head if he were ever reading my comparisons; its just my limited language skills describing how broad the range of styles he covers is, he has his own unique spin on all of these voices.

What about the music? Where does that fit in with? Well, to be honest, it reminds me a lot of the newest Andy Sneap-helmed albums by Accept, Saxon and Priest at times, but some songs on the other hand (like “Critical Cynic”) are a little more punchy and staccato with that crunchy guitar sound that modern Prong albums have, but also wouldn’t be out of place on a Five Finger Death Punch album, the sort of thing you get when you take Fear Factory’s mechanical style and make it more organic.

The semi-ballad “Crossroads To Insanity” on the other hand is exactly the sort of thing Queensrcyhe have been doing lately, and probably the one to try first if you aren’t into heavier material. I feel like this one could have just sat happily on The Verdict. Its not really representative of the whole album though, if you want to get sort of the average sound of the record, listen first to the crunchy mid-paced title track, and then to the speedier, thrashier “Vanguards Of The Dawn Wall” which is probably the hardest, heaviest number and closer to Testament than Queensryche. This song shows me why Todd deserves a solo album, as he utterly nails this track, but it would never have fit on The Verdict or Condition Human. Now imagine something mid-way between the two and you’ll get a ballpark idea for where the album sits most of the time.

Todd handles the drums himself and does a great job (he was a drummer since a young age), mixing in a bit of flare with also not overplaying and aforementioned Graig handles the riffs; doing a very solid job of it, serving the songs well. There are some brilliant guitar solos too, particularly on the album closer (not counting bonus tracks) “Apology.”

Good production, check. Good stylistic direction, check. Good music, check. Good vocals, check check check check check.

I don’t know if the album will still be listened to and talked about in 5, 10 or 20 years. I don’t know if Todd’s solo career will be an ongoing thing, or if this is just a one time pandemic-era release of steam while Queensryche can’t tour. I don’t know if I am just unduly fond of it due to being a massive Toddryche fanboy, but I do know that in and of itself, this album is well worth your time right now, and a stirling showcase of a master vocalist demonstrating a broader range than he gets to in his day job. Being selfish, I hope it doesn’t interfere in Queensryche in any way, but other than that one caveat, I have nothing but good things to say about this.

AD NAUSEAM Imperative Imperceptible Impulse

Album · 2021 · Technical Death Metal
Cover art 4.50 | 3 ratings
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AD NAUSEUM hit the ground running in the world of avant-garde tech death metal in 2015 with its lauded “Nihil Quam Vacuitas Ordinatum Est” which proved to be the second coming of Gorguts’ classic “Obscura” wrapped in completely new clothing. With bantering wails of sonic swarms of atonal and jagged guitar riffs teased out into unthinkable detachment, AD NAUSEUM proved they were worthy successors and pretty much handed honorable post doctorates in “Obscura” studies which they so successfully took to the next level in the world of avant-garde metal excess.

If any band can be accused of nerding out to the max, surely it’s this quartet of unorthodox musicians hailing from Scio, Italy which is just a hop, skip and a jump from the city of Venice. Having gotten the unrelenting angst out of their system after a debut album that excelled in a relentless attack so frighteningly intense that it was advised to avoid for those who were faint of heart, after six long years AD NAUSEUM returns with its second coming in the form of IMPERATIVE IMPERCEPTIBLE IMPULSE and as well as leaving the Latin locutions behind, so too does AD NAUSEUM jettison the full speed throttle that dominated the debut.

While the 20th century integral serialism and avant-garde classical underpinnings of the debut rarely peeked out of the bantering din, IMPERATIVE IMPERCEPTIBLE IMPULSE showcases a more relaxed AD NAUSEUM that has allowed less abrasive moments of contemplation to intermingle within the incessant metal brawl that continues the bantering din of the Gorguts playbook. Album #2 features six tracks, all of which exceed the eight minute mark with “Coincidentia oppositorum” racing past the twelve. With a running time of 57 minutes, IMPERATIVE IMPERCEPTIBLE IMPULSE offers a more balanced approach laid down on the debut with an extraordinary attention to details that displays this band’s outstanding commitment to crafting some of the most forward thinking avant-garde metal of the decade.

While still steeped in tech death clothing with growly vocals, aggressive technical guitar wizardry and abrasive atonalities, AD NAUSEUM has like many of its contemporaries in reality drifted off into a totally new world of extreme metal that doesn’t really fit into the established orthodoxies of death, black, sludge, progressive etc metal. While currently only the term avant-garde can really fit the bill, AD NAUSEUM continues the death metal immediacy with the Deathspell Omega abstractness and Meshuggah-like disscontempt of established paradigms. On this sophomore release, AD NAUSEUM pretty much takes all the features of the debut and amplifies them severalfold.

This is the kind of metal monstrosity that has alienated a lot of traditional metalheads for sure as this type of experimental abstractness has totally left the gravitational pull of classic metal approaches and ventured into unknown territory where it seems there is no end in sight as these types of bands venture ever further into the unexplored terrains. AD NAUSEUM seems to have perfected a balancing act here as it delivers unrelenting brutality in the form of atonal dissonance riff barrages wrapped up in progressive tech death clothing however the moments of non-metal shine through much more brightly and feature interesting orchestrations that evoke a keen sense of 20th century classical composers ranging from Arnold Schoeberg and John Cage to free dissonance and experimentalism of Charles Ives and Edgard Verèse. Metal bands like this are truly the new avant-garde classical. There are more moments on this one that remind me of Kayo Dot or Maudlin of the Well than album #1.

This is truly abstractionist’s paradise as AD NAUSEUM really understands the dynamics of metal-in-opposition and develops their post-Obscura-ism even further. Graced with a keen attention to production values as well as over-the-top metal dynamism, this band has truly mastered the true intent of avant-garde extreme metal and showcases a more mature album although many will be instantly alienated by the jagged uninviting soundscapes presented. Advanced metal who study calculus for fun. This is not the instantly warm and fuzzy metal of decades prior but rather the ultimate expression in nerd metal run amok. Personally i love this shit and AD NAUSEUM has unleashed a brilliant followup to its already ambitious debut.

ACCEPT Too Mean to Die

Album · 2021 · Heavy Metal
Cover art 3.57 | 3 ratings
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If someone asked me to define pure classic heavy metal, the first thing that comes to my mind is the German band, Accept. Their classic run of 1980s albums is still fresh and entertaining to this day, and their reunion era with the new singer Mark Tornillo is somehow just as good, or even better (very few heritage bands can say that, maybe only Kreator are making better albums nowadays than in the 80s). For example; Their 2012 album Stalingrad was one of my albums of the whole decade, and the follow up to that Blind Rage is just as good.

In 2021 the long running band have put out their sixteenth full-length studio album, and the fifth of their modern Tornillo-era. Like the other albums from this era it is released on Nuclear Blast, and boasts an absolutely banging production job from Andy Sneap (who has done some great work with the best Saxon, ‘Priest and Testament albums of the modern era).

There has been some line-up shifts in recent years, as essential members Herman Frank and Stefan Schwarzmann left before the previous album, The Rise Of Chaos, and now iconic bassist Peter Baltes has departed too. I can imagine a few fans being worried about how that will affect the sound and direction.

Luckily main-man Wolf Hoffman is still going strong, and the Tornillo/Sneap dynamic over Wolf’s signature style ensures a sense of continuity. Christopher Williams on drums and Uwe Lulis on guitar are still here from the previous record (and the live album before that) and both of those guys are pretty dialled into what Accept should sound like anyway, which also helps it all still feel like Accept should feel.

If you have heard any album since Blood Of The Nations, you will know stylistically what to expect here. They’ve settled into a specific style and are pretty much just fleshing out every variation of that theme they can think of without straying too far, kind of like how Motorhead did for their final five or six albums, or what Saxon have been doing on their three or four most recent records. There are fast, medium and slow paced variations. There are melodic, blunt and medium intensity variants. There are rocking and metallic stylistic variants. Some songs may have a bit of a neoclassical section here, or a singalong section there. But at the end of the day, they’ve hit upon an excellent formula and they’re working it to maximum effect one album after another now; There’s lots of speed metal, lots of hard rock and a few tiny tinges of thrash and power metal in small doses for flavour now and again.

If you want to know what this album (or indeed the last four albums sound like), check out the brilliant tracks “Not My Problem,” “No One’s Master” or the title-track “To Mean To Die.” Plenty of good tunes here to keep existing fans happy. This stuff is exactly what I love about the band.

For the band’s more rock, less Metallic side, “Overnight Sensation” is a blast, and the amusing lyrics about social media influencers kind of serve as a spiritual sequel to the previous album’s “Analogue Man.” If you like the band when they add a bit of classical music into the mix, then “Symphony Of Pain” is also worth checking out.

How does this album fit into the band’s catalogue overall? Well, it isn’t my number-one favourite, but it is no disappointment either. I think of words like “solid” or “dependable” which may sound like damning with faint praise, but that isn’t the case. They have released better albums, that’s just the burden of being a brilliant band with a stellar catalogue. There may perhaps be one or two songs that come across as filler, and furthermore because they’ve used this formula for several albums now nothing feels particularly wow-ing or fresh which can sometimes have an impact when ranking records, but as a whole it is just another damn solid set of songs in a style I’ve come to love for the last decade, and still as well produced and performed as ever. If it was a Deep Purple album, it would be Who Do We Think We Are. Still awesome, but maybe not the one that makes it into all the lists.

Will it make my album of the decade list like Stalingrad did? Maybe not. Will it be my number one album of this year? Possibly not either. But do I still recommend you buy it? You bet I doa. If you liked Rise Of Chaos, you’re going to like this, it is as simple as that. At least half the album I can’t wait to add to playlists or see on live albums.

[Ps. As a side note, every time I look at the green album artwork with a pissed off looking serpent and a lightning forked-tongue, I always wonder if it was originally made for Overkill, like maybe the single art for Electric Rattlesnake? Kind of like how Obituary’s Cause Of Death album cover was originally either made or at least suggested for Sepultura’s Beneath The Remains].

THE RUINS OF BEVERAST The Thule Grimoires

Album · 2021 · Death-Doom Metal
Cover art 4.17 | 2 ratings
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It’s been four years since the one-man act Alexander von Meilenwald has released anything under his THE RUINS OF BEVERAST project but a four year gap is pretty much the norm as Mellenwald clearly favors quality over quantity of material not to mention the two splits that emerged in 2020 with Mourning Beloveth and Almyrkvi. THE THULE GRIMOIRES is the sixth full album experience from the mighty BEVERAST which has consistently cranked out a slew of highly sophisticated and enticing examples of extreme metal that continue to defy classification. Is it atmospheric black metal? Is it death-doom? Or is it avant-garde progressive? Well, throw in all of the aforementioned and a healthy dose of dark ambient in the proper doses doused with the fertile creative mind of a dedicated musician and voila, you have the recipe for some highly innovative 21st century metal in the making.

THULE refers to the location farthest north in ancient Greek and Roman world but with the advent of the concept ultima THULE acquired a metaphorical extensional meaning of any place beyond the borders of the known world, a perfect concept for the murky blackened sonic storm of sound to wrap themselves around especially when paired with the term GRIMOIRE which is a textbook of magic and serves as an instructional guide on how to create magical objects such as talismans, amulets as well as a guide for casting spells and summoning supernatural entitles ranging from diving angels to hellish demons. THE TULE GRIMOIRES as a concept offers a glimpse into a terrifying world beyond our comprehension where demonic wizardry and the realities of the hellish underworld provide the inspiration for this collection of seven sprawling tracks that collectively exceed the 69 minute mark.

THE RUINS OF BEVERAST albums are notorious for being lengthy atmospheric compositions that embark on darkened journeys and employ the sounds of various metal styles as well as ambient sounds to craft an otherworldly soundscape that perfectly synchronizes with the subject matter at hand. THE THULE GRIMOIRES is no exception in continuing this tradition however the beauty of this project is that Mellenwald never relies on the copy and paste method for crafting new music magic. THE THULE GRIMOIRES features the recognizable black metal guitar fuzz, the sprawling ten minute plus compositions teased out into meandering musical form as well as the expected extreme metal vocal style of previous BEVERAST offerings. This album however adopts more of a gothic metal approach with clean ghoulish vocals often replacing the raspy growls and calm icy slow tempos inching the album along in death-doom procession.

With less emphasis on the overall metal elements of THE THULE GRIMOIRES, Mellenwald casts his gaze on the potentials of a production job that amplifies the grimness value with oscillating guitar distortion, engaging atmospheric contrapuntal sound swarms as well as placing the focus on the flow of the album and the overarching psychological effects rather than on any particular track. The album is technically demarcated by the chapters Aurora, Than and Sad Chapel and is noticeable less bombastic than previous albums and in many ways sounds like a more experimental version of Type O Negative during the gothic excursions to Transylvania and back. Despite the black metal tag awarded, THE THULE GRIMOIRES feels the least black metal of the entire BEVERAST canon as blastbeats are for the most part tamped down in favor of a plodding procession into the darkness with guitar chords sustained in glacial drone metal perpetuity.

While i cannot honestly declare THE THULE GRIMOIRES to be the most exuberant or compelling chapter of THE RUINS OF BEVERAST canon, i can definitely appreciate that Mellenwald doesn’t simply rest on his laurels and continuously crafts a completely differing musical experience from one album to the next, a talent he has showcased ever since his Nagelfar days. As with all BEVERAST releases, this is not one to rush through and to expect it to sink in immediately. This dense package of sounds is so intricately designed that you could probably drive yourself crazy analyzing the minutia but despite the lack of the desired bombast of yore, still comes off as an interesting and unique excursion into the gothened RUINS OF BEVERAST universe and one that is worthy of attention for those who love the more modern high brow compositional fortitude of experimental metal.

EVILDEAD United States of Anarchy

Album · 2020 · Thrash Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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"United States of Anarchy" is the 3rd full-length studio album by US, California based thrash metal act Evildead. The album was released through Steamhammer in October 2020. It´s the successor to "The Underworld" from 1991. Evildead disbanded in 1995, and had a reunion in 2008 which lasted until 2012 where they disbanded again (this period spawned only one recording from the band in the 2011 "Blasphemy Divine" single). Evildead reunited a second time in 2016 and resigned to their former label for the relase of "United States of Anarchy".

Lead vocalist Phil Flores, guitarist Juan Garcia, and bassist Karlos Medina, remain from the lineup who recorded "The Underworld (1991)", while guitarist Albert Gonzales and drummer Rob Alaniz are new in the band.

Stylistically Evildead play an aggressive, mid-to fast-paced type of thrash metal with crossover leanings. Flores sometimes sound very similar to Billy Milano (S.O.D., M.O.D.), and other times like the most raw moments produced by Russ Anderson (Forbidden). Needless to say his voice is strong and his performance powerful and raw. There are loads of riot gang choir vocals throughout the album too. The lyrics are often political in nature. Opening track "The Descending" talks about the unfairness of the US political system and corruption (the line "It just a game to the billionaire" says a lot), while "Napoleon Complex" is aimed directly at former president Donald Trump (at least that´s how I interpret the lyrics).

"United States of Anarchy" is an album loaded with killer thrash metal riffs and new drummer Rob Alaniz is a great asset to the band´s sound. He has a powerful playing style, driving the music forward in an energetic and aggressive fashion. I didn´t sit still one second of the 38:35 minutes long playing time, maybe except for the awkward clean guitar lounge jazz intro to "No Difference", which was completely unneccesary if you ask me. Yeah we now know you can play other styles than thrash metal...now get on with the thrashing!!!

Evildead are an exceptionally well playing band, and they understand how to compose a 3-4 minutes long effective and concise thrash metal tune, designed to make your head bang and your body move (while that´s not the case with the B-52´s cover "Planet Claire 2020", it´s still a great cover song and a nice variation on the album). They excel in both fast-paced thrashing and mid-paced heavy grooves and as "United States of Anarchy" also features a powerful, raw, and detailed sound production, it´s through and through a high quality release and a 4 star (80%) rating is deserved.

GROWTH The Smothering Arms of Mercy

Album · 2020 · Technical Death Metal
Cover art 3.58 | 2 ratings
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"The Smothering Arms Of Mercy" is the debut full-length studio album by Australian technical/avant garde death metal act Growth. The album was released through Wild Thing Records in December 2020. Growth formed in 2019 in Melbourne and consists of the Barnes brothers, Tristan (bass, guitars) and Nelson (drums) and lead vocalist Luke Frizon.

Stylistically the material on the 9 track, 62:46 minutes long album is technical/avant garde death metal in the vein of Gorguts and Ulcerate. Growth are slightly more accessible than the two other mentioned acts though, and they even occasionally include clean vocals (or maybe more correctly vocals which are sung and not growling vocals, because most of them are still pretty raw vocals) and some melody. When that happens I´m reminded of the most chaotic and raw moments of Gojira. There is a post-metal touch to the music too in the way some of the tracks build towards climaxes. The best example of that is the closing track "Gird Your Loved in Armour While Yet You Wither".

To listeners familiar with the style, it´s no surprise the riffs are dissonant and the riff- and song structures are often unconventional and twisted. The atmosphere is bleak and the lyrical content depressing. Growth are a very well playing unit and the performances are top notch on all posts. "The Smothering Arms Of Mercy" also features a powerful, raw, and detailed sounding production, so upon conclusion it´s a high quality release through and through. A few more original ideas and a more unique sound could have elevated this album to an even higher state, but it´s still a great album as it is. A 3.5 - 4 star (75%) rating is deserved.

HAIL SPIRIT NOIR Eden in Reverse

Album · 2020 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.54 | 13 ratings
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"Eden in Reverse" is the 4th full-length studio album by Greek progressive metal act Hail Spirit Noir. The album was released through Agonia Records in June 2020. It´s the successor to "Mayhem In Blue" from 2016 and features quite a few lineup changes since the predecessor as Hail Spirit Noir have gone from a trio lineup to a sextet.

While the three preceding releases weren´t exactly primitive and simple, the new sextet lineup do create an even more massive and more busy soundscape. Hard (and more mellow) rocking guitars, bass, and drums, loads of vintage synths/keyboards/organ, and well performed clean vocals, harmonies and choirs. This is 60s/70s influenced heavy progressive rock with a strong psychadelic touch. The contemporary artist which comes closest to the sound on "Eden in Reverse" is probably Opeth and their 70s hard rock infused progressive rock sound, but Hail Spirit Noir have a more driving, repetitive rhytmic pulse (Krautrock/space rock influenced). The latter influence is especially heard on the 10:20 minutes long closing track "Automata 1980", but the hard rocking repetitive rhythmic playing is there on most tracks.

Hail Spirit Noir come from a black metal background, but while the three preceding releases did feature black metal elements, they weren´t really black metal. It was just an element of their sound. That element is now almost completely gone from their music, and "Eden in Reverse" does not feature much more than 1 minute of black metal influenced sounds. A raw black metal styled scream at the end of "Alien Lip Reading", and a few sections with tremolo picked distorted guitars and some faster-paced drumming are about it. The clean vocals are performed in a laid-back almost sedated fashion. Very pleasant on the ears, but maybe slightly too one-dimensional in the end. On the other hand the vocals suit the atmosphere of the instrumental part of the music perfectly.

"Eden in Reverse" features an organic and detailed sound production, which suits the material perfectly, and upon conclusion it´s another strong album release by Hail Spirit Noir. They´ve moved forward and have added new elements to their sound and they´ve removed other elements, but ultimately they still sound unmistakably like themselves. A 4 star (80%) rating is deserved.

FUCK THE FACTS Pleine Noirceur

Album · 2020 · Grindcore
Cover art 4.82 | 2 ratings
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Vim Fuego
Fuck The Facts has always been an abrasive band, usually right in your face, so that’s what most listeners would expect from “Pleine Noirceur”. And first track “Doubt, Fear, Neglect” doesn’t disappoint. It is just that, like a raging drill sergeant yelling in a raw recruit’s face. Until it’s not.

About three and a half minutes into the track, metallic riffs and lead guitar suddenly break into the mix. Sure, the drums are still exploding all over the place as you’d expect from a normal FTF album, but this new found dynamic is a surprise, and permeates right through the whole album. There are fans at the extreme end of the metal spectrum who dismiss or avoid grindcore because it often lacks sufficient metal elements or tropes. This is an album that can’t be dismissed quite so simply.

The band has streamlined it’s line-up since 2015’s “Desire Will Rot” album thinning down from a five-piece to a three-piece. It hasn’t made any noticeable difference to the size of the sound - it’s still enormous.

Second track “Ailleurs” seems like a return to type. It’s a minute and a quarter of blown bass, blasting drums and screeched vocals, but deteriorates into a soundscape like the last remnants of a wave washing out on a beach. Such subtlety would have been unknown to FTF in the past, as blasting angry noise usually filled the entire sonic register. Title track “Pleine Noirceur” (translates to “total darkness”) takes a similar but different dynamic (does that even make sense?) to the opening track. The introduction to “Sans Lumiere” is absolutely brutal, like a repeated kick in the face.

Vocalist Mel Mongeon is one of the best in grindcore and noisecore. In these genres, vocals are usually just another bludgeoning instrument, often rendered totally incomprehensible as a gurgle or a grunt, but hey, they sound brutal. Not so here. Mongeon’s vocals are brutal, but convey depths of emotion, and have a stark, spare beauty to them. You even fear for her emotional state in the gut wrenching “Everything I Love Is Ending”, which seems to be a bleak examination of human mortality. This album is also bilingual, as this Quebecois band writes in both English and French, and Mongeon is perfectly capable in both.

“A Dying Light” is a sparse instrumental with distant vocals more akin to a doom metal sound than something you would expect from a band which started life as a powerviolence project. “Dropping Like Flies” looks like a critical summation of 2020. It could be referring to the global pandemic which savaged the planet, or it could be about lack of respect for other humans’ lives which seems to have manifested in some sectors of society, or it could be a warning of impending environmental climatic Armageddon. Take your pick, or combine them all. Whatever the intention of the song, the lyrics paint a bleak picture.

The whole album has a cold, chill atmosphere to it, more often associated with black metal, but there’s nothing else of that genre on display here. The light/dark, hard/soft contrasts are not often expressed like this in grindcore, and the introduction of doom and death metal-tinged sections are a surprising but welcome addition to Fuck The Facts’ base sound. If anyone who has ever wanted to try grindcore but it has seemed too opaque or dense, this may well be the perfect introduction. Like a billowing mushroom cloud from an atomic bomb blast, "Pleine Noirceur" is an album of terrible but powerful beauty.

SOEN Imperial

Album · 2021 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.04 | 4 ratings
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lukretion
Well, here I am, in the first week of February, already holding in my hands what is very likely to become my Album of the Year in 2021: Imperial, Soen's fifth album, is an amazing record that has haunted my CD player since its release ten days ago and will very likely continue to do so for at least a few more weeks. I must have listened to this album at least 50 times already, and I still do not seem to get enough of it. Yes, it is THAT good!

Packed with smashing grooves, soaring guitar solos and incredibly catchy melodies, this is easily the strongest album released by the band so far. And I am not saying this as a newcomer to Soen’s sound. I have been following the band since their second album, 2014’s Tellurian. Their blend of groovy progressive metal - built in equal parts of technical proficiency and emotional intensity, intricate riffs and melancholic melodies - is right up my alley, given how I feed on a diet of dark, atmospheric prog metal in the vein of Katatonia, Leprous, Riverside, Opeth and Anathema. Yet, until today, my attitude towards Soen has only been lukewarm, at best. I dug what they have been trying to do, but until now I have always had issues with the end-result of their albums, be it for a subpar sound production (their third album Lykaia was literally butchered by the sound engineer), or for a songwriting approach that has always sounded to me as in need of a good injection of dynamics and a healthy dose of fat trimming to craft songs with nothing but their strongest parts.

Imperial is exactly the album I was hoping one day Soen would write. It takes the best parts of their sound and condenses them in to eight, strikingly lean, gloriously dynamic, and instantly impactful tracks, where nothing is superfluous and every single instrument truly plays only for the song. In interviews, Soen’s main man and drummer Martin Lopez (ex-Opeth) hinted that this has partly to do with the involvement of Grammy-nominated sound engineer Kevin Churko, who mixed and mastered the album and encouraged the band to remove any superfluous elements that were getting in the way of the song. The choice of Churko may surprise Soen’s fans, given his previous involvement with acts that sound quite different than Soen, such as Papa Roach, Five Finger Death Punch, and In This Moment. But they need not worry: although Imperial does sound more modern, more immediate and punchier than Soen’s previous records, the album still retains the classic Soen sound. The intricate but groovy riffs and drum patterns are still there, and so are Joel Ekelöf’s soaring vocal melodies and Cody Ford’s emotional bluesy solos. Yet, everything sounds more compact, leaner, and more exciting than anything the band has every written before.

Ultimately, the strength of Imperial comes down to its truly brilliant songwriting. Its eight songs strike that perfect balance between (dare I say it?) pop accessibility and progressive complexity that elevates the album above most other modern rock/metal releases, not unlike Leprous 2019’s masterpiece Pitfalls. It is an extremely difficult achievement to accomplish. Writing hooks and catchy refrains that have an immediate impact on the listener is relatively easy. Combining them into compositions that retain artistic depth and remain interesting after repeated listens is much more difficult. On Imperial Soen miraculously achieve this by packing each song with a myriad of great ideas - be it a clever riff, a groovy drum fill, a cathartic guitar solo, or a memorable hook - without lingering too long on any of them, but moving quickly to the next one, in an breath-taking tourbillion of sounds that leave the listener astounded by its musical richness. This approach gives the songs an unpredictability and spontaneity that keeps them fresh and relevant even after multiple listens.

Soen are also very clever to avoid as much as possible formulaic song structures, by continuously varying the way Imperial’s eight songs are constructed. Take, for instance, Cody Ford’s solos. How many bands have you listened to where, in every song, the guitar solo falls invariably after the second repetition of the chorus? Too many to count. Cody’s solos are instead all over the place: after the chorus (“Deceive”), but sometimes after the first verse (“Illusion”), or between verse and bridge (“Modesty”), or in the middle of the middle-eight (“Antagonist”). It’s like Cody is playing whack-a-mole with the listener: you never quite know when to expect his poignant, Gilmouresque lead solos to pop up next. This is generally in line with the compositional manifesto that Soen seem to have followed on this album: to keep the listener guessing what new sound will come up next. Subtle variations to melodies and arrangements, countermelodies played with varying intensity in the repetitions of the chorus (“Antagonist”), eerie, mellotron-like string arrangements (“Modesty”, “Fortune”), sudden breakdowns where only Ekelöf’s voice and Lopez’s emphatic tom fills are left (“Antagonist”, “Dissident”) - Imperial has it all.

Amazingly, despite their complexity, the songs sound infectiously simple and immediate, partly due to the production but also thanks to the sensational vocal melodies that Ekelöf sings on the album, which contains what is easily his best performance to date, by far. But there is more to this: Ekelöf’s voice soars and impresses because the other instruments allow it to do so. There is such a tasteful restraint and subtlety in the other four musicians’ performances on this album that was not present on Soen’s previous records, where the band was instead following a “more is more” approach. This may disappoint some, as Lopez’s drumming is for instance less flamboyant and off-the-cuff than on previous records, but the songs have gained immensely from this newly-found discipline.

Imperial is a terrific release but, if I were to nitpick, the first half of the album is slightly weaker than the second half, which is more varied and contains the most inspired songs (“Antagonist”, “Modesty”, “Dissident”, “Fortune”). Part of the problem is that the first three songs of the album (“Lumerian”, “Deceive”, “Monarch”) sound just a little bit too similar to one another (same tempo, similar structure, similar vibes). I would have perhaps dropped “Deceive” from the trio, as it is probably the weakest song of the record anyway. Another minor complaint I have is that some songs (“Lumerian”, “Monarch”) do not so much come to an end as simply stop, without fully giving the listener that sense of resolve which is instead achieved on tracks like “Modesty” (that gorgeous line Ekelöf sings in the coda of the song gets me every single time). And, yes, Churko does occasionally exceed with modern production touches that feel a tad forced in the context of Soen’s sound (for instance, the processed, hard panned guitars that surface on a couple of songs, or the echoes on Ekelöf’s vocals that are perhaps used one time too many).

But these are really minor complaints. Imperial is an impressive piece of art that I consider the highest-point in Soen’s career so far. It is as inspired and inspiring as Lotus, but it is leaner, better arranged, and more immediate than that album, and it sounds much better for this. It is one of those records that it is really hard to put down because it sounds so fresh, so dynamic, so exciting that it just compels you to keep pressing “Play” again and again. At times, I have the impression that Imperial contains the material of twenty potential hit songs, just condensed into eight. It is a stunning achievement, which brings Imperial as close to perfection as only a handful of albums I have encountered in nearly 25 years of listening to (progressive) metal do.

[Originally written for The Metal Observer]

IRON MAIDEN Nights of the Dead, Legacy of the Beast: Live in Mexico City

Live album · 2020 · Heavy Metal
Cover art 3.00 | 1 rating
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Pekka
There are two viewpoints for looking at the way Iron Maiden operates nowadays, of which one is to see them as an endlessly cashgrabbing nostalgia act milking the fans with a live release after another. This is of course wrong since the other, better, opinion is that if there's no live release from every tour, there's not enough! Plus they've had a continuous cycle of album tour -> hits tour -> album tour -> hits tour going on since 98, so it's not a thing they started doing in their old days.

So for me, being a semi-obsessive semi-diehard, every live release is a reason for celebration. Frankly I did not see this one coming since apart from Flight 666 they have not done any official releases from the retrospective tours despite some of them containing very strong era-specific themes that people like me would love to have. Extremely loosely based on a Maiden themed mobile game Legacy of the Beast this tour fleshes out the regular hit list with deep cuts from different points in the past, even including the Blaze era.

I saw the show in Helsinki and absolutely loved it. The stage presentation with the airborne spitfires and stained glass cathedrals was the most stunning I'd ever seen them do, and the setlist is indeed a treat. But one thing I noticed clearly was that, finally, age was starting to catch up with them. It just so happens that the person setting the tempo and keeping the beat is also the oldest member of the band, and Nicko McBrain's performance was regrettably sloppy with many a fill going sorta almost like it should but stumbling halfway.

Taken by itself the all the deficiencies of this release are not too obvious, but I happened to listen to Nights of the Dead right after the brilliant Flight 666 the other day, and compared to that one the tempos seem a bit sluggish in places, band performance less than airtight, bass sound is thin, guitars pretty quiet and Bruce, while hitting the notes, is laboring like hell. You get used to the mix after a few songs, but in comparison to the older release the difference was very obvious. One thing is the audience noise which sounds like some weird synthetic din, and as this release was a covid-19 stopgap it might even be possible that they never recorded the audience properly in the first place and had to manufacture something in its place.

The pure golden setlist takes this one very far, but the performance and production keep it from reaching its full potential. For the first time I'm a bit concerned about the future of Iron Maiden.

DEATH ANGEL Under Pressure

EP · 2020 · Non-Metal
Cover art 3.00 | 1 rating
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UMUR
"Under Pressure" is an EP release by US, California based thrash metal act Death Angel.The EP was released through Nuclear Blast in October 2020. Although "Under Pressure" is released under the Death Angel monicker, the EP lineup actually only features two out of five of the band members who recorded their 2019 album "Humanicide".

Guitarist Rob Cavestany and lead vocalist Mark Osegueda opted to work together and record a four-track acoustic EP. Probably as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic isolation situation and the subsequent issues getting the full band together to record new music, but maybe also because it was a project the two musicians had been planning for a while. The title track is cover of Queen (featuring David Bowie). "Faded Remains" is a brand new track, and "A Room With a View" and "Revelation Song" are re-recorded acoustic tracks from previous releases in the band´s discography.

Although Death Angel have been pretty consistent in the quality and style of their material since their comeback in 2001, the pre-split-up part of the band´s discography feature more experiments with other sounds and styles, so it´s not a huge surprise that the band have opted to record and release a fully acoustic EP. There have been sung many accolades of the guitar skills of Cavestany, and it´s safe to say he shines here too. Osegueda has a strong voice and a passionate delivery, and his voice perfectly suits the acoustic material, just as it suits the band´s usual thrash metal sound.

Personally a couple of acoustic tracks aren´t anything which blows my mind, but "Under Pressure" is overall a good quality release, and it´s definitely a worthwhile addition to Death Angel´s discography, and perfectly sums up the band´s eclectic and boundary searching attitude to songwriting. A 3 - 3.5 star (65%) rating is warranted.

THERION Leviathan

Album · 2021 · Symphonic Metal
Cover art 3.58 | 5 ratings
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lukretion
In my experience, when an artist advertises their new work with the words “We have decided to give the people what they kept asking for”, that normally does not bode terribly well. However, if the man saying those words is Therion’s mastermind Christofer Johnsson, whose latest two controversial and fan-challenging releases are an album of French pop covers and a 3-hour, 46-track, narcolepsy-inducing triple-album, well, then we better listen carefully. Therion’s new album, Leviathan, does exactly what it says on the tin: deliver 45 minutes of “classic Therion” music, packed with memorable, instantly-likeable songs. A "commercial" sellout, you say? I disagree, I don’t really feel I can blame a band that has been pushing boundaries for 34 years of career for wanting to take it easy for once. Regardless of how genuine you feel this new artistic endeavour might be, one thing is for certain: one has to try really hard not to like at least some of the eleven songs on Leviathan.

The album is packed with everything we have come to love about the exquisite blend of symphonic/operatic metal that has defined Therion’s music since the mid-90s. Classic heavy metal riffs form the basis for epic and bombastic orchestral arrangements, striking a great balance between the sophistication of classical music and heavy metal grit. Tasteful folk influences seeps in on tracks like “Die Wellen der Zeit”, the Middle Eastern influenced “Aži Dahāka” and “Eye of Algol”, and “Ten Courts of Diyu” where we even find some Far Eastern music themes. Elsewhere, the album veers towards European power metal territories (“Great Marquis of Hell”; “El Primer Sol”), while gothic-tinged passages emerge as well throughout the record. Leviathan also literally brims with fantastic melodies and an impressive array of vocal styles, ranging from straight heavy metal belting, to melancholic female vocals, to majestic operatic singing.

The list of interpreters is no less exciting. Regular band members Thomas Vikström (tenor) and Lori Lewis (soprano) are joined by some great guest singers, including Marco Hietala (ex-Nightwish), Mats Levén (ex-Candlemass, ex-Yngwie Malmsteen), Noa Gruman (Scardust), Taida Nazraić (The Loudest Silence), Chiara Malvestiti (Crysalys) and Rosalía Sairem. Meanwhile, Israel’s Hellscore Choir directed by Noa Gruman provides lush and expansive backing vocals. The use of such a diverse and varied list of singers, who are often employed together in the same song, is one of the most remarkable features of the album that brings to mind the best work of rock-opera maestro Arjen Anthony Lucassen (Ayreon). On the instrumental side, Snowy Shaw and Björn Höglund share duties behind the drum kit, while the rest of the line-up is the same one that recorded the last few Therion albums (Christofer Johnsson on guitar/keyboards, Christian Vidal on lead guitar, and Nalle Påhlsson on bass).

If you are worried that Johnsson’s deliberate attempt at writing “hit songs” may have compromised the earnestness of the songwriting, that’s not the case: the music feels fresh, inspired, and fun. Sure, there’s nothing really revolutionary or experimental here, the album treads similar waters to Therion’s 90s/00s work (and after all that was the whole point of the record). But the eleven songs included on Leviathan are by no means just a rehashed, half-baked version of tracks one can find on Vovin or Secret of the Runes. These are songs that can hold up well to any previous output of the band, which, after 17 albums in a 34-year career, is no mean feat.

There isn’t a single bad song on the album: Leviathan is one of those records that you can put on and smoothly enjoy from the first to the last note. Nevertheless, a few tracks stand out for me. “Tuonela” is one of those, partly for Marco Hietala’s compelling vocal performance, partly for the beautifully constructed chorus that masterfully combines three melodic lines played by Hietala, the Hellscore chorus and two violins. “Die Wellen der Zeit” is a surprisingly simple ballad carried by the lush voice of Serbian singer Taida Nazraić, one of the most shining new talents enlisted on this record. “Nocturnal Light” is the other ballad and is another great track, more majestic and operatic, which gives me strong Vovin vibes. Meanwhile, the “Eye of Algol” is a multi-part Middle-Eastern-tinged beast that contains a really cool riff on the chorus, while “Ten Courts of Diyu” is a beautiful atmospheric piece that closes the album in style with a spine-tingling vocal performance by Noa Gruman and a nice guitar solo by Christian Vidal (if there’s one thing that I perhaps miss on this album is more spots for instrumental solos).

After the last couple of releases, Therion’s fans might be wary to approach Leviathan, but there is really no need to. If you are a fan of the band’s output between Theli and Gothic Kabbalah, this album will not disappoint you. Neither will it surprise you, but perhaps Therion’s fans have had enough surprises already in the past decade. Leviathan may be the most linear and accessible album that Therion have released in the past ten years, but there’s a catch: this is just the first installment of a trilogy of albums that Johnsson has already written up and is preparing to release in 2022 and 2023, respectively. The man seems incapable of writing less than 40 songs in one sitting! I don’t know about you, but after having listened to Leviathan, I very much look forward to the rest of the trilogy!

[Originally written for The Metal Observer]

THOU The Helm Of Sorrow (with Emma Ruth Rundle)

EP · 2021 · Sludge Metal
Cover art 4.42 | 2 ratings
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Necrotica
Something I’ve always loved about Emma Ruth Rundle is her versatility and willingness to do whatever the hell she wants musically. She's done everything from ambient to folk to doom to sludge to post rock to just about everything in between, and pretty much every project she’s brought her style to has flourished and succeeded in its own way. Whether it be her unique guitar work in post-rock group Red Sparowes or her more mellow folk-laden solo work, her greatest idiosyncrasy as a songwriter is the fact that her career never becomes static. Case in point: collaborating with Thou. On paper, it seems like a strange combination; I can’t think of a band Rundle has worked with that’s more crushing and intense than Thou, and you’d almost expect the latter’s sludgy riffs to be at odds with her singing and playing style. But such is not the case, as the “beauty-meets-brutality” aesthetic is exactly what makes this project work.

The Helm of Sorrow is an excellent continuation of the sound Rundle and Thou built together with last year’s May Our Chambers Be Full, still keeping with the latter’s melding of sorrow and intensity. The biggest thing that this collaboration benefits from is the members’ keen sense of dynamics; the music is meticulously composed to account for all the right emotional peaks and valleys, as is important for a lot of doom and post metal. In fact, opener “Orphan Limbs” is almost entirely based around Rundle singing cleanly over soft droning passages, whose guitar is reminiscent of Red House Painters’ brand of slowcore (Down Colorful Hill in particular). Only at roughly the last minute does the band erupt in a volcano of steamrolling guitars and shrieking vocals, and the long buildup just heightens the resonance of the payoff. This is the first time on the entire album we hear this level of intensity, and the slow build within the grim ambiance effectively keeps you on edge the whole time. But this isn’t the only way the dynamics of the record are experimented; “Crone Dance” is pretty much unceasing in its ferocity, and yet Rundle’s lovely vocal inflections add a strange melodicism to such an unrelenting series of sludge riffs. It helps, too, that the guitar tone is absolutely incredible here; it strikes a wonderfully odd middle ground between violent and textured, so you get something that’s equal parts harsh and compelling. And when Rundle and Bryan Funck start singing together on the remaining two tracks “Recurrence” and “Hollywood" (the latter being a Cranberries cover), it starts bringing to mind a certain approach that quickly got run into the ground in a lot of gothic metal: the “beauty-and-the-beast” approach. But I find there’s a difference here, as it feels like it’s done much more in service to the atmosphere rather than to be gimmicky. The downcast riffs are constantly emitting a sense of despair while the mix of clean and harsh vocals brings that perfect balance of sadness and anger; it really feels like I’m listening to “She Painted Fire Across the Skyline Pt. 1” by Agalloch again for the first time.

At this point, it surprises me a bit that Emma Ruth Rundle hasn’t been fully brought onboard as a member of Thou yet. Their respective approaches to these records seem meant for each other, and it’s a wonderful feeling when styles that are normally meant to clash can be brought together so beautifully. Let’s hope we can get another full-length of this kind of music, because 21 minutes - even for an EP - simply feels too short for how great the material is.

DEFILED Infinite Regress

Album · 2020 · Death Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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UMUR
"Infinite Regress" is the 6th full-length studio album by Japanese, Tokyo based death metal act Defiled. The album was released through Season of Mist in January 2020. It´s the successor to "Towards Inevitable Ruin" from 2016 and features one lineup change since the predecessor as bassist Hiroaki Sato has been replaced by Takachika Nakajima.

Stylistically the material on "Infinite Regress" are unmistakably the sound of Defiled. Brutal technical US influenced death metal with a twist. The twist consists of the fact that Defiled are inherently old school and often have more in common with acts like Autopsy and early Deceased than they have with the more technical part of the early 90s death metal scene and artists like Suffocation and Gorguts. But...Defiled still play a very technical death metal style with loads of tempo changes, unconventional riffs, and a generally adventurous approach to songwriting, so the comparison above should not be misunderstood as if this isn´t music with at least some focus on technical playing.

One of the greatest strengths of "Infinite Regress" is the raw and organic way the music is delivered. These guys are human and they want you to know it. The raw, powerful, and organic sounding production job supports that sentiment too, and "Infinite Regress" is generally far removed from most of the more clinical and sterile sounding contemporary brutal technical death metal releases. Highlights include "Divide and Conquer" (the drumming is brilliant on this one), "Tragedy" (old school to the core), and "Centuries". Predominantly because those tracks stand out as a bit different from the remaining tracks, but all material on the album are of high quality.

Upon conclusion "Infinite Regress" is through and through a high quality death metal release. It´s not often you´ll come across death metal acts with a unique sound these days, but thankfully we still have artists like Defiled to prove to the world that intriguing, adventurous, and unconventional death metal is still being produced (while still maintaining old school death metal credibility). A 4 star (80%) rating is deserved.

TOXAEMIA Where Paths Divide

Album · 2020 · Death Metal
Cover art 3.50 | 1 rating
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Nightfly
My last review for MMA was Skelethal’s 2020 album Unveiling The Threshold, a French death metal band whose sound owed a lot to the original Swedish death metal bands like Dismember and Entombed. My next comes from Toxaemia, a band who can claim to have been around at the start of the Swedish death metal movement. Unfortunately for them, they only stuck around long enough to release an EP and a couple of demos, splitting up in 1991. Incidentally, these early recordings can be heard to best effect on the Burried To Rise compilation. As well as the original mixes there are remixed and remastered versions done by Dan Swano who has worked wonders with them. The band could have been nothing more than a footnote in Swedish death metal but reformed in 2017 and over thirty years after their original formation have finally released their debut album.

Where Paths Divide kicks off proper, after the almost obligatory atmospheric intro piece, in this case the album title track, with Delusions. It’s a great start with a powerful slab of mid paced old school death metal. It’s one of the best songs on the album as is following track Pestilence. Here they up the pace without sacrificing any of the power, ferocious riffs not in short supply on either track. The band never betters these early high benchmarks but nevertheless retain a high standard of compelling and pulverising death metal for most of the album. The albums not about speed, though it has its faster moments, but more about crushing riffs, sometimes slowed to a steady groove, which is aided by the Dan Swano mix who adds an organic and muscular edge to the band’s sound. The playing is solid from band originals Pontus Cervin (Bass) and Stevo Bolgakoff (guitars) aided by new guys Rasmus Axelsson (guitars), Perra Karlsson (drums) and Dennis Johansson (vocals). The album does tail off slightly towards the end but with only a minimal dip in quality Toxaemia have still managed to produce a high quality death metal album.

I was originally leaning towards a 3 star rating before starting my review but repeated plays have allowed most of these songs to get under my skin. Where Paths Divide is an album I’ll enjoy returning to from time to time so it’s definitely worth a good 3 ½ stars. Hopefully there will be more to come from Toxaemia in the future.

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