Heavy Psych

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BLOOD CEREMONY The Eldritch Dark Album Cover The Eldritch Dark
BLOOD CEREMONY
4.67 | 22 ratings
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BLOOD CEREMONY Lord Of Misrule Album Cover Lord Of Misrule
BLOOD CEREMONY
4.62 | 18 ratings
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PURSON The Circle and the Blue Door Album Cover The Circle and the Blue Door
PURSON
4.83 | 6 ratings
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RUBY THE HATCHET Planetary Space Child Album Cover Planetary Space Child
RUBY THE HATCHET
4.67 | 8 ratings
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UNCLE ACID AND THE DEADBEATS Blood Lust Album Cover Blood Lust
UNCLE ACID AND THE DEADBEATS
4.57 | 6 ratings
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AVATARIUM Death, Where Is Your Sting Album Cover Death, Where Is Your Sting
AVATARIUM
4.61 | 5 ratings
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BLUES PILLS Lady In Gold Album Cover Lady In Gold
BLUES PILLS
4.41 | 9 ratings
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BLOOD CEREMONY Blood Ceremony Album Cover Blood Ceremony
BLOOD CEREMONY
4.29 | 21 ratings
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CAPTAIN BEYOND Captain Beyond Album Cover Captain Beyond
CAPTAIN BEYOND
4.26 | 24 ratings
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THE GROUNDHOGS Split Album Cover Split
THE GROUNDHOGS
4.33 | 10 ratings
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PSYCHEDELIC WITCHCRAFT Sound Of The Wind Album Cover Sound Of The Wind
PSYCHEDELIC WITCHCRAFT
4.39 | 5 ratings
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GRAND FUNK RAILROAD Closer to Home Album Cover Closer to Home
GRAND FUNK RAILROAD
4.23 | 9 ratings
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TIME DWELLERS Novum Aurora

Album · 2022 · Heavy Psych
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siLLy puPPy
When i say the 70s are a gift that never stop giving, i’m not only referring to the seemingly endless supply of treasures that were recorded during a single decade but i’m also talking about the influence that modern artists still are lapping up in great abundance. Retro prog should be considered a whole new subsection of the progressive rock universe at this point with countless bands adopting the sounds, songwriting and ethos of classic era artists. Sweden and Scandinavia in general seems to be the new ground zero for retro prog and here is yet one more band, TIME DWELLERS that comes from the far southern city of Karlshamn.

Formed in 2017, this band is a trio consisting of Martin Fairbanks (guitar), Kristofer Stjernquist (vocals, synthesizer, bass, guitar) and Henrik Bergman (drums). The band’s debut NOVUM AURORA hit the scene in May of 2022 but i’m only getting around to it right after the turn of the year in early 2023. This band delivers the very essence of what retro prog dreams come true are all about. Sounding like they easily could’ve written and produced this in the early 1970s, TIME DWELLERS seems to take a cue from many bands of the English scene.

The heavy melodic rock that features tight harmonies accompanied by proggier than usual compositions brings the great Uriah Heep to mind especially around the “Salisbury” and “Look At Yourself” era although lead singer Kristofer Stjernquist doesn’t quite have the vocal range of the legendary David Byron. The opening track “Rising: Dawn / Awakening / Metamorphosis” whiffs of Emerson, Lake & Palmer with a robust keyboard riff but what’s immediately apparent is that this guys have thoroughly studied the melodic rock compositional approach of early 70s bands and mastered it thoroughly.

In addition to heavier bands like Uriah Heep and fleeting references to Black Sabbath, Wishbone Ash and Led Zeppelin, the band showcases slower tracks in the vein of Free, UFO, Stray and well countless other blues based hard rock bands of the era. What’s impressive about TIME DWELLERS is that they have incorporated all the elements of the era together so very well and make it sound like they were a phantom band of the era without ever releasing anything until now. Unlike many hard rock albums of the era, NOVUM AURORA has an impressive production that allows the synthesizers, mellotrons and other background sounds to mix perfectly with the guitars, bass and drums.

On the songwriting side of things, these guys have nailed that classic compositional structure with tight instantly catchy melodies without sounding cheesy or overly maudlin. The album is easily accessible upon a single listening experience yet has enough going on to keep you coming back. The music has an edge to it without eradicating the easy to follow hooks. Perhaps a little too tame for many modern heavy rockers but if taken as the retro band that they are, then i think TIME DWELLERS have done an excellent job at capturing the zeitgeist of an era gone by without sounding like a clone of any particular artist (that i’m aware of anyways).

While i wouldn’t call NOVUM AURORA a modern masterpiece of revisited retro prog in the same way that Wobbler has channeled past glories, i would call this an amazingly brilliant piece of late 1960s / early 1970s heavy retro psych prog that not only evokes the time of half a century ago in the music underground but also is a relevant listening experience for lover’s of melodic rock that alternates between heavier and softer passages. The musicians are all on the top of their game and the vocals are spot on for replicating these retro sounds. Very impressive. Looking forward to hearing how these guys progress. Sweden is a never-ending wellspring of fertile creative spirits!

AVATARIUM Death, Where Is Your Sting

Album · 2022 · Heavy Psych
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lukretion
Started ten years ago as a side-project by legendary Candlemass bassist Leif Edling, Avatarium have risen to become a reckoning force in the doom metal/rock arena. Album after album, as Edling’s involvement in the band gradually decreased, the Swedes kept carving a unique and remarkable path for themselves, skillfully balancing their doom heritage with swathes of 1970s psychedelic prog as well as jazz and blues influences that are testament to singer Jennie-Ann Smith’s background. This masterplan has finally come to full fruition on the band’s fifth full-length LP, Death, Where Is Your Sting, out on October 21, 2022 via AFM Records. There is no way around it: the new record is not only the band’s strongest effort to date, it is a bona-fide masterpiece and a top contender for my album of the year.

The first thing that I loved about Death, Where Is Your Sting is that it reminded me of the reason why, as a teenager, I became irredeemably attracted to metal: the guitars. Now, keyboards and synths have become a staple of modern metal, but there was a time where these instruments were viewed with hostility in the metal community (I still remember CD stickers proudly promoting the album as “keyboard-free”). Not by me, though: I have always loved the use of electronica and synths in metal, even back in the 1990s when the trend was just starting. However, over the years I have also come to appreciate how (excessive) reliance on keyboards may give guitar players an excuse for lazy songwriting and arrangements, because “the keyboards will take care of texture”. Not here: Marcus Jidell’s six-stringed instrument lies at the very heart of the album’s sound design and texture. One can find all sorts of guitar tones and techniques on this album, making it such an interesting listen through and through. When Jidell is not busy churning out massive riffs with his signature fat, fuzzy distortion, he is bending his strings dramatically or holding long notes to deliver the best Gilmouresque, weeping leads and solos you’ll hear this year. But there’s more: strummed and fingerpicked acoustic guitars are at the very forefront of the music, especially on the album’s first three tracks. In fact, I struggle to recall a recent metal album featuring so much acoustic guitar as this one. And, as if this was not enough, Jidell also takes out his cello in a handful of songs to deliver amazing solos that add a whole new dimension to the album. The acoustic and electric parts are mixed together masterfully, balancing one another and giving the album a multidimensionality and depth that is rare to find in today’s metal productions (more on this later).

Death, Where Is Your Sting deserves multiple spins if only to appreciate the nuance of the guitar parts. But there’s more: the other prominent ingredient in Avatarium’s sonic cauldron is Jennie-Ann Smith’s beautiful voice. Her vocal tone may not grab you immediately: she has a trained, clear and dry voice that one immediately associates with jazz standards and may feel cold and detached at first. But her presence in the music grows with repeated listens, her subdued blues twang becoming more and more spellbinding and her evocative phrasing increasing in power. Eventually, one comes to appreciate Jennie-Ann for a quality many singers do not really have: she truly knows how to use her voice to perfectly fit the music. She can be fragile one moment, and powerful, almost messianic, another, as the song grows in intensity. She effortlessly switches between delicate falsettos and a deeper vocal tone, exploding in forceful screams when the music requires it. It’s a fantastic performance: subtle, nuanced and poetic as no others I have heard this year.

With two such great performers as Smith and Jidell, the album is inevitably constructed around voice and guitars. This is best exemplified in “Psalm for the Living”, a powerful hymn where Smith’s vocals and Jidell’s mournful arpeggios truly constitute the near totality of the music - except for a few bars of sparse percussions provided by drummer Andreas Johansson. Elsewhere, the rest of the band play a more prominent, but still restrained, role. Daniel Karlsson adds tasteful piano flourishes in a handful of songs, while Johansson and Mats Rydström (bass) provide a backbone that is remarkably sparse and understated, often just keeping the beat with very little added embellishments. Jidell’s sound production and Mats Valentin’s mix tastefully place each instrument on different sonic planes - the guitars and voice upfront, then the rhythm section, and finally Karlsson’s keyboards more in the background. This creates a sense of depth and contrast in the mix that stands out compared to many recent metal production - almost like the difference between a 3D and a standard 2D video - and is truly a pleasure to listen to.

The point I tried to make so far is that Death, Where Is Your Sting has a great sound: interesting, rich and deep. But the album’s true trump card is its exquisite songwriting. This is where Avatarium’s superior firepower really comes through. Each of the album’s 8 songs is a gem. The melodies are memorable but never obvious or cheesy. The transitions between verses and choruses are subtle and classy: this is not an album of big, overstated chorus lines being force-fed to the listener over and over again. The progressions feel natural and there are plenty of digressions from the basic verse-chorus structure, which keeps things interesting and not predictable.

The album also offers extraordinary variation across its songs, which makes for a fun and dynamic listen. The first three tracks are more acoustic and explore in depth the band’s 1970s progressive and folk rock influences, from the delay-drenched dark atmospheric rock of “A Love Like Ours” to the almost Johnny Cash vibes of the title-track. The sparse, delicate “Psalm for the Living” serves as an interlude before Avatarium introduce three heavier, doom-inspired pieces. “God Is Silent” is a Sabbathian mammoth that will crush you with its dramatic rises and falls. “Mother Can You Hear Me Now” is a moving ballad featuring one of the best guitar solos I heard in recent years, while “Nocturne” plays beautifully on the contrast between fast, classic heavy metal guitar riffs and 1970s-infused upbeat vocals, a trick Avatarium have proven to master in previous albums as well (Hurricane and Halos). The album closes with the moody instrumental “Transcendent”, a dark, introspective piece swinging dramatically between acoustic moments and heavy sections that almost veer into blackened doom territory (check out Johansson’s double bass drumming in the middle section). It’s a spellbinding conclusion to an awesome journey, exploring themes of death and rebirth through different facets of doom and progressive rock, in a way that feels fresh, genuine and emotionally compelling.

Comparisons are futile because Avatarium sound like no other, but let me nevertheless indulge into an observation. Death, Where Is Your Sting breaks boundaries between genres, exploring darkness through the lens of different musical traditions (doom, classic heavy metal, prog rock, psychedelia, folk) in a way that reminded me of two kindred-spirit artists: Opeth and Oceans of Slumber. Neither band sound anything like Avatarium, but their drive to stretch the boundaries of extreme metal and merge it with other styles into new, extraordinary hybrids, is similar. Echoes of the darker corners of acoustic prog (Comus, String Driven Thing) can be heard both here and in Opeth’s most recent records, not to speak of Mikael Åkerfeldt’s one-off collaboration with Steven Wilson, Storm Corrosion (I bet Åkerfeldt and Wilson would have loved to have written the acoustic arpeggio that opens “Transcendent”). It’s also interesting to compare Avatarium’s Death, Where Is Your Sting with Oceans of Slumber’s Starlight and Ash, also released this year: on these records, both bands took their doom heritage and filtered it through 1960s and 1970s influences to usher in a new, timeless form of darkness. The results that can be heard on the two albums are radically different, but the trajectory towards new sonic landscapes is of a similar nature, and ties in with the recent revival of Occult Rock (Ghost, The Devil's Blood, Dool, Molassess), but with unparalleled class and musicality.

Death, Where Is Your Sting is one of the great albums of our time. It’s the pinnacle of Avatarium’s career to date - combining the experimental drive of Hurricanes and Halos with the velvet finesse of The Fire I Long For to produce a superior brand of dark rock/metal. It showcases a band with a unique voice and in full command of their artistry. This is simply a mandatory listen this year for anyone into the darker side of music.

[Originally written for The Metal Observer]

MOTORPSYCHO Kingdom Of Oblivion

Album · 2021 · Heavy Psych
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lukretion
At the start of the year, Norwegian prog-rockers Motorpsycho announced a new full-length album, which they described as a return to a more direct "heavy" sound akin to some of their 1990s output. That intrigued me. Although I liked a lot the all-encompassing prog rock extravaganza of their most recent albums (2020's The All Is One is an absolute masterpiece), I missed the simpler heavy rock of some of their earlier works. Kingdom of Oblivion was eventually released in April, sporting the same line-up responsible for Motorpsycho's last couple of records, with Bent Sæther on lead vocals and bass/guitar/keyboards, Hans Magnus Ryan on lead guitar and keyboards, and Tomas Järmyr on drums. Swedish guitarist, and long-time collaborator of the band, Reine Fiske is also listed as a contributor on the record.

The first time I listened to Kingdom of Oblivion, two things immediately stood out for me. First, as promised, the music is indeed more metallic than before, edging on the heavy/space rock side of the progressive scale, with generous echoes of Black Sabbath and Hawkwind running through the album. Songs like "The Waning", the title-track, and "The United Debased" all develop from simple but effective bass grooves or guitar riffs that are repeated obsessively as the song builds and builds amidst seas of distortion and trippy keyboards. Järmyr's drumming is perhaps less spectacular than on the previous couple of albums, but it's effective and keeps a good groove, which is what the songs really need. The vocals are often edgy, almost angry, at times channelling the spirit of an Ozzy of time past.

The second aspect of Kingdom of Oblivion that stood out is that, Motorpsycho being Motorpsycho, this couldn't "just" be a heavy rock album. Things were bound to get weirder. And indeed they do. The third track "Lady May" marks the first deviation from the promised heavy sound of the album. It's a pastoral little piece with acoustic guitar and ethereal vocals that could have been lifted from a 1970s Canterbury record. The following track "The United Debased" goes back to the heavy rock canon, deceiving the listener in believing that, perhaps, "Lady May" was just a sporadic interlude. But no, things just get weirder and weirder after that, with "The Watcher" and "Dreamkiller". The first is a soundscape made up of ambient noises, whispers and a hypnotic bass line. "Dreamkiller" develops from a psychedelic vocal choir into a hellish dreamscape built around a sinister guitar riff and a magnetic and trippy mellotron motif. By the time the acoustic instrumental piece "Atet" comes by, the listener has all but forgotten that Kingdom of Oblivion was supposed to be a simple heavy rock album.

The last part of the record marks a return to the initial metallic sound, but without forgetting all the weirdness that has passed by. It's the best of both worlds, exemplified by tracks like "At Empire's End" (probably the best song of the record, built around a formidable guitar riff), the oddly mutant "The Hunt" (starting all gentle and pastoral with flutes and acoustic guitars, before a groovy guitar ostinato makes space for something that sounds like a hissing teapot - I kid you not!), and the aptly titled "The Transmutation of Cosmoctopus Lurker". If you are wondering what the hell a cosmoctopus is, I'll tell you: it's the bastard child of Tony Iommi and a creature that came out from Alice in Wonderland, all spaced-out and dazed.

Kingdom of Oblivion is yet another great album from the Stakhanovs of progressive rock. With 24 full-lengths over 30 years of career, the Norwegians are surely one of the most prolific rock bands on earth. Astonishingly, they also almost never ever drop the ball: the quality of each new album remains high, release after release. Kingdom of Oblivion is no exception. It's not a super-easy album to get into, because it's weird. But I grew to love it because of this. It's one of those records that take you by hand and lead you on a trip where nothing is like it seems, and where everything is allowed to grow, develop and mutate into something else. We need more albums like this: metallic and heavy, but also adventurous, challenging, and daring. In four words: a work of art.

[Originally written for The Metal Observer]

GIFT Gift

Album · 1972 · Heavy Psych
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siLLy puPPy
The birth of Germany’s progressive Krautrock scene took many roads with some bands focusing on the farthest out psychedelic trips possible, others tackling the technicalities of jazz-fusion, some more engaged in catchy crossover pop hooks while others merged the heavy psych 60s with the hard rock 70s. The Augsburg based GIFT was one of those bands that took the last option and crafted an interesting take on the heavier aspects of the earliest sounds of what would be called heavy metal. GIFT is actually the German word for “poison” and what you get with the band’s first of two albums that emerged in the early 1970s is a venomous sting of infectious early heavy metal that cranked up the speed, volume and prog complexities of the heavy psych sounds that flooded the latter part of the 60s.

This band was obviously inspired by Amon Duul II’s classic debut album “Phallus Dei” because the then school band formed in the same year of 1969 and took on Phallus Dei as its band name. After a few years of practice and the recruitment of new members the lineup featured on the band’s eponymous debut was Uwe Patzke (bass, vocals), Helmut Treichel (vocals), Rainer Baur (guitar) and Hermann Lanze (drums, percussion) after being discovered by Munich producer Otto Hartmann who signed the band to the Telefunken label. Considered one of the more adventurous heavy Kraut bands of the German scene, GIFT wasn’t exactly the most popular on the scene but gained a loyal cult following for its dedication to dexterous compositional flow that adopted the excesses of progressive rock without sacrificing the heft of a bantering display of guitar, bass and drums. It’s also notable that guitarist Nick Woodland was listed on the credits but actually quit the band before recording began.

GIFT’s debut is an excellent display of no nonsense hard rock with a brilliant juxtaposition of cleverly crafted compositions that feature strong melodic hard rock hooks with heavy guitar riffs and an excellent rhythm section that features hairpin turn time signature changes and unexpected twists and turns in the musical flow without sacrificing the underpinning of what makes a hard rock song work so well. The Krautrock scene was filled with heavier bands but not all of them could pull it off but GIFT did so with seeming ease with a particularly strong emphasis on the drumming and percussive accoutrements that give the album that extra special something. Add to that the strong confident vocal ability of Helmut Treichel and it’s easy to declare GIFT’s debut release as one of the most competent heavy psych releases of the early 70s.

Perhaps not quite as heavy as contemporaries such as Lucifer’s Friend, GIFT certainly took the established heavy psych sounds of the late 60s to their limits before the scene moved on to the hard rock and heavy metal that would soon become the more popular style of the 1970s. While compared to the fellow German band Hairy Chapter, GIFT was similar to many other bands such as Captain Beyond and Twenty Sixty Six and Then but due to the talented members on board managed to stand out as an original all its own without deviating significantly from the established heavy psych sounds of the era. This one doesn’t seem to get as much love as the more psychedelic Kraut bands of the era and gets lost behind the harder bands from England and the USA but for my tastes GIFT successfully cranked out a wild ruckus of an album for their debut. The band would change its sound by adding keyboard sounds for its sophomore album “Blue Apple” but for this first offering GIFT was a powerful beast of heavy guitar driven rock music.

DIES IRAE First

Album · 1971 · Heavy Psych
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siLLy puPPy
One of the lesser known earliest German Krautrock bands, the Saarbrücken band DIES IRAE adopted the Latin phrase with means “Day of Wrath” as its moniker when it formed in 1968 and stuck around for five years before calling it a day. The band consisted of Andreas F. Cornelius (drums), Robert J. Schiff (bass), Harald H.G. Thoma (guitar, vocals) and Cord Wahlmann ( lead vocals, harmonica) and retained the psychedelic rock attributes of the 1960s while adding the hard rock sounds that had become popular by the time the band’s sole album FIRST hit the market in 1971.

DIES IRAE was quite popular on the German live circuit and shared the stage with many of the bands that would become Krautrock legends but for many reasons DIES IRAE did not enjoy the longevity that many of its contemporaries have enjoyed with the resurgence of psychedelic music and therefore have been pretty much forgotten by all except the hardcore Kraut addicts who seek out the obscurities. One of the problems with FIRST when it was released in 1971 was that the occult lyrical content was extremely controversial and while other Kraut bands were receiving radio airplay time, this band was literally shunned.

However when a band becomes banned, there are always those who seek out the forbidden fruits of the music industry and therefore this band has enjoyed a cult following over the decades complete with CD reissues. Another problem with FIRST is that it is all over the place with the opening track “Lucifer” featuring a hard rock repertoire with bluesy rock and even a harmonica. Compared to early Black Sabbath, which is totally legit, the band totally abandoned the hard rock aspects in the middle of the album and with the track “Trip” drifts off into true psychedelic freakery much like Can did on “Tago Mago” and bands like Faust and Cluster did all the time.

Although the opening track “Lucifer” is rather silly and amateurish, the remaining heavier tracks remind me more of the Scorpions’ debut album “Lonesome Crow” which was basically a bridge between the psychedelic Krautrock of the early 70s with the more straight forward hard rock of the latter part of the decade. Unfortunately lead vocalist Rainer Gerd Walhmann doesn’t quite match the charismatic singing prowess of Klaus Meine but he does get the job done. The album’s bizarre inconsistency reminds me of those late 70s albums where bands were forced to stuff in a career’s worth of ideas because they knew they only had one shot and therefore FIRST seems more like a collection of tracks rather than a cohesive album experience but having stated that, it’s actually all quite pleasant and totally fits in with the Kraut vibe of the year 1971, opening track excluded.

Unfortunately first impressions do matter. The opening track “Lucifer” may sour this one for many and the unattractive barbed wire fence album cover evokes more of a concentration camp scene rather than a Kraut filled escapist’s paradise. Yeah, the DIES IRAE members were not masters of marketing by any means but with the right guidance this band certainly had the talent to take things a bit farther and deserved a couple more albums since the potential is obvious from the tight-knit musicianship and the effortless transition between lysergic floatiness to bluesy hard rock. The band did have a brief reunion in 1991 but no new album came from it so DIES IRAE remains one of those one and done bands that released a sole artifact on the timeline and then went bye-bye. This is one of those albums that’s a bit hard to rate. It’s not good enough for 4 stars yet is too good for 3 so i guess 3.5 stars is warranted.

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