I know, every year someone makes the overblown statement 'this has been a good year for music,' and depending what musical circle you're in it usually is for someone, but this has been an exceptional year for metal. Legends have reformed, Sigh and Chthonic have made ambitious entries, Project Hate have proven the worth of their new vocalist, the announcement of a re-release of the infamous 'Ambeon' album and Stephan Forté coming out with a dazzling solo masterclass with a number of other guitar wizards lending a helping hand.
But more than that, it's been an exceptional year for progressive metal; Redemption making their best album in years, Opeth re-inventing themselves, Von Hertzen, Dream Theater and Symphony X all making waves, not to mention a plethora of new contenders in the scene. It should also be known as the year that saw the rise of British Mathcore; genre pioneers Tesseract finally releasing their coveted debut, Sikth bassist announcing his return in the new up and coming band 'Aliases,' and more new talent springing up out of the woodwork than I've managed to listen to, carving out their debut efforts amidst a flourishing scene. But through all the gems, just what were the albums that shouldn't be missed? Say hello to my greatest 15 discoveries - 10 metal and 5 non - laid bare.
15) Gargoyle - Kisho (Progressive Thrash)
Well I suppose this list ought to include as many genres as possible, so welcome to my thrash entry. Gargoyle are the only thrash band I ritually follow these days, largely because they're the only thrash band that seem to be doing anything different. Every musician knows their trade, the solo's remain breathtaking; it's everything I could ask for from a thrash band and more. They always manage to find a way of infusing a certain sense of groove to the proceedings; give things a fun tone whilst keeping the spirit of the genre alive, and whilst it may pale slightly in comparison to their last album, Kuromitten, to my mind we're comparing two fine hand-crafted cheeses to the crap that comes in a can. Their work is simply on a different playing field to most of the material being released today.
14) Project Hate MCMXCIX - Bleeding the New Apocalypse (Experimental Industrial Death Metal)
Now entering their third era - each era defined by the choice of female vocalist - their sound has entered a new arena; no longer adhering to their conventional tone, the void for softer passages left by Jonna Enckell's departure has seen the rise of classical influences in their music, orchestration breaking things up and lending a new twist to the proceedings. All the whilst the classic mid-paced composition has rarely seen better days, playing vocalists off one another in an energetic performance that maintains the momentum. Dark and brooding Death/Doom contrasting the powerful vocal performances; they've expanded their sound, included new ideas and worked them in a way that never betrays their past. TPH have met worried faces with a sinister smile, as they already knew the apocalyptic sounds about to befall them.
13) Negative Plane - Stained Glass Revelations (Experimental Black)
I'm not above looking at other peoples lists to see what they've recommended - though the amount of Death and Doom on peoples lists this year is somewhat saddening - but nonetheless, this is one release others spotted that had eluded me up until now, and what a shame that would have been. Negative Plane are a band that I'd never even heard of and yet somehow they've snuck under the radar with a release that sounds like it could have been a lost "Mayhem" tape, discarded for fear of doing a "Celtic Frost" and getting just a little too weird with one another. There's no denying it's still very much Black Metal, but there's something else about them; a psychedelic meandering to the guitars that never use too much tremolo riffing, balancing a raw tone with dark atmosphere and melody. It seems so simple, and yet so unique at the same time, multi-layered and rich, this is one band I'll be looking out for in the future.
12) LIL - Synchronize (Japanese Electropop)
Well anyone who knows me knew there had to be some J-pop in this list somewhere, but certainly this isn't an album I expected would see me this far. I only picked it up on whim at someone elses recommendation, wanting new music for my travels, but whilst wondering what the hell I was thinking, I was still mentally mocking it when I realised it was already spinning for a second time. It's cheesy but so incredibly varied; instrumental tracks amidst ballads and party anthems, rapped vocals contrasting the autotuned - and it's non-excessive usage, she actually can sing fairly well and isn't just trying to hide the fact she can't - and yet throughout the one thing that remains a constant is that every song remains catchy in it's own way. This is precisely the kind of music I despise but what began as a curiosity ended up as an addiction, and now I'm in love. Shit.
11) Mac Lethal - North Korean BBQ (Hip-Hop)
I said in this albums review that last year i never could have foreseen me developing an interest in hip-hop, much less find myself reviewing it. Needless to say, i certainly never expected to find a release that would turn into my favourites for the year, but such is the beauty of this work. It's as far removed from the usual expected genre cliches it's incredible; more than just talented with regards to speed and technical ability but poetic, lyrics coming across as personal. Specific. Relatable. What he lacks in eloquence he compensates for in raw, simple honesty. Credible enough to turn down major record contracts for fear of them trying to change him, loyal enough to his fans to ask for their input, and pumping out material at a phenomenal rate; if these are the off-cuts then i cant wait for the rest.
10) Stephan Forté - Shadows Compendium (Neo-Classical Instrumental Metal)
Dont you hate it when albums are released just before the end of the year? Giving you too little time to absorb but too much time to bend rules and include it in a list next year? Well this debut solo effort fits here, but I doubt it'll be a decision I'll come to regret. It doesn't take long to realise this album is not just good, its redefining a genre. Now i'll admit i was fearing more neo-classical wankery thats been pumped out since "Malmsteem" showed the world you can play the classical scales quickly and pretty much always get something sounding half decent, but Forté's style isn't just using the scales, he's taken the whole genre in all its diversity. This is classical music thrust forth into the modern age, taking influences from classical literature the world over. This is a game changer, and that doesn't happen all too often.
9) Tesseract - One (Progressive Metal/Mathcore)
For some this feels like a release that's been a long time in the making; a mathcore band that's existed in some form or another for almost a decade now, and yet in all this time, it's only now that their much coveted debut album comes to light. And what they've devised is a release that seeks to exemplify the sound that defines the genre and wrap it in a neat progressive metal package; it's complex in it's use of polyrhythms and shifting tempo's, progressing as the tracks proceed. But beneath it all lies the core; the melody that drives the music forward, that encapsulates the listener never straying too far into sounding complex for the sake of it; incredible vocal lines married to dissonant guitar work and drumming that sends the mind spinning. Tesseract had a lot to live up to and their work here promises that they're only just getting started.
8) Chimp Spanner - At The Dreams Edge (Ambient/Mathcore)
Just how does one begin to describe this band; it's an instrumental offering; the brainchild of Paul Ortiz, the multi-instrumentalist who devised this concept album with a difference. Technical and dissonant lines combine with ethereal electronic ambient interludes to create a surreal atmosphere painting a picture of a dystopian future. Managing to utilise the technical nature of the music being offered to not just complement but enhance the atmosphere, never trading one for the other but allowing them both to work in unison for the same objective. Remaining completely immersive for the albums length it flows from end to end, not exploring a particular theme but telling a story and letting your imagination fill in the blanks. Part Kalisia and part (later) Cynic, this is a debut effort that plays out like nothing that came before it.
7) Haken - Visions (Progressive Metal)
The band that made my album of the year last time around have already come out with a worthy follow up that sees them follow the same style and theme as before in an all new ambitious effort. It sees them do little to mix up the formula they've carved for themselves - perhaps the reason why I haven't found myself drawn to this one as frequently as others - but whilst it hasn't quite made the same initial impact, does nothing to soil the name they've quickly established for themselves. Some of the best vocals the genre has to offer are complemented by a plethora of instrumentation that constantly strives for a powerful atmosphere; dual guitars and dual keyboard lines power onwards and create pieces never short of epic. Whilst I hope they manage to expand their sound in future releases, I can't deny that they have once again struck on something breathtaking to behold.
6) Von Hertzen Bros - Stars Aligned (Progressive Rock)
I'll be the first to admit that this one was a slow grower for me; a band mentioned to me by a drunk Finn at a bar, I was dubious as to how long the insatiable melodies would take before they began to become tiring. And yet here I am more than two months later, and this has been one of my most played albums in that time and still shows no sign of letting up (something quite unusual for me). It's simple on the surface, taking all the instrumentation and homing in on making this as addictive as possible; layers of instruments; drum lines playing fills and shifting styles; guitar solo's harmonising with the never repetitive bass lines; vocals drifting from powerful soprano to the ethereal. Psychedelic tones break up the hard hitting rock tracks, emotional lyrics amidst the belted chorus'; to call this deceptively complex and varied would be an understatement, but it's the way it casually shifts style over the albums course that is perhaps the most impressive.
5) Anthem - Heraldic Device (Heavy/Speed Metal)
A band I'd begin following once again when I realised they'd decided to come back a vengeance with their flawed but nonetheless impressive "Black Empire," this year they continued to rock my world with what is probably their best album since their "Hunting Time" all those years ago. This album isn't just 'retro' but pretends that the last couple of decades have never existed, creating hard hitting metal anthems that relive the glory days of the genre. Solo's galore and chorus lines that stick in your mind; this is an album that'll have you go from zero to headbang mode before the first track is out, will dare you not to sing along to the only slightly broken English, and doesn't let up until the album is finished. Who said Traditional Metal is dead?
4) Once a Wolf - Advent (Progressive Mathcore)
Debating whether to include this in this at all due to it being a EP (screw you! It's my list!) I decided I couldn't fail to mention this little known unsigned band. Packing more riffs per minute than any other I can think of, each epic track contains so much that even at its short length has a far greater replayability than full length releases. This is the genre at its absolute finest; growls amidst epic clean passages; calm contrasting the chaos; technical juxtaposing the melodic; compositions just don't get much better than this, and if they continue to write music of this quality, then these young new stars to the scene still look to have a long career ahead of them, one which I will be avidly watching to see just what they can come up with next.
3) Thy Catafalque - Rengeteg (Avant-Garde Metal)
Given that this album was released only last month, and that these crazy Hungarians have been flying low on the radar of many, it's little surprise I've found little mention of them else where. I was a big fan of their last release, though it received only a fraction of the attention it deserved, they've now returned for what can only be described as another leap in the quality of their output. What was once rooted in Black now feels more free-form, moving in and out of folk-like passages, still filled with a darkness; an icy cold perfect for the winter months, but coupled with more epic lines, electronic interludes and ethereal dream-like passages, mixing lo-fi noise with precision, creating a chaotic wall of sound only to break to a controlled passage. Is it some sort of Dark Heavy Metal? Some form of Industrial Blackgaze? Progressive Ambient Folk/Darkwave? Agalloch meets... hell I don't know, Arcturus maybe? All I know is I'm loving it.
2) Redemption - This Mortal Coil (Progressive Metal)
No stranger to these sorts of lists, since 'The Fullness of Time' they've earned their way into many fans list of bands to keep and eye on, and now it feels as though they've been given their reward. Combining epic guitar solo's, vocal lines with perfect diction, and some of the greatest lyrics the genre has to offer, they've reinvented themselves and done more than just write an album. 'This Mortal Coil' is a journey of emotion, depression, anger, fear and anxiety coalescing in a personal voyage of staring death in the face. For a time I thought this was going to be my number one release this year, but then came along...
1) Leprous - Bilateral (Extreme Avant-Prog)
A relatively late discovery, this is one of those rare releases you cant put down, and has been dominating my listening above all others. The seamlessly combination of aggression and placidity is one that not only feels completely unique but has yet to even begin to feel tiring. Every musician knows more than just how to wield their weapon but how it can be used to create an atmosphere, to harmonise with the rest of the band, and how to shift tones in a rapid manner without feeling jarring. For all my difficulties ordering the rest of this list, the number one spot has never felt so secure. Leprous may be avant-garde but it never feels 'weird;' its like nothing you've ever heard yet feels nothing less than perfectly natural.
Live Performance Award: Gama Bomb
Initially I had a long list of other accolades to add to this list, but I soon realised it was little more than an excuse to mention this band. Every time they come out with a new release, it gets mentioned as 'one of the better of the retro-thrash acts,' which is usually intended as something of a backhanded compliment; their Exodus-style high-speed thrash is nothing particularly new or original, never tackling serious subjects, but what it does all mean is that what they lack in the album format they cover for in their live performances. The jovial atmosphere creating a party like feel filled with cheering, drinking, on-stage antics, banter and jokes; getting the audience to do things they never normally would in the name of having a great time. This year was the second time I've seen them and they proved that it wasn't a fluke; Gama Bomb genuinely do put on the most energetic, fun-filled live performance I've ever seen, and even if they never again release more than a mediocre album, so long as they keep touring I'll keep on coming back for more.
Over the years this has grown into my own personal project, reviewing the artists that I discover and interest me. If you wish to see more of my work, particularly my more metal-orientated material, you can find me as a regular contributor for the online magazine
I know, every year someone makes the overblown statement 'this has been a good year for music,' and depending what musical circle you're in it usually is for someone, but this has been an exceptional year for metal. Legends have reformed, Sigh and Chthonic have made ambitious entries, Project Hate have proven the worth of their new vocalist, the announcement of a re-release of the infamous 'Ambeon' album and Stephan Forté coming out with a dazzling solo masterclass with a number of other guitar wizards lending a helping hand.
Cecil Otter – Rebel Yellow – 3.5/5
Since my first forays into the work of the Minnesotan underground hip-hop scene – in particular the members of Doomtree – this was one I intended to get written, because he certainly knows how to make an entrance. Fedora-sporting white guy Cecil Otter doesn't look like your average rapper, and yet that feels fitting to this release; beginning this album is a spoken word poem where he calmly explains what the album is intended to be and what he hopes it will accomplish, using the ever so colourful metaphor of raping you, “fucking you in the ass with words” as he so eloquently puts it. It's part of what draws me in so heavily to the work coming from this region, they have no desire to sugar coat their words or hide their emotions, they'll let it all flow from them in a cathartic release of energy for the listener to hear and absorb. There's more purpose to it than a basic beat could hope to accentuate, and everything from flamenco-esque guitar work, country, folk, and blues overtones to music boxes are utilised in composing the backing tracks; no childhood musical memory feels safe and no instrument or style off limits, and this experimentation is done in such a way as to never feel out of place in the context of the track.
In fact, it almost sounds strange to say it but his attention to detail is probably his greatest strength. How many other hip-hop artists can be said to excel in creating instrumental tracks, “Down, Beast” effectively breaking up this album into two sections with it's machine gun drumming and disquieted melancholy. You could remove his vocals from half the album and still end up with a half decent ambient release, and I don't know a single other artist in the genre for whom that could be said of. It seems such a shame then that the factor that initially caught my attention seems so underdeveloped by comparison; the gloriously unique accent in that opening track disappears for a (slightly) more conventional tone, and despite an excellent flow to his whimsical lyrical rhymes, both in the use of more staccato and abrupt passages and the gentler lines, seems all too void of emotion and contrast to work from. Being emotionally dead inside has it's place, no question (hell, wasn't that what the grunge movement was based on?), but such a heavy reliance on it makes for an ultimately uninteresting counter-balance to the spectacular backing, which all too often seems to carry the atmosphere on its shoulders alone.
Lyrically speaking, he sometimes feels a little too intelligent for his own good; the “Little Red Riding Hood” parallel drawn throughout the album – particularly in “Rebel Yellow” - comparing loves to the gaping jaws of the hungry wolf he gets into bed with is a fairly powerful idea in its own right, but these elaborate metaphors never quite seem to be as fully developed as they could be. They're always too shrouded in mystery and left too vague, and it's only when he takes a step back and speaks in a more poignant manner that his best work comes to fruition. I'm not the greatest follower of hip-hop, and so it should come as no major surprise that it takes something special for me to prick my ears up. I arrived upon Cecil Otter for his willing to speak his mind, bringing the poetry back into hip-hop, but I stayed for the experimental back beats. There are a few bad tracks amidst this, but his willing to do what most seem afraid to makes this a certifiable diamond in the rough.
Highlights: Rebel Yellow, Sufficiently Breathless, Down,Beast!, Match Book Diaries, Demon Girl
Cynthesis – DeEvolution – 3.5/5
“Fear not” the Zero Hour boys cry, “For we are not dead. We just lobotomised ourselves.” That is at least, strongly the impression I quickly get when going into this release, the new project from those Tipton brothers that formed the core of Zero Hour's success, pitting masterful bass lines against technical guitar shredding in a progressive effigy that turned them into the cult success they were, at least until their decision to postpone efforts after their phenomenal continuation of their success in “Dark Deceiver.” Often when such postponements occur, it's because they fear their creative juices have run dry, needing some new project to revive their interests rather than release a sub-par album. It's a noble decision and one that I'll often accept for the best as there's nothing worse than getting excited by your favourite bands latest offering only to discover it's not even good to wipe your ass with it. Sometimes they never return, wishing to pursue their new direction further, which is again a decision I can respect. What I don't quite understand is forming a new band with half the members and then trying to write, if not the exact same, then at least remarkably similar music with a new line-up and name.
All it does is feel as though they've taken a giant leap backwards, which has nothing to do with the abilities of the new members they've found; the vocalist is more than competent if not top of his league – a decent range and emotionally capability feels hampered by a lack of power and prominence in the final mix – and the drummer does everything that's asked of him (albeit adds little more to the proceedings), but even more than ever before it's evident that it is the guitars driving everything. They seem to feel some burden to perform and so often dominate the compositions, at times performing such feats of mindless and pointless technical wankery that I can't help but be reminded of Behold... the Arctopus (even if at its worst, never descends quite that far). The issue is less prominent on repeated listens, the more accustomed you become to the complex melodies, the easier it is to see past it and to the albums core intention. We get that you're good musicians, and you have no real need to prove to the people discovering this album – largely the Zero Hour fans – of your ability to make technical lines catchy, because surely the best musicians are confident enough that they never need to force feed these facts down the listeners throat.
In fact, it reminds me a little of my old drama classes and the old tell-tale sign of someone being nervous on stage, raffling off their lines too quickly hoping to impress the person doing the marking, and it isn't until they calm down a little in the albums second half that tracks begin to open up and develop at a more reasonable pace. Here is no different, and as the album continues the pacing improves, never displaying the all-or-nothing sense of aggression plaguing early tracks, fluctuating between repeating guitar lines until you become numb to them and suddenly going off on a technical tangeant. Slowing down to a more emotional peak they deliver on a quality reminiscent of Zero Hour's earlier successes in 'Tower of Avarice,' displaying a far more 'rock' quality that finally feels like a distinction worthy of a new band name; gentle chords and synths work together to provide an atmosphere of a dark Orwellian future, the chaos of the guitars tastefully interspersed into the brooding melodies to enrich the experience. There is some fantastic musicianship on display here, and I would expect nothing less of them, but compositionally it only feels a fraction of what they're capable of; it's too disjointed and inconsistent, failing to flow between the different tempo's to be considered much more than a shadow of what they could be.
Highlights: Profits of Disaster, The Edifice Grin, A Song of Unrest
Leprous – Bilateral – 4.5/5
The wrath of progtober – the term I'm now using to describe the wealth of progressive albums I'm discovering in october of this year – returns with another entry that could so easily have snuck under the radar, and not just because I have no idea how to explain them other than “Extreme Avant-Garde Prog.” Their very existence is a bit of an unusual creation, formed largely by the mastermind Ihsahn (Emperor, Peccatum) – who contributes his own vocal lines in “Thorns” – to perform his solo material live. It was only once they met that something must have clicked in their mind as it wasn't long that the band Leprous was formed on the side, writing music of their own choosing, and now with a decade of experience together under their belts, they emerge triumphant with a second full-length release they have a damn good reason to be proud of.
Elements remind me of everything from Muse, Mr. Bungle, Meshuggah, Animals as Leaders, Opeth, Cynic to Kalisia and beyond; to describe this as some form of Avant-Garde is not a small stretch because – like artists such as Gonin-Ish and the aforementioned Kalisia – there is no one band that I can readily compare them to. And surprisingly, for a genre named “progressive metal,” this is quite a rare thing, but even rarer is that it never feels as though elements vanish or are forgotten. Rather, it feels as though they've carved a sound for themselves that is entirely their own and that any comparison is just a futile attempt to give an indication of what to expect. It's at times epic and swooping, aggressive, calm and melodic; it grooves and growls; is both at times electronic in a dystopian sense and organic in a very human fashion; incredibly technical in both the individual lines and the manner they harmonise with one another, and despite the often short track lengths there is so much packed into each composition as it flows seamlessly from end to end that you could listen to it a dozen times and still hear something new.
Every musician has been hand-picked for their knowledge of their instrument and the full breadth of its capabilities; the bass lines don't just plod along but they explode with an effigy of funk-filled slap bass, grind like the grooviest of death metal and melodically saunter along to the other instrumentation; the vocals vary in a manner that only the most versatile vocalist could hope to compete with, singing Muse-like soprano lines, deathly mid-ranged growls, epic soaring lines and passages to make Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree) proud; and the guitars do nothing to hinder all these efforts, mixing things up by knowing exactly when the track requires a technical twang, a psychedelic touch, or a hard hitting grind. It's a supergroup formed from complete unknowns who have been working together for over a decade in the shadow of Ihsahn that have now been unleashed unto the world as a force in their own right, just waiting for the masses to discover them.
In fact, the only comments I really have against it is the tracks themselves sometimes feel a little too individual and disjointed, too close to stand alone tracks than a cohesive album, and that when being bombarded by so many different elements it causes something of a 'sensory overload' forcing you to tune out. Initially there's almost something of a battle of wills, the album pummelling you with new lines like a fireman's hose aimed at a teacup, and it's all you can do not to break down and put on something easier to absorb. An easy album to initially listen to, this isn't. In fact, it took me a couple of attempts to get past the first couple of tracks, at which point I suddenly started wondering what I'd been missing all those other times. Once you finally break that initial barrier you won't be able to stop yourself from putting it down, and by the time I'd finally finished it end to end I quickly concluded that this was possibly the best new album I've heard all year.
Highlights: Honestly, the whole thing is consistently golden.
Caligula's Horse - Moments From Ephemeral City - 4/5
Everyone from my generation must have done it; browsing through your facebook's news feed wondering who the fuck half the people you must have added at some point over the years actually are, and more to the point, why you befriended them in the first place. Thus is a question I often wonder, but one that - for at least one member of my friend list - was answered with a plethora of bands I'd not heard of amongst those I love, and amongst them all, Caligula's Horse. And despite the entirely bizarre sounding name, this unsigned Aussie band featuring “Quandary's” guitarist and the vocalist from “Arcane” is anything but, harnessing the energy of prog bands past and channelling it into a sound that probably flows together an awful lot better than it sounds.
Despite the occasional electronic beeps and unusual effects, this is undeniably prog metal at its heart (or at least in a shade of grey between prog rock and post/prog metal). It's just defining what kind of prog metal that makes things tricky; guitar work that strays from Haken's love of jazz fusion noodling to almost Porcupine Tree-inspired passages and choral lines, and mixing in the djent tone of Meshuggah for good measure; it hops around quite a lot stylistically resulting in an offering that often feels quite broad. It's nothing if not an impressive debut, delivering on a quality you'd expect of bands working on their third or fourth attempt, but that's not to say everything always works. The guitarist feels like a jack of all trades but master of none; the solo's at times just touch upon sounding technical for the sake of it, the atmosphere doing wonders at shifting between thick and thin but ultimately can feel somewhat superficial, much like the lyrics which seem largely meaningless and generic. At one point he seems to be singing to himself with, “Sing this song... like you've got something to say,” though I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume I'm missing the point – or hell, maybe that is the point, to tell the listener to “sing this song,” as it is pretty catchy. There is a great deal of variety here, but it doesn't best others doing similar things.
That they've chosen a genre with such a high talent requirement is not an excuse for trying to over-reach themselves, and there is far too heavy a reliance on only half the instrumentation; the often mediocre vocals dominating over the basic drum beats and forgettable keyboard lines, leaving the guitars very much the primary reason you'd want to give them a whirl. Acoustic guitars and bass seem to interchange depending on their whim and are the primary contributing factor to the current tone which is severely limited to two settings rather than using the compositions to fluctuate in between the two extremes. Too much time is spent feeling monotonous; the guitar work displays phenomenal technical capabilities but sometimes just doesn't quite seem to fit the track. There's a lot to think about when composing a good prog album, getting the balance of all things right and not running before you can walk, and these guys feel like a good example of that. When it all comes together the result is nothing short of spectacular, and if they can make those moments happen more frequently we may well be onto another contender in the prog scene.
Highlights: The City Has No Empathy, Equally Flawed.
Julia – Julia – 4/5
Ah screamo; that beloved genre that is of course every member of Lifer's favourite, combining those notable traits of angsty teenage whining about some mundane event invariably involving some woman, sung in a nasal high pitched whine that makes you want to thump them and tell them to man up, complemented by power chords that somehow manage to delude people into thinking it's metal when it's really, really not. But sarcasm aside, emo was once a valid part of the punk genre, taking the fuel of the more political hardcore punk and giving it a more personal spin (though these days it draws far more from post-hardcore than it once did), and screamo was once no different. Most of what gets picked up and paraded around is just a distant shadow of what it once was, and dismissing this out of hand would be like dismissing metal because of that Slipknot song you heard on the radio. Quite frankly, this is none of that. This is screamo played the way it should be.
Equal parts 'Botch' and 'Big Black,' this is a band long since shrouded in obscurity; largely a live band that only took the time out of their busy touring schedule to release this solitary album, and now their lasting legacy that they ever existed at all. Keeping the punk DIY ethic truly alive, this is little more than a collection of tracks they used to tour dingy pubs and clubs with, slammed out in a recording studio in what sounds like only a couple of takes (if that); it's lo-fi origins clearly shown in the production values which only enhances the rough and ready experience, still managing to make each individual instrument sing loud and proud above the cacophony behind them; the deep raw pounding of the bass providing much of the base rhythm whilst the drums never seem to flounder for a way to mix up the proceedings, never content to just do the bare minimum.
Even the vocals which may be the most dreaded point in the line-up succeed in providing a positive emotional note; a sense of anger borne from rising frustrations only to slowly be released on the unwitting listener. And much of what makes this works is not to do with the individual components but how they all piece together in these lengthy, almost progressive compositions; simple but hard hitting lines gradually transitioning in style, intensifying and building up to a crescendo of rage, drums crashing and guitars wailing in a dissonant fit of chaotic noise. Compositionally, it's surprisingly complex even if the individual instruments never play anything remarkably technical in nature. It's just the manner it seamlessly flows from beginning to end, building you up only to beat you down again, that secures it's place as amongst the best the genre has to offer.
Highlights: Tongue Biting, Charge vs. Change
Stereopony – Over the Border - 3.5/5
All-female groups are starting to become less of an oddity and arrive with more regular frequency these days, particularly from Japan, often seeming to fill some sort of gender reversal of the typical boy band from the west but occasionally actually involving them playing their own instruments. Gallhammer, Mind of Asian, Shonen Knife; what do they all have in common? They're all terrible musicians, stuck playing the most basic beats and riffs (this is to say nothing about the music itself other than to remark on the technical proficiency of these three-piece outfits), so when I stumbled upon another all-female three-piece pop/rock outfit, I figured I knew exactly what I was getting, glossing over them and forgetting them in the plethora of other music I was getting around to, and it wasn't until I accidentally re-stumbled upon them watching “Darker than Black” that my ears pricked up, and I discovered that the addictive opening tune was from a band I'd had lying around for months and never given the attention they deserved.
Sometimes I really do need a kick to pay attention as this often feels like the exception that proves the rule. No there aren't face-melting shredding guitar solo's, but the never music never calls for anything of the like. At the end of the day the music is still pop/rock and as such the focus remains on the ability to be catchy, providing melodies that swoon in your mind and remain there for the tracks duration, but the ability to actually compose such tracks and not sound mind-numbingly repetitive is one often reserved for the upper echelons of musicians, demonstrating themselves capable of playing their instruments whilst never forgetting where the simplistic focus should lie. The drums may maintain the beat but they manage to ease transitions into the various passages of each track with a startling ease, content to throw in a drum roll to break up what could otherwise be a bland performance, and quite frankly this is the least impressive of it all.
The bass lines drive much of the tracks rhythm, never merely following the guitars but complementing them with their own distinct lines that often aren't as simple as you might expect, harmonising with the guitar chords used to accentuate key notes – something of a traditional role reversal that works surprisingly well – and often let ring out to flesh out the tone and supply the boisterous atmosphere. And the critical element on top of all the instrumentation as ever for this genre is the vocals, often sticking to a particular range but more than compensating by transitioning between delicate flowing lines and a more upbeat rapped style (and often places in between), adding a cute and boisterous 'bounciness' to the proceedings regardless of her chosen style. It often feels almost 'garage rock' in its execution; never quite as raw but retaining a sense that there are no studio frills sugar coating their abilities, that what you hear is what you get and a live performance would be no different. If it didn't begin to tail off towards the end of this release, it would be all the more impressive, but as it stands it's still pretty good for a quick fix of simple catchiness.
Highlights: Smilife (Track 3), Never Look Back (Track 5), Hanbunko (Track 9)
Double Dealer – Deride at the Top – 2.5/5
An album that's been left on the back burners for a while now, this sees the second effort for the band that can stand proud from their past achievements; a super group formed from the lead guitarist and ex-keyboardist from Concerto Moon coupled with the drummer and vocalist from local Heavy Metal legends “Saber Tiger.” It's not even as though they've taken the worst members from each band, but rather the complete opposite, and they aren't afraid of letting loose a little and proving of all the people they could have chosen to include that they were worthy of the position. That is, except for the drummer, who beyond keeping the most basic of beats for the other instruments doesn't seem capable of contributing much further.
The keyboards never smother the sound with synths and instead show far more restraint in their usage, being used subtly for atmosphere in the background and coming to the fore to perform 'Rick Wakeman' style organ solo's, used to bounce from and complement the guitar work, which is once again on top form, forcing you to sit and pay attention. Even the bass gets his chance to shine, not only responsible for a good deal of the tracks rhythm (given the absence of a second guitarist) but permitted their own occasional solo. This tri-attack of different instruments shows the band at their best and the production has been done so carefully as to remove nothing of the old school vibe they were shooting for whilst making each element distinct from one another in the final product.
The problem is, in between all the individuals working on their own 'set pieces,' they all forgot that at some point they should work together. The songs are coherent enough, but all too often slow down for another tiring ballad, chugging along at a mid-pace in a sleep-inducing effort that only perks up when one of the musicians are given their turn in the spotlight to shine. It's too generic feeling; too middle of the road; too uninspired to be anything more than an example of a super group forgetting the basics. There's little here that feels memorable in the slightest; that they're all competent is never a question, and when everything works out the result finally starts living up to the names they've created for themselves, but these moments come all too few and far between. In amidst all the gems are a plethora tracks consisting of the lesser variety, and sadly they take up an all too unwelcome majority of the album.
Haken – Visions – 4.5/5
This year truly does feel like the year of the prog, the number of good releases coming out as it starts to reach it's final moments reaching epic proportions and so many have been put on hold as I try to absorb as much as possible; Opeth going clean, Redemption releasing one of their best to date, the brothers responsible for Zero Hour coming out with a new side project, Von Hertzen Brothers making waves internationally and Stephan Forté (Adagio) preparing to release his debut solo album, not to mention a number of promising debut efforts that I haven't even begun to listen to yet. And to top it all off, the band I regarded as responsible for my album of the year last year have appeared on my radar once again, announcing that they've already slammed out a follow-up, a concept album set to rival the last.
In case you're a newcomer to this band, Haken are formed from the ashes of To-Mera (featuring two of its members), pooling new talent from every corner of UK to emerge with a Heavy Prog line-up that should have Dream Theatre shaking in their boots, as these newcomers have already made quite a splash in re-invigorating a genre just as it was starting to stagnate. Straddling the lines between Prog Rock, Prog Metal and Jazz Fusion the result is something broad in scope, technical in nature and yet atmospheric as part of the course. Duelling guitar solo's, dual keyboards and a vocalist displaying the best of British and you can see why they've garnered so much attention, and even more so than before, this epic clocking more than an hour in length should be considered a singular concept piece rather than a number of distinct tracks, each flowing casually into the next.
The benefits of having two keyboard players, one switching to another guitars as needed, and a strong bass player more used to shredding on his guitar than playing root notes means there's ample room for grandiose instrumental compositions, pandering to atmosphere and tone. They set out to create something more epic than their last and I'd dare say they succeeded in doing precisely that. There are solo's galore, a decided absence of the occasional growls (some tracks don't have vocals at all, and yet they don't feel like 'that instrumental track,' rather, the first time through you'll probably not notice at all, such is the strength of the instrumentation) and long atmospheric keyboard passages; there are so many different layers that has gone into it's fabrication it's a wonder it works at all, and yet through the understanding of how to come to the forefront of the music and fade into the back, every element manages to work in such perfect harmony with one another that it's awe-inspiring in how simple and atmospheric it can be, and how at a moments notice it can shift gear, letting the slow build-up explode into smooth grooves and head banging tunes.
Juxtaposing lighter tones with a crash of guitar driven chaos may be a frequent and critical component of their music, but it never feels done haphazardly. More than anything else, everything feels remarkably intelligent in it's design, a fact that only emerges after a few listens. Elements from earlier tracks return at a later time; one bass-heavy riff in the opening track – also one of the most addictive melodies they've ever written – forming one of the fundamental basis' for a later track, breathed new life by the shift in backing; slow dream-like passages are re-iterated with a biting tone and different tempo lending this rather strange feeling of deja vu; that you've been there before and yet initially, you can't quite put your finger on where. Unfortunately, having this cyclical style both comes its benefits and one obvious drawback; recycling the same riffs for too long can lead to the music becoming stagnant, a problem that this album just occasionally falls prey to.
It's definitely a notch up from their last in terms of ambition, and they still manage to do a marvellous job of piecing it all together, but there are just a few elements that bring it down; the occasional odd element that featured in their last (the accordion pieces, and 'circus' themed elements in particular) worked due to the sudden transition in style, intentionally jarring the listener alert. Here it feels they've tried to up themselves and the result just feels a little too avant-garde given the overall atmosphere of the music they've created (the 8-bit interlude in “Insomnia” for example), especially seeing as how for the most part they've played to their strengths that they've discovered from their last, though this is a pretty minor complaint. It's largely the sense of individuality the tracks held in their last effort that feels missing here, which is not to suggest it's a bad album. Completely the opposite in fact, their debut was simply so mind-blowing and so refreshing a breath of fresh air that matching it would be like winning the lottery twice in a row. One year and two-hundred and eight days. This is precisely how long it has taken for Haken to have proven they aren't going to be one hit wonders, but that Prog fans should herald some new champions to the scene.
Highlights: Deathless, Visions
Anthem – Heraldic Device – 4.5/5
For those unaware of their Japanese history, it's considered that back when the rest of the world were just discovering the world of thrash metal, Japan was booming ten years behind with its own flourishing metal scene, amongst them their own 'Big Four' of Heavy Metal; X-Japan, Loudness, EZO and Anthem. And much like the Big Four of Bay Area Thrash, their histories haven't exactly been filled with gem after gem; X-Japan wouldn't take long before they started gradually softening their sound for wider appeal and providing the framework for many of the Japanese rock bands to emerge; Loudness reached a peak and have been struggling to match it for so long even die hard fans have given up hope, and EZO simply quit whilst they were ahead. None of them have a patch on Anthem, because Anthem have done what none of the rest – the US or the Japanese four – have managed to do: successfully make a comeback.
So that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but history was never kind to Anthem; after receiving moderate success in the late 80s they decided to call it quits, ending life on a high, but as anyone whose picked up an instrument knows all too well, you can't separate a man from his weapon for long. A decade passes, their names becomes forgotten, and suddenly when the reunion occurs they find themselves on the bottom rung once more; these ageing head-bangers now finding that they have to prove themselves all over again, and so they set out to do it in the only way they know how. They haven't tried to to worry about how times have changed, how sounds have evolved or trying to flirt with new styles; that would be as much an abomination as... well you've all heard about the Metallica/Lou Reed collaboration haven't you? Anthem first made their name playing catchy, ballsy Heavy Metal, and that's how they'll do it again, as this album is sets out to prove.
If you're looking for something game changing then you're really looking in the wrong place, but what they perhaps lack in originality they compensate by simply performing it so well. They've spent so long honing their craft to perfection that it's hard not to be mesmerised by it all, the intricacy of the instruments never getting lost in the production. The drums hit with a raw effigy that never relies on speed as much as creativity, working with the bass lines to create a melodic rhythm for the rest of the instrumentation to layer on top of; chords interspersed with riffs, fluidly changing throughout a tracks length and proving that he can do the job of two guitars. The work he lays down here is possibly the most impressive aspect to it all despite rarely feeling all too complex, but as if to lay any suspicions about his technical ability to rest, he belts out an instrumental ("Code of Silence") to stop nay-sayers in their tracks.
Topped off with the vocals to complete the line-up, its here that their second strength comes shining through; the power and intensity of his instantly recognisable vocal talents matched only by his ability to create hooks and chorus lines so catchy and memorable that they instantly lodge themselves in your mind; one track at times feels suspiciously similar to The Scorpions “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” but ultimately that just proves my point. I rejoined Anthem's second wave of superiority with their impressive last album, but here they've delivered on something that beats even that, producing one of the best modern 'old school' releases to have released in recent years; more than equal to the spellbinding return of Accept with their “Blood of the Nations.” “Heraldic Device” feels 80s without feeling 'retro;' they've embodied the style as though the past thirty years haven't happened, as opposed to trying to somehow modernise it. They were the best of the bunch back in their day and now they've returned to prove their day ain't over yet.
Highlights: Contagious, Go, Blind Alley, Code of Silence
EDIT: I've since been catching up with some Loudness, and I guess it's only fair to say that they've made something of a comeback as well.
Fairyland – The Fall of an Empire - 5/5
Fairyland, formerly Fantasia, is a symphonic power metal band from France, but in my opinion they sound more like their Italian counterparts. ‘The Fall of an Empire’ is often overlooked, in favour of their debut ‘Of Wars in Osyrhia’. Elisa C. Martin (ex-Dark Moor) quit soon after their 2003 tour. She had brought a lot of attention to the band and gave them a distinct sound, so her departure could have been a huge loss to the band. Fortunately Elisa had little or no input into song writing. All songs are composed by Philippe Giordana and Anthony Parker (ex-Heavenly), and they took the opportunity to change things up a bit and evolve their sound.
The debut is a blend of Rhapsody (of Fire) and Dark Moor, and is just about as ‘flowery’ as power metal can get (no surprise for a band named Fairyland). Avid fans of Dark Moor may well prefer ‘Of Wars in Osyrhia’, for obvious reasons. Although still very much in the same vein, ‘The Fall of an Empire’ is more accessible for the average metal fan. It’s catchier, heavier and even more bombastic, and quite simply has more balls. If you compare the artwork of the two albums, a fantastical landscape and a gruesome battle against the undead, you would expect such differences in sound. The latter imagery may be somewhat deceptive, as this is not the aggressive onslaught that you may be led to expect, but it is nonetheless great cover art. Fairyland is much less ‘speed metal’ sounding than standard European power metal (Helloween, Gamma Ray, Blind Guardian etc).
The replacement vocalist, Max Leclercq, is a very polished and accomplished singer and adds more of an edge to their sound. At times he actually sings in a very similar style to Elisa, but his stronger male vocal cords are naturally better suited to the new heavier sound. As good a singer as Elisa is, I find she can become boring over the course of an album. Max’s powerful voice is far catchier and more memorable. He has an impressive vocal range and bares similarities both to early Russel Allen and to Fabio Lione. His performance is one of the highlights of the album. A guest female vocalist makes a few appearances, singing the parts that would have been more suited to Elisa than Max. The two singers combined are more than a match for Elisa.
The guitars have become more prevalent, coming to the forefront for some of the heavier sections. Anthony Parker’s leads are impressive without ever becoming indulgent. Thomas Cesario’s bass and rhythm guitar are paramount to achieving this heavier sound. However, Philippe Giordana’s excellent keys are still the driving force of most songs. There are some great solos from both keyboards and guitars. The bass and drums are pretty fast for symphonic metal, but are rather secondary in the mix to the keyboard and guitars. This is probably both intentional and profitable to the atmosphere they have set out to create.
The song writing has also improved on this album, compared to its predecessor. The overall composition is exceptional. A good balance of soft, slow sections and fast, powerful moments prevents this 63 minute album from dragging. Orchestral interludes are well used, bridging the songs to help the album flow. The emotions of desperation and sorrow are portrayed well, both by vocals and instrumentation.
‘Eldanie Uelle’ is a particularly catchy song and demonstrates both the soft and the heavy sides of Fairyland at their best. ‘In Duna’ is closest to ‘Of Wars in Osyrhia’ era Fairyland, with all female vocals and the electric guitars replaced by orchestral instruments. This slow, graceful song is well placed, as it is followed by the 10 minute epic ‘The Story Remains’. This is possibly my favourite song on the album, and is for the most part more similar to Symphony X than to Rhapsody (of Fire) or Dark Moor. Although not perfect, it comes as close as anyone and rivals early Rhapsody (of Fire). This album is therefore essential to all fans of symphonic power metal. Unfortunately, all too many people are put off by the band’s name.
Black Pyramid – Black Pyramid – 5/5
Do you crave Black Sabbath’s hook-laden old-school doom riffs? Are you a fan of Electric Wizard’s slow, grinding sludge? Do you covet the raw stoner riffage of Kyuss that sounds like it was recorded in the middle of the desert using a mondo generator? Then this is the album for you! Heralding from Massachusetts, Black Pyramid combines elements of all three aforementioned bands on this ambitious debut album, resulting in a colossal barrage of stoner/doom. Eastern sounds are also incorporated, in a more subtle and tasteful manner than Nile achieved, adding even greater depth to the weighty atmosphere that Black Pyramid have created.
Andy Beresky, the chief songwriter, lead guitarist and vocalist, is clearly the driving force behind the band. He sounds like Ozzy with a bad throat…in a good way. His deeper, coarser voice provides more of an edge than the cleaner vocals that are typical of doom: These would sound too thin if partnered with the leaden riffage of Black Pyramid. Although lyrics about the occult are very predictable in doom, the songs are well written and follow a continuous theme. Andy Beresky’s guitar playing takes noticeable influence from early Sabbath. This is especially prominent on the bluesy intro to ‘The Worm Ouroboros’. There is no filler here. If you think doom is supposed to be slow, this proves otherwise. Crushing riff after crushing riff slams your head to the kerb and stomps you into submission. A thick and fuzzy guitar tone, typical of stoner/doom, is used throughout. At the halfway point, an acoustic interlude, ‘Celephais’, is well placed to break up the album and keep the listener interested, not that there is any danger of becoming bored. While it’s the leads that make this album special, the bass and percussion are not hidden away. The bass is very audible and is crucial in the construction of Black Pyramid’s hefty grooves. The mid-paced drumming is delivered by Clay Neely, formerly of southern rockers Artimus Pyledriver.
Despite making an instant impression, this is very definitely an album that has grown on me with every listen, unlike other more generic doom that has ultimately become buried deep beneath the classics in my collection. My only problem with this album is that it is Black Pyramid’s only album. Unfortunately they split-up last month, after Andy Beresky quit. The only consolation is the release of a compilation of six great songs from demos and splits. That this is the best stoner/doom release of 2009 is not up for debate. It easily makes my top ten all-time favourites. Although there is nothing particularly original or groundbreaking here, had it been released during doom’s heyday it would surely be considered amongst the classics.
Bereaved – The Spirit Driven by Hate – 3.5/5
Not only is this a solid debut full-length album, ‘The Spirit Driven by Hate’ is one of the best death/thrash albums to be released from Japan. Despite the huge metal scene in Japan, few acts get any real exposure in the West. This is one of many albums that deserve our attention.
The album opens with the chilling intro ‘Apparition’, and then erupts into a thrilling onslaught of metal. Brutal from start to finish, 'The Spirit Driven by Hate' is also technically superb. The quintet from Tokyo has found a near perfect blend of death and thrash metal, full of well used blast beats. Bereaved plays its own take on extreme Teutonic-style thrash, with a modern twist. The fast, intense thrash riffing is layered with Gothenburg melodies and some impressive solos. Void of any repetitive, chugging songs (like Slayer surround their two or three good songs with on every album), most of the tracks are 5-6 minutes long, but never drag. Leo Wakiya displays solid, although for the most part unspectacular, death metal drumming with plenty of good fills to keep it interesting.
Japanese vocalists sometimes get a lot of criticism, because of the unusual accent when they sing in English. In the case of Bereaved, if you are only used to European/American death growls, Tetsu Haramura’s deep, rasping vocals may take a bit of getting used to. Although at times the vocals are reminiscent of metalcore, they really fit the music well and I found that they grew on me with every song. If you like death/thrash, you should get this album now!
Falloch - Where Distant Spirits Remain - 3/5
I have always steadily maintained that Agalloch are the present day Beatles, never mind the qualitative breadth between the two bands though, I'm talking about inspiring a whole new set of ideals in music which before them were certainly seldom attempted. If so far my words have been Greek to you so far then I suggest you go ahead and take a look at how many bands have jumped into the whole naturalist-esque post rock/metal bandwagon. Now of course taking influence from an artist is nothing to be critical about, Moonsorrow wear theirs proudly on their sleeves. But where Moonsorrow take influence from Bathory they remember to add their own touch on 90% of the things. Sadly that is not the case here.
And yet the score could have been higher, had originality been the only issue here. Hailing from Scotland these Brits play a kind of music that is at times indisputably beautiful and at others just plain awkward. Mixing post rock with Doom is fine and usually can produce wonderful results, but when you lump the two together without any sort of coherence, you produce a piece symbolical to a piece of clay unskillfully molded. It will have some delightful edges and shapes around it, but overall it just puzzles you to no ends.
Song-writing is the major flaw on display here, sometimes the instruments going full throttle for intense playing and then completely dropping everything to an almost minimalist acoustic tone to display folklore elements. Had there been some coherence between the two phases, this record might just have elevated itself to brilliance the band’s potential displays. So the listener, in turn, is just lost at times in terms of where the track is going and this makes the majority of the album quite forgettable despite its appeasing moments.
Thankfully the instrumental melodies prove to be the saving grace of this album. Where the instruments lack in coherence, they make up in skill. Now that doesn’t imply technical ability or fast solos but some very beautiful moments created in from of some magical riffs and mesmerizing acoustic interludes. Drums are at times barely noticeable but when the tracks kick into the more intense phases, they merge well with the rest of the band.
And yes I'm not forgetting the vocals which are really the most interesting aspect on show really. Now on one hand, the vocalist has a good voice, no arguing on that, but I sincerely question their vocalist choice for the kind of genre they are attempting. This is critical because the band often compromise on the instrumental flow just to highlight his soft vocals. Perhaps that would explain for the extreme switching between the intensity levels of the music, but even then it’s not an apt excuse for the song-writing. It just shows how forced most of the substance is. I will say this for the Scots though, they have the talent and the potential on their side but this is a harsh lesson for anyone in music. Potential and talent is not enough to cut it. An average effort with some occasional shine but mostly it just leaves you bewildered.
Rainroom - And The Other That Was A Machine - 4/5
Weaving out interesting guitar riffs is no cake walk. If you doubt that, just ask Petrucci, he has been struggling with it since Dream Theater’s sophomore effort. But leaving that entire argument aside we come to Finland, the much acclaimed home of Metal and this time we find some fellows from Espoo indulging in an interesting mix of melancholic music.
My only regret is that I did not discover this band earlier because whilst they are not that unique, they definitely are displaying the desire to put out their own sound. This album whose name is a bit too long to say again and again is their second effort, and if I’m honest with myself, it’s a thoroughly engaging one. Like you would expect from any band attempting a mixture of death and doom metal these Finns mix their distorted guitar riffs well with some very clean lines, creating a mechanical but a very hypnotizing atmosphere.
To get deeper into the aesthetics of the album, I really have no idea what exactly the concept is being offered here. You can be sure one is being put together by the way the whole album comes together with some recycled riffs in later songs, and that is where some criticism must set in; the band carrying the right ideas but trying to be too expansive for their own good. Despite the themes they avoid the most dangerous trap of all; letting their music seem forced. Whilst the coherence comes together a bit uneasily at times, it still seems to be a natural transcendence rather than a tangled mesh. What really is the musical highlight of this work are the guitars with their ability to complement one another and mostly being able to keep interest in the song, even when going in there is an abundant repetition of riffs. So really the name of the album seems apt if you just concentrate on the sound these guitars create, at times scratchy, at times flowing and at times distorted.
The next most prominent part of the atmosphere is filled in by the drums and bass with the former following a varied selection of beats mostly echoing but feeling substantial enough to create steely atmosphere, and then what’s left is filled in subtly by the bass just about creating enough of a vacuum for this most absorbing mechanical experience.
The only quirks I have with this work are the song-writing and the vocals. The latter often are drowned out by the intense playing of the instruments and whilst that’s not usually the worst thing, they often just feel like a drowning man coming up gasping for breath. Yes that did not mean literally but rather that the vocals can interrupt the flow of the instruments at times. As far as the song-writing is concerned, they can definitely improve in that department with the talent they have at their disposal.
So parting word, give this one a go. This has its roots from steampunk,Opeth and Insomnium but it really just melds everything and goes miles away from their bank. It sounds awkward at those rare moments but mostly its all very pleasing to hear.
Shadowside – Inner Monster Out – 3.5/5
This is a band that have always felt to be on the cusp of greatness, and if you plunder the depths of this blog you'll find my atrocity of an early review attempt of their debut album “Theatre of Shadows,” and particularly my excitement at discovering a female vocalist displaying more ballsy rasp-laden lines than most men seem capable of, and pulling it off well. Her gender never becomes an issue and suits the music at least as well as any other, quickly dispelling any trace of a thought that she might try and pander to her femininity and sound like the plethora of Nightwish clones dominating the industry by roaring in your face. But it's been a long time since these Brazilians emerged from obscurity, and after their questionable (read: awful) second album (taking a lighter and thoroughly unsuited keyboard-centric approach to their sound) I felt it time to see how things have progressed, and it would certainly seem that they're back on track to prove to the world they deserve to be recognised. For one thing they've almost completely done away with the keyboards.
In fact, they've completely done away with gentle introductions altogether and open with a bang; a collision of crunchy riffs and powerful vocal lines fitting to the name “Gag Order.” In the four years since their debut they've been hard at work and the level of musicianship clearly shows that; more than the vocal lines which retain that balance between melody and aggression as well as ever, it seems that the rest of the band have stepped up to the plate. The drumming still remains delightfully near the forefront, delivering an array of beats fluidly changing as the track demands, and the bass is often is required to do more than just basic root notes to maintain the track's rhythm because perhaps the most remarkable improvement comes from the work of the lead guitars. There are more riffs littered about this release than ever before, and the complexity and detail in the solo's, shredding like never before and yet still displaying a sense of melody that suits the track at hand, adding a new dynamic to the music. They follow the old-school train of thought that a solo should be a song's highlight and rarely does it disappoint.
Sadly, the production feels a little too clean at times, the drumming coming off a touch too sterile, and whilst this isn't overly detrimental in more complex releases, in one so reliant on a simplistic melody and a heavy crunch it doesn't always pan out so well. The bass is on occasion too subtle and lost behind the chords of the guitar when you can often hear he's often doing more than just following them (listen out for the slap bass line in the chorus for “My Disrupted Reality”) and could benefit from being on more of a level pegging as the lead guitars where volume is concerned, allowing more potential for interplay between the two musicians. It also leaves much of the album – particularly during the chorus' – feeling just a little thin on the ground when the backing bass guitar and rhythm should be going into overdrive to give the song the support it needs; it leaves the vocalist feeling too bare, carrying the track entirely on her own shoulders, and as capable as she is, I hate the feeling that it sometimes gives that it's merely “Dani Nolden and friends” as opposed to a fully fledged band.
This is easily their most consistent release to date, feeling as though it might have taken them until this time to really find their own sound but are now comfortable in the style they've carved for themselves, much to the benefit of the release. Each member sees an improvement with every release that comes my way, and this is no different; it's harder hitting, heavier, and just as melodic as ever before, and whilst lacking the memorability of the best of their debut, never descends to the mediocrity of the worst presented there. On the cusp of greatness Shadowside remain, and all that's left for me to do now is await the next instalment for a band that feels as though their musical journey is only just beginning.
Highlights: Habitchual, My Disrupted Reality, Waste of Life
The Project Hate MXCXCIX – Bleeding the New Apocalypse - 4/5
Let me start off by saying this was a release I was tentatively excited for, because this studio band that constantly seeks to improve itself has gone through a few changes, the likes of which haven't been seen since their long-time vocalist Jonna Enkell first replaced Mia Stahl that preceded her, and now it seems she too has flown the Project Hate nest to work on her ambient solo project (Siren On, already up on this blog). The replacement is no stranger to me either, having first heard her powerful vocal work in 'Witchbreed,' and whilst impressive right from the start her style is markedly different, and thus comes my concern. Their greatest strength in the past has come from the glorious juxtaposition between the sweet and innocent vocals amidst a demonic chaos, literally defining the concept of the 'Beauty and the Beast' vocal style and doing it like none other.
There's no point in lying, I am a big fan of Enckell's vocal style, but I must give credit where it's due, and the simple fact is that the addition of Ruby Roque to the fold seems as natural a fit as I could ask for. She's done more than just deliver epic, ethereal soaring vocal lines on cue like nobody else I could name, but she's changed the entire dynamic of the band; everything flows together so well, capable of using her energy to maintain the momentum of the piece and build up over time to long crescendo's rather than the – by comparison – disjointed transitions between the two very different styles. And when the music finally does break, it's not merely to an electronic interlude as before but often displays a third option; a gentler darkness filled with what at times sounds like half an orchestra gone into it's construction, building up once more until the bowels of hell are once again unleashed upon the listener, twisting and turning and giving way when you expect it to jolt upwards, the aggression vanishing without a trace at a moments notice.
This is not the sort of release you can take in with a single listen. None of their releases are, in fact, and this is probably one of the easiest to quickly become accustomed to despite most tracks clocking more than ten minutes, which between the almost progressive nature of the unrelenting guitar work flowing from end to end before throwing in a trance passage is really saying something. More than any singular element it feels as though everyone has improved their game; the guitars at first made me thought there was another new addition, but it's simply that he's broadened his range from the usual mid-paced aggressive passages into an almost doom-like territory, and has really outdone himself across the board, even if it occasionally feels as though there are fewer solo's than in some of their previous work, though this never becomes much of an issue. It's always conjured demonic imagery but the keyboards and orchestral elements have gone to work more than ever at creating an atmosphere that doesn't just focus on the morbid, creating a sense of looming darkness; storm clouds gently floating overhead, becoming more prominent and noticeable up until the point that it rains fire down on its unsuspecting victims.
In fact, just about the only thing doesn't feel up to scratch is the drumming work, which in the past has always cemented itself as a companion piece in its own right given enough time. It's not to suggest the new drummer is a slouch compared to his predecessor, only that perhaps he hasn't quite settled fully into the complex and demanding rhythm's the music sometimes requires, just feeling a little too rigid when dealing with the otherwise steadily flowing manner of the tracks, and needing just a little nudge to mix things up a little as things proceed. Considering half the line-up has changed, that this is my only real complaint is very promising for this bands future. Though they have undoubtedly changed there is never a question that it still sounds like Project Hate, but in doing so they've managed to diversify their sound and broaden their horizons. There are deep growls complemented by high pitched growls, a greater versatility to the intensity of the clean vocal lines – even if she doesn't do the soft and gentle lines as well as Enckell managed to – and between the orchestral and the electronic, the result is that the whole 'metal opera' compositions have so many new avenues to explore. This is perhaps not their best work, but certainly suggests that a real gem is on the horizon.
Highlights: A Revelation of Desecrated Heavens, Bring Forth Purgatory
Von Hertzen Bros. - Stars Aligned – 4.5/5
When a guy in a bar cracked out his MP3 player to see my thoughts on a band he reckon I wouldn't know the result was... well it was "Porcupine Tree." Taking this as a challenge he professed “you'll never have heard this one, NOBODY outside of Finland knows them,” and he was right, and this is the result; a prog rock band comprised primarily of three brothers – and where the band derives its name – on guitars, vocals and bass, bringing in help for the drums and keys. Known only in their native Finland, they've since spent the last few years vying to get internationally recognised, and with music like this it must surely only be a matter of time. Citing influences such as Pink Floyd, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin, it seems intriguing that the result doesn't quite fit, instead harking back to the glory days of Yes, Rush, Queen and Genesis, a style I must confess doesn't always do it for me, which perhaps attests to the wealth of talent on display.
Singing entirely in English, they never fail to provide vocal lines that dare anyone not to sing alongside their catchy hooks and chorus lines, readily drawing comparisons to pop music. But despite the inherent ability to get their melodies stuck inside your mind, the pop comparison largely stops there; it never feels quite as simple as that, and at times can get downright complex when all the intersecting lines are considered, and yet throughout it all the focus remains on the composition with no regard for the speed or 'showing off' their prowess. It's all down to the way everything manages to synchronise in perfect harmony; solos galore amidst such soothing vocals never lacking just enough bite to them to keep them interesting; melodic 'shredding' and folk overtones; heavy hitting rock riffs grooving along into Floyd-esque, almost ambient interludes, and a plethora of other influences somehow integrated into the overarching compositions that seamlessly flow from one point to another, be it within the track or the context of the album in it's entirety.
And it is indeed so melodic that it's all to easy to find yourself entering a trance like state, letting the music flow over you in waves, absorbing more of the atmosphere created subconsciously than consciously until the music breaks and demands your attention once more, and that can be slightly worrying. That such a large extent of the album can be so readily ignored; entire tracks, if not necessarily bad, certainly not equal to the high standard set by others, can be forgotten in the album's midst, it calls into question the replayability of the album as a whole. The best albums in the genre are as ever flowing as this, but is filled with so much at every moment, every twist and turn of the track that you can listen to it a dozen times and still find something new nestled in its depths. By comparison, this is a shallow offering with some vague and cliché ideas, if performed to perfection. It feels like they're holding back – they have the musical ability, that much is at times made abundantly clear – trying to make it as palettable to as many as possible, simplifying tracks when they could easily have added a touch more depth to them. Fans of the classic 70s prog with plenty of pop like harmonies will find much to their liking with this, but I can't help but shake the feeling that they could do better.
Highlights: Gloria, Angels Eyes, Always Been Right
Editors Note: The more I listen to these guys, the more awesome they become. Score bumped half a mark in reflection of how its grown on me.
The Pax Cecilia – Blessed are the Bonds - 4.5/5
The Pax Cecilia, from Brookville, plays a brand of post-rock that takes influence from rock, metal, classical and ambient music. I strongly recommend them to fans of Maudlin of the Well. Blessed are the Bonds, their second release, couldn’t be further from the clutches of the dreaded sophomore slump: It is an immaculately composed epic. This album was available to stream online and they were offering to send out copies of the album at the cost of an optional donation. I didn’t even get through a whole song before ordering my copy, as I could instantly tell that I liked it. I didn’t listen any further, as I wanted to wait to hear the album in its entirety on my hi-fi, to do it justice.
It didn’t arrive until some considerable time later, so I had forgotten all about it. When I opened the parcel I had no idea what it was. It came in a brown card digipack, with an unusual design of owls and a heron printed on it. The insert was a folded piece of paper with further unusual artwork, but still no band name. The inside of the case had a track listing and title ‘blessed are the bonds’. The same title was on the disc also. I assumed I had randomly been sent a self-titled demo by a band called ‘Blessed are the Bonds’. Intrigued, I put on the CD and sat back expecting some low production demo. I was blown away. It wasn’t until later that day that I realised this was in fact ‘The Pax Cecilia’, after I went to throw away the envelope and a small card fell out with their website address on it. The card also contained a very refreshing message, “…the greatest gift you could give us in return is to share our music with others…” (As well as doing this, I donated $10).
Blessed are the Bonds is far more unique than your average post-rock. At times the music is reminiscent of ambient black and folk metal, yet metalcore and hardcore influences are also present. The soft, clean vocals are quite beautiful, with the singer never straying from his fairly limited vocal range (as so many singers do, to their detriment). -core vocals are used at times, but sparingly and tastefully. I was surprised at how well they actually work, heightening the emotion (which is conveyed exceptionally well throughout, both by vocals and instrumentation), and not sounding in any way whiny or annoying.
The album opens with ‘The Tragedy’, a soothing and simplistic ten minute intro that starts with a piano melody, followed by the introduction of soft strings and almost whispered vocals. The second track, ‘The Tomb Song’, continues in the same vein, but slowly builds up reaching a powerful climax of unexpected heaviness. After two piano driven songs, the third is much more guitar oriented. This results in The Pax Cecilia finally unleashing their true ferocity, after 20 minutes of taunting the listener with relative control. There is no let-up until ‘The Hymn’, which closes the album serenely with an acoustic guitar and harmonized vocals.
It is emotionally draining yet uplifting, leaving me feeling calm and upbeat after every listen. Imagine you are sailing on a calm ocean, when a colossal storm breaks out. After the turmoil subsides the ocean feels that much more tranquil than it did before. This makes it perfect for an evening in or a lazy afternoon. For a self-produced album, complete with a case and artwork that at a first glance appears individually homemade and hand-drawn, the sound quality is incredible. Upon hearing this, I was relatively new to post-rock, so I could not compare it to anything similar or judge its originality, but it remains to this day my favourite post-rock album.
‘Blessed are the Bonds’ is available for free download (optional donation), at: http://www.paxcecilia.com/
Live from the Mondo Water Rats, 10/10/11
Blood Ceremony – 3.5/5
And this is one gig I very nearly missed; a poorly advertised performance from a band whose debut lingers still somewhere in the depths of this blog, at a venue I had never even heard of, but it didn't seem too far off the beaten track. With no real expectations in store, I found the place which as it turns out is just the back room of a small pub, with a half decent stage and room for probably fifty or so spectators. Not that it was full when I arrived. In fact when I wandered through I found little more than the support band, Purson, and their manager standing nearby. Fortunately, this was not to be the entire attendance of the gig, and was merely the stage rehearsal I'd stumbled upon, with the real deal to come in just a few moments.
I feel a little bad commenting on the support act as what was made quite clear in the opening moments is that this isn't a band who have the greatest amount of experience under their belts. Barely past their teens, their lack of confidence on the stage to truly engage the audience rings out quite clear: this a band still finding their feet – as later confirmed by the vocalist, who pointed out they've only been around for three months! – and the fact that they currently still feel so amateur makes it rather difficult to judge. They could go on to be a 'tour de force' in the live industry, they could find themselves floundering despite garnering a greater deal live performances under their belt. At this stage it's simply impossible to really say as a year down the line things could easily be completely different, but if their first release ends up being as strong as the music performed here then this is definitely one I'll be keeping a close eye on.
As for the main band, they definitely felt the benefit of performing to such a small crowd. There's little in the way of frills or banter; there's no synchronised movements or stage pieces, and ordinarily this might be something of an annoyance (that they did little to acknowledge the audience) but somehow here it doesn't feel so bad. The continuous flow of music helped maintain the atmosphere; something that if they suddenly chirped up and started spouting how happy they were for people to have gone to see them would have been destroyed, but somehow after the final song had been sung, I didn't quite feel satisfied. It's not always the 'mark of a great performance,' leaving you wanting more, it simply felt a little short; as though they'd gotten out a bit later than expected and were left with not enough time to play enough material as they otherwise could have. Their respect for their fans is certainly pleasant to see, coming out to meet the crowd and actually talk to them – I don't mean this 'thanks for coming' shake your hand to a fake smile and them walk away quickly, but actual conversations – and is sure to be a benefit in their future, but performance wise there's little to it either way. I'm not disappointed, nor am I ecstatic at the spectacle I've just seen, I'm merely content until the next time.
Photograph by me. Re-use as you please, just please properly accredit the source.
Phew – Phew - ?/5
Sometimes I listen to something so batshit insane, so absurd that I can't even decide whether or not I like it let alone what on earth to call it. This music is Avant-Garde beyond the normal Avant-Garde; it's a musical paradox that both fits under no genre ever made and yet somehow exists. It's like some sort of weird musical black hole that plods along, and you just know it would have to be a Japanese chick who would come up with it. At best it sounds like some bizarre Japanese form of Krautrock in the same vein as Kraftwerk, or glitch-like in the manner DAT Politics are (except not), and it comes as little surprise that she had some Krautrock musicians help her with this release. Most of the time it just sounds like a girl spacing out, tilting her head to one side and with a completely blank expression imagining the theme tune for “The Magic Roundabout.” To call this experimental is putting it mildly, and this is probably going to be one of the most difficult reviews I've ever had to explain.
If I had to call it anything I'd probably go with “anti-pop,” and yes I'm fully aware I'm making that name up; it's as though someone asked her if she wanted to be a pop musician and she responded by laughing maniacally and after an awkward pause broke the silence by doing an Egyptian dance whilst throat singing. Her vocals aren't cutesy or even melodic. They're blank and expressionless and yet even in her dead lines a weird atmosphere comes across, as though she's completely void of all emotion inside; a blank canvas that has no desire to be filled. Everything seems to have been constructed with the sole purpose of sounding as difficult to describe as humanly possible; as completely anti-mainstream as can be imagined. There's almost some sort of folkiness to the proceedings but matched with the electronic backing it just doesn't quite fit. There are African drums at some stages, piano lines at others and glitch-like electronics at others; saxophone lines and samples of what sounds like gunfire and miners thrown in for good measure. It's all constructed on such a slow paced and minimalist scale that I often want to refer to it as ambient but even that description falters.
And yet somehow it's all tethered to her hypnotic vocal lines; these horrendous vocals that sound like a drunk girl at a karaoke bar that believes herself a great singer yet sounds like a drowning cat. They really are awful, and if they weren't they simply wouldn't work in this release; in an album this dissonant and off the wall, what good would ordinary vocals do? They change pitch in a manner you would never expect and are completely erratic in behaviour; they're warbly and all over the place – which works particularly well with the nonsensical electronic beats and guitar work – and never seem to have any semblance of following the rhythm behind it. It's impossible to adequately rate because I need to gauge it's success at what it's trying to accomplish, and if it's intention is to sound as bad as possible, then do I write it as an awful release? Or one that accomplishes it's intended goal perfectly? This is almost like a B-Movie; you know it's going to be bad and yet for some reason you still find oddly enjoyable to listen to. This is an album that at just over half an hour long completely baffles me, and as a proud scout of the Avant-Garde, that doesn't happen often, let alone by a release now thirty years old. Do I recommend it? Only if you don't mind a musical mindfuck.
Highlights: Signal, Mapping, P-Adic
Redemption – This Mortal Coil – 5/5
It would be very easy to take one glance at this album and decide that they're late on the 'dark direction' bandwagon; after Symphony X puts out “Paradise Lost;” Adagio's “Archangels in Black;” Zero Hour's “Dark Deceiver;” Into Eternity's “Incurable Tragedy,” and I'm sure I'm missing plenty of notorious prog bands that have all recently released their darkest material thematically to date. And changing your sound in such a manner has always been met with mixed success, many of the above gaining as many new fans as losing old ones, but with Redemption it's not that simple, because since their last album some rather dramatic news has befallen our lead songwriter: he was diagnosed with a form of blood cancer that doesn't look pretty. Fact is, statistically speaking, there was a very good chance he wouldn't be around long enough to write another album (though after his ordeal he has since gone into remission, though is keeping a close eye on it's possibility of return. I'll be adding links to his blog as well as an essay he wrote on the subject of the disease).
I've always sensed that he drew immense influence from his own life in the construction of his work, and such profound tragedy can't not affect his song writing – hell the clue is in the album's name. Take a glance at the names of any of their back catalogue; “The Fullness of Time;” “Origins of Ruin;” “Snowfall on Judgement Day;” and you'll note that this is not a band to squander their titles on something that rolls off the tongue without evoking questions and swirling thoughts about their implications. “This Mortal Coil” is no different, and as with so much of their work the lyrics leave upon the listener such a strong impression that when you finally take it all in it's hard not to be moved; lines such as “Pull the marrow from my bones and then destroy it/I can will myself to overcome this all/Give me everything you've got, I defy You/I will break you and will laugh as you go down” - (Stronger than Death) making their mark, and not because they're necessarily poetic. This album is not just another album in a discography, it's a chronicle of his fight against this disease and all the thoughts that come with it.
But this isn't a poet we're talking about here, it's music, and if the overarching compositions weren't up to scratch then nobody would be paying attention at all. For the unprepared it all comes as a bit of a shock; the theme far more bleak than before has made it's impact on the tone of the tracks, and whilst still distinctly 'Redemption' it feels like they've moved on from their previous sound, whether to the listeners preference or not. There were times where I felt Ray Alder, the vocalist, needed to divert from his clean vocals and add a touch more aggression to the proceedings; a bold rasp or roar to work with some of the darker passages of the new material, and as a consequence of requiring a more powerful back beat there are times when the bass and drums feel as though their playing beneath their abilities, but these are all minor complaints when put next to the quality of the material taken as a whole.
There is never a slow moment in this entire release; there is never a point where the track isn't shifting or doing something, whether using keys to build the atmosphere, delivering some of the most emotional vocal lines in the genre or demonstrating that all three guitarists – I am of course referring to the bassist as the third guitarist here, who proves between the solo's and slaps that he's just as worthwhile member as any other guitarist – can shred with the best of them, feeding into one another to create an entire powerful instrumental aspect. There's no shying away from using riffs, and at many points it would be considered gratuitous wankery if for the fact it didn't fit the tone of the music so perfectly every god damn time. It's as though every member has their own voice, and even if they aren't necessarily speaking, they can screech their thoughts through weapon of choice, swaying from solo's reminiscent of Symphony X going full pelt, into passages that almost feel as though they could fit on a Pink Floyd album.
This album has been spinning for no short amount of time – in fact I managed to write another review in between listening almost constantly to this one for about a week now – and at 71 minutes, each moment filled with poignant lyrics to absorb, solo's to swoon to and atmospheres to breathe in deep, there's an awful lot to take in. This is one of those albums that will grow on you as you come to learn it's nuances and realise the shocking truth of his plight; tussles with whether he did something to deserve this cruel fate, depression to the point of giving up, melancholy as he ponders how short life truly is and summoning the strength to persevere on; it's an emotional journey like nothing else they've done. And it's remarkably consistent on top of all this, even after number of listens I still haven't come up with clear cut favourite tracks like I have with the rest of my Redemption collection, and yet as impressive as each track is on its own it is when they flow together that they find themselves working best, contrasting each other and flowing in this epic journey of trauma. If this isn't the best release they've ever done it's bloody close.
Highlights: Blink of an Eye, Dreams from the Pit, Noonday Devil, Let it Rain, Perfect, Stronger than Death
Van Dyk explains his condition
Van Dyk's Cancer Blog