Toehider – To Hide Her – 4.5/5
Toehider are undeniably an eccentric bunch, taking the prog rock format and emerging with this compilation of comical tracks. Their most recent work was a collection of covers from underrated cartoons. They wanted to avoid the 'second album slump' by starting their recording career with 12 EPs in 12 months; more than 240mins of material in their first year. They did a humourous track all about how they 'do it for metal.' In fact they use humour throughout much of their work; it could almost be considered some weird hybrid between Queen and Tenacious D, taking pop hooks, rocking riffs, eclectic acoustic guitar, and swirling them all together to create a compilation so diverse you could have sworn it wasn't the same band.
Their eccentricity perhaps not all that surprising when you consider Queen was such an influence on them, and oddly, in a sense it does show. Take their 'Bohemian Rhapsody.' You've probably heard it so many times you know all the words, but what genre would you call it? When they're doing their opening, right before he sings 'don't stop me now' it's rather poppish isn't it? The 'I'm just a poor boy' segment is essentially a choir of three, more theatrical than anything rock. Understand then that when I refer to Toehider as a prog rock band, I don't mean they always play progressive rock, merely that if you added all the metallic elements, indie lines and pop passages, then averaged them all out, prog rock is about where we'd end up. The absolutely last thing I want you to expect is for these guys to sit still and play one genre for an entire album.
In fact, in break from my usual contempt at breaking down the different tracks, allow me to take you on a brief walk through this release. Opening with a pop ballad, we swiftly move on to a prog rock tune, pop rock, then it's on through to folk rock, jazz rock, Ozzy-era Sabbath-influenced rock, pop punk, indie rock; there's acoustic guitars, thick groovy riffs, gentle melodies, xylophone solos – the songs don't blend the different styles, they're simply distinct enough to stand alone within the rest of the package. Mixed in with the gentle humour are sombre notes, questioning living up to expectations and the turmoil after the death of a loved one. He balances the serious with the silly and prevents things from dragging on for too long; neither becoming little more than a joke or too bogged down with weighty topics, which whilst an unconventional approach, in this instance oddly works.
Genre wise he just can't sit still. I almost want to call his appreciation for so many styles uncanny but it never feels as though he spent the time studying or learning each approach. Each line and melody comes to him so fluidly that you never doubt he just has an immense ear for what particular tone a track requires. After hearing how capable musicians they are, so much of their work feels as though they're playing beneath their abilities but there's simply no trace of the thought that they should show off, just as content performing a basic acoustic arpeggio as they are shredding out a face-melting solo. The drummer coming off the back of 'Soilwork' clearly knows his way around the drum kit and the bassist proves she's never a slouch, but the real star is the immensely versatile vocal work, from the Queen-like chorals, the powerful soprano lines, all the way down to the gentle folk lines and everywhere in between, always letting his natural accent emerge and give him a flavour that only furthers to gloriously distinguish their work.
There are, however a few flaws in his masterful debut. With such a wide variety of styles, it loses a sense of coherency; it feels less an album as much as a collection of work, and given his knack for choosing a style suitable at each point it seems a shame that he hasn't picked an overarching concept or tale, encompassing both the heavy topics and his humourous side. On similar lines, the fact that there is so much to choose from will cause listeners to gravitate to some songs over others; the slow and atmospheric finale the first to feel the wrath of the skip button, whilst I've lost count of the number of times 'Everybody Knows Amy' (so named after their bassist) has been spun. They'll make you laugh and make you cry, but for all their indecision over which genre to play, they're certainly never boring.
Highlights: Daddy Issues, There's a Ghost in the Lake, Everybody Knows Amy, Fireside
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
Mariko Goto - 299792458 - 4/5
If I was charged with describing this album in one word it'd be easy. It would simply be KAWAIIIII!!!! And I mean that with no sense of irony stemming from the fact I usually loathe obsessive Japanophiles who use Japanese words when perfectly good English ones exist. Well alright, maybe there's still a hint of irony in there, but simply calling it 'cutesy pop' as she described it doesn't convey the sheer sense of my wide and blurry eyed squeeing in delight at how god damn adorable this is. It's like a journey into the mind of the cutest child you've never laid eyes upon, seeing the world through her eyes in all its delights; through the temper tantrums, excitement and contentment at having found something sugary to nibble on, and I don't even like kids.
This may well be her first solo effort but it's most certainly not the first album where she's found herself the centre of attention, having brief cult success in Midori, splitting up shortly after making their first major label release in 2010. If you're familiar with their odd addictive brand of paedo-punk-jazz you'll be glad to know she hasn't given up the jazzy piano lines and the occasional screeched vocal, but certainly there is less of the contrasting chaos to her jaw-achingly cute side. Nonetheless, to simply dismiss this out of hand as 'just another J-pop album' would be doing it grave disservice as it's nothing of the sort. As the intro prepares you, consisting of nothing more than Goto herself playfully singing nonsensically, this is gonna be an album so sugary you'll swear you can feel your teeth rotting by the minute. It's almost glitch like in its imperfections – the musical equivalent of a small child failing to colour inside the lines of her favourite colouring book – and in a world of auto-tuned “perfect pitch” voices and overproduced backing music, it's these imperfections that give it its charm.
There is certainly an easy to listen to pop-like sensibility to much of the instrumentation; bouncy piano lines form the heart of the tracks rhythm, utilising the inherent versatility of the instrument to traverse between all out noise-laden chaos and the simpler, again child-like melodies, at times almost evocative of a nursery rhyme. The guitars and the rest of the backing instrumentation – particularly the drums who never seem to find themselves stuck for a new jazzy beat for the track at hand – are often little more than that, backing to lend a little more flavour to the proceedings, and despite the piano interludes and brief guitar solos, Goto herself always stands at the forefront. The album title seems bizarre but a quick google shows that it is, in fact, the speed of light in metres per second. Get it? No, can't exactly say I did either, but in an odd way it's a perfect example of her quirkiness; how you don't really have to understand its purpose to enjoy it, and it's all part of what makes her so unique.
To call her a talented vocalist seems like something of an oxymoron; by any standard you could use to determine a vocalist's ability, whether in vocal range, register, ability to sustain a note, add vibrato, alternate pitch in rapid succession or even being able to sing in key, she is by all these standards fairly awful. And yet, it is through all these faults that her childish persona is allowed to flourish; through all the imperfections that she is able to sing like no other – a fact made even more incredible when you consider her decade long music career; how she must be closer to 30 than the 13 year old school girl she still seems to represent. That there is more to the instrumentation than meets the eye is apparent but it is really here, in the vocals, that the album really provides it's draw, delivering upon a style that can be said to belong to no other, and whilst perhaps not up to the best of her work in Midori, it doesn't matter. I still want to snuggle her like the all too adorable kitten she is.
Highlights: Mamaku, Utopia, Atashi no Shoudou
Kaipa – Vittjar – 4.5/5
One of my guilty pleasures – or rather, 'songs I love that I expect most reading this will hate,' seeing as I'm not really ashamed in my love of this tune – has to be Polyphonic Spree's 'Light and Day.' I can't confess to liking much else of their material but something about that track always puts a smile on my face. Because when you spend so long listening to the aggressive and depressive depths of metal with an obsessive attitude it's very easy to get lost in a world that's bleak, pessimistically forgetting that there is still good and beauty in the world. I admit this is an odd way of beginning a review, but I assure you it's perfectly relevant: Kaipa have reminded me once again that there is still beauty in the world and have done it in a way few others have done before.
For an artist with a 40 year old career you would have thought their name would have come up more often. True, they are Swedish, but it's hardly as if nothing from that frostbitten land makes it across, and yes, they did go on a 20 year hiatus, but they also reformed a decade ago. It's also true that the line-up has changed considerably since their conception with only one original member left handling the keyboards duty, and the only other name I recognise is that of Per Nilsson of 'Scar Symmetry.' Not that his guitar work here bears any resemblance. Quite frankly I'm not sure why I brought it up. What we have here are old fashioned prog rockers who aren't so much 'retro' as they are valuable relics from the 70s, surviving all this time and arriving from another time; their blend of jazzy lines and folk melodies in their compositions never anything but natural, laid back and rather than forcing anything, just letting the music flow and meander from them as it chooses. It's this laid back feel to their work that is their defining trait; not necessarily uncaring but joyously carefree, never getting too bogged down with serious topics but contemplating and expressing their love for life’s simple pleasures. Length doesn't matter; 'epic' tracks never feel that way despite one clocking in at over 20 minutes. That it's long feels irrelevant, it's not trying to create something larger than life, nor does it ever gets boring due to being stretched out, it's simply content to take all the time it needs to let the song develop.
That it's so light and airy is surely to be off-putting for some, but don't go mistaking this for some pop outfit; it's hardly superficial in it's output and despite the tone manages to throw up plenty of interesting passages; jazzy bass lines and drum beats; upbeat guitar solo's amongst the slower; vocal lines left to convey the atmosphere alone; recorders; violins; and a whole range of keyboard work forming a rich fabric that is subtle in it's complexity. It's certainly no less technically inclined than the classics; your King Crimson's, Jethro Tull's and Rush's, but it's purpose is focussed in a different way, subtly weaving flourishes of masterful musicianship such that it feels merely a means to an end, furthering the track in it's intended direction.
With perhaps the notable exception of the lead male vocalist – as there is also a lead female vocalist – whose powerful and distinctive vocals sometimes manage to steal the show, going on to elaborate on the individual elements seems rather pointless. Each member demonstrates their phenomenal capabilities and feels perfectly suited, not for what they bring to the music themselves but for how they work with the rest of the band. There is no singular stand out element because there is no one trying to stand out; there is no one-upmanship with one musician trying to steal the show from another, though I don't doubt most could if they tried. Kaipa might just be the last surviving remnant of a bygone era, and without them the only thing left will be 'retro' artists pretending they could have belonged. Whether it's taken them this long to perfect their craft or if they've always been writing music of this standard I don't know, all I know is that with Vittjar, perfect it they have. Easily one of the most impressive albums this year.
Highlights: Silent Ballroom Band, Treasure-House
Spawn of Possession – Incurso – 3/5
Six years in the making and toted as one of this years big musical events, this looked like a Tech Death band experimenting with the use of gothic classical passages within their framework, an idea that resulted in one of the experimental black metal band Sigh's best releases (Hangman's Hymn) and a concept that didn't long to sucker me in. A concept that, as it turns out, was almost completely false; the track I spun to see what the fuss was about an anomaly in an album which is by and large straight forward for the genre. That's what you get for judging an album by one interesting track, as the rest of the album isn't even particularly good (though I must confess, I do love that artwork).
The bassist gets his moments, often heard with his tight bass twang working away in the background and the vocals maintain a constant tone but ultimately both are fairly bland. No arguments against the vocalist's tone itself, his deep growl is nothing but perfectly fitting but contains zero variation, unless you count the passages where he's actually not growling at all. Truth is they both could be doing just about anything most of the time and you're unlikely to care, it's obvious there's so much more emphasis on the twin guitars and drumming – even more so than usual – that the rest of the band are there more for completing the line-up; like how Slipknot seems to employ their friends to dance around on stage with a triangle or something; they may be present but what's actually required of them is pretty minimal.
The guitars largely rely on a few simple tricks to make the main body of their work sound complex; always use plenty of pinch harmonics when you want to sound dissonant; after chugging for a bit, skip to a high note and play a couple of notes, (it doesn't really matter which, any will do); and under no circumstances should you let a note ring out. Actual riffs do emerge from time to time but all too quickly are they snapped away for the lazier alternatives. There are times where due to the overly crisp production the guitars sound downright electric and inorganic, and left alone it could almost at times be an odd techno track someone's playing far too quickly to actually dance to, a problem especially prevalent during the solos and higher pitched passages. The drums fare little better in preventing this mechanical tone but at least they can be said to carry a distinctive rhythm, the kick drum providing a constant drilling attack whilst the rest of the tools at his disposal are employed in constantly shifting beats, adding flourishes and fills far beyond the usual and expected blasts, easily surpassing the rest of them in terms of his chaotic compositions, technicality and capabilities. Quite frankly he deserves a better band.
Everything's overproduced to remove any trace of viscerality. It's technical, yes, but almost parodical of the genre as a whole, as if to lightly mock the stereotype of the genre in it's soulless, wank-infested glory. It actually sounds better when played through my dreadful mobile phone, the inadequate capabilities of the small speaker adding a layer of distortion and noise that quite depressingly improves the overall tone, creating a greater sense of chaos. They seem to take it so seriously, yet then proceed to remove any bite the instruments might have had; bombard you with an array of seemingly random high pitched notes interspersed between the constant chugging before breaking out the short, mindless, brain-dead, seemingly obligatory shredded solo. It's difficult to determine whether they were serious or they were trying to crack a joke; put on a straight face and desperately try not to laugh as fans endlessly praise an album they slammed out in a lazy afternoon. Sadly, I suspect they really thought they'd done well with this one, despite every track sounding damn near identical. They're fantastic musicians, there can be no debating that. It's just shame that outside of that final track, they seem to be such lousy composers.
Highlights: The Evangelist, Apparition
Stam1na – Nocebo – 4.5/5
If metal can be considered to have a home, that region to the north of Central Europe otherwise known as Scandinavia would undeniably be it. The infamous Norwegian black metal scene; Swedish death metal and 'Gothenburg' riffs, and then there's Finland. Certainly they're none the less obsessed with the genre – one of the biggest children's shows there, Hevisaurus, is basically 'Barney' if he donned some denim and made a power metal band – yet whilst we can safely establish the nation tends to have a better taste in popular music, so much of what becomes big there never seems to migrate. Sure, some of it does; the likes of Nightwish and HIM still plague us to this day, but then there's artists such as Von Hertzen Bros. and Alamaailman Vasarat which whilst reaching the Finnish album charts, never seems to leave the country. Which brings me squarely onto Stam1na, releasing this #1 album that nobody else seems to have paid attention to, and it's not the first time this has happened either.
A concept album about a 'nocebo' or an 'anti-placebo;' medical science giving people drugs that actually do nothing yet we think will make us worse, and that negativity actually does end up making everyone feel worse. And then they set fire to Tavastia for some reason, a well known music venue in Helsinki (look, I don't speak Finnish and that's the language they sing in OK? I'm only telling you what I know). It's the apocalypse that mankind has brought down on itself through our own ignorance; it's a bit like Mastodon's 'Leviathan' all over again, except with more of a Devin Townsend's 'Ziltoid' brand of insanity about it. Describing how they sound isn't exactly the easiest of tasks, and perhaps 'alternative metal' in the vein of System of a Down is one of the better descriptors (I know, 'alternative to what?' right? As much as I hate the term, here it oddly fits), along with 'Progressive Thrash.' But not the kind you're thinking. No, the thrash isn't the Bay Area kind but rather the melodic and groove laden kind. Nor is the progressive element akin to what I suspect you're probably thinking either but a little closer to 'Rush' instead. So alternative progressive thrash that's sort of like Devin Townsend but not with catchy System of a Down elements and some Rush in the- look will you just click the damn youtube video at the bottom already? It'll make my job a great deal easier. Then hit repeat as the video is all kinds of B-Movie awesome as well, though I suspect the view of four hairy Finns windmilling in unison contains some form of brainwashing capability.
Moving on, one of the stand out features of this album is the diverse vocal work. There are clean lines and deathly growls, both done pretty darn well, but what he really tends to favour is a violent yell. It's unconventional but actually works; frantically shouting what I can only assume translates to a hundred variations of 'fuck you,' not that I'm entirely sure who he's shouting at nor why he would want to utter obscenities at them. It doesn't matter, his point gets made and he makes it so loudly and with such frenetic tenacity that there will be times where you'll move to wipe the flecks of spit from your face only to realise there's nothing actually there. There will be times, too, when the guitar work is fairly chug-heavy but contrasting the down-tuned fretwork is a higher pitched riff always around the corner. Often it's the guitars that offer it in the form of a melodic solo, psychedelic riff or something even less expected, but sometimes it's a keyboard synth passage. At one point it's even a banjo interlude, but whatever they choose it usually arrives out of the blue and yet somehow never feels at all out of place amidst the insanity, only straying so far as to keep things interesting.
There can be no doubt that you're listening to a Stam1na track the second it starts spinning – nobody is crazy quite like this – but no two tracks sound alike, and it's a testament to the production work that all this is possible. I know I've made all this sound atrocious; catchy as crap music with lots of shouting, groovy riffs and a mainstream appeal, but it's not. It's not even in that 'guilty pleasure' category where you find yourself humming the tune and nodding your head but then feeling dirty about it, as though you've done something inherently wrong. Yes, it may sometimes sound like nu-metal's feisty cousin, but holy fuckin' shit is that one damn sexy cousin.
Highlights: Valtiaan Uudet Vaateet, Tavastia Palamaan!, Rabies
Hot Cross – Cryonics – 4.5/5
This band plays Screamo. That's emotional post-hardcore with screamed vocals; the kind of depressed cries of anguish that perpetuate the sensation of despair at personal circumstances beyond your control. SCREAMO. Right, now that I've successfully dissuaded the close-minded amongst you – I have no particular desire to go on a rant about how you probably haven't heard what the genre has to offer, there's fourfa for that – I can get on with detailing precisely why this is an album that should excite. It's not quite old-school, being release in '03, but if you track the origins of its members you'll note that they, in fact, are. The vocalist and drummer arrive from Saetia, one of the kings of classic 90's emo. One guitarist arrives from “Off Minor,” known for his distinctive progressive take on the genre, and the other from “You and I,” the least well known of the three bands who are none the less talented. If all this means nothing to you, let me break it down further: this band is hot shit.
In fact, with this much talent on display you'd expect them to be headed down shitsville, each member vying for control and forgetting that there's another four members whose just as good as them, but that never happens. It never feels anything less than an artist that have been playing together all their lives, some bizarre cohesive unit that despite being separated into individual musicians seems to function from a shared consciousness. There are three vocalists but they are all there to serve a purpose, the main dealing with the majority of the duties but often found playing off against one of his backing vocalists; the clean toned contrast to his screams or engaging in shouting match with an alter ego. No doubt if you despise screams in your music then this will become an obstacle, but the lyrics aren't angst-filled or juvenile; one track begins by screaming out “Give me back one last chance to drink from the sky. I'm sick of chasing echoes and fighting a lost cause just to let words fly.” Emotional tragedies still are it's core but there's a sense of depth and poetry to it that defies the usual criticisms.
But if the intricate layers of vocals and lyrical lines was complex, it's not a thing on the composition of the guitars; the vocals can always strip themselves down to just the lead vocalist, but the guitars don't ever stop. The bass is given no less prominence in the final mix than the guitarists are, maintaining a rhythm and forming a bridge between the drums and guitar work, but ultimately playing lines that are his and his alone. The guitars are no different; clean though perhaps with a slight twang or use of effects pedals for more atmospheric lines, no singular element takes the lead and instead find themselves weaving in and out of one another, creating complexity through intricately layering them, harmonising each element into a single track. It's not just one specific passage where they worked this out either, their progressive format completely removes all chorus lines and allows the pieces to fluidly change one element at a time. It's simply unlike any other artist I can name.
But my praise for them hasn't quite finished here. Three vocalists and three guitarists all playing completely independent lines, layered on top of one another so that it'll always give you plenty to listen to. You'd expect it all to be a bit too much, a bit too chaotic with your focus divided between too many elements. The real beauty of their composition is in just how much this doesn't ever happen; how they are able to create a melodious chaos with guitar riffs flying in from nowhere, playing in unison, but then in an instant tone everything down for a ballad, and despite the inherent complexity of the composition, have the elements work together in perfect harmony. To call their work rich and vibrant is a massive understatement; each track is intricately woven around each of the musicians and the result is a melody that is both instantly memorable yet sustainable over a number of listens. Hot Cross's debut effort is a forgotten gem of the screamo era that many modern artists would do well to pay attention to: this is how you do it properly.
Highlights: Pretty Picture of a Broken Face, A Tale for the Ages, Requiescat
Age of Silence – Acceleration – 2.5/5
I wanted to like this album, I really did. I was so astounded by it's discovery; a super-group of talented Norwegians coming together to produce a progressive metal album that could only be epic by virtue of the talent on display; the drummer from Arcturus and Mayhem, the bassist, keyboardist and guitarist from Winds as well as Borknagar's (backing) vocalist, how could it go wrong? In a sense it seems like a side-project of Winds, but really it's a different entity altogether; no neo-classical power is to be found here, it lies squarely in that experimental side of progressive metal. In fact, if I had to make any comparison it reminds me of Leprous or Ihsahn's work, not because they sound similar but because the sound so radically different from what you'd ordinarily expect.
Sadly, it all too quickly begins to fall apart. The guitars feel rather generic and quite heavy on the use of chords, which whilst not bad in itself, often finds itself lacking in riffs which would really have gone into helping the piece into becoming more memorable. The keys vary between barely being noticeable in the background and displaying odd flourishes of being unignorably dominant in the forefront, supplying piano passages or energetic synth solo's almost always completely at odds with the rather robotic lack of emotion. The vocals send things from bad to worse with a drawl that rarely allows him to change pitch, and the lack of energy throughout the whole piece just makes the drums sound as though they really can't be bothered to try, even though at the start of the album it's clear he's doing his best to inject a small amount of personality into the proceedings. The tracks are barely distinguishable from one another (only the gentle “90° Angles” making any notable change to the pace) and nothing ever really seems to fit together coherently, but of course, this could all be the point of the music.
If usually we strive for an emotional response, to weave a story or explore a concept, their intention might well be to sound as robotic and emotionless as they possibly could. It would certainly fit with the theme they're striving for, the notion that we are becoming too heavily reliant on machines and technology and losing our humanity as a result. In that case they succeeded in doing that remarkably well and I would have no option but to concede and give them top marks for it, but a concept relying on being as boring as possible doesn't exactly make for interesting music. Quite the opposite in fact. If I didn't know any better I'd have thought they were a group of teens trying to form their first high school band, it's that bland and unenthusiastically performed. Only two of the musicians seem capable here and it would have been better if it were just the drummer and keyboards left alone, written as an instrumental piece. I apologise for bringing it all up in the first place, I'm sure this is one chapter all the musicians involved would rather pretend never actually happened.
Omnia – Alive! - 4/5
I'll be honest, I stumbled into this in the most haphazard of ways; seeing an image of a pretty face on youtube with unusual tattoos and clicking to see what it was all about. It was on mute for a good couple of minutes before I noticed the harp and some sort of didgeridoo and became intrigued as to just what kind of music they were playing. Not Folk Metal, not Folk Rock, not even Neo-Folk but just Pagan Folk. This merry band of Dutch travellers are steeped in the traditions of the style, so if you're looking for anything electronic being played then you won't find them here, nothing more than a microphone powering their acoustic masterpieces, but don't for a moment think you'll find them short of variety.
Between the five of them, four lend vocals, one plays the pipes, there's throat singing, harps, didgeridoo's, bodhran beats (a sort of drum), hurdy-gurdy melodies, and more I can't even name; the only instruments that you might actually recognise is the drum kit (or at least the parts of drum kit he actually uses) and when one musician breaks out an acoustic guitar, and even then he often doesn't use your standard tuning. You'd think it'd all end up a little chaotic – even though obviously no more than four can be played at any one point – but it's far from it, each element implemented in a manner so as to blend into the overall harmony being created with often only a singular element taking the lead, be that the lead vocals or his flute performances during instrumental tracks. There is never that sense that each musician needs to be prominently playing something, taking power in subtly layering atmospheric lines to enshroud you in their world.
But to talk only of the compositions would yield just half of what this album offers, as it is with traditional folk that it's a means of telling a tale, the same is true here; of Satyr's (often depicted with a man's torso, goats legs and pan pipes) making love in the forests, traditional melodies such as “Scarborough Fair,” and tales ranging from the Witches of “Hamlet,” to a recitation of Edgar Allan Poe's “The Raven.” Their inspiration is more than apparent yet it never feels like merely a collection of cover songs, each track injected with their own complementary melodies. To listen to Omnia is more than just to hear something that appeals to the audial senses, it's to embark on journey in time; to a medieval land of beauty, beasts and poetry; to hear their tales of the lands that once were, to sing, dance and be merry, floating away to their sweet, gentle melodies. Now where did I put that flagon of mead...
Highlights: Wytches Brew, Alive!, Satyr Sex
Since I can think of no greater starting than my own, enjoy their live performance.
Dodecahedron – Dodecahedron – 4/5
When perusing metal reviews as my usual bored self often does, this is a name that cropped up quite often with even those who seem to hate everything and anything remotely different to their usual pleasures going 'this actually isn't bad.' Very few seemed to actually agree on why they all liked it, but nonetheless they all did, and so naturally, I felt it only right that I give it a spin myself to see what all the fuss was about, because on the surface it doesn't seem as though they're doing anything particularly different. After all, it's still just black metal; it's still got the tremolo riffs and highly distorted guitars, the blast-beated aggression from the drums and those high-pitched growls we've all come to know and love. Unless you aren't a fan of black metal of course, but then I wonder why you're still reading this anyway. The thing is, they actually do manage to do something different; it's Norwegian Black Metal “Plus,” or “Extreme Progressive Black Metal,” if you prefer, because without the 'Extreme' in there it doesn't quite seem to get the point across strongly enough. They've simply managed to perform it so well that at first glance you can't figure out what they've done that's so different.
The 'progressive' part of their genre ought to give you the first clue. No, they won't start spouting about some elaborate concept (or at least, none that I can discern) or try to mix up the pace with experimental interludes from outside genres as part of what progressive often implies, except of course their outright defiance in refusing to adhere to one singular strain of the infectious black metal virus, straying between Ambient Black, Norwegian Second Wave, DSBM, Industrial Black, whatever the likes of “Deathspell Omega” play, and probably some others I'm missing in the process. In this case the term is a little more literal, the songs simply progress as it unfolds; what happens in one part of the song is unlikely to be what's happening two minutes later, and as a result you never quite know what's around the corner. Even after a few listens, seeing as there are no catchy chorus lines or distinctive points where it suddenly breaks out into a repeated melody that makes you suddenly remember where you are in the album (save for one point which I struggle to call some form of ambient interlude, separating the two halves and preparing you for the monolithic 3-part finalé). Put on repeat, the inferno almost seems endless, which is rather fitting for music intended to sound like it arrived from the bowels of hell.
But their inspiration doesn't quite end there, the actual notes used in their composition displaying an innate dissonance as though they learned the rules and then systematically tried to play the complete opposite at every opportunity. Arpeggio's for what seem like fictitious chords psychedelically collide with out of sync thicker bass lines and tremolo riffs, and polyrhythmic interludes often seem par for the course in making sure your mind can never quite get too comfortable with any particular passage. The drums follow much the same pattern, slowly playing jazz-inspired grooves during the slower passages, blast beating at their peak intensity, frequently showing much love for the art of playing on the downbeat and otherwise flailing frantically when you least expect it. Surprisingly, given the inherent anarchy going on within the music, it still manages to find itself being quite melodious at times and not altogether unpalletable to the awaiting ear, though I must confess I still haven't quite figured out how.
It is all these factors that ultimately go into making this release so remarkable; it's taken the genre that has begun to become formulaic as we've become accustomed to it and then thrown vital rules of composition out the window, making it so we have no idea quite what's going to happen next. Even in writing this review every time I mention something it doesn't do, I then remember that it actually does do it at one point and feel the urge to go back and point it out. It gives it a new sense of life and originality to the music, eliciting much the same sort of initial response as though you've been listening to Green Day all your life and someone just handed you a Gorgoroth CD. It's dissonant, chaotic, demonic, abrasive, purposefully disharmonious and unpredictable; basically, it's everything black metal should be.
Baroness – Yellow and Green – 4.5/5
There were times where I felt like the folks at Baroness were bullying me; telling me of not just one but two 'great new releases,' albums 'better than before,' and 'a whole new side to them,' taunting me with tidbits of information. Even the first two tracks from their 'Yellow' album got released a good couple of months early, leaving me jumping, desperately trying to get a good glimpse of the whole just out of my reach. Well finally they've taken pity on me and lowered their arm, releasing the album in its entirety for anyone to listen, and already people are calling this their 'move into the mainstream' and their 'selling out,' and yet the more I listen and think about this double release, the more I come to the conclusion that this is possibly the ballsiest move they could have done. If before with “Blue Album,” their Sludge influences were coming into question, now it's gone a step further, to the point I wouldn't call them metal any longer but closer to artists like Hawkwind, Pink Floyd, Astra and even Muse.
Potentially alienating their fan base knowing they were also known well enough at this stage for many naysayers to think they know what this band is all about; moving their sound further towards smooth psychedelic retro 70s vibes and away from the sludgy aggression that defines their origins; it's true, if you heard their early released tracks and didn't like the direction they'd taken then this is likely not going to be a release you'd enjoy because things don't get much more of a harder edge than that. The iconic guitar lines and roared vocal lines that they became known for have all but vanished, but what's replaced it is so much more powerful in it's simplicity. If before they could be accused of pleasantly pointless lines, meandering in a cryptic manner, then that issue has been solved once and for all; no line feels without purpose, serving only to further the shifting atmospheres and swirling melodies, masterfully harmonising and layering all the different components. Rarely will one aspect stand out above the rest, every instrument merging into a singular coherent piece that only benefits as a result.
At almost eighty minutes long, this could easily be a difficult release to digest if they hadn't so conveniently broken it down into two smaller bitesize chunks, both sides displaying their newly found craftsmanship with their similarities, yet both retaining an altogether different tone; Yellow is the day to Green's night; the sky to the earth; the hope to the depression. Inexplicably linked yet different breeds even from one another, 'Yellow' displays the last bastion of their past with the majority of their more upbeat tracks, Baizley's desperate cries and catchy hooks showing them at their most accessible. It's only when Green rolls around that you realise you're dealing with a different beast once again; a gloomier melancholic sadness; a gentler, indie, at times almost post-rock tone exuding from the plentiful guitar harmonies whistling in the background, waiting to float you away on journey of introspection and self-reflection.
There is an undeniable beauty in their compositions, a strength of emotion that rarely finds equal. Lyrics that once were hidden now stand out loud and clear; cryptic lines repeated throughout this journey force you to think and contemplate it's meaning, drawing conclusions that can only be said to be personal to yourself. Make no mistake about it, these guys have evolved, matured and mellowed; they've taken on a new form wholly different from where they began all those years ago and will lose a great number of fans in the process, and all this is despite releasing what is probably their best work to date. It's been a long wait but the Savannah boys don't disappoint; as you said on 'Take My Bones Away,' Baroness, you lead the way – and at this point I think it's safe to say that – I'll follow.
Highlights: Yellow: Little Things, Eula / Green: Collapse, Stretchmarker, The Line Between
Baroness – 4.5/5
Live from the Camden Barfly, London, 12th July 2012
Sometimes I wonder why a band bothers putting on a live show. It's apparent they'd rather be somewhere else and so all we get is a slightly worse version of the CD played at a high volume. Fortunately Baroness aren't this kind of band, rather they're precisely the opposite. This is a band who looks one shade away from failing to contain their masculinity and blubber with joy when they hear their lyrics sung back to them, and can't help but give a heartfelt talk about how they miss the intimacy of smaller venues that never feels anything but genuine. They waste little time getting to the music, letting their instruments and physicality do most of the talking for them, but when Baizley does speak it never feels from a script; never that they've placed themselves on some sort of pedestal, but rather as a gathering of friends united by their music.
It's not just the emotion that a live setting brings out of them though, they love their music so much that they can't keep still; running back and forth, raising the guitar up high and hammering the notes out with joyous energy; sweat pouring off them by the end of the first track, you can't help but wonder if the towel in his back pocket is to wipe his brow or the guitar before it soaks into that as well. Seeing the crowd going wild in response just serves to give them more satisfaction and energy which causes everything to go in one big circle, each side of the stage serving to excite the other. Listening to them perform live compared to the CD is like going from black and white to colour (or from VHS to HD for those who don't know what a black and white film looks like); it's more vibrant, has more energy and emotion behind it. There's a greater sense of atmosphere that comes with the live setting; a greater sense that this is a 'moment' that you are sharing with the band.
There are no gimmicks or clichés. They wont scream out how your town is 'the best' or 'the loudest.' They won't end the show by 'reaching down' to shake hands with the fans, they'll get off the stage and embrace you like a brother, or wait for you by the bar for an after show beer. Neither will any of them ask if you want to have a good time, they'll just look out into the crowd and see the energy and smile; a kind of grin that they couldn't help even if they tried. The albums now almost seem a byproduct; an inevitable consequence of being in a band. The live show is their holiday from all that, the reason they live for, and I know there's nowhere I'd rather be than sharing in that moment with them.
Image courtesy Metal-Mirror.de
Herman Frank – Right in the Guts – 3.5/5
Now this is one album I was not expecting. I wasn't even looking for it; after a monolithic return to form with '09s “Loyal to None” and two albums since with his old band Accept, bringing the life back into that project, I assumed his solo project was to be put on hiatus. Yet here we are. The fourth album in as many years; the second in less than 3 months, just in case his hard edged teutonic heavy metal didn't kick you up the ass quite hard enough he's back to finish the job off. The Accept comparison has to be the most obvious element to this – he is their lead guitarist after all – but being entirely of his brainchild there are a couple of fundamental differences. Firstly, there are solo's. Lots of them. Sometimes you'll be listening to this release and realise how many there have been simply because he's stopped shredding and gone back to the main rhythmic section consistently played by a second guitarist, I'm assuming just in case he gets a little carried away and fifteen minutes later realises the vocalist has sat down to a sandwich and he's completely forgotten what the track originally sounded like. There is also melodic, almost rock-like element to the choruses; when he melts your face off for the umpteenth time, he wants you to remember it.
Sadly, the new vocalist doesn't seem quite as up to the task as the last was; he's too monotone, though there is power in his vocal lines by the bucket loads they aren't distinctive enough to truly make tracks stand out on their own rights. Neither is there the variety of composition as his last solo effort, perhaps as a result of putting his best work into Accept, making it less impressive as his other more recent work. The production, too, is rather problematic. It has a deep, thick bass tone reminiscent of his Accept work – more so than his last solo effort – but retains the consistently higher tempo's, and it's just too much. It loses too much treble and makes the solo's less distinctive, the vocals less memorable and the whole album lacking in that 80s sense of biting attack it otherwise strives for (and often accomplishes). When I'm re-mastering the album on my amplifier (25% bass down, 15% treble up seems to work best for me), it isn't a good sign.
Finally, it also seems to be lacking a purpose, and perhaps this is all because he's been spoiling us with his work of late but this release feels a little superficial and... well kinda pointless. His debut solo work was rammed with emotion and versatility; his debut with the renewed Accept, “Blood of the Nations,” was a powerhouse of evil and aggression, a call to arms for anyone willing to listen; the sophomore a concept album about the soul-destroying events of Stalingrad. Here he doesn't seem to have any reason behind the album, but lets be honest, does this man really need a reason? This is not an album that will knock your socks off and no replacement for either of the Accept releases, and it's unreasonable to expect the man to be capable of two of the best albums released this year. But it's still Herman Frank. The Guitar Legend himself. By virtue his presence alone it's still pretty damn good.
Highlights: Roaring Thunder, Starlight, Raise Your Hand
Sunpocrisy - Samaroid Diaroma's - 3/5
I've been listening to this unsigned Italian band's debut on and off now for at least a month now, each time thinking it should be something I'd like and each time finding myself bored well before the albums finished. Progressive sludge with a psychedelic twist; alternating sludge aggression with calmer, almost ambient inspired passages to lend contrast, a delightful psychedelic guitar harmonising with the track on top. The capabilities of the musicians never truly falters; the guitars remain upbeat and technical, the bass is present, the drums more than capable. So far so good, but whilst the sound they've created feels perfectly fitting, its in the finer compositional details that everything starts to crumble.
Each track consists of two very distinct but specific tones, alternating between them for the tracks length. Had this existed on a track of normal length this wouldn't be so bad, but largely consisting of ten minute epics, it often finds itself getting stale well before the end. And even if you do manage to make it to the end, the following tracks often do very little to liven things up and change the manner it proceeds. The composition of the individual lines leave much to be desired too; the rasped 'nyc hardcore' style vocals in particular are horrendously monotonous with the cleans faring mildly better; the guitars during heavier passages chug along in a manner that at their worst wouldn't feel that out of place in a deathcore release, if not for the tone (and lack of downtuning); even the 'delightful psychedelic' guitars work only to the point you realise how generic and unmemorable they are.
Part of me wants to refuse to call this sludge. Sludge has always implied to me that your wading through difficult times, but remain strong and push onwards through the hardships. It's a real sense of 'I'm fucked but will persevere' that typifies the genre for me, and I don't mind how exactly you get there. It's a tone that at no point does it feel like they've accomplished (perhaps 'post-metal' would work better). In fact, I'm not entirely sure what they're even trying to accomplish, and that's part of the problem. There are hints at a concept at work in the title but with little idea of what it entails (something about the four elements I think?), the indecipherable lyrics and lack of musical diversity, anything more specific would feel like little more than a stab in the dark.
Don't think there isn't conflict as I write this piece, there is undoubtedly something here but it fails to make an impression on me, but – and call this reviewers intuition if you will – for everyone like me who doesn't 'get it,' there will be another who identifies with the atmosphere presented instantaneously, and for them who knows, this could be one of their favourite releases of the year. Sadly, for me, the only reaction it yields is a timid and condescending 'that's nice,' before I wonder what else is on, and that's disappointing.
The Agonist - Prisoners - 4/5
I don't exactly listen to a lot of metalcore, yet for some reason this is an artist that I always seem intrigued by. Explaining why I enjoy them seems like an impossible task to which I often end up relying on the 'vocalist is hot' cop out, which whilst true, is at best a reason to google her photo rather than listen to anything she actually has to say. The fact she's a vegan PETA fan doesn't exactly help matters either, the mere fact that knowing she doesn't eat meat making me do little more than have a sudden urge to eat a steak. Telling me I can't do something only makes me want to do it all the more. Fortunately it doesn't seem to make too much of an appearance, taking a more pretentious philosophical approach to her lyrics, with talk of Dadaists and Solipsists, ideas that go straight over my head and suspect would be rather insulting to students of philosophy to see their arguments simplified or worse, misinterpreted and misunderstood, and what I'm hoping is irony in “Anxious Darwinians,” and not actually advocating creationism as a plausible scientific theory. I'm not selling this well am I?
Fortunately as each new release emerges my job of backing up my opinion gets progressively easier, each time showing a significant improvement on the last with 'Prisoners' being no different. The vocals have improved, both in the roar of her rasp and her powerful and distinctive cleans which might now make you wonder if there was a second vocalist contributing. The bassist has a stronger presence (albeit still not enough to make out the actual lines being played), the drumming has stepped up a notch from the already impressive point they were before, but perhaps most significant are the guitars, now given the time to solo and demonstrate just how much he's improved over the years, as opposed to being overly vocals driven as has been the problem in the past. Even the compositions seem to have been taken up a step with the progressive elements only coming further into the foray as the album continues, and the complexity of the music increased as none of the musicians seem happy to sit still and play that same repeated line; they always have the compulsion to throw in a drum roll or guitar fill, the tracks never letting up the pace and never failing to move forward.
The problem is, despite their improvements, there is still that inescapable fact that they play metalcore, and many of the common issues I have with the genre present themselves. It's true they solo more than breakdown, and the tracks - particularly towards the end – display an increasing willing to incorporate new elements and further their progressive leanings, but the whole piece has been produced to a disgusting spit-polished perfection. It's metal with added moisturiser that might as well be singing about the pain of breaking a fingernail (at one point there's a chorus of children singing 'we hear you and we don't care.' Really not helping things on the childish angst front here guys). It also still has a tendency to fall prey to the inherent lack of versatility much of the genre suffers from, relying too strongly on catchy chorus hooks between the more aggressive passages, perhaps the only aspect which hasn't seen any monumental improvement, making much of the album blur together. I guess on reflection I'm waiting for them to go full blown prog. I'll keep saying it until they reach their peak; there is a great album in this band somewhere, but this isn't it. I just hope they'll get to it before the last of us give up.
Highlights: Ideomotor, Dead Ocean, Everybody Wants You (Dead)
EDIT: It would seem as though this release sees a new lead guitarist entering the fold. Good move then, in that case.
Ihsahn – Eremita – 4.5/5
This album is, if nothing else, certainly not lacking in it's ability to make you think; the atmospheres, shifting styles and influences, but I'm not just thinking about the music but also to what kind of madman came up with it all. He's always been an artist I've respected, first coming up with the idea of symphonic black metal, progressing the band to the point I expect the rest of them went 'woah, isn't that a bit much?' So he left and formed Peccatum, only to find that they found himself a bit difficult to handle as well. Bitter and twisted, his idea's once more rejected for being too 'unconventional' – bah – he abandoned other musicians and shut himself off like an evil Dr. Frankenstein, hunched over his musical laboratory, butchering musical parts and sowing them together, cackling in delight as he brings life to his very own musical monster. My impression of his musical creation process probably isn't helped by the fact that “Eremita” translates to Hermit.*
If there was an important point to make about this album, it'd probably be not to expect it to sound like Ihsahn's previous work. He may have roots in black metal but here the only remnants of his origins that remain are the signature vocal lines, making sure that even the most harrowing of lines are spoken with perfect diction, and even then he seems to prefer to sing cleanly more often than not. This is not black metal in the slightest; rather he seems to combine a unique form of Progressive Metal – and often not a particularly extreme form of it either – with the occasional Dark Ambient flourishes, Orchestral compositions and Jazz, thanks largely to the inclusion of Jørgen Munkeby, Shining's (the Norwegian one) very own saxophonist. It's like he slammed every “Sigh” album into one amorphous blob.
He called this his most ambitious work to date, and it's honestly not difficult to see why. More than the sheer number of guest musicians – Devin Townsend features in a track, the vocalist for Leprous helps open the album and Loomis contributes a solo – but it's how they're worked, despite their different styles, in a manner that feels like nothing short of assistance to get the right tone for the track at hand. Their influence is felt but it's not a dominative one; it doesn't feel like it's out of place, and no doubt the fact that no two tracks sound alike is a helping factor in that. But more than that, the real star of the piece is in the hands of Munkeby's saxophone, adding so much more to the tone of the track when he is featured and – when coupled with the drumming frenzy of Tobias Ørnes Andersen (Leprous) – ends up delivering such a twisted and demonic performance (think Lustmord playing Free Jazz) that it's hard not to be impressed. Everything is done to further the atmosphere, to progressively explore the concept in question.
There is a strange story being told here, but more than anything it feels closer to a psychological study; “the 5 stages of loss and grief,” except here is more akin to the ten stages of bashing your head against a white padded wall whilst wearing a straight jacket; the descent into madness in all it's variety; the melancholic acceptance of how screwed you are, the furious 'tearing down of the walls' sense of anger and aggression, the demented cries for help as you struggle to overcome the plague that has dropped you in a position where you can see no hope and it's all you can do to slump on the floor and laugh in wonder of how your situation could possibly get worse, and the overcoming – or at least acceptance – of said condition. That I can't quite make sense of it all doesn't mean that it's inherently nonsensical or even vague, just that I have yet to fully penetrate it's depths, and given the subject matter that might well be intentional. There's something undeniably going on; there's an energy and emotion that exudes out of his melodies, Ihsahn's vocals displaying a sense of pain and anguish unparalleled in modern times; frustrated cries as he attempts to get his point across to a listener struggling to comprehend.
And there is little question in my mind just about every listener will struggle to comprehend, you won't understand much more than the vaguest outlines at first. At least a half dozen spins in and only now are certain sections finally starting to make sense in the context of the album as a whole; the cyclical and repetitive chorus in “The Paranoid,” making you want to scream in anger at it right up until you realise he's probably just provoked the exact reaction he wanted from you, or the jarring transition to female vocals in “Departure” taking it's time to finally click, transforming from confusing to me taking a step back having finally understood it's purpose. Whereas in the past much of his work has been fairly accessible, this is anything but; it's a slow grower and one that only gets better with time, as I form a stronger link with what I perceive is going on, but despite my own interpretation it remains cryptic enough that the finer details are really up to interpretation. A dozen people could come up with a dozen different scenario's linked only by this maddening descent, and that's part of the album's beauty.
Highlights: Arrival, The Eagle and the Snake, The Grave
*Note: This might not be factually accurate so much as a the fiction my mind has made to fill in the blanks. In case anyone thinks this is literally true, it's not.
Gru – Cosmogenesis - 4/5
When I first was shown Chimp Spanner I thought the work was brilliant; instrumental sci-fi themed concept album pulled off with djent style; a triumph of taking something emerging and adjusting it to come out with something unique, and if this artist is anything to go by he wasn't the only one enamoured with his work. Just half a year on and we have the emergence of another solo artist, one “Piotrek Gruszka” who likely shortened his name to “Gru” to avoid awkward points where people try to pronounce the Polish language and to sound catchier. It's a shame it has thus far failed to work, the unknown and unsigned artist still struggling to get even the attention of those despite offering his debut album for free, with spectacular production values and an ability that is more than deserving of your time.
If I haven't already, let me make this as abundantly clear as I possibly can: if you liked Chimp Spanner, you will like this. If Paul Ortiz had a twin brother who was separated at birth, it would be Gru. I would call this the biggest copycat act since Bonded by Blood (and countless others) thought Exodus' “had a neat sound,” except in both cases nobody's really complaining because the only people who'd notice the similarities are those who would enjoy them both. Each track opens with a glorious ambient intro, electronic synths setting a tone for the guitar masterclass to follow shortly; his abilities on the fretboard never far from the forefront but more than just simply shred out a technical tune, he does it with a sense of melody that never betrays the atmosphere the the rest of the instrumentation is building towards. In terms of proficiency, he must surely rank amongst some of the most incredible guitarists I can name, beating Ortiz at his own game and encroaching on the territory of Tosin Abasi (Animals as Leaders).
The production is nothing short of astounding either, besting many a so called 'professional' recording I've heard and proving once again that a label and big name producers are no longer needed to make a high quality album. The bass guitars are prominent throughout, the rhythmic sections heard but an accompaniment to the background noise rather than a distraction from the forefront. Even the drums seem bizarrely well done, and despite being digitally produced still manage to come off less mechanical than actual drummers! The only thing it lacks is an overarching concept or purpose; it feels a little superficial, atmospheric but at times a little repetitive which for a longer release might become quite problematic, even though he succeeds in varying the pace of tracks remarkably well. One of the discoveries of the year and it was free. Well I never...
Storm Corrosion - Storm Corrosion - 4.5/5
Ah, the peace and quiet when idiotic Prog fans don’t roar and stuff albums down your throat like the second coming of Images And Words- strike that, even that album pales in front of the gems produced by the mightier bands. But here now, why are we speaking on Progressive? This album or this project has nothing whatsoever to do with that genre save that it have two of the biggest artists from it. Oh so that peace and quiet is really just shock from those idiots? Delightful.
On a serious note though, this album reaches every bit the pinnacle of quality that was expected from the combined talents of Akerfeldt and Wilson, so where does this album shock the ardent Prog fans, well it is not progressive at all. What we are treated to instead are delightful mixes of ambient, electronic and acoustic passages combined with the songwriting genius of the two. It’s not as strange a combination as the fan boys seem to think it is, in fact given their experimentation tendencies (which has been abundantly displayed by both Mikael and Wilson in their bands’ works) this is perfectly befitting of them.
There’s not much to describe in this album sound wise, the most simplistic of music played with the most depth is the best way to describe it. A passage of the keyboard with the violin whilst Wilson’s gentle voice relaxes the listener and yet builds up their imagination, the guitar slowly strumming away whilst the choir builds up a dark climax, all examples of the mystique that this work possesses. Folk interludes, vocal choirs, baroque and rock itself all seems to have found a place in this mesh of sound. The difference with these masters is that instead of creating a tangled mess, they’ve transformed that mesh into a fine woven web; the listener is wrapped at all times but never feels stuck or trapped.
The trump card of the album is the subject matter and the atmosphere itself which is directed well by the songwriting, again another testament to the skill these two possess. Even with the simplest of sounds, the album manages to conjure up a strong picture of what is going on in the song. There is always a dark, twisted feel to the music, not heavy in sense of Metal but eerie and haunting all the same. And yet even with that twisted feel, both musicians do a fine job of capturing the emotions of the listener with fine climaxes spaced out in the songs.
All in all, this duo lives up to the hype that was expected of them contrary to the view of the majority of the fans who feel hard done that a massive wall of Metal and Prog rock was not thrown their way by these two, I suppose they thought Akerfeldt would make up for trolling them with Heritage. In any case, a fine work and definitely one of the highlights for the year, enough said.
Incoming Cerebral Overdrive - Le Stelle: A Voyage Adrift – 4/5
I've seen this band described as Metalcore. I've seen it called Deathcore. I've seen it called Sludge, Post-Metal, Post-Hardcore, Mathcore, Black/Doom and I know I'm missing some. It's a name I'd seen around in passing but with such a name I figured was probably some sort of grindcore, and subsequently gave it little more attention. I suppose in retrospect 'grindcore' might actually fit, but in truth the only genre label I'm truly happy about giving them is the 'Experimental' tag, and of course that actually tells you nothing. So get your blender at the ready; pick out the guitarists from 'Dillinger Escape Plan,' the drummer from 'Mastodon,' a blend of the vocalist from 'Crowbar' and 'Ihsahn' (the vocalist from Emperor, Peccatum and err... 'Ihsahn,' surprisingly), and toss in just enough of Mike Patton (Faith No More, Mr. Bungle) to make this most unlikely combination somehow work despite every indication that it probably shouldn't. If you aren't happy with that, then I'll call it “Experimental Technical Sludge,” which is just as vague.
I've actually spent most of the last week – when I've not been distracted by other music that is – just trying to figure out whether or not I like what they've come up with. Without a base for comparison it's surprisingly difficult to tell even the most basic of opinions, let alone trying to judge it objectively for review purposes, but at the end of the day the music is well composed. It is unusual but it does retain a thick sludge atmosphere that made the genre known as 'working mans metal;' the blackened and psychedelic tinges just lending enough variety to the atmosphere to keep it feeling fresh and never too monotonous, whilst the thick guitar tone and slow doom-like crashing of the drums thunder the tracks onwards. The problems occur almost entirely when it's the “Technical” part of their sound that's considered.
There's a reason so little Sludge succeeds in being technical; the likes of Mastodon and Baroness (more “Progressive” than outright technical, but the best comparison that springs to mind without straying into “Post-Metal” territory) both significantly 'cleaned' their tone to make the intricacies of their composition more apparent, and most technical artists utilise a clean tone for precisely that reason. This compromise is one that they didn't seem comfortable in making, and whilst a 'no compromise approach' is one that I'd normally applaud, it comes with a rather obvious drawback: the more complex the music becomes, the more becomes lost. If you're expecting technicality in the form of very fast guitar work, then that becomes too at odds with the Sludge aspect and rarely occurs; likewise if you're expecting a slow Doom-grinding then rarely will this occur. There will always be a trade-off but littered about this album are examples of how well they can pull it off, and there are no other artists that seem to have figured this out yet. It's by virtue of that fact alone that I can see myself listening to this for quite some time.
Highlights: Betelgeuse, Sirius B, Rigel
Circus Maximus – Nine – 4.5/5
Every year a lot of music gets released, far more than any one person can listen to, and every year classics slip through even the most attentive listeners finger. I arrived on Redemption's 'Fullness of Time' half a decade late. Disillusion's 'Back to Times of Splendor' suffered much the same fate, and in both cases elicited the question of just what on earth took me so damn long. This is my first foray into this artists work – their first in five years – and the reaction is no different, what DID take me so damn long? Picking up after Dream Theater's classic first few albums and Symphony X's long legacy, it may take the tired tried and tested format and do little too outside the box but I'll be damned if this album doesn't deserve a place by their side. There's power and emotion, pop-like sensibilities mixed in with the heavy grooves; there's a beauty to their melodies that never overstays it's welcome, and far from getting tiring, like a fine wine it only seems to improve with time, the emotion steadily sinking in deeper with each listen.
LaBrie fans will likely note the occasional similarity in vocals, both capable of their epic and powerful lines, but where these guys get one up on the competition is in his restraint; that he can belt out a line doesn't mean the track requires it. The vast majority of the time it's a gentler touch, a soft sadness or lower pitch that he ends up using to lend a versatility to the proceedings. The rest of the instrumentation is no different; the guitars are content to play acoustic lines, add psychedelic flourishes, cleanly shred solo's and provide a deeper 'heavy metal' crunch; the keyboards shift between an ethereal backing, gentle piano lines and 'keytar' solos. There's a maturity to their playing that extends far beyond mere competency and into genuine creativity, and an appreciation of how to effectively juggle a plethora of styles within their given framework and, rather than utilise them for the sake of it, understand them well enough to make it work to the benefit of the overall track.
And this is perhaps the most startling thing about this release, more than the competency of of the musicianship is the stellar composition and just how broad a range of styles they manage to encompass. That they are capable musicians is not in question, but it blends well enough that even the most complex of passages end up sounding simplistic, different lines harmonising with one another to create a rich vibrant atmosphere. They never feel limited in choice; it's heavy, filled with insatiable grooving riffs and immense solo work, inspirational, melodic yet powerfully simple ballads, folky and psychedelic overtones, and everywhere in between. Where most work on getting one particular tone right, finding one specific niche in their corner of the overpopulated prog scene, they seem to want to do it all and somehow often find themselves doing it better than most. The more I listen the more I find new influences littered about; more work that could fit alongside a wide range of artists 'best of' catalogues without anyone batting an eyelid. Circus Maximus, your throne awaits.
Highlights: Game of Life, Reach Within, Burn After Reading
Skyharbor – Blinding White Noise: Illusions and Chaos – 3.5/5
Time for another short and snappy review. If I don't get it out now then I never will. I'll be honest, I – like I suspect most people – wouldn't have ever noticed this debut efforts existence if not for the presence of Dan Tompkins, recently departed vocalist from “Tesseract,” and I expect without him this Indian band would remain in the depths of obscurity. Split into two discs, the majority is taken up by the “Illusion” with the final 15 minutes devoted to the “Chaos.” You can quite clearly tell that the two are separate entities; the former full of atmospheric lines with the latter dominated by frenetic musicianship, switching jarringly between the two. Sadly, despite the decision of whether you prefer your music technical or atmospheric, neither come across as particularly memorable. In fact, this might just be the most forgettable album I've ever heard.
Now it's not that they do anything especially wrong, or even badly; they follow the djent framework to perfection, the rhythm guitar chugging along with plenty of ambient-esque passages thrown in for atmosphere. The drumming is competent and capable of varying things, though is often left so far in the back that the music is left largely to the duties of the lead guitarist and vocalist, and even more so do they perform admirably. What it's lacking is variety; every song runs at the same tempo, every line seems to be sung at the same narrow pitch range – occasionally throwing in the growl, reversed for the second part – and in the same manner (sadly devoid of those epic, sustain filled high notes that made him such a powerhouse for Tesseract). The new, soft tone he takes is not one that he often feels best suited, coming across gentle but lacking any real sense of emotion.
The guitar work is even more of a mystery, even though he uses the same tone throughout the entire release, the wealth of riffs and solo's performed would suggest at least some of them would stick but for some reason none of them do. In a sea of djent acts emerging in the past two years, it is their reliance on subtle ambient guitar work and often generic feeling lines that might have worked a few years ago but now just feels bested by many others already; it feels old already. I've listened to the album more than a dozen times and I can't name a single passage from a single song. My Djent saturation point appears to have been reached, and until they bring something new to the table I can't see my attention returning.
Grand Magus – The Hunt – 4.5/5
In the days where Traditional Metal seem to be numbered – Traditional Doom doesn't fare much better – and out of vogue, and even though sees constant popularity and respect shown towards those thirty or more than years old, the number of good modern examples always seem to be counted on one hand. The odd release here or there maybe, but Grand Magus have always seemed to be able to consistently produce the goods, and this album is no different. The doom influences that once populated their works have taken a progressively further back seat, occasionally heard in some of their bluesier tones but now largely dropped for their Viking themed, retro inspired, hard hitting anthems with just a hint of folk. It might all seem so simple but somehow it never comes across as feeling flat or boring; that it isn't capable of bringing something new to the table.
Ok, so their last album was a little disappointing compared to their magnum opus, 'Iron Will,' and the opening here sounds like it might have been on an AC/DC album, but Grand Magus have a gift that doesn't seem to allow them to write a bad song. Even at their worst, they're still capable of churning out riff after riff of epic heavy goodness, the thick bass lines and hard hitting drums bested only by the roaring epic vocal lines and chorus' that beg you just to try to sing along with his baritone, emerging from a front man constantly reminding us of why he should be crowned King of his style. Disbelievers can try out "Son of the Last Breath" which probably ranks as of the best of their careers so far. If somehow you've remained oblivious to their world and have never heard them before, prepare for an epic roller coaster ride, roaring thunderously through the- you know what, why are you still reading this? Go buy it already.
Highlights: Starlight Slaughter, Storm King, Son of the Last Breath
Diablo Swing Orchestra – Pandora's Pinata – 5/5
If you've never seen the band live you won't quite understand how eclectic an experience it is. Sure, you get the token group of youngsters forming a mosh pit as seems compulsory with any band with any vague resemblance to metal (though I have no idea why) and the guys at the front limited in movement by the crushing swarm behind them to the token 'nod of appreciation,' but it's when you get a little further back that things get more interesting. The shy kid shuffling his feet in the corner somehow finds himself progressing into a full blown running man; a strange sort of square dance that would fit 'Cotton Eye Joe' just as well (though being a Swedish Redneck inspired Techno/Folk/Bluegrass band, they're a little bit odd themselves), convincing strangers that often need quite frankly very little convincing into joining the party, with some weird skanking on the side. I expect it's been out of vogue for long enough that nobody can quite remember how to dance the swing jazz inspired portions, and so nobody seems has a clue how really to react to the music, everyone reacting in a different way. The only thing that's a certain is that you will react, and it's this little fact that the band has played on here.
If describing their sound was difficult when they first emerged the problems have compounded even further; if before they could largely be defined by their combination of hard hitting metallic beats and their swing jazz influences, topped off with the operatic vocalist of course, then no longer does that feel the case. I'm not going to even try; you name a genre, odds are it's in there. One track opens up to a sort of noise rock/Shibuya-Kei (Bossa Nova/Electro/J-pop) blend. Opens. As in, is that way for maybe a minute before progressing in some other direction. There's a sort of Industrial/Dub-Step breakdown at one point (I mean, why not?). If I'm honest, their debut at times came across as a little two-tone; either they came out swinging with a dominative Jazz element or it felt a little smothered in Classical tones. Now sure, at some points it feels like a lost 'Madamme Butterfly' track, and others wouldn't go amiss on a Buddy Rich album, pandering ever more to the extremes of their original style, but there's so much variety in between. Some bands are able to break the mould and succeed in finding a niche sound. Fewer still are capable of varying that sound with each new album in order to keep things fresh. Diablo Swing Orchestra have gone one step further, re-inventing themselves on each track, and the scariest thing about it all is just how well it seems to fit despite every fibre of my being telling me how much it shouldn't.
The album's title, too, feels much more than a simple play on words, alluding to the tale of Pandora's Box; a Greek myth where Pandora opened her mysterious box and released all the evil unto the world. If Pandora carefully opened it, unaware of the consequences of doing so but driven by curiosity, these guys are blindly beating it with a stick to see what comes out for fun. There are atmospheric passages of such emotional weight that you'll find yourself getting bleary eyed, even if the chances are it'll have come so abruptly you'll have no idea why (and if you pay attention to the lyrics, you'll just get even more confused). You'll want to bang your head and dance to the funky grooves. Often you'll want to do all three at the same time. Most bands strive to accomplish one, and many can't even quite do that, so to do all three is quite the feat. Guys, you've really outdone yourselves on this one.
Highlights: Guerilla Laments, Black Box Messiah, Exit Strategy of a Wrecking Ball
Ne Obliviscaris – Portal of I – 4/5
I never quite caught this band before, despite all the hype surrounding them they never really made it onto my radar. When I spotted this album rolling around I thought it was about time I heard what all the fuss was about, and it's about this point I realised that this was still their debut; a long awaited album for a band whose demo sparked more interest than those with long standing careers, and it's not difficult to see why. They might be called “Progressive Black Metal,” but like 'Thy Catafalque' before them, even if this was their origins, I'm not sure I'd still call them by that now. These Aussies have so many ideas and influences that permeates their music, adding delicate flavours to a basic blackened backbone that I don't think many would be offended if I referred to them as Avant-Garde.
It might have taken them five years to complete but to say they had a few idea's they needed to pen would be something of an understatement, and not only because this album clocks in at 72 minutes whilst still retaining a somewhat frenetic pace. There was one point that reminded me of the acoustic melody from “Diablo” (though since Diablo III was released, it might have somehow triggered the memory). Much of the violin melodies reminded me of “Profugus Mortis” (perhaps better known as “Blackguard before they fired the violinist”). There were passages that reminded me of “Les Fragments de La Nuit” (a French Neo-Classical Darkwave artist), and others with more of a folk tone, usually Celtic but the occasional Chinese-like flourish emerging. Flamenco acoustic guitar work and shredded solo's, contrast the almost Alcest-like ethereal ambient passages. Sometimes the bassist gets to break out a funky groove, sometimes a guitarist will join him, and I mean that with all the Jazz influences implied. There are two vocalists; the expected growls and a Prog/Power clean vocalist that trade off lines. In one short period I counted that there was a bass riff, independent – albeit similar to – a rhythm guitar riff, whilst the lead guitars solo'd, whilst the violins played for atmosphere and both vocalists sung at the same time.
Three guitar lines, two vocal lines and a violin line. At the same time. The fact that they have so many ideas and want to get them all out is in fact one of the major problems I had confronting this release; even when there aren't so many independent lines going that you could divide them quite happily into two entirely different songs, the tracks shift so often, never going too far from that singular tone that forms their backbone, but neither into territory that feels altogether similar to what came before it. In fact, it changes so often that I often can't remember what came before it; I can't tell one track from the next, but not because they all sound the same. There is simply nothing memorable about much of what's on display here, except perhaps of course, how unmemorable it is. When you employ so many influences so frequently throughout each of the tracks, replacing the standard catchiness of the riff and it's simplicity allowing it to become absorbed, memorised, and repeated throughout a songs length with these elements, there's nothing for the mind to latch on to.
This fact is a mixed blessing as they've created some of the most powerful crescendo's I've heard all year, slow violin and acoustic guitar lines suddenly give way to the blackened abyss and the result is without equal. I'd give you a more specific example except I can't remember where most of them are, and indeed often don't remember until it's upon me once more. There are other minor gripes as well; with so many lines to consider, mastering this release must have been a production nightmare and it's a miracle they've managed to do so well, retaining a raw live feel to many of the lighter passages whilst allowing each element to maintain a decent sense of audibility through the more complex. The drumming largely feels somewhat lacklustre, the snare at times feeling just a little bit too loud for the atmosphere being strived for; an issue that becomes even less significant when you consider just how varied the rest of the instrumentation is. The clean vocals, too, feel a little underwhelming at certain points, never quite capable of mustering the power to dominate over the proceedings as it feels they sometimes should.
That they have a whole host of ideas present on this album is never in question. That the violins perform a duty so well that it seems like other contemporary black metal artists have been missing out all these years, the albums stand out performer without question; that they know how to integrate all these elements in a manner that never feels unnatural, their ability to perform complex ever-shifting arrangements or their understanding of the power of subtlety, of all this there can be no doubt. Given all that it's hard not to be impressed by the work they've created, but whilst their ability to harmonise so many elements coherently seems limitless, it's the individual track compositions that let them down. Without any distinguishing features to stand out in the mind, all the tracks blur into a singular piece, and the result is that it feels somewhat purposeless, never quite sure on what specific atmosphere they're striving at or what point there is to it all, or indeed even if there is a point to it all. Aesthetically appealing, certainly, but it never engages you on a deeper level or makes you think, and ultimately it comes across as rather shallow. The fact that this is a debut album yet feels so mature and that I can think of nothing to really compare it to is genuinely incredible, and they show the potential to be a real tour de force, but not if nobody can remember what they sound like as soon as the music stops playing.
Allegaeon – Formshifter – 4.5/5
I missed their debut album. Listening to this I'm kinda wishing I hadn't, though I might not appreciated as much as I do now, but that's all irrelevant. I did miss it, and if it was close to the quality on display here it probably would have been the best albums of the year, as this one is almost undoubtedly going to end up being. You may have heard them in passing as a “Technical Melodic Death Metal” band and gone 'oh, so like another version of Arsis then?' No. Arsis are a four-piece that are so intent on playing things at a blistering pace that they forget to make half their songs memorable. Allegaeon are a Death Metal band that just so happen are capable of making solo's melt your face off whilst you nod your head to the melodic grooves. Quite frankly they're worlds apart; the focus is entirely the other way around and it's all the better off for it.
From the epic roar that is the opening you quickly realise they aren't gonna be pulling any punches, the focus on the melodies already making itself apparent as it steadily builds up to the chaos that is to ensue. The drums power on with enough presence to lend a real bite to the tracks, produced to be crisp but not so overdone as to be mechanical, the session musician responsible largely being used to great effect as a metronome for the guitarists. The bassist might spend a lot of his time doing little of note in the back (he is given one track to shine, however), but the focus of this act was always going to be on the guitars, and make no mistake they are more than capable in this department. A flurry of tapped riffs and no shortage of high speed displays of technicality pepper this album from start to finish, but what's more interesting is their lack of reliance on sheer speed, not only changing tempo but showing an emphasis on composition over technical ability. The backbone of each track is never constructed around the lead guitar work but on the rhythm, providing groove-laden line after line to sink it's teeth into you, the lead tastefully adding creative flourishes on top. Never is this focus more prevalent than when you get to the flamenco-esque acoustic sections that present themselves, an unusual choice that is never overdone, instead utilised to perfection to lend contrast to the album.
It's not without it's flaws, however. The production is capable of showing off every talent – even the bass lines often remain delightfully present, felt if not perhaps heard, and adding a thickness to the atmosphere that counteracts the guitars that left alone might otherwise sound all too thin and tinny. It's been so carefully balanced and spit-polished to perfection that it seems a little too perfect; there's no grit to it, no sense of that raw grinding, gnashing aggression that makes it all sound a little too easy to listen to, a little too 'metalcore' that detracts from it all. The vocals on occasion do little to help with this, at times sporting what sounds like the genre's trademark rasp, sounding like every other bland metalcore act when he limits his range to the mids, sounding far better when juxtaposed with the howling lows. It's perhaps fortunate then that the drums thunder so loudly, the rhythm retains such a smooth groove and the lead guitars rarely fail to deliver on a lightning quick lesson in performing that it isn't long before you couldn't care less about the little details. When the bulk sounds this impressive, it's hard not to find yourself on the edge of your seat, eagerly anticipating every note whether you're listening for the first time or the thirtieth (as I suspect I'm now approaching).
Highlights: Behold (God I Am), Iconic Images, From the Stars Death Came
Sage Francis – Li(f)e – 4.5/5
If you thought I was done with this particular hip-hop artist then you can think again; returning years later with another monumental release, changing his style but retaining the intelligence to reveal an entirely different side to his personality. In fact, I'm not entirely sure I can really call this hop-hop any more – a fact that is sure to anger a lot of his fans – his apparent disregard for the scene manifesting as he distances himself from the genre he once found his footing. Instead its a weird mix of styles and genres, experimental to say the least, taking a step back from his more aggressive style and venturing further into the world of spoken art poetry, devoting much of his time towards religion. As the album suggests, the motif on display is how much of his life was a lie and naturally religion plays it's role in that, but more than that it's an introspective reflection on his own life and how certain events changed his views, looking back retrospectively on how it resulted in who he is. As he said himself, “If it wasn't for mistakes, I probably wouldn't be here today.”
Rap, is in a sense poetry, but his displays of technical ability take a back seat as he states his case, carefully making sure that every word is able to sink in. His use of metaphors, too, have been toned down and drawn back, at times feeling as though he's holding his tongue and presenting a case for the audience to decide, though invariably his own thoughts on the matter still uncontrollably seep through. Speaking in a manner that could almost be seen as condescending given his past repertoire - talking down to the 'lay man' - it works by virtue of that fact that really he just wants to tell a story and make sure everyone can understand it. It's a situation he can't really win; speak in tongues and come off pretentious and arrogant, or simplify his words and come across condescending. Given the two options I'd have said he chose the lesser of two evils, but this is far from the largest change that this album sees - oh no - his use of backing tracks is what really sets this album apart.
Working with musicians ranging from the atmospheric Avant-Garde multi-instrumentalist Yann Tiersen to Chris Walla (guitarist for “Deathcab for Cutie), the notion of the usual 'simple back beat' has gone out the window of the top floor of a skyscraper, now lying obliterated on the concrete floor. It's a bold move but one that has its pay off and goes a long way to making this such a memorable release, but doing such an act is fraught with perils which he hasn't quite managed to avoid. The fundamental difference hip-hop has from many other genres is the lyrical focus; when tracks such as 'Little Houdini' and it's country backing, or Yann Tiersen's work in 'Best of Times,' arrive it manages to pull off such a success that you can't help but wonder why so few have followed suit, the styles compatible to the point that it can greatly add to the atmosphere without removing emphasis on the actual words being spoken. Whether you're hanging onto every word or listening to it in the background, the emotion the twinned aspects create is above and beyond the capabilities of either one left bare.
The difficulties invariably arise when everything slows down and leaves the work feeling bare and incomplete by comparison, or worse still is when a more intensive indie rock style is chosen, demanding more attention to the instrumentation. The production work forces a battle for domination; the two aspects fighting each other; the ever more upbeat and rapidly spoken lines not quite far enough in the forefront left to duel the rocking beat rather than working together in a battle that, whilst working wonders for some artists, sometimes sees both aspects ultimately coming off as the loser. It is in these tracks the listeners ability to divide their attention and absorb both sides to the coin really comes to the fray and is ultimately the determining factor in how successfully the track achieves its goal. For the most part he handles this distinction remarkably well with just a few sub-par tracks bringing it down, but an appreciation for both sides of his new sound are required to get the most out of this. Short of that, this is going to be disappointing a ride for those expecting a continuation of his previous work, but if you're up for the challenge then Sage Francis has created nothing less than some of the best the genre has to offer.
Highlights: Little Houdini, Diamonds and Pearls, The Best of Times