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
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
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
Sage Francis – A Healthy Distrust – 4/5
Sage Francis is a dick and he knows it. He's that annoying kid who sat behind you in class correcting the teacher, raising his hand because he clearly knows better, snorting in laughter at your pathetic opinions, using long words and complex speech more to annoy and confuse you than to make any real argument. He's that guy on the internet who can't stand that someone might be 'wrong,' even if it might on a subjective manner, and will argue the topic until you bow before his intelligence or give up trying to respond. His sense of wit and sarcasm is so unapologetic, bombarding you with line after line, using his intelligence to make his points strongly enough that rather than try to argue back you're more likely to just want to punch him squarely in the jaw. He doesn't care what you think and he's not interested in presenting questions for the listener to find the answer, or even gently leading you to draw the same conclusions that he's come to, he's firing his opinions out of a cannon and it's mighty difficult not to get blown away by them.
I've mentioned before that intelligence in rap is still prevalent as soon as you stop looking at what's being paraded around and Sage Francis seems to epitomise that; between his social and political commentaries, ranging from his distaste for those supporting foreign war but unwilling to do go there and directly contribute (“Slow Down Ghandi”) to crudely describing the mainstream hip-hop scene; calling them all Sea Lions clapping their hands for a crowd; “Dance Monkeys” who create repetitive cyclical beats; sarcastically mocking the promotion of the gun culture and the fact that many in the industry can't even hold a microphone without pretending it's a firearm; telling the underground that maybe the reason they aren't making it big is because they aren't very good. The grumpy old man before his time; there doesn't seem to be anything he's really happy with; he hates the industry, he hates the direction his country is going in, hates both political parties and he even hates those that join him in his hatred but don't do anything about it. I'm not even sure he considers this work really 'doing anything to change things,' making the whole album something of a lesson in nihilism.
Now hatred on it's own hardly seems like an unusual thing for hip-hop, everyone sounds like they're pissed off about something, even Eminem, an artist who spent his entire life rapping about things that annoyed him growing up, striving for mainstream success then start rapping his hatred for people who want to talk to him once he achieved it. A happy hip-hop artist seems to be pretty damn rare but rarer still are those like Francis; he's pissed off but he always has a point, his attitude so inherently offensive that it makes you want to frustratedly and furiously argue back how narrow minded he's being before you really think about the subject at hand, being talked down before you've begun, that is assuming you've figured out what he's talking about. Half the tracks still remain a mystery to me but I've no doubt they'll click eventually. The beats always manage to strike a complementary atmosphere and are nothing if not creative and varied, his technical proficiency leaving little to be desired but that's just the icing on the cake. Sage Francis is sometimes a little too smart for his own good, but no matter how frustrating it might be, he is smart, and that means he's always interesting.
She – Orion – 3.5/5
Let me begin by shattering a few basic expectations. 'She' is not female, but the pseudonym of a man called Lain Trzaska. With a name such as that you'd also be correct in thinking that, despite the Japanese woman on the front – an image of a woman generated entirely using photoshop - Japanese lyrics and vocals – really a composite of five different vocalists, but don't ask me how on earth that really works, just accept that it does – the Japanese label (Pony Canyon) to which they're signed and their popularity in – you guessed it – Japan, that he is not Japanese but Polish. That's two expectations already shattered, but let me drop on you one final bombshell; yes, he writes dance music, but to say that's all he does would be like saying 'King Crimson' made rock music. Both statements are true, but they're also grossly inaccurate and selling their influences far too short.
Now I wouldn't exactly call 'She' progressive but certainly within their respective context the comparison seems quite apt; both have penchants for concept albums for example, 'She' telling the continuing “Blade Runner” type story of the cyberkinetic replicant known only as “She,” (though I've read she has finally been given the name of Sarah, not that I would be able tell that from the music). Both artists also seem to release albums markedly different from their last, and neither have any issues taking multiple influences to fabricate their artwork. The fact is, I'm not sure there really is a decent way to classify this band and if there were, it'd change with each new release; the 'danceable' feeling certainly runs throughout it's course – bar a few ambient tracks – but the vocals lend an 'electropop' catchiness to the proceedings, using chiptune to provide an almost ethereal and ambient like atmosphere. It flows between these styles from track to track so fluidly, gradually introducing and replacing elements, that at first I thought it all a bit repetitive, and it's only when I listened a little closer that I realised just how different the album was closing, taking a far more downtempo approach from the dance anthems that open it.
And sadly, that's part of the problem I find myself with. There's a lot of styles on display and he restrains himself from throwing them all into one chaotic composition, but simply acknowledging that isn't enough. It doesn't engage me enough and the result is that it ends up feeling like something of a glorified dance album; one that at its best will have you tapping your toes and mouthing the words and at its worst, just drifting off pleasantly in the background. The whole concept is no doubt fully realised in the artists mind but doesn't yield enough detail to make more than a basic stab at what on earth is actually happening, the track listing and often Japanese language just adding more barriers to the understanding of the story; all I could really discern is that a woman escaped from some people who had her locked up and now she's running from them. It allows him to more readily add variety to the proceedings but, quite frankly, if you have to set up a portion of your website explaining everything, it feels as though admittance of failure. It's certainly something a little bit different, but is ultimately only a shadow of what it could have been.
Highlights: Atomic, Ride, Orion
Desultor – Masters of Hate – 3.5/5
If anyone can still recall the last time someone tried to incorporate Power Metal elements with an extreme genre of metal music, namely Demoniac, you'd probably understand my worry about how awful the combination can become, and whilst these guys take an altogether different approach to the combination, utilising an old school Swedish death metal tone and coupling it with power metal vocals, that worry was nonetheless prominent in the back of my mind. The conception remarkably different, it is only upon listening to what I had little hope for that I realised the two genres may have more in common than I first considered. Double drum kicks are almost as common in Power Metal now as in more extreme genres, the riffs are often different more in tone than in the technical details, and certainly both genres lend themselves well to “Epic” and “Progressive” monikers.
It never comes across as a case of a band unable to decide what genre they wanted to play so haphazardly mixed elements of two, they've focussed on what commonality is shared between the two styles and through this odd blend a coherent sound emerges. The vocals carry a sense of power but lend an ethereal, almost doom-like darkness to the proceedings, and whilst he comes short of delivering on a mind blowing performance he lends a welcome variety to his range, and it is the atmosphere he conveys that carry many of the tracks forward. It's so pivotal in fact, that almost five full minutes of this thirty minute release are spent on ambient work, reminding and reinforcing the tone that, arguably, should be present within each of the songs themselves.
The major issue presented here is in trying to find a match of the two styles that works, they've left themselves with too little wiggle room for creativity. It sounds almost odd to think that such a blend could end up being boring but ultimately that is the crux of the problem; solo's emerge all too infrequently enough to maintain the interest and the riffs are repeated for far too long and feel uninspired, the same style of 'Gothenburg' riffs and excessive use of quick pull off's between chords lending the only recycled variety to the melodies. The vocals are present but feel purposeless and unemotional, the drums mechanical and lifeless. There's a sense of catchiness to some of the lines but they all become forgettable in the end. Desultor have spent so much effort in trying to find a sound that works that they've forgotten to write interesting compositions, and that's a shame as you would think they'd have already done the hardest part.
Highlights: Division Insane, The Luxury of Pain, Master of Hate