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.
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
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