Record Reviews Blog

Album, EP and DVD reviews, with an emphasis on the UK progressive rock scene.

Motörhead – Bad Magic

Motorhead Bad MagicMotörhead are a British institution. Their name and logo have become so iconic that high street department stores sell their t-shirts to people who probably can’t name a single song with the possible exception of “Ace of Spades”. But after Lemmy’s recent health issues saw a tour cancelled not once but twice, and one or two lacklustre recent festival appearances, there have been doubts as to wether Lemmy is quite as indestructible as we thought, or that they are still the primal force they once were.

So, with their 22nd album “Bad Magic”, have the legends still got it after all?

“Victory or Die!”, growls Lemmy as they launch into the raw and dirty rock’n'roll of the opening number. “Thunder & Lightning” barrels along like a runaway train, then comes the driving guitar-driven hard rock boogie of “Firestorm Hotel”. Those first three numbers set the pace for the whole record. It’s true that Lemmy’s voice isn’t quite as powerful as it was in their 80s heyday, but the Motörhead still rock like a bastard even after all these years.

Other great moments include “The Devil”, with a suitably demonic guitar riff, and “Choking On Your Screams”, which falls on the metal side of the metal/hard rock divide with a particularly menacing vocal. The one change of pace is the slow blues “Til The End” where Lemmy drops his traditional gargling-with-broken-glass style and sings with a fragile, cracked vocal. The album ends with a cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for The Devil” which doesn’t quite convince, but aside from that, Bad Magic is a remarkably consistent record. Phil Campbell is economical but effective with lead guitar work, and Mikky Dee makes his mark on drums, especially his fusillade opening “Shoot Out All The Lights” and on the Maiden-like “Evil Eye”.

You can argue all night about what genre Motörhead belong to. Lemmy has always denied they’re a metal band, but they’ve been considered honourable members of the metal tribe right from the start. There’s an awful lot of the attitude and fury of punk about them too, of course, but listening to this record you can hear deep roots in the rock’n'roll of the fifties and sixties that Lemmy grew up on. They, as much as anyone else, embody the primal spirit of rock’n'roll, turned up to Eleven. Motörhead are still here, and they’ve still got it. Rock and roll will never die.

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Spock’s Beard – The Oblivion Particle

Spocks Beard The Oblivion ParticleSince their emergence in the mid-1990s when the genre was at its lowest ebb, Spock’s Beard have become elder statesmen of the third wave of progressive rock. With their twelfth album “The Oblivion Particle”, the second to feature Ted Leonard on lead vocals, they show no signs of running out of ideas.

The sound is what we’ve come to expect from Spock’s Beard. swirling Mellotron and Hammond organ, blasts of hard rock guitar, rich layered vocal harmonies, and a strong sense of melody. If you imagine 70s British progressive rock married to the US West Coast sound with a bit of The Beatles thrown in for good measure, that’s Spock’s Beard’s distinctive musical identity. As ever they love their vintage keyboards which have become a signature sound for the band, and Ryo Okumoto adds a few vintage synth sounds to the sonic palette.

From the opening wig-out “Tides of Time” and the soaring melodies of “Minion” to the stately finale of “Disappear” this is a record that needs multiple listens before it really starts to come to life. There are times when it strongly recalls Yes, especially those moments where the instrumentation drops out leaving gorgeous a capella harmonies, such as on “A Better Way to Fly”. But this is a record with far more energy than anything Yes have done for decades. There is an exuberance about the whole thing; it’s the sound of a band who know what they want to be and enjoy being it. Perhaps the only thing missing from this album is a stripped-down ballad to balance out the rocker workouts. Something along the lines of Octane’s “The Beauty Of It All” might have lifted the record to the next level.

But once you’ve given it enough time to get under your skin, “The Oblivion Particle” is a highly enjoyable record. Spock’s Beard succeed in having one foot in the past and one in the present; a delightfully retro sound with a modern sensibility.

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The Fierce and the Dead – Magnet

TFATD - MagnetThough sometimes labelled as “post-rock” or the catch-all “alternative”, the instrumental four-piece The Fierce and the Dead are happy to describe themselves as a progressive rock band.

But unlike some bands under that banner, their mission is to make music in the spirit of 70s progressive rock rather than copying the sound. Their heroes include Voivod, Hüsker Dü and The Mahavishnu Orchestra rather the Pink Floyd, Genesis or Yes. The resulting noise could be described as “A punk version of King Crimson”, although that doesn’t really do them justice. Over the course of several EPs, one full-length album, and some pummelling live shows they’ve built a reputation as a band willing to take progressive rock into interesting new places.

The new EP “Magnet” is their first release since 2013′s “Spooky Action”. It starts with a bang with the big dirty riff of “Magnet In Your Face”, an explosion of rock’n'roll energy which packs a lot of music into less than two minutes. It’s Spooky Action on steroids. But from then on it chances tack. “Palm Trees” is slower but crushingly heavy, until the big wall of guitar gives way to a delicate middle section. “Flint” marries electronic effects and a dub-like bass riff with delicate chiming guitar. “Part 6 (The Eight Circuit)” begins with bass drones and effects-laden guitar until percussion loops appear.

The EP ends with rehearsal recordings of two numbers from “Spooky Action”, “Let’s Start a Cult” and the title track; there’s something of Alex Lifeson in the guitar playing on the latter at one point. There’s quite a contrast between these two numbers and the newer material that precedes them.

The Fierce and The Dead are not a band to stand still and repeat themselves. If Spooky Action had something of a punky, garage-rock vibe, Magnet is darker and denser, with more of a focus on the post-rock and electronica side of their music. Like all of their records, it has feet in many camps, defies simple categorisation, and makes a rewarding listen for anyone who wants to get out of their musical comfort zones.

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Between the Buried and Me, Coma Ecliptic

Beyond the Buried and Me Coma Ecliptic“Coma Ecliptic”, the seventh album by Between the Buried and Me can only be described a progressive metal monster.

It begins with brooding electric piano, the opening number all keys until symphonic guitars burst in right at the end. The comes “The Coma Machine”, an amazing kaleidoscopic piece who’s twists and turns combine melodic atmospherics with full-on death metal. That number flows straight into “Dim Ignition”, which takes off on yet another tack with some Tangerine Dream style electronics. And those three openers set the tone for the rest of the album.

This is a quite remarkable record that sounds like all the best bits of contemporary metal and progressive rock from the last decade put into a blender. It’s hugely varied with musical references all over the place, yet it still hangs together as a coherent whole. There is an awful lot happening on this record, and it does take a few listens to take it all in. Songs take off in unpredictable directions, and there is more than one number that feels as though it contains a whole concept album’s worth of music in seven or eight minutes.

The combination of clean and death vocals combined with a masterful sense of dynamics is always going to invite comparisons with Opeth, although they avoid copying much of Opeth’s actual sound. Quite a few of the melodies in the clean vocal passages are reminiscent of Dream Theater, although there’s none of that band’s self-indulgent showboating; they keep the soloing brief and to the point, using the twin lead guitars more for riffs and intricate harmonies.

Progressive metal sometimes gets a bad name with bands who show off their instrumental chops without having the compositional skills to back them up, or bands that over ambitiously attempt to mix incompatible styles and turn into an incoherent mish-mash. Between the Buried and Me are neither of these things, and have succeeded in delivering one of the best albums of the year so far.

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Kamchatka, Long Road Made Of Gold

Long Road Made Of GoldSweden has long been known as a centre of cutting-edge European metal, but it’s not quite as strongly associated with blues-based hard rock. But that’s what Swedish power trio Kamchatka do, and on the evidence of their sixth album, “Long Road Made of Gold”, they’ve very good at it.

Produced by Russ Russell, known for his work with extreme metal acts such as Napalm Death, it’s an album of tight punchy songs punctuated by short but effective blasts of shredding lead guitar. This isn’t an album that’s doing anything spectacularly original, but the combination of strong songwriting, meaty guitar riffs and a very powerful driving rhythm section still makes for a very enjoyable listen. Russell has done an impressive production job, resulting in a sound so huge it feels like the band are playing live in your living room.

The album kicks off with shredding banjo leading into the opening hard rocker “Take Me Back Home” which demonstrates a lot of their strengths, especially Thomas Juneor Andersson’s soulful vocals. Other highlights include “Get Your Game On” with Tobias Strandvik’s relentless force-of-nature drumming, the slow-burning “Rain” making good use of vocal harmonies, and “Who’s To blame” with its big riff and spectacular guitar break. But this is an album where there’s something to like about every song; there’s no filler at all,. They keep the arrangements tight too, avoiding self-indulgent wig-outs but still leaving enough space for Andersson’s lead guitar to make an impact.

Fashionable British blues-rock bands such as The Temperance Movement have toned down the guitars to make their music more mainstream-friendly for indie-dominated Britain. Kamchatka in contrast, while still rooted in the blues-rock of the 60s and 70s, are far more appealing for those who’s first love is old-school rock and metal. As a modern take on a very traditional form, this album is highly recommended.

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This Month’s Metal Roundup

A roundup of some recent metal releases that there hasn’t been time to review in full. We have both kinds of music here, heavy and metal.

Ecnephias

Ecnephias coverItalian occult metallers Ecnephias are a band with one foot in the metal camp and one foot in the gothic rock camp. Their self-titled album has echoes of The Sisters of Mercy as well as more metal sounds, the overall effect recalling mid-period Paradise Lost. Instrumentally it’s a great record, with strong dynamics, plenty of light and shade, and some impressively fluid guitar work. But it’s the vocals that let it down. They’re not good at judging when to use death-style growls and when to use clean vocals, frequently using growls on the parts which aren’t especially heavy, which doesn’t quite work. You’re left with a feeling that this would have been a stronger record had they used clean vocals more extensively. Still, when it all comes together, it can be excellent, as evidenced by the spiralling gothic “Nyctophilia” and “Vipra Negra” towards the end of the album.

Secrets of the Sky – Pathway

Secrets of the Sky - PathwayCalifornia’s Secrets of the Sky brew up a monstrous wall of sound with the album “Pathway”. The eleven-track album contains six actual songs interspersed with brief snippets of sound effects that go from crashing waves and thunderstorms to ominous footsteps. With no choruses or solos the songs instead take the form of dense soundscapes of layered guitars, doom-laden drums and washes of keys. Unlike Ecnephias they get the vocals dead right, evil-sounding growls for the heavy parts and clean vocals for the reflective, atmospheric moments. The end result is an intense and in places very heavy record where even the lighter parts can sound truly menacing.

Crest of Darkness – Evil Messiah

Crest Of Darkness coverNorwegian black metallers Crest of Darkness pull absolutely no punches on this four track EP, consisting of three originals plus one cover. The three original numbers, “Evil Messiah”, “Armageddon” and “Abandoned by God” are all piledrivingly heavy; in-your-face screamed vocals married to monstrous old-school metal guitars, often more than one great riff in one song, and the cover of Alice Cooper’s “Sick Things” is splendidly demented.

Nekrogoblikon – Heavy Meta

Nekrogoblikon-HeavyMeta-AlbumArtWe’ve had Viking Metal and Pirate Metal, now Goblin Metal is a thing. With song titles like “Snax & Violence”, “We Need A Gimmick” and “Full Body Xplosion” and a guest appearance from Andrew WK this is a band who don’t take themselves too seriously. Although vocalist Scorpion’s goblin-style vocals do wear a bit thin after a while, the varied, inventive and sometimes off-the wall instrumentation suggests they’re something more than a one-joke band, and they clearly sound as though their having great fun.

Angra – Secret Garden

0210096EMU_Angra_Secret-Garden_Cover_600x600And finally, something for those who can’t abide contemporary cookie monsters and insist on proper singing. veteran Brazilian power-metallers are back with an album filled with galloping hard rockers and epic power ballads, with big riffs, soaring melodies, jaw-dropping guitar soloing and occasional prog atmospherics. Former Rhapsody of Fire frontman Fabio Lione is on fine form on vocals, and the album also features guest appearances from Doro Pesch and Epica’s Simone Simons. It’s all very old-school, but very well done, with a polished production and enough solid songwriting that there’s no room for any filler.

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Jacco Gardner – Hypnophobia

Jacco Gardner HypnophobiaHypnophobia is the latest album from Dutch multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter Jacco Gardner. It features an array of vintage instruments including a Wurlitzer electric piano, a vintage Steinway, Mellotron and harpsichord, and even an Optigan. Gardner plays all instruments except for the drums, with keyboards and acoustic guitars as the dominant sounds, and lyrical themes cover the nature of dreams and reality.

The album opens with an eerie keyboard figure straight out of a 1950s flying-saucer movie leading into the psychedelic pop of “Another You”, a song with strong echoes of The Teardrop Explodes. Other highlights include the beautiful ripping arpeggios of the instrumental “Grey Lanes”, the lengthy “Before the Dawn” with its Motorik rhythms and shifting chord patterns, the combination of dreamy soundscapes and electronic dance rhythms of the title track, and the stately harpsichord-led closer “All Over”.

There are strong echoes of lighter side of Steve Wilson’s various bands across this record; “Find Yourself” wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a mid-period Porcupine Tree album, and parts of both the title track and the semi-acoustic “Face to Face” recall the sinister soundscapes of Storm Corrosion. But the marriage of progressive rock atmospherics with indie-pop songwriting also has a lot in common with Chris Johnson’s Halo Blind project, as do Gardner’s fragile yet melodic vocals.

Hypnophobia is an album that’s difficult to pigeonhole. It’s described as “Baroque pop”, and has elements of indie, psychedelia, pop and progressive rock, often in the same song. But none of those flavourings ever overwhelm any other, it goes from swirling layered atmospherics to stripped-down minimalism and back again. It all hangs together well as a coherent whole, and at just 40 minutes in length it doesn’t outstay its welcome. The result is an enjoyable work that draws from a rich palette of sounds and rewards repeated listens, with each play revealing further depths and subtleties.

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Eschaton – Sentinel Apocalypse

Eschaton - Sentinel ApocalypseEschaton have been described as progressive metal. Progressive metal when done well combines the scope and ambition of progressive rock with the power and energy of metal. Unfortunately Eschaton fail to achieve this with their début album “Sentinel Apocalypse”. It’s very easy to imagine this is what all metal must sound like for people who really can’t abide metal.

Pretentious song titles like “Achromatic Reign” suggest that they don’t know what “Achromatic” means, while “The Beast Is Embedded” and “The Beast Has Awoken” suggest follow-ups “The Beast Has Nodded Off Again” and “The Beast Has Got Up To Go To The Loo”. It appears to be a science-fiction concept album of sorts, though what the concept might be is anybody’s guess, since it’s next to impossible to make out a single word of the tunelessly screeched lyrics. Maybe it’s about Roko’s Basilisk? There are vocalists who can do the cookie-monster thing exceptionally well. But Eschaton’s singist is no Mikael Åkerfeldt; after a couple of songs it starts to get quite painful to listen to.

This is a band who really need to hone their craft before they try to make another record. Every song sounds exactly the same, giving them an utterly one-dimensional sound. And it’s not even a good sound. The drummer batters away at his kit without ever developing any sense of groove, the guitar solos are formless flurries of notes without melody or structure, and there is absolutely no use of dynamics. As a sheer wall of noise it lacks the visceral fury of the likes of Napalm Death. There is evidence of some technical instrumental ability here and there, but they’re failing to do anything worthwhile with those chops.

In the hands of a band who know what they’re doing, metal can produce wonderful life-changing music. But as Sturgeon’s Law famously states, 90% of everything is crud, and this record sadly falls far below the Sturgeon threshold.

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Lonely Robot – Please Come Home

John Mitchell - Lonely RobotJohn Mitchell is a well-known figure in the British progressive rock world, lead guitarist of both Arena and Frost*, and frontman for the current incarnation of 80s veterans It Bites. Now, after more than a decade as a member of multiple bands at the same time, he’s finally launched a solo project, Lonely Robot.

John Mitchell plays the majority of instruments himself aside from drums by Craig Blundell. Guest musicians include Mitchell’s Frost* bandmate Jem Godfrey appears on keys, and Marillion frontman Steve Hogarth who finds employment on piano on a couple of songs. Legendary virtuoso Nick Beggs also makes an appearance on bass and Chapman Stick. Likewise Mitchell handles the majority of the vocals himself, although he’s joined by guests including former Mostly Autumn singer Heather Findlay, Touchstone’s Kim Seviour and Go West’s Peter Cox. Finally, voice actor Lee Ingleby provides background narration right across the record.

The end result is a varied but hugely impressive album. It goes from dense guitar-heavy industrial prog-metal to gorgeous ballads to uptempo 80s-style pop-rock, with imaginative arrangements that frequently veer off in unexpected directions. There is plenty of fluid lead guitar, but this is an album about songcraft and atmospherics rather than a guitar-chops record, and Mitchell keeps the solos short and to the point. It’s all given the sort of clear and crisp production we’ve come to expect from anything John Mitchell is involved with.

Highlights include the guitar-shredding instrumental opener “Airlock”, the beautiful duet with Heather Findlay, “Why Do We Say”, the ambitious and kaleidoscopic title track, the somewhat Tangerine Dream-like “Are We Copies” and the soaring ballad “Humans Being”, featuring a guitar solo from Nik Kershaw. But this is one of those albums that doesn’t have any filler; every song has something to commend it.

While there are certainly echoes of It Bites and of Frost*, this record is its own thing, and despite the variety it hangs together very well as a coherent musical whole. The various guest artists all enhance the record without stealing the show, and the end result is the first essential record of 2015 from the British progressive rock scene.

Thus review also appeas in Trebuchet Magazine.

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Napalm Death: Apex Predator – Easy Meat

Apex Predator - Easy MeatNapalm Death are one of those iconic underground bands. Their blend of extreme metal and hardcore punk was never in any danger of crossing over into the commercial mainstream, but their longevity combined with their refusal to compromise has made them household names even to those who find their actual music an unlistenable wall of noise. Their appearance on BBC2′s “Arena” at the beginning of their career in 1989 isn’t something that’s easily forgotten.

Their latest album “Apex Predator – Easy Meat” proves that they still have something to say a quarter of a century later. It’s a dark, angry record about a dark world that contains plenty to be angry about.

It starts off in deeply experimental territory. The opening title track with it’s eerie soundcapes with clanking percussion and robotic chanted vocals come over like some kind of Dalek marching band. With the second number “Smash a Single Digit” the guitars and machine-gun drumming come and batter down down the door. Individual songs blur into one another in a wall of ferocious guitar and angry screaming vocals, aided by a production that tears out of the speakers and nails you to the opposite wall.

It’s not quite all unrelenting high-speed barrage. “Dear Slum Landlord” slows down the pace, with Mark Greenway almost singing clean vocals,”Hierarchies” even features gregorian chant style vocal harmonies, and the monstrous closing “Adversarial/Copulating Snakes”, at five minutes, is something of an epic by their standards.

This is a record that manages to combine the visceral fury of punk with the dexterity and precision of metal, all played with such an intensity that it’s hard to take in the whole album in one go. Easy listening it ain’t. Napalm Death show absolutely no signs of mellowing in their old age, and they’ve made a record that’s utterly uncompromising, at times it almost making even Slayer’s “Reign in Blood” sound pedestrian.

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