Avantasia – Ghostlights

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Nuclear Blast

Review by Tom Mead

amazon_badgeitunes_logo03-300x112What started as a bit of fun for Tobias Sammet and friends with the Metal Opera albums 15 years ago has arguably now become more popular than his “day job” with German Power Metallers Edguy. Avantasia has become a project that doesn’t just appeal to Lord of the Rings-obsessed Power Metal fans; the blend of Hard Rock, symphonic elements and musical theatre has reached a large, worldwide audience. Ghostlights, their seventh album, is one of Avantasia’s strongest, with a diverse range of well-executed songs that should see their audience expand even further.

Things kick off in typically bombastic fashion with lead single Mystery of a Blood Red Rose. This is an upbeat piano-led rocker that Meat Loaf mastermind Jim Steinman would be proud of.  At the time of writing, this song is in contention to represent Germany at Eurovision, and it neatly captures the fun and spirit of such an occasion, with little of the cheese.

Ghostlights is a sequel to previous album The Mystery of Time, continuing the story of Victorian scientist Aaron Blackwell, played by Sammet, but it is far superior to its predecessor. The Mystery of Time, while full of good songs, lacked bite, with many fans dismayed at the absence of regular guest vocalist Jorn Lande, of Masterplan fame. Never fear though, the iron-lunged Norwegian is back and he immediately makes his presence felt on second track Let the Storm Descend Upon You.  12 minutes long, this naturally serves as a centrepiece of the album and manages to maintain momentum throughout, with an effective vocal battle between Sammet, Lande, Pretty MaidsRonnie Atkins and newcomer Robert Mason of Warrant.

The album as a whole has a much darker atmosphere than previous Avantasia albums.  The Haunting is a gothic lullaby, not too dissimilar from previous songs The Toy Master and Death Is Just a Feeling, where Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider plays the creepy clown persona to perfection. We also have something a little different with Draconian Love, a driving track with a distinct Type O Negative feel; Sinbreed’s Herbie Langhans does his best Andrew Eldritch impression and the light/shade contrast between his and Sammet’s vocals works brilliantly. The heaviest, darkest song on the album though is Seduction of Decay, featuring former Queensrÿche singer Geoff Tate. While it has a great, mystical feel to it, it is admittedly a slight misfire; it’s overly long, and the fact of the matter is that Tate has not sounded his best for 25 years, so this could have been much better.

There are no worries about being past one’s prime with Michael Kiske though. The ex-Helloween singer and frequent Avantasia contributor’s balls-in-a-vice-grip falsetto is as glorious as it ever was on the album’s title track, which is one of the few overtly power metal songs here. There’s more traditional fare elsewhere too. Master of the Pendulum has a savage, Thrashy edge to it and suits Marco Hietala’s voice nicely as it has a similar tone to many recent Nightwish songs. Babylon Vampires is the most Edguy-like track here. Sammet is understandably in his element on this stomping glam number, with Robert Mason adding a healthy dose of L.A. sleaze and there’s excellent triple-guitar work from ex-KISS axeman Bruce Kulick and regular Avantasia guitarists Oliver Hartmann and Sascha Paeth. It’s not all perfect though, with Unchain the Light being slightly flat. It’s perfectly performed, with Sammet, Atkins and Kiske all on fine form, but it’s the only occasion where the power metal clichés are a bit too prominent for comfort.

Ultimately, the lighter moments on Ghostlights are the real highlights, as this is where Tobias Sammet’s talents as a composer and arranger are most clearly evident. Power/Symphonic Metal ballads have a tendency to be unbearably cheesy and boring, but Avantasia’s have long been the envy of other bands. Isle of Evermore sees a welcome return for Within Temptation’s Sharon Den Adel, making her first Avantasia appearance since the Metal Opera albums. This ethereal ballad has gothic and post-punk elements reminiscent of Kate Bush at her best, so suits Den Adel perfectly. Lucifer is primarily just Jorn Lande accompanied by nothing but a piano and some strings, but he could sing the dictionary and it’d be more captivating than the output of 90% of European Power Metal bands, such is the power of his leonine roar. The song bursts into life halfway through with a blistering solo from Bruce Kulick leading to a triumphant crescendo. And last but not least we have closing track A Restless Heart and Obsidian Skies. It wouldn’t be an Avantasia album without an appearance from Magnum frontman Bob Catley, and he brings a touch of class to proceedings to end the album on an emotional, celebratory note.

Ghostlights is an album that will satisfy all fans of melodic, symphonic or progressive hard rock. Tobias Sammet has made one of the best albums of his career, and this is probably the strongest set of musicians to play together under the Avantasia banner. For all its excesses, this is actually fairly unpretentious music; this album is, more than anything else, a consummate demonstration of what can be achieved when you have good, honest songs and talented musicians who thoroughly enjoy performing them.

Verdict: 9/10

Dream Theater – The Astonishing

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Roadrunner Records

Review by Tom Mead

amazon_badgeitunes_logo03-300x112Concept album: two words that will have many people running for the hills in terror. But The Astonishing is no ordinary concept album. This is a Dream Theater concept album, so it’s a 2-disc, 34-track, 130-minute behemoth; the above-mentioned people would no doubt rather drink liquid nitrogen than even attempt to give this a listen.

It is understandable to be sceptical about what’s on offer here. Dream Theater guitarist John Petrucci has created a futuristic dystopian story where a totalitarian government rules a society where music is artificially created and personal expression is strongly discouraged. Sounds a lot like Rush’s 2112, and there are also elements of Hunger Games and Romeo & Juliet. This is a ridiculously ambitious and daunting prospect by a band that, for many, is the epitome of all the worst excesses and pretensions of prog rock.

The ironic thing is, despite the conceptual nature of this project, The Astonishing might actually gain Dream Theater several new fans, as it is arguably the most accessible-sounding album they’ve ever made. Things start off in typical fashion, with Dystopian Overture acting as a bombastic, frantic run-through of the album’s major themes before lead single The Gift of Music kicks things off properly with a fast pace, backed by choirs and strings, that recalls Dream Theater’s earlier conceptual piece Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. But throughout The Astonishing, the usual widdly excesses are in startlingly short supply.  There has most definitely been a conscious decision to focus on accessible, shorter songs (the longest is just 7 minutes) that carry the story effectively, with the emphasis on vocals, piano and strings as opposed to guitar and drums.

Now, for many Dream Theater fans, this sounds like a disastrous state of affairs, and I can understand the frustration. Many of the songs here are essentially ballads, devoid of much of the technicality that typifies most of Dream Theater’s music, but I’d argue some are amongst the best ballads they’ve ever written. When Your Time Has Come has a great synth-laden atmosphere that perfectly fits a key moment in the story, when the star-crossed lovers Gabriel and Faythe meet for the first time. There’s also Chosen, which is introspective yet powerful, and Hymn of a Thousand Voices, a melancholic fiddle-based folk song that’s quite unlike anything Dream Theater have recorded before.

There’s no lack of bite here though. The music on The Astonishing varies to suit each character in the story, with darker, heavier passages fitting the more dramatic and tragic elements. An ominous fanfare heralds the entrance of villain Emperor Nafaryus in A Savior in the Square, and the crushing Moment of Betrayal, which sets up the tragic events in the latter part of the story, is the album’s heaviest song. We also see variety in A New Beginning, which is one of the few songs to have Dream Theater’s usual length and complexity, and in the upbeat rocky number Our New World.

Despite the accessible nature of many of the songs here, The Astonishing is ultimately far from perfect because it asks an awful lot of its listeners. To fully appreciate it, you need to listen to the whole thing in one go and pay close attention; most of the music here sounds better when you consider the role it plays in describing the characters and advancing the story. In that respect, the whole thing has more in common with a stage musical than a standard rock album, and this unorthodoxy simply will not be to everyone’s tastes. Also, Dream Theater have done the whole concept album thing much better in the past with the seminal Metropolis Part 2: Scenes From A Memory. There are many good points to The Astonishing, but it does not flow or effortlessly engage the listener as well as Dream Theater’s previous attempt at rock opera did.

If you’d hoped that Dream Theater’s new concept album would be as good as Operation: Mindcrime or The Wall, then you will be disappointed here. To be fair, those albums, along with Dream Theater’s own Scenes From A Memory, are masterpieces that are near impossible to equal. Dream Theater should be applauded for attempting something of such scope and ambition; they’ve created a decent story, complemented by good music, and, when all is said and done, it’s nice to see a band that’s been going for 30 years still willing to try new things. Be patient and attentive, and you’ll realise that The Astonishing is a rewarding listen indeed.

Verdict: 8/10

 

Magnum – Sacred Blood, Divine Lies

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SPV/Steamhammer

Review by Rick Ossian

amazon_badgeAccording to my calculation, if you include live albums, this is #20 for the folks at Magnum.  Formed in Birmingham in 1972 by Tony Clarkin (guitars) and Bob Catley (vocals), they have been active pretty much ever since, save for a hiatus from 1995 to 2001.  Though the two blokes listed above have remained at the core over the years, several personnel changes have taken place.  Currently the Dynamic Duo are rounded out by longterm ivory-tickler Mark Stanway and relative new boys, Al Barrow (bass since 2001, formerly with Hard Rain, also a well known photographer) and Gary “Harry” James (drums, probably best known as a member of Thunder).  Brief mention should be made of the cover art, by the one-and-only Rodney Matthews (Nazareth, Avantasia, among others), who could be said to be an extension of the group, à la Roger Dean (cover art for Yes, Asia, etc.) or Storm Thorgerson of Hipgnosis (cover art for Pink Floyd and a host of others).  For the previously uninitiated, Magnum are perhaps best known for their LP, On a Storyteller’s Night (1985, featuring Just Like an Arrow), which garnered them much acclaim and commercial success.

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The fellows begin with the title track, which features a mid-tempo and a sweet beat.  The licks, the riffs, the vocals are all there, and some considerable swagger with a wicked bottom end.  At the four-and-a-half minute mark we get a decent lead guitar solo as well.  This track is a bit long for radio consideration, but is a fantastic lead-off track.

Crazy Old Mothers is up next, and features a piano intro, then slamming, stately, even majestic riffing.  The key instrument here is the piano, pun fully intended.  The vocals are powerful, even commanding at times.  This track is more of a down-tempo number, and is considerably mellower fare, but also features some heavy riffing.  There is another guitar solo (hooray!) at 4:15.

Gypsy Queen is another track which could be said to be stately, among other things.  The piano/synth intro is beautiful, but begins a bit of a sobering, disturbing trend to the proceedings.  The vocals may be a bit rough, but they are still pretty solid.  There is a sweet main riff, plus some very heavy, magnificent drum work.  There is a nice, heavy rolling beat and uptempo rhythm going on as well, and the obligatory guitar solo at the 2:45 mark.

Princess In Rags (The Cult) follows up, and has a savior intro of sorts in that it is heavy as hell (perhaps a visit to Riff City IS in order, after all), but things are slightly tempered with synthesizer.  We cannot, alas, have it all, dear reader.  There are some definite pussy boner vocals going on here, in my opinion.  I can see the appeal.  The majestic mood prevails again, this time with more of a ‘modern’ vibe, if you will.  There is some cool riffing, but a decidedly huge chunk of keys, and they are the driving force of the track AGAIN.  This is a chugging, uptempo number with yet another guitar solo at 3:40.  Anybody out there detecting a pattern yet?

Your Dreams Won’t Die continues this rather disturbing trend towards the syrupy side of things.  The keys/synth intro and a nice drum beat start things off, and the vocals are again considerably powerful.  There is some sandpaper audible, but still mostly clean gravel.  The keys are driving again, which, as I said, I found slightly disturbing.  Once again, this is stately, majestic stuff, but considerably mellower than the first few tracks.  This is more ballad-style fodder.

Afraid of the Night is more of the same, I’m afraid.  I really dig the majestic vibe, but again the piano is driving the song.  This track featured a pretty cool guitar intro, and was slightly heavier, with some bluesy things happening.  An instrumental breakdown adds some weight to the proceedings, but the vocals interrupt it.  There is a good guitar solo at 3:20.

A Forgotten Conversation begins life with violin and seriously mellow vocals on the intro, with the piano driving AGAIN.  Some heavy riffing is involved, though, so we can’t completely ignore it.  Powerful vocals may yet be the saving grace for this and several of the other tracks.  At 2:20 the piano and vocals sort of take charge, but a guitar solo (3:30) can be said to have saved things once again.  Perhaps these fellows are relying a bit too much on the piano intro and the obligatory guitar solos?  Funny you should ask…

Quiet Rhapsody goes down the same path, unfortunately.  It is more in the ballad style again, though it does feature some heavy drumming at the outset and some nice riffs, plus a bit of guitar FX thrown in for good measure.  There are strings, particularly violin, in place, and it is decidedly mellower than the first few tracks.  Broken record, Rick!  Yes, I know, readers, and I AM sorry about that.  Will have to be more careful in the future…Another guitar solo and a brief instrumental breakdown with violins later, and this track is over.  “Now all your yesterdays are gone“, Bob tells us.  Perhaps their tomorrows, as well.

Twelve Men Wise and Just is another mellow, ballad-style number, with a piano and vocal intro.  It is very mellow, and YES, the piano is driving again.  I suppose we should be used to this by now.  There is some building up of riffage in the first minute or so, and it is chugging, mostly uptempo, with another of the famed instrumental breakdowns where the vocals interrupt!  I am sorry but I do not like where this is headed.

Don’t Cry Baby, today’s closer, is another mellow one.  It occurred to me whilst listening that some of this stuff would be good FM fodder if it didn’t come off so pretentious.  The same familiar elements are still in play; ballad-style production, piano being the driving force, and the stately, majestic grandeur for the personality, or the mood of the song, if you will.  There is actually a piano solo this time (3:10) and a brief guitar solo at 4:20.

If what I have described to you above appears a bit maudlin’, even perhaps a bit boring, then don’t bother to check your glasses or your eyes – you read correctly.  I entered into this particular review expecting more, I guess, so if I sound disappointed, it is because I am.  Half marks, then!

Verdict: 5/10

Megadeth – Dystopia

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Tradecraft

Review by Tom Mead

amazon_badgeitunes_logo03-300x112Recruiting new, prominent members is one sure-fire way of making people pay attention to your new album. Dystopia marks the Megadeth debut of Angra’s Kiko Loureiro on guitar and Lamb of God’s Chris Adler on drums, and their respective reputations have ensured that this is the band’s most anticipated album since the “reunion” album The System Has Failed was released in 2004.

This new line-up change could have been a risky strategy; Megadeth has always been, to all intents and purposes, Dave Mustaine’s band and so recruiting two new musicians who are essentially both leaders in long-established and respected bands themselves runs the risk of egos clashing and Mustaine’s vision for Megadeth becoming somewhat compromised. Luckily though, listening to Dystopia suggests that this potentially sticky situation has not come to pass; this new group of players sounds great together and, as a result, Dystopia is arguably Megadeth’s strongest album in years.

The new members make their presence felt immediately on opening track The Threat is Real. Following an ominous middle-eastern vocal intro, the song sneaks up on you, hits you round the back of the head and steals your lunch money. The band sounds more energised than it’s been in years, and Chris Adler shows that he is perhaps the tightest drummer Megadeth have ever had.

Fatal Illusion is another early highlight. “Spilling all their blood was a promise that he’d keep/Hate so strong revived him from a deep necrotic sleep”: this tale of a serial killer who seeks revenge after being buried alive is classic thrash material. These lyrics accompanied by a distinctive David Ellefson bassline mean that this fast but precise track wouldn’t sound out of place on Megadeth’s earlier albums. We’re also in classic territory with Lying in State, which has an intensity that many Megadeth fans may have missed; probably the heaviest song on the album, this is where we feel the full effect of Adler’s drumming.

This is ultimately a fairly diverse album, and there are several other tracks that highlight Mustaine’s ambition. Bullet to the Brain is one of the more dynamic numbers here with militaristic drumming and a multitude of technical riffs. The Emperor shows Mustaine’s punky, pissed-off side as he snarls “You’re bad for my health, you make me sick, you prick!” And Poisonous Shadows is perhaps the most ambitious song Megadeth have ever done. A chorus of palm muting and double-bass drumming blended with symphonic elements, it’s almost like Meshuggah meets Nightwish. Throw in Kiko Loureiro showing his diversity with a piano outro and you have a grandiose achievement that is thoroughly impressive though, admittedly, may not be to everyone’s tastes.

While the high points here are numerous, Dystopia is not quite the all-conquering triumph that many people would like to think it is. The instrumental track Conquer…Or Die!, while technically impressive, is not really much of a “song”; it sounds like a scale exercise that someone’s recorded by mistake. Moreover, Post-American World lumbers along uninspiringly but the most divisive track here is perhaps the title track. Dystopia has a good upbeat feel to it, and it’s where we properly get to hear what Kiko Loureiro is made of as a guitarist, but the parallels with Hangar 18 are embarrassingly obvious, right down to the bridge in the middle that precedes a barrage of solos. Nods to past efforts are dotted throughout the album, and Dystopia is undeniably played with a level of skill and precision that most bands would dream of, but that doesn’t stop it from ultimately being a highly derivative song. When a band tries to recapture past glories, you do run the risk of copying yourself; in fairness though, the fact that Megadeth only really cross this line on one track on Dystopia indicates that, overall, it remains a decent album.

All in all, this new line-up of Megadeth has made a good start to working together. Elements brought from Lamb of God and Angra are evident, but do not overshadow or compromise that quintessential Megadeth thrash sound. One or two misfires aside, this is a rebirth and rejuvenation akin to Testament’s The Formation of Damnation or Kreator’s Enemy of God. Who knows if the new members are here on a permanent basis, but I look forward to seeing what else they contribute if they are.

Verdict: 8/10

 

Abbath – Abbath

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Season of Mist

Review by Tom Mead

amazon_badgeitunes_logo03-300x112The future of Immortal, everyone’s favourite meme-generating Norwegian Panda Metal band, appears uncertain since the departure of frontman/guitarist Abbath Doom Occulta last year.  Fortunately though, if the remaining Immortal band members struggle to continue without him, Abbath has shown with this new band and album that bear his name that his former band’s legacy of icy Black Metal is at least safe in his hands.

Accompanied by go-to Norwegian Metal sideman King Ov Hell on bass and French session drummer Creature (aka Kevin Foley) on drums, Abbath has crafted 8 excellent tracks of varying degrees of Extreme Metal ferocity. To War! kicks things off nicely, doing exactly what it says on the tin; it’s a pounding, anthemic call-to-arms that recalls the thrash/black crossover sound of latter-day Immortal.  Winterbane follows with a rhythm that some purists may feel is a bit too upbeat for Black Metal, but this does nothing to diminish the cold atmosphere that the title implies (and the doom-laden, semi-acoustic midsection is brilliant).

It’s a shame that Creature has since left the band, as his Death Metal origins (he’s previously played with Benighted and Sepultura amongst others) add an interesting dimension to the band’s sound, leading to similarities with the Blackened Death Metal of Behemoth. This is most notably heard on Ashes of the Damned, which, like Behemoth’s music, includes horns to enhance the atmosphere.

Immortal didn’t just rely on high speeds to create the right mood, and neither does Abbath. Ocean of Wounds is a great mid-paced number, as is Root of the Mountain, which I would say is the album’s standout track.  Taking cues from the likes of Enslaved and Amon Amarth, the band’s conjured up a great Viking atmosphere here, with King in particular delivering a superb galloping bassline that would have even Steve Harris himself nodding along in approval.

Don’t worry if you think this all means Abbath has abandoned his true, grim Black Metal roots. Fenrir Hunts and Endless are more traditional Black Metal fare, with blastbeats and howling guitars aplenty. Moreover, the thrashy Count the Dead is full of crushing riffs and blistering solos, with Abbath trading licks nicely with session player Ole André Farstad. The sonic diversity and clear production on show here might ultimately disappoint some old school Immortal and general Black Metal fans (though they probably haven’t liked any Black Metal albums released in the last 20 years, so it’s a largely insignificant point!)

Following all the tragic deaths that the rock world has suffered over the past month (I’m typing this having only heard of the passing of Rainbow and Dio bassist Jimmy Bain a few hours ago), we need to remind ourselves that there is still plenty of great music being created by many great musicians. Whether Abbath is someone with “legendary” status or not is a controversial debate topic, but one thing’s for certain; he’s made the first great Metal album of 2016.  This is an album to be played loudly and proudly, and should hopefully satisfy most long-term Immortal fans, whilst also appealing to Metal fans in general.  Don’t let the memes fool you, there’s much more to Abbath than wearing odd makeup and running around forests in the snow.

Verdict: 9/10

P.S. Make sure you get the special edition to hear a cracking cover of Judas Priest’s Riding on the Wind.

Witchcraft – Nucleus

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Nuclear Blast

Review by Rick Ossian

amazon_badgeitunes_logo03-300x112Doom and gloom enthusiasts will be happy (or will they?) to know that Orebro, Sweden’s Witchcraft are up to their new tricks again.  These purveyors of pessimism may seem bleak at first, but there is some considerably good musicianship and writing and arranging going on here, particularly considering that they are a three-piece combo.  But Rick, you say – isn’t the history of Hard Rock and Heavy Metal loaded with wicked three-piece combos?  Yes, indeed, dear reader – they are.  We’ve always had Taste or Cream or Rush or the Jimi Hendrix Experience to look to.  That’s not my point here.  What we need to address is the quality AND the quantity of noise – music, if you prefer.  Both are finer points of Witchcraft‘s attack.  Though they may indeed be arbiters of anger (you want more? I got lots more!), they can also really jam.

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Take the first track, for example.  In opener Malstroem, (Maelstrom is the way I thought it was spelled- who knew), the boys do some seriously disturbing stuff.  The vocals are at once thoughtful, haunting, creepy, even apocalyptic at times.  You will hear me say this again.  Magnus Pelander (vocals, guitar)’s vocals are eerily wobbly.  Try to say THAT one five times fast, tongue twister aficionados!  His cohorts, Tobias Anger on bass and Rage Widerberg on drums, are in-the-pocket when it comes to a good rhythm section.  More than once was I reminded of the engine room(s) of such stalwarts as Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Uriah Heep whilst listening to these gents.

But I digress. Malstroem is about as intense as it gets.  It starts off with a doomy fingerpicking intro.  It will make you feel as if something ominous is about to enter your stratosphere.  Yes, its that creepy.  Some nice guitar work, though, with a building intensity about it.  At just past the minute in mark they kick into classic doom and gloom Sabbath-style riffing, stopping briefly to take on some Metallica-esque ‘metal marching’, if you will.  At 2:15 they shift to an even slower beat.  At three minutes the riffs are heavy as fuck and plodding like the proverbial plesiosaurs.  At 3:40 the vocals came in, and I must confess to being as surprised as anyone.  I thought for sure this track would be an instrumental!  Some slow and deliberate jamming here.  At 5:40 they go up a step, then back (5:50) to another slow plod.  At about seven-and-a-half minutes in they decide to shift an even heavier, slower plod.  Then they go up a step and close with some solitary riffing.  Truly a monster track.  This one is worth the ride by itself!  An 8 1/2 minute track for the opening song?? What were they thinking?  I don’t know, but it certainly worked for me!

The next track, Theory of Consequence, is the same sort of thing only much, MUCH smaller.  At just under two-and-a-half minutes, we get feedback and heavy riffs right from the intro.  Classic dinosaur-ish metal.  Magnus proclaims “stupid and dumb/your favorite words” to his nemesis.  There is shifting speeds again, sort of like the previous track only in microcosm.

The Outcast is back into the bizarre world of retro rock again, and they kick us in the face first off with a drum intro and some heavy riffing.  This is an upbeat temp, more ‘regular’ Heavy Metal/Hard Rock, if you will.  Is that a flute I hear in there?  Why, yes, I believe it is.  But only briefly, dear reader…you wouldn’t even probably have noticed it had I not been kind enough to mention it!  At 2:35 there is a major shift into some feedback, then midtempo, then introspective fingerpicking again.  The vocals slowly begin to rant and rage, and then at the four-minute mark we get a lead guitar solo!  Hooray for leads!  At 4:35 proceedings turn into a squalling beehive of wah/crybaby FX.  This goes right up to the close of the track and is just beautiful.. At just shy of six minutes it is another doomy, proggy masterpiece.

The title track, meanwhile, could most likely stand on its own.  It is at least half of an EP, at just over fourteen minutes, it is a Metal monster.  The ominous intro on guitar should clue you in, we’re in for another long and winding ride!  At two minutes in the vocals start, and they are super creepy.  Magnus gets extra points for overall creepiness.  At three minutes in, we are back in Riff City, with some powerful vocals to boot.  These vocals are plaintive and painful at the same time.  Angry, even (4 minutes in).  At 4:35 there is a screaming guitar solo, and at 6:20 we get a shift back to slow acoustics.  This seems to be a pattern with these boys, but I didn’t think it was overdone.  At seven-and-a-half minutes in they throw the chanting monks into the mix (dirge-like with drums).  Then, at 9:50, we get a lead guitar solo on top of this! Keeping up?  I thought so!  At eleven-and-a-half minutes in, a wailing witch is added to the mix, then we have the final section, which I would confess is a bit boring – spooky, but repetitive.  I wouldn’t let it detract you from the overall bleak nature of the tune.  If bleak is your thing, then this is your road map, baby!

An Exorcism of Doubts is up next.  It is another longer track, but only half the length of its predecessor.  It is more of the Sabbath-style doom-and-gloom concoction, but you will get used to it if you just let the music be your master!  This is a heavy blues, with heavy-as-fuck riffing to boot.  At the 3:20 mark we get a Bluesy lead guitar solo.  At the four-minute mark, however, we get a new movement – a shift to uptempo beat with heavy-as-hell riffing AGAIN.  Lots of riffs here, good ones for the most part.  It is also very, very Sabbath-y.  Did I mention that?  At the 5:20 mark there are more of the angry vocals.  At 6 minute in we go back to the plodding blues with a lead guitar spot on top of it.  At 6:40 they shift yet again back to the introspective acoustic guitar strumming.  A band’s got to have a place to go at the end, after all.  Another 7.5 minute masterpiece!

The Obsessed has more in the same vein; a nice drum intro, some heavy Sabbath-style riffing.  This time out, however, they use one of my favorite words in their lyrical scheme of things.  Just see if you can spot it, reader!  The vocals seem to be almost shrouded in the mix at times, but I think that’s just one of the myriad FX these blokes have in their arsenal.  There are clouds and wind on here, too – go figure!  There are also a couple of fine guitar pieces, one at 2:20 and another at the four-minute mark.  This is NOT just another plodding blues.  But it sort of is.  There is some Uriah Heep influence going on in here too, methinks.

To Transcend Bitterness features another Heavy Metal riff-happy intro.  The vocals are painful, even angry again.  The riffing is mainly uptempo, and there is another shift at the two-minute mark.  Some feedback, riffs, and more angry vocals later, and we have another four-minute number in the bag!

Helpless is about six-and-a-half minutes (wow), and begins AGAIN with an  introspective creepy fingerpicking intro.  This time they throw in some keys for good measure.  The vocals are intensely creepy, and plaintive – just like before.  As I said before, sometimes a pattern can be a good thing.  Sometimes, not so much.  I mention it only in passing.

Breakdown, the closer, is the longest grandaddy of them all.  This bugger is just shy of 16 minutes, and is another Witchcraft EP all by itself in the works.  Figuratively speaking, that is.  I’m not sure what they had in mind, but I’m sure this track could stand alone if it needed to.  I will say this – it is a lot more interesting at the beginning than it is at the end.  There is some bogging down and some repetitive aspects of the track that will probably bore a few metal mavens out there.  We shall see, and time will tell.  I listened to this track twice and was still enthralled till the last few minutes or so.

It starts out life with the obligatory FX (waves, I think), then some guitar and bells (??) and things.  It sounds a bit bass-y at first, but then it could just be the lower end of the guitar spectrum.  The vocals are eerily wobbly again, but I like the intensity of it.  It is very creepy, even the lyrics can get to you: ‘how deep is this?/ how shallow can we be?‘  Some strumming and vocals at the 3-minute mark slowly fade into some guitar FX at around 5:35.  The bells serve a sinister purpose, I just KNOW they do – not sure what, though.  Not yet.  They do go on a bit longer.  The poetry snippet at 7 minutes in kind of surprised me – briefly.  Some serious feedback and heavy, HEAVY riffs later, I noted that there was some really sad stuff going on here.  Thematically, lyrically, that is.  At 10 and 1/2 minutes in Magnus is literally howling his delivery, and things get pretty depressing.  It is a harrowing tale, after all.  The FX are almost ghostly.  At twelve minutes in, we get some wind FX.  There is evidently a storm a brewing.  The vocal/radio FX plus the feedback towards the close is where they start to lose me.  At fourteen minutes in they add witches and warlocks moaning, and it gets sort of long and boring and repetitive.  But other than that, a truly captivating track.  The whole recording is well done, especially if you like your metal on the slightly unhappy side!

Verdict: 8/10

Simo – Let Love Show the Way

 

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Mascot Label Group

Review by Rick Ossian

amazon_badgeitunes_logo03-300x112When first listening to this Blues/Psych/Rock extravaganza, I thought my ears were betraying me.  Could it be, I mused? A throwback to the West Coast of the mid-to-late 1960’s?  Trust me, if you are listening to these cats jam you are conjuring memories of the same time zone and most likely a similar place.  I was recalling jams I hadn’t heard in years, particularly Creedence Clearwater Revival or Jefferson Airplane, but with a Heavier, Bluesier edge to the tunes.  Imagine Iron Butterfly with a decidedly Wolfmother tweak to it, and you’re probably in the same neighborhood.  If you like your Blues mixed with a little Rock, or vice versa, then THIS is the set for you!

Simo have been on the scene since 2011, but I believe this is their first full-length recording.  They are from Nashville, Tennessee and are comprised of J.D. Simo on guitars and vocals, Elad Shapiro on bass and Adam Abrashoff on drums.  This collection of recordings comes out on January 29th.  As I mentioned above, if you are even a casual fan of Blues/Rock, then DO NOT pass up this opportunity.  Go to your Apple or Amazon app (for your convenience, click on the relevant link above! – Ed) or your local music store or whatever you have to do to obtain these tasty treats for your ears!

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The lead off track, Stranger Blues, may as well be the single – according to this source it was the track most requested thus far.  It is perfect for FM (well, perhaps a bit long at just over five minutes), and features a heavy blues rock riff with a powerful Southern Rock-style vocal a la Gregg Allman.  There are two lead guitar solos as well!

Two-Timin Woman is another slice of rocking Blues, and kicks off about half-way in with a stinging slide-laced solo that sticks with the main tune throughout.  Can’t Say Her Name (‘cos it’s called something different every day’) is a serious Blues.  What could be Bluer, you might ask?  The next track, certainly.  I Lied is a heavy bass-driven number, with a psych breakdown section featuring lead guitar with wah/crybaby FX through to the close.

Please starts up with a crack! on the drums to signal yet another rave-up.  This is old-school Blues Rock, about a man breaking up with his woman.  Definitely Bluer!  Another lead guitar solo rounds this one out.  Long May You Sail begins life with a majestic lead and rhythm intro.  We’re half-way in and no complaints so far, folks.  Solid vocals and more blues rock power assault our senses with this number.  There are lead solos a-plenty, as well.  This one IS a bit surreal – the leads sound a bit like bagpipes.  At 1:50 J.D. cuts loose with a squealing barrage of crazy wah/crybaby FX (again), and a big WAH at the end also.

I’ll Always Be Around commences with a positively sinister Blues intro.  This is serious Blues, with a heavy build-up in the first minute.  The mere fact that there is a Blues crescendo of sorts gives this one it’s MOJO, baby!  Lot of slide mixed with the lead solo right up to the end – again!  This is a pattern that, fortunately, bears repeating.

Becky’s Last Occupation should win points for title alone, but it’s not it really needs any.  This is more of the same powerful heavy Blues Rock that we’ve already been exposed to from these gents.  There is excellent use of sustain, echo and feedback here.  J.D. is obviously no stranger to danger when it comes to being a master of his fretboard.  This tune also features a nice, heavy beat and a good solid, strong vocal as well.  The guitar solo at 2:10 sort of brings it all home, and we end with another nice big WAH!

I’d Rather Die in Vain is the first of the two monster Blues guitar workout, and at almost 10 minutes, suffice it to say we probably won’t be charging onto the FM waves with this one.  Unless, of course, the boys sanction one of those radio edits we’re always hearing so much about.  This is an enormous, powerful Blues monster of a track, and features some heavy distortion during the long mid-section.  This is classic three-piece Blues Rock jamming in the vein of Cream or Rory Gallagher‘s Taste.  Some very fine bass work shines on here as well, and we have a very strong finish.

Today I Am Here is one of two plaintive guitar laments, sort of a Country Blues.  This one just happens to be an instrumental.  The title track is up next, and is another of the longer tracks at 6 minutes on the nose.  It starts us off with a cool feedback/wah intro, then more heavy Psych Blues.  This is not merely a ‘tear in my beer’ Blues, however – this is thoughtful, sophisticated stuff.  It even SOUNDS genuine!  Love the wah, by the way.  I like how the Blues turns heavy and thrashing (think Neil Young’s Crazy Horse and you’ve got a good idea), and extra points for the instrumental breakdown section – especially the BASS! Wow! Some excellent bass work here.  Another Heavy Blues crescendo sort of steals the scene at the end, and the close is an acoustic Blues.

Track Twelve, Ain’t Doin’ Nothin‘, is another big monster Blues/Rock guitar workout, and again instrumental.  The sheer length along (just shy of 14 minutes) makes one think they are in for an endurance test, but rest assured, dear reader, if you like what you’ve heard so far then you are in for no surprises.  There is some impressive jazzy ensemble playing here, and all three members shine at one or two points herein.  Lot of soloing, and a long improvisational jam as well.  I was reminded of everyone from Jimmy Page (feedback/violin-style FX), Alex Lifeson (Rush) and John Fogerty of the aforementioned CCR.  Again, there are some very cool bass guitar licks as well.

Proceedings are closed out with the other plaintive Acoustic Country-Blues lament, this time with vocals.  Please Be With Me is its title, and there is some rather nice playing on here also.  Top marks for the entire recording!

Verdict: 10/10