Album of the Week 03-2021: Onmyo-za – Ryūō Dōji


Onmyo-za usually releases a new album every year or so. ‘Ryūō Dōji’ is their first album in nearly five years, presumably largely due to health issues that affected the hearing and vocal cords of singer Kuroneko. Fortunately, she sounds incredible here, though that could also be the restult of ‘Ryūō Dōji’ not being anwhere near as heavy as its direct predecessor ‘Hadō Myōō’. This is definitely the most traditional-sounding Onmyo-za album released in quite a while. But at the same time, it does not really sound like anything the band has released so far. It does, however, sound really good.

While all the melodies are instantly recognizable as ones that singer, bassist and band leader Matatabi would write for Onmyo-za, the experimentation on ‘Ryūō Dōji’ is in the song structures and the way the melodies are constructed. Melodies tend to stop earlier than one would expect based on the band’s output and not every part of the songs is in the place similar parts usually are. For instance, Matatabi has a tendency to open the first proper song with a catchy uptempo hardrock riff, but ‘Ryuso’ kicks off with Kuroneko singing a melancholic melody with minimal accompaniment. The expected riff does follow later, but these slight changes keep things fresh without alienating listeners.

‘Ibaragi Dōji’ was released as a single last month and in a way, the song is a tad misleading. It suggests a similarly heavy approach as the previous album, but despite a fair share of crushing riffs, ‘Ryūō Dōji’ is far more dynamic. The album focuses on Onmyo-za’s trademark approach of fairly traditional hardrock and heavy metal riffs with melancholic, yet strangely uplifting melodies carried beautifully by Kuroneko and Matatabi. The latter seems to take a backseat to his wife’s incredible performance a bit more than on ‘Hadō Myōō’ this time around, but the vocal interaction that makes Onmyo-za such a special band in the first place is still there.

My favorite moment on ‘Ryūō Dōji’ is when Makoto Dobashi’s drums underneath the fantastic main riff of ‘Gekka Ninpōchō’ speed up their time feel to create a new climax with the same melodic information. But there is much more to enjoy on ‘Ryūō Dōji’ or even that song alone. Time will have to tell whether or not the 11-plus minute ‘Shiramine’ will pass ‘Dōjōji Kuchinawa no Goku’ as my favorite long Onmyo-za song, but it is a song in which a lot happens and the ballad section of the song is hauntingly beautiful. ‘Ryōmen-Sukuna’ is another highly dynamic mini-epic, while ‘Karura’ brings back the lighter, airy rock sound as heard on the heavily underrated ‘Fūjin Kaikō’ album.

When the songs stick closer to the tried and true Onmyo-za formula, the results are just as impressive though. ‘Hōō no Hitsugi’ is an excellent Iron Maiden-inspired hardrocker with a great chorus which, alongside the relatively upbeat ‘Ōinaru Kappo’, just as easily could have fit on the likes of ‘Raijin Sōsei’ or ‘Karyō-Binga’. ‘Shizukokoronaku Hana no Chiruran’ takes the Onmyo-za style in a slightly more dramatic direction than usual, while the relatively dark and heavy ‘Nurarihyon’ is one of my personal highlights of the album. Especially the blink and you miss it chorus with its stinging, yet surprisingly haunting vocal harmony is pure art.

A minor issue on ‘Ryūō Dōji’ is its length. At 71 and a half minutes, it is an extremely long album. On the other hand, there is not a single song that I think deserves to be left off the album. During its first minute or so, I thought ‘Kakugo’ might be the filler track due to how long it builds on its beefy mid-tempo hardrock groove, but the excellent vocal interplay in the chorus and the fantastic call and response guitar outro definitely make it transcend the filler status I initially thought it would have. Even ‘Shinki’, the more lightweight, upbeat rocker that traditionally closes an Onmyo-za album, is actually quite strong.

Not unlike ‘Chimimōryō’ about fifteen years ago, ‘Ryūō Dōji’ is an album with a broad appeal. Multiple sides of the band have been highlighted, which means there is a little something for everyone. For many bands, that would mean their album is at risk of being too little of what fans want to hear to please anyone, but Onmyo-za’s trademark sound is so specific that ‘Ryūō Dōji’ is unlikely to disappoint anyone already into their music. Since I am a massive fan of what Onmyo-za does and nobody quite does anything similar, the sheer idea of a new album for the first time in nearly five years is already reason enough to be excited. But the fact that it is one of the better latter-day Onmyo-za albums is a fantastic bonus.

Recommended tracks: ‘Nurarihyon’, ‘Gekka Ninpōchō’, ‘Shiramine’, ‘Karura’

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Interview: visual kei newcomer Angels’ Temptation

Angels Temptation might just be the most interesting newcomer in the visual kei scene. The band from Tokyo debuted in late 2021 with the excellent ‘Anthem Of The Angels‘. While its combination of symphonic metal and J-rock melodies feels familiar, the band also manages to surprise. A great reason to get acquainted with singer Mirai and bassist Rio.

The members of Angels’ Temptation aren’t complete newcomers. Mirai and Rio used to be members of the visual kei band Secilia Luna, while guitarist Yuri once played in Ancient Myth. “I played in various bands and often lost myself trying to reach specific results.“, Mirai explains. “When we started Angels’ Temptation, I set myself a rule to be able to always be myself and try as many things as possible. I am quite specific about my own compositions, arrangements and lyrics.

Whatever I have in mind, I try to capture to the best of my capacity during the demo phase. But my expectations are always surpassed when the other band members contribute and everything becomes a cohesive whole. That’s the kick of playing in a band. Thinking about it now, I’d say that about 70 percent of the songs is defined during the demo phase. But the end result is 120 percent. Rio eventually takes care of everything.

Attracted

It is clear that the contributions of all band members are valuable. The line-up of Angels’ Temptation appears to be the result of many years of experince. “I saw Yuri play with a different band and I immediately felt attracted to his playing“, Mirai recalls. “That’s why I decided to approach him.”

Hideki (guitarist) once saw me play somewhere“, Rio continues. “We had a mutual friend who introduced us to each other. And Syu (session drummer) was part of the same agency as I was. We toured through Japan together. I knew he is a drummer with a lot of passion who would try to do whatever is best for our music.

However, Syu is a drummer with an exceptionally busy schedule. This appaears to be the most important reason why Angels’ Temptation doesn’t have a full-time drummer yet. “I have always wanted to welcome a drummer into the band“, Mirai admits. “Since I am of the opinion that the band gets stronger from having full-time members. At the moment, this is still in development, but I would like to find a full-time member soon.

Growth

Visual kei bands are often supported and put into motion by a record label or managemen. However, one look at the credits of ‘Anthem Of The Angels’ betrays that Angels’ Temptation does almost everything themselves. Lyrics, music, arrangements and production are all done by the band. “Doing as many things as possible yourself will make you grow“, Mirai states. “Self-reflection is the shortest way to personal growth. Besides, it allows you to take responsibility for your own work. But it’s not like I never rely on others. The more people you interact with, the easier it becomes to create something that surpasses your expectations and becomes even bigger. It could be a disadvantage to need that, but it also means I have friends to talk to when I don’t know what to do. All in all, there are more benefits than disadvantages to it.

Interesting is the fact that the angels in the band’s lyrics seem to symbolize this. “Angels are by your side when you’re happy or sad, when you’re in pain or when you smile“, Mirai explains. “They are always by your side and guide you. They are a presence that will be noticed. You don’t even necessarily have to believe in angels for that. If you are not sure what you believe in, people still tend to rely on something to live. We would like to be that something. That might even be the theme of life itself, regardless of my musical life.

Rock and classical music

While the music of Angels’ Temptation has a lot in common with other symphonic visual kei bands, their approach differs somewhat. The keyboards are more prominent and the overall atmosphere is different. “I listen to a lot of different types of music“, Mirai states. “But when I get influenced too much by what I listen to, the results end up sounding too similar. That is why I always wonder what an original approach is and I don’t try to attach myself to specific artists too much.

Originally, I listened to a lot of wind orchestras“, Rio explains. “I played that a lot because of my older sister. Everyone in my family loved music, so I grew up with the music that was played at home. And since everyone liked a different genre, I was exposed to various types of music from a young age. I played the trumpet, but got into a bit of a slump with that, which caused me to wonder: what would it be like to combine rock and classical music? That’s when I started composing. I am very happy to be able to create that myself.

The original Dutch version of this interview is available at The Sushi Times.

Thanks a ton to my friend Stephany at Arlequin Magazine for her indispensible help setting up and translating the interview.

Album of the Week 02-2023: Sem Jansen – Uncle Sem


On the surface, Sem Jansen’s solo debut ‘Uncle Sem’ simply sounds like an americana album with excellent songwriting. And while it can certainly be enjoyed as such, part of what makes this album special is in the interaction between the female and male vocals, as they are recorded by the same person. The female vocals were recorded when Sem went through life as Britt. ‘Uncle Sem’ tells the story of his transition from female to male in a gripping, extremely personal manner. And fortunately, the story is backed by songs that show a sonic and compositional versatility that modern americana records often lack.

‘Uncle Sem’ is one of those open nerve albums, on which the songs are so personal that it’s difficult not to get emotional while listening to it. Two things keep the album from simply becoming too much, however. One is that the story is largely told chronologically, so there is a true redemption arc that ends on a relatively positive note. The other is that ‘Uncle Sem’ is not held hostage by its story musically. Jansen and his bandmates from the Leif de Leeuw Band explore all possible angles of the genre, from pure country songs to borderline southern rock and everything in between, with enthusiasm and great musicianship.

Since the story is told chronologically, ‘Uncle Sem’ starts with the songs he recorded when he was still female, but wanting to be male. Even in those songs, there is a glimmer of hope – as evidenced by the beautiful ‘Better Days Will Come’ – but those are generally the sadder songs on the record. Probably the most touching moments of the album are the duets between both of Jansen’s voices. In ‘I’ve Done My Thinking’, ‘Take Me Now’ and ‘Goodbye’, these voices alternate lines and evenually harmonize beautifully. During those songs, Sem is basically comforting Britt from the future. Unique and utterly powerful stuff.

Jansen was not sure whether he was still able to sing after the transition, but his warm, deep voice sounds incredible on the second half of the album. The moving piano-lead ballad ’21’ features a particularly heartfelt vocal performance. Another highlight is ‘Grandma’, which is one of the more positive-sounding tracks on the album, but the underlying idea of Jansen’s dementia-ridden grandmother being one of the few people to accept the new him is just heart-wrenching. Leif de Leeuw’s pedal steel work gives ‘Part Of Me’ and incredible finale. ‘With Raising Comes Hurting’ interestingly ends the album on a hopeful rather than an outright positive note.

With a story like the one on ‘Uncle Sem’, it is difficult to separate the music from the lyrics. And yet, the fact that the songs are memorable and well-written enough to be enjoyed on their own is part of why the album is as good as it is. Admittedly, it is so emotional that I cannot listen to it for hours on end – something which hasn’t happened to me since the very different, but equally personal ‘When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light’ by Swallow The Sun – but the fact that music can do that just shows it should be taken seriously as both an art form and a therapeutic device.

Recommended tracks: ‘Grandma’, ’21’, ‘Freak’

Album of the Week 01-2023: Be’lakor – Coherence


Australia’s Be’lakor is one of those bands that in my opinion never really lived up to their potential. Their brand of Scandinavian-styled melodic death metal was definitely above average due to their progressive songwriting, but there was always something lacking that I could not really put my finger on. After hearing their most recent album ‘Coherence’, it finally became clear what that something was: atmosphere. The album has a deeply oppressive, wintry atmosphere that elevates it so far above the rest of the band’s discography that it turns out to be one of the better melodic death metal albums of the century.

In the media, Be’lakor often is described as Australia’s answer to Opeth. And sure, there are multiple similarities to the Swedes compositionally. Both bands write fairly long songs in which riffs and themes are given a relatively long time to develop, with contrasting sections making for a very dynamic listening experience. The lack of clean vocals and the tranquil parts being far less folky gives Be’lakor a bit of their own identity, however, while the doomy, desolate vibe on ‘Coherence’ brings to mind the strangely romantic take on the genre of the likes of Insomnium in terms of atmosphere.

One thing that makes ‘Coherence’ such a strong album, perhaps fittingly given its title, is how consistent it is. If you can let yourself be carried away by the overall atmosphere of the album, it flows incredibly well. On paper, there is not that much variation on ‘Coherence’. Most of the songs are midtempo and built on similar 3/4 and 6/8 rhythms, with the acoustic sections and the parts led by Steve Merry’s haunting piano being relatively limited in number. And yet, every second on ‘Coherence’ is powerful, gripping material that begs to be heard without really doing anything flashy.

Due to this approach, ‘Coherence’ is better experienced listened to in one go rather than shuffling through separate songs. It does not really have any standout tracks, but that is meant in the most positive way possible. Having said that, it is easy to understand why the relatively riff-driven ‘Hidden Window’ and the haunting ‘Valence’ were chosen as singles, despite them being around nine minutes each. The album is bookended by the longest songs and even those are not a second too long, with especially closer ‘Much More Was Lost’ being spectacular. But even the instrumentals ‘Indelible’ and ‘Sweep Of Days’ are fantastic.

Be’lakor already kind of flirted with the approach of ‘Coherence’ on its direct predecessor ‘Vessels’. But where that one went a bit overboard with the progressive leanings, everything on this album is in service to creating a captivating hour-long listening experience. The fact that they succeed is the most admirable thing about the album, since even the best melodeath tends to run out of steam around the forty to fifty minute mark. Hopefully, this is the sound of Be’lakor finding their stride and the next album will have the same strengths as ‘Coherence’. Not for those wanting to be cheered up, but very rewarding if this atmosphere is for you.

Recommended tracks: ‘Valence’, ‘Much More Was Lost’, ‘Hidden Window’

Best of 2022: The Albums

Let’s start the introduction to the list of my favorite albums of the year by stating the obvious: 2022 was the greatest year for new music in a long time. It took a while before the music industry got there. For a while during the first half of the year, I thought all the albums that have been made due to a global pandemic offering artists the time to write and record something good rather than rushing something out in between tours had been released already. And then came the flood. From late August onward, I was able to cover new releases in my Album of the Week reviews for nearly three and a half months straight.

Being able to cover such a steady stream of quality releases is something that has not happened since starting this weblog eleven years ago. Even better is the fact that established names and interesting newcomers were all part of it. Sure, not every new release by a big-name artist was a slam dunk – even my number one for this year appears to be fairly divisive – but it has been a while since there have been so many. Personally, I more or less spent the second half of the year either looking forward to a new release or enjoying one. Well, that and dreading the fate of the world, but apparently both extremes can exist simultaneously.

As a result, I have decided to continue last year’s change to extend my end-of-year list to twenty titles again. That should make up for the lack of an Album of the Week today due to the new year starting on a Sunday. Deciding which titles would not make it was more difficult than ever, but expanding the list to twenty-five sets a precedent I’m not sure I’m willing to bear the consequences of. Let’s start with my album of the year, which is likely to annoy half of the metal scene and I do not understand why.

1. Megadeth – The Sick, The Dying… And The Dead!

Reactions to ‘The Sick, The Dying… And The Dead’ seem to be evenly split between people who think it is the work of a tired band trying to relive their glory days and people like me, who think it is the best Megadeth album since ‘The System Has Failed’. My sneaking suspicion is that the former generally don’t like Megadeth much to begin with, because ‘The Sick, The Dying… And The Dead’ is exactly what I want to hear from Megadeth. Sharp riffs, clever yet accessible compositions, excellent performances by everyone involved… And the album is remarkably consistent. Dave Mustaine is the only classic thrash musician who can still occasionally put out something that sounds like his classic work. ‘The Sick, They Dying… And The Dead!’ is one of those occasions.

Recommended tracks: ‘Night Stalkers’, ‘Célebutante’, ‘We’ll Be Back’, ‘Life In Hell’

2. Pentagram – Makina Elektrika

Turkey’s Pentagram had been touring with an expanded line-up including multiple former band members that appear on classic albums for several years now. The fact that they recorded a full album with that line-up was a pleasant surprise. Even more pleasant is the fact that the band makes excellent use of what every band member brings to the table. Especially the four lead singers make ‘Makina Elektrika’ a feast of varied approaches. Progressive metal with oriental touches, scorching thrash metal, powerful rockers and an acoustic ballad: they are all there and remarkably, they all sound like Pentagram. Pentagram is not exactly the most prolific band release-wise, but one canalways count on them for quality albums.

Recommended tracks: ‘Sur’, ‘Revenant’, ‘Maymunlar Gezegeni’, ‘Ödenmez’

3. Dana Fuchs – Borrowed Time

Admittedly, Dana Fuchs could sing over the sound of hospital equipment and I would still love it, but I really like the direction she and her band took on ‘Borrowed Time’. After a roots album (‘Bliss Avenue’) and a soul album (‘Love Lives On’), both fantastic by the way, Fuchs focuses on southern rock for ‘Borrowed Time’. Not unlike its predecessors, however, the result is far more varied than that description might suggest. There are still plenty of soul grooves and rootsy ballads to be heard, but it also has some of Fuchs’ hardest rocking material to date, with the incredible opener ‘Double Down On Wrong’ as the perfect example. And Fuchs’ gritty alto sounds fantastic over all of it.

Recommended tracks: ‘Double Down On Wrong’, ‘Curtain Close’, ‘Save Me’, ‘Blue Ridge Road’

4. Vorbid – A Swan At The Edge Of Mandala

Despite being vaguely aware of Vorbid, ‘A Swan At The Edge Of Mandala’ did not draw my attention until I saw the “for fans of” bit of its press release, which listed Megadeth, Opeth, Mastodon and Exodus as soundalikes. In reality, the palette is even more varied than that. The album sounds like a mixture of Vektor, Porcupine Tree and Enslaved, with maybe a bit of Death in the riff work, sounding more like a thrash-inspired progressive metal band rather than the proggy thrash of most bands Vorbid is compared to. ‘A Swan At The Edge Of Mandala’ is very adventurous and surprisingly listenable for music this complex and technical. It is admirable how Vorbid mixes familiar elements to create something unique.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ex Ante’, ‘Ecotone’, ‘Self’, ‘Derealization’

5. Bywater Call – Remain

Rootsy rock with excellent songwriting is something I love, but the scene isn’t full of great songwriters. Fantastic musicians galore, but not many bands in the scene have original material as good as Bywater Call’s. The musical interaction of the Canadian septet is highly engaging and it helps that the band has a singer as good as Meghan Parnell, but that would have been meaningless if the songs on ‘Remain’ weren’t this good. My go-to comparison for this type of music is always The Black Crowes, but Bywater Call is far more soulful and Parnell’s voice carries a distinct gospel flavor on anything she does. There might be more room for spirited jams when you see Bywater Call in concert, but ‘Remain’ is all about memorable hooks and strong melodies.

Recommended tracks: ‘Let Me Be Wrong’, ‘Falls Away’, ‘Bring It Back’

6. Magma – Kãrtëhl

‘Kãrtëhl’ was announced as an optimistic album. Within the world of Magma, that usually isn’t a reason to look forward to a release. Personally, I prefer Magma at their dark, apocalyptic best. Fortunately, despite certainly being a bit more positive-sounding than recent Magma releases – most notably the impenetrable ‘Zëss’ – ‘Kãrtëhl’ is also one of their better albums released this century. Drummer and band leader Christian Vander welcomed more input from other band members than usual, resulting in a varied album that really profits from what other band members bring to the table. Not just compositionally; the musicianship on ‘Kãrtëhl’ is excllent and gives the album a slightly more jazzy vibe rhythmically than the usual militaristic fusion. I do prefer the album’s darkest moments though.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ẁalomëhndêm Ẁarreï’, ‘Ẁïï Mëlëhn Tü’, ‘Hakëhn Deïs’

7. Alter Bridge – Pawns & Kings

Alter Bridge struck such a perfect balance between stadium rock and modern metal on ‘Blackbird’ and ‘AB III’ that any release that followed was disappointing in some shape or form. Quality is guaranteed when Alter Bridge releases something, but ‘Walk The Sky’ was too rock, while ‘Fortress’ and ‘The Last Hero’ were too metal. ‘Pawns & Kings’, however, finds a near-perfect balance again. The crushing downtuned riffs keep the band grounded in contemporary metal territory, but the melodies and – perhaps most importantly – Myles Kennedy’s incredible voice are allowed plenty of space to create memorable rock earworms. It also helps that it is about ten minutes shorter than the average Alter Bridge album. That allows ‘Pawns & Kings’ to be all killer, no filler.

Recommended tracks: ‘Fable Of The Silent Son’, ‘Holiday’, ‘Sin After Sin’, ‘Last Man Standing’

8. Joanne Shaw Taylor – Nobody’s Fool

There are many reasons why I love Joanne Shaw Taylor’s music. Her warm, husky alto sends shivers down my spine. Her guitar solos are spiky and fiery, yet surprisingly economic, while her riffs bring together blues, rock and soul in a satisfying way. Most of all, however, it was her songwriting that made me a fan. This happened upon hearing the very eclectic ‘Almost Always Never’ and ‘Nobody’s Fool’ has a similar philosophy. It is not concerned with impressing the blues crowd, but instead focuses on extremely well-written songs with a lot of personality and emotion. Blues is still there, but so are southern rock, americana, pop and a generous helping of soul. One of her most surprising albums to date and a very impressive one as a result.

Recommended tracks: ‘Just No Getting Over You (Dream Cruise)’, ‘Bad Blood’, ‘The Leaving Kind’

9. Seikima-II – Bloodiest

Kabuki rock demons Seikima-II had done multiple tours after the break-up their silly lore had demanded, but a full album of original material was out of the question. Until last year. ‘Bloodiest’ should not have been as good as it is. It feels like an anthology of all the styles Seikima-II has attempted through the years, with thankfully a strong focus on the traditional heavy metal of their earliest days and the melodic stadium rock of the mid to late eighties. The album isn’t quite as good as their classic work, but it simply is another Seikima-II album. In a world with so many disappointing or downright embarrassing reunion releases, isn’t that really all we can hope for?

Recommended tracks: ‘Koryotaru Shinsekai’, ‘Mighty Punch Line’, ‘Jigoku No Kane Wo Narasunowa Omae’

10. Incidense – Collide

‘Collide’ is Incidense’s first album in more than a decade, but it fits current developments in the prog scene perfectly. While the heavy riffs keep Incidence firmly in the progressive metal realm, the lines between progressive rock and metal are fading, creating a much stronger blend in the process. Within that blend, Incidense excels at emotional songwriting. Incidense’s songs aren’t long because they are vehicles for virtuosity, but because they have intense stories to tell. Singer Peter Meijer is the perfect narrator for those stories. François Koopmans’ riff work has a pre-Dream Theater vibe that lifts Incidense to a higher level than many contemporaries, despite being every bit as heavy and pulsating.

Recommended tracks: ‘Descent’, ‘Inner Enemies – Part I’, ‘Blinded’

11. Xentrix – Seven Words

Despite knowing and liking Xentrix, I was not expecting ‘Seven Words’ to be anywhere near as good as it is. ‘Bury The Pain’, their first album since reuniting, was a solid contemporary thrash metal album, but nothing spectacular. ‘Seven Words’, on the other hand, may even rival Xentrix’ classic material. This is one solid, consistent slab of timeless thrash metal that doesn’t pander to the old school nostalgia circuit, but doesn’t sound too modern either. It may help that Xentrix never went for breaking speed records, opting for clever songwriting and memorable hooks instead. Newcomer Jay Walsh has a voice that sounds nearly identical to his predecessor Chris Astley at times, which contributes to ‘Seven Words’ sounding pleasantly familiar, yet fresh and relevant.

Recommeded tracks: ‘Seven Words’, ‘Spit Coin’, ‘Behind The Walls Of Treachery’

12. Sisters Of Suffocation – Eradication

On each of their three albums to date, Sisters Of Suffocation has changed up their formula a bit, but their overall dedication to catchy, memorable death metal has not changed. After the fairly modern-sounding ‘Humans Are Broken’, ‘Eradication’ is notably more old school, without sacrificing any of their varied songwriting. As such, ‘Eradication’ moves back and forth between borderline thrash metal, pummeling old school death metal and the occasional technical or atmospheric passage. The album also has a flow that works remarkably well; there is never too much of one type of death metal, but the album also doesn’t become disjointed. The greater amount of guitar harmonies and solos is very welcome as well. A new highlight in the band’s career and absolutely worth hearing.

Recommended tracks: ‘Hide In Plain Sight’, ‘Being Prey’, ‘Cannibal Soulmate’

13. Dir En Grey – Phalaris

After the unbelievable piece of crap that was ‘The Insulated World’, I was ready to give up on Dir En Grey. Ever the idiosyncratic band, however, every Dir En Grey album could end up sounding completely different than the previous. That is exactly what happened here. ‘Phalaris’ reins in Kyo’s vocal madness a bit and focuses on a satisfying balance of melancholic melodies and meaty modern metal riffs. The album’s lengthy bookends are the obvious highlights here, with opener ‘Schadenfreude’ being a progressive metal monster and closer ‘Kamuy’ an unpredictable, atmospheric semi-ballad. Thankfully, ‘Phalaris’ is infinitely more dynamic than its predecessor, which means there is plenty of unpredictable brilliance in the intervening 44 minutes as well.

Recommended tracks: ‘Schadenfreude’, ‘Kamuy’, ‘Utsusu, Bouga Wo Kurau’, ’13’

14. Decapitated – Cancer Culture

‘Cancer Culture’ captures that creative spark that I thought Decapitated had lost after ‘Canival Is Forever’. These days, death metal this creative often drops the aggression the genre is known for. ‘Cancer Culture’ is clever, but also cathartic when it needs to be. Wacław ‘Vogg’ Kiełtyka has a rather unique approach when it comes to guitar solos and that side of him is more present on the album than it has been in a long time. The amount of rhythmic variation also lifts ‘Cancer Culture’ to a higher level. Newcomer James Stewart knows exactly when to be technical, when to blast relentlessly and when to go for more open grooves. The result is a highly dynamic modern death metal album that towers above the rest of the genre.

Recommended tracks: ‘Just Another Cigarette’, ‘Cancer Culture’, ‘Hello Death’

15. Chaos Control – Call Of The Abyss

Usually when a band fades away after an EP, it is never to be heard from again. Chaos Control released one in 2001 and more than two decades later, a debut album followed. And it’s shockingly good as well. ‘Call Of The Abyss’ isn’t just a labor of love by some friends making their demo material available; it is an excellent progressive power metal album. The at times surprisingly aggressive music is heavily inspired by Queensrÿche, but there are clear hints of Nevermore and – in the more traditional power metal songs – Helloween as well. The riff work and lead guitar work is often spectacular. ‘Call Of The Abyss’ may have been even higher on the list if it didn’t have so many songs with guest singers. Toshinori Mitunaga is good enough to carry this by himself.

Recommended tracks: ‘Karma’, ‘Fatal Disaster’, ‘Lost’

16. Threshold – Dividing Lines

Threshold is an interesting band to categorize. Sonically and arrangement-wise, they appear to be a progressive metal band. The songwriting, however, often suggests they are a fairly adventurous hardrock band with frequent dense prog sections. Few prog bands have such catchy earworms of choruses. And ‘Dividing Lines’ plays to Threshold’s melodic strengths more than any album since the departure of the late Andrew McDermott. Glynn Morgan’s sandpaper vocal cords give the music a more ballsy vibe than it would have had with a cleaner singer. A group of musicians as skilled as Threshold also tends to come up with a much greater deal of variation in rhythms, riffs and atmospheres than the average AOR band, which is ultimately what makes ‘Dividing Lines’ one of the best Threshold albums to date.

Recommended tracks: ‘Let It Burn’, ‘King Of Nothing’, ‘Complex’

17. Queensrÿche – Digital Noise Alliance

Most Queensrÿche discussions these days devolve into picking sides. Despite the nasty details, however, I am glad Geoff Tate fell out with the rest of the band, because it resulted in Michael Wilton and Eddie Jackson recording their best music since the mid-eighties. ‘Digital Noise Alliance’ isn’t quite as consistent as its two predecessors, but might appeal to the progressive metal crowd who considered those albums leaning too much to the USPM side of the spectrum. While ‘Digital Noise Alliance’ does have a few relatively straightforward metal tracks expertly sung by Todd La Torre, there are a few more daring and experimental compositions here and the songs in general are allowed a bit more room to breathe. However, excellent guitar work and strong melodies still rule the day here.

Recommended tracks: ‘Nocturnal Light’, ‘In Extremis’, ‘Behind The Walls’

18. Erja Lyytinen – Waiting For The Daylight

Blues queen or songwriting genius? ‘Waiting For The Daylight’ is the ultimate proof that Erja Lyytinen has more strings to her bow than just her mastery of blues guitar. In fact, the album is best when Lyytinen and her band are furthest away from the blues. Pop, rock, even a bit of jazz: as long as Lyytinen can add a good guitar line and a melody that stays with you, nothing is out of bounds. Even more impressive is how she tackles all of these styles without the album sounding like a messy affair with little sense to it. Those who listen to Lyytinen primarily for her guitar work don’t need to worry though: there are still plenty of rootsy riffs, tasteful leads and raw slide solos here.

Recommended tracks: ‘Run Away’, ‘Diamonds On The Road’, ‘Waiting For The Daylight’

19. Ashes Of Ares – Emperors And Fools

Very early in 2022, Ashes Of Ares finally released an album that lives up to the reputation of its members. While I suspect Matt Barlow and Freddie Vidales have an even better album in them, ‘Emperors And Fools’ is full of powerful, dramatic heavy metal with lots of room for Barlow’s impressive range and theatrical delivery. Despite still being mostly mid-tempo, ‘Emperors And Fools’ is far more varied in atmospheres and rhythmic approaches than the first two Ashes Of Ares albums. A few songs are much more aggressive and propulsive than anything the band has released before, which serves as a nice foil to the melancholy of the other material. Very promising.

Recommended tracks: ‘Monster’s Lament’, ‘The Iron Throne’, ‘Be My Blade’

20. Slash – 4

‘4’ is the sound of Slash’s dream coming true. He always wanted to record an album live in the studio. Nashville-based producer Dave Cobb finally allowed him to. Cobb asked Slash not to over-rehearse the songs, which causes the album to lack the tight, hooky songwriting that created the likes of ‘Anastasia’, ‘Bad Rain’ and ‘Boulevard Of Broken Hearts’. This is almost entirely compensated by the enthusiastic performances of everyone involved, which also cause the album to slowly grow on you. Something about the collaboration between Slash and Myles Kennedy just occasionally creates magic and there certainly are such moments on ‘4’. But the interactions between the musicians make this record feel alive and spirited.

Recommended tracks: ‘Whatever Gets You By’, ‘Spirit Love’, ‘Call Off The Dogs’

Album of the Week 51-2022: Agent Steel – Omega Conspiracy


When ‘Omega Conspiracy’ was released, it was not just a comeback after well over a decade of inactivity, it was a reinvention of what Agent Steel could sound like. Not that the album was a complete departure from what the band did before, but Agent Steel presents itself as a mildly proggy thrash metal band here rather than the “Iron Maiden on 45 RPM” with a singer that overdosed on helium approach of their eighties output. Some people were disappointed, others – including me – heard an interesting band that was better prepared for the twenty-first century than many of their peers.

Although the vocal approach and overall character of the riffs clearly roots ‘Omega Conspiracy’ in the eighties, the Nevemore-isms that would become even more apparent on its follow-ups and the mostly timeless sci-fi and conspiracy themes made it very much an album of its time. When I first heard the album at age thirteen, I actually thought it sounded futuristic. The voice of newcomer Bruce Hall was a divisive factor. His predecessor John Cyriis was iconic, but suffered from King Diamond syndrome: his highs are well-developed, but everything else lacks character and tone. Hall is expressive and has more strings to his bow, though he is a bit too loud in the mix at times.

‘Omega Conspiracy’ truly shines in its songwriting, however. Guitarists Bernie Versailles and Juan Garcia, as well as drummer Chuck Profus, took charge of writing the songs and nearly every single one of them is excellent. Sure, the ballads are a bit naff, though ‘Awaken The Swarm’ has a nicely surprising structure, but everything else is great. That much is clear when the full-on contemporary thrash assault of ‘Destroy The Hush’ storms out of the gate. This thrashy character is held up for most of the album, with the slightly off-kilter speed metal of ‘Infinity’ being the best example, while ‘Illuminati Is Machine’ and ‘Know Your Master’ became justified live staples.

However, the album has its fair share of more melodic moments. ‘New Godz’ is eighties melodic speed metal at its finest, but the true highlight of the album – and in deed Agent Steel’s career, as far as I’m concerned – is ‘Into The Nowhere’. It is a fantastic, dramatic heavy metal song with Hall contributing a particularly intense vocal performance and probably the best set of lyrics in the band’s repertoire. Elsewhere, the influence of more modern metal bands carefully makes itself known, such as in the dark and threatening ‘Fighting Backwards’ and the surprisingly atmospheric closer ‘It’s Not What You Think’, probably the most progressive track on the album.

Whether or not I would recommend ‘Omega Conspiracy’ depends on the listener. People who were turned off by eighties Agent Steel solely due to Cyriis’ vocals may want to give this a shot. Those expecting a similar idiosyncratic vocal performance may be turned off, though Hall is not that different from Cyriis. He is more balanced, which fits the songwriting on ‘Omega Conspiracy’ well. The production is another potential issue. The shrill, sharp guitar tones and surprisingly natural drum sounds fit the atmosphere of the record, but may not be for everyone. Follow-up ‘Order Of The Illuminati’ is Agent Steel’s crowning achievement, but ‘Omega Conspiracy’ has higher peaks.

Recommended tracks: ‘Into The Nowhere’, ‘Destroy The Hush’, ‘Infinity’, ‘New Godz’

Album of the Week 50-2022: Ashes Of Ares – Emperors And Fools


‘Emperors And Fools’ is the sound of Ashes Of Ares finally living up to its potential. It is not a masterpiece, but it is the first release of theirs that makes me somewhat confident they may have one in them. My teenage obsession with Iced Earth was at least as much due to Matthew Barlow’s incredible range and expressive delivery as it was to Jon Schaffer’s songwriting. The first two releases of Barlow’s band with fellow Iced Earth alumnus Freddie Vidales and former Nevermore drummer Van Williams left me cold, however. ‘Emperors And Fools’ plays to the band’s strengths much more.

Stylistically, ‘Emperors And Fools’ is not even all that different from its predecessors. The AOR leanings of ‘Well Of Souls’ are thankfully toned down a bit, but this is still largely midtempo heavy metal with a flair for the dramatic. As expected, most of the drama comes from Barlow’s heavily layered vocal performance, but that would not be possible without Vidales providing Barlow the space to do so in his compositions. It just seems the duo managed to wring out more rhythmic variation, as well as more different atmospheres this time around. Sure, mostly different shades of melancholic, but it works.

While my sentiment is still that an actual fast song or two would do any Ashes Of Ares release good, they are hardly missed on ‘Emperors And Fools’. Almost everything on the album is midtempo, but since the rhythms are not quite as predictable as they used to be on Ashes Of Ares albums, it manages to hold the listeners’ attention for nearly its full hour of playing time. The subdued aggression of ‘Where God Fears To Go’ feels completely different than the galloping heroics of ‘Be My Blade’ or the pounding triplet-based warcry of opening track ‘I Am The Night’.

Vidales’ songwriting chops lend themselves especially well to epic tracks. None is more epic than eleven and a half minute closer ‘Monster’s Lament’, easily the best Ashes Of Ares song to date. It contains a few truly dark and twisted riffs, including what is probably the most aggressive moment on the album. Barlow and guest singer Tim Owens – who share a certain bit of history – sound incredible and the song is not a second longer than it should be. Another great song that despite its shorter length is of epic proportions is ‘The Iron Throne’. From its beefy, monumental opening riff to Barlow sounding like a general commanding his troops, it simply convinces.

Although ‘Emperors And Fools’ is not perfect – out of the ballads, I could have done without the overlong ‘Gone’ and the heavier ‘Throne Of Iniquity’ fails to get off the ground – it is such an immense leap forward compared to what Ashes Of Ares has done so far that I cannot do anything but praise it. You will need a love or at least a tolerance for a dramatic approach to enjoy the album, but when you do, ‘Emperors And Fools’ is worth a few spins. A few, because repeated listens definitely made me appreciate the album more. Let’s hope this is the start of something great.

Recommended tracks: ‘Monster’s Lament’, ‘The Iron Throne’, ‘Be My Blade’

Album of the Week 49-2022: Anthrax – For All Kings


In my earlier review of ‘Spreading The Disease’, I argued that I am not sure whether Anthrax deserves to be considered part of the so-called “Big Four” of thrash metal. That has nothing to do with Testament selling more albums outside North America, Exodus being more influential or OverKill’s seniority. Instead, I think Anthrax is at its best when they are not playing thrash metal. Their earliest work had distinct traditional heavy metal overtones. Their most recent album ‘For All Kings’ appears to confirm the band also thinks they work best as a thrash-tinged contemporary heavy metal band.

‘For All Kings’ largely feels like a logical continuation of ‘Worship Music’ (2011), with two key differences. Most notably, the band is a lot more sure about the direction they want to take. ‘For All Kings’ is every bit as varied as ‘Worship Music’ and even has a few songs that would not have sounded out of place on the likes of ‘We’ve Come For You All’, but Anthrax sounds far more focused here. Also, it is very clear that all of these songs have been written with Joey Belladonna’s vocals in mind, as Belladonna sounds much more convincing here.

The result is a fresh-sounding contemporary heavy metal album with most of the thrash influence heard in the rhythm guitar parts. Due to the way hardrock and traditional heavy metal elements are incorporated into the sound, ‘For All Kings’ occasionally brings Death Angel’s incredible ‘Killing Season’ album to mind, though it is not quite as playful. Songs like the title track, ‘Monster At The End’ and the excellent, energetic opener ‘You Gotta Believe’ would simply have been categorized as heavy metal if a different band had released them. There are still thrashy moments – ‘Evil Twin’ and ‘Zero Tolerance’ most notably – but on the other hand, ‘Breathing Lightning’ is closer to melodic hardrock.

Nearly every Anthrax album has one or more songs of which I don’t understand why they are not talked about more. On ‘For All Kings’, ‘Suzerain’ would be that song. The aggressive, pulsating riff that starts the song is accompanied by a creative, tom-heavy drum part that once again proves that Charlie Benante is one of the most underrated drummers in metal. The chorus and Belladonna’s vocal melodies are much more dramatic than such dense riffing would suggest however. Another highlight is the epic doomster ‘Blood Eagle Wings’, though that one did become a live staple. It feels significantly shorter than nearly eight minutes.

Some Anthrax albums seem to favor riffs over melodies. ‘For All Kings’ finds a perfect balance between those options and proves they are not mutually exclusive. In a way, the album feels like a more refined version of ‘Worship Music’ with all the fat trimmed. It is also remarkably how more nineties Anthrax-sounding tracks like ‘All Of Them Thieves’ fit alongside the more old school material without sounding like a distraction. Some people complain that ‘For All Kings’ is not thrash enough, but I’d personally say it shows Anthrax aging more gracefully than some of their peers.

Recommended tracks: ‘Suzerain’, ‘You Gotta Believe’, ‘Blood Eagle Wings’

Album of the Week 48-2022: İdil Çağatay – Ateşler İçinde


The powerful, emotional voice of İdil Çağatay was introduced to me through Istanbul-based all-female heavy metal band Kırmızı, of which she was the frontwoman and main songwriter. Unfortunately, Kırmızı slowly faded after the release of their excellent album ‘İsyan’, but Çağatay fortunately is still active as a musician. Moreover, she is still working with Kırmızı’s incredible drummer Aslı Polat. Çağatay’s debut solo album ‘Ateşler İçinde’ is a lot more varied than Kırmızı’s modern power metal sound, but sacrifices nothing of her hard rocking force and subtle touches from the world of classical music and Turkish folk. Simply an excellent debut.

While some of the songs on ‘Ateşler İçinde’ would not have sounded out of place on ‘İsyan’, the album as a whole feels less inhibited by the idea that it should be a metal album in both songwriting and arrangements. The overall sound is closer to hardrock than heavy metal, but it is admirable how much Çağatay explores what is possible within the boundaries of that sound in only 33 and a half minutes. Because of this, Çağatay is allowed – possibly even encouraged – to show all of her immense talents as a singer, songwriter, arranger, pianist and harpist.

Despite the great deal of variation in the songwriting department, ‘Ateşler İçinde’ never feels disjointed. It may help that she has a core band with which she recorded the entire album, though I suspect that Çağatay’s vision is the reason why the album makes so much sense as a whole. The gorgeous bombastic power ballad ‘Gölgeler’ sounds every bit as convincing as the looser rock ‘n’ roller ‘Derbeder’ or the accessible rocker that is the opening title track. While all of the songs are meticulously arranged, none of them loses its life as a result. In fact, everything appears to be written with a live band in mind.

My personal favorite on ‘Ateşler İçinde’ is the driven rocker ‘İpin Ucu’, which squeezes all possible dynamics out of a couple of deceptively simple riffs in order to reach what is without a doubt the most powerful chorus on the album. ‘Kıyamet Senfonisi’ is a remarkably ambitious, multi-faceted track that is best described as a neoclassical progrocker, though that doesn’t completely do its excellent songwriting justice. ‘Firar’ comes across as a simple rocker until Çağatay’s overwhelmingly dramatic vocal performance in the chorus lifts a song to a higher level. That same incredible voice is what pushes dynamic semi-epics like ‘Affet’ and closer ‘Uykusuz’ from great to amazing.

İdil Çağatay is a force of nature. The ever so slightly husky edge to her voice gives every powerful note she sings an emotional charge that many singers should envy. But even more importantly, she is able to write excellent songs that defy genre boundaries, though somehow still sound conventional enough to make a lasting impression. Even if you don’t speak Turkish. Çağatay’s emotional delivery will tell you what the songs are about regardless. While ‘İsyan’ was a fantastic metal album, ‘Ateşler İçinde’ is a better representation of everything that Çağatay is capable of. Highly recommended.

Recommended tracks: ‘İpin Ucu’, ‘Gölgeler’, ‘Kıyamet Senfonisi’

Album of the Week 47-2022: Sisters Of Suffocation – Eradication


Reinventing yourself without changing musical styles is not the easiest thing to pull off. And yet, that is exactly what Dutch death metal unit Sisters Of Suffocation has been doing more or less since their first album. Since they aren’t married to a particular era or subgenre of death metal, their albums tend to be surprisingly varied and relatively unpredictable. Their new ‘Eradication’ turns that up to eleven, but also has the most pleasant flow of all their albums released so far. Because of this, its forty-seven minutes of music – usually a bit too long for non-progressive death metal – truly flies by.

For an album that blasts out of the gate with the short, intense ‘Buried In The Crowd’, this might sound a bit strange, but ‘Eradication’ is a surprisingly subtle album. Sisters Of Suffocation’s debut album ‘Anthology Of Curiosities’ was blunt and in your face, while its follow-up ‘Humans Are Broken’ was tight and notably more modern. The latter in particular felt like a good collection of songs, but ‘Eradication’ really feels like an album. Every song flows into the next one quite naturally, but the songwriting is dynamic enough for the album to never get stuck in the same style or tempo for too long.

One thing that has remained since ‘Humans Are Broken’ is the increased number of guitar harmonies and solos. This was a move that elevated Sisters Of Suffocation from promising to good on their second album. In fact, there is even more interesting guitar layering on ‘Eradication’, especially during the more atmospheric moments. While most of the album is fairly intense death metal, some tracks feature guitar arrangements that bring to mind the more atmospheric side of black metal or maybe At The Gates’ earliest work. ‘Being Prey’ even features some melodic guitar work that would not have sounded out of place on a “regular” heavy metal album.

Since ‘Eradication’ is the type of album that is best experienced in one sitting, it is somewhat difficult to pick favorites. ‘Hide In Plain Sight’ certainly is one, however. The modern thrash sound of its main riff is right up my alley and the song effectively toys with time feel to squeeze all the musical opportunities out of its riffs. The more mid-tempo ‘Cannibal Soulmate’ features some of the best riff work on the album. Is it something more brutal and aggressive you crave? ‘Returning In A Cauldron’, ‘The Chosen One’ and the aforementioned ‘Buried In The Crowd’ will certainly satisfy your appetite.

‘Eradication’ is easily the new highlight of Sisters Of Suffocation’s discography. It doesn’t exactly expand upon the more technical direction of ‘Humans Are Broken’, but instead slightly alters the direction to fit the strengths of their new rhythm section. This means that ‘Eradication’ sounds a bit more old school than its predecessor and it is all the better for it. Since it is somewhat more subtle than the previous two albums, it houses a few secrets that will not reach their maximum impact until the fifth or sixth spin, but that is exactly what makes the album so satisfying. ‘Eradication’ will brighten the day of anyone who is disheartened by the contemporary death metal scene.

Recommended tracks: ‘Hid In Plain Sight’, ‘Being Prey’, ‘Cannibal Soulmate’