Album of the Week 14-2018: Alkaloid – Liquid Anatomy


Two years ago, Alkaloid thoroughly impressed me with their highly creative debut album ‘The Malkuth Grimoire’. Despite the band members’ association with high profile metal bands – Obscura most prominently – it transcended the supergroup burden by coming up with a highly progressive, almost avant-garde extreme metal that forsakes most of the exhausting hyperactivity of most contemporary technical death metal bands and aims for atmosphere and maximum impact instead. Fortunately, Alkaloid found time in its busy schedule to record a second album and it manages to amplify all the best aspects of ‘The Malkuth Grimoire’ beyond what yours truly had expected at this point.

In a way, ‘Liquid Anatomy’ is slightly less extreme than ‘The Malkuth Grimoire’. There are still plenty of hyperspeed death metal passages to be heard and Florian Magnus Maier still throws his hateful growl around like there’s no tomorrow, but the focus seems to have slightly shifted towards the progressive side of the band rather than brutal force. Overall, Maier does more clean vocals here, which really enhances the immersive atmosphere of the material. Pink Floyd and Cynic appear to be the most prominent influences in that matter, but not as spacey as the former and much more organic and effective than the latter.

One would have to look no further than opening track ‘Kernel Panic’, which appears to mirror the first half of previous opener ‘Carbon Phrases’ stylistically with its gorgeously layered clean guitar lines and vocal harmonies punctured by blunt moments of aggression. Hannes Grossmann’s interestingly timed rhythms and and the guitar solos by both Christian Münzner and Danny Tunker are incredible. Anyone expecting pure death metal may be discouraged by the opener, but it is a brave opener that emphasizes the unique nature of the band. Those desiring a heavier approach will still be satisfied by ‘As Decreed By Laws Unwritten’ and parts of ‘Chaos Theory And Pratice’.

Personally, I strongly prefer the more experimental approach though. ‘Azagthoth’ profits from somewhat exotic rhythms, crazy lead guitar work and a perfect balance between pounding heaviness and sophisticated subtlety, while the acoustic-based title track is a beautiful extreme progmetal ballad, as unlikely as that sounds. The guitar arrangements of ‘In Turmoil’s Swirling Reaches’ are downright brilliant, but most attention will probably go out to the 20 minute beast that is ‘Rise Of The Cephalopods’. It is a highly dynamic track that takes the listener through all the extremes of Alkaloid’s sound, from the cleanest, calmest acoustic sections to some of the most thrashing death metal on the record.

My only minor complaint would be the production, which feels a little less dynamic than last time around and really does not benefit the amazing bass playing of Linus Klausenitzer. Sometimes you’d even have trouble hearing him if you pay close attention and that makes the record slightly less immersive sonically than its predecessor. The song material is a definite step up from what was already a high quality debut, however. As such, Alkaloid has not only outdone itself, but also proven that the band is so much more than just a new project with a prominent “ex-Obscura” label. Highly recommended for fans of progressive music of all sorts.

Recommended tracks: ‘Kernel Panic’, ‘Liquid Anatomy’, ‘Rise Of The Cephalopods’

Advertisements

Album of the Week 23-2018: Onmyo-za – Hado Myoo


Heavy, dark, but without forsaking their trademark streamlined melodicism. How they do it is a mystery to me, but Onmyo-za manages to upgrade the formula of their already impressive latter day sound on ‘Hado Myoo’ without the help of a potentially alienating stylistic shift. Despite its fairly heavy use of seven string guitars, its predecessor ‘Karyo-Binga’ had its lighter moments. ‘Hado Myoo’ has not, except for maybe the relatively accessible first single ‘Oka Ninpocho’. And that is a great thing, as this powerful, relatively riff-driven monster of an album truly confirms Onmyo-za’s relevance in the year before its twentieth anniversary.

Being quite a short album by Onmyo-za standards, ‘Hado Myoo’ wastes no time setting the scene and drags the listener into an unsettling, yokai-infested underworld by means of its massive opening track ‘Hao’. The song truly plays to all of the band’s strengths, with especially the contrast between the crushing sections sung by bassist and bandleader Matatabi and the more melancholic introspection of the parts lead by his wife Kuroneko being nothing short of genius. ‘Hao’ is more than a mind-blowing opener though. It is a warning that ‘Hado Myoo’ is not going to be for the faint of heart and it delivers on that promise.

‘Shimobe’ follows a similar structure, albeit on a higher tempo, with its fierce riffing unveiling a distinct melodic death metal influence. The 7/8 intro is vicious and it is quite remarkable how many new things happen in the latter three minutes of the song. Easily the heaviest Onmyo-za song in quite some time. But while the aforementioned songs are peaks in intensity, ‘Hado Myoo’ does not let go until it is over. The songs vary in heaviness – ‘Haja no Fuin’ brings some of that delicious NWOBHM-inspired twin riffing to the fore, while ‘Ippondara’ is a grinding midtempo stomper with a cool bass solo – but none of them will be relegated to background music. Fortunately.

Elsewhere, ‘Tesso No Aza’ teaches many European and American bands a lesson or two on how to do epic heavy metal and ‘Oka Ninpocho’ and ‘Fushoko No O’ feature some tasteful Japanese folk elements as part of their arrangements. ‘Izuna Otoshi’ and ‘Itsumade’ are the typical melodic heavy metal we have come to expect from Onmyo-za, though the latter does feature some borderline thrash riffs. Even the closing track is very powerful. Onmyo-za usually reserves that spot for lighter, upbeat rock tracks, but while ‘Bureiko’ does have a more “rocky” feel than the rest of the album, it is still very much rooted in pounding riff work.

As far as my expectations for ‘Hado Myoo’ went, this was not what I was expecting. Not many metal bands can say that their fourteenth album is one of their heaviest thus far, but Onmyo-za can proudly declare that. It never sounds forced, however. ‘Hado Myoo’ is clearly the work of a band doing something they feel comfortable doing. It is a sonic triumph as well, with the guitars of Maneki and Karukan having the perfect amount of grit and Matatabi’s bass rumbling underneath slightly more prominently than usual. Yours truly for one was stunned and unless you listen to Onmyo-za for their ballads – there aren’t any – most of their fans will too.

Recommended tracks: ‘Shimobe’, ‘Hao’, ‘Haja No Fuin’, ‘Tesso No Aza’

Album of the Week 22-2018: Garbage – Garbage


When I was a kid, Garbage was one of the few modern rock bands on MTV that would not cause me to immediately change the channel. They intrigued me. That was in part because of Shirley Manson’s voice and – I reluctantly admit – appearance, but their music was undeniably atmospheric and unlike anything ever done before or since. It was still modern rock, but it was not as bluntly unmelodic as the nu metal bands that were big at the time, nor was it as self-pitying as American radio rock. And despite the strong productional focus, the songwriting is simply excellent.

More than twenty years later, Garbage’s self-titled debut still holds up. That in itself is a testament to the band’s compositional brilliance. Often in music history, embracing new technology dates a production considerably. Garbage’s practice of incorporating electronic beats and synthetic sounds into the foundation of a rock band still sounds fresh and, surprisingly, in no way dated. This approach combines the best elements of densely layered productions and a live band and the results are often hypnotizing. But it’s not a trick; even the relatively straightforward songs that would have worked with just the band playing still sound convincing.

In the latter category, we find the insanely memorable and borderline self-parody ‘Only Happy When It Rains’. The chord progression is simple, but not predictable, especially with its insistent chorus providing a perfect contrast to its more morose verses. ‘Dog New Tricks’ is another strong electrorocker with a great chorus and a focus on guitars and drums. A majority of the other more straightforward songs are a little more laid-back, including the massive hit singles ‘Stupid Girl’ and ‘Queer’. This approach really suits Manson’s voice, which sounds seductive when it has to, but also occasionally excels in brilliantly suppressed anger.

At other times, ‘Garbage’ proves that spending a lot of time on your production does not necessarily result in overproduction. The darkly brooding ‘As Heaven Is Wide’ probably illustrates this best. Its combination of tribal rhythms, fuzzy bass line and electronically tinged bridge should not work in a rock context, but it does. It is also the best example of Manson’s subdued aggression. The more intimate ‘A Stroke Of Luck’ is less propulsive, but just about as good. It has also been provided a perfect juxtaposition in the shape of the more outspokenly aggressive rocker ‘Vow’, one of the brightest shining gems on ‘Garbage’.

Confusingly, ‘Garbage’ is as much a product of its time as it is timeless. An album like this more or less could only have been thought up in the ninteties, but it was so far ahead of its time that it will probably still sound contemporary ten years from now. That in itself is something that not many artists can claim and will become rarer as more and more musical territory is no longer uncharted. For Garbage, their debut album was so revolutionary, that they had a hard time trying to equal it both in terms of success and overall quality, though they came close several times and are fortunately still artistically relevant to this day.

Recommended tracks: ‘Only Happy When It Rains’, ‘As Heaven Is Wide’, ‘Vow’

Album of the Week 21-2018: Dana Fuchs – Love Lives On


Not unlike Beth Hart, Dana Fuchs has both the fortune and the misfortune of kind of sounding like Janis Joplin. In fact, both of them were cast to play Joplin in the musical ‘Love, Janis’. The comparison is a compliment, but also sells them short. Fuchs’ new album ‘Love Lives On’ is the ultimate proof of that. Musically, the album is much more reminiscent of the great southern soul records put out by Stax Records than any album Joplin ever was a part of. ‘Love Lives On’ is not a hollow exercies in nostalgia though; this is beautiful, timeless music.

Fuchs’ backing band on ‘Love Lives On’ features a a couple of soul veterans, among which drummer Steve Potts and organist Reverend Charles Hodges. They certainly add to the album’s authentic soul vibe, but what really makes the whole thing work is the excellent songwriting courtesy of Fuchs and her long-time guitarist Jon Diamond. While a lot of contemporary albums in this style rely heavily on the grooves and musical interaction, every song on ‘Love Lives On’ stands out and will stick to your memory. Fuchs’ smokey, raw-edged, yet highly melodic vocals are the icing on that delicious cake.

Another thing that makes ‘Love Lives On’ a pleasure to listen to is its nearly flawless flow. It makes you want to listen to the album all the way through. There are a couple of more americana-tinged songs grouped together near the end of the record that, while good – ‘Battle Lines’ is gorgeous – would have worked better if they were distributed more evenly across the album. The rest of the tracks vary nicely in tempo and intensity, moving pleasantly between upbeat soul tracks like opening track ‘Backstreet Baby’ and powerful ballads like the purring organ-based gospel of ‘Faithful Sinner’.

Traditional soul tracks like the horn-heavy ‘Callin’ Angels’, the euphoric ‘Same Sunlight’ and the relaxed ‘Sittin’ On’ would not have sounded out of place on one of Otis Redding’s records. Fuchs even made Redding’s ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ her own completely. Standout tracks for me are ‘Sad Solution’ and ‘Sedative’, both of which are built upon an insistent, almost dangerous, yet not too propulsive groove. It is possible that the underlying sense of anger appeals to the hardrocker in me. The supreme build-up from its subdued verses to its triumphant chorus turns ‘Ready To Rise’ into a highlight as well. So does its guitar solo.

‘Love Lives On’ is slightly less “rocky” in approach than ‘Love To Beg’ and the blues influences aren’t as pronounced as on ‘Bliss Avenue’, but that should not be a turn-off. This is one of the best soul albums released in many years. It has simply everything you could wish for if you like the genre. Each song features spirited grooves, intensely passionate vocals and a musical interaction that is of complete and total service to the well-written songs. Anyone who longs for the late sixties and early seventies records of Stax and Hi Records should definitely give this excellent record a spin.

Recommended tracks: ‘Sad Solution’, ‘Ready To Rise’, ‘Sedative’

Album of the Week 20-2018: OverKill – Horrorscope


While OverKill had line-up changes before guitarist Bobby Gustafson left in 1990, but Gustafson contributed heavily to the songwriting. Therefore, there must have been some sense of anticipation leading up to the release of 1991’s ‘Horrorscope’. It was the first OverKill record with two guitarist – always a plus – and it seems to explore the boundaries of OverKill’s vicious thrash metal sound more than any other of their albums, including its highly varied predecessor ‘The Years Of Decay’. For what it’s worth, I think it’s their best record, combining the hungry aggression of their early days with just the right amount of experimentation.

Songwriting-wise, the transition is not as large as one might expect. The songs are a little more to-the-point than those on ‘The Years Of Decay’, but the main ingredients are still the same: heavily pulsating riff work that shifts between fast thrash and more pounding mid-tempo tunes, Bobby ‘Blitz’ Ellsworth’s rough, relatively high-pitched throat and generally simple, brutally effective choruses. The album’s biggest asset is in the degree of variation. The lesser albums of the band tend to get a bit samey as the album goes on, but literally every song on ‘Horrorscope’ sounds different than the others.

The varied nature of ‘Horrorscope’ is often emphasized by pointing out the most experimental tracks on the album and it must be said: the experiments are very successful. ‘New Machine’ manages to inject a great deal of groove into the sound without forsaking the band’s thrash roots and ‘Soulitude’ is the greatest power ballad the band released to this day due to its dark atmosphere, its excellent use of dynamics and its beautiful guitar solos. The title track sees the band grinding through doomy tempos without going into Black Sabbath-like territory like they did on ‘Skullkrusher’. The palm-muted main riff is simply punishing.

However, the more familiar straightforward aggression is every bit as interesting here. Songs like opening track ‘Coma’, ‘Infectious’ and the punky ‘Thanx For Nothin” show OverKill doing what they do best: playing angry thrash metal with as little subtlety as possible. Even within the uptempo songs, different approaches are attempted. ‘Bare Bones’ is one of the most complex songs the band has recorded to date and ‘Blood Money’ has a surprisingly open chorus. The true masterpiece is the mid-tempo thrasher ‘Nice Day…For A Funeral’ though. Especially when after the driving verses and a haunting chorus, a beautifully dramatic guitar arrangement appears in the middle section. Truly a work of art.

After the release of ‘Horrorscope’, drummer Sid Falck would leave the band and that is really too bad, because his parts were far more interesting than what other east coast thrash bands were offering. His tinny snare sound is the only downside to the album though, alongside the well-executed, but somewhat unnecessary Edgar Winter cover ‘Frankenstein’. OverKill must have realized that ‘Horrorscope’ was a pinnacle in their career, as last week’s ‘Live In Overhausen’ contains the full album – and debut album ‘Feel The Fire’ – played live and they went in a different direction following the album and did not try to force another ‘Horrorscope’ out. Well worth hearing if you like interesting thrash metal.

Recommended tracks: ‘Nice Day…For A Funeral’, ‘Soulitude’, ‘Coma’, ‘Bare Bones’

Album of the Week 19-2018: The Mortal – I Am Mortal


Atsushi Sakurai was born to sing gothic rock. His deep, emotional baritone belongs in the genre. But somehow, despite their gothic masterpiece ‘Jusankai Wa Gekko’, his main band Buck-Tick does not want to make the full leap into the genre. As a result, he needs to set up projects like The Mortal every once in a while. In a way, ‘I Am Mortal’ is a logical continuation of Sakurai’s solo debut ‘Ai No Wakusei’, but the album leans far more to the goth side of things and because of that, this dark monster of an album feels a lot more consistent.

On the ‘Spirit’ EP released a month prior to ‘I Am Mortal’, The Mortal was already quite clear about its influences. Sakurai has never made a secret of his love for Bauhaus and the fact that he covered them – alongside The Damned and Souxsie And The Banshees – on that EP should already give a clear hint of what The Mortal sounds like. The Mission is a clear influence as well, especially in ‘Mortal’. At times, the band explores the noisier end of the post-punk spectrum, however, resulting in intense, aggressive moments such as ‘Barbaric Man’ and ‘Pain Drop -It Rains Cats & Dogs’.

While those explosions of energy certainly contribute to the varied nature of ‘I Am Mortal’, the album is best when introspective. ‘Yume – Deep Dream’ has the huge eighties goth production, but in essence feels like a really dark love song. Closing track ‘Sayonara Waltz’ keeps things considerably smaller, being rooted in just Sakurai’s vocals and the classical guitar of Jake Cloudchair, but is no less atmospheric. The album starts in quite a dark, introspective manner with as well with ‘Tenshi’, which is a really good taster to set the horror-like mood of the rest of the album.

The calmer moments are not the only highlights of ‘I Am Mortal’ though. ‘Tsuki’ is the opposite end of the spectrum, with its propulsive, straightforward punk beat and intensely repetitive chorus. The rhythmically unpredictable ‘Grotesque’, ‘Guignol’, ‘Dead Can Dance’ and the spectacular ‘Fantômas – Tenrankai No Otoko’ are masterpieces of creepy goth and horror punk and the aforementioned ‘Mortal’, probably the most traditional gothic rock track on here, is simply too catchy and emotional to be ignored. It should be noted that the atmospheric memorability of the choruses is the rule rather than the exception here. Even if you are not adept at Japanese, these melodies will stick. Trust me, I should know.

‘I Am Mortal’ was followed by the impressive live dvd ‘Immortal’, but as of this writing, no new The Mortal plans have been announced. I truly hope there will be a sequel to the album though, because the album shows Atsushi Sakurai doing what he does best: singing dark, emotionally laden gothic rock songs. His love for the genre oozes out of the album’s pores. Also, Sakurai and his band mates appear to have a very strong connection musically, so it would be a pity to not hear more of this. Even the classic goth bands cannot quite reach these heights anymore.

Recommended tracks: ‘Fantômas – Tenrankai No Otoko’, ‘Mortal’, ‘Sayonara Waltz’, ‘Tsuki’

My douze points for 2018


Of course the best song or performance was not going to win. Still, after a couple of years with virtually no good songs, there were a few I quite appreciated this year. The biggest surprise for me was the amount of songs actually written by the performing artists. That truly kept this year’s edition of the Eurovision Song Contest from being the bland collection of Swedish pop productions that increasingly dominated the festival for the last few years.

Just a few observations based on what I’ve seen this year. First of all: has the big sweeping Eurovision ballad gone out of fashion? There were two or three songs that sort of rubbed up against it, but not one act fully engaged. In addition, singing in your own language apparently is cool again, which always deserves bonus points in my opinion. Quite concidentally, my undisputed number one from this year was sung in its own language, but more on that later.

Before I get to that though, I would like to take some time to express the fact that my zero points should really go to the team of presenters. Daniela Ruah was decent, but especially Filomena Cautela was an eyesore. Maybe she does better in her own language, but her interviews and skits were nothing short of cringeworthy.

Enough complaining. Let’s go to the five songs I actually liked best this evening, or my six to douze points if you will. In all honesty, I prefer the last two over the others by quite a margin, but it was easier than many other recent years to put a top 5 of songs I actually like together.

Serbia: Sanja Ilić & Balkanica – Nova Deca

If you are into theatrical music, Serbia’s song should be right up your alley. In all honesty, I probably would have liked the song a lot better if it did not have the misplaced Eurodance beat that appears around the one and a half minute mark, but the passionate singing and the unconventional harmonies compensate quite a bit. And I have said it before: bonus points for singing in their own language. There is a dark undercurrent and ethnic vibe to the song that make it a worthy addition to the Eurovision canon rather than faceless pop production number two thousand. Am I the only one who finds the act a rather blatant rip-off of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ though? The tilt-up at the end made it definitive.

Italy: Ermal Meta & Fabrizio Moro – Non Mi Avete Fatto Niente

On the surface, ‘Non Mi Avete Fatto Niente’ is a rather typical Italian pop song. I can see this song appearing on Italian radio and not really standing out from the pack. Still, the Manu Chao-like song was quite a pleasant listen. The lyrics portray a certain resilience or anger that especially comes across well in the verses sung by Moro. He almost goes overboard near the end of the performance, but I actually think it fits the message of the song. The walk near the end of the performance seems like a rather desperate attempt to connect with the audience. It did appear to have worked though, because they got a surprisingly large number of televotes.

Denmark: Rasmussen – Higher Ground

Another treat for anyone who likes his music theatrical. Admittedly, the vocal performance of Jonas Rasmussen is not one of the better ones in the grand final, but his voice fits the cinematic atmosphere of ‘Higher Ground’ very well. He is a stage actor in his home country and that is quite clear, because his diction is nearly impeccable. What really sold me on the song, however, were the folky backing vocals. Even without the rather cheesy sails on the stage, these deep, theatrical backing vocals add to the Scandinavian Viking folk vibe of the song. Realistically, ‘Higher Ground’ belongs in musical theater rather than on the Eurovision stage, but it was something different enough to catch my attention.

Estonia: Elina Nechayeva – La Forza

Estonia has has a decent record of Eurovision songs recently, but none impressed me as much as Elina Nechayeva’s ‘La Forza’ did. It really is too bad that the inclusion of classical music is often treated like a bit of a novelty, because Nechayeva is nothing short of incredible. Her voice moves from the lowest regions of the mezzosoprano range to the uppermost soprano notes with unbelievable ease and the song is spine chilling, right down to its delightfully anticlimactic ending. This definitely comes closest to the sweeping Eurovision ballad of everything on offer, but because of Nechayeva’s voice, it is quite different. It should not be too surprising though. Estonia has a rich history of classical music.

Albania: Eugent Bushpepa – Mall

When I saw Eugent Bushpepa stand in with Darkology four years ago, his power and range already blew me away and tonight was no different. The guy simply has a set of pipes that many rock, pop and metal singers should envy. His song ‘Mall’ – written by Bushpepa himself and sung in his native tongue – is surprisingly accomplished for a three minute song as well. It builds from a folky start to a huge AOR chorus and Bushpepa somehow captures the intimacy of the former and the overwhelming power of the latter with equal conviction. And I’ve heard him channel his inner Rob Halford as well, so I can confirm that there’s simply no style of rock vocals that this guy can’t belt out. If it truly was about the music, the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest would have taken place in Tirana.

Advertisements